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The Message of Serene Velocity

by Krishnan Unnikrishnan

As one watches Serene Velocity, the image switches between a long hallway with an exit sign in the distance and the same hallway a little bit closer to the camera.  As the film moves forward in time, more images of the hallway closer to the camera are inserted and some of earlier images are removed.  This creates a sense of jumping time and space as the image almost flickers back and forth.  The space between the original image and the inserted images are initially hard to detect and since the film changes slowly it demands our complete attention if we wish to be aware of the shift in the created reality.

Using Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media as a guide to uncover the meaning or message of the film, we must begin with his idea that "the content of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as "content."  As there is no plot in Serene Velocity, the medium it is portraying can not be the usual narrative structures of novels, plays, or operas.  Instead, Ernie Gehr pulls from the medium of photography.  Using the film camera to act as a still camera.  There are no people, no things, and I would argue no places.  The hallway, as Sarah Brin explains in a previous commentary, is a "non-place."  Gehr removes all aspects of the narrative from the film, so that we can see how the technology affects our sense perception.  

McLuhan explains that having any spiritual or cultural reservations or even moral reservations about any change in technology is irrelevant.  "The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance."  Serene Velocity does exactly that.  Gehr illustrates that film is the medium of photography combined with time.   The photograph had already shifted our perception of sight and in turn affected place.  With photography, people had the ability to see images from any part of the world.  Our sight was no longer limited to the light that our eyes could perceive.  This would bring far-off places much closer to us.  

Film took this new sight and combined it with a new way to perceive time.  However, the brilliance of Serene Velocity is is that Gehr erased the "sight" of the photograph to highlight the new perception of time, which in turn highlighted time's effect on place in a different way.  By keeping the film in a non-place location, the "benefit" of photography was obscured, the viewer is forced to pay attention to the time in the film.  We are shown to subtly different locations of the hallway.  Serene Velocity forces the audience to view two different locations of the hallway that normally with our eyesight, we know would take a certain amount of time to walk from one perspective to the other.  And during that elapsed time, we would see an infinite number of other vantage points as we walk from the first viewpoint to the second viewpoint.  Serene Velocity takes all of that away--time and space have been collapsed.    

The effect of time film has on our senses does not end there.  As the film progresses, the space between the two viewpoints increase, however the change happens at an almost imperceptible rate.  Slowly, the gap becomes wider and wider.  Gehr has managed to show how film can simultaneously slow down time as well as erase or speed up time.  And this effect has a direct influence on our perception of place.   Narratives use this power of film to either speed up years over a few minutes of screen time or slow down time to have seconds pass as minutes of screen time.  Serene Velocity has brought to our attention the power on our senses of the "edit over time" --a unique aspect of film and perhaps the message of the medium.  

 

Multiple Subject Positions in Serene Velocity

by Jesse Kapp

In “Technologies of Time”, William Uricchio maintains that one of the primary distinctions between the camera obscura image and cinema is that while the camera obscura tradition is based on “a fixed and unified subject position” that occurs simultaneously among viewers, cinema offers the possibility of multiple subject positions and a distinct non-simultaneous experience. While Uricchio goes on to discuss the medium’s non-simultaneous subject positions in relation in television, Serene Velocity offers a relatively simple and direct way to explore the notion of multiple positions of viewership that may occur at the same time across viewers or evolve with multiple viewing of the film.

 

While watching Serene Velocity, the subject is afforded multiple ways in which to navigate the space of the film. Although the camera remained stationary during filming, the overarching sense of movement throughout the piece is that of a slow crawl forward. By choosing to focus on a fixed position such as the exit sign or a specific doorway, the viewer can trace what appears to be slow moving forward movement. At the same time, by relaxing one’s eyes and focus, movement can be perceived as occurring at varying speeds in both a forward and backward movement down the hallway. In this sense, a single viewer can explore multiple subject positions within a single viewing of the film. The film’s length and apparent monotony lend the film to this type of unfixed, explorative experience. One viewer may change perspectives, but most likely cannot perceive multiple types of movement simultaneously. If two people watch the film, however, one may perceive the slow forward movement while the other is locked into rapid backward movement. These perspectives are clearly non-simultaneous, but may overlap once or many times in the course of the film, and their perspectives may swap entirely. While Uricchio’s exploration of non-simultaneous subject positions sets up a different type of time-based television discussion, we can nevertheless see the basic aspects of a non-simultaneous viewing experience in this film.

