A Brief History of Algorithmic Editing

“A Brief History of Algorithmic Editing.” Jan Bot (2018).

We will see that many of the principles… [of new media] are not unique to new media, but can be found in older media technologies as well. 

Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media


Fragments of this essay have been published in slightly different versions as “Navigating Algorithmic Editing: Algorithmic Editing as an Alternative Approach to Database Cinema” in Millennium Film Journal 56 (Fall 2012) and as “Charting the Montage: The Roots of Algorithmic Cinema” in the 2015 book Marshall McLuhan + Vilém Flusser’s Communication + Aesthetic Theories Revisited edited by Melentie Pandilovski and Tom Kohut. These essays were intended to outline a pre-digital history of algorithmic editing and to examine the ways in which algorithmic editing has been employed in the construction of contemporary database cinema. The two essays have been combined and are presented here in order to provide a historical context for Jan Bot, an example of contemporary database cinema that uses algorithmic editing to re-invigorate the Eye Filmmuseum Netherlands’ Bits & Pieces Archive, the film fragments in their collections which remain unidentified.


Algorithmic art is produced by following an algorithmic process, that is, it is art produced by following a finite list of well-defined instructions or by following a procedure. Contemporary artists who produce algorithmic art are sometimes referred to as algorists, a term coined by Jean Pierre Hebert who also wrote an algorithm that is now often referred to as “the algorist manifesto.”1 The algorithm is as follows:

if (creation && object of art && algorithm && one’s own algorithm)
{include * an algorist * }
elseif (!creation || !object of art || !algorithm || !one’s own algorithm)
{exclude * not an algorist * }

Although the use of computers is usually associated with algorithmic art, computers are not an essential part of the process.However, algorithms are essential to the computer’s operation since they are the procedures the machine follows. For instance, computer software is merely a collection of computer programs and computer programs are simply computer algorithms that process and manipulate data.

Despite the fact that algorithms follow a step-by-step procedure, the user cannot expect the same output every time since algorithms often contain random or pseudo-random processes. Chance operations are equally important to artistic production, since they are one way to remove the artist, allowing the artwork produced to move beyond the artist’s expectations. Similarly, the computer can be programmed to produce results that are unexpected, a feature that is often exploited by artists creating algorithmic art. Finally, algorithms are often designed to require input from the user in order to perform their tasks, allowing the user to maintain, at the very least, the semblance of control, providing the computer artist with a sense of authorship.

Algorithmic editing refers to any method of editing based on direct procedural approaches and can be seen as a form of algorithmic art. Algorithmic editing can be seen as a technique for cutting and reassembling raw footage by following a schema or score. Here is an example of a simple, one line algorithm that could be used to algorithmically edit a film. Sequentially use every odd frame from one sequence of film and every even frame from another sequence of film to assemble a new film which alternates between the odd and the even frames. The resulting algorithmically edited flicker film would rapidly alternate between the two sequences. Creating this film using two film strips would be difficult without the use of an optical printer, a device which mechanically links a film projector to a movie camera which is used to re-photograph motion picture film and controlled through a basic sequencer which controls both the camera and the projector. Similarly, producing this film from two video sequences would be difficult without the use of a script or a specially made plug-in.

As with most new media, algorithmic editing is not new and its roots can be seen in the earliest attempts to formalize/theorize the practice of cinematic editing. This article will explore algorithmic editing and its relationship to database cinema. It will be argued that algorithmic editing traces back to Soviet montage theory, and was further developed through the work of structural filmmakers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, through the production of score- based work and through access to the optical printer, a device which allowed for the creation of slightly more complex schema through the use of a programmable sequencer. A history of algorithmic editing will be outlined, and examples of algorithmic editing will be discussed. Furthermore, some of the philosophical questions concerning the consequences of employing algorithmic editing will be explored and examined.

A History of Algorithmic Editing

One of the earliest attempts to theorize about algorithmic editing occurs in Vertov’s 1929 essay “Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye,” where he describes one stage of editing as a “numerical calculation of the montage groupings.”2 Vertov further explains that editing is “the combining (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and factoring out) of related pieces.”2 By describing editing in terms of mathematical process, Vertov is invoking the language of algorithms in essence. Moreover, Vertov implied that every well-equipped editing table should contain “definite calculations, similar to systems of musical notation, as well as studies in rhythm, ‘intervals,’ etc.,”3 and that it is the editor’s job to “reduce this multitude of ‘intervals’ (the movements between shots) to a simple visual equation.”4 To this end, Vertov often experimented with graphically charting or scoring a montage. By frame-counting and viewing the work as an equation, Vertov demonstrated his interest in algorithmic editing. In practice, by editing according to a schema, Vertov was able to create film poems by structuring the montage according to rhyming schemes similar to those found in poetry and music. As explained by film critic Carlos James Chamberlin, Vertov was primarily interested in “the gaps between the shots which, properly handled, yielded a beautiful pattern of variation — a tactility — a new sonically inspired aesthetic.” 5

Editing chart employed by Vertov in Man With A Movie Camera (1929).

