Michael Betancourt

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Michael Betancourt
Michael Betancourt, author.png
Born 1971 (1971)
New Jersey, USA
Nationality United States
Education Temple University, Philadelphia PA
Known for film maker, installation art, video art, visual music

Michael Betancourt (born 1971) is a critical theorist, film theorist, art and film historian, and animator. His principal published works focus on the technologies of visual music, new media art and theory, and formalist study of motion pictures.

Betancourt's father is archaeologist Philip P. Betancourt, and his brother is author John Gregory Betancourt. He spent his summers in Crete, Greece, working as a photographer on his father's excavation at Pseira. His first film exhibition was Archaeomodern, shown in the Ann Arbor Festival of Experimental Film in 1993. In 1995, his film a self-referential film in 30 sentences won a Director's Citation award at the Black Maria Film Festival.

Early life and education[edit]

Betancourt was born in New Jersey in 1971. He attended Temple University in Philadelphia, PA to study motion pictures, and then received an MA in Film Studies at the University of Miami in Miami, FL studying under film historian William Rothman. He also received his Ph.D. from the University of Miami in Interdisciplinary Studies, focusing on Art History, Communications/Film Studies and History.

In addition to scholarly work, he has written popular articles and reviews on art, art theory and culture for the Miami Art Exchange [1] and Art Scene magazines.

Visual Music[edit]

Betancourt has discovered that the inventor Mary Hallock-Greenewalt produced the earliest hand-painted films known to still exist.[1] However, these were not movies but films produced specifically to be performed by her earliest version of the Sarabet which was a machine for automatic accompaniment to records. This device was an early music visualizer of the type now included with computer audio-players. Even though these films were not designed to be motion pictures, they were produced with templates and aerosol sprays, producing repeating geometric patterns in the same way as the hand painted films of Len Lye from the 1930s.

He has also published a short monograph, combined with a large collection of short essays, pictures and other archival material about the visual music group Lumonics that was organized and run by Mel and Dorothy Tanner in South Florida.

Most of his other visual music-related scholarship takes the form of anthologies of technology patents, or reprints of earlier texts on visual music machines designed for live performance.

Formalist Motion Pictures[edit]

Using psychological studies of motion perception, Betancourt has argued [2] that the motion seen in motion pictures is identical to the motion seen in paintings. He terms this second type painterly motion and argues that both kinds are invented by the subjective viewer: "Unlike motion in the real world that is physically eminent, the motion we see in movies and through the technique of painterly motion is entirely a result of a human perception. The motion we see does not exist outside our perception." Work by painters Francis Bacon and Peter Paul Rubens present the type of motion effect identified by Betancourt as being psychologically the same as real motion of actual objects in the world.[2]

Betancourt's construction of formalism suggests a broader scope for applications of film theory than simply motion pictures since it focuses on both painting and experimental film. This approach was developed in his book, Structuring Time: notes on making movies. He approaches the motion picture as a series of distinct, but related domains of aesthetic manipulation: camera, image, editing, projection, screen, and sound.

The Digital[edit]

In a series of articles starting with "The Aura of the Digital," Betancourt has criticized what he called the “immaterialism” of digital technology, specifically the claims that digital technology ends scarcity through being able to create value without expenditure, unlike the reality of limited resources, time, expense. It is based on denying the actual costs of access, creation, production, and maintenance of computer networks and technologies. He sees the “aura of the digital” as both the capitalist fantasy of continuous expansion made possible by digital technology and as the anti-capitalism fantasy of a world without scarcity or need for capitalist production.[3]

The Aura of Information[edit]

Betancourt’s concept of the “aura of information” is the separation made possible by digital technology of the information and the ways that information is carried by technology. This idea claims the digital transcends physical form by separating meaning from the physical objects that present the meaningful information to its audience. It is the tendency to ignore the particular physical details of how we encounter information, in favor of just paying attention to the information itself.[4]

Digital Capitalism[edit]

In "Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism," Betancourt proposed that the illusion of a rupture between physical and virtual production posed by the aura of the digital can be observed in the political economy of the United States, most especially in the Housing Bubble that bust in 2008. His analysis states that Financial "bubbles" are an inevitable result of a systemic shift focused on the generation of value through the semiotic exchange and transfer of immaterial assets.[5] This economy is marked by several features: (1) a disassociation between the physical commodity and its representation in financial markets that is global in scope, (2) a reliance on fiat currency, (3) a financialization of the economy based on debt.