Serene Velocity and the Primacy of Space

by Sarah Brin

Okay, so let's talk about the materiality of Ernie Gehr's Serene Velocity. First of all, Willis makes an excellent point about how the film is "fundamentally concerned with the specific materiality of cinema," as it really breaks down the building blocks of the moving image. I know very little about film, but I know there were very few frames in there (two?), and that Gehr's approach to cinema is a lot like how minimalist artists like Judd or Serra draw attention to the medium they're working in-- by breaking everything down into its elements, and attempting to get the viewer to really experience the feeling of being encompassed by the work. I think it's really useful to make these elements, and the subsequent processes of organization/production, visible to the public because they're so ubiquitous. We're swallowed by processes of mediation and production all the time, and I think painfully these down is the only way to get us to really think about what it means for these systems to be so pervasive.

 

Secondly, and hopefully more coherently, I wanted to talk about  the construction of space. I'm taking two classes that are specifically dedicated to this subject, so I have a lot of verbose and abstract things to say. 

 

The jarring physicality of Serene Velocity is actually quite functional. In our headachey boredom, our gaze is drawn to analyze the architectural constructs of the hallway, causing us to seriously examine an architectural feature we have so much contact with, but think so little about. I liked that Willis talked about Henri Lefebvre, and how she mentioned that "spatiality is a construction that socialises both physical and psychological spaces." So while Serene Velocity is very much about the medium of film, I also want to frame it as a discussion of "non-places," and anxieties embedded within space. The hallway we see pictured is very much an example of a non-place. That is to say, it could be in a hospital, an office building, a bus station--there's no trace of identity or history, and it's certainly not the kind of place anyone would want to take time and BE in, or to think about, or to make connections with. As spatial theorists like Auge or Banham might agree, we're perpetually in a state of departure, and most public space is something we experience in the rear-view mirror. This condition can be attributed to the commercialization and industrialization of public space, and I think that phenomenon has a bunch of tentacles that reach out and change how we receive/create film, technology, relationships, theories...

 

 

Computational Loop and Cinema

by slc68

In Run Lola Run, the protagonist's running is foregrounded through the three main “runs.” Shots follow and track Lola running across an urban environment, emphasizing both the obvious physical repetition of the character running as well as the repetition of landscape elements in the streets of Berlin, creating an abstract visual motion across the screen. Sequences of running relate to the fundamental computational element of the loop. However, Run Lola Run also represents the emergence of new behavior that is made possible by the presence of continuous looping. Each run or computation loop leads to new sub-narratives in which the protagonist and her boyfriend meet different fates. This relates to how emergent elements like user interaction and new computational activities are built on top of and depend on the continuous looping operation of computation.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the experimental film, Serene Velocity. Constant pulsation evokes not only the structural nature of the filmic machine itself but also the operation of the computer processor and how programming environments work. Through focal length changes, Gehr creates an intense repetition that creates the effect of moving back and forth as well as simulated motion through a hallway. This moving back and forth is like the constant binary switching of computation and acts in a similar way to how the computer creates an environment or medium in which higher level behaviors and effects emerge. For example, in the film, repetition leads to the higher level effect of the sense of gradual continuous forward motion towards the hallway door. The viewer gradually becomes acclimated to the jarring oscillating motion and begins to see and focus more attention on this emergent effect. This again is analogous to the computational looping that generates emergent elements like the graphical user interface and user perception and interaction with visual elements. Looping here is completely beneath the surface, always present but invisible to the viewer/user.

Lastly, Rybczynski's Tango is another cinematic work that reflects the computational loop. Thirty six different characters perform their individual predefined actions within the space of a small room, starting with a loop of a boy chasing a red ball in and out a window. This first loop of the boy is like the first line of code written within the update or draw functions common in many programming frameworks and environments. The plethora of other actors and actions relate to other functionality written or passed into the “draw()” or “update()” functions which are then executed over and over again. Through this interpretation, the room in Tango becomes the “update” block of code and the windows and doors are the parameters that accept inputs or arguments to be looped in the filmic computer.