In “Methods of Montage,” a 1929 essay by Sergei Eisenstein, another early formulation of algorithmic editing is introduced. In this essay, Eisenstein introduces metric montage as an editing technique fundamentally concerned with “the absolute lengths of the pieces.”6 The technique is created by editing sequences together according to their lengths in “a formula-scheme corresponding to a measure of music.”7 In essence, this technique involves counting and the application of a simple procedure, or algorithm, to these frames. Eisenstein theorized that “tension is obtained by the effect of mechanical acceleration by shortening the pieces while preserving the original proportions of the formula.”7 That is, metric montage could be used to intensify a sequence; however, if the pattern was too complex, Eisenstein argued that the use of metric montage produced a “chaos of impressions, instead of a distinct emotional tension.”7

“Machine Gun” scene from Eisenstein’s October (1928).

A classic example of metric montage occurs in Eisenstein’s October (1928). A long shot of a large crowd of protesting Bolsheviks is interrupted by a series of two alternating shots, each one or two frames in length, one of a machine-gun and the other of a gunner’s face. Eisenstein uses metric montage to heighten the tension, and, with the use of this technique, one can almost hear the pounding of the machine-guns firing. Produced the same year, Vertov’s The Eleventh Year (1928) also made use of metric editing.8 Eisenstein described the mathematical complexity of the editing used to create the film as “so complex in the way its shots are juxtaposed that one could establish the film’s structural norm only with a ‘ruler in hand’, that is, not by perception but only by mechanical [metric] measure.”9. Although Vertov’s film might not fit Eisenstein’s personal tastes and preferences, through this description he establishes it as an early algorithmically edited film.

Soviet montage theory in the 20s and 30s is instrumental for tracing the roots of algorithmically edited cinema. Eisenstein’s film editing techniques have since become commonplace in narrative filmmaking and examples of metric and rhythmic montage are quite common (e.g. the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or the car chase scene in William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971)). Visual music sometimes employs a form of metric or rhythmic editing were some of the films where constructed to match a musical score. In this type of visual music, the musical score also functions as an editing score. For instance, consider Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren’s Begone Dull Care (1948). Art historian Brian Evans in his essay “Foundations of Visual Music,” suggests that Begone Dull Care is an example of metric montage based on the music of the Oscar Peterson Trio, which was used on the soundtrack.

Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart’s film Begone Dull Care is an enjoyable example of metric montage. Strips of clear celluloid were painted, scratched, textured, and processed in a variety of ways. They cut the strips into cell lengths to match with music by the Oscar Peterson Trio.10

Although many artists were experimenting with metric and rhythmic editing schemes after the introduction of Soviet montage theory, it wasn’t until the late 60s and early 70s that there seemed to be a renewed interest in algorithmic editing, when artists began experimenting with other forms of schemata.

Artists began to experiment with algorithmic editing in the late 60s due to an intellectual and aesthetic preoccupation with filmic structure by experimental filmmakers in the United States. In his book Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order, James Paterson observes that many structural filmmakers were producing films using algorithmic editing. Paterson introduces the term “simple schematic films” to describe a subset of structural films “whose global template schemata — those that structure the film as a whole — are exceedingly simple and very predominate,” and described two types of these global templates used to produce such works.11 The first schema, simple numerical schema, involves enumeration, whereas the second schema, simple permutational schema, involves the unordered rearrangement of an image set. It can easily be argued that employing a simple schema does not necessarily limit the scope of the work.

Trailer for Greenaway’s The Falls (1980).

For instance, consider Peter Greenaway’s first feature length film The Falls (1980), a fascinating work produced using a simple numerical schema, of lexicographical ordering. The work itself proposes systematically to examine 92 (fictional) people whose surnames begin with the letters “FALL-.” Despite the relatively simple structure, the stories intertwine, and the film slowly reveals the idiosyncratic nature of the bureaucracy that produced the directory entries upon which the film is based.

Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960) is an elegant, algorithmically-edited film that is completely determined by its editing schema. In Arnulf Rainer, Kubelka used an editing chart to produce a film consisting solely of black and white frames. Kubelka’s film takes this idea to its ultimate extreme by reducing cinema to black and white frames, silence and noise. Originally, the film was commissioned by the Austrian painter Arnulf Rainer to document his practice.12 When Kubelka was unsatisfied with the footage he shot of Rainer, he made the ultimate homage — a film which would “survive the whole of film history because it is repeatable by anyone.” Kubelka even proclaimed he would commit the script to stone so that the film would “last 20,000 years, if it is not destroyed.”13 Of course, Kubelka wasn’t the only one who produced flicker films based on scores during this period and other notable examples include Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits. As observed by art critic William S. Smith, “the 1960s were something of a golden age for flicker film.”14

Score for Arnulf Rainer (1958–1960).

Kubelka also made an antisymmetrical version of Arnulf Rainer in 2012, titled Antiphon (2012). In Antiphon all the black frames of Arnulf Rainer become white, all the white frames become black, all the noise becomes silence, and all the silence becomes noise. Film critic Stefan Grissemann describes the title:

“Antiphon” is a term used in church music to signify the response, the counter-chant, in a choral piece. It’s an appropriate title for a film that will mirror an older one, and it ties in nicely with Kubelka’s idea of cinema as an alternative form of liturgy.15

The chant and counter-chant nature, or the antisymmetrical nature of the Antiphon, is reinforced if Arnulf Rainer and Antiphon are be played superimposed, as in one of the versions of Kubelka’s Monument Film (2012; There are two versions of Monument Film, one in which Arnulf Rainer and Antiphon are superimposed and another in which played simultaneously side-by-side). Conceptually, the result would be pure projector light and sound for the duration of the films; however, in reality, there will also be slight variations between the two 35mm projectors which lead to deviations from the conceptual model which, as Kubelka suggests, “articulate the materiality of classic cinema.”16

Kurt Kren’s 6/64: Mama und Papa (1964), is another film edited algorithmically by using a simple numerical schema. Peter Tscherkassky provides a wonderful anecdote about the editing of this film.

In 1964, Wien Film Laboratories refused to print 6/64: Mama und Papa. When Kurt Kren submitted the original, the film grader said with an undertone of sympathy that, given the number of cuts, one would not be able to make out anything anyway. His worries were groundless; when Kren came to pick up the print, some technicians with flushed faces left the projection room, telling him to get out and never to come back again.17

One can observe that the film was cut by hand, since the splice lines are visible, adding a violent vibrating line to the foreground against the backdrop of Otto Müehl throwing blood and urine on another performing artist. The violent and systematic cutting of the film elegantly blends two of the ideas that were predominant in the Austrian experimental art scene at that time: Viennese Actionism, an art movement that exchanged the human body for the canvas, and systematic art, art made by employing mathematical structures and rigour.

Editing chart for 6/64: Mama und Papa.

As argued by John Powers, “during the 1970s and 1980s avant-garde filmmakers mastered a device traditionally used for Hollywood special effects: the optical printer.”18 Increased artist access to the optical printer was another key component in the development of algorithmic editing. One of the printer’s strengths is the sequencer, a programmable mechanism which controls the communication between the camera and the projector, transforming the printer into a compositional device that can be programmed to perform complex algorithms. In fact, using the optical printer as a compositional device can be seen as the filmic predecessor of the computer.

Experimental filmmaker Standish Lawder appeared on Robert Gardner’s Screening Room in 1973 to discuss his newly constructed optical printer with Gardner and Stanley Cavell. During the episode, he explained how that he saw his home-made printer, which was a equipped with a sequencer, as “a little slow motion computer.” Powers observes:

Lawder was fascinated by the printer’s ability to carry out computer-like applications […] Lawder’s language in the Screening Room segment, which invokes computers, predetermined filmic algorithms, and medium specificity, suggests that his appreciation for optical printing was linked to ideas associated with Structural film, the reigning formal paradigm of the era.19

Moreover, it connects the optical printer with as a predecessor to algorithmic editing performed by a computer. Although Lawder’s handmade printer was “a one-of-a-kind machine, too gigantic, complex, and unwieldy to be mass produced, even on a small scale,” the introduction of the JK optical printer in 1971–72 made optical printing available to artist run co-ops, colleges and arts institutions, many of which came complete with a programmable sequencer that allowed the user to control exposure time and to step counts between the camera-to-projector.20

Still from Plays’ Grain Graphics (1978).

