In the first part of the theme article on obsolescence, we examined strategies for preserving works stored on obsolete media. A device or product is obsolete when it is so old that it no longer meets the new demands of its environment and therefore becomes superfluous.
This second part of the article will look at counter-movements that deliberately resuscitate obsolete techniques. This backlash is supported by groups and institutions, but also by individual activists and artists, some of whom are presented here. We will do a panoramic pan across a diverse landscape, with examples and links designed to entice you to delve further, on topics such as media zombies, circuit bending, DIY, media archaeology and contemporary art.
Analogue vs. digital
The British filmmaker and artist Tacita Dean said in the catalogue for her exhibition “Analogue” (Basel, 2006): “Analogue, it seems, is a description – a description, in fact, of all things I hold dear. (…) the film image is different from the digital image: it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics, but something deeper—something to do with poetry. . . . I should not eschew the digital world… but for me, it just does not have the means to create poetry; it neither breathes nor wobbles, but tidies up our society, correcting it and then leaves no trace.” (“Analogue”, exhibition catalogue, Schaulager Basel 2006)
When Tacita Dean received a commission to create a work for the Tate Modern, she planned a 16mm film and was shocked to discover that in 2010 there was no longer a single laboratory in the UK that could make copies. In a combative article in the Guardian (“Save celluloid, for art’s sake”, Feb. 22, 2011), she started a campaign to save 16mm and 35mm film, criticizing in particular the decision of her regular lab, Soho Film Lab, to give up processing 16mm after being taken over by the US company Deluxe. Dean was not successful in this regard. But her work FILM, exhibited in 2011 at the Tate Modern, was all the more so. FILM was finally shot on 35mm instead of 16mm and projected as a silent movie on a 13-metre-high monolith in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. This was for Dean “both an act of mourning and an argument for the future”.
Do-it yourself – artist-run film labs
Tacita Dean’s prediction that the closure of analogue film labs would be disastrous for artists, coming at a time when demand was rising as more and more artists began working with analogue footage, proved correct. After classic film labs closed down or converted to digital services almost everywhere in the world, all that was left were artist-run labs. Many of these came about as collective initiatives in the 1990s in response to the introduction of video in film education.
Today there are approximately 30 such artist-run labs worldwide, most of them in Europe. Despite major differences in terms of equipment, and especially with regard to public funding, what these film labs have in common is that artists and filmmakers are taking charge of organizing their own means of production. In other words, it’s not a case here of facilities that provide a service to others but rather open workshops where filmmakers develop or copy their own films – after an introduction and for a fee that covers the costs. This is not for everyone, of course, because it requires both learning the craft and adapting to collective dynamics (… and sometimes also dealing with real nerds ;-).
Perhaps the most prestigious artist-run lab is “L’Abominable” in France (we reported in May 2011 on the problems it faced when its lease was terminated), whose staff is closely associated with the Parisian experimental film scene as well as with Light Cone and Re:Voir, among others.
In Germany, LaborBerlin e.V. has recently become very active but doesn’t run a film lab in the strict sense of the word. LaborBerlin sees itself instead as a film collective open to anyone interested in self-organized initiatives and specifically in analogue film practice with an experimental approach and a do-it-yourself character.
“Artist-run film labs implement an original way of using production tools, for their collective organization, for filmmakers and artists currently working with celluloid film. They act as an experimental ground for cinema (beyond any genre) at a time when the industry is gradually getting rid of film,” says the website of Filmlabs.org – a loose global federation of like-minded initiatives that came together at a meeting organized by Cinéma Nova in Brussels and which since then has maintained a lively exchange at festivals and conferences.
“More power to Super 8”
Super 8 no longer plays any role at all on the amateur film market. It has become difficult to find Super 8 film cartridges and to develop the films. Particularly in Germany and the Netherlands, however, there is still a small and dedicated Super 8 scene. Without this scene and a few activists who usually have acquired their own film lab skills and passed them on, Super 8 would today surely not only be obsolete but would have vanished completely.
