Gregg Biermann’s epic, computer-animated abstract video, “Material Excess,” examines the artifacts of consumer culture, using the structure of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” both as a formal device and as an overlaid commentary on the material. Like Dante’s poem, the video is divided into three major sections, “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso.” Each of these sections is subdivided into numerous subsections, most lasting less than two minutes. Each one is introduced by an intertitle bearing the name of a particular segment of the afterlife from Dante.
The animation is made with a digital equivalent of the handmade, handpainted cameraless film. Using the obscure “filmstrip” function in Photoshop, Biermann assembles very long collages of his visual material (junk mail and catalogues for the “Inferno” section, household objects for “Purgatorio,” and candy for “Paradiso”) which are then chopped up arbitrarily into individual video frames. The result is a constantly flickering whirlwind of color and form, as frames whizz by at a rate of 30 a second. In comparison to a handmade film, where the images change 24 times each second, the faster frame rate of digital video means that the effect is more abstracted. Identifiable objects and words leap out of the confusion in a more subliminal way than is the case when viewing handmade films. Biermann occasionally slows the frame rate down to 3 or 4 frames a second, so you can really get a (brief) look at the visual material from which the video is constructed.
In “Inferno,” much fun is derived from the intertitles, which match each section of Hell with a particular catalogue. (“The Lustful” is illustrated with pages from “Victoria’s Secret,” while “The Heretics” are represented by “Land’s End.”) The forms, colors, and patterns unique to each catalogue create the overall texture and mood of each section automatically, because of the filmstrip technique. This technique highlights the differences in visual texture of working class circulars, such as the one for Rite Aid, which cram as many items onto a page as possible, emphasizing the prices, and more high end catalogues, such as Pottery Barn, which have huge pictures, few items per page, and concentrate on evoking lifestyle and atmosphere. Biermann creates considerable visual variations on his basic technique by superimposing individual images from the catalogues, such as pairs of jeans which float serenely in the foreground, and by arranging the catalogues into varying grids which come forward, recede, or rotate. The extreme brevity of the sections and Biermann’s skill at creating visual variation ensure that these sections are visually compelling.
The soundtrack for “Inferno” alternates between silent sections, sections with a kind of computer generated, impersonal and random sounding piano music, and Sarah Markgraf’s amusing text which reflects on shopping experiences. The texts are recited by a series of computer-generated voices, which makes sense conceptually, except that it doesn’t sound very good. The mechanical voices make it almost impossible to focus on Markgraf’s text, nearly obliterating her very interesting writing. Biermann has not found a way of playing with the rhythm and timbre of the voices, or of adding more layers of sound, which would make them more expressive, in the same way that he added visual layers to the underlying collages of catalogues. The sound is irritating to no expressive purpose.
The collages in “Purgatorio” are made from beautifully scanned, enlarged photos of everyday household objects such as safety pins, keys, and scissors. On a jet black background, these objects jump forward with voluptuous roundness after the relentless flatness of the catalogues. The effect of the collage technique here is that the objects appear to be engaged in a frantic dance. Again, Biermann has created intelligent variations, exploiting the particular visual properties of each object (the angles formed by open safety pins, the holes in the keys) to create a large variety of visual textures. The soundtrack for this section includes much more expressive, human music (although a lot of it is dissonant and electronic), and human voices reading business and personal letters. There is one authentic voice mail message from one of Biermann’s relatives, telling about a family member who underwent emergency surgery, which accompanies a collage of razor blades.
An interlude entitled “Earthly Paradise” uses the same collage technique on images of flowers and foliage. It is startling, after so many man-made images and objects, to realize how deeply one has hungered for a glimpse of the organic. The subtle vibrancy of the colors and the infinitely greater grace and complexity of the forms fill a deep, human need. It also made me reflect that Marketing is a certainly a concept with an analogue in Nature. After all, aren’t flowers billboards for bees, urging them to pay for their nectar with a little pollination? It’s just marketing that’s more beautiful than ours. (Yes, I realize that flowers have a place in the Universe which is greater than mere marketing.)
The final section, “Paradiso,” unleashes the same animation techniques on beautifully photographed pieces of candy. The high sugar content of candy makes the surfaces reflective and prismatic. Some, like Chiclets, already come in bright, artificial colors. Others have been colorized by Biermann. Presumably, this shininess is caused by the same simple crystalline forms which make candy so seductive and also harmful to humans. It’s a pure rush of energy, too intense for mere mortals. The soundtrack here consists of New Agey music, the musical equivalent of candy, and Biermann, in a Monty Python Professor voice, reading a silly tract on the philosophy of Happiness. The text is actually quite relevant, as it highlights the American, highly individualistic conception of Happiness, the very thing which leads to the consumerist Hell of Material Excess.
The light, humorous tone of the video, in which the seriousness of Dante’s titles is playfully juxtaposed with the familiar trappings of consumerist culture, is a device, essentially a marketing device, to “sell” us two much more difficult propositions: a highly abstract visual study, and a critique of our culture’s Material Hell.
By alternating so rapidly between titles and short animated sequences, Biermann really does make his abstraction more fun to watch (preoccupying us with perceiving Bed, Bath & Beyond as “The False Counselors”), and thus makes the extremely long, rigorously formal and abstract structuralist film which is hidden within this film easier to watch. The video works, as many abstractions of this type do, by taking objects from our visual world, so overly familiar that we have ceased to see them, and radically shaking them up, forcing us to perceive them anew.
The video is also a serious comment on consumerism. The catalogues used represent one month of junk mail from Biermann’s suburban home. (I hope Biermann knows, as all Film Threat readers should, that they could reduce the amount of junk mail they receive by 90% by registering with the Mail Preference Service (http://www.dmaconsumers.org/offmailinglist.html). The American way of life, in which immense forests are felled to create mountains of junk mail, hawking completely unnecessary products to hypnotized consumers, which are then discarded to create vast cities of garbage, is indeed a Hell on Earth. The familiar, homely objects of “Purgatorio,” most of which are so useful that they do not even NEED to be advertised, have the virtue of having a genuine purpose. The junk food and junk music of “Paradiso” present a wholly ironic view of heaven. Perhaps the purest form of consuming, candy is food which has no nutritive value and is addictive, fueling more and more consumption.
The video suffers somewhat from being so slavishly tied to the structure of “The Divine Comedy.” Many of the individual animated sections are so beautiful and fascinating to watch that they feel too short (which is probably a good thing, since it leaves you eager for more) but, overall, the video is about 15 minutes too long. If Biermann took out the sections which essentially introduce no new visual ideas, would anyone except Dante scholars know exactly how many Spheres and Cornices there are supposed to be? The delicate artistic problem of the video is how to convey the feeling of the extreme Excess of Materialism, without making the experience of the video itself so excessive that your brain turns to mush.
“Material Excess” is a remarkable achievement; a powerful examination of our materialist culture, an abstract and formal video, and a funny and entertaining movie, all at the same time.