A film that could not have been made without using the optical printer and demonstrates how the printer allowed the artist to execute more complicated schemata is Dana Plays’ Grain Graphics (1978). Edgar Daniels describes the film as follows:

Another entirely structural film is Grain Graphics, which begins with two frames of a film strip, one above the other, occupying the middle of the screen, flanked by two vertical filmstrips with smaller frames. In grainy negative, a small number of figures interact in various ways in each of the frames. Gradually, as if the camera were drawing away, this pattern grows smaller and its units increase correspondingly in number, until at the end there appear to be hundreds of rectangles, all with figures busy in motion.21

The construction of the growing pattern of moving images within the film follows a relatively simple schema. In theory, the first iteration consists of two larger moving images stacked in the centre of the screen and three smaller images on each side, totalling eight different moving images on the screen at once. In the next iteration, this same pattern is repeated four times to fill the screen, producing 32 [4 × 8] different moving images on the screen at once (or 8 [4 × 2] large ones and 24 [4 × 6] smaller ones). In the next iteration, the previous iteration is repeated four times, producing 128 [4 × 32] moving images on the screen (or 32 [4 × 8] large ones and 96 [4 × 24]) smaller ones). This pattern could be repeated indefinitely. For instance, at the 100th iteration there would be 4⁹⁹ × 8 different moving images on the screen (or 4⁹⁹ × 2 larger ones and 4⁹⁹ × 6 smaller ones). Moreover, the previous iteration is used in the printing of the next iteration using the optical printer, demonstrating how it is possible to use the printer to generate more increasingly complex images through previously constructed material.

In practice, Plays’ moving images do not totally fill the screen, since the optical printing is not perfect, with many of the images overlapping in the final sections of the film. This can be seen as a flaw; however, in between each section, Plays optically zooms into the image revealing the images own imperfections — that the image is not continuously constructed, but made of film grain. Through the imperfect printing, the images interact with each other in a more organic and less mechanical way, seemingly bringing the images created to life. In a final self-reflective maneuver, Plays uses her complex optically printed moving images as the underlying basis for one of the moving images that constructed it. Through this gesture she is further commenting on the organic nature of her optically print moving images by suggesting their similarity to film grain.

Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass (1970) is another film that could not have been made on film without the aid of the optical printer. Frampton describes the structure and some of the process involved in the creation of the film.

The whole film, of course, was shot as two long takes; the original material is two 100-foot rolls. The sound was continuous; the Nagra was simply left on and that’s why you hear the squeals of the slate. Except for that very brief opening passage in which it starts out in sync and immediately disintegrates, it’s divided very roughly into fourths, with the passage in the dark forcing two pairs apart. At first, they match, and then in the dark, where there is only sound, each segment of sound, instead of going two steps forward and only one back, is simply repeated exactly three times.When the imagery reappears, the temporal overlap resumes, but the unit of sound cutting is slightly larger. Typically it’s about six frames (or a quarter of a second) larger than the image unit, which means that once every four seconds they will coincide exactly.22

The repetition of the images of the film, which Frampton describes as “going two steps forward and only one back,” can easily be programmed using an optical printer while the sound manipulation must be done separately leading to the asynchronous nature of the work. Melissa Ragona, in “Hidden Noise,” provides one reading of this asynchronicity.

While in the first section of the film, relationships between the speaking subjects and language remain somewhat intact, by the end of the film gendered as well as syntactical arrangements of speaking dissolve: the female speaker’s voice seems to come from the male speaker (and vice versa) and often, especially during the sections where the image goes to black, their voices merge into a glossolalia of phonemic utterances.23

Although it is possible to theorize about the lack of sync in the film, it also must be observed that Frampton didn’t have much choice, since syncing the film “by hand” would have been incredibly laborious. In other words, given that the sound and images were necessarily manipulated separately and the film was synced by hand, totally syncing the film would have been beyond arduous. By contrast, if this work had been manipulated on video or on a computer, it would have been relatively easy to maintain sync.

By 1977, the Digital Arts Workshop — a graduate level workshop at Buffalo University initiated by Frampton, and Woody and Steina Vasulka — was experimenting with writing their own computer software. One of the computer programs that the students were working on was called OPOS [Optical Printing Operating System], a program which “emulates a film technician.”24 Given its name, it is possible to speculate that this either allowed the computer to act as programmable sequencer for an optical printer, potentially allowing the user the ability to perform more complex operations than allowed by a standard sequencer, or that this was a program that digitally emulated the “effects” of the optical printer. Given the programmable nature of the printer this initiative seems quite natural, and contemporary computer software like After Effects often replicate or emulate optical printer effects.

The avant-garde has always been ahead of its time, therefore, in order to understand the present condition, it is often beneficial to understand the avant-garde of the past. Currently, we are at the point where computer users have the ability to retrieve multimedia information from enormous, well-indexed databases and one of the ways to access these databases is through algorithmic editing. By establishing the origins of algorithmic editing, it is possible to better understand its contemporary aesthetics and socio-cultural aspirations.

