Essay 10/2008

The boundaries of machinic image

Discussing the work of Marcello Mercado entails discussing the history of audiovisual creation in Latin America. The scope of his artistic oeuvre implies considering the processes that convulse the relations between screen/image/viewer, pleasure/consumption, diegesis/identification, which Mercado respects, even though he transgresses them. Mercado’s videos cross several boundaries of hypothetical speculation concerning machinic image. The illusion of reality and motion achieved through camera recording is displaced by Mercado’s technological poetics in his account of experimentation processes using image.

We remember the first videos by Mercado, through which we became acquainted with his work. The Torment Zone (1992) and Las nubes (1991) already showed signs of diversity in a working system based on still image. The engravings and drawings in the iconographic series of notes, newspapers, religious prints, and X-rays were processed through electronic effects, in real time, using a Sony V 5000 camera, with which an initial graphic depiction of the frame was created. The reformulation of symbols, the plastic manipulation of image was carried out using analogical postproduction equipment as much as the camera itself.

The equipment available in the early 1990s could only withstand a certain amount of layers and recordings, as image quality deteriorated rapidly. In Mercado, this limitation gave birth to an editing aesthetic, spatial and vertical, that resulted in the proposal of a complex frame. The Torment Zone was made using the old, traditional ¾-inch video format, the U-matic. Visually aggressive, it presented the transfiguration of that which we see and hear. Maximum originality had been achieved by means of the process of estrangement, on the road from figurative to disfigurative, through resorting to the haptic vision; an abstraction that converted itself into the acute reading of a perverse Argentina, a feat achieved by but a few audiovisual works in the fatidic 1990s.

The Warm Place (1998) marked the beginning of Mercado’s work using a PC, in a private sphere, no longer resorting to a postproduction studio. M.M. became the operator who works alone on his own machine for long periods of time. At that time, certain complex commands in image manipulation took huge amounts of time in order to perform the calculations required for the composition, the so-called rendering. The Warm Place is an intense, visceral document that carried on with his quest based on pictorial hybridism in the electronic realm, albeit through mathematical/digital processes of manipulation.

In his work with analogical video, Mercado had already surpassed the boundaries of a technology devised for other corporate and artistic purposes. The disruption of the figurative aspect was based on the absence of typical scenes with characters within the frame, and on not resorting to moving images captured by the camera. The processing of archival footage, graphic drawings, and the combination of superimposed images shatter the conventions of literal association between sound and image.

Thus, The Warm Place hinted at another point of inflexion in Mercado’s oeuvre, namely the creative combination of video and multimedia, which exacerbates the frame’s composition structure, avoiding the transition, by cutting, between images. Nevertheless, we are always operating in two dimensions, within the frame metamorphosed by various software programs, which create a very broad variety of covers in the horizontal and vertical axes.

These processes may be interpreted as a metadiscourse on the use of certain hardware and software, which becomes a basic element for Mercado from this moment onwards. The artistic manipulation of such devices sets parameters for the expressive processes of images that convert any realistic dynamic optical image, be it recorded by a camera or archival, into its “deanalogized” form. These trajectories across the body, death, history, desire, and insanity are built up over the course of a long work in progress that breaks the linearity of habitual space-time relations.

