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Archive for the ‘Ephemera’ Category

Ephemera // Recycled Images

In Art, Cinema, Ephemera, History, Image on January 12, 2010 at 10:22 pm

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.

Daguerreotype portrait depicting Joseph Plateau

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.

Three Frames

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…

::Terence OBrien::

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::

Jake Forney, "Horses Were Horses Before Men Would Ride"

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Insect Typewriter Companions

In Art, Cinema, Ephemera, Industry, Insects, Literature, Surrealism on December 27, 2009 at 9:28 pm

*Penumbra Report owes its creative genesis in part to the delicate midwifery of an anthropomorphic machine.  I was at Blue Moon Camera and Machine developing film and visiting my friend Christie Spillane, when my partner in slime, Lady Quackery, noticed the elegantly framed poster of NAKED LUNCH above what appeared to be a shrine / display of beautifully refurbished typewriters.  We became hysterical.  In a frenzy we rushed to the display and began typing on the mahines.  After caressing and groping each and every one of those beautiful machines, we tucked in our shirts, pulled up our stockings, fixed our hair, decided we had somehow descended into some sort of temporary madness, and promptly left the store.  We were mere feet from the car when that hot, typological fever took hold of our loins and dragged us back inside hysterically screaming until an early 1930s Underwood No. 5 was purchased.  It’s been true love ever since.

When most people think “typewriter,” they picture something much like the Underwood No. 5.  Why? Because this is the most successful typewriter design in history.  When the Underwood was first introduced, it was only one of hundreds of competing and extremely varied typewriter designs.  But by 1920, this machine, succeeded in defining the stereotype of a typewriter: a machine with four rows of keys and a shift, typing with typebars through a ribbon onto the front of a cylindrical rubber platen. This is the form that still determines our concept of what a typewriter is — or “was.”  The No. 5 was the quintessential Underwood.

The CURE for modern machine angst resides within. Does our disposable culture leave you worried? Fed up with squandering your hard-earned equipment budget on devices rendered obsolete before they are even broken in? Searching for a companion machine with which you might actually have time to become intimately familiar?

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::Blue Moon Camera and Machine::

In some ways typewriters are fascinating because they are the predecessors of the electric processors used today.  As Walter J. Ong puts it, “Since writing came into existence, the evolution of the word and the evolution of consciousness have been intimately tied in with technologies and technological developments.”  Although, the most alluring characteristic about these machines is that they can be seen not only as tools of a bygone era, but independent psychological entities autonomous of human will.  There is something inherently different about a MacBook Pro and an Underwood No.5.  The MacBook is like an inanimate terminal, sterile and often cold to the touch.  On the other hand, the Underwood is pulsating, arousing, virile… almost sentient.  It comes down to the feel of these machines.  A typewriter can be a guiding tutelary spirit or, contrastingly, a demonic presence or pet-like familiar.  The only difference between familiars and demons are the specific ways in which a familiar possesses an individual.  In contrast to demons, familiars do not possess the body.  They rather possess the personality, the soul, the human affective relations and the psychological processes of a victim, but the familiar spirit maintains a differentiated personality with those who attack.  Sometimes the familiar spirit entices the human spirit by appearing friendly and comforting when things go wrong, thus developing a progressive dependence on the spirit and the diminishing reliance of one’s individuality.  Akin to a mercurial spirit, the typewriter acts as a medium (think both senses of the word), that creates a vortex and tearing a hole into other realms.  It has magical powers because it is, in fact, a window — a hole in the wholeness of our world (which is never a seamless wholeness), through which our imagination may come in contact with the symbolic dimension.