Serene Trajectory

by Evan Sforza

Serene Trajectory


Serene Velocity is a shining example of film in William Uricchio's sense, an apparatus that "facilitates a new experience of time, space, and event," and, as I would argue, more, as the film also seems to bring attention and awareness to our-selves. This short film by Ernie Gehr is, fundamentally, a collection of only a few keyframes that, to the viewer, visually oscillate. The frames are shots from various depths within a hallway, a hallway describable only by it's stark, almost medical, facade, colored with an almost contradictory yellow putrescence, and a glowing exit sign.


The film plays off of our our basic biology of perception, coaxing our brain into believing that we posses a speed and a direction, and, what's interesting about our biological response is that our 'movement' is near universally perceived as forward; even trying to perceive the oscillatory images as backwards is difficult, but what does this mean? An obvious interpretation would be the notion of 'progress,' strengthened by Gehr's choice to use a hallway containing an 'Exit' sign. The glowing icon is present in every frame - a continual reminder suggestive of an end to our means. The sign even undergoes a change: beginning a few meters down the hall and eventually appearing close to overhead, but we wouldn't allow ourselves to believe it to be one passing above from our rear.


What's most interesting about our sense of egress is the artificiality of its cues: the choppy and procedurally machine like nature of the use of the medium and the definitely manmade and electronic symbol for "way out." Within the film, these have the ability to draw attention to ourselves, and not just ourselves who are seated in front of the screen, but ourselves as a species - to the way we find our-selves be-ing in the space we've labeled Earth. There is no "Exit" - there is no "Goal," and any sense we have of one is an absolute fabrication. We create our own signs - our own glowing icons that indicate when we're headed in the right, or wrong, or any direction.


Jimmy Gorham: Serene Velocity as a scientific study

by Survey of Interactive Media

Though originally presented as a commentary on the medium and practices of film (Willis), Serene Velocity serves the purpose of scientific inquiry into the study of motion and space.  As all cinema attempts to take specific slices of reality in the form of specific times and places recreated for viewers, all cinema is intrinsically linked to science.  However, by presenting the viewer with a space stripped completely of narrative, and changing only through the practice of alternating frames in the film, Serene Velocity is a special opportunity to use film to study motion and space.

As a study of motion, Serene Velocity illustrates to the viewer that motion is only possible with frames of reference.  When viewing the film in its entirety, no motion is observed.  Rather the viewer can only discern a flickering back and forth between two separate stills.  However, if the viewer shields a portion of the screen from view, and only concentrates on one element such as a wall, the floor, or the ceiling, the movie appears to be in constant motion in the same direction.  This illustrates primarily that motion is only observable in reference to other objects, and secondarily that the appearance of motion and actual motion are not the same.  As the Earth rotates around the sun at 107,000 kilometers per hour, there is absolutely no way for humans to directly observe this motion, as it is impossible to escape our communal reference point on the planet.  Serene Velocity represents the ability to understand this principle, and to show viewers that any observation of motion is entirely dependent on reference frames.

Beyond allowing viewers the ability to study principles of motion, Serene Velocity also presents questions regarding the nature of space.  Through the presentation of Serene Velocity, the space visually represented begins to break down and become a "virtual space." This is accomplished by removing all narrative elements from the film, and by repeatedly presenting the space in an impossible condition; by using two spatially separated stills Gehr has created the illusion of rapid teleportation between two disparate locations.  As the viewer becomes acclimated to this unnatural portrayal of a space, the hallway begins to break down and become an abstraction, an approximation of space rather than an actual one.  Again, our understanding of space begins to rely on relative reference points, rather than on an absolute depcition of space.  Through cinema, Gehr has recreated Newton's bucket problem, a scientific theoretical argued for over two hundred years from Newton to Einstein.  While scientists have used diagrams and mathematics to illustrate their perspectives within the debate, Ernie Gehr has participated in the discussion visually, through the space he created in Serene Velocity.

Serene Velocity

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A clip from Ernie Gehr's 1970 film "Serene Velocity".

from Serene Veolicty (1970)
Creator: Ernie Gehr
Posted by Survey of Interactive Media
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