These transitions question the notions of cutting, editing, and montage, thus subverting the commandments of classic audiovisual. In that way, more complex relations between the parties are proposed, as they transcend the frame and scene as units of meaning. This system of vertical image composition functions as a montage within the frame, creating a space comprised of various images resulting from algorithmic manipulation. It is by means of this endless manipulation that the work’s final form is defined. A temporary formality, because, to Mercado, audiovisual numeric operations are never over with, they are steps in his lengthy works in progress. The old concept of editing is reconverted into a process that has no end. We are facing a new concept of mise-en-scène that breaks away from the notion of original work and master. The parameter of field depth, which had its genesis in a camera recording, is also modified through a process of artificial re-composition of the plans, based on their combination into layers, and the disruption of an analogical optical perspective. Despite its two-dimensional appearance, The Warm Place is a work in relief resulting from the vertical composition aesthetic described above. Mercado appropriates himself, phagocytizes, and transforms the uses of machines. At first, it was the video machine; now it is the PC. Let us remind that The Warm Place won the 12th International Electronic Art Festival Videobrasil, another important milestone in his artistic career. Das Kapital (2004) arose out of processing by high-level digital machines and highly sophisticated software. This is another instance of technology, featuring equipment that processes complex image commands in real time. The reference to the work of Marx introduces a different form based on the association between the computer, text simulation processes, and the mathematical purity of a discourse about the world, political economy, the unconscious, and the epiphany of image. A significant share of Das Kapital’s seventeen minutes is comprised of computer-generated images. It is a series of pure abstraction, combining text, formulas, and photographs, towards the end, of utter rawness, without any type of manipulation. There are pictures of dead bodies, bodies lacerated by violent action; the realism of death as the inertia of time past. Mercado uses the perennial photographic image as witness to the living, the motionless bodies culminate with an entire series of nonfigurative numeric images. This counterpoint is the effect of the work’s structure, in its mix of supports combining photochemical and numeric aspects, as a statement on what an artist can do by operating with technologies and linking together various visual devices. With The Chemical and Physical Perception in the Eye of the Cat, in the Moment of the Cut (2005), awarded at the 16th Videobrasil, we begin to wrap up this brief overview of Marcello Mercado’s work. A video that features the emergence of electronic arts as a viable path for developing new experimentations, ones that appropriate themselves of the chemical and biological industry. Using three- and two-dimensional animation, stemming from the transposition of the pictorial practice into the computer, Mercado emulates biological decomposition processes by disrupting the index and operating the numeric image to the maximum. The transformation of codes translated by the computer into synthetic images points to a new audiovisual language, revealing, by default, the two streams that constitute the essence of image: the analogy with what is real and the illusion of motion. In these works, the unsaid, such as text, graphics, and sound, is combined with the unrepresented, as a referential resulting from the manipulation of the electronic/digital device. This denying of traces of reality in the audiovisual, photochemical, electronic, and digital is among the outstanding features of Mercado, and it is present in the whole of his work. The exception is represented by the image of the box of aspirins and the picture of the dead body with a bullet hole to its temple. Two analogies of brain malfunction. The careful, handicraft construction of multiple graphic fragments which, as time passes, constitute the parts of a whole, in a process of escaping the figurative that comes to being in the construction of the work and which, based on abstract aspects, creates a deep departure from the forms contained in representation systems. Mercado’s oeuvre bears witness to certain extremes in discourse and expression that video has been able to arrive at. It is in this function of art that one forces the audiovisual device into doing that which is not part of its program or representation system, i.e., an action that conquers new spaces of creative independence, a value that has lost its worth in contemporary audiovisual.

Jorge La Ferla and Anabel Patricia Márquez Sanabria

Interview Denise Mota, 10/2008

You have studied psychology and film. Your videos approach society as a living system; it is as if viewers were able to “dissect” the dysfunctions of everyday life through your images. Do you believe that video art is capable of illustrating the “unclassifiable,” of bringing up sensations and identifications possible only through images that viewers cannot typify?

It is a “hybridunclassifiable,” I would say, whose story is told from the United States, as all other things in between the earth and the sky are forgotten. Video art is like a laboratory of hybrids, in which Paik and Larcher continue to move me. Paik inside a taxi with his Sony in New York, and Larcher doing renderings along with Zanoli. The living and the process. The living to feed the process, and the process to lead to the living. That is how I worked on Das Kapital and added up processed dead bodies that are “invisible to the eyes”; therefore, nothing to feel, nothing to understand. Perhaps uncover or try to go back to seeing that which one believes is being seen. The eyes become cynical, they believe that they have seen it all. Surprise is everything. One must resort to work, to misleading, to rushing as a method for having viewers look at corpses and foetuses for twenty minutes without complaining! Plus years of scholarships and renderings! 

Technology, science, the human body, progress in genetic manipulation, and capitalism without borders all appear to be key elements in your work. Is that so?

I believe in microbes, transducers,* and “adjusters.” I call “adjusters” the theoreticians who did not create great theses; they are but destroyers or resystematizers (Gödel, Marx, Calvin). I am enthused about the theoretical-organic information transfer process by means of multiple borrowings and extractions of DNA in living systems. That includes the possibility of biohealing art, of building upon metainformation, such as genetic information, and of going back to seeing from other perspectives. “I like to see,” as Chauncey Gardner used to say. Now, what do I see and how much can I see? Abstraction. I am interested in this mass of information that is broadcast/renewed and makes us neither superior nor inferior, neither first nor last, just alive and waiting for changes.[* Wikipedia dixit: A transducer is a device ... that converts one type of energy or physical attribute to another... ” (] 

Your works are often comprised of a vertiginous succession of images, which result from an intervention of a scientific and artistic nature. How was the creative process for works such as The Chemical and Physical Perception in the Eye of the Cat, in the Moment of the Cut and Das Kapital

