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Algorithmic Aesthetics

Bodies and Subjects in the Era of Big Data

Andrew J. Ball

Though the authors in this general issue of Screen Bodies engage with a wide array of media, they express a shared group of concerns. Namely, how recent technological advancements and the big data cultures of the Information Age are altering social norms concerning the body, the subject, and intimacy. The first two articles focus on increasingly data-oriented cultures that have given rise to aesthetics derived from quantification and mathematics. In “Qualities Over Quantities: Metric and Narrative Identities in Dataveillant Art Practice,” Amy Christmas examines the “surveillant aesthetic” present in three multimedia art projects—Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience (2002 to present), Jill Magid’s Composite (2005), and Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Stranger Visions (2012–2013). Christmas argues that these artists explore new modes of subject constitution and constraint, and reveal the potential of “dataveillance” to bridge formerly disconnected processes of “quantitative (metric) and qualitative (narrative)” self-formation. Similarly taking up questions of aesthetics, the “quantified self,” and its relation to narrative, Kallie Strode examines the datafication of beauty in “Narrating (Sur)face: The Marquardt Mask and Interdisciplinary Beauty.” Strode reflects on the ethics of quantifying beauty and looks to the plastic surgery method patented by Stephen Marquardt, who has developed a model of facial beauty using the golden ratio. The Marquardt mask, she argues, exemplifies an algorithmic aesthetic that is being applied to the reformation of bodies. Along similar lines, in “Cyborgian Salariats” Stephanie Bender argues that the individual is subordinated and rationalized by modern technology. Bender examines how Sasha Stone’s photo essay “Hundred-Horsepower Office” presents an optimistic vision of a new kind of subject, the Weimar-era white-collar worker, a human-machine assemblage that combines the body and modern office technology.

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Lyubov Bugaeva, Rory Kelly, Susan McCabe, and Janina Wildfeuer

Ana Hedberg Olenina. Psychomotor Aesthetics: Movement and Affect in Modern Literature and Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, 416 pp., $36.95 (paperback), ISBN: 9780190051266.

Jennifer O’Meara. Engaging Dialogue: Cinematic Verbalism in American Independent Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018, 218 pp., $29.95 (paperback), ISBN: 9781474420624.

Malcolm Turvey. Play Time: Jacques Tati and Comedic Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019, 304 pp., $30.00 (paperback), ISBN: 9780231193030.

Neil Cohn. Who Understands Comics? London: Bloomsbury, 2020, 240 pp., $42.75 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-3501-5603-6.

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Cyborgian Salariats

Rationalization and the White-Collar Worker in Sasha Stone’s “Hundred-Horsepower Office”

Stephanie Bender

This article examines Sasha’s Stone’s photographic constructions of the salaried worker, or die Angestellten, within the rationalized Weimar office as published in his 1926 photo essay “Das 100-Pferdige Büro—keine Utopie” (The hundred-horsepower office—no utopia). I analyze his images of the modern office and the white-collar employee as participating in the public discourse regarding the highly debated phenomenon of rationalization, presenting the Angestellter as a tool of rationalization rather than an individual, creating automata-like employees that fit with the broader trend of depicting such employees as what Matthew Biro describes as cyborgs, or human-machine hybrids. I assert that Stone’s essay performs a dialectic role in relation to other, distinct versions of the same photographs, suggesting that technology within the sphere of the modern office, while inevitable and necessary, is possible only through the subjugation of the individual humanity of those at work by such technology.

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Jose Cañas-Bajo, Johanna Silvennoinen, and Pertti Saariluoma

The success of a film depends not only on the quality of individual elements in the film but also on cultural factors that may influence the viewers’ reactions. In this study, we investigated the role of these factors by presenting Spanish and Finnish participants films produced in Finland, Spain, or the United States. Emotional reactions were assessed online through a response system synchronized with the films and offline through questionnaires. Results indicated that overall emotional reactions of the two audiences were very similar, suggesting a high degree of universality. However, we also found differences in the way the two audiences reacted to some specific sequences within the films. Qualitative analyses suggested that these differences are related to some cultural dimensions (e.g., collectivism). We interpret the data as supporting both universality and cultural mediation where cultural variation might be more evident in films varying in narrative structure, genre, or cultural origin.

