You can’t take it with you. At least that’s what they used to say. That statement may seem antiquated in an age of continuous cataloging and archiving. The internet is vast and able to hold more information than all the libraries and museums of the world. Furthermore, the information we carry is limitless; infinite knowledge at our fingertips that waits patient and dormant, ready to be called forth into being at any given moment. The more memory we store on data banks, the more the past is sucked into the orbit of the present, ready to be called up on the screen, making the past simultaneous with the present in a new way. But as three dimensional objects are collapsed and transformed into clean and discreet units of electronic information, we grow more and more nostalgic for the mangled ephemera of generations past… the wear and tear that gives a physical object that unique texture.
Ephemera is transitory written and printed matter not intended to be retained or preserved. The word derives from the Greek, meaning things lasting no more than a day. Some collectible ephemera are advertising trade cards, airsickness bags, bookmarks, catalogs, greeting cards, letters, pamphlets, postcards, posters, prospectuses, stock certificates, tickets and zines. One of my personal favorites are safety matchboxes from Japan and India.
The safety match was invented in 1844. Their safety is due to the separation of the reactive ingredients between a match head on the end of a paraffin-impregnated splint and a special striking surface, and the replacement of white phosphorus with red phosphorus. The exterior of the matchcover is usually imprinted with a producer’s logo, often with artistic decorations, or serves as an advertising/promotional media for the undertaking it is sold or handed off in. The ease of making matchcovers of different shapes also made them quite a popular cheap promotional item or anniversary souvenir. In an era of instant information access and viral publicity, logo-bearing matches may have the edge as ambassadors that convey distinction in their very physicality. Mark Nackman, owner and president of AdMatch, claims that “matches have universal appeal, and that’s the mystery — that one little package could resonate with familiarity, maybe beauty, and a feeling of value.” Frankly, I agree. My Grandma has a very diverse collection (in a fancy glass bowl to boot!) and that is where I first encountered their magic. It is the very banality of the ephemera that makes it so appealing. The idea of finding remarkable beauty in a mundane place; a physical artifact forsaken by the past and only truly understood with perfected wisdom of hindsight. It makes one feel special. And why not, ephemera is just commodified nostalgia.
The aesthetics of nostalgia might be less a matter of simple memory than of complex projection; the invocation of a partial, idealized history merges with a dissatisfaction with the present. As early as 1798, Immanuel Kant had noted that people who did return home were usually disappointed because, in fact, they did not want to return to a place, but to a time, a time of youth. Time, unlike space, cannot be returned to–ever; time is irreversible. And nostalgia becomes the reaction to that sad fact. This physical and emotional upheaval related to the workings of memory was seen as a “disorder of the imagination” from the start. Nostalgia, in fact, may depend precisely on the irrecoverable nature of the past for its emotional impact and appeal. It is the very pastness of the past, its inaccessibility, that likely accounts for a large part of nostalgia’s power. This is rarely the past as actually experienced, of course; it is the past as imagined, as idealized through memory and desire. In this sense, however, nostalgia is less about the past than about the present.
It operates through what Mikhail Bakhtin called an “historical inversion”: the ideal that is not being lived in the present is projected into the past. It is “memorialized” as past, crystallized into precious moments selected by memory, but also by forgetting, and by desire’s distortions and reorganizations. Simultaneously distancing and approximating, nostalgia exiles us from the present as it brings the imagined past near. Nostalgia sanitizes as it selects, making the past feel complete, stable, coherent, safe from the unexpected and the untoward, from accident or betrayal, in other words, making it so very unlike the present.
If the present is considered irredeemable, you can look either back or forward. The nostalgic and utopian impulses share a common rejection of the here and now. If the future is cyberspace, then what better way to soothe techno-peasant anxieties than to yearn for a Underwood Typewriter? But there is a rather obvious contradiction here: nostalgia requires the availability of evidence of the past, and it is precisely the electronic and mechanical reproduction of images of the past that plays such an important role in the structuring of the nostalgic imagination today, furnishing it with the possibility of “compelling vitality.” Thanks to the internet, nostalgia no longer has to rely on individual memory or desire: it can be fed forever by quick access to an infinitely recyclable past. That is why there is an incredible surge in nostalgia today.