In 1998, I met David Larcher at Videobrasil, and he invited me to work at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. That was where my production system changed. In Argentina, I used to work at home, on a PC, and then I would rent a studio for postproduction. In Germany, the technology that I used allowed me to do what I wanted and much more. The academy would stay open twenty-four hours a day, and to work there was sheer happiness; however, learning to handle all of those machines with manuals written in German was also a huge source of distress. The most complicated thing was having a hub-idea, a central idea that would join together the pieces of the other ideas. In other words, building a system, my system. I have always believed in what Blake used to say: “I must build my own system, otherwise I will be enslaved by the system of others.” And machines are always making mermaid’s promises, with their menus, submenus, plug-ins, and settings. The method that I used was to write down and to draw constantly, without respecting any particular line. From the writings/drawings, I would move on to the computer, and then to the media library at the academy, in order to view works that I had never viewed. Fortunately, I already worked with animation and I was not afraid of the machines, but it took work in order to control them, to have them answer the proposal I was formulating, and not the other way around. I believe I did not explain the working process enough. Therefore, I would like to add, in here, a photograph from a video that is part of the Das Kapital series, entitled: “Of how I manipulated foetal landscapes,” made in 1999. It is the graphical explanation for the 3D in The Chemical and Physical Perception in the Eye of the Cat, in the Moment of the Cut, and in Das Kapital. The process happened by accident. I was working with the Flint software, by Discreet Logic. At times, it would present unstable behavior: the system would crash and, when I recovered the frames, some of them would get mixed up. That was how the frames of foetuses’ heads ended up amidst the abstract animations that I was doing. Upon processing them, I noticed that the foetuses would disappear and turn into landscapes. As I multiplied the processing, they were completely erased. Afterwards, I applied colors and worked on twenty-five screens at the same time. I animated the landscapes. The final images show fragments processed on top of fragments of intermediate processes. I work in the same way with images of corpses. That was when I realized the advantages of “invisibility.” 

Your interest on and knowledge of mathematical and medical concepts—and the relation that you establish with the history, politics, economy, culture, and society of our times—are evident throughout your work. What prompts you to seek and cause, at the moment when you conceive a new artistic proposal? 

One thing that I have learned is that, if I am interested in seeking something, that something will not go very far; and also that the miseries are the same and do not change much. I rather place a bet on inconsistence, using links, using slightly out-of-course ideas: 

How does the Inconsistence work, practically?, 2007

36.the field of battle becomes two-fold:

Your first works were done in Argentina in the 1980s. Videos such as The Torment Zone tackle aspects of the country such as corruption, red tape, religiosity, and a flawed health system. How do you regard Argentina today? 

I no longer know Argentina. It is weird. People talk in a different way now. Important facts occurred when I was no longer living there, and I get lost amidst these references in habits and language. On the other hand, I have also put myself in my own world, which is neither here nor there. There is a disagreement nowadays. Ever since I have been living in Germany, I returned to Argentina very few times; adding up all trips, I did not stay there for even a month. Returning is always a sort of shock. I get the feeling that I have died and come back, and I can see how people went on without me, without problems. It is a nice exercise for any Argentine with an ego. Imagine what it is like for those that have two [egos]. The issues that you mentioned really used to occupy an important position within my work. As the years went by—and I lived outside of my country—, I felt that percentages of my attention shifted, and I started focusing on my artistic project itself. And I feel good this way. I recovered my time, my eyes, my calm, my percentages. I have very few cells left in my body from ten-and-a-half years ago. I do keep the cassettes, though. 

What projects are you working on now?

I am working on four different fronts: 
A.    Prequel: I am reediting my early works, done from 1989 to about 1995. There is going to be a total of twenty-five videos from the Argentine days, i.e., corpses and sex.
B.    A week ago, I finished seven new parts of Das Kapital, or eighty new minutes. In them, I continue to reinterpret Marx based on digital and biological points of view.
C.    I am editing my current works, to which I should add performance and bioart pieces under development, drawings, installations, public interventions, and experimental paintings.
D.    I am putting together installation work for next year that combines everything that I mentioned before. I am going to work on a new bioart-performance project that should be ready in mid-2009. It will be done in a high-technology laboratory.

One of your statements is: “I am headed towards an ecosystem ruled by microbes.” Is that the future?

The virulence of microbes combined with the virulence of our ignorance is a possible future. We are thousands of years, and microbes are a form of eternity. In other words, deep down, I am an optimistic.

