DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


What Will Last?

Filed under: Art and Society,Art History — Tags: , , — fred @ 23:24

Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet, c. 3000 BCE

A friend used to like to say I have a mind like a steel sieve.  My semantic memory (for general knowledge, concepts and facts) is pretty good, but my episodic memory (for my own life experiences) is weak.  My sense of my own history is vague, a collection of hazy dream images.  Perhaps this keeps me feeling young, as I don’t carry around the weight of the past, but it also gives me the sensation everything is always slipping away.  I think this sense, early on, made me interested in documenting and archiving things, collecting images, books, and recordings.  As a kid my favorite toys were the cassette recorder and the 8mm movie camera, tools for capturing fleeting moments.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the impulse to save things, and the factors that make cultural products survive or disappear.  In this post I share some of these thoughts for your consideration.  Don’t expect me to offer any good solutions!

I have a room filled with my own drawings and photographs.  I keep boxes of papers, shelves of books and discs and tapes, and several terabytes of digital files.  A few years ago I had to move twice within two years.  Those moves prompted me to get rid of a lot of stuff – I let go of two thirds of my books and most of my music and dumped tons of paper, but the archive remains vast.  If I didn’t live in the city, where space is expensive, I’m sure I’d have kept even more.

Self portrait with my books, 2011, photo by Fred Hatt

I grew up in a house filled with books and records, in a family of intellectual collectors verging on hoarders.  My mother has particularly recognized the necessity of organizing and distilling things into a useable form, and has, over the last several years, assembled a series of beautiful scrapbooks documenting the family history.  Still, I know she feels overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Page from Hatt family history scrapbook, assembled by Martha Hatt

We save things to carry what we value of the past into the future.  We still find inspiration in the work of creators and thinkers long dead.  As artists, we hope that something we create may not only speak to our contemporaries, but survive to inspire future generations.  I’d like to see my work preserved after I am gone, but I’m afraid my lack of marketing efforts or serious art-world status may doom it to the dumpster.

In the art supply store, paper is labeled as acid-free and archival, and paint pigments are ranked for permanence.  But stable and durable materials won’t preserve your work after you’re gone unless those who receive it think it’s worth saving.  Cultural change, war and disaster, chance misplacements and discoveries, can doom or save artworks.  Here are a few examples:

Child-Headed Whiplash-Tail Blengins, date unknown, by Henry Darger

The reclusive artist Henry Darger’s obsessional writings and paintings on paper, work he never shared with anyone while he was alive, were preserved only because his landlord, Nathan Lerner, an established photographer/artist, recognized the creative merit of the work found in Darger’s apartment after his death.  Now Darger is much more famous than Lerner.

Pennsylvania Station, Concourse from South, 1962, photo by Cervin Robinson

New York’s Pennsylvania Station was one of the great buildings of the early 20thcentury, a magnificent temple of trains the same size as St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, but in the early 60’s the interstates and the airlines were supplanting the railroads in American travel, and the vast building was razed to build Madison Square Garden.  Neither its massiveness nor its grandeur could save it.

Portrait of Antonio Vivaldi, artist unknown

Antonio Vivaldi was a well-known composer in his own lifetime, but after his death his work was forgotten and was not part of the classical music canon for nearly 200 years until a boarding school, eager to sell off its dusty archives, asked music historian Alberto Gentili to assess the value of its music manuscripts.  This was in 1926.  Today, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is one of the most frequently recorded and performed baroque music compositions of all, and it’s hard to imagine that it was unknown in the time of Mozart and Beethoven, but that is the case.

Francois 1, King of France, c. 1530, by Jean Clouet

An art historian once told me a story about François 1, King of France, who was an important patron of the arts in the Renaissance era, supporting Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto, and other great artists of the time.  Apparently the king was a bit of a libertine, and constructed Roman style steam baths in his palace at Fontainebleau, where he hosted parties.  He hung many of his favorite paintings in these steam baths, where they were destroyed by the moisture.  (I tried to verify this story by doing a little online research.  I did find references to the King’s having displayed paintings in his baths – nothing about any specific works having been ruined, but surely constant moisture can’t have been good for them!)