One of these “epicentres” is the Super8 Reversal Lab run by Frank Bruinsma in The Hague (NL). Bruinsma used to help out at Studio Een in Arnhem, which was last run by Karel Doing. In 2000, he acquired a Super 8 contact printer and other devices from that lab and since then has been offering a whole range of Super 8 services in his own film lab: from selling film cartridges and renting out cameras and projectors to developing Super 8 films to, until recently, producing duplicates. Unfortunately, Bruinsma had to abandon the production of prints in 2005, when reversal film ceased to be available. There are alternatives, however, which can be found on the link pages provided by the Super8 Reversal Lab . Information about the history of Super 8 labs in the Netherlands, provided by Pip Chodorov, can still be found on the discontinued portal Cineastes.net
Analogue retro look in digital media
The most popular product offered by the company Digieffects is a plug-in for digital editing and image editing programs called Damage. The only thing Damage – currently available in version 2.5 at a reduced price – does is to simulate signal interference and picture defects. The Damage motto is “Glitch, Grain, Grit – non-destructively destroy your perfect footage!” But because we don’t want to promote just one offering: software as well as tutorials on how to make digital films look retro are legion. They are available for any image editing program and computer platform (see also the links below).
Originally developed to make the picture quality of old media look credible in film productions with historical themes or settings, the artificial analogue glitches that can be integrated into perfect, but always flat-looking, digital film images using Damage have long since become a cult trend. Not only film students but also reputable television magazine shows, such as “Kulturzeit” on 3sat (ORF/SRG/ZDF) in the German-speaking countries, can no longer make do without decorative film scratches or virtual dust in the projector window. This is probably not only attributable to the Super 8 biography of many of the “Kulturzeit” authors but also because the look of analogue media is extremely popular.
The imitation of cinematographic artefacts via a digital filter is downright anachronistic given that at the same time film archivists and software developers are busy developing algorithms that eliminate analogue artefacts and picture faults when digitally restoring old films. Using the same method that makes it possible to, for example, digitally retouch the streaks in analogue films, virtual streaks can be applied to digital images.
Digital effects were originally developed to iron out problems when shooting – such as telephone wires or antennas ruining the look of “historic” roofs – or to subsequently insert image elements, such as virtual flocks of birds or floods, to save money on the set. In classic feature films, directors today still try to hide these effects or to execute them so perfectly that they remain undetected. This is the “we’ll fix it in post production” approach. The objective is to maintain the illusion of analogue media, which are based on the principle of the photographic illustration. Conversely, the prominently implemented analogue effects in digital media mostly serve only as decoration (and are superfluous if they don’t have a deeper significance). Both strategies ultimately work according to the principle of an analogue palimpsest instead of acknowledging the specific characteristics of digital media and taking advantage of them in an artistically meaningful way, namely in the sense that the components of digital images are merely layers of one and the same data stream.
Dead media are becoming popular
Not only the look of old analogue media, but also the much more rapidly ageing “new media” are enjoying growing popularity. An example: to achieve the aesthetic of obsolete media, the filmmaker/musician duo UZi (Los Angeles) shoots their clips about the music scene in the Fairfax district with an old JVC Super VHS camera. Taking their cue from models like Andy Warhol’s screen tests and the snapshots in Harry Potter movies, they utilise the technical deficiencies of the camera to give their portraits a naive and unvarnished character. Viewers mentally transfer the deliberately deployed glitches onto the people portrayed, who, caught up in obsolescence, seem to crave the old days before the current hyper-accelerated cultural scene. URL: http://vimeo.com/user8575676
The vogue for retro-look and vintage items is demonstrated by websites and magazines devoted exclusively to buying or reproducing outdated equipment. This development sometimes gives rise to strange phenomena: a gadget was introduced in December 2013 on the website Retro Thing that looks like a Kodak Super 8 cartridge but contains a complete digital camera. Developed by the inventor Hayes Urban under the label Nolab Digital Super 8, the project enables old Super 8 cameras to continue to be used as housing: instead of a film cartridge, you just insert the Nolab and then shoot a digital film with a resolution of 720p and an aspect ratio of 4:3, using the viewfinder and look of a Super 8 camera. Nolab even has a switch for changing the look of the film between Kodachrome and Extachrome.URL: http://hayesurban.com/current-projects/2012/3/14/digital-super-8.html
In a similar category – one might call it “follies” – is an iPhone app that imitates the picture qualities of a Super 8 film. Called “iSupr8”, the application automatically transforms shots taken with an iPhone into a 4:3 picture format with the typical Super 8 gradation, rough grain and the corresponding colour space (URL: http://share.isupr8.com). The features include adjustable scratches, dust, vignette, and “film burn”!
