In Digital Tarkovsky, Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden (who publish, exhibit and campaign collectively under the moniker Metahaven: a self-described “studio for design, research, and art”1) present us with a rather curious proposition: might the writings and films of the famed Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky help us understand recent developments in digital culture? Where common sense would tell us that Tarkovsky’s meditative, “high-brow” art films have little in common with glossy Instagram posts and scheming algorithms, through a series of a highly amusing, yet ultimately unconvincing, developments Digital Tarkovsky recasts Tarkovsky as the lost prophet of new media theory. It is not that that there is anything particularly “Tarkovskyan” (p. 24)2 about social media – as the authors’ remark his “films are the antithesis of what can be easily grasped and shared in the online world” (p. 24) – but rather, in a bid to abate what I have elsewhere referred to as “digital scepticism”3 Metahaven reportedly turn to Tarkovsky while “searching for [their] capacities, in a digital sphere, to believe in an image (again)” (p. 26), extolling the director as a blueprint for the future of the digital. While it is unlikely that the text was written with a scholarly audience in mind, Metahaven are clearly trained in academic citation, drawing freely from a selection of scientific, philosophical and film/media theoretical sources and bringing them into dialogue with a mélange of references to cinema, poetry, internet platforms and popular culture. In doing so, Digital Tarkovsky adopts a playful and highly idiosyncratic approach to defending Tarkovsky’s relevance to digital media theory today. More curiously, the book is stratified by numerous “cuts” which, inspired by cinematic montage, allow the authors to switch freely between the rhetorical aspect of the text and a series of italicized detours that generally imitate the language of a film script while addressing the reader in second person. 

Time Out of Joint

Due to the text’s rather ambitious structure, and the recurrent presence of ambiguities which hamper the legibility of its prose, it is fair to say that Digital Tarkovksy is a difficult text to comprehend. For this reason, I will attempt to explain what I perceive to be the central arguments of each of the book’s three sections sequentially, before offering some brief conclusive remarks on its relative merits. 

“Part I: The Cinema of the Interface,” is perhaps the book’s most persuasive, yet least original, chapter with the authors making a sound case for the necessity of thinking what they call “the interface” (a term which would appear to refer to pretty much everything mediated by the touch screen display of smartphones) alongside Tarkovsky. Not dissimilar to the richly immersive diegetic spaces of Tarkovsky’s films, the interface, Metahaven argue, approximates “a new kind of cinematic Gesamtkunstwerk”,4 to the effect that would allow for “a fresh perspective […] in the context of the digital fragmentation that surrounds us” (p. 4; emphasis in original). In combining “the elements of image, sound, motion, interaction, and duration” Metahaven propose that both Tarkovsky’s cinema and handheld devices invite us to experience time differently, with the urgency of their enquiry put down to the fact that following the introduction of the interface “We are daydreaming, speculating, and waiting differently. Messages, push notifications, and social media prompts [have] become a new measure of our time” (p. 5). What interests the authors is not simply the hackneyed idea that such technologies have impoverished our sense lives by begetting impatience and instilling us with “cravings for updates,” but that the interface “enmeshes us in time intervals” which continue to exist alongside the more mundane rhythms of everyday life (ibid.). As such, they contend, “If the pace of everyday experience is dictated by digital updates, there is always a remainder of experiences that don’t obey this rhythm” (p. 9), and it is thus by making salient this “sloppiness of passing time” (ibid.) – or what the auteur himself described as “time-pressure,”5 – that Tarkovksy’s films remain relevant in the digital age, reminding us “how slow we still are,” (p. 7; emphasis in original). 

Here, we are met with a relatively straight-forward variation on the idea that digital media has amplified an acceleration in the speed of quotidian life, a feature often cited as one of the hallmarks of late capitalism. Subsequently, Digital Tarkovsky proceeds to take something of a perplexing scientific/philosophical detour by introducing ideas from Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Henri Bergson, Bernard Steigler and Gilles Deleuze (in that order) to forge a distinction between two incompatible theories of time: “A-time” and “B-time”.6 Whereas the former refers to a chronological and causal temporal order in accordance with which “Events appear to happen along an ‘arrow’ pointed in a forward direction” (p. 10), “developed in the context of relativity theory,” the latter “recognises temporal relations – ‘earlier than’ and ‘later than’ – but does not identify a moving Now” thereby dispensing with the irreversibility of time’s forward arrow (p. 11). Despite the fact that it is highly unlikely that their pantheon of thinkers would agree on the particulars of such a thing as a “B-theory” of time, Metahaven’s claim that “Cinema tends to institutionalise this limited, linear idea [of time’s arrow], and place it in a black box” (p. 10) may sound familiar to readers as this notion is also found at the heart of Gilles Deleuze’s cinema texts.7 Echoing Deleuze’s “crystalline-image”, Tarkovsky’s films are said to “intuit B-time’s nascent cinematic potential on various levels: script, storyboard, and actual film” (p. 12), thereby showing us how duration “could potentially be uncoupled from cause-and-effect relationship” (p. 11) less to help us understand than to “make us feel [B Time]” (p. 13; emphasis in original). This counterintuitive temporal mode represents one example by which Tarkovsky could prove to be the inspiration for “a yet-undeclared cinema of the interface” (p. 21); if the interface, whose logic is characterised by successive instances of what the authors’ call “the moving Now” (p. 10), is to be “interpreted as an undeclared form of cinematic editing” then a Tarkovskyan approach to the medium would presumably see something of that “thickness of reality” elided by the “relentless pacing regimes of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram” returned to our mobile devices (p. 7). 

