In the nineteen-sixties exploration of inner space was as risky as outer space. Bowie’s Major Tom losing his grip was a chilling metaphor for the lives and minds sacrificed to the hallucinogenic craze. The “skull in the space helmet” trope that emerged in the same era was given impetus by the fire that killed three Apollo astronauts as they waited for launch. It appeared half a century later in Bowie’s penultimate music video, Blackstar, gussied up with jewels as if paying respect to his fellow artist/showman/shaman, Damien Hirst.

The Blackstar production team were told by the costume hire company that the NASA spacesuit they urgently required was already booked. To release it Bowie agreed to fund the film-maker’s short that it had been initially loaned for. Stella Erratica (2017) , Ben Barton’s sci-fi, horror home movie was the result and is currently available online as part of the celebration of celluloid at the Strangelove Time-based Media festival. It weaves together the space-age associations of Bowie’s career and our current fears while foregrounding the metaphorical power of celluloid. His cosmonaut is launched conventionally enough to a classical score in Kubrick 2001 style but arrives in a familiar world. He wanders alone through both wild and urban landscapes and unearths a skull from a shallow grave. The spooling ratchet mechanism fails so the frame becomes chopped at the fringes creating some enticing effects. Like many sci fi films it climaxes in an image that melds our mortality with the universe.

Filmed in Super 8, carefully distressed to give it the feel of a long lost recording, this itself is an ironic contrast to the real NASA footage which was shot by the US astronauts with monochrome video cameras. The iconic Hasselblad colour photographs taken on the moon’s surface exploited the visor’s mirrored surface which led to conspiracy theorists claiming to spot reflected studio lights as evidence of faked moon landings. Barton is also attracted by this paranoid distortion and alludes to it by filming fluorescent subway striplights reflected in his urban spaceman’s visor.

At a time when we are facing potential apocalyptic climate change our attractive blue planet (a blue balloon floating skywards in Barton’s film) may yet become a cinder-grey, unliveable environment and the escape route to other planets may be our only hope. Sadly, space exploration has slowed to a hesitant crawl and, while psychological research has not met its early promise of a fuller understanding of our inner space, we are stuck with our fears of uncontrollable wildfires and our self-induced nightmares of the skull beneath the skin.

Sam Austen has also mastered the eerie potential of celluloid and has two films in the Festival, Hologram Burnt Onto the Retina (2018) a powerful and poetic analysis of perception which I have reviewed in an earlier post and Run!! For the Present (2017) which features extensive deployment of dancing screened panels that have a hypnotic effect as they slip, slide, revolve, overlap and gyrate.

The panels with their uniform spots of light suggest both digital pixels or the analogue Benday dots appropriated by Roy Lichtenstein but also remind us that image we perceive as continuous must be constructed from discrete bits of data. The impulses sent to the brain from the grid of sensory cells on the retina lose their discrete nature as they are blended in the visual cortex of the brain. What starts as a digital input seems to look more like an analogue output when it is experienced. The reliability of this process is one we are entirely dependent on but our implicit trust in it is a dangerous conceptual trap.

Austen’s films use the transition from analogue to digital to reframe the question: what is the nature of visual perception? Barton’s film highlights that messy chemical celluloid degrades in a way that pristine electronic digital records do not. As we lose this appreciation our experience of memories both on film and in our brains will undoubtedly suffer some kind of distortion. Susan Sontag’s original and insightful “On Photography” published in the analogue 1970’s needs updating for the digital era.

Her central thesis is that the photograph is a con trick. While suggesting an accurate representation of reality it is distorting it. The still digital image has evolved through an increase in pixel count promising an ever expanding resolution. But this is an illusion. The pin sharp picture is not what mind’s eye constructs.