The Future of Algorithmic Editing

As argued, the roots of algorithmic editing can be found in Soviet montage theory and were further developed through the artist’s experimentation with schema in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With the introduction of the computer, artists are able to create more complex editing schema than those of their predecessors including filmmakers like Eisenstein, Vertov, Sharits, Kubelka, Iimura and Kren. Given that algorithmic editing with the use of a computer is fairly new, I will explore its use in database cinema and discuss some of its characteristics. Moreover, I will explore some of the philosophical questions and concerns that arise through the use of use algorithmic editing.

Database cinema, as introduced by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media, is a new media form that takes advantage of the computer’s ability to manipulate, analyze, organize and arrange multimedia data. Being less than efficient, traditional video editing software is not the ideal platform for producing database cinema. Despite the fact that video editing software systems allow for direct access to any frame without requiring the sequential navigation through adjacent footage, they are still heavily rooted in a film-based editing paradigm. Database cinema borrows one of its key concepts from computer science; namely, they explore how the computer accesses its database, that is, through algorithms. Many artists are already learning from and exploiting the computer’s relationship to the database through the use of a technique called algorithmic editing.

In The Language of New Media, Manovich asks the following:

How can our new abilities to store vast amounts of data, to automatically classify, index, link, search and instantly retrieve it lead to new kinds of narratives?25

In order to answer this question, I propose an intermediate step — a method for converting the database structure into a narrative structure. As Manovich has suggested, “once digitized, the data has to be cleaned up, organized, and indexed. The computer age brought with it a new cultural algorithm: reality → media → data → database.”26 By developing Manovich’s cultural algorithm further, I suggest expanding this diagram to: reality → media → data → database → algorithmic editing → new forms of narrative. To Manovich, cinema “is the intersection between database and narrative,” therefore, the expansion of the database must lead to more innovative and complex narratives.27

As early as 1974, Malcolm Le Grice noted that computers “are ideally suited to dealing with complex relationships of data precisely and very rapidly, and they are being developed towards highly efficient indexing and retrieval capability.”28 In fact, this trend has continued and is precisely the reason computers are ideal for creating database cinema. Currently, computer users have the ability to retrieve multimedia information from enormous, well-indexed databases. In Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, Le Grice conjectures that the three most important functions performed by the computer in relation to cinema are “systems of incrementation, permutation and random number generation.”28. To this I would add the computer’s ability to access large amounts of data, its ability to manipulate and analyze data, and its ability to efficiently copy and paste. Unfortunately, efficiency doesn’t guarantee something to be cinematic. This brings us to the question raised by Barbara Lattanzi in the title of her 2006 essay, “What is so cinematic about software?”29

Lattanzi is a new media artist who develops her own original, open-source software to algorithmically edit films from a database. Lattanzi uses software consisting of “simple, dynamically-modifiable algorithms” to encode and emulate editing techniques of seminal avant-garde films.30 Her software, AMG Strain (2002), HF Critical Mass (2002) and EG Serene (2002), emulates the editing schema of Anne McGuire’s Strain Andromeda The (1992), Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass (1971) and Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970) respectively. By referencing other work, Lattanzi observes that “the simulation of film structure in a software algorithm — where the software becomes referential to a specific film experience — paradoxically registers a narrative in the algorithm, a narrative with concrete reference within an abstraction.” 31 I would argue that reference to another film’s structure is not enough to produce narrative, although it is enough to enter a cultural dialogue with the original artist’s work. Equally as important are the clips the software is referring to, namely, it is the database the artist is engaging with that plays a key role in contributing to the narrative or content of the film. In other words, as Lattanzi observed, the “software is not narrativising in itself.” She continues:

“Software is not about something. Software performs something.”31

In the case of Lattanzi’s software, it performs something to a specific video clip from a database of video clips, and the choice of the clip is significant. For instance, Critical MassSerene Velocity and Strain Andromeda The, are considered works of cultural significance precisely because the artists took careful consideration in the content to which they applied their editing schema. The editing schema in and of itself was not enough.

As previously argued, algorithmic editing has been used at least since the 20s; however, the term algorithmic editing was first coined by Lev Manovich in an artist statement for Soft Cinema (2002), a collaborative project with Andreas Kratky which attempts to navigate the database in new and innovative ways. In his artist statement, Manovich theorizes about algorithmic editing without providing a precise definition. Although the work seeks to explicitly make use of algorithmic editing, it ultimately fails due to the seemingly arbitrary nature of the editing. Although the clips are associated through keywords that account for their content and formal properties, it is impossible for the viewer to decipher the underlying logic being employed, thus making the clip selection appear arbitrary. However, experimenting with database cinema allowed Manovich to theorize about one of the potential benefits of algorithmic editing.

