GIFwave, Groundhog Day & Culture After The Apocalypse
Ryan Alexander Diduck
, December 19th, 2012 08:10
The recent announcement that the OED had made "GIF" its word of the year prompts Ryan Diduck to consider the similarities of that tiny looping file format to culture in 2012, and why, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, being doomed to repeat ourselves might not be entirely a bad thing
Understanding the lessons of Groundhog Day has itself been a reiterative process for me. It's a film that begs returning to. I started thinking about it again after the Oxford English Dictionary announced that "GIF" (Graphics Interchange Format) would be 2012's word of the year. (The word of the year over here in Canada from where I report, that is. The UK got "omnishambles".)
In the film, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a TV weatherman who is destined to repeat the same day in perpetuity. Much like Connors' predicament, GIFs - short repetitive intervals, usually of visual and sometimes audio media - go over and over and over again. (A couple of examples are here and here.) Presumably, the OED chose 'GIF' in part because of its 25-year anniversary and because of its current ubiquity. In times like these, times increasingly spent doing something down in the deep web, the cyclical Twitter profile picture pulses and looping ad nauseum memetics are a force among file formats. Still, that seems like superficial information. A smear campaign. I cannot possibly be the first to notice with interest how something that goes in brief and usually annoying circles, something that is "doomed to repeat itself", was chosen to carve 2012's notch into the new world's lexicological family tree.
I want to look back here on 2012, the year during which everyone was so willing and eager to participate in the Mayan end of the world joke. But I also want to look back at it like the Mayans did: from deep time, from an archaic perspective. And it appears as though the minds at NASA have revealed a little early that the whole thing is essentially akin to a car's odometer turning over. The-end-is-the-beginning kind of thing, then. So 2013 marks a new epoch, "13 baktuns", for an ancient culture that thought about time to such great lengths that they a believed a new age should start right about now. That's kind of a big deal.
Back to Groundhog Day. Connors' job is to forecast the weather, to predict the impending climate, to foretell the future. He travels to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on the findings of a magical vermin, also named Phil, whose duty it is to do essentially the same thing. But on Groundhog Day of all days, the future is temporarily frozen, and even more paralysing, so is the very project of its speculation. In many meaningful ways, this was the climate that creative cultures stepped into ass-backwards and best foot forwards at the beginning of this year, a condition articulated most recently and memorably by Simon Reynolds as Retromania. In the spirit of doing it over again like it's the first time, let's revisit that for a second.
Reynolds ends his account of the nothing-new-under-the-sun decade with a dual diagnosis and prognosis of "hyperstasis", a profoundly useful word that describes a "restless shuttling back and forth" that will require significant ruptures to transcend, lines of flight from a future predominantly preinscribed by the past. In a post on his blog at around the same time, Reynolds gave a particular example of hyperstasis with reference to UK club music producers like Ikonika and Untold, whose works fused influences from multiple sources at once: techno, grime, dubstep, chiptune and computer game musics. He describes "potent musical intellects struggling to find exit routes to a beyond, to terra incognita," leading to the music "shuttl[ing] back and forth within a kind of grid-space of influences and sources, never settling into genre-icity, yet remaining a long way short of being limitless (there are areas that are off limits to it)." In the few years since, unknown territories have been emerging in unexpected places, building up, not out, new terrains multiplying and subdividing.
Since Retromania's publication, these cycles of hyperstatic popular recurrence and recombination that Reynolds refers to have themselves sped up. Tenth anniversaries of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Interpol were conspicuously celebrated this year with hasty nostalgia. Recent reissues from Oneohtrix Point Never and The Weeknd read like Instagrammatic reminiscence. Even release methods have shifted into hyperspeed, with a hypershank of new material in quick succession by artists like James Ferraro and Dean Blunt. Narrowing these temporal and generic loop points, and rapidly repeating these shorter and shorter moments and movements, elongates the process of cultural recovery from this hyperstatic state, rendering the spaces between once-isolated periods infinite, irrelevant, non-existent. By going over history again, faster and faster, cultural movements are again time-stretching back out, new ideas are taking shape, and the key is reiterative movement.
In his Wreath Lecture, Joe Kennedy describes the reiterative pulsations of this year's best musics, from Swans to Vatican Shadow to Carter Tutti Void, as "dominated by grueling repetition". Writing for Dummy, Chal Ravens links Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland's excellent 2012 album Black Is Beautiful to repetition and the GIF. Montreal musician Francesco De Gallo cunningly inserted the term "GIFwave" into our conversation when I interviewed him earlier this summer. At the time, he happened to be working on a record called Lifetime, with Ala Vjiior. De Gallo said I could keep the neologism. I will do. Given the infinite splintering and revision and updating of genericism, GIFwave describes a fairly wide swath of interesting and important artworks that, in one way or another, set out to recognise, repeat, and rewrite time.
As a technology for making digital music, granular synthesis looks a lot like a GIF. This type of synthesis takes "grains" of sound - samples of less than 50 milliseconds - and reiterates them, scrubbing back and forth atop them, creating clouds of convoluted timbres. For well over a decade, the process has been a staple on the palette of electronic stalwarts like Autechre, and is instrumental to most digital audio tools that stretch and texture music. With the increasing availability of software of this kind online, in the last few years it has become cheaper, easier to use, and circulated more widely - manifesting, for instance, in Justin Bieber at extreme duration, among other creative deployments (something I explored more in a piece on slow art and online time earlier this year).
