Tag Archives: digital

Art: Being a Where

The current surgical separation of Netflix’s conjoined-twin business-model offerings – disk and streaming – has got me to thinking about how I partake of the arts these days, and why, for me, the joy of the experience has diminished.

It’s not my advanced age that’s at the heart of the problem, although there is a degree of been-there-done-that that makes so much of what’s new seem so referential, like merely familiar subsets of what’s old. And it’s not because music and movies are worse than they used to be – or not just because of that.

No, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that my dissatisfaction, even borderline alienation, has to do with placeness.

One aspect of this needs to be mentioned and, as it is not wholly central to things, dispensed with right off the bat. I used to dismiss as silly those recorded-music aficionados who felt that the reproduction on vinyl LPs was superior to the digital form. They claimed that, despite the cracks and pops and hisses that records are heir to, there was a “warmth” to them, a fidelity that was as true as it was “high,” and that the ones and zeroes of digital reproduction set down musical performance in a way that was chilly and superficial and, in terms of position, without anchor or referent. Lately, I’ve come around to the former way of thinking. Digital recordings provide tones and voices that are clear as a bell … but where is that bell, exactly? There is a scrubbed-clean sameness to much of the digital, but listening to vinyl you can actually feel the room in which the music was recorded; you perceive, through echo or a muffling or something, a locational aspect to the music-making – whether in studio, auditorium or  outdoor venue – that gives the listener a dimension of experience that an MP3 lacks: placeness, in a word, in the sense of feeling, even subliminally, that you are in that place with that performer. It is like what the sense of umami is to taste: an enhancer, a presence, that fills the empty spaces among the other components.

But, even more to the placeness point is the dwindling importance of the tangible and the environmental; in other words, the physical aspects. The portability, the ubiquity, the availability of digital files – on an iPod or iPad, via iTunes or other “stores” – is so enticing, such a leap forward in mass distribution … but, basically, I want to be able to hold a CD or DVD, I want to feel a paper book. I love the concept of “the cloud,” but I lack sufficient trust in anything I can’t touch, possess, collect – be with, look at, identify as “mine.” Yet more, I want to have a place where those paper books, or recorded movies, or captured performances reside, in toto and as separately selectable items; that is, a library, or a shelving unit, or a rack. I prefer my collections to have three dimensions, solidity and proximity. More than clicking on wheels or tapping on a touchscreen – both amazing technologies, don’t get me wrong – I want to look around me and see (and smell) my books, go to a wall and pull out the CD I want, open a door and check out my DVDs. I am no Luddite; in fact, I am an early adopter (I adopted early-adopting early); at the least, I am an early desirer. I see the benefits of the new (many if not most of them accruing to the manufacturers and distributors), but deep down I cling to the creature comforts, the humanness, the context – the placeness – of the old way. I want, as the overused Stein-ism goes, some there there.

And though I have marveled at the everywhereness of new technology since my first  Sony Walkman, what I need to satisfy my need for placeness is place, a specific place, where the recorded media are displayed for my enjoyment. The ability to carry a player and/or a screen with you wherever you go to distract you wherever you are is a miracle of leisure-time democratic principle. But, for me, listening to music via earplugs in a public place, or watching a movie on a small screen on a hurtling bus, is nothing more than boredom-busting. To truly appreciate, even revere, a work of art, one needs to see it in a place designed for it to be seen or heard. By that I don’t mean only concert halls or movie theaters, though those are the best placeness places for such things (if they weren’t doing their jobs, they wouldn’t have been around for so long), if you could eliminate the annoying people factor; but in addition to those arenas, I believe that one needs to designate a place – a special room, a special section of a room – that is set aside to listen to music in, or read a book by the light of. I believe that there ought to be, if one can swing it, a special room or area the sole use of which is to watch movies in, with, if possible, some other spot in which to watch television. Formality of venue imbues a recorded medium with a special status, a properness, a location that lets us receive it in the spirit in which it was given, grant it the respect it desires and occasionally deserves – not treat it as some casual afterthought on the walk to work but as worthy of our complete attention, in an environment that focuses that attention and rewards our participation.

