One is the ghost in our minds of a past sensory experience and the other is a physical thing we hope can be a gateway to the first. Does the promise of preserving memories destroy them by creating an unmanageable clutter of infinite possibilities which merge into a cold immaterial surface offering no comfort and condemning us to anxiety?
We want to reclaim power over defining the topology of our interior landscapes. It involves art, hammers, digital storage, authentication, originals, blood, and an evening of fun with people.
“Slitscan” is the name given to a photographic technique that uses a specific type of lens using a thin and tall rectangular aperture that is moved horizontally to create an exposure. Instead of exposing the whole film surface at once through an iris, these lenses capture the light over time and across the length of the negative, like a scanner or a rotary printing press. They have typically been used for capturing very wide horizontal perspectives in landscape photography or group photos, as well as to create optical visual effects. With the advent of digital video, this process can be expanded on to generate surprising visuals which exist somewhere between abstraction and representation in a place where they feel both familiar and strange at the same time.
Digital video can be thought of as a cube of data. Each image is a two dimensional plane of pixels with X and Y coordinates, and these image planes are stacked on top of each other like the floors of a skyscraper. In this cube, a frame in the original video is the ‘XY’ plane at height ‘t’. In our building analogy, this would be the floor plan at a specific floor. What we usually think of as a slitscan is the Yt plane for coordinate X, or to continue the skyscraper analogy, a cross sectional slice of the whole height of the building. Ultimately, this cube of data can be processed, dissected, or remixed in arbitrary ways to the point where the name “slitscan” no longer makes sense. Video datagraphy is a more appropriate description of the process: making images from video data.
When we navigate the physical world, we use a constantly changing and always singular perspective to build a mental model representing what is around us beyond what we can directly experience at that moment. Though these models persist through time in our consciousness, we can never experience them holistically. We are bound by the laws of physics and can not ACTUALLY wrap ourselves around them. As a substitute, we look for patterns that can give us some reference as to where we are on that continuum: a heart beat, light patterns, seasons, music, speech… Tracking these linear signals informs our conception of space beyond our current perspective and anchors us on the mysterious expanse of time,
Storytelling similarly spans time and space. It draws narrative arcs that connect specific events lost inside an infinity of places and moments, and provides a scaffolding on which our understanding of the world is conveyed. Even though stories conjure up a god-like perspective above the physical constraints of our human experience which we can never directly experience, they unfurl in a linear manner that gives us glimpses of that higher dimension, like shadows of a 4 dimensional hypercube projected onto the 3 dimensions we inhabit.
The physical principles of traditional photography are similar to the way vision works in that they are limited to a single momentary perspective in space and time. Video datagrams look strange because the way they expose the structures of time is not physically possible for us but they feel familiar because we have intuited from our experience of time what they end up revealing in a static coherent image.
Just like marks in the vinyl grooves of an LP record are the direct physical imprint of a measured pressure wave that one traveled through space, the presence of silver on a tintype plate is the mark left by all the photons that hit it. We shepherd a series of physical processes and transform matter to create a unique, tangible artifact that will stand as an independent physical record of our existence at that particular moment in time. In an era of increasing digital ubiquity, relentless inquisitors want to reflect not only on what has been gained but also on what has been lost.
There is something profoundly human in the drive to make a physical imprint on our environment. We are driven to manipulate the physical world around us and make it hold something of us. We integrate ourselves into the universe by making our experience a part of that matter. The rock is hard, it’s millions of years old, and it was carved by someone at some point. When we carve that rock, we transcend the constraints of the the laws of physics that rule our lives and we have finally become part of the big story. We can die but we still existed…
We ask the universe to be the guardian of our humanity, and by universe, I mean “atoms and particles and time that form what we perceive around us, that we’re not even sure what it is, where it starts or end, that we’re made of but somehow feeling separate from…” sense. We ask it to provide a surface for us and the process of transcribing this incorporeal mental construct into a physical manifestation bridges the gap between our experience and the physical world. Then, when someone else witnesses this mark we made, it creates a continuum which we need in order to function in the great mystery.
