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Nativity

Martha Fiennes

2011

Computer. Moving Image. Single Screen. Self-generating (continuous)

Combinations of filmmaking modalities (on video layers) and AI

Image aspect ratio: 16:9 - HD 1920 x 1080 pixels

Contemporary interpretation of Christ Nativity

Generative, continuous (non linear) display of a moving image narrative.

Music and sound by Magnus Fiennes

About project

British artist and film-maker Martha Fiennes has developed a unique, digital moving-image, technology platform, enabling her to conceive and create a pioneering moving-image works. The first of this kind, a ‘hybrid’ system comprising combinations of filmmaking modalities and generative algorithms, is entitled Nativity.

 

Although rooted in the the film-maker’s preoccupation with narrative and the photographic image, Nativity far exceeds the boundaries of film’s ‘fixed time’ process revealing a unique new film vocabulary in the form of a self-perpetuating narrative of great intellectual depth and exquisite visual expression.


The pursuit of beauty is intrinsic to Nativity. Thematically the work is concerned with Christ’s nativity and there are underlying notes paying homage to renaissance painters (Piero della Francesca, Bellini, Jan Gossaert); to aestheticism and to the tableaux of Burne-Jones. But here the story’s protagonists are set against an ever-changing landscape of architectural forms and a striking display of stylised performance, featuring Mary as the focal point of the composition.

 

The work presents the viewer with a seamless, on-going unfoldment of a moving-image narrative. This is achieved by the creation of a considerable data bank of moving-image content alternative, comprising the “potential”. This is ‘reached into’ or selected in ‘real time’ via randomising algorithms coded into the computer engine which drives the work. All imagery plays out continuously to comprise a coherent, dynamic, self-sustaining, ‘narrative’. There is no repetition, though we do see aspects and events repeat themselves in differing contexts. Indeed the makers themselves have no idea as to what may next occur. The composite of figures, back-grounds, light, weather conditions and a great range of other detail all follow a continuously emerging “randomly” contracted configuration as the system drives the work to perform in ‘real time’. We might say that work is ‘alive’, in that it utilises its own “AI” (artificial intelligence).

Nativity marks the first in a series of works using the pioneering hybrid media. The technology was conceived by Martha Fiennes and developed with Producer Peter Muggleston and with MPC London and Existential Software.

Fiennes’ generative works sit in a prescient, evolving space between film, art and technology. In different exhibition contexts it can be viewed as film, or painting or a generative computer art. They are unquestionably the work of an artist who is pushing the boundaries of creative and technological expression across the moving image today.

Soundtrack

British composer and music producer, Magnus Fiennes, was commissioned to write the soundtrack to support the work. Following the same algorithmic principles which govern the choice of sequences and frames, the tracks are randomly integrated to accompany the work. The result is a mesmerising, ever changing soundscape which expands and re-contextualises the experience of the film. Magnus Fiennes has a history of collaboration with his sister on a number of her film projects. www.magnusfiennes.com

Timeline of Previous Exhibition Showcases of Nativity

Dec 2018

The Hermitage Museum, Palace Square, St Petersburg, exhibited on a 23 metre exterior screen

2018

Haifa Film Festival

2017

Palazzina G,Venice Biennale

2015/16/17

V&A Museum

Jun 2016

Sotheby’s, Bond St. London

Jan 2016

Sotheby’s Paris /Arts Arena

2015

Alternatives, Piccadilly London

Dec 2015

St Martin in the Fields

2014

Spring Studios London

May 2014

National Gallery, London

2011

Covent Garden London (8 week duration)

Martha Fiennes — Biography

Martha Fiennes is an award-winning film director, writer and artist. Her multi-layered work is now increasingly informed by technological developments and ideas in contemporary art practice while remaining resolutely the creative expression of a visionary filmmaker.


She has directed two high profile feature films including the sumptuous Russian period piece Onegin (1999) starring Liv Tyler and Ralph Fiennes. Onegin won the Tokyo Film Festival, was nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Film and won her the London Critics Award for Best Newcomer. Fiennes’ second feature Chromophobia attracted a star studded cast (Penelope Cruz, Damian Lewis, Kristin Scott Thomas, Harriet Walter, Ian Holm) and was applauded for its powerfully contemporary style and ‘icy and superb script’. Chromophobia, both written and directed by Martha, closed the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.


Fiennes is an active member of the UK film industry and has served on several BAFTA juries. In 2015 she headed the Film Jury at the Tblisi Film Festival, Georgia and in 2016, headed the Haifa Film Festival Jury. In 2017, Fiennes received a Woman of Excellence Award presented to her at the House of Lords.


Since 2011, Fiennes has been working on a new series of projects using a pioneering form of generative technology to create large-scale film works which extend the possibilities of film as a medium and art as an experience. The technological innovations used in creating her projects are ground-breaking and point to a new range of creative possibilities for artists working with the moving image.


Fiennes’ second work utilising the hybrid, generative media was commissioned and completed in 2018. Yugen features the actor Salma Hayek Pinault as the dominating visual presence. With Yugen, Fiennes takes this hybrid media to new levels of possibility and reach. See www.yugen.art


Yugen premiered in Venice during the Venice Film Festival 2018. A press conference and panel discussion was chaired by renowned arts curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in conversation with Martha, Salma Hayek Pinault and Magnus Fiennes. Yugen was subsequently exhibited at the Palazzo Grassi museum for several days. Yugen showcased at The Serpentine Gallery, during Frieze London, October 2018. As part of the inaugural Frieze LA,Yugen showcased at LACMA for a prestigious event hosted by Michael Govan, CEO of LACMA, Los Angeles, February 2019. Subsequent to the event, Yugen is to be acquired by LACMA as part of their collection. Yugen opened the Christie’s Art & Tech Summit in New York; June 2019 and was exhibited for a week at the Christie’s atrium, Rockefeller Plaza, NY. It was exhibited on the IMAX at Science Museum London, as part of a discussion about art and AI, Oct. 2019.