A Cinema of Belief

If the first chapter stresses the disparity between the sluggish pace of Tarkovsky’s films and the dizzying temporal experience of the interface, then “Part II: Horizontal Gravity” seeks to arrive at a more precise definition of the auteur’s aesthetic, thematic and narrative preferences so as to make salient that which is always already Tarkovskyan about the digital. Here, alongside a discussion of the “strong sense of internal unity” (p. 28) of Tarkovsky’s films, which persists in spite of the director’s “dicey” approach to “cinematic storytelling,” (p. 37), the reader is introduced to the important motif of “belief”: a well-known thematic preoccupation of Tarkovsky’s films which has, in a different vein, found itself at the centre of debates around the credibility digital images for several decades now. Following the advent of CGI and, more recently, deep fakes, Metahaven recall what has come to be known in Film Studies as the “waning of indexical dimension of the image,”8 explaining that “The image… has become so manipulable in a digital age that its production value exceeds our capacity to believe” (p. 26). Tarkovsky, of course, did not live to see industry norms shift from photochemical image production to digital modes of image capture supported by pixels and binary code. However, although the director may well have “detested computers even before they became omnipresent” (p. 21; emphasis in original), Metahaven are of the persuasion that Tarkovsky’s drive to experiment with the limits of his own medium (which the reader need not be reminded is a technological one) could restore belief in the emerging media of today.

Maintaining a somewhat tenuous analogy of our trust in the image to our willingness to suspend disbelief when watching cinema, the authors’ proceed to introduce the compelling idea of “Soft Evidence” (p. 47), a term which is borrowed from a poem by Ariel Dorfman of the same name.9 Soft evidence is said to describe a narrational technique as a result of which “everyday events can reinstate a particular vision with regard to plot, without there being a specifically defined relationship between the plot and what is seen” (p. 49). Where Dorfman’s poem – which grapples with the realisation that the narrator has no visible proof of a loved one’s death – reportedly succeeds in confronting its reader with an “epistemic black hole” to the effect that “the missing becomes articulated in images that are unrelated to it” Tarkovksy is said to have echoed this technique through his iconic rendering of the ominous, yet enchanting wasteland in Stalker (1979). As the authors explain:

Rather than offering explicit visual proof of the phantasmagoria of the Zone, [Tarkovsky] inserted it as a key property of its entire cinematic space, shifting the burden of proof from display to belief, [and] encouraging spectators to internalise the Zone (p. 40).

In making us believe without seeing, Metahaven maintain, Tarkovsky’s cinema “presents itself as an antidote and rebuttal to the overabundance of visual ‘evidence’ – in the form of jump cuts, 3D animation, and more – that is key to many films in the digital age” (p. 49). Insofar as this technique does not necessitate analogue photography – but is rather an outcome, in this instance, of Tarkovsky’s treatment of diegesis – we see how Metahaven can claim that Tarkovsky “challenges the mindset of the digital age” (p. 55) while also exemplifying a “cinematic idea that digital culture has only latently realised for and in itself” (p. 24; emphasis in original).

What Is Digital Tarkovsky?

At this juncture, having reimagined Tarkovsky as a type of a cinematic potential which lies dormant within digital media, Digital Tarkovky’s final chapter, from which the book takes its title, sets itself the task explaining exactly which “discursive, and cinematic aspects of present-day digital culture” (p. 74) we should understand as Tarkovskyan. It is at this crucial stage of the text’s development that the coherence of Metahaven’s project starts to dissipate, with the authors’ using the phrase “Digital Tarkovsky” to refer to “both a phenomenon of time and image in the digital age […] and a style and filmmaking method” (p. 58-59). Subsequently, the chapter traverses a range of disparate phenomena, addressing topics as diverse as digital copyright law, photorealism, cinematic literacy and the “sentient electronic universe” (p. 68) of surveillance cameras and data transmitters whose machinic vision is said to “make visible films that nobody knew we were watching, or games that nobody knew we were playing” (p. 70). Expanding on this, Metahaven explain “The sense in which these seeing and sensing machines are digitally Tarkovskyan, though, is in the longevity and concentration of the shots, as well as in what they make visible” (ibid.), comparing the durational experience of space encountered when navigating Google Earth to Tarkovsky’s “long, tracking shots,”. “[T]hese machine visions” contend Methaven “are purposed to serve representational ends, they can be something else”, bringing into focus aspects of reality which would otherwise remain inconspicuous (ibid.). 

