Trauma on a Loop: The National September 11 Memorial Museum
Toby Lee / New York University

Documentary loop and object display in the September 11 Museum

This video shows one of the objects on display in the National September 11 Memorial Museum: a mangled elevator motor from one of the World Trade Center towers, exhibited together with a looping video shot by a visitor to the towers in 1995, taken in the elevator ride from the ground floor to the top of Tower 2. This scene is an eloquent example of the extensive use of looped documentary media in the museum, and the odd temporalities that arise from their juxtaposition with objects such as the elevator motor — material relics, frozen in the moment of their deformation. In what follows, I offer a few reflections on these repeating documentary fragments, their particular sense of timelessness, and their relationship to collective historical trauma.

While looped audiovisual media can be found throughout the museum, it is in the main historical exhibition that their use is most pronounced. In this enclosed series of galleries located on the museum’s bedrock level, an exhibition packed with artifacts, wall text, and audiovisual media details the chronology of the September 11 attacks, some of their pre-history, and their aftermath. A timeline extends along the gallery walls, breaking down the morning’s events, in some places minute-by-minute. As we advance along the timeline, and from gallery to gallery, time becomes spatialized, elongated, and dissected into tiny increments, materialized in dusty objects — time-stamped train tickets, singed scraps of paper, abandoned high heels, charred and twisted rescue equipment — and re-played, over and over again, in looping audio and video clips and in photo slideshows.

The media in the exhibit come from a variety of sources, including television news broadcasts from the day of the attacks; photos and videos recorded by journalists, filmmakers, and bystanders; footage from surveillance cameras in the neighborhood; even video from the international space station, as astronauts looked down on the dust clouds above New York. The media loops are arresting. One of the first we encounter in the exhibit is a 40-second clip from that morning’s Today Show broadcast, showing the moment when Matt Lauer first interrupts their scheduled program to report breaking news of the attacks. In the next gallery, overhead speakers play a 60-second sound loop of voice messages left by a man on a top floor of the South Tower for his wife on their home answering machine, just a minute before the tower was hit. A 12-second video loop shows the plane crashing into the tower, and further down the timeline, a 15-second looped projection shows the tower’s collapse.

Matt Lauer, on the morning of September 11, 2001

What is most striking about these documentary loops, and what distinguishes them from the other, non-audiovisual artifacts in the exhibition, is their double temporality. On the one hand, like the countless objects filling the galleries, these pieces of media are clearly of the past, and from a very specific moment in a very specific past, which is what confers on them both their informational value and their affective force. On the other hand, however, they bear what Mary Ann Doane describes as the eternal “‘present-ness’ — a ‘This-is-going-on’ rather than a ‘That-has-been’” of the televisual image. (( Mary Ann Doane, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 22. )) In addition, their formal and material characteristics — low-res video, pixelated, late-analog, early-digital — create a temporal confusion, marking the media as not quite old enough to be entirely of the past, but not quite new enough to be now. In viewing these looping media fragments, museum visitors experience an uncanny temporality: a past moment felt as a present-ness that is not the actual present. In this sense, the visitor’s experience is less of remembering the past, which entails an awareness of the distance between the remembered past and the present, and more of re-enacting the traumatic moment.

This re-enactment is then repeated, again and again, as the media loop endlessly. The use of short looped media in a museum is not in and of itself particularly remarkable, as exhibits are designed for the particular spatial and temporal experience typical to a gallery setting, with visitors moving through exhibitions continuously and the subsequent need for relatively short pieces of media on repeat. However, in the September 11 Museum, I observed that most visitors stayed to view or listen to a media fragment multiple times over before moving on. Especially with the more harrowing pieces, both the glitchy repetition of the looping media and visitors’ insistence on multiple viewings bring to mind the compulsive repetition described by Freud in the essay “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” in which he distinguishes between remembering, which is an important step in the successful “working-through” and mastery of past trauma, and repetition, which is a neurotic re-enacting of that trauma, without awareness or comprehension. (( Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through: Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 12 (London: Hogarth Press, 1956), 145-156. ))