Part of this analysis is a discussion of the relationship between affective labor and what he has termed "agnotologic capitalism." Affective labor is the enabler for the creation of the bubbles that are characteristic of the digital capitalist economy. Where the reduction alienation of alienation is a precondition for the elimination of dissent. Affective labor is part of a larger activity where the population is distracted by affective pursuits and fantasies of economic advancement.

Automated Labor[edit]

Automation is a recurring theme in Betancourt's discussion of digital technology and capitalsm. In his discussion of the New Aesthetic, he argued that the transformations of production being created by computers and automated assembly lines belong to a larger shift in the digital capitalist economy:

The various artifacts brought together as the 'new aesthetic' are united by their orientation not towards human observation or functional utility, but rather by their invocation of productive values without human action -- the aura of the digital's separation of product from all that is required to produce it: labor, capital, resources. This transition point marks a shift from the fragmentation of the assembly-line where tasks are organized around the repetitive action of masses of human labor (itself an organization that implies semiotic disassembly and standardization) to an automated fabrication where the design is generated on digital machines and then implemented by other digital machines without human labor in the facture process; the necessity of human-as-designer thus comes into question as it is the only aspect of non-machine agency remaining, an element whose necessity is challenged by evolutionary algorithms and automated design.[6]

The replacement of human labor by automation poses a problem for capitalism according to Betancourt, because capitalism is dependent on the exchange of labor for wages that are then spend purchasing the production of that labor. With the elimination of labor by computer automation in what Betancourt has termed the law of automation:

Anything that can be automated, will be.[7]

Following the automation of physical production, the transformation of formerly intellectual labor by "autonomous production that began as a 'labor-saving' procedure now saves all human labor in/as the productive machine: it is this specific dimension of automated (immaterial) labor using digital technology that reflects an ideology of production-without-consumption."[8] The elimination of labor by automated labor presents a paradox for Betancourt's digital capitalism because the wages paid to workers for their labor is the basic element around which all of capitalism is built.

As Artist[edit]

Betancourt is a video maker whose movies are usually abstract and belong to the tradition of visual music. He has claimed these videos are related to his work as a theorist. [3] He has been exhibiting his work since 1992 when Archaeomodern screened at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, since then he has produced many videos that have screened on television, in festivals, galleries and museums.

He has described his video Telemetry as a "documentary whose subject is those things that fall outside our direct perception. It adopts an abstract form precisely because what is represented has no direct physical form...instead our electronic intermediaries, satellite and deep space probes, send back numerical data we interpret intellectually to understand what it is like in those places we cannot go, what those things we cannot see look like." [4]

The Experimental TV Center's Video History Project has a biography. [9]

Notable Works[edit]


Free Art Project[edit]

In 1999, Betancourt created a "project" that invited artists to release their art using a license modeled after software licenses. This project was a forerunner to the Creative Commons public licenses. [7]

Aesthetic Hazard Project[edit]

Betancourt's Aesthetic Hazard is a public installation project that imitates the more common barrier tapes marked "Caution" or "Police Line - Do Not Cross," but instead states: Aesthetic Hazard--Do Not Look. He has installed this project in a variety of locations in Miami and Chicago. website[10][11]


  • Glitch: Designing Imperfection, eds. Iman Moradi, Ant Scott, Joe Gilmore, Christopher Murphy, Mark Batty Publisher, 2009, ISBN 0979966663
  • Stickers: Stuck-Up Piece of Crap: From Punk Rock to Contemporary Art, eds. DB Burkeman, Monica LoCascio, Rizzoli, 2010, ISBN 0789320819
  • 100 Artists' Manifestos, ed. Alex Danchev, Penguin Books, 2011, ISBN 0141191791



  • Two Women and a Nightengale: a novel in collage, 2004
  • Structuring Time, 2004, second edition, 2009
  • Re–Viewing Miami, 2004
  • Visual Music Instrument Patents (Volume 1), 2004
  • The Lumonics Theater, 2005
  • Mary Hallock–Greenewalt: The Complete Patents, 2005
  • Thomas Wilfred’s Clavilux, 2006
  • Jose Parla, Walls, Diaries, Paintings, 2011
  • The History of Motion Graphics: From Avant-Garde to Industry in the United States, 2013
  • The Critique of Digital Capitalism, 2015
  • Beyond Spatial Montage: Windowing, or the Cinematic Displacement of Time, Motion and Space, 2016