Here, Metahaven’s suggestion that the value of the digital lies the representational and functional ends to which is conventionally directed recalls Deleuze’s scathing critique of “the electronic image” which he judged to be “worthless in itself if it is not put to the service of a powerful, obscure, condensed will to art”.10 Deleuze was reacting to a military commissioned information network (an antecedent of the internet), with the philosopher highlighting the “potential fascist elements” of a cult of information which “plays on [information’s] ineffectiveness in order to establish its power.”11 Metahaven end their own text by voicing similar concerns about the uses and abuses of “Digital Tarkovsky”, seemingly negating their own argument for Tarkovsky’s relevance in the process by claiming that Tarkovskyan digital media “doesn’t result in pure art, but in massively scalable contradictions” (p. 74). And it is on this unexpected note that the authors chose to conclude by insisting that “Digital Tarkovsky” – redefined as “the discrepancy between the speed of and on the platform, and the speed of lived experience under the atmospheric omnipresence of all-encompassing computational force” – “is thus also providing a setting for what could be called propaganda,” by creating the conditions for “ideological distortion that is implied by a user’s experience of, and participation in, highly personalized media bombardments” (ibid.). 


Where Digital Tarkovsky set out with the claim that we need the work and thought of Tarkovsky to discover those untapped, generative potentials of the digital, ultimately even Metahaven appear to remain unconvinced by their own thesis. This raises the question: if the text is unwilling to deliver on its argumentative promise why do we need Digital Tarkovsky? If seeking to answer this question on the basis the persuasiveness and coherence of the book’s central claims, then the answer must be no: Metahaven’s rationales are frequently indeterminate and sometimes contradictory, and the book’s proliferation of twists, turns and cuts make it difficult to make a serious assessment of Digital Tarkovsky’s interventions (which is what I have attempted in this review). But perhaps, in betraying academic conventions, Metahaven have succeed in discovering an untapped “Tarkovskyan” potential in the scholarly sphere where experimentation with the form of research is frequently stifled in favour of hyper-legible, overdetermined thesis statements thereby reflecting the remanence of a value system, attributable to print culture, which has largely refused to adjust itself following the migration of academic publishing to the online sphere. Bearing in mind that most scholarship remains hidden behind paywalls, Metahaven show us that embracing the fragmentation of the digital means sacrificing authority and erudition in order to embrace the contingent possibilities of non-premeditated thought, such the thought generated by Metahaven’s textual montages, evidencing what can only be described as the “cinematic” ambitions of their own work.  

 Metahaven, Digital Tarkovsky (Moscow: Strelka Press, 2018).


  1. Metahaven quoted in their European Graduate School “Biography”.
  2. Digital Tarkovsky is an unpaginated e-book. The page numbers provided in this document are taken from the .pdf viewer.
  3. On the idea of “digital scepticism” see Corey P. Cribb, “To Believe in an Image (Again): The Politics of the Index, André Bazin’s Ontology of Sense, and the Antidote to Digital Skepticism,” Cultural Politics, Volume 17, Issue 3 (2021): p. 314-332.
  4. A German term, attributed to Wagner, which refers to an ideal whereby an artwork enacts a synthesis of all artistic forms and mediums in a single work.
  5. Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press), p. 117.
  6. The terms “A-Time” and “B-Time” are seemingly taken from Dennis Diek’s “The Metaphysics of Time,” European Journal of Analytic Philosophy, Volume 8, Issue 1 (2012), p. 104.
  7. See Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The-Movement Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta.
  8. Paul Willemen, “Reflections on Digital Imagery: Of Mice and Men” in New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative, Martin Rieser and Andrea Zapp, eds. (London: British Film Institute, 2002), p. 14.
  9. Ariel Dorfman, “Soft Evidence” in Missing (London: Amnesty International British Section, 1981), pp. 25-26.
  10. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, p. 265-266.
  11. Ibid, p. 269.

About The Author

Corey P Cribb is a PhD candidate in Screen and Cultural Studies at The University of Melbourne. With a focus on francophone film culture, his dissertation interrogates the concepts of ontology and sense in film theory.

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