By Mark Cutler
Director: Rainer Kohlberger
Runtime: 28 mins | Genre: Experimental
Rainer Kohlberger’s latest film, It has to be lived once and dreamed twice, is a kind of science fiction. Though it continues to develop a number of his longtime preoccupations—particularly with algorithmically generated art, and with visuals that strain the limits of our perception—the film has an unprecedented dramatic cohesion that makes it his most satisfying work to date. Visually, it is almost wholly comprised of waves of visual noise. Over this, a female narrator offers a winding, philosophical monologue for the film’s half-hour duration. I’m guessing these images were generated by machine learning reconstruction of clips from classic films, mixed perhaps with footage that’s been worked over with some good old-fashioned After Effects. Sometimes, relatively stable patches of color emerge out of the visual cacophony, suggesting a natural or artificial landscape. Other times, the shapes seem to writhe across the screen like elongated amoeba. Occasionally, they even coalesce into identifiable human forms—barely discernible, and only for a moment—before they are obliterated once more by tides of pulsating, striated noise.
The difficulty of discerning Kohlberger’s source materials was compounded, on my end, by the apparently heavy compression on my screener. When the image was especially busy, it often congealed into an array of heavily artifacted, jiggling blocks, destroying even the bright blue subtitles which accompany all of the film’s narration. Perhaps Kohlberger would welcome this additional, machinic disruption or interpretation of his film. Nevertheless, even in this form, the film was often entrancing. Shapes emerge just often enough and for just long enough to keep the viewer consistently tantalized, even occasionally letting them in on what heavily decimated source material they’re seeing. I think I managed to identify just three films: Ghost in the Shell, an early adaptation of Frankenstein, and The Matrix. (If I had to guess a fourth, it would be a landscape shot from near the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.)
These films are fairly representative of the register in which Kohlberger is operating. They are speculative films in which human beings actively develop a post-human intelligence, which in turn poses an immediate, philosophical if not existential threat to humanity’s sense of self. Kohlberger’s film, however, goes further by envisioning human intelligence itself as a kind of self-construction, which ‘dreams’ both its own form, and the fixed, delimited forms of the natural world, into being. The film is, broadly, a study of the development of such complex, (meta)stable structures from out of pure chaos, or ‘noise’ as the film’s text repeatedly and explicitly stresses. For Kohlberger, both life itself and (by extension) intelligent thought are, like his staticky worms, fleeting surface effects. Beneath this surface is the enduring and ontologically primary noise, a pure chaos of evenly distributed accidents.
Take, for instance, the ocean—a recurring motif in the film. The ocean is a constant source of literal, audible noise; it is always moving, always jostling itself, breaking rhythmically against the shore. But this apparent regularity of nature—rhythmically crashing waves combining to produce a steady background drone—belies the actual, turbulent chaos of the ocean itself. In this way, for Kohlberger, the supposed consistency of nature—typified by the apparent homogeneity of the ocean—points to a kind of transcendental noise, a confusing world without boundaries or orientation. The ocean is the place in which any thing, any molecule, can move in any spatial direction for any reason, or for no reason at all. While Earth’s landmasses cleave themselves into accessible and inaccessible zones—cliffs and valleys, ravines and plateaus—the ocean is beyond and in a sense prior to such demarcations. It was the ocean in which single-celled organisms, each following its own Brownian trajectory to nowhere, somehow collided with one another and started living together, as a collaborative entity, beginning the adventure of complex life.
It is this kind of precipitous transition which Kohlberger’s film aims to capture and convey. If the film’s narrator is, as Kohlberger suggests, an artificial intelligence which ‘lives’ sometime after the death of all Homo sapiens, then this intelligence has surpassed our own limited thinking in recognizing its own singular voice as predicated on an irreducibly multiple being. For Kohlberger, the ‘individual’—the isolable subject so vaunted by Western philosophy and neoliberal economics alike—is not in itself primary. It is never a “one”, but at the very least a “half of two,” as the narrator states. The individual mind “dreams” itself into being. It is another surface effect, like a compression artifact of a vastly more complex process which it can never wholly comprehend.
I will admit that some of the narration here veers into pretty unrigorous philosophizing, if not Hofstadteresque prognosticating. If the film’s narration were offered as a strictly philosophical text, I’d question its predicating thought on an irreducibly multiple transcendental structure, while simultaneously suggesting that this structure itself might be the recursively generated ‘dream’ of a self-referential mind. To oversimplify somewhat: is the material world a dream of the mind, or is the mind a dream of blind matter? These might be the two dreams Kohlberger had in mind when naming the film, but that does not resolve the circularity implied if one simply affirms both. The film itself does not seem to offer a resolution. It gestures vaguely in both directions, without really developing a satisfying argument for either.
Nevertheless, the film is a pleasure to experience. Special praise must go to Peter Kutin’s score, which does a lot of the lifting when the screen has dissolved into algorithmic static. Kutin’s cascading walls of sine waves and deep, squelchy synth tones give the film a sense of momentum, and even tension, when the viewer’s eye might otherwise be struggling for something to latch on to. Additionally, there are electronic chirps and scratches that could be heavily processed animal sounds. These details help the viewer to see what may or may not really be there, to discern the history of organic life, of intelligence itself, in what might just as well be clips from Hairspray or Get Him To The Greek. In this way, when the film’s image, text and sound converge, they convey the sense of the future Kohlberger envisions—the birth of Intelligence 2, perhaps even of a new nature. It’s a future hostile to some of our most fundamental and most cherished concepts: of self, of nature, of the boundary between the organic and inorganic worlds. It is, at least according to Kohlberger, one that decidedly does not need or involve our species at all. It is, of course, a dubious privilege of intelligence to be able to contemplate its own non-existence. As the narrator remarks, “being a person means being concerned that one might not be a person.” Thousands of films have sought to dramatize this concern, staging every realistic and outlandish apocalypse imaginable. They’re probably all here, too—mushed together, indecipherable, lost to noise.