Dot matrix: Artists' Television Access celebrates all things analog this week.

'A Wake for Analog'

Jonathan Kiefer May 21, 2009

Dear analog,

This isn’t a eulogy, because to my mind you’re not really gone. You’ll never be gone, just like I’ll never buy a digital converter for my old TV. I don’t care what the FCC mandates! Also, as you know, I have a new TV.

I know this note won’t bring you back. I guess I just had to get my thoughts out there, into the ether, as much for you as for anyone else who might happen to receive them. I thought you’d appreciate that.

There’s an event in your honor coming up this Saturday night. They’re calling it A Wake for Analog. A handful of short experimental multimedia transmissions and a live, improvisational audio-visual performance by Oakland’s Killer Banshee, with composer and noise artist Thurston Graham. It’s all organized by Other Cinema founder Craig Baldwin—yeah, the maker of Sonic Outlaws, among so many other things, and a guy who knows whereof he programs—so I’m sure it’ll be something you’d have liked.

Well, wakes weird me out a little, analog, and in truth I’ve been pretty emotional about losing you. But I’ll try to rally. I know I need to bring my gloomy self down to Artists’ Television Access on Valencia Street, to pay my final respects. And there you’ll be, in your open coffin of empty airwaves. Just lying there, being dead right in front of everybody. And it’ll be totally weird, but nobody will really say anything about how weird it is, because they’re still sort of in shock, I know they are, and on this night they’ll probably be drunk too, and maybe a little morbidly fascinated.

"The passing of analog takes with it specific phenomena that become metaphorical relics," said Eliot K. Daughtry and Kriss De Jong, the Killer Banshee folks, on their Web site. "No longer will these analog traces be directly present; now they become quotation." It’s so true. And isn’t that just what our culture needs? More quotation! Oh, it’s all so sad, analog.

If you were here now, you’d tell me not to worry. It’s progress, you’d probably say, a noble quest for purification. You were so generous, that way, so forgiving. You wore your own flaws—your clutter of tubes and knobs and wires—with such easy confidence, setting an example. Yes, without you the whole world feels less alive.

And maybe you’d tell me, in your gentle way, with only the softest hiss in the background, adding texture, that I should have been ready for this. For years now, everybody’s been talking about you signing off for good. But the prognosis never seemed to stick. You know, at the wake, they’ll be showing Nate Harrison’s short video, Bassline Baseline, a documentary about how Roland’s breakthrough synth-bass module, the TB-303 Bass Line, didn’t make it in the mid-1980s music-gear market, but later got tweaked out and taken up by the UK rave scene, then splashed into the mainstream and swam right up the charts, from KLF to Prodigy to Madonna. Retro chic isn’t always just a pose, it suggests; sometimes it’s a creative maturation. And these things take time.

Harrison opens with something Brian Eno said ten years ago: "The trouble begins with a design philosophy that equates ‘more options’ with ‘greater freedoms.’" Analog, you’ll be glad—and not surprised—to know that my Yamaha digital synthesizer is lying neglected like a dusty ruin in the closet, while the old Wurlitzer electronic piano still sits right there on the dresser, humming warmly as we speak.

They’re also showing media artist Caspar Stracke’s Zuse Strip, another comment on the adaptive reuse of cultural artifacts—in this case, by "utilizing data that is based on an archaeological misinterpretation." Until now, I knew next to nothing about the German digital computer pioneer Konrad Zuse, whose early machines used a system of hole-punched eight-bit binary code in strips of 35mm film thrown away by Berlin’s UFA studio. I’m only sorry that I had to lose you in order to find out. But that’s what wakes are for, right?

And then there’s a short video called Patrolling the Ether, by a highly strange purveyor of "curious technocultural critiques" who goes by the name Carl Diehl. Just the other day I tried to watch a VHS tape of Diehl’s project, but my damn fancy-pants big-screen hi-def digital TV didn’t even want to parse it. Swell.

I haven’t forgotten how great you were when I first got that TV, by the way. How magnanimously you endured my rapture over all the impossibly crisp pictures and sounds. Even the occasional pixelated interference seemed cool and futuristic at first. But I know now what’s really been lost. I know nothing ever will replace the stubborn vertical roll of your backflipping, snowy screen, or the screeching drone that sometimes rang out over your color bars.

Anyway, I could at least make out Diehl’s eerie retro computer-voiced narration, serving up the usual cold-comfort condolences. Oh, you know, that same old greeting-card stuff about keeping things in perspective: "Images are often difficult to make out as anything more than optical noise," or, "Obsolescence is the moment of super abundance." I tell you, analog, I hope I won’t always be so glum about all of this. I hope one day I’ll be able to believe Diehl’s assurance that "the end of analog broadcasts endorses all manner of etheric patrol: from modular synthesis to otherwordly exchanges." Even if I never do know what the heck it means. In the meantime, I raise my glass to you.

Wow, analog. We had some good times, didn’t we? Some people may have called you fickle and limited, but I stood by you. Sometimes literally: You remember how I used to stand next to the old TV for what seemed like hours at a time, swearing under my breath and swiveling those rabbit ears around in a million different directions—or just hovering there awkwardly, not daring to let go? Well, that’s still how I feel.

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