Playlist. A Reader
1. The Golden Age of Dead Media
We live in the age of planned obsolescence. Thanks to Brooks Stevens, the American industrial designer who first used this term in 1954, we always “desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”1 We look for the new and don’t care about the past. We got so used to this consumerist logic that, today, even people become obsolete in a very short time – but this is another story.
The story I want to tell here is not the story of obsolete people, but that of obsolete media. Or, in Bruce Sterling’s terms, “dead media.”2 According to the “Whig version of technological history”, Sterling writes, “all technological developments have marched in progressive lockstep, from height to height, to produce the current exalted media landscape”3. In this rush on the new, some media were rendered obsolete, other were killed, other simply died; “some media shed a few dead species, but the genus goes on living. Other media are murdered”4. But when thinking about media obsolescence, don’t just think about your old, dusted Amiga mercilessly trapped in a box in your garrett: Most Windows users are dealing with obsolescence, because they preferred Windows XP to Vista. But will XP survive to Windows 7?
“My Powerbook has the lifespan of a hamster.” Sterling writes at the end of his text. “Exactly how attached can I become to this machine? Just how much of an emotional investment can I make in my beloved 3.000 dollar hamster? I suspect that the proper attitude [...] is a kind of Olympian pity. We are as gods to our mere mortal media – we kill them for our sport”5. I don’t agree with him on this point. Hamsters die – it’s sad but true. Media rarely die in the same way – more often, they are just sent to the garrett, the home version of the Elysian Fields. There, they wait to be brought back to the living room by that very emotional investment we made in them. If my Powerbook had a strong influence on the way I see the world; if, during its lifespan, it changed the way a wide community of people see, listens to music, interact with other people, etc., obsolescence won’t be a form of death – it will be, instead, the main gateway to eternity. The community will take care of the hardware, will emulate the software, will try to do the same things with other instruments, will translate the aesthetics it gave birth to into paintings. Just to make a few examples...
2. Reinventing the Medium
In other words, media obsolescence is not just a synonym of death, but it’s just another phase in their life. But is it just a feeling of nostalgia that forces us to go back to our beloved old machine, wiping away the dust and putting it on again? Or does the obsolete medium have something special, being the incarnation of a promise that was never exhausted, and of a possibility that was dismissed in the new releases of the same machine?
If we take this path, it is difficult to avoid what Walter Benjamin wrote about obsolescence and ruins. According to Benjamin, every technological process contains a structural ambivalence between its utopian and its cynical elements. The utopian element is present at the very birth of a medium, when it is only a tool in the hands of amateurs; but the bonds of utility, commodification and professionalism imprison the medium into an armouring, and only obsolescence has the power to release that utopian element once again6.
This notion of obsolescence has been effectively adopted by Rosalind Krauss in her seminal essay. According to Krauss, photography became obsolete between the 1960s and 1990s, when the average citizen came into possession of professional-class photographic equipment and the advent of cheap camcorders made video replace photography as a mass social practice. “But – Krauss writes – it is at just this point, and in this very condition as outmoded, that it seems to have entered into a new relation with aesthetic production. This time, however, photography functions against the grain of its earlier destruction of the medium, becoming, under precisely the guise of its own obsolescence, a means of what has to be called an act of reinventing the medium”7.
With the term medium, Krauss does not refer to a specific device, but to photography as “a set of conventions derived from (but not identical with) the material conditions of a given technical support”. According to this, James Coleman and William Kentridge8 – the artists she discusses in order to support her theory – are adopting outmoded versions of the medium they use (photography and animation), reinventing their medium as a whole.
Applying this theory to the digital medium is far from easy. Even if professional-class digital equipment is now doubtlessly in the hands of the average citizen, claiming the obsolescence of a medium that is still described as “new” is too much for this poor author. It would be really cool to be able to demonstrate that those artists who are using obsolete digital media as their main medium are reinventing the computer medium as a whole. But in the frame of this text, I would be satisfied enough if I was able to show that these practices are bringing to a new life technologies and aesthetics which belong to our recent past, releasing the memory of their first, utopian promise.