Writing about the September 11 attacks and their cultural fallout, Marita Sturken argues against this traditional understanding of repetition as the failure to master trauma. Drawing from more recent literature which demonstrates that “repetition can be a central part of the processing of a narrative of trauma,” Sturken proposes to take repetition seriously “as a means through which cultures process and make sense of traumatic events.” (( Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 27-29. )) What precisely is it, then, that these documentary loops are processing or making sense of? And what do they reveal about both the trauma of September 11 and the “cultural labor” being enacted in and by the museum? (( Ibid, 31. ))

Of course, the easiest and most immediate answer is that the media in the exhibition address the historical and political rupture that the WTC attacks represent. But the nature of the audiovisual media and the odd temporality of their viewing suggest that there is another, parallel trauma being repeated here: the trauma of spectatorship, and of documentation. In viewing or listening to this found media — overwhelming in it sheer amount — visitors to the museum are re-enacting the experience of a third of the world’s population the morning of September 11: watching the events unfold in an endless stream of still and moving images. What is being processed is not only the event itself, but just as importantly, its mediated viewing. Indeed, this act of viewing is figured prominently in the museum; many of the still photos and slideshow projections scattered throughout the museum are images of bystanders looking up at the towers as they burn.


Entering the museum, looking at looking

Traditionally, the discourse of cultural trauma studies orbits around the question of the representability of the traumatic event — the possibility or impossibility of representation; its prohibition; its morality, or immorality. But as the collective Retort writes, the September 11 attacks “were calibrated to leave an indelible image-trail behind them” and “designed above all to be visible.” (( Retort, “Afflicted Powers: The State, the Spectacle, and September 11,” New Left Review 27 (May-June 2004), 12. )) They were designed to be represented, to be imaged, and their power lay precisely in their documentation. Just as traumatic and violent as the event itself was the uncontainable multiplication of its image, the limitless range of its dissemination, its endless visualization and reverberation in media. What is being remembered, repeated, and worked-through in the use of these media loops — and more generally in the museum’s overstuffed historical exhibition, a model of hoarding as history — is the 21st-century trauma of overwhelming documentary proliferation.


In the museum, documenting

*This article originated as a paper presented at “Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture,” a conference held at Hunter College, City University of New York, November 7-9, 2014.

Image Credits:
1. September 11 Museum Video, courtesy of the author (although the video within this video was shot by Vassilis Makris & originally titled “Top of the World”).
2. Matt Lauer.
3. Looking at Looking, photo courtesy of the author.
4. Documenting, photo courtesy of the author.

The Rhetoric of the Loop: Animated GIFs and Documentary Film
Colin Beckett / Independent Critic


It’s Pronounced Shut Up Nerd, via WiffleGif

If the question of the loop, as such, is an urgent and central one in considering contemporary moving image documentary, it is because of the animated GIF. The animated GIF has become one of the most significant forms of media in our present moment. And while the nature and extent of that significance is open to debate, we can definitively say they are the type of visual media that we most frequently see looping.


Grmpy Cat GIF, on a loop

An animated GIF does not, by definition, have to loop, but almost all of them we encounter online do. Designed to present digital, color images with a remarkably efficient kind of lossless compression, the Graphics Interchange Format quickly became a pervasive component of the World Wide Web after they were introduced by CompuServe in 1987 — and, for a little while, after a second, enhanced version of the file format was released in 1989, the only common source of moving images on the web.

Early animated GIFs were mostly composed of primitive, clip-art style drawings that, from the vantage of the present, only underline the early web’s comparative technological austerity. As computing speeds have increased, bandwidth become cheaper, and the internet transformed into a major venue of accumulation, animated GIFs have grown far more elaborate, coming to more closely resemble video. We now even see “full movie” GIFs.


Example of an early, animated GIF

The affinity between animated GIFs and cinema is obvious, if somewhat complicated in its details, and they have already begun to exert an influence on the way that movies and television shows are made and used. But while the great majority of animated GIFs function as non-fiction of one kind or another, deployed to directly describe or intervene in the world shared by audience and maker, they bear no obvious relevance to the tradition of documentary. To consider the animated GIF in this context, then, we must find our coordinates with three related points of reference: news journalism and online media; early cinema; and the visual art world.


