Nov 17

Supercomputers, Nitrate, and Death-as-an-Interface

This guest post was written by Evan Meaney, Assistant Professor of Media Arts in the University of South Carolina’s School of Visual Art and Design. Professor Meaney’s work centers around the belief that the aspirations and possibilities of art are bound to the technologies that support them. Those technologies, as embodied in specific media, are only useful in so far as they can be taken apart and studied. His recently completed project, Big_Sleep™ draws heavily from the digitized materials at MIRC and includes interviews with MIRC staff. The project screened publicly for the first time in November at the Association of Moving Image Archivists annual conference in Portland, OR. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on his experience working with MIRC below.

Big_SleepTM_6Archivists, like hospice workers or chaplains, have a tough job. Tough, because they try to preserve meaning and value of materials in decline. They face the very things humans work hard to avoid facing. Those people who tell you to live like there’s no tomorrow do not have your best interest at heart. There will, most likely, be several tomorrows. In many ways, that is the problem. Human beings create things in the present for the future. We mediate our intentions and produce bridges, cakes, and artwork. We’re proud of these efforts, ignoring the notion that bridges will fall, cakes will sour, art will fade, and on and on until there’s not much left. We must do this. If we focused on distant, sparse endpoints, it would be difficult to get out of bed in the morning, let alone make our beds once we’ve left them. We focus on creation in the present and hope the future will just work out. That’s a very human thing to do.

The archivist’s persistence-in-the-face-of-non-existence is a kind of bravery and dedication that affects much today and will affect even more in the days to come. This is where Big_Sleep™  was born.

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In 2013, I began a project with my colleague Dr. Amy Szczepanski using grant-time we had left at the supercomputing facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We wanted to look at the protocological nature of decay and archivism and, if we were lucky, make a piece of artwork that connected the aesthetic, social, and computational sides of that issue. But first, we needed an archive—one with a collection that dated back to the early days of the moving image, one with a lot of material in all states of image integrity, and one with smart and dedicated curators and staff who could speak to the process of preservation. It turns out that all of those threads led us to the same place: Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) at the University of South Carolina.

Big_SleepTM_2Working with the team at MIRC and utilizing their metadata systems, we were able to explore the archive in much the same way that Bill Morrison had done a decade ago when he used MIRC footage to create his masterpiece, Decasia. We were able to secure footage from the early days of nitrate film, materials concerning the first experiments with digital transfer processes, and subsequently express the lineage of content as it became increasingly virtual. Combining this material, interviews with many of the MIRC team members, and computational augmentation from the ORNL lab, we produced Big_Sleep™, a web and cinema project that looks towards the end of archivism.

Big_SleepTM_4Part software demo, part documentary—Big_Sleep™ concerns itself with archival impulses, molecular instability, and numbers counting down to zero. It explores problems in our archival urges. Via a single-channel desktop screencast, informatic elements ebb and flow—creating and relating interface absences. These gaps suggest that no amount of hard drive space can defy mortality. The only way to fully prepare our media for the future is to prepare ourselves for a future apart. The piece presents material from the late William Birch, one of the most important Fox Movietone cinematographers. Examining his slowly-decaying body of work, we find an argument for access in the present. Digital migrations of these early films are often met with limited, temporary success. Looking into the future, one might see a canon of obsolesce. Looking further, one might not see anything at all.

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With Big_Sleep™ complete and awarded distribution through the prestigious Video Data Bank, we are able to look back and appreciate the immense wealth of knowledge we found at Moving Image Research Collections. Not only their material archive itself but the knowledge freely offered by their team was invaluable to this project. They are a resource to anyone interested in the moving image and, while it may be difficult to face a world of uncertain tomorrows and inevitable ends, MIRC makes a bold, brave statement about the value of past materials for a future that will never know how to properly thank them.

~Written by Evan Meaney, USC Assistant Professor

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