Granular synthesis is also central to the time-warping work of soundscape artists such as Scott Morgan, aka Loscil, (whose sublime 2012 album Sketches Of New Brighton deserves praise here). Stretching out and designing sound at the granular level can be conceived of something akin to elongating words llllllliiiiiiikkkkkkkeeeeeee ttttttthhhhhhhiiiiiiisssssss. Repeating micro-moments over and over at the highest of speeds is another way of altering sonic time, cutting into mediated temporality, revealing its deficiencies, and exploring the immediate long-term possibilities of miniscule moments between.
I'm almost certain that Terre Thaemlitz would scorn the comparison of GIFs to Soulnessless (my favourite record of the year), but I believe it is the best example of GIFwave. Thaemlitz's momentous 2012 opus is a lament against the clock's division of time and labour, life and value, into separate units. It is, however, still a series of near-discrete units itself: the most minimal and melancholic of chords hammered out on a fancy university's grand piano over the span of a full Protestant work-week.
Its salient themes branch out into religion, gender politics, time and the limitations of digital technology - it's billed as 'The World's Longest Album In History & The World's Full Length MP3 Album', and the piano track in question 'Meditation on Wage Labour & The Death Of The Album' is the maximum length a 320kbps mp3 can possibly be (less than 4GB - 29 hours 42 seconds). Thaemlitz explains that "Soulnessless" is a noun meaning "lacking or divested of belief systems through which the dichotomy of soul/soulless assumes value". I can't think of a better description of the GIF.
Soulnessless itself is simultaneously dependent upon and made impossible by infinitely repeatable things: systems of industrial production and reproduction that reinforce wage labour; institutions such as the Church and the Academy, which grant or deny access and agency; another GIFish miniature protocol that emerged out of late-capitalism - the MP3 - reminding listeners that media formats, like political systems, are never-not bound up in arbitrary recurrence. Yet infinite and natural rhythms unfurl across eternity.
In his 2002 book Parables For The Virtual, communications scholar Brian Massumi wrote about our inability to perceive ourselves in movement. Massumi writes, "See stasis, see station, as a special case of movement (a special case of reiterative movement: that allowing recognition)". If this claim is valid, then Reynolds' hyperstasis might be a method of temporal reorientation - a pause for contemplation, allowing us to recognise ourselves in the midst of this generalised hyperactivity we are immersed within. Hyperstasis, perhaps, should be nurtured as long as is necessary, in order to recognise, say, the social and ecological horrors of perpetually reinventing new Pads for each and every i. The staggering incongruity of human and technology time is visible over and over again in planned obsolescence and cyclical atrocities of waste. A maniacal drive for the new effectively hurries time along so quickly that we forget even our recent technocultural histories, and are therefore doomed to repeat them at speed.
Leading back to granular synthesis, in a very small section in a very large book on the quantum levels of acoustics called Microsound, Curtis Roads discusses "illusions of continuity and simultaneity" in the auditory realm. Roads says, "the mechanics of human hearing smear streams of discrete events into an illusion of continuum". This suggests that, at micro-intervals, discrete samples of continuous sounds are actually atonal and asynchronous. I like this idea: what sounds to be a pure tone, sonic hyperstasis, is actually violent and unpredictable reiterative motion. Analogous to GIFs, the notion that temporality is linear, repetitive and entropic begins to break down once time events are slowed, somewhat counterintuitively, by being repeated faster and faster. Isolating a sliver of audiovisual data from a still-moving stream and repeating it out of its original context produces new meanings that might not have been initially apparent. Is our idea of continuous time a fiction? All that appears hyperstatic shall spring forth into action. In good time, that is. And the end/beginning of another extended baktun seems a better time than any.
It takes some combination of Google and wisdom to know the difference between decisions that can be made at the flick of a switch - delegated to the digital realm - and those that require slow and contemplative deliberation: a more analogue, real-time, living response. Through sameness and difference, we humans don't just have that kind of technology, we are that kind of technology, the original analogue-to-digital converters, residual human devices for wireless communication and creativity, a crude and beautiful prototype.
For Phil Connors, reliving the past in a GIF-like state was at first an uncanny recognition of the fact that each day is fundamentally similar. As GIFs do, these redundancies appeared to Connors as static at first. So he let rodent Phil drive them both off a cliff. Naturally. Regardless, Groundhog Day went on over again. Still, Connors' practice and play and mastery of reiterative motion revealed degrees of plasticity, ways out of the incessant reset of days, resets restricted in repetitive time. He learned a valuable lesson too, a paradox, a digital lesson, a lifetime lesson: to do it again, but this time with feeling. He learned to embody the technology of transformation through practice, patience, repetition, and slow movement - and to break free of the time lock.
All year long, artists who've been restlessly shuttling are now revealing hints of what music after hyperstasis might sound like. It's been cropping up in the crumpled up and busted rhythms of Actress and Pete Swanson. Roly Porter and Emptyset's latest works have destabilised not only time but also space. And Raime and Andy Stott have moved dance music further forward, and slower.
2012 then - and the 12 years since Y2K, and the 400 or so years since the last baktun - was more than just a hyperstatic microbaktun; it was a comparatively quicktime, a comparatively GIFtime, speeding, re-replicating, breaching, chopping down, screwing with, slowing, and returning temporality back to the eternal. It's taken a lot of iterations to get through it. If all the pertinent calendars are correct, a new era, a long era, a good era, should be due to begin again at any moment now.