The future of materialist video nostalgia

April 27th, 2011 | Posted by Steven Ball

MiniDV logo

During the 1990s tape media based digital video (DV) in the form of the miniDV cassette format replaced existing analogue video, particularly camcorder formats such as Video 8, Hi8, and VHS. Promoted as new small portable media, the success of miniDV was due to its high quality compared to portable domestic analogue tape formats, it was capable of much higher resolution image recording than its predecessors, comfortably considered to be ‘broadcast quality’. MiniDV was embraced by both the domestic market and ‘professional’ production, and while arguments about its resolution relative to that of

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16mm film raged (possibly still do) on experimental film discussion lists such as Frameworks, for a while it became the format of choice for many low-budget feature film and documentary productions. Some of the high-end consumer (so-called ‘prosumer’) and professional model camcorders boasted high quality lens and other industry standard technologies, CCDs, chipsets and so on, which made the quality of the images produced close enough to being comparable to professional analogue formats like Betacam SP, effectively cancelling the equation that domestic video format = low resolution.

Firewire cables

Naturally enough miniDV was also embraced by artists. Concurrent with domestic level video becoming capable of these higher resolution, the means of production became accessible as never before as computers, particularly those manufactured by Apple Macintosh, shipped with ever faster processors, more RAM, increased hard drive capacity, while Firewire technology made it easy to capture the digital video from the camera tape to the computer for editing. MiniDV and desktop video made higher resolution videomaking affordable, simple and domestic, just as super-8mm filmmaking had been in decades past, and artists’ video facilities started to go out of business.

My memory of the way digital video was first received is that there was an acknowledgement of the increase in resolution and all the presumed benefits that offered, alongside an often expressed opinion that digital images lack depth, looking somehow flatter than their analogue predecessors. These latter comments seem to have diminished fairly quickly as viewers have become accustomed to viewing digital images. The wider accessibility of the means of digital video production were also the conditions that made a materialist glitch practice possible. Technological developments often provide a context for new artistic ones and accessibility to digital video afforded practitioners ample time to play with the medium, to explore its essential qualities, to discover and exploit its mutability. In some ways there is a parallel between this and the way access to 16mm film technology at film coops in the ’60s/’70s made structuralism and materialism in film possible, or how the arrival of domestic VHS in the ’80s made crash edited scratch video possible.

Transformations Stephen Sutcliffe

Transformations (2005) by Stephen Sutcliffe

However my concern here is not just with a simplistic causal technological determinism as it is with the speculation that there are qualities dependent upon these media technologies that become

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perceptible in retrospect, and that this is as much the function of the relationship of media based objects in culturally determined networks. When a format becomes displaced in the culture by another the materiality of the old media becomes more noticable. Consider how the quality of home recorded VHS broadcast images carry a complex nostalgia in the work of an artist like Stephen Sutcliffe. In his earlier works the soft electronic milkiness of the VHS format becomes a visual signifier for memory when coupled with soundtracks evoking the recently unconscious, much in the way that the grain of super 8 film is often used to evoke nostalgia, memory, other perceptual states in mythopoeic and narrative film. The essential qualities of these media become more visible in hindsight as they become intentional objects. In particular their non-mutable qualities, not those revealed or exaggerated by glitch and other materialist techniques. The assertion here is that the material qualities or essences of a medium are always present, even when hidden or not visible, but that perception of the inherent qualities of these objects change in time.

When will the essential visual qualities of miniDV begin to become visible? In the other instances mentioned above non mutable media material visibility has occurred some time after the point where a ‘higher resolution’ format has displaced the earlier one in terms of currency, after a kind of perceptual interval during which essential qualities of that format become more recognisable through a process of nostalgic unmediation, the ghosts of the media format become exorcised. That moment may not quite be imminent for miniDV, but the High Definition turn in TV, cinema and domestic video, as well as in artists’ work, suggests that it is a distinct possibility for the not-too-distant future.

In the mean time, in spite of increase in resolution of digital moving image media with the development of HD, and talk in various contexts about ‘post-media’, in the cinema, the gallery, on the internet, and elsewhere, the materialist ontology of moving image media is, as we shall see, just as contingent as it ever was.

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