But back to our topic…
More media have arguably become obsolete in the wake of digitization, and faster, than in any other historical period. It is perhaps surprising to discover that obsolescence affected not only the old, analogue media, but also swept aside with remarkable force and speed the only recently introduced “new media”. They had scarcely come onto the market when the new term “Media Archaeology” was coined to refer to a new branch of research in media history and media theory. According to Jussi Parikka, who published the book “Media Archaeology” with Erkki Huhtamo in 2011, this area of study deals not only with the exploration of alternative roots, forgotten paths and neglected machines in the history of media. Media archaeology also deals with practical repurposing in media and artistic practice, the do-it-yourself and the circuit bending that recycle and remix obsolete technologies. The main focus of interest is the aesthetic and economic policy conditions for technical media (source: http://jussiparikka.net/page/5/).
Recycling: an analogue medium as palimpsest for digital media
The German computer pioneer Konrad Zuse (1910–1995) established a curious link between analogue film and digital computers. At a time when analogue film was of course still far from being obsolete, Zuse found a use for 35mm films for his first calculator, Z1, and for the Z3, the world’s first freely programmable program-controlled binary calculating machine (=computer)! Zuse used the films his uncle retrieved for him from the rubbish bins of the Ufa Studios as punched tape, punching the commands for his computers into the celluloid films, just like the change-over cues for a film projectionist, and having the machine read them out in 5-bit code.
Zuse’s punch card films could be called an early example of a found-footage film. At the same time, they are palimpsests, i.e. raw-material carriers of texts that are reused for new “texts”. The filmmaker Caspar Stracke (Bonn/New York) made use of this connection as a fictional media archaeology in an installation for the 2002 exhibition “Future Cinema” at ZKM Karlsruhe called z2 [zuse strip] and for his eponymous short film in 2003. He got the idea from a catalogue article by Lev Manovich (“Cinema by Numbers”, 1999) on the exhibition “Contemporary ASCII” with works by Vuk Ćosić.
Fake media archaeology
Vuk Ćosić’s latest work, “Cuneiform ASCII Movie”, can be understood as a fictional palimpsest. Using a 3D printer, Ćosić replicated clay tablets with Sumerian cuneiform writing on which the characters are arranged so that they result in a raster image (from the film “Deep Throat”). Ćosić showed this and other works in May 2014 in a presentation at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen.
Ćosić’s work simultaneously reminds us of the durability of characters inscribed in analogue media – in contrast to the built-in forgetfulness of digital media. The oldest preserved tablets with cuneiform script, of which nearly 2 million have been excavated, date back as much as 5,000 years. Despite their incredible age, their text or content can be decoded, while the content on digital carriers leaves no lasting material trace.
VinylVideo™ by the Austrian artist Gebhard Sengmüller, which was exhibited at Ars Electronica and the Venice Biennale, among other events, is an example of repurposing and closing a gap in media history. Sengmüller has developed a procedure for recording black-and-white films on vinyl records. The image records can be sampled by the needle of a conventional turntable and viewed on a television set. Due to the low bandwidth, the films are highly compressed and only 12 minutes can be recorded on each side. What’s special about VinylVideo, though, and one of its unique features is that it makes genuine, manual video scratching possible!
To date 25 VinylVideos have been released with works by other artists. The records can be ordered from the Postmasters Gallery (New York) together with a home kit that is wired in between the turntable and TV. URL: www.vinylvideo.com
Zombie media – circuit bending
Taking the use of obsolete media a step further are artists who use defective and out-of-date media as a source of raw and found material for new works. This practice is known as circuit bending. According to Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka, circuit bending is “the creative short-circuiting of consumer electronics for the purpose of making new sound and image content”. (Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archeology into an Art Method, Leonardo No. 5, 2012).
An important aspect here is so-called “blackboxing” by the electronics industry, i.e. the increasingly widespread practice of designing devices and housing that cannot be opened or whose content cannot be accessed – a practice that exceeds even the unethical planned obsolescence, making it impossible to service or repair the resulting “black boxes”.
The work of the artist duo LoVid is an example of circuit bending. In their interdisciplinary works, LoVid examine invisible and intangible aspects of our contemporary society, in particular with respect to communications systems and human/machine interfaces. For one of their works, “486 Shorts” (2006), connections in the video card of an archaic 486 computer were short-circuited and the signal was recorded and edited into 486 short clips. URL: http://www.lovid.org/works/486_shorts/
Zombie media – repurposing
An example of repurposing is provided by the “Floppy Films” created by Florian Cramer, who transcodes feature films and copies them onto classic floppy disks with 1.44 MB storage capacity. The works he has transcoded thus far include “Naked Lunch” and “Slumdog Millionaire” as a GIF animation with a resolution of 7 x 3 pixels and an image speed of 8 FPS. A selection of the films can be downloaded as image file and in mp4 format from Florian Cramer’s website: http://floppyfilms.pleintekst.nl/.