Different systems of rules are possible. For instance, one system selects clips closest in colour, or type of motion to a previous one; another matches the previous clip in content and partially in colour, replacing only every other clip to create kind of parallel montage sequence, and on and on.32

In this description, Manovich alludes to the computer’s ability to analyze specific properties in each of the clips in a database. In other words, a computer can analyze each of the clips in a database looking for a specific types of motion, sound, colour, etc., and this information can be used to re-edit the clips. One example of an algorithmically edited work that takes advantage of the computer’s ability to analyze and sort data is Cory Arcangel’s Drei Klavierstücke op. 11 (2009). In the piece, Arcangel analyzes sounds found in various YouTube clips and edits the appropriate clips together according to the schema of a musical score.

Arcangel’s Drei Klavierstücke op. 11 (2009).

In Drei Klavierstücke op. 11, Arcangel humorously composes Arnold Schoenberg’s 1909 Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11 using various videos of cats playing piano found on YouTube. Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11 is generally considered the first piece of atonal music — a form of music that does not conform to any particular key signature. Despite the technical knowledge required to both perform and compose atonal works, to the unsophisticated listener, atonal works sound like a cat playing the piano, an act that is undeniably cute and hence requires recording and uploading to YouTube. Ironically, the act of creating an atonal work from videos of cats playing the piano is a fairly sophisticated process which Arcangel informally described on his website as follows:

So, I probably made this video the most backwards and bone headed way possible, but I am a hacker in the traditional definition of someone who glues together ugly code and not a programmer. For this project, I used some programs to help me save time in finding the right cats. Anyway, first I downloaded every video of a cat playing piano I could find on YouTube. I ended up with about 170 videos. Then I extracted the audio from each, pasted these files end to end, and then pasted this huge file onto the end of an audio file of Glenn Gould playing Op. 11. I loaded this file into Comparisonics. Comparisonics, a strange free program I found while surfing one night, allows users to highlight a section of audio, and responds by finding “similar” sounding areas in rest of the audio file. Using Comparisioncs [sic.] I went through every “note” (sometimes I also did clusters of notes) in the Gould. I then selected my favourite “similar” section Comparisonics suggested and wrote it in the score. After going through the 1000’s of “notes,” the completed scores were turned into a video by some PERL scripts I wrote which are available here if you wanna do something similar.33

Cory has since improved this technique for another video, Paganini’s 5th Caprice (2011), composed from hundreds of different guitar instructional videos found on YouTube. By re-using his code, Archangel is demonstrating that, although both videos make use of the same structure, it is possible to make very different types of work simply by choosing different content. Moreover, Archangel makes his techniques available, allowing others to experiment with them.

Goodwin’s Mersenne Devil Twister (2011).

Another work that makes use of algorithmically editing is Doug Goodwin’s Mersenne Devil Twister (2011), a simple video sketch that edits together four to twelve frame sequences selected randomly from a clip in a process Goodwin describes as “desequencing.”34 By writing code to algorithmically edit a video segment, in this case a clip from Peter Yates’ Bullitt (1968), Goodwin produces a segment whose movement is jarring and unusual yet strangely memorizing and beautiful. The title itself refers to Nic Collin’s album Devil’s Music (1985), which was created using a similar technique applied to sound clips, and the Mersenne twister — an algorithm for generating pseudo-random numbers. In using this title, Goodwin reveals both a mathematical influence and the process involved in the making of the video. Finally, Goodwin has made the code available on his website thereby encouraging others to further develop this technique.

Knowledge sharing is an important part of the culture. As observed by Tom McCormick, “glitchers seem eager to share their strategies. Part of this probably has to do with the fact that many new media artists are code junkies who come directly out of the open source movement; but then the open source movement may have equal roots in functional programming and media art.”(Tom McCormack, “Code Eroded: At GLI.TC/H 2010, RHIZOME, Oct. 2010,” in GLI.TC/H READER[ROR] 20111, eds. Nick Briz, Evan Meaney, Rosa Menkman, William Robertson, Jon Satrom, and Jessica Westbrook, 15–19 (Chicago: Unsorted Books, 2011), 16.)) This sentiment is reinforced by Arcangel and Goodwin’s eagerness to share their processes and Lattanzi’s strictly open source policies. Conceptually, this act carries with it all of the political motivations of the open source movement; however, it also reveals the importance of content since everyone potentially has access to the same processes and techniques. Open source as a pragmatic methodology is inherently in direct opposition to commercial or proprietary software practices and it promotes cooperation, collaboration, community by removing profit incentives.

