Art at the limits of technology

Why the Film Look matters in the Digital Age‘ was an article published by RedShark on their website recently. The fascinating aspect of articles about this subject is the balance of opinion and the angle taken on the difference between digital and ‘analogue’ 1. The last paragraph in this article is particularly interesting in this respect, with one sentence making me think about art at the limits of technology.

I was brought up with film; but I never saw its limitations as charming. Digital may blow out highlights if used without care, but colour film blacked out the shadows, and on days of low contrast, simply failed. Close-up work required a blue lens filter and a skin-scortching 1,000W bulb. Transparencies took a week to come back from the processors. It was expensive, and there was so much material waste. In commercial use, I rarely got a transparency back from the printers that was reusable as it was scratched or damaged in some way – and over 10 years ago I was being charged £15 a scan. I have a book in print with a hundred photos – if there had been a £1,500 scanning overhead it would never have seen its way to print. So, no, I don’t have a romantic attachment to film, chemicals, expense and unpredictable failure.

We have selective nostaligic tendencies about technology. While today the artistic value of film grain is almost venerated, we forget how photographers sought out the finest grained monochrome film stock and valued its clarity. While people eulogise over the sound of vinyl, we forget cartridge or cassette tape with its hiss and wow and flutter. Remember hauling yards of magnetic tape out of VHS and cassette tape machines?

In constrasting ‘analogue’ and digital the article  says;  ‘Some of the most creative moments happen when you are struggling against what the equipment you are using will actually do, when you are pushing it to the limits. It is not all about control, you may value a medium that brings with it its own particular qualities’. Yet that description applies to my current fascination with machinima. In a digital world, I am recording digitally, to be processed digitally and viewed digitally.

The landscape in Second Life is not held on the hard drive or a dvd like most games. It is all user-produced content held on Linden Lab’s server that has to be downloaded in real time. Consequently, frame rates are always lower, but normally fine while actually in the program. However, in complex places, it judders, halts, fails to rezz, and textures thrash as memory fills, which is more conspicuous when filmed and reviewed. To add to that, I am using the free version of Fraps2 so I cannot record more than 30 seconds at a time. This is not the digital as ‘perfect’.

Conversely with ‘analogue’ in the pre-digital age, the ‘artistic’ attraction of monochrome film was for a medium that allowed emphasis and control in achieving ‘insights, visions of reality purified’ 3, rather than failure.

The point I am making is that limits are not an essential or inherent difference between digital and ‘analogue’. All technologies have their limits, a boundary at which they starts to fail and produce unexpected results. And if you think about that boundary as being three dimensional, it ceases to be a line and becomes a skin – an interface between ‘reality’ and its representation, and a screen onto which can be projected the unpredictable. This is a site where something is shown or said without explicitly saying it – a place, arguably, where art lies4.

Em hotep from Tizzy Canucci on Vimeo.


  1. I use ‘analogue’ in inverted commas to emphasise that it is often used as a catch-all for a disparate range of technologies with little in common apart from having preceded digital technologies.
  2. Fraps is a screen capture program. Without payment, the video is watermarked and the clips are limited to 30 seconds. But I like the limitation as it forces me to condense my ideas into short periods of time. However, I will pay up to get rid of the watermark. Soon.
  3. Jeffrey, Ian, Photography: A Concise History, Thames & Hudson World of Art (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1981) p. 9.
  4. Jarvis, Simon, Adorno: A Critical Introduction (Psychology Press, 1998)

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