Comment biography Denise Mota, 10/2008

Ten years ago, Marcello Mercado left his native Argentina and the personal and artistic concerns that his home country aroused in him to take a dive into what he describes as “the control of machines.” Starting with the PC, he later evolves into an arsenal of tools that provide support to the complexity and experimental boldness of an oeuvre marked by connections between art and science, painting and genetics, performance and technology. 

Born in the Chaco region, the artist became acquainted early on in his life with the confluences between life, death, science, and technology. His father, a physician, would take him along in his rounds to hospitals. “I have witnessed extreme situations. I have smelled them as well.” His mother, on the other hand, who was a biochemist, taught the boy to perceive the most trivial phenomena from the organic point of view, action-reaction: “If my legs would hurt after I had been running, she would say: ‘You have accumulated lactic acid.’” 

Homemade chemical experiments, coupled with knowledge of human pain and misery along the corridors of the institutions that reflected the always-troubled Latin American public health system, resulted in a “biochemical theater.” “That is what I do nowadays. If we add up the transistor radio I used to listen to all day long, I have built a world, in between 540 and sixteen hundred kilocycles, that exists to this day.” 

His early works, made in the 1980s, approach subjects such as corruption, red tape, ethical shortcomings in Argentine politics, religiosity, sex, and death. Examples include videos such as The Torment Zone (1992) and, later on, The Warm Place (1998), in which excerpts from the Bible are combined with images of surgeons and patients inside the operating room. Political activism, mass culture elements, critique of inefficient economic systems, and chicken slaughter scenes all fit under the peculiar umbrella of associations that Mercado proposes. 

Performance was soon to be introduced into his work. In the beginning, he would rewrite text he would hear in the scientific TV shows that he would watch. Then, he developed a series in which he would read to animals and to corpses, often during surgical procedures. The performance in which he reads writings by Karl Marx as he pays a visit to an amusement park gave birth to the video Das Kapital (2004). The piece, to which another eighty minutes have just been added, features a rereading by Mercado of the German thinker’s oeuvre, from a biological and digital perspective. 

Germany marked a watershed in the artist’s career. Invited to work at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, in 1998, he was faced with an apparatus that hugely expanded his set of tools, so far comprised of a PC. “I underwent a huge cultural change there, my production system changed. Technology allowed me to do what I wanted and much more.” 

In his quest to find a way around “the overwhelming distress of learning to operate all of those machines,” he devised his own learning process. Using drawings and notes, the artist unravelled the range of possibilities that computers opened up. In the process, he left behind the woes of his homeland, and moved forward in his exploration of the research elements he feels at ease with since his childhood, namely mathematical and biochemical principles. 

He couples those with elements from the realm that comprises his ambitions nowadays: challenges posed by technology, alternate views of political-economic theories, and investigations featuring organic materials submitted to electronic and digital interventions. This phase is reflected in works such as Das Kapital and The Chemical and Physical Perception in the Eye of the Cat, in the Moment of the Cut, which is based on pain transmission mechanisms, and was awarded at the 16th Videobrasil (2007). 

More recently, the artist has been exploring an avenue of expression that he describes as experimental painting. It consists of laboratory work involving DNA, and may also combine his bioart experiments with traditional painting. The most recent ones include Cabeza (2006), which can be viewed here. 

Presently, the artist is reissuing twenty-five of his early videos and preparing, for 2009, an installation involving elements from previous works. For next year, he is also developing a “bioart-performance” project to be carried out in a “high-technology laboratory.” 

The future belongs to microbes. Based on the statement that the world is “evolving into an ecosystem” dominated by those organisms, an assertion that is usually included in his writings, Mercado explains himself: “The virulence of microbes combined with the virulence of our ignorance is a possible future. We are thousands of years, and microbes are a form of eternity. In other words, deep down, I am an optimistic.”

Bibliographical references 10/2008
An overview of Marcello Mercado’s oeuvre in video art, performance, installation, painting, and Web art, plus information on collections that contain work by the artist, and texts related to his proposals. You can find the writings and poems of the artist at the following link: 

Images and technical details of several works appear alongside texts by the artist and critical evaluations of his work. The writings shed light on the source of inspiration and the creative process that originated some of his work. 

Berlin, 2005
The artist presented Biorrealismus, a three-phase project bringing together art and biology, during the fourth edition of the Fraktale festival, held in 2005 in the German capital. In that year, death was the theme of the event.