Statue of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, shown in 1997, left, and after destroyed by the Taliban, 2001, right, photographer(s) unknown

There are so many stories like this.  The painters considered the greatest in the nineteenth century are mostly forgotten today.  Herman Melville died a failure, his work appreciated by almost no one until decades after his death.  The great manuscripts of antiquity were gathered in the Library of Alexandria, which was burned down in an accident of war.  Statues have been melted down to recover the bronze, or destroyed by religious fanatics as forbidden idols.  Films thought to be forever lost have been found in garden sheds and attics.  Works of the creative spirit are always being destroyed or lost or forgotten, sometimes rediscovered or reconsidered.  It all seems incredibly random.  An artist can try to make something that has the potential to last for a long time, and can hope it will be something people will value enough to protect, but nothing is certain.  The future is a crapshoot.

Hall of Bulls, Cave of Lascaux, photo by Sisse Brimberg

The artworks that survive from the Paleolithic era, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, are carvings in stone or bone and paintings in deep, difficult-to-access caves.  Surely there were carvings or constructions in wood, paintings on bark or animal skins or fabrics, body art, and many other things, but all of that is gone now.  I doubt that the artists thought of the caves as time capsules for their art, though that’s what they became.  The caves may have been secret ritual places, known to only a few in their time, but the art our paleolithic forebears showed in public is gone, while their deep hidden art still inspires many of us today.

I grew up in an era of analog media – vinyl records, chemical photography, movies on film, books on paper.  When I was in college, we studied Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, which argued that mass media had changed the function of art from something rare and precious and ritualistic into something ubiquitous and ephemeral, public and political.  The digital revolution has accelerated this alteration to the point that it’s now hard even to imagine the magical power that images once had.  Even in my youth, finding a rare book or record in a dusty old shop was still exciting, but now almost anything is available by Google search.  We need a new essayist to write a follow-up to Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Media Avalanche”.

Essayist Walter Benjamin, photographer unknown

In the analog media era, mastering a musical instrument or photographic equipment were intensive crafts, and producing and distributing books or movies or records was an expensive industrial undertaking overseen by gatekeepers.  These factors tended to draw clear lines between amateur and professional artists, and to keep the appearance of new material in any artistic field to a manageable flow that an audience could follow.  Digital tools have made the production and sharing of material so easy that we’re all swamped by mediocrities from artists who haven’t paid their dues or done serious time in the woodshed.  Even before the digital revolution, the arts had a bit of a supply/demand problem.  Suddenly there’s this eruption of material, and the gems must be somewhere in that cataract, but finding them, even recognizing them, isn’t easy.

In our digital world, most images, music, and writings increasingly exist only in digital form on hard drives or memory cards, or on servers in “the cloud”.  You sometimes hear the idea that all of this material is protected from loss by the fact that it’s widely distributed and shared.  How can the ubiquitous cease to be?  But I think digital media have striking vulnerabilities.

Fred Hatt projecting 35mm film in the Airstream trailer projection booth at the HBO/Bryant Park Film Festival, 2011

Some of you may know that besides my art and photography and filmmaking, I work as a freelance motion picture projectionist.  It’s a good trade that offers me a certain level of financial stability I’ve never found from my more creative endeavors.  I project old and new films at places like the Museum of Modern Art, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the French Institute/Alliance Française.  In the film business, sound recording, film editing, and special effects have been mostly digital for decades now, but until fairly recently most movies were still shot on film and projected on film.  That’s all changing.  Now, when you see a new film at the multiplex, it is almost certainly a digital file played on a server by a high-resolution digital projector, and probably shot with digital cameras as well.  The major film distributors have announced plans to cease production of film prints in the next year or two.

