Variable Montage
A work of computational and algorithmic cinema
Marc Lafia with Didi Fire


As cinema is informed by computation montage becomes less about narration and more about construction. Such constructions can be thought of as architectures of possibility. In this work twenty-seven still frames from a Russian film are broken into five segments that continually vary and permutate. Permutation allows for a continuing inflection of various possibilities of meaning and texture. Each of the five segments has also associated with them a small phrase from Mahler’s Ninth symphony and these sounds vary pitch, alternate and overlap as the speed of the images and sequences play. As image is driven by computation, montage becomes variable and loses the preciseness of rendition that traditional cineastes practice. Variability as constructed with computation allows for a continual iteration, a continual play within very defined structures of possibility and in some sense changes our very notion of montage. The results of this montage give forth surprise, coincidence, deformation, collision, ambiguity and all possibilities of excess. This excess, characteristic of the digital, naturally tends to proliferate, multiply and replicate.

Where as in cinema the film projector is a fixed instrument consisting of a single projection, where silent films play back at 16 or 18 frames a second and sound films 24 frames a second, in software ‘the projector’ is simultaneously a playback and authoring machine. It becomes a variable instrument that can be instructed to play or project the film along particular and varied instructions. This work authored in MAX MSP, translates each image into a number and each set of images are given variables within which they are sequenced and ordered in relation to all other images.

In software and more particularly computation, projection and recording become inextricable linked. Image, as well, is no longer material but a virtuality actualized by instructions. If we can say there is a materiality, it is in the instruction sets or code by which image and sound are realized or actualized. Instructions in computation can also be made variable, such that a work can have varied permutations and order. Variability can be thought of as an affirmation of chance more so than a reduction to probabilities or range of randomness.

In this three screen work [presented here as three windows on a single monitor] the twenty-seven frames of black and white film and fifteen seconds of sound are composed to have infinite duration, that is, they play continually varying and alternating sound and image, as long as the program runs, and the composition can run along various presets infinitely within tightly defined parameters. In this sense the work is not closed, nor is it known, until the event of computational ‘projection.’

Variable Montage is as much an engine or structure for possible films as it is a film per se. Each film, if we can call it that, is the unique utterance or enunciation in the event of a language, which each time is to be invented and spoken anew. In computational imaging, time and sequence take on an entirely new sense, perhaps it is the difference of becoming rather than unfolding, where each time through the engine of computation a film becomes, revealing something essential about computation as an engine of possibility and something about cinema as a fixed machine of the particular.

- Marc Lafia -

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