Through the use of code reusability, the database takes on a new and heightened value since the content of an artwork is at least partially dependent on which database the artists choose. Database cinema is planted firmly in the continuum of found footage filmmaking. While there are many positive aspects to this — for instance, as Michael Zryd suggests in his article “Found Footage as Discursive Metahistory,” “the etymology of the phrase [found footage] suggests its devotion to uncovering ‘hidden meanings’ in film material” — it also raises questions about copyright/ownership of the sources being employed.35 Many artists blatantly ignore copyright issues. For instance, it can be assumed that Arcangel does not ask individual users for permission to use their clips when he uses YouTube as database (though he does acknowledge his source videos, transforming the original authors into unknowing collaborators).

As observed by Amos Vogel in Film as a Subversive Art, the “avant-garde offers no solutions or programmatic statements, but a series of intricate challenges, hints, and coded messages, subverting both form and content.”36 While the avant-garde now offers programmatic statements in the form of code, algorithmic editing in the digital age can be seen as challenging and subverting both form and content. Moreover, by directly engaging with algorithmic editing, artists are revealing an editing form that is often invisibly used in different media forms. Through directly engaging with algorithmic editing artists better understand the technology and others to better understand how this form of editing is directly impacting our lives.

To begin, not all forms of interfaces are bad, despite the fact that they render some of the underlying algorithms invisible. Interfaces help us to better engage with the computer and do not, as glitch theorist and artist Rosa Menkman argues in the The Glitch Moment(Um), restrict creativity.37 In other words, it is not necessarily for artists to directly engage with algorithms to produce quality work using a computer. Although there might be a hint of truth in the idea that only using commercial editing software can be restrictive, it is ultimately what is created, using whatever software or algorithms, that is at stake. Computer editing software, like the optical printer, is powerful tool that in the hands of a creative artist can be used to generate new and engaging work. It would be ridiculous to argue that the interface imposed by the optical printer or the Bolex restricts creativity, and it is equally ridiculous to argue that digital interfaces restrict creativity.

With that being said, through writing code and developing video editing tools, artists are able to critique industrial modes of filmmaking, both in terms of the tools they employ and in terms of content they are generating. Most commercial video editing software attempts to hide the algorithms they are employing, and are unmodifiable. As Barbara Lattanzi states in an interview with artist Keiko Sei:

I would rather make my own software (what I term idiomorphic software), because the commercial software that I use comes at a price. That price has less to do with money and more to do with a different process of abstraction: the active framing of my work within considerations dictated by irrelevant practices of Design. I make clear with students that I am not interested in their Design clarity and precision, but in their discovering productive ambiguities.38

In this statement, Lattanzi points out the role that errors and mistakes play in the artistic process, something commercial software tries to eliminate. In spite of embracing a systematic approach to film, some algorithmic artists are also embracing errors and imperfection. This simple act can be seen as subversive since our society where consumer desire thrives on the concept of “new and approved” and planned obsolescence. In fact, this is one of consumer myths that capitalism is based upon, namely, the myth that newer and sleeker is better.

Screen capture of news broadcast employing algorithmic editing (CNN Headline News, 2001).

Algorithmic editing as an approach to the digital database is constantly being used in invisible ways in many forms of media. For instance, it is the current template for many television news channels. News stations bombard the screen with information obtained from different database sources. Current world news, in the form of text, runs across the bottom of the screen, in addition to information about the weather, time and the stock market. It can be assumed that the station is accessing this information from various databases and that the station does not research all of the stories they are broadcasting despite presenting these stories as news. Furthermore, many news stations are potentially accessing the same databases; thus the news being provided potentially represents one single perspective.

Algorithmic editing techniques are also being applied to internet search engines in an attempt to provide user-specific content. In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser developed and explored a controversial concept sharing the same name. This concept addresses some of the negative effects of generating user-specific content based on our past viewing behaviors. Through the filtering of information, usually determined by capitalist interests, Pariser is suggesting a bubble is formed around individual users that inhibits intellectual growth by not exposing the user to ideas conflicting with their own ideology and by not necessarily providing the user with the most accurate information.

By experimenting with algorithmic editing, artists are investigating a concept that is informing and framing the culture in which they live. Through this exploration, artists are able to provide insight into these processes, and, at the very least, are able to reveal and demystify them. By understanding algorithmic editing, the artist is able to provide social and cultural critique. As noted by Lattanzi:

The Cultural Producer who samples form the raging flows of media detritus — endless satellite feeds, cable and broadcast transmissions, and the sedimentary layers of these through the past 25–50 years — becomes the heroic Luther, wresting deconstructive (re)form(ations)s out of the desultory, formless industrial wasteland. Deconstructive film and video-making demonstrate the inherent formlessness of mass media by making it into the “New Nature.”39

Currently, artists have a seemingly endless supply of material to work, an endless supply of large digital databases. To Lattanzi, this is the inherently formless media detritus that artists are able to reform, deform, reconstruct and deconstruct to make new work, transforming the old media landfill into into new media landscape. Expanding on this, it is not only the database that artists are deconstructing, it is also the techniques used to access the database. By technically understanding algorithmic editing, artists can re-invent and subvert the role that it plays in traditional applications.