Projectionist with Super Simplex 35mm projector, Capitol Theater, New London, CT, date and photographer unknown

A good 35mm theatrical movie projector will keep working for 50 years if you take good care of it.  Cinema-quality digital projectors cost several times as much and can only be expected to last five to ten years, even if they aren’t rendered obsolete by technological developments before they reach such an advanced age.  Film projectors are 19th century technology, simple mechanical devices, and most things that can go wrong with them can be fixed or at least jerry-rigged by the operator.  The film print is a strip of pictures, 24 projected for every second of running time.  You can look at the film directly and see the pictures on it, and they can be scanned or copied by any potential future technology.  Film prints suffer from some wear and tear, but it’s a gradual deterioration.  A film that has some scratches and dust, or a little color fading, is still watchable.  Technologists use the term “robust” to describe a technology that is reliable and flexible to changing conditions – it bends but does not break, or it deteriorates slowly but still does the job, or it is simple to maintain and fix even while it is running.  35mm is the ultimate example of a robust technology.

Two frames of 35mm motion picture film. The picture is optically “squeezed” to be projected on a wide screen using an anamorphic lens. To the left of the picture area is the analog, optical sound track. A digital sound track is recorded with dots in between the perforations on the left, and another format digital sound track in blue on the edges of the film.  Twenty-four of these frames are projected every second, and the average feature film is about 2 miles or 3 kilometers in length.

The new digital cinema systems, on the other hand, are highly complex and also encumbered by copy-prevention measures that put serious limitations on testing and troubleshooting.  If something goes wrong during projection, the screening usually has to be cancelled, because there is no quick fix.  At this year’s New York Film Festival, a screening of Brian De Palma’s new movie, with the director in attendance, had to be aborted midway due to technical difficulties.  Already most of the projectionists I know have experienced these occasional devastating problems with digital screenings, problems that never happened with film.  Unlike the film print, with its visible image frames, the digital film is nothing but about 150-200 gigabytes of ones and zeroes, highly encrypted.  A small error, a little bit of corruption in such a file can render it completely unplayable, or at least unbearable to watch.

Dolby Cinema Server

All digital files are analog information encoded into binary numbers and recorded microscopically on optical or magnetic media.  Reconstructing the texts, images, or sounds they represent into a form we can use requires both the correct hardware and the correct software – if either one is unavailable, you have a problem.  These technologies are constantly changing.  Already if you have obsolete media like floppy discs, or files recorded in a ten-year-old program, you may have difficulty recovering them today.  These files have become essentially unreadable in a matter of years.  How much more will be lost this way over the course of decades or centuries?

Corrupted jpg camera image file, photo by Sokwhan Huh

Professional archivists suggest that all digital materials should be recopied every few years onto the best available current formats and media.  As long as the speed and efficiency of the technology continues to increase exponentially (as does the quantity of digital material we expect to conserve) this has been possible, but does it really seem completely unlikely that a slowing of the technology, a financial crisis cutting budgets for media archiving, or some other occurrence may erase or render unusable vast quantities of words, images and sounds?  A serious collapse of our technological civilization, even a gradual collapse, due to wars or peak oil or environmental disaster or whatever, would probably completely doom all digital files to extinction.

I envision a time in the twenty-second century when cultural historians will still have great collections of 20th century analog photographs, recordings, films, and printed matter, while much of the 21st century stuff has vanished into a technological memory hole – a digital dark age.

Jpg Corruption, photo by Codell. This is a digital camera file damaged by a loss of power while saving the file.

Perhaps the most permanent material ever discovered for information recording is the clay tablet.  Thousands of such tablets, inscribed in soft clay with a stylus over five thousand years ago, still survive in completely readable form.  Ceramics can be broken, but generally in a way that can be reassembled.  A bull in a china shop can never be as destructive as a corrupt code in a digital system.  Perhaps our creative efforts have a better shot at lasting if they stay closer to earth.

Akkadian Cuneiform Tablet, c. 3000 BCE, photographer unknown

Most of the images in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on a photo links to the site where I found it.

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