Diving into Cinema

Meeting with Lev Manovich, guru of digital creativity
by Riccardo Triolo
  • friday, 2 september 2022

Thinker and artist Lev Manovich has his say on cinema, festivals, technology and digital immersive art.

To properly introduce the Venice Immersive section, dedicated to immersive projects, we met Lev Manovich, a ‘guru’ in thought and digital creativity. He authored the fundamental The Language of New Media (Meet Press, 2001), which has been studied in universities around the world for twenty years. An artist himself, Manovich recently expressed his though on the aesthetics of AI (AI Aesthetics, Strelka Press, 2018) and here he has his say on cinema, festivals, technology and immersive digital art.

Professor Manovich, you designed the biggest picture about digital culture in the world: your studies included art, cinema and new media. Venice film festival is the oldest in the world: it contributed a lot in making cinema considered an art. What’s the place of cinema in this new panorama of visual arts, interactive, immersive and shaped by AI?
The 20th century was dominated by the art of cinema. I believe that it will continue to dominate the 21st-century as well – despite the competition from different types of new media. For example cinema offers a perfect fusion of engaging narratives, spectacular visuals, and human performance. It uses a very simple interface – a flat screen – and human cultures have used such flat surfaces for making images and writing for thousands of years. Because of the big size of its screen and it’s spatial audio, cinema in my view offers a unique immersive experience which is not easy to match on a small screen. Finally, let’s note that newer popular media such as video games and emerging interactive narratives in mixed reality also rely on cinema’s language. And even in the new area of AI Image Generation (e.g. programs such as Midjourney), one of the most frequently used adjectives together with a scene description is “cinematic”!

Venice Immersive, the section of the festival we are introducing, is about immersive, narrative and non-narrative projects. Is “immersivness” a significant category or tendency in art? And what are its characteristics according to your vision?
As I see it, “immersivness” (or immersion) is not a dimension of the artworks themselves – rather, it is a state of the viewer (or reader, player, etc.). I can be immersed while reading or listening to some music – and not only when playing a video game or perhaps enjoying a performance in mixed reality. At the same time, each art form offers creators their own unique techniques for generating immersive experiences. If cinema already combined techniques from theatre and literature and added cinematography, editing and sound design, now mixed reality adds to this interactivity and potentially elements of game play. But we have to remember: the more options and techniques we have, the harder it is to create using all of them together.

You talk about AI as a tendency in the process of creating contents but most of all as a “filter” that can guide the attention and choice of the public: the risk is not considering anymore all the innumerable diversities in the selection process. A festival or an exhibition can be an antidote to flattering and passivity?
I believe you refer to recommendation systems that together with search define how we often find content online. There are also more specialized recommendation options such as rottentomatos.com which combine ratings of hundreds of professional film and TV critiques. And then there are thousands of film festivals where a limited number of films are selected by festival term or a jury. None of these systems automatically guarantees to deliver excellent content. Some recommendation systems are designed to surprise viewers by offering content not typical for them. However, festivals do have a unique role to play among all these filtering mechanisms – by inviting films that are “difficult” because of their form, or films that present unpopular opinions, and so on.

You often say that, in order to understand art in the new panorama, we need a new aesthetic. With what kind of gaze should we then approach this section that hosts expressive forms that interpret paradigms in some ways new, such as the digital image, sensory immersion, being both spectators and actors in a virtual environment and so on?
As we can see today, digital technologies can support many vary different aesthetics. Many video games father super-cinematic and atmospheric aesthetics which follows the ideal of photo-realism already defined in the 1980s. In the world of NFT, saturated colors and simple often 2D forms dominate. And in the recently developed (just during this summer) world of AI Image Generation, there is clear preference for fantasy illustration type content and aesthetics among the users of Midjourney. Dall-e 2 and similar software. In other words: Digital can be used to combine any of the aesthetics from the past – but after the vast explorations of 20th century cinema and visual art, is it still possible to invent any radical new visual aesthetics? I don’t know the answer to this question.

Each form of art has its audience and its market. Do you believe that cinema audiences and immersive digital art audiences are necessarily different – and consequently their market?
Cinema has been around for 125 years and it quickly became a big global industry soon after its development. Today some video games have production budgets bigger than big feature films – and many people say that this led to the game industry playing it safe and avoiding experiments. Perhaps indeed the bigger the investment and the bigger the market, the less there is opportunity for real experiments. Can immersive arts somehow break this principle – I.e. reach mass audiences and yet be cheap enough to produce to enable experimentation? This will be great if it happens.

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