At the Transmediale 2012, Cramer conducted a workshop on how to make Floppy Films. Some works, he said, turned out well, taking on the look of structuralist experimental films from the 1960s and 70s. But the workshop ultimately taxed participants’ patience, and it was decided to deal on the last day with the manual processing of Super 8 films instead (under the tutorship of Dagie Brundert).
Digital remix as artistic media archaeology
The British artist Vicki Bennett, aka People Like US (DJ, multimedia, animation film) recontextualizes “found media” in complex audio-visual collages. Her short film “We Edit Life” (2002) is about the history of electronic music and the assertion that the digital future will render humans obsolete. The film looks at how media history can be manipulated with digital technology. The work was commissioned for the International Festival of Digital Art in Sheffield, “Lovebytes”, and uses exclusively digitized documentary, industrial and educational film footage from the Prelinger Archive. Unlike conventional analogue found-footage films, “We Edit Life” is a picture-in-a-picture collage in which the material used is remixed in multiple layers into a new hypermedia whole. Just like in a database, the viewer can trace back the historical footage. Of interest here is also the analysis of the film by Danny Snelson . Vicki Bennett provides a link to download “We Edit Life” on her website.
Creative engagement with obsolete media is not only a field for a new DIY movement that is fighting for the freedom to appropriate socio-cultural production techniques. The experience of “new media” becoming archaic so quickly has generally led to issues such as repurposing, remixing and sampling taking precedence over the hype and promotion of a steady stream of new technological advances.
With respect to the cinema, the preoccupation with obsolescence is arguably giving rise to a re-imagining and a new assertion of the possibilities of outmoded media in an undoubtedly digital future.
In contemporary art, this development has already led to obsolete technologies or objects being integrated into works of art, indeed even to their use itself being considered art.1
on Tacita Dean
FILM (Tate Modern): http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/tacita-dean-film
“Save celluloid, for art’s sake”: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/feb/22/tacita-dean-16mm-film
Guardian review FILM: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/oct/10/tacita-dean-film-review
on film labs
Artist Film Workshop (AUS): http://artistfilmworkshop.org/
Filmlabs.org (B): http://www.filmlabs.org/
L’Abominable (F): http://www.l-abominable.org
LaborBerlin (D): http://www.laborberlin-film.org/
Super8 Reversal lab: www.super8.nl
Preservation Insanity: http://preservationinsanity.blogspot.de/
on digital effects
Mister Retro: http://www.misterretro.com/filters
Naldz Graphics (After Effects): http://naldzgraphics.net/resources/vintage-after-effects-templates/
Magic Vintage Effects (sound): http://pro.magix.com/en/audio-plugins/vintage-effects-suite/overview.1575.html
Pixel Film Studios (Pro16mm): http://store.pixelfilmstudios.com/plugin/plugin-pro16mm
Pixel Film Studios (vintage): http://store.pixelfilmstudios.com/plugin/provintage-plugin
Pixelan (film effects): http://www.pixelan.com/movie-maker/film-effects-pack-e6.htm
The Internet Archive Software Collection (vintage & historical): https://archive.org/details/software
Zuse family: http://www.horst-zuse.homepage.t-online.de/Konrad_Zuse_index_english_html/konrad_zuse.html
Caspar Stracke: http://www.videokasbah.net/zuse.html
on Vuk Cosic
on rescuing analogue film
Save Film: http://www.savefilm.org/
Filmerbe in Gefahr: http://www.filmerbe-in-gefahr.de
Restaumedia (Andreas Weisser): http://www.restaumedia.de/index.html
Guggenheim Variable Media Initiative: http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/conservation/conservation-projects/variable-media
on theory and research
Art Contemporain Obsolescence technologique: http://obsolescence.hypotheses.org/
Lev Manovich: http://manovich.net/
Machinology (Jussi Parikka): http://jussiparikka.net/
Media Archaeology Lab: http://mediaarchaeologylab.com/
Variable Media Network: http://www.variablemedia.net/
1Footnote: see also Matilde Nardelli, “Moving Pictures: Cinema and Its Obsolescence”, The Journal of Visual Culture, 2009