Sight Unseen

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Sight Unseen

to be found under the title "TERRIFYING TORNADOES!" on YouTube,

This project combines a series of discourses I’ve been thinking about this semester through my various classes.  I am deeply interested in portrayals of the traumatic, the abject, the terrifying, and the disgusting in various manifestations of “popular culture.”  Here I am focusing on a more mainstream representation: so-called “disaster porn” and its ubiquitous consumption through outlets like YouTube, where all manner of intentions lead people to put up personal or news footage or make compilations videos of both human-caused and natural disasters.  One could explore the resulting cache of disaster footage for days on end, simply through the ease of such functions as “related videos.”

Considering the role of technology in capturing and disseminating such eminently visual events as figure in these videos, I wanted to utilize the technological to interrupt this mindless and oddly addictive consumption.  As Mary Ann Doane notes in her article “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” there is an element of technological failure to every catastrophe, and I would argue that that includes natural disasters (think of New Orleans’ levees breaking, for one).  At the same time, it is technology in the hands of everyone everywhere that allows such footage to be captured and spread worldwide.  I wanted to inflict what might be seen as technological failure on this kind of footage: not to reveal the technological basis of disaster, though that is part of it, but rather to make the viewer aware of his/her own desire for the legibility and clarity that technology usually attempts to provide.  The frustration of this desire makes its hidden working visible, for once, and I want the viewer to question that desire.

This "video" consists of a compilation of audio tracks from various, often compilation-style, videos of tornadoes in the American midwest. I have no personal experience with tornadoes, but they seem like the ultimate terrifying destructive force, directly opposing all the order and technology humanity tries to put in place against nature. Utterly unpredictable and ferocious, they frequently devastate portions of the US, and yet people continue to live there and flirt with the risk of total destruction. The fact that there exist those who thrive on following them and getting as close as possible (ie "storm chasers") shows just one extreme of the fascination, both scientific and more inexplicable, that tornadoes hold over the public imagination. What struck me in many of the videos was the cameraperson's blatant disregard of their surroundings in their fixation on the tornado, somehow overcoming their terror and survival instincts. Compilation videos in particular tend to capitalize on the dramatic effect of such sights, utilizing epic soundtracks and quick cuts to showcase the most striking parts of the videos they sample. 

I wanted to play off this trend in open source filmmaking and market it as yet another compilation video out to thrill the browsing YouTuber. Thus the name "TERRIFYING TORNADOES!" and the applicable tags. Yet without a visual track to accompany the audio, the viewer is left without the most thrilling part of the source videos. The demand to see, see more, more clearly, more closely, is utterly denied. The constant reference of the audio to an absent image is, I hope, frustrating and therefore enlightening to those willing to think about it. I asked people to comment with their reactions, and while I expect to get a large number of "something's broken, you messed up" comments, I may or may not reply with the fact that I intended to deprive the viewer of a view. The lack of image does open the viewer up to imagining, but I am more interested in the ceaseless looking at the black screen to see things that aren't there. The deictic nature of much of the audio (the "look at it!" aspect), minus a referent, reminds me of Michael Snow's "So Is This," and the refusal to represent visually is related to Derek Jarman's "Blue."

I also aimed to produce something that can hopefully be understood without background knowledge.  For that reason, I preferred to maintain formal ties to the traditional YouTube compilation video, rather than, for instance, datamoshing the footage.  Both methods would frustrate our desire for photographic legibility, but a datamoshed video might distract from a viewer’s understanding because the relative newness of the aesthetic leads to the confusion of many viewers.  Instead, I engaged in a simple formal intervention, and hope that the marketing of the video on YouTube will lead to interesting commentary by the (presumably disappointed) viewer. Based on comments, I may add to the description something like "no, the video and your computer are fully functional"... but not yet.

On a final note: I decided to focus on footage that featured the destruction of landscapes and objects, rather than human victims.  Part of this was out of squeamish sensibilities, considering the internet features the full gamut of disturbing “real” imagery, and I find it a bit beyond my own perversion and conception of human dignity to explore such footage.  Additionally, interest in seeing torn and open bodies, real or not, has been widely thought about, given the popularity of such genres as slasher films and forensic crime shows.  Most people know whether or not they enjoy such things, and have perhaps questioned that taste.  However, such an enjoyment of and desire to get closer to the traumatic destruction of human bodies is not often recognized as analogous to similar imagery of nonliving natural or technological bodies.  We don’t think of those who enjoy disaster movies as having the same level of perversity as those who enjoy slasher films, and yet the pleasure is analogous---one form is just more culturally acceptable and widespread.  I hope to further explore that relationship, perhaps in my final project project, and make the viewer think about the representation of such images across all forums: as fiction and fact, entertainment and information, pleasure and perversity.  

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