Another reason that makes Krauss’ notion of “reinvention of the medium” difficult to adapt to digital media is that they often are a conglomerate of media – a meta-medium, as Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg put it in 19779. Some of these media are means of production, but in most of the cases there is an apparently insuperable distinction between producer and user. And, as we will see below, the reinvention of the digital medium often consists in the appropriation of technologies of delivery – such as video game platforms – and in their conversion into technologies of cultural production. In other words, this kind of reinvention goes far beyond what Krauss described, declassing it to a simple variation on the postmodern concept of appropriation while, at the same time, truly releasing Benjamin’s prophecy: when a technology is suddenly eclipsed by its own obsolescence, its armouring – namely, it’s functional use according to the corporate sons-of-a-bitch who created it – breaks down and it releases the memory of its initial promise.
3. The Emotional Investment
In the first paragraph of this text we talked about emotional investment. This leads us far away from Krauss, and back again to Benjamin and his notion of the collector. According to Benjamin, collectors are “the most passionate people on earth”, original in their choices, able to turn their “low” pursuit for possession into a “high” desire for knowledge, and to “rescue” the objects they collect, redeeming them from their status for “goods” and bringing them into the present. On this respect, the collector is very different from the museum, which consecrates the object as heritage, thus confining itself into the past10.
Most of the artists working with obsolete media are collectors. But their approach to collecting is very different from that of the traditional collector, who has a sacred respect for the objects in his collection. On the contrary, they often use, modify, hack the objects in their collection. Of course, a medium is made to be used. But this approach is shaped as well by the hacker approach to technologies, which survives in the scenes of programmers which gather mainly through the Internet, or through dedicated, underground meetings. The scenes manifest their respect and devotion for a given technology using, and often misusing and abusing it. As Massimo Ferronato wrote back in 2001, for a scene “the choice is not that of adopting the most sophisticated technology, but of working in a sophisticated way on the technology, with a virtuosity that shuns simplification and redundancy, creating the best solution, the best programme and the most elegant code”11.
One of the most interesting, and of the best known, scenes is the Demoscene, a community of programmers that produce audiovisual “demonstrations” according to certain rules. Demos were first created by crackers as a signature inserted at the beginning of a cracked programme, be it a game or not; but soon developed into self-standing programmes, appreciated and distributed by the community for the elegance of the code, the beauty of the output, the fascinating way in which the limitations of the system used were bypassed and occasionally turned into a strength.
The Demoscene flourished between the 1980s and the mid-1990s, on machines such as Commodore 64, Amiga and ZX Spectrum: demos were coded in Assembly, a machine language, and both the music and the graphics were generated in real time by the programme. Practices such as ASCII Art, ANSI Art, chiptunes music and bitmap graphics found in the Demoscene an ideal terrain for further development.
In the following years, demos were made for more advanced machines as well, but the constant evolution of graphic and sound cards and the increasing availability of hard disk space deprived the Demoscene of the conditions that made it appear. No surprise that many sceners went back to their older machines, and that coding a demo turned from an act of advanced, albeit amateurish, programming into a form of retrocomputing.
4. Imaginary Solutions
It is exactly at this point that the passion of the sceners for forcing a limited machine to make unexpected things meets the passion of the collector for the obsolete and the passion of artists for imaginary solutions. At the turn of the millennium, some things happened in the field of media art that are noteworthy from this point of view. In 1998 Austrian artist Gebhard Sengmüller, in collaboration with Martin Diamant, Günter Erhart and Best Before, founded a weird company called VinylVideo™. The company designed a device that retrieves video signals (moving image and sound) stored on a conventional vinyl record, thus developing what they called a “fake archeology of the media”. The same year, the Russian net artist Alexei Shulgin reprogrammed an old Intel 80386 machine (386 DX among fans) in order to make it perform rock classics through synchronized text-to-speech voice and MIDI synthesis, thus creating the first cyberpunk rock band ever known; and his Slovenian comrade Vuk Cosic started working with ASCII images, releasing, among other things, an Instant ASCII Camera – which printed ASCII portraits of people on a regular receipt – and various ASCII versions of movie classics such as Deep Throat and Psycho.
