The American digital collective OpenEnded Group (OEG) was formed in 2001 with three artists: Marc Downie, Paul Kaiser, and Shelley Eshkar (who left the group in 2014). Their work sprung out of a curiosity of the private and enclosed space of the human mind and a desire to find new visual expressions for it. For the better part of the first decade of their career, they invested great interests in studying human body movements and its relation to the mind. Their collaboration with choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown generated an incredible oeuvre in dance and theatre. They also established a unique approach that revolves around the dual center of scientific research and contemporary poetry. To the technical aspect, their experimentation begins with computer programs, algorithms and innovative techniques invented for different projects. Computer serves as a co-author in some of their works featuring interactivity or improvised live performance with machine-generated image. They created their own open-source and ever-evolving software Field, developed their research in spatialization of photographic archives, and gained extensive experience with techniques such as gestural drawing and motion capture. To the artistic aspect, they forfeit the mimicry of reality in computer graphics and created a painterly visual language of their own.
In 2008, OEG worked on a project called Housebound, a work about figuring the shape of life through an examination of everyday objects after the death of a person who was housebound. It was their first encounter with 3D technology, and it opened up two avenues for them. The first lead to a discovery that a 3D image enables a more nuanced and deeper viewing experience; OEG has made 3D a default preference in their works ever since. The other one---also an idea prominent in many of their later works including the film in question---is that daily objects, spaces and settings deserve a rightful place in a story as much as the plot and the character. It is more than a background. It is where the intimacy of humanity belongs.
Upending was made in 2010 and founded upon OEG's previous technical achievements. A feature-length 3D experimental film, it is one of their most sophisticated works to date and the real beginning of their love affair with 3D technology. In Upending, OEG fabricates images of seemingly irrelevant objects and daily settings and elicits an intricate web of connections between them. Like memory and dreams, the narrative in Upending is ambiguous, mystifying and open to interpretation and imagination. The viewer navigates the way into their own mental palace as the mind follows fleeting paths of association.
Like every project, Upending was an opportunity for OEG to develop new techniques, one of which is responsible for many scenes in the film: frameless photography. This technique is developed in association with the spatialization of photographic archives, a technique OEG developed previously for a research project. We see the camera rotate around objects, travel through spaces, and catch frozen moments of children on the playground. One might be surprised to learn that these scenes are completely based on still photography. Upending uses both photo and video, but due to the large processing capacity required by video, still photography is a strategically more economical image source. Thousands of photos of one scene taken from different angles go through the process of spatialization to reconstruct a three-dimensional space. The software analyzes each image and finds potentially significant features, marking them as a dot that carries feature information---such as lighting, color, camera position, and 3D structure. Thousands of dots on thousands of photos form an enormous database which provides the computer a foundation for photo-matching through calculation of various criteria. All the images are aligned according to their spatial relationship and together visualize a 3D reconstruction of the scene. Similar to the motion capture technology that OEG exploited greatly in their works of dance and human movement, the spatialization technique performs a dynamic abstraction. It turns mimetic and representational images into information accessible to vigorous manipulation and transformation, thus allowing new forms of creation.
The power of digital media has been explored greatly to create the striking impression of reality in cinema. To the contrast of this tendency towards realism, Upending speaks with a visual vocabulary appealing to a formalism that foregrounds the artistic device. The imagery of Upending constantly dances between pure abstraction and elusive figuration of objects without definite contours. In the opening scene, we see dots grow into lines, and as the lines extend and crawl, a chair appears out of the formal arrangement. Then as the formation of lines simplify, the sense of depth disappears and so does the chair. Another example involves a scene of a tree composed of dots rotating in the center of the image. While the distribution of dots gives shape to the trunk and branches, the scarcity of it gives the illusion of seeing through. This decomposition of matter advances to a higher degree as the image rotates and the camera takes us under the ground. While the image looks up and moves upwards inside the tree trunk, the body of the tree gradually disintegrates into lines shooting outwards towards the edge of our vision, as if we were traveling in the galaxy with millions of stars flying by.
To consider with Bazin's classical and broad categorization of cinéastes, the OEG belongs to the camp that places faith in image, those who employ their artistic devices to develop new forms of expression. Instead of seeking an interaction between image and the material surface of the world, OEG takes interest in creating a cinema as a mode of penetrating the world rather than representing it. The technology is no longer utilized to mechanically reproduce the real, but rather to simulate by inventing a new reality on the imaginary level which modulates an absence instead. In Upending, the imagery carries a varying but persistent transparency that provokes an impression of illusion. Is it really there? Is it the illusion of presence or the presence of absence? When we think of an object or represent it with an image, we bring something non-existent to life. We make an absence present to the conscience, and this is a process of nonstop intervention of the world. Our aesthetic perception is based on the game of appearance with subterfuges, illusions and decoys of imitation. The state of our imagination is that of impermanence rather than finality. OEG's digital image registers itself with a similar intangibility and transcendence that is inherent to this working process of human mind. The technological intervention creates an effect of presence that dresses its virtual objects in a digital skin. Instead of constructing a realistic representation with a tangible appearance, it realizes itself in the game of the present absence.
What reinforces the morphing state of image is the perpetual black backdrop. It serves as a perceptual instrument and stages entangled lines and clusters of dots shining through. It also functions as an indispensable device that erases the frame of the aligned photographs as well as the frame of the screen when watched in a dark movie theatre, allowing the stereoscopic image to touch the eye in a universe-like darkness. Watching a stereoscopic image is an optic-haptic experience. By throwing the image into the space between the screen and the eye and erasing the distance between the two, the stereoscopic image seems to defy the classical scientific dichotomy of objective space and subjective experience. Like a good 3D scene in a hollywood production, the 3D image of Upending is equally a spectacle, but it seems to ask for more from us. As the image makes us aware of our own vision and mind, it invites us to perceive and to examine ourselves. Watching the film is thus not an observational act, but an existential one.
The existential structure of man is, in Merleau-Ponty's words, our "being-in-the-world". He believes our body should be understood in terms of where it connects itself to the space that it occupies. The process of the communication between the body and the world is at the same time that of a mutual constitution between the body and the space. In a similar fashion, Upending calls for a sense of being, being in the audio-visual field and being our own conscience. A sense of absorption into the image translates into a loss of the objectified body. It is as if our imagination lives in the stereoscopic image and moves with it. Our bodily existence is no longer detached and separate from the space that Upending has constructed, but the two become one. The cinematic space becomes a corporeal one where our imagination becomes the source of possibilities and dimensions of action. Even with the slightest movement of the head, the whole stereoscopic space modifies itself with us. We, as the perceiving subject, become the engine of movement towards the world, and the space responds to our movement instantaneously. The organic space of the film thus becomes the primordial expression of our being-in-the-world.
It is this corporeal sense of being-in-the-world that takes the film to an epiphany when a hand picks up an alphabet block: what matters is not the memory of vision, but the memory of the body. How does the body remember the feel of an object? As the objects and spaces decompose into pixels and freely rotate into undefinable forms, as the stereoscopic image evokes a physical sensation and reaction rather than a mere visual one, the film believes that human imagination is more than a faculty interpretable by psychology. It is a cosmic force. With the edges of imagination, the recesses of the psyche, and the hallways of the mind, the film penetrates the anthro-cosmology and peeks into human complexity and idiosyncrasy.