Editorial files

Creative & Technical approaches to Nativity 

A pioneering digital artwork by Martha Fiennes

A description of the self-generating properties of the installation, and the technology behind it. 

What is it?

Within the process, the image self-generates both randomly and perpetually; its changes unknown to both makers and viewers as it transforms slowly through a vast range of alternative pictorial content or ‘manifestation’. In this way the piece could be said to possess its own intriguing level of consciousness. The element of chance could be said to generate meaning in new and unexpected ways.


This is SLOimage™.

How does it work? From the technicians and coders...

The software is entirely bespoke and was developed from the ground up through a close collaboration between leading, London-based post-production company MPC and specialist, basement software company Existential Ltd.

Crafted in C++ and open GL the software uses a bespoke, highly parallel architecture that is capable of leveraging multiple CPU cores alongside the GPU (graphics processing unit) to deliver and composite several layers of HD video in real-time.

A bespoke, high-bitrate video format allows the transparency and colour information for each element within the composition to be encoded with crystal clear quality that exceeds even the best blu-ray video.


The seamless performance displayed on screen is the culmination of a three- stage process:

In the first stage a predictive pseudo-random algorithm decides on the actions each element will take. In many cases, much like a chess computer, the algorithm looks several stages (even hours) ahead, searching for an aesthetically pleasing set of performances. To make this possible, rules are defined that restrict which performances can occur simultaneously and sequentially. By varying these restrictions over time it is possible to slowly refine the options from a near infinite set of possibilities down to a single unique outcome (and vice-versa). This allows specific combinations of
performances to be orchestrated with millisecond accuracy without losing the spontaneity and uncertainty of the overall performance.
Having decided on the performance the second stage is then to prepare the data needed to deliver that performance. This process involves loading and decompressing the thousands of frames of video content for each element ahead of time so that each individual image is ready when the crucial moment arrives. 
It is accurate to say that simpler versions of this combined technology format currently exist but nothing of this scale, detail or ambition. The SLOimage™ Nativity has the some of complexity of a gaming engine about it but lent here to a unique artwork.
Artworks of this nature rarely use technology of this ambition and weight. The experts at MPC are leaders in their field and are experienced in working with the most current technologies on high-profile, large scale projects for the film and advertising industries. This is the first time their expertise has been utilised and harnessed for a substantial fine art piece.

The story behind the creation – why and how this idea came about

Martha Fiennes wanted to create and explore a medium that had the contemplative feel of established fine art forms such as painting and photography but that extended some of the limitations of those forms. Fiennes felt strongly that there were simultaneously creative limitations in the moving image world generally imposed by its commercial pressures and the use of traditional systems of process, content and distribution.
Inspired by a conviction as to the untapped creative potential within moving imagery, Fiennes used her considerable experience as a practitioner to begin to devise an idea which challenged the conventions of moving image editing in which images and sequences are ʻfixedʼ indefinitely.
Teaming up with award-winning producer Peter Muggleston and leading international post-production company, MPC (Moving Picture Company) and working alongside specialist basement software company Existential Ltd., the technology was subsequently developed by a team of highly experienced and expert media practitioners, culminating with the debut work, Nativity in November 2011.
SLOimage establishes its distinct place amongst highly established forms of imagery, yet offers unique break-out possibilities through combined technology at a thrillingly contemporary level. The concept of SLOimage™ advances and invigorates the moving image practice bringing it firmly into the 21st century.

Quote from Mark Benson — CEO of MPC

"It has been one of our most creative, technological, logistical and exciting challenges for MPC to provide the means for Martha Fiennes to create and produce her art piece, NATIVITY.
Working in partnership with SLOimage has enabled us to push our interactive installation code writing to another level and I am enormously proud of the MPC teams work and results that I believe has enabled us to deliver Martha's wonderfully imaginative, inspirational and creative expectation."

WHAT PEOPLE SAY

“In Nativity Fiennes is interested in the way narratives have been constructed, transmitted and committed to memory. Collective memory in particular has regularly revisited history and rewritten itself according to paradigms and beliefs in vogue at any time. Fiennes’ portrait of legacy and heritage is not specifically concerned with the past, rather geared towards the future, or more accurately towards the present.

In Fiennes’s work, the story of the Nativity is never told twice in exactly the same way and yet unfolds, evolves and ‘becomes’ continuously. In this way it trespasses the intrinsic frameworks traditionally associated with the art of story telling and also of the medium of film. The unprecedented degree of empirical and factual data accumulated in recent history have placed us
in a reality characterised by a wealth of virtual possibilities and choices, where realistically, no choice is ultimately the promising script for a better future. These are the legacies of modernism and postmodernism but the genius of Fiennes in this visionary work resides in her critical, unequivocal definition of the present, or more accurately the motion of the present: a perfect moment pregnant of potential, revealing in retrospect what it had in prospect”.

 

—  Myriam Blundell, multi-disciplinary Arts Curator

 

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