Video Ephemera and Audio Ephemera refers to transitory audiovisual matter not intended to be retained or preserved. The large capacity and reach provided by resources such as the Internet Archive and YouTube have made finding and sharing video ephemera (past and present) dramatically easier. My own video work as well as that of many of my peers relies heavily on found footage and recycled images. An interesting correlation can be observed between pre-cinematic moving images of the late 19th Century and the contemporary rise of GIF art. Like their erstwhile forebears, GIFs transport the viewer into a dimension unlike anything we experience in waking life.
Sites like Rhizome, 8-Bit Today, and Nasty Nets dig through the deepest recesses of the Internet to find these oddball creations. Many of these artists go by aliases that recall the early days of message board handles and instant messaging screen names (e.g., Videogramo and Out 4 Pizza), and host their works at sprawling Web pages that are part portfolio, part art installations. Others opt to use their real names, and even occasionally find their works in respected galleries. Michael Bell-Smith, for instance, has been featured at the New Museum in New York. Many pieces of animated GIF art are abstract designs, while others relish in their dated appearance — incorporating ’80s and ’90s goth and cyberpunk influences as well as classic video game elements. Results often careen wildly from creepy and unsettling to oddly beautiful…
GIF art recalls the pioneering work of Eadweard Muybridge. There is something intrinsically haunting about Muybridge’s animations. The subjects of his photography experiments feel as if they are living fragments… two-dimensional ghosts, tethered to the frame, suspended in Hell, sentenced forever to repeat the same actions like the mythic Sisyphus. In 1867, under the trade pseudonym ‘Helios’, Muybridge set out to record the scenery of the far West with his mobile darkroom, christened ‘The Flying Studio’. He produced notable stereoscopic views, and later, panoramas including an important series showing San Francisco. His reputation as a photographer of the first rank spread, and he was approached by the President of the Central Pacific Railroad, Leland Stanford, to attempt to photograph a horse trotting at speed, to settle a long-standing controversy among racing men as to whether a trotting horse had all four hooves off the ground at any point. In the Spring of 1872 Muybridge photographed the horse Occident, but without any great success, as the current wet collodion process normally required many seconds for a good result. In April 1873 he managed to produce some better negatives in which a recognisable silhouette of the horse showed all four feet above the ground at the same time.
Soon after, Muybridge left his young wife, Flora, to go on a photographic trip. While he was away, she had an affair with a Major Harry Larkyns and became pregnant. Muybridge – an imposing figure in broad-brimmed hat and long white beard – discovering that the child was not his, confronted Larkyns, and shot him dead. Tried for murder in February 1875, Muybridge was acquitted by the jury on the grounds of justifiable homicide; he left soon after on a long trip to Central America. On his return, he took up the action photography project once more. Using a new shutter design he had develped which operated in as little as 1/1000th of a second, he obtained more detailed pictures in July 1877. He then devised a new scheme, which Stanford sponsored at his farm at Palo Alto. A fifty-foot-long shed was constructed, containing twelve cameras side by side, facing a white background marked off with vertical, numbered lines. Each camera was fitted with Muybridge’s high-speed shutter, released by an electromagnetic catch. Thin threads stretched across the track were broken by the horse as it moved along, closing spring electrical contacts which released each shutter in turn. Thus in about half a second, twelve photographs were obtained showing all the phases of the movement. Later, twenty four cameras were used; and lateral cameras giving oblique views. The sequences published in scientific and photographic journals throughout the world excited considerable attention. By replacing the threads with an electrical commutator device, releasing the shutters at precise intervals, Muybridge was able to take series of actions by other animals and humans, projecting his results in motion on the screen with his Zoopraxiscope projector. This machine, described by the Illustrated London News as ‘a magic lantern run mad‘ was basically a projecting phenakistiscope, with a contra-rotating shutter. This technology is the backbone of cinema.
::Muybridge text ripped and stolen from the work of Stephen Herbert and Brian Coe::