Media Control 2010: Up and Out, Chelsea Girls, and The Social Network

Christian Marclay’s Up and Out is a complex media product of its time.  The artist merges two separate, preexisting films into one to create the 1998 video: a soundless version of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) plays in its entirety against the audio track of Brian De Palma’s 1981 Blow Out (a film partially inspired by Blowup). Each film’s narrative focuses on a crime scene; Blowup‘s incident involving a photographer is seen and not heard, while Blow Out‘s conflict centered around a sound effects technician is heard but not seen. Seeing the two together as Up and Out produces fleeting moments of synergy: chase scenes come together and then dissipate, investigations nearly overlap before going their separate ways, clues inexplicably translate across both storylines.  The mixing of the two scenarios controls the way the viewer perceives each, the product of this experience being the new film, Up and Out.

Excerpt from Up and Out, Christian Marclay (1998).

In order to maintain conscious awareness of both films, rather than  following one narrative of the preexisting films and ignoring the other, the viewer becomes keenly aware of his or her own media consumption process and how the two films control the experience of one another. Screened in Seattle in 2010 as part of the Henry Art Gallery’s exhibition Image Transfer: Pictures in a Remix Culture, Marclay’s video resonated particularly well in light of another local screening this year: Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, shown at the Seattle Art Museum this past summer. Warhol’s 1966 epic film presents two 16 mm reels projected side by side.  Largely without a coherent narrative, the films focus on short sequences of the artist’s cast of superstars engaged in extended dialogues and ordinary activities. In contrast to the experience of Up and Out, during which there is an opportunity for the viewer to focus selectively, Warhol exerts a particular control over the audience by only providing a soundtrack for only one reel at any given time and changing the reel that has sound intermittently throughout the screening.  When Warhol removes the sound from one film and turns it on for the other, the viewer’s attention naturally follows.

Excerpt from Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol (1966).

Chelsea Girls and Up and Out appear in comparable formats but were created over thirty years apart; likewise, each is definitive of its respective time. Warhol’s control parallels media culture of the 1960s in the sense that mainstream content at that time was under the control of small number of large corporate entities (CBS, NBC ABC in television) and limited philosophies (Hollywood productions in film); the content creator was in control while the audience consumed the content as it was presented. In contrast, Marclay’s film represents a time of controlled media options; the audience can choose to listen to Blow Out instead of watching Blowup in the same way an individual can choose to read the scrolling news across the bottom of a CNN screen over listening to the newscaster.

In contrast, 2010 is a year well into the media culture of customized and user-generated content. Hulu and iTunes offer extensive selections of media options; through YouTube, the viewer can be the content creator and consumer.  In this regard, The Social Network offers a relevant, albeit obvious, glimpse into the present moment of media culture. The Mark Zuckerberg character performs the most overt control exerted in the film: the network of his creation facilitates his control over both physical and virtual relationships, as well as over the identity he constructs and projects as his Facebook persona. The Social Network is relevant to its audience as a story they helped to create through participation on Facebook, likewise demonstrating the audience’s own control over the film’s outcome.

Trailer for The Social Network (2010).

Although The Social Network is most representational of contemporary popular media culture, the media consumption process exposed by Marclay’s film better maintains its original relevance.  Film and television may have changed hands in terms of content creation and composition but ultimately, Marclay’s media-on-media control still rings true; seeing Up and Out still can influence how we watch the dueling reels of Chelsea Girls while also bringing out the various relationships between individuals and social media depicted in The Social Network. Up and Out demonstrates to its audience members how they experience the entertainment and culture at their disposal. In short, similar to the outcome of Blowup, Up and Out determines it not what we see but how we see what we see.