  1. Roman Verostko, “The Algorists” (2014). []
  2. Dziga Vertov, Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson, trans. Kevin O’Brien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 90. [] []
  3. Ibid., 100. []
  4. Ibid., 91. []
  5. Carloss James Chamberlin, “Dziga Vertov: The Idiot.” Senses of Cinema 41 (November 2006). []
  6. Sergei Eisenstein, “Methods of Montage,” in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, ed. and trans. Jay Leyda, 72–83 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), 72; Emphasis added. []
  7. Ibid., 72. [] [] []
  8. Vlada Petrić, Constructivism in Film: The Man with the Movie Camera, A Cinematic Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 183. []
  9. Ibid. 59; This translation is slightly from Leyda’s translation in Film Form, 73 []
  10. Brian Evans, “Foundations of a Visual Music,” Computer Music Journal 29, no. 4 (December 1, 2005): 19–20. []
  11. James Peterson, Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order: Understanding the American Avante-Garde Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), 93. []
  12. P. Adams Sitney,Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 288–9. []
  13. Peter Kubelka,“The Theory of Metrical Film,” inThe Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney, 139–59 (New York: New York University Press, 1978), 159. []
  14. William S. Smith, “A Concrete Experience of Nothing: Paul Sharits’ Flicker Films,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 55/56 (Spring — Autumn 2009): 280. []
  15. Stefan Grissemann, “Frame by Frame: Peter Kubelka,” Film Comment (Sept.-Oct., 2012). []
  16. Peter Kubelka, “Artist Statement for Monumental Film” (2012). []
  17. Peter Tscherkassky,“Lord of the Frames: Kurt Kren,” trans. Elizabeth Frank-Groeßbne, Millennium Film Journal 35/36 (Fall 2000): 147. []
  18. John Powers, “A DIY Come-On: A History of Optical Printing in Avant-Garde Cinema.” Cinema Journal 57, no. 4 (Summer 2018): 71. []
  19. Ibid. 84–5. []
  20. Ibid., 87; The JK optical printer was invented by Jaakko Kurhi. []
  21. Canyon Cinema Cooperative Catalog. []
  22. Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 65. []
  23. Melissa Ragona, “Hidden Noise: Strategies of Sound Montage in the Films of Hollis Frampton,” October 109 (Summer 2004): 110. []
  24. Hollis Frampton, “About the Digital Arts Lab” in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, ed. by Bruce Jenkins, 272–74 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 274. []
  25. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), 237. []
  26. Ibid., 224 []
  27. Ibid., 237. []
  28. Malcolm Le Grice, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age (London: BFI, 2001), 220. [] []
  29. Barbara Lattanzi, “What Is So Cinematic About Software?” presented at Connectivity atConnecticut College, Ammerman Center, 10th Biennial Symposium on Arts and Technology on March 31 & April 1, 2006. []
  30. Barbara Lattanzi, “What Is So Cinematic About Software?” presented at Connectivity atConnecticut College, Ammerman Center, 10th Biennial Symposium on Arts and Technology on March 31 & April 1, 2006. []
  31. Barbara Lattanzi, “Critical Mass, the Software,” presented at Gloria! The Legacy of Hollis Frampton at Princeton University, Visual Arts Program on November 5 & 6, 2004; Emphasis in original. [] []
  32. Lev Manovich, Soft Cinema (Karlsruhe: TKM, 2002), 5. []
  33. Cory Arcangel, “Drei Klavierstücke op. 11 (2009).” Cory Arcangel’s Internet Portfolio Website and Portal (2009). []
  34. Doug Goodwin, “mersenne video twister,” cairndesign: since 1996 (March 4, 2011). []
  35. Michael Zryd, “Found Footage Film as Discursive Metahistory: Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99,” The Moving Image 3, no. 2 (November 6, 2003): 41. []
  36. Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2005), 308. []
  37. Rosa Menkman, The Glitch Moment(Um) (Netherlands: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011), 11. []
  38. Sei, Keiko. “Productive Unclarities: Interview with Media Artist Barbara Lattanzi.” Springerin Magazine, no. 4 (December 2001). []
  39. Barbara Lattanzi, “We Are All Projectionists,” Millennium Film Journal 39/40 (Winter 2003): 84. []