An electronic record doesn’t support us in the way that a physical one does. By definition, it is not continuous. It systematically quantizes anything we feed it, regardless of its significance, and encodes it into endless streams of seemingly random on/off states from which we can perceive neither structure nor meaning. In order to consume a digitized version of something, we rely on a decoding process to reassemble the raw data in a way that creates the likeness of the original. Alternatively, we also rely on computing power and statistical algorithms to generate a signal that is altogehter artificial but that produces something we recognize as familiar. In either case, the stuff that holds the meaning is transient and immaterial; it reminds us of something but it is not that thing itself. As digital tools become more powerful, the illusion of similitude will become increasingly convincing but ultimately, it will never have the life of something physical. It may have a life of its own but it’s in an alien world of pure logic and without senses that we peer into through shiny devices and smooth interfaces; they lure us in with the illusory promise of infinite creative control but ultimately filter out all that is intangible in the world we actually inhabit. The machines aren’t able to transcode what they can’t quantify, the mysterious, the unexplained, the sacred. They digitize and represent the surface with methodical precision but they don’t capture the essence.
Especially if the power goes out…
Going back to the original question: why do I enjoy making tintypes? I love the fact that each exposure results in a single tangible artifact that frees you from the crazy-making tyranny of unlimited undos. You prepare the shot as best you can, you commit your actions to the plate, and you see the results of it. Then you move on… It takes purpose, vision, courage, and conviction, because you can’t “fix it in post”. It’s a truly magic process, too, specially when you dunk the developed image in the fixer and watch the positive result appear through a milky cloud. I call it the Harry Potter moment because it looks like a VFX element from those movies, except real. Also, the way we have been working, it’s a very social activity. It takes about twenty minutes from start to finish and people tend to gather around the booth chatting and observing the process, usually with smiles on their faces. We take our time, we experiment…
I had a great time today! I took apart my belt sander. It’s a basic Black and Decker model I got at Home Depot which I have been abusing for the past two years to sand and polish the cement pots I make. In the end, considering the time it took me and the fact that it only costs $50, the sensible thing would probably have been to go out and buy a new one. The thing is I am curious; I wanted to see how the pieces necessary for the tool to function all fit together into one design, I wanted to see how big the motor is, what kind of gears and pulleys it uses, and if there are any cool pieces I can use for something else or are just cool to look at. In the end, I took all its pieces apart, cleaned up all the cement and wood dust that were clogged up in there and, lo and behold, when I put it back together, it worked!
Hacking is a vital activity that subverts the opaque technological structures that exert increasing control over our lives. Extensive data collection empowers large corporate entities to profile how we fit into marketing models and allows them to decide what we should or shouldn’t have access to in order to maximize profits. Accompanying this are the prevailing consumerist attitudes which dictate that the broken item should be thrown away and a new one bought. This wasteful assumption is enabled by the orgy of cheap goods globalization provides us with. It sucks!
Opening up that belt sander represents my refusal to accept this status quo. Though I don’t particularly like the word “hacker” because it conjures up the image of a social recluse with questionable personal hygiene, impressive technical abilities, and a broken moral compass, what I associate hacking with are the creative endeavors borne from the spirit of questioning, exploring, and rearranging the prevailing attitudes and objects of our world. It attempts to figure out how something works, and whether the designers of that “thing” put it together in a way that attempts to control my behavior, and it further seeks to put that thing back together differently. The reasons for doing so can be varied: artistic, political and utilitarian, but usually a bit of all of the above.
Ultimately, I think what really compels me to open up a broken belt sander just to see what’s inside it is that it makes me happy. It allows me to experience a child like sense of discovery and excitement at understanding how something works and the happiness of integrating it into my own creative process. When I get lost in this process of disassembling and reassembling, breaking and building, cool things usually come out and it puts me in harmony with the world. It restores my sense of my own humanity. That’s why the name of this blog is relentlessplay; it’s meant to convey the urgency of keeping the spirit of play alive and well.