Nowhere else is talk of the “panoptic era”– an eye that sees everything yet remains elusive – clearer than in the medium that has taken omnipresence and fleetingness to a global scale: the Internet. On the Internet, the paradigm known thus far for our imaging apparatus has become invalid: there is no longer a single, central perspective, but instead, a myriad of viewing angles that broadcast over webcams, pumping incessant images into the digital data stream. The “vacuum” in the title of Dariusz Kowalski’s cinematic essay, which follows his earlier works Elements and Luukkaankangas, is therefore not a void, but a powerful generator, an unremitting doubling of the world: in image.
Snow blankets a terrace and the furniture on it. A bottle jerks back and forth on a pavement. Christmas lights blink on and off. Everything looks desolate. What people we see scuttle across washed-out landscapes, play mahjongg in stammering gestures, and toil in computer labs under glaring fluorescent lights. What planet are we on?
These images are available to any of us. For two years Dariusz Kowalski trawled through sites for surveillance-camera footage. He chose only material from hidden cameras. He added nothing except some slow motion (“otherwise it would be too fast”) and a voice-over commentary from artist Stephen Mathewson reading passages from a year’s diary. The result was a fifty-five minute assemblage film called Optical Vacuum (2008), which I saw and admired in Hong Kong back in April.
Sometimes the diary account intersects with what we see: Mathewson talks of washing his laundry/ shots of a Laundromat. More often, the voice drifts off on its own. Optical Vacuum isn’t an effort to make a film essay or to create a complex audiovisual dynamic. Mathewson’s diary provides an intimacy that the footage lacks, but I think the film would stand up strongly without it. As a flow of impersonal views, usually from a distant perch, the footage creates a bleak beauty. Occasionally a human operator has commanded the camera to focus on something, usually a woman. But most often the camera is just mindlessly recording. In the process, the surveillance camera reinvents avant-garde film—not just the barely inflected fields of Structural cinema, but also the time compression and melting glimpses, the reflections and superimpositions, the transient ghosts and brutal geometry we find in silent experimental work by Richter, Vertov, and others. These stupid cameras can’t help turning reality into something else. They don’t know any better.
David Bordwell in Observations on film art and Film Art , 27.05.2009