The Matter Of Electronics
1. Digital and Material
I would like to consider a notion that I have felt was intuitively true but have never explored in depth: that the 8-bit or “low-res” aesthetic of much contemporary electronic art can be thought of as a form of digital materialism. By employing the phrase “digital materialism,” I draw upon a specific term that has circulated within the sphere of avant-garde filmmaking from the 1970s onward. In this context, materialism describes a sensibility, most explicitly theorized in the writings of London-based filmmaker Peter Gidal, in which the physical materials of film technology are made visible within the work itself, and thereby become decisive components of a reflexively cinematic but predominantly non-narrative experience. Materialism reverses the usual Hollywood practice of hiding the mode of production so as not to disrupt the suspension of disbelief necessary to enter into a staged, fictional world.
One example of materialist filmmaking would be Malcolm Le Grice’s Little Dog for Roger (1967), created out of a home movie originally shot on an obsolete format, 9.5 millimetre film, that has the unusual distinction of bearing its sprocket holes in the middle of the frame, rather than on the sides. Le Grice transferred the original 9.5 millimetre film onto larger 16 millimetres, using an optical printer to shift the images forward and back and side to side, exposing the full shape of the frame. As viewers, we thus examine the original footage now less for its photographic content than as a physical object unto itself — a shift that is punctuated, in this case, by the source format’s obsolescence.
The idea of a digital materialism might at first appear to present a paradox. We have become used to imagining new media as quintessentially non-physical, virtual, immaterial. This concept may be traced back at least as far as Les immateriaux, the seminal exhibition curated by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in 1985 that dealt with new relationships of science, art and technology. One finds related vocabulary in Maurizio Lazzarato’s typification of the work of the information economy as “immaterial labour” (language that carries over into Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire ) as well as in the title of a 2001 conference at the Guggenheim in New York on archiving electronic media: Preserving the Immaterial: A Conference on Variable Media.
This supposed contradiction evaporates when scrutinized. The editors of the recent collection Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology have critiqued this longstanding notion as “the myth of the immaterial,” noting that “software for instance cannot exist by itself but is intrinsically embedded in physical data carriers. In other words, as stuff which may defy immediate physical contact, yet which is incorporated in materiality rather than floating as a metaphysical substance in virtual space”1.
Thinking about materialist film provides a workable parallel for a digital materialism, a means to appreciate new media’s corporeality. After all, cinema too has frequently been thought of as something without substance – a dream, a fantasy, a psychic projection, a weightless vision. Materialist film resituates the concept of cinema back to its physical, technological basis. In Against Interpretation (1965) Susan Sontag observes that the goal of the art of her time had gone from the aesthetics of mimesis or representation to the practice of subjective expression. Materialism adds a third mode of experience: the contemplation of and interaction with a recalcitrant physical reality, an objective world. Materialism is anti-solipsist, counter-transcendent.
Materialist filmmaking is sometimes understood as an attempt towards “pure film,” and therefore merely another iteration of the longstanding modernist interest in essentialism – the Greenbergian impulse that artworks should explore the constitutive elements of their given medium. But Gidal rethought this concept specifically in light of the Marxist theory of dialectical materialism. So as Gidal explains in his essay Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film: “The dialectic of the film is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality that is represented”2.
The primary concern of materialist film is therefore not simply the existence of the artwork as a thing-in-itself, but rather the quality of the encounter between the viewer and that object. It describes an experience of tension between perceiving the form and the content, the graphic and the photographic – between looking at the projected image, like the flatness of an Abstract Expressionist painting, or looking through it, as if it were a window, towards a “supposed reality.” In cognitive psychology, such vacillation is known as multistable perception. Ludwig Wittgenstein described a similar mental flip-flopping as “aspect seeing” in Philosophical Investigations.
A digital variant on this phenomenon can be seen in Gijs Gieskes’s Eye, made by outputting video from a Game Boy Camera using a mod of his own invention. Gieskes includes images of female fashion models, apparently from magazines, rendered by the Game Boy’s low-res capabilities into near-abstract arrangements of fat black pixels. In these moments, the contradictions between graphic and photographic parallel that found in materialist film. Like Little Dog for Roger, Eye encourages us to look more closely at the surface manifestations of an outdated form of media, made more visible to us than before thanks to the alienating effects of time on old technologies, recouped as a form of pleasure. The effect recalls an observation by Rosalind Krauss of “an imaginative capacity stored within this technical support and made suddenly retrievable at the moment when the armoring of technology breaks down under the force of its own obsolescence”3.
