Video Datagraphy

Art, Collection, Photons, Thoughts

The word “slitscan” is originally the name given to a specific type of photographic lens that uses 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 quite a bit to generate surprising visuals which end up in a place between abstraction and representation where they can 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 even 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 structure 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 our experience on the mysterious expanse of time,

Storytelling similarly spans time and space. It paints narrative arcs that connect specific events lost inside an infinity of places and moments, and provide 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, they are typically linear in nature. Like the 3 dimensional shadows of a 4 dimensional hypercube we can never actually experience directly, or like the chained humanity in Plato’s cave watching shadows on the wall, they only hint at the existence of a greater context. There is an unfolding that happens and reveals a new dimension. The Tapestry of Bayeux is a wonderful example of this linear visual rhythm that unfolds on a timeline, and its horizontal shape is unsurprisingly similar to video datagraphs which represent samples of time and place on a two dimensional surface.

The physical principles of traditional photography are similar to the way vision works in that it is limited to a moment in space and time, and they actually do so 24 times a second in film. These space time video samples do not share these limitations. They feel alien because the process that reveals their hidden structures is not physically achievable for humans but they feel familiar because we have intuited them mentally from how we have experienced what they are representing.


Tintype Photography, Part 2

Art, Thoughts

Just like the patterns in the grooves of vinyl are the direct physical imprint of a pressure wave traveling 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 in order to transform matter and create a unique, tangible artifact that will stand as an independent physical record of who we are. It is no surprise that in an era of increasing digital ubiquity, relentless inquisitors want to reflect not only on what we have gained but also on what we have lost.

Matter matters

There is something profoundly human in the drive to make a physical imprint on the world around us. I’m guessing that humanity started scratching patterns in the sand around the time that it acquired language. We are driven to modify matter and make it hold something of us, and once we have done that, this matter becomes a neutral witness of our experience. It holds a record of everything that went into its state. On the one hand, the medium speaks of its own physical attributes: rock is hard but it can be carved and polished and lasts centuries. Paints can be spread around in different ways to change the color of a surface, and they are delicate and can be damaged over time. It also speaks of the experience of those who took on the task of shaping it: their culture and language, as well as their motivation.
When we make something, we are asking the universe to hold something of us. And when I say “universe”, I don’t mean it in the vague agnostic sense. I mean it in the “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 shape matter and make it speak in some way about what it feels like to be us, and that transformation from an incorporeal mental construct into a physical manifestation bridges the gap between our experience and the physical world. When someone later comes in contact with this mark we made, they become part of the continuum. Imagine you discover some petroglyphs somewhere out in the desert. I suspect you will instinctively want to touch them, and that will directly connect you to the person who carved them. Depending where you fall in the spiritual spectrum, you can see this as a quest for oneness or an attempt to establish a foothold in an uncaring world, but either way, it affirms that “we exist”.

Bytes bite

An electronic record doesn’t support us in the way that a physical one does. It systematically pulverizes 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. Also, in order to consume that digitally “captured” version of something, we rely on a decoding process to reassemble the raw data in a way that creates the likeness of the original. In the case of a simulation created entirely on a computer, we rely on computing power and algorithms to generate a signal that we recognize as something 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 we are able to create becomes 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.

Herding photons

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 and liberates me from the oppression of unlimited undo and plasticity. 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…

Hacking, Creativity, Process

Art, Electrons, Giggles, Thoughts


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.