All these projects can be described, in Krauss’ terms, as acts of reinvention of the obsolete medium, but in a way that turns upside down the medium itself. Vinyls are used to store video signals, an old, limited machine becomes a punk robot, and a form of image-making that was invented in order to circumvent the limitations of a text-based medium becomes a form of cultural resistance against planned obsolescence, high resolution and broad bands, the myths of a commercially-driven culture.
Around the same years, other artists and creative people were working in a very similar way with obsolete game technologies. In 1998, the American collective Beige started working on the 8-Bit Construction Set (released in 2000), a vinyl battle record entirely programmed in Assembly language and featuring music and software that can be played on Atari or Commodore 64. The same year Little Sound DJ and Nanoloop – two sound editors for the Nintendo Entertainment System – were released, and micromusic.net – the first online community devoted to chiptune music – was born.
5. Music as the Driving Force
What is particularly interesting here, I think, is the role played by music in this reinvention of the obsolete, digital as well as analogue, medium. Shulgin created a one man rock band, not a computer art star. Both VinylVideo™ and Beige appropriated an obsolete, analogue technology so far used to record and play music. Beige itself was a music ensemble, and even if some of its members – Paul B. Davis and Cory Arcangel – became well known visual artists, they both studied music at college. While in the Demoscene of the 1980s coding visuals as well as music were two sides of the same coin, in the chiptune scene of the late 1990s music took the foreground, while the visual research on bitmap aesthetics and 8-bit imagery became a side development, often at the service of the main activity – making visuals for music performances, coding video clips for famous 8-bit musicians, designing covers for music albums or posters for events and concerts.
Of course, music has been the driving force behind many shifts in contemporary culture. The leading figure of the neo-avantgardes of the 1960s was John Cage, a musician with a classical background. Music was the main activity of many artists participating in Fluxus; and music had an important role in the approach of many early video artists, such as Nam June Paik and the Vasulkas, to this brand new medium. In his prefaces to the Italian editions of Opera Aperta12, Umberto Eco pointed out insistingly that in the genesis of this concept played a central role his friendship with the musician Luciano Berio, and the long discussions they had when, in 1958, they both worked for the Italian radio and television company. More recently, the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud focused on DJ culture, suggesting that the DJ, along with the programmer, contributed to design the model of the contemporary cultural worker, a “semionaut” who produces original paths through signs; and, through the practice of sampling, contributed to forge a culture based on “postproduction”13.
Nevertheless, it is not easy to understand why music plays such an important role in the reinvention of the obsolete medium. Probably we have to point to a cluster of reasons, instead of looking for one single explanation. Of course, musicians and programmers work in a very similar way, and with a very similar medium, fairly ethereal and based on mathematics. Also, music is more “pop” and engaging, and is a better candidate than visual arts to drive a subculture. Maybe the sounds of the videogames of our childhood excited our imagination in a way that their 8-bit tiles and their psychedelic colours never did.
6. Playlist. Playing Music, Games, Art
Whatever brought music to become the leading force in this process of reinvention of the obsolete medium, the fact is that it happened. Playlist is an exhibition that wants to explore this phenomenon. The original show was produced end of 2009 by LABoral Centro de Arte y Creatión Industrial in Gijon in the context of their “Mediateca Expandida”, a format which helped us to move from the traditional art exhibition model, and to transform Playlist into a complex experience where people can listen to music, enter the peculiar atmosphere of an 8-bit music event, put their hands on the tools artists developed to make music and visuals for their performances, and that are often works of art themselves.
Relocating the exhibition at iMAL, Brussels, we worked carefully to preserve this curatorial model. while having to adapt it to a smaller venue, a new cultural context and a different target. For obvious reasons, the show focuses mainly on the 8-bit music community, its culture and practices; but it is also an attempt to reconsider these practices in a wider context, featuring, on the one side, some early examples of reinvention of the obsolete medium, such as VinylVideo™, Shulgin’s 386 DX and Jodi's seminal Jet Set Willy Variations (2002), a set of ten variations on the computer game Jet Set Willy, launched in 1984 for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum; and, on the other side, a couple of recent works dealing with media obsolescence and lo-fi aesthetics. The first is André Gonçalves’ Pong – The Analog Arcade Machine, a stunning installation featuring an old arcade playing Pong and a self made analogue doppelgänger entirely built recycling obsolete technologies, such as computer fans and various elements coming from A3 printers. Gonçalves, whose visual work often deals with recycling and DIY technologies, is himself an electronic musician, and he designed an analogue modular synthesizer he often uses in his music performances.
