Pollock And Gunshots: Q&A With Digital Action Painter Jeremy Rotsztain

Unrelenting Physical Aggression (Action Painting) from mantissa on Vimeo.

About a month ago, we stumbled upon Jeremy Rotsztain’s (aka Mantissa) Action Paintings and were smitten with his clever integration of the classic action painting aesthetic and iconic action scenes of some of Hollywood’s best loved films. The sense of energy experienced from this kind of cinematic intensity blends so well with the deeply physical and visceral nature of action painting, we were almost surprised no one had made the correlation before.

Besides the sheer visual pleasure that’s brought to the fore in Action Painting, the collection of works also explores the cinematic form itself by investigating the film viewing experience and the palpable nature of the action scene both visually and aurally. By conflating the two seemingly disparate movements, Rotsztain offers a comparative critique of the gestural style of each. As much as they are abstractions, they also highlight very specific qualities of film and painting, re-contextualizing them in contradistinction to one another.

We asked the artist about his works to gain more insight into his intentions and motivations.

On Saturday, August 27th, his work will be featured alongside others in Colo(u)r Sound Culture Mashup, a screening at the Millennium Workshop in New York City as part of Index Media Festival.

The Creators Project: What was the original inspiration for this idea?
Jeremy Rotsztain:
There’s been a slow movement in my work towards using software as a tool for analyzing cinematic design and the viewing experience. It started with a small project that I made in grad school called Top 10 Colors, which determined an image’s most dominant color. The algorithm for the project was then used in ColorScheme, which analyzed frames from movies to visualize their use of color to show how a film’s “mise en scene” affects the mood of the story and the experience of the viewers.

At the same time, it’s become more enjoyable to use the data in a more expressive fashion—to go beyond the informative practices of data visualization—and I decided to abstract the data and turned to audio/visual composition as a model for how the work should be experienced. So the end result is an artwork that looks like painting, but feels (and is edited) very much like cinema. Actually, when exhibited, the videos are are projected in high definition onto canvases, echoing both the immersive experience of abstract expressionist painting (where you stand in front of a canvas and let it envelop you) and the intense spectacle of action films.

I’ve also been framing my practice around the use of digital images as a malleable material—by sampling textures, and abstracting or transforming them into other shapes. The media that I’m using is supposed to be read-only, so the “expressionism” in the title is also a call for the playful and subversive use of digital material that’s intended for pure consumption. Of course, when you’re working with cinema as a material, you’re also working with all of the cultural associations we have with films, which is so much more than just colors, texture and sound.

How do you consider the kind of art you do (generative art, software art, etc) in relation to the original action painting movement, or abstract expressionism more broadly?
For starters, software art and action painting are both process-based practices. They start with a rule or action to be performed—and that is repeated (sometimes with subtle evolution) in order to compose a work. In “Action Painting” (the project, not the style), there are specific rules for how the material is collected from the films. The software is instructed to walk through the frames of a movie and look for specific colors or movement, and save the artifacts as shapes. Sometimes the process is even manual.

For the compositions made from fist fights and gun shots, I actually collected the shapes through rotoscoping: I went frame by frame and selected the forms and colors that would be considered ‘gestures’ (the fist as it hits its target, or the burst of fire coming from a machine gun). And then there’s the gesture, which plays a critical role in both Pollock’s style of action painting and my own project. Pollock’s gesture was a very physical and intentional one. He developed a highly skilled and controlled method of moving his wrist to flick paint onto a canvas. In “Action Painting” (the project), that gesture is appropriated from cinema. The “cinematic gestures”, as I like to call them, are collected by selecting the movement or color from the frame and then orchestrated like a series of musical phrases. So my gestures are completely simulated (they are performed virtually), which makes them a very different form of expression than Pollock’s improvisational technique. What I always appreciated about digital or animated painting, compared to paintings hanging on a wall in a museum, is that you can witness and participate in their composition, watching the gestures play out as the image is constructed.

Could you explain, as you put it, the contrast of your work to web 2.0 culture? In what ways is the culture at large similar to the aesthetics of action painting or to your appropriation of the style?
I’ve always had a keen interest, even an admiration, for the avant-garde tradition in modern art. Going to museums as a child, I appreciated how 20th century artists like Picasso, Duchamp and Rodchenko reflected upon the culture and dominant ways of thinking of their times. But the creativity of these artists was raised to mythical status… we were encouraged to see these people as geniuses… which I found to be problematic.

Then came along computer technology, which has allowed creativity to proliferate in incredible ways. So we now have web and iPhone apps and open source tools that allow us to create remixes or mashups of music videos, scenes from Hollywood films, audio samples, etc. with relative ease. “Action Painting” (the project) embraces both practices; it’s essentially a remix that appropriates that avant-garde tradition of painting. It’s not my intention to contrast my work to the remix. I’m actually hoping that it can be a part of that open culture and am planning to make the code and software available for people to play with, as I’d like to see other people’s ideas for working with digital media as a material.

How does the abstraction of the action scenes through generative methods comment on them? Since the pieces are divested of their original visual point of reference, how would you say that affects the aural elements that remain intact?
The amount of abstraction of the films is rather moderate. What’s happening is more an act of highlighting than abstracting: the core violent expression of each sequence is separated from its environment and then brought to the forefront. So, when each expression is played back, it leaves a mark on the digital canvas, and what you experience as a viewer is a collection of highlighted violent gestures. Of course, they are abstracted as you don’t have the same level of detail in the shape (and the shapes are slightly randomized when splattered on the screen) but the essence of the explosion, punch, kick, gun shot, etc. is still maintained.

Of course (and this is what you were getting at), you wouldn’t recognize which film a gesture was from without the sound, so it’s the sound that actually pulls everything back together. There’s a French author and musician, Michel Chion, who has written a few books about the use of sound in the design of film. In Audio-Vision he describes a phenomenon called “point of synchronization” which is essentially that moment when the sound and the image come together to describe the same phenomenon. In the case of an explosion, it’s when you hear the burst and see the flames emanating from a car or building. Humans have the capacity to make sense of sound at a much faster rate than images and so it’s this very detailed sound (44 kHz in digital audio, compared to 24 frames per second in film) that makes us believe what we’re seeing. When you watch a punch scene frame by frame, you’ll see that the person punching rarely makes contact; it’s that sound that makes us believe that he’s actually hitting somebody. Action Painting basically uses this cinematic trick to give the work a good hard punch.

You could say that the commentary is on this particular cinematic trick, which uses sound to create truth, that we experience over and over again when viewing Action Painting. You could also read the repetition as a form of commentary on the similarity of these moments and the proliferation of violence in Hollywood cinema. But these are things that I prefer to leave open-ended.

Could you explain the secondary title, Masculine Expressionism?
Sure. I’ll start by saying that my appreciation and use of puns has increased 10-fold after after reading so many of them in books on software programming. Masculine Expressionism is a secondary title that connects the masculine aura of male artists like Pollock, who was known for his hard drinking and domestic violence, with the expressions of many of the 80s male actors like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, who make their way into the artwork. Their expressions are violent gestures such as punches, shooting machines guns, hard bodies, and tough personalities. But you could also read it as “watching spectacular violence is a form of male expression.”