Containers of Light and Memory: The Life and Death of Analog
Essay on analog media and the artwork of Tammy Rae Carland and Brian Dettmer written for Meatpaper magazine, a journal exploring the cultural implications of meat that published from 2006 to 2013.
I inherited one box of analog media from my father, who died five years ago. It’s filled with reel-to-reel tapes, warped record albums, and yellow cartons of 8 mm film. Once a year, I take it down from the shelf in my closet and excavate its contents. I pull liner notes from album sleeves and study the lyrics my father underlined by hand. I trace the scrawled lists of songs he wrote on the backs of tape cartons and listen to scratchy voices warble to me across decades. I uncoil long-wrapped rolls of film, hold them up to the window, and watch my childhood play forward in a sequence of tiny separate cells. For an afternoon, my heavy inheritance becomes, simply, a container of light, and memory—sounds and colors imported from the past. I let the stories unwind around me, and when I am done, I wrap the tapes and the records and the movies in their coverings, and I put the box back in its place.
Analog media is dead, or so they say. Kodak stopped making Kodachrome film in 2009, and cars don’t come with tape decks anymore. On February 17, 2009, the signal for the analog television broadcasting system went silent. That night, the UC Berkeley Art Museum hosted an event commemorating its passing. Participants brought analog TV sets for recycling; writers and media theorists delivered eulogies. Despite these observances, however, analog persists. We’re haunted by its remains—leftover eight-tracks on thrift-store shelves, boomboxes in attics, shoebox coffins of cassette tapes, stashed in closets like my own. Analog’s relevance has waned, but its physicality—its distinguishing feature—lives on.
Analog media includes modes of communication and creation in which information is continuous rather than fragmented. Watching the wheels of a cassette tape slowly rotate is an analog experience; staring at an iPod is not. A watch whose ticking matches your heartbeat: analog; one whose numbers silently transform on a screen: not. With analog technologies, we can observe and potentially even understand a device’s inner workings; a computer chip never reveals itself in this way. Compared with analog’s objecthood, digital technologies offer synthesized information distilled into binary code; their workings are conceptual rather than physical, abstract rather than visible.
Given these tensions—between surface and content, representation and actuality, objecthood and intangibility—many artists have taken analog’s demise as their subject. Photographer Tammy Rae Carland links analog media with her mother’s death in An Archive of Feelings (2008). In this series of photographs, Carland visually ponders the tangible relics of her mother’s life—an unfinished crossword puzzle, a kitchen apron—as well as devices like a manual typewriter and a collection of mix tapes. The passed-down objects function as a material obituary, presenting an intimate sketch of their former owner’s habits.
But this inheritance is ultimately ineffectual; it cannot conjure the woman it represents, just her memory. The photographs of the analog objects are similarly lifeless, stripped of their physicality and functionality. We cannot use the typewriter to compose letters to friends; we cannot sit all day listening to tapes they recorded for us. In this way Carland’s work enacts a series of parallel reductions. A life is reduced to objects, and then those objects are reduced to images. We’re asked to consider these tandem losses. As we do, a greater question looms: how will we remember people, however imperfectly, if our future inheritances exist only in digital form?
Our physical inheritances may be losing mass; someday they will be feather light. But one object is guaranteed to remain when a person dies. Sculptor Brian Dettmer uses obsolete media to construct skeletons, forming dead birds, rams, and humans from cassette tapes. He molds skulls and wings from empty plastic shells, winds tape ribbon into antlers and body-like masses. Cassettes are turned into fossils in an acknowledgment of their limited lifespan; bones are built from audio recordings, reminding us that they are another type of transcription—a physical register of fractures and breaks endured during one’s life.
Bones and cassettes exist in the present, but their metaphorical meanings are in the past. Both are referents for a lived experience. When we talk about tapes, we talk about the moments they recorded as opposed to their physical shapes. Similarly, bones are more symbol than object—they take on the identity of the deceased. When we wish to pay tribute to someone’s life and accomplishments, it is the person’s skeleton buried beneath the ground that we visit. Just as cassettes point us to the sounds of an earlier moment in time, bones refer us to a former life. In this way, both materials signify a loss—the passing of time or the passing of a life; as objects, they offer themselves as compensation.
Perhaps we prefer our inheritances to be analog because death is so resolutely digital. A body is full of life, and then, suddenly, magically, that life is gone. Imagine your hard drive losing years of entries—just as digital information disappears without a trace, the mind and its memory extinguish one day of their own accord, leaving nothing behind. We are left, then, to sift through the analog remains: the bones and objects left behind. Unable to reanimate what has died, they reveal the tenor of what has been lost, the concussions and broken bones, high and low notes alike.