Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 11, 2008

sterling, format death.

Filed under: Discussion — lindsaybrandon @ 2:38 am
Tags: , , ,

after jacob’s presentation in last week’s class–and michael’s post about wendy chun– i was thinking about format obsolescence . . . and i ran into a speech bruce sterling gave at a computer game development conference in San Jose in 1991:

"As a digitized information-rich culture nowadays, we have
to artificially invent ways to forget stuff. I think this is the
real explanation for the triumph of compact disks.

Compact disks aren't really all that much better than vinyl
records. What they make up in fidelity they lose in groovy cover
art. What they gain in playability they lose in presentation.
The real advantage of CDs is that they allow you to forget all
your vinyl records. You think you love this record collection
that you've amassed over the years. But really the sheer choice,
the volume, the load of memory there is secretly weighing you
down. You're never going to play those Alice Cooper albums
again, but you can't just throw them away, because you're a
culture nut.

But if you buy a CD player you can bundle up all those records
and put them in attic boxes without so much guilt. You can
pretend that you've stepped up a level, that now you're even
more intensely into music than you ever were; but on a practical
level what you're really doing is weeding this junk out of your
life. By dumping the platform you dump everything attached to
the platform and my god what a blessed secret relief. What a
relief not to remember it, not to think about it, not to have it
take up disk-space in your head." 

Performance artist Nao Bustamante was on campus a while ago, and talked about a new project she’s involved with, one that archives recordings of her work–supposedly in perpetuity:

“Earth People 2507 is a video project that is part Public Service
Announcement and part time capsule. It is a message in a bottle to W [NB: i don’t know what that means] in 500 years. I am a cosmovideographer shot into space and time.

As a performance/video artist ideas of ephemerality come with the
territory, until recently. This year, 2006, I signed a contract with
the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics (Tisch School of
the Arts New York University) to preserve and maintain the video
documents of my performance and video works using successor technology
in perpetuity. In the Institutes words, “performances function as vital
acts of transfer transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of
identity through reiterated behavior. “ My original videos will be made
available to the Libraries for conversion and encoding. A preservation
master copy will be produced from the original videos to be retained in
off-site storage, Iron Mountain. Iron Mountain is a high security,
underground, and climate controlled facility protecting against natural
disasters and human threats for its customers, which include “all of
the top entertainment companies.”

i’m still wondering about issues of ephemerality, and vaguely excited about the idea that there’s benefit in disappearance as well as in archivization. in Nao’s case, maybe the proposition is slightly different, given that what’s being archived isn’t always her work itself, but a recording of it (although her video work, unlike her live performance already exists in a semi-durable state). maybe what sterling is getting at in a micro way–the blessed freedom of allowing yourself to relegate your record collection to the attic–has a macro presentation as well; for all of us, there’s a certain relief at being able/being forced to stop carrying the past and its old formats around, or at least at the illusion of being able to set them down.

someone brought up to me recently that Performance Studies isn’t full of scholars doing historical projects; in a discipline that values the performative–that wants so bad to look closely at the doing itself–the removed and partial texts history leaes don’t always seem very . . . sexy. which sort of lead me to thinking about format death as not only a corollary to the evanescent nature of performance, but a material manifestation of the truism that you can never see what the past or other viewer saw in/of any given performance; the lenses through which various consumers received or interpreted it are never securely knowable. our scurry to translate recordings–synthetic memories–of performance from format to format in order to preserve them is certainly about preserving the privilege of future viewers to create idiosyncratic readings of a recorded performance, but the drive also reads, in some lights, like a frantic attempt to standardize, to renounce evanescence and multiplicity in favor of something like “universal” access. which maybe isn’t so removed from a desire to settle, finally, on a definitive version–something not unlike a singular, authorized reading–and to put the rest of them up in the attic to keep company with our Abbey Road LPs.

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