  • Educating Buffy: The Role of Education in Buffy the Vampire–Slayer, Transylvanian Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, 1998 [8]
  • Chance Operations / Limiting Frameworks: Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions, Tout-Fait, 2002 [9]
  • Disruptive Technology: The Avant-Gardness of Avant-Garde Art, CTheory, 2002 [10]
  • Motion Perception in Movies and Painting: Towards a New Kinetic Art, CTheory, 2002 [11]
  • Precision Optics / Optical Illusions: Inconsistency, Anemic Cinema, and the Rotoreliefs, Tout-Fait, 2003 [12]
  • Labor/Commodity/Automation: A Response to "The Digital Death Rattle of the American Middle Class", CTheory, 2004 [13]
  • Serial Form as Entertainment and Interpretative Framework: Probability and the 'Black Box' of Past Experience, Semiotica, issue 157, vols. 1-4, 2005
  • Paranoiac-Criticism, Salvador Dalí, Arcimboldo and Superposition in Interpreting Double Images, Conscious, Literature and the Arts, vol. 6, no. 3, December 2005
  • Mary Hallock-Greenewalt's Abstract Films, Millennium Film Journal, no. 45/46, Fall 2006
  • Abstract Film Palimpsests: On the Work of Rey Parla, Bright Lights Film Journal, 2006 [14]
  • The Aura of the Digital, CTheory, 2006 [15]
  • Same As It Ever Was - Acts of Digital Re-Authoring, VJTheory, 2006 [16]
  • Proposing a Taxonomy of Abstract Form Using Psychological Studies of Synaesthesia / Hallucinations as a Foundation, Leonardo, vol. 40, no. 1, February 2007
  • The Valorization of the Author, Hz, 2007 [17]
  • The Valorized Artist: Incorporation into the Perpetual Art Machine, Bright Lights Film Journal, 2007 [18]
  • Synchronous Form in Visual Music, Offscreen, vol. 11, nos. 8-9 Aug/Sept 2007 [19]
  • Wallpaper and/as Art, Vague Terrain 09: The Rise of the VJ, 1 March 2008 [20]
  • Intellectual Process, Visceral Result: Human Agency and the Production of Artworks via Automated Technology, Journal of Visual Art Practice, Vol. 7 no. 1, 2008
  • The State of Information, CTheory, 2009 [21]
  • Technesthesia and Synaesthesia, Vague Terrain, 9 February 2009 [22]
  • Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism, CTheory, 2010 [23]
  • The Birth of Sampling, Vague Terrain, 2011 [24]
  • Automated Labor: The New Aesthetic and Immaterial Physicality, CTheory, 2013 [25]
  • The Demands of Agnotology::Surveillance, CTheory, 2014 [26]
  • Critical Glitches and Glitch Art, Hz, 2014 [27]
  • The Limits of Utility, CTheory, 2015 [28]

Exhibition Catalogs[edit]

  • José Parlá, Adaptation / Translation, Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, London, 2008
  • Rostarr, Oculus Velocitas, Il Trifoglio Nero, Genova, Italy, 2009

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Academic Commentary on Work[edit]


  1. ^ “Mary Hallock–Greenewalt’s Abstract Films,” Millennium Film Journal, no. 45/46 “Hybrids,” Fall 2006; illustrations provided by a Drake University Center for the Humanities Grant, 2005
  2. ^ Zoï Kapoula and Louis-José Lestocart, Space and motion perception evoked by the painting “Study of a dog” of Francis Bacon, intellectica 2006/2, n° 44: Systèmes d’aide: Enjeux pour les technologies cognitives, pp. 215-226
  3. ^ Michael Betancourt, The Aura of the Digital, CTheory, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=519
  4. ^ Michael Betancourt, The State of Information, CTheory, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=611
  5. ^ "Immaterial Value and Scarcity in Digital Capitalism", CTheory, Theory Beyond the Codes: tbc002, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=652
  6. ^ "Automated Labor: The 'New Aesthetic' and Immaterial Physicality", CTheory, Theory Beyond the Codes: tbc048, http://ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=717
  7. ^ "Automated Labor: The 'New Aesthetic' and Immaterial Physicality", CTheory, Theory Beyond the Codes: tbc048, http://ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=717
  8. ^ "Automated Labor: The 'New Aesthetic' and Immaterial Physicality", CTheory, Theory Beyond the Codes: tbc048, http://ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=717
  9. ^ Michael Betancourt's work can be found in the Experimental Television Center's Repository in the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, Cornell University Library
  10. ^ ArtThrob #69
  11. ^ Aesthetic Hazard—Do Not Look: A Must See, Elizabeth Hall, Miami Art Exchange