I love the streaming offerings of Netflix, sent via Roku box to my TV screen. But I have no intention of having them replace my getting of disks, as well. I will push a remote-control button and watch a streamed movie – that will be entertainment; but I will also slip the white envelope out from the larger red Netflix (soon to be Qwikster) envelope, slide the gleaming disk from the sleeve, feel it in my hands, carry it over to the DVD player, have the player’s drawer slide out to receive the disk and then slide back in. And then have the fruits of my very human, tactile process come up on the screen, and let the placeness envelop me.

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Time Piece

Things change. Time moves on. But even time’s march has been altered. The keeper of time has had a spatial reorientation. Clocks were once mostly round and the hands of time circled a face much like the earth circles the sun. Clocks had meaning implied by their design, and their marking of time had a beat or rhythm just as the passing days do. The clock face was sometimes anthropomorphic: a friendly face to greet you when you came home, a touchstone when you were expecting company or had a deadline to meet, an authoritarian presence watching from on high in the classroom or ticking down the final minutes at work. Almost always round, sometimes square.

Clocks were made into pieces of furniture, decorated in every style, handcrafted and machine-made, geared, weighted and sprung. They became art objects and people kept them around even after their function ceased. They made sounds, played music, had dancing figures and animals festooning their facades. The grandfather clock was a serious investment and it set a tone for a household of how serious time is, beautiful and serious with deep and throaty tones and shiny brass pendulum weights. There was the clock hanging in the kitchen of your parents’ house, the one that left an age spot on the wall when you removed it and which had so many associations with family, food and how time seemed so infinite then. Now you look at it hanging in your own house and its demeanor has changed – now it is a collectible.

Some clocks were hand-wound with special keys, giving you the sense that you had some control over time – an anniversary clock, say, or a seven-day mantel style. My grandmother’s wind-up from the 1920s had such a loud tick that it was a constant reminder of the passing of time; there was no way to avoid its audible countdown. Later, many more clocks were electric and usually silent except for an occasional hum. Clocks are all around me, some from family members, and which are like family members; others because they spoke to me in intimate tones about needing a home, again.

But now, in the digital age, clocks have become machines, as in Olympic trials: merely accurate numbering tools. Their displays are in cyphers, whether in the early form of rotating flaps in mechanical-digital displays or, now, in LED and LCD with their seven segments of light mixed and matched to show the full spectrum of time configurations as binary numbers, much like a cheerleading squad spelling out their team’s name with their body parts. The seven-segments system of time-telling sounds as perfunctory and bloodless as it is. Maybe the digital display is more accurate, although I wonder, in a contest with a perfectly attuned Swiss movement, who the real time-keeper would be. And the thing is, who cares? The time isn’t the real issue here. It is the sense of time. Clocks, analog clocks, give a sense of time as well as keep time. Why would we want to lose that? Do we think that if we make it a manageable set of numbers that we can control it better? Good luck.

A few years ago I had a work-study student, an architecture major, who had never learned to read an analog clock. Her digital wristwatch stopped and she needed to keep track of her work hours. Up on the wall was a battery clock with face and hands, and she couldn’t decipher it. To her, it was an artifact of the past, an archeological relic with a field of circularly placed numbers that had no meaning. After my initial shock, I began to realize the scope of loss in not having a connection to “real” clocks – the metaphorical, spatial (and this, a future architect!), cosmological sense of clocks, not to mention their rich history, mechanical prowess and diverse artistic merit. There are worlds in clocks. Yes, they are timepieces (maybe in two senses now), but they have presence and placeness in their unique combination of form and function. They hum and tick and whirr as they loop around continuously in their circular pattern; some of them chime and please the listener.

Think about it, the friendly clocks in fairy tales or nursery rhymes as opposed to the ominous “24” digital bot interface. Oh sure, there are a few digital clocks in my life. It is hard to avoid their flat gaze. As long as the friendlier-faced clocks remain and tell more than just time, it makes the time ticking away more palatable and more tangible. Give me a pretty face any day. And the fact is, no matter how endearing they are, they are still constant reminders of the dwindling days, just as the hourglass showed us in The Wizard of Oz. There is no pretense in an attractive analog clock, just something more than a cold countdown. They represent the dance of time; instead, their digital conquistadors confer a flat and empty number sequence: an LCD display is removed from the patterns of time. Analog clocks still have that ancient connection to sundials and real time. Even if they don’t save us from the ravages, our time spent will be more engaging with an illusion of timelessness. Tick-tock.


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