A similar quality can be found in the moving images produced by the VinylVideo™ project. Here, an analogue video signal is stored in the grooves of a vinyl LP. When played, the sounds from the LP are translated into a video signal by a proprietary digital processor, then displayed on a black-and-white television set. Unlike Eye, which employs and references a real artifact of past technology, VinylVideo™ combines two old technologies – analogue video and the phonograph – in a way that might have happened, but never did. It presents a counterfactual technology, a physical manifestation of alternative history. Here again we look to the image not simply for content but form: the occasional jagged diagonals that interrupt certain moments reflect the project’s fancifully impractical process of storage and retrieval. The “space of tension” noted by Gidal occurs between the unusual materiality of the signal and the video image it carries.
2. Seeing Materially
Eye and VinylVideo™ provide particularly suitable comparisons to materialist filmmaking because, like film, both use images originally produced by cameras. However, Gidal’s dialectic appears to be an insufficient means to describe a materialist experience for anything but photographic media, unless one expands upon his system. I would therefore suggest that a materialist aesthetic actually involves tensions between three possible modes:
(1) the technological index: seeing the image as a record, a mark, of the specific technology used for its production.
(2) the representational index: seeing the image as a direct representation of the reality recorded by the camera.
(3) form: seeing the image as a two-dimensional composition, as one would a flat abstract painting or other graphic artwork.
Here I borrow the terminology of “index” from philosopher Charles S. Pierce.4 Following Pierce’s use, Gidal’s “materialist flatness, grain, light, movement” functions indexically because these signs point to the existence of something that physically produced them. Pierce’s index is like a footprint in the snow or a scratch on a wall; it contains a readable trace of its own causality. It has become common in critical thought to talk about the photograph as an index, but it is rarely noted that photographs actually point to two sources at the same time: not only what was in front of the camera, but the apparatus of the camera itself. Consequently, we look at the images in Eyes and see them in three simultaneous ways: (1) as records of the Game Boy Camera’s particular processes (2) as records of objects placed in front of the Camera and (3) as formal compositions.
Thinking this way allows for a materialist aesthetic without photographic representation: it could occur as a tension between modes (1) and (3). Take for example the video Look & Listen by Mike Johnston/Mike in Mono, produced under the nom de band of the ZX Spectrum Orchestra. Look & Listen consists of a series of sounds and images made by Johnston with a ZX Spectrum, an 8-bit personal computer popular in the United Kingdom in the 1980s. Watching Look & Listen’s strobing stream of abstract planes and lines in primary colours involves no photographic images, but cannot be fully appreciated as merely a set of animated forms: we look at them as the products of an early home computer system with what now strikes us as an extremely limited memory and processing power rather than, say, mock-ups of the same produced in Flash, and would experience them differently otherwise. The same can be said for the work’s audio component: our knowledge of its process of production is as essential to the experience as the form itself.
3. Flash of Recognition
Returning to the example of VinylVideo™: its vertical lines of interference happen because of imperfections in the structure of the vinyl, scratches in the grooves. The very moments that indicate the specificity of the medium occur when that medium starts to break down, to suffer and reveal imperfections. The technology becomes visible through its failures. Glitches and errors constitute evidence of its origins; we see the material through disruption.
By analogy, both a random collection of letters or a repetitive string ask us to look closer at typography as form:
The incorporation of noise into music and the significance of this procedure for the 8-bit scene perhaps needs no explanation, except to note that when musical elements are experienced as noise, they do insomuch that they point back to the technologies of their making. A discerning ear can hear the specific limitations of the Game Boy or Atari 2600 or Commodore 64 when such technologies are pushed to create music. Less knowledgeable listeners will experience – perhaps even unconsciously – a feeling of “past computer-ness”, without needing to know the technical reasons behind that particular range of sounds. (It is significant that many of these works draw on technologies used for early computer games, since it is through gaming that we first develop an intuitive sense for electronic systems; their distance in time and link to childhood lends an inevitable emotional quality, a pleasurably bittersweet colouration.) Pierce writes that “anything which focuses the attention is an index. Anything that startles us is an index,” and we could apply this logic to audio-visual disruptions and noise. “Thus a tremendous thunderbolt indicates that something considerable happened, though we may not know precisely what the event was. But it may be expected to connect itself with some other experience”5.