The invention of the typewriter changed the course of Western culture, forever mutating the topographical landscape of literature.  Many authors and writers have had unusual relationships with typewriters. Friedrich Nietzsche used a typewriter in an attempt to stem his migraine headaches and his incipient blindness. Mark Twain claimed in his autobiography that he was the first important writer to present a publisher with a typewritten manuscript, for Life on the Mississippi. E. E. Cummings may have been the first poet to deliberately use a typewriter for poetic effect.  Jack Kerouac, a fast typist at 100 words per minute, typed On the Road on a roll of paper so he wouldn’t be interrupted by having to change the paper. Within two weeks of starting to write On the Road, Kerouac had one single-spaced paragraph, 120 feet long.  Another fast typist of the Beat period was Richard Brautigan, who said that he thought out the plots of his books in detail beforehand, then typed them out at speeds approaching 90 to 100 words a minute.  Ernest Hemingway used to write his books standing up in front of a Royal typewriter suitably placed on a tall bookshelf. Tom Robbins waxes philosophical about the Remington SL3, a typewriter that he bought to write Still Life with Woodpecker, and eventually does away with it because it is too complicated and inhuman of a machine for the writing of poetry.  After completing the novel Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen is said to have flung his typewriter into the Aegean Sea. William S. Burroughs wrote in some of his novels that “a machine he called the ‘Soft Typewriter’ was writing our lives, and our books, into existence,” according to a book review in The New Yorker (the image to the right is Claes Oldenburg’s eponymous sculpture).

Of course, David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Burroughs’ novel, Naked Lunch, is perhaps the greatest example of the morbid and perverse relationship between man and typewriter.  In the film, Burroughs’ typewriter is a living, insect-like entity (voiced by Canadian actor Peter Boretski) and actually dictates the book to him.

Onscreen Naked Lunch recalls both The Sheltering Sky and Barton Fink in its respective evocations of the life of the literary exile and the torment of trying to write. Mr. Cronenberg’s hideously clever contribution in the latter realm is the insect-cum-typewriter that supposedly assists Bill in his efforts but clearly has a mind of its own. Both the writing bug and the Mugwump, a man-sized and rather soigné strain of monster, are capable of registering their approval by oozing viscous, intoxicating substances from various parts of their anatomies. “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,” Bill is told upon encountering his first cigarette-smoking Mugwump on a bar stool in Interzone. “He specializes in sexual ambivalence.”

::Janet Maslin, Drifting In and Out of a Kafkaesque Reality::

Cronenberg and Burroughs share a biologist’s detached view of humans as species.  They view the species in evolutionary terms.  A post-humanist stance that visualizes man as being in a brave new denatured world of permeable boundaries.  Technology reaches directly into unseen depths, stimulating the ganglia and the viscera, caressing and remolding the interior volume of the body.  In this way, Kafka’s Metamorphosis of industrial man into primordial insect parallels the current transformation of mediated man into futuristic machine.

In this video, a robot re-enacts the typing of a love letter from Franz Kafka to Felize Bauer, in which Kafka makes reference to typing the letter on a typewriter and expresses the impact the new writing device has on his train of thought:

The link between insects and technology is not new. To quote Virgil’s Aeneid, “And now Aeneas saw in a side valley a secluded grove with copses of rustling trees where the river Lethe glided along past peaceful dwelling houses. Around it fluttered numberless races and tribes of men, like bees in a meadow on a clear summer day, settling on all the many-coloured flowers and crowding round the gleaming white lilies while the whole plain is loud with their buzzing.” The souls of the dead draw from the rivers of forgetfulness to re-format their hard drives and enter a new life back on earth. Virgil, the son of a beekeeper, makes the comparison between human and bee society throughout his verse. As in the Roman ideal, the world of the bee depends on the rule of a single monarch, and members are ready to sacrifice their lives for the whole. Insect colonies offer themselves up as mirrors for their human hosts. They provide a symbolic language for arguing between the needs of the collective and the individual. Like insects themselves, these representations mutate over time and evolve into exotic models of human behavior. McLuhan spoke of the mission of humans to ‘fecundate’ technology. It was a tenuous metaphor to begin with. Today it barely rates as a metaphor – more like a description.  The industrial nature of insects have made them the perfect symbol for the modern age.

Ladislaw Starewicz (1882-1965), born in Russia from Polish parents was a stop-motion animator who used insects and animals as his protagonists. Biologist, in 1920 he became director of the Natural History Museum in Kaunas. Inspired by the stop-motion animation work of Emile Cohl he began producing nature documentaries about the lives of insects, experimenting with the use of live insects at first and then the animation of small articulated puppets created with the carcasses of dead insects. His insects’ nimble gestures lead one through an array of human emotions, and to a heightened sense of sympathy and forgiveness. This may be why his insects and animals are so easy to relate to, and why they are so notably Eastern European.   Important author, had a great influence on the cinema of animation following up to authors such as Terry Gilliam and Tim BurtonThe Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) is a story of betrayal and jealousy, artistic struggle, with a bit of recursive humor too.