The other work is Tristan Perich's 1-Bit Symphony. Perich studied math, music and computer science at Columbia University before working as an artist and musician. In 2004 he started the 1-bit Music project, based on an 8KB microchip he programmed to play 1-bit electronic music, “the lowest possible digital representation of audio”. Then, Perich programmed the same microchip to control a pen drawing machine and various video installations collected under the project name 1-Bit Video (since 2006). In this work, the lo-fi aesthetics are not related with an interest in the “deep time of the media” (even if they are, again, a take against planned obsolescence): as many of the younger artists in the show, Perich belongs to a generation that, living in the Matrix, likes to peep at its digital rain of codes.
Finally, a big portion of the show is devoted to the visual art produced by members of the 8-bit community – be they musicians, VJs or whatever when on stage. This is quite a strange phenomenon, that a bunch of 8-bit music stars with a wide audience in their international niche are massively starting to make “art”. Of course, this isn’t a shift for most of them, who never considered themselves simply “musicians” and often worked on different platforms. What’s really interesting is that a more holistic approach to the medium is finally developing, turning the reinvention of the obsolete game platforms as musical instruments into a more complex exploration of the contribution it can provide to contemporary culture in general, in terms of aesthetics as well as social practices. A contribution that is far from being nostalgic, and is rather subversive and political. Because, as Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker wrote, today “freedom of expression is no longer relevant; freedom of use has taken its place”14.
One more reason to dedicate Playlist to Malcolm McLaren. Yes, Malcolm, I agree with you: 8-bit is definitely punk.
- 1. Cfr. “Planned Obsolescence”, in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (retrieved: 07/11/09).
- 2. Bruce Sterling, “The Life and Death of Media”, in Paul D. Miller, Sound Unbound. Sampling Digital Music and Culture, The MIT Press, Cambridge-Massachusetts/London, 2008, pp. 73-81.
- 3. Ibid, p. 75.
- 4. Ibid, p. 76
- 5. Ibid, p. 81
- 6. Cfr. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, Walter Benjamin – Selected Writings, Harvard University Press, 2002. See also Lucia Vodanovic, Rethinking Obsolescence: Appropriation and Reproduction in Recent Culture, PhD Thesis, Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2007. Available online at http://126.96.36.199/listGrantees/teses/t_E03D23802CL.pdf
- 7. Rosalind E. Krauss, “Reinventing the Medium”, in Critical Inquiry, Winter 1999, Vol. 25, No. 2, p. 296
- 8. Cfr. Rosalind E. Krauss, “‘The Rock’: William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection”, in October, No. 92, Spring 2000, pp. 3-35
- 9. Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dinamic Media”, in Computer 10(3), March 1977, pp. 31-41. Republished in Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Nick Montfort (eds.), The New Media Reader, The MIT Press, Cambridge–Massachusetts/London, 2003
- 10. Cfr. Walter Benjamin, “Eduard Fuchs, Collector and Historian”, in Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith, Walter Benjamin – Selected Writings, cit.
- 11. Massimo Ferronato, “The VX Scene”, in VVAA, I Love You. Computer Viren Hacker Kultur, exhibition catalogue, MAK, Frankfurt, 2002
- 12. Umberto Eco, Opera aperta. Forma e indeterminazione nelle poetiche contemporanee, Bompiani, Milan, 2000 
- 13. Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction. Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, Lukas & Sternberg, New York, 2002
- 14. Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007. Quoted in Seb Franklin, “On Game Art, Circuit Bending and Speedrunning as Counter-Practice: ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ Nonexistence”, in CTheory, February 2009, available online at www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=609. See also Matteo Bittanti’s text in this magazine, pp. 32-37