“Steps” as an Audiovisual Palimpsest

The article was published in: Memory Labyrinth. The Faces of Evil 1939-2009. Ed. Agnieszka Termińska, Carl Humphries. Katowice 2011.

When describing the computer revolution in the context of the use of new technologies and in relation to the integration of art, science and technology in the early 1980s, Gene Youngblood coined the phrase New Renaissance Artists. In order to characterize Zbigniew Rybczyński, Siegfried Zielinski, head of the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne in the 1990s when Rybczyński was there as a professor lecturing on experimental film, came up with the acronym TNRA: namely – True New Renaissance Artist.

The author of Orchestra (1990) is one of the rare people who actually deserves this term. His work has always been proof of the fact that artistic experimentalism can serve as an expression of a truly scientific passion as well as a field in which new technologies (including new media technologies) become inextricably related to the other elements of the technology – art –science triad, unifying these varied but closely interconnected forms of  human cognition. Steps was shot as an instant video in just a few days, at the end of May and in early June 1987, although clearly the artist, together with his team, had spent several months preparing beforehand.

The idea was born even before Zbig had left Poland: however, he needed the kind of technological and film means that would only became available for him after his arrival in the States. Even so, the general concept of placing several image layers on top of one another – which back then was not yet called compositing – was convergent with the artist’s investigations right from the time when Tango was shot. And in any case, this is hardly surprising: Rybczyński’s explorations and experiments have not been isolated and uncoordinated episodes on his path as an artist, inventor,  constructor and academic.

His understanding of the visual image and, above all, his inquiry into the essence of the moving audiovisual image, which bore fruit as a theoretical compendium in On Visual Image, were part of a consistent process of development and crystallisation stretching right back to the beginnings of his creative career. Steps was very important, but at the same time it was just one element of a certain whole that is composed of  his various individual film achievements. The amazing experiment in which American tourists participate on the Odessa steps is a displacement in time: a spatio-temporal teleportation of an audiovisual kind. The artist himself says that this collaboration with the past, „entrance” into Eisenstein’s film and travel in time through the machinery of the medium – was the most fascinating experience for him. In order to make it happen, the project team had to transform themselves under the guidance of the director into a peculiar set of archaeologists of the visual image. That is because various formations of images melt and permeate through one another in Steps.

The new medium, in the form of video, externalizes the old film medium, yet to enable this to happen, certain elements needed to be erased from the classic sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925), with the application of the paintbox technique, as well as so-called keying and blue box techniques. The pre-compositing that heralded the advanced compositing of what was then the future, later employed in Kafka (1992), may be defined as a film palimpsest, understood literally as the scraping off of old film inscriptions and the superposition of video images onto the celluloid.  In this process, significance is also attached to the metaphorical understanding of a palimpsest as a muttilayered and polysemantic expression (where this refers quite literally to the layered construction of the work, the superimposition of several visual realities on one another).

Hence, we are dealing not only with a virtuoso autotelic work (a film within  film, an image within images, thought given to the essence of the various permeating image formations), which is a meditation on nature and various forms of depiction (i.e. of image creation) but also an insighful view of history and modernity – and not only through the prism of the media (re)evolution. The past, the present and the future, in political, social, cultural and civilisational terms, also constitute a type of palimpsest, superimposing themselves on one another to create a spatio-temporal whole. Steps shows, in an artistically perfect way, how the real and the illusory may dissolve into a single cohesive entity. It is a thorough, in-depth and at the same time painful vision (and visionary conception).

After winning an Oscar for Tango, when asked what the film meant Zbigniew Rybczyński replied, contrarily: „Absolutely nothing”. The question of the meaning of Steps should be answered by each viewer for themselves: what this wonderful work of audiovisual art means, but also how this masterpiece has come to make its mark on the history of film and world cinema.

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