This phenomenon occurs visually as well. Eat Shit by Jeremiah Johnson (Nullsleep), produced using an NES, shows the corruption of data on its audio-visual manifestation. An 8-bit version of Bach’s Minuet in G introduces stray notes over time, as a cartoony image of Bach (with a speech balloon reading EAT SHIT) becomes decorated with aberrant pixels of varying density. Again, it isn’t necessary to comprehend the exact nature of data breakdown undergone in Eat Shit in order to recognize what happens: one makes analogies to disruptions found elsewhere, when a videogame console malfunctions, or an electronic toy begins to break and fail. Bach’s aggressive exclamation creates a link to punk, and its scatological undertones might even suggest the masochistic recycling of degradation as joy.
The visual component of Paul Slocum’s Combat consists of images generated with a modified variant of the Atari 2600 game of the same name. At first the video appears to be a simple cycling through the game’s 27 modes of play, but as it progresses, the image begins to manifest glitchy alterations: the bi-planes and jets appear in ghostly multiples, then the whole screen partially mirrors itself in quadrants, introducing scrolling blocks of pixel patterns into the image, markedly alien to the original game’s graphics. Again, the exact nature of these alterations are not necessarily available to the viewer – has Slocum played with the hardware or code or both? – but we experience them as more than noise because of the apparent rhythms of their form.
Yet as part of the aesthetic, we intuit that certain elements must ultimately escape Slocum’s control: the shape of the entire experience may be planned, but the vicissitudes of its ultimate generation contain aspects beyond artistic determination. This recalls an observation by Stephen Beck, one of the pioneers of analogue video synthesizers, who noted that the “wide variety of circuit designs and processes” to be found in various systems introduce “an interesting dilemma into the realm of electronic images: How much is the image a product of the instrument rather than of the instrumentalist?”6.Those moments read as products of the instrument return us to a materialist experience.
4. Sensing Simulation
I will end with unresolved questions surrounding recording and emulation. Combat, for instance, is a video recording a live performance, now presented on DVD or quicktime file. As an indexical record, it points backwards to the Atari system that produced it through a chain of digital reproduction. But the experience of Combat as a moment of “pointing” rests on our faith in this system of reproduction. Other layers of questioning may be introduced through that process: We might wonder if certain artifacts represent aspects of the original event, or have they been engendered as side-effects of its encoding as a DVD? Similar questions arise when older systems are emulated using new technologies, either through necessity or expedience. As a corollary, consider this riddle: how far can sounds generated through 8-bit systems be processed and remixed before they lose their valence as 8-bit sounds? And why does this matter?
These questions become more complicated when considering work like the videos of Raquel Meyers. Meyers creates animations to accompany the 8-bit music of various other artists. One would assume she creates her videos with Flash, but they simulate the 8-bit environments of old videogames and other kinds of historical computer animation. So Follow the Red Dots, for example, resembles the structure of a side-scrolling jumping game like Super Mario Brothers, here imagined with a pixellated version of Minnie Mouse, befriended by a talking red dot. The mouse’s questions to the dot (“Are U a decimal separator? Are U a full stop?”) parallel the material indeterminacy of her images: we simply cannot not know if they were generated entirely by “hand” – that is, drawn digitally – or if an actual 8-bit system was used at any point of their making.
Maybe the fact that these questions arise is itself an essential part of digital materialism: not so much the experience of the obsolete system as a thing-itself, but rather the pleasurable need to test and affirm our sense of the obdurate physical realities of technology.
- 1. Marianne van den Boomen, Sybille Lammes, Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Joost Raessens and Mirko Tobias Schäfer, “Introduction: From the Virtual to Matters of Fact and Concern,” in Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2009, pp. 9-10
- 2. Peter Gidal, “Theory and Deﬁ nition of Structural/Materialist Film,” in Peter Gidal (ed.), Structural Film Anthology, BFI, London, 1976. Originally published in Studio International, No. 978, November-December 1975
- 3. Rosalind Krauss, “Reinventing the Medium,” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 25, No. 2, Winter 1999, p. 304
- 4. Charles S. Pierce, “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” in Justus Buchler (ed.), Philosophical Writings of Pierce, Dover, New York, 1955, pp. 98-119
- 5. Pierce, 108-9
- 6. Stephen Beck, “Image Processing and Video Synthesis,” in Ira Schneider and Beryl Korot (eds.), Video Art: An Anthology, Harcourt, New York, 1976, p. 186