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Examining the Relationship between Story Structure and Audience Response

How Shared Brain Activity Varies over the Course of a Narrative

Sara M. Grady, Ralf Schmälzle, and Joshua Baldwin

When audiences watch a movie, we can examine the similarities among their brain activity via inter-subject correlation (ISC) analysis. This study examines how the strength of ISC (how similarly brains respond) varies over the course of a Pixar short film: specifically comparing this across the exposition, rising action, climax/fall out, and resolution sections of the story. We focus on ISC in the mentalizing network, often linked to social-cognitive processes that are essential to narrative engagement. We find that ISC rises from exposition to the climax. Moreover, we explore this shared response across age groups, finding that ISC is present across age groups, albeit weak in younger children. This approach offers new insights into the brain basis of engagement and story structure.

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The Face of the Future

An Ethical Examination of Lucrecia Martel’s AI

Abby Sacks

Lucrecia Martel is an accomplished film director and creative. Her 2019 short film AI blends fiction and reality, imagining what a humanoid artificial intelligence might look like in our world. But her use of a psychiatric patient with schizophrenia to portray her vision has problematic ramifications for the present, namely contributing to the existing stigmatization of people with mental illnesses. Art does not exist in a vacuum, and it is important to examine how a piece might be interpreted or misinterpreted and how it may affect people in their everyday lives. Though AI is an effective work of science fiction, I argue that is overshadowed by the negative unintentional impact it may cause for people with schizophrenia and mental illness at large.

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Loneliness and Love

The Potential of Human-AI Relations as Explored by Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema

Abby Lauren Kidd

Science fiction films about artificial intelligence have often perpetuated anxieties about new technology as a widescale threat to humanity. However, more recently, the genre seems to be moving toward more positive and open-minded representations of technology that envision humans embarking on relationships with AI in varying capacities—perhaps a reflection of technology’s increasing value and permeation within all aspects of contemporary wider culture. Thus far, such texts have been given little scholarly attention, yet they offer significant insights into our possible coexistence with advancing technologies of the future. This article analyzes three contemporary science fiction films about artificial intelligence and demonstrates how they are offering unique perspectives that lend support to wider applications of AI, specifically as social companions.

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Narrating (Sur)face

The Marquardt Mask and Interdisciplinary Beauty

Kallie Strode

As plastic surgery becomes increasingly normalized as an act of selfcare, it is essential to consider the ways in which facial beauty has been enacted as data on the surface of the body. Taking seriously the paradox “raw data is an oxymoron,” this article explores how facial beauty has been algorithmized in the recent past as a geometrical proof based on the golden ratio. As an overlay system founded in the late 1990s, the Marquardt Mask claims to beautify any face. Yet, it achieves this universalism via its interdisciplinary exploitation of mathematics and biology. The mask thus participates in a cybernetic paradigm of control by abstracting human faciality as an aesthetic feedback loop evidenced in life and nature.

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Quantities Over Qualities

Metric and Narrative Identities in Dataveillant Art Practice

Amy Christmas

In a society suffused with surveillance technologies and practices, which persist in their extension across and into all dimensions of human experience, members of the contemporary art community have made significant contributions to the ontology of the surveillant self. This article compares recent works by several prominent multimedia artists who have explored the radical potential of dataveillance as a way to bridge the disconnect between quantitative (metric) and qualitative (narrative) representations of self in the Information Age. By considering the questions raised by three recent art projects—Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience; Jill Magid’s Composite; Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s Stranger Visions—I explore how each artist employs a surveillant aesthetic to test the extent to which meaningful subjectivities may be constructed out of decontextualized metric data. In this way, these artists are directly engaging with the surveillant assemblage, harnessing the discrete flows of data that normally work to depersonalize and thereby negate individual identities, and instead repurposing these disassembled metrics as a means of examining modern selfhood as it both produces and is produced by surveillance environments. In particular, this article focuses on the tension between metric and narrative representations of self, by drawing on multimedia artistic projects that engage with and combine both aspects and document their efforts in a range of visual and textual media.

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Sound Anchors

A Cognitive and Multimodal Approach to Sound and Narrative Structure in Film

Brad Jackson

When watching a film, we engage with much more than combinations of moving images. We combine what we see with what we hear, and what we hear often aids in the construction of a story. Although some researchers endorse the ways sound guides viewer expectations, there is still a need to explain the ways images, sounds, and other available cinematic modes interact to construct meaning. This article engages with research on embodiment, cognition, and multimodal artifacts to reveal how sound aids in the construction of film narratives by focusing on examples where sounds take the primary role in constructions of narrative meaning. Additionally, by discussing recent theories on cognition and multimodality, this article shows how sounds can evoke conceptual and narrative information in ways that stabilize our understanding of cinematic representations through the joint contribution of all of the available modes.