GIF’s designed to intervene in the world

Animated GIFs have been widely adopted by journalists and other internet media professionals, not unselfconsciously. We can turn to them for news bites, sports highlights, and human interest micro-stories. They are used to illustrate scientific phenomena, and to teach simple tasks. Beyond the online editions of more traditional news sources, the animated GIF has been a central tool by which sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed have fabricated a new set of quasi-journalistic practices and clichés.


GIF’s as news bites

The GIFs produced or deployed by major media organizations are only responsible for a small percentage of the ones we see — and GIFs that serve primarily informational purposes not a much larger one. There is only a limited range of human activity about which animated GIFs can effectively inform us. And even when an individual GIF does depict some noteworthy thing in the world, it only does so for a short period of time before passing into other uses, suggesting that even at their most instructive, GIFs are consumed primarily as diverting spectacle — a sort of worst-case scenario from the perspective of sober documentary.

The animated GIFf’s tendency toward the spectacular calls to mind, like much else in postcinematic moving image culture, the pre-1906 mode of filmmaking that Tom Gunning called the “cinema of attractions”. Like the early cinema that Gunning surveys, many animated GIFs bombastically perform simple technological tricks that, while somewhat flimsy in illusion, carry the immense power of the young medium’s exhilarating possibilities — offering, as Gunning wrote, “exhibitionistic confrontation rather than diegetic absorption.”


The spectacular and the “cinema of attractions” in GIF’s and early cinema

“It was,” Gunning writes, “precisely the exhibitionist quality of early cinema that made it attractive to the avant-garde — its freedom from the creation of a diegesis, its its accent on direct stimulation.” And we find something similar with the animated GIF, which was picked up and celebrated by visual artists for its affective immediacy and its vulgar populism long before it became a fixture of mainstream cultural expression.

Like informational GIFs, artist’s GIFs typically to operate on the terms of the spectacular — here in the service, theoretically at least, of novel modes of seeing and feeling. Owing partly to this tendency, and partly to trends in media studies, this affective dimension of GIFs has been seized upon by an ever-growing number of commentators on GIF art.


GIF by artist Lorna Mills, 2015

Whether uploaded anonymously to imgur or produced by a media team at a major newspaper, popular animated GIFs travel across spaces that are heterogenous in both form and social composition, like the vaudeville houses that were the most common home for the cinema of attractions. Their meaning is made in circulation rather than in their construction; it is a medium to be deployed rather than consumed. The effort to reverse this process and fix authorship and context is what distinguishes an artist’s GIF from the rest.


Dolly Parton GIF

References to early cinema, however, quickly confront their own limitations in explaining the animated GIF. Gunning argued that the cinema of attractions was rooted in a celebration of film’s then-awesome “ability to show something.” Circulating in an ecology overrun with moving images, the animated GIF draws no charge from its ability to simulate the world in motion.

Rather, the force from which animated GIFs take their power is the explosion of communicative styles made possible on the social web. Mostly shared between individuals against the backdrop of some larger audience, the kind of animated GIFs that have drawn the most attention are reaction GIFs, those used conversationally, or in direct response to some other image or text. The essential innovation the medium represents happens not on the level of information or aesthetics, but on that of rhetoric.


Example of a “happy” reaction GIF

With limited power to persuade or demonstrate, the animated GIF’s rhetoric is primarily epideictic. GIFs form the primary figures for the encomia of signal boosting and the vituperations of call-out culture. Reaction GIFs and their relatives overwhelmingly function as glib dismissals, enthusiastic assents, or loud expressions of incomprehension, designed to appeal to audience presumed to already agree with the GIF user’s premises and prejudices.

In this light, the emphasis commentators have placed on the affect of animated GIFs obscures more than it reveals. Affect is understood as precognitive and non-discursive. As Brian Massumi has put it: “the primacy of the affective is marked by a gap between content and effect.” But the most frequently used animated GIFs are those whose content and effect are almost perfectly contiguous, the form doggedly telegraphing its discursive content. More often than not, the affect of the animated GIF is an unmysterious, instrumentalized one.

The loop is the primary source of both the animated GIF’s affective power and its rhetorical limitations. With the exception of artisanal elaborations on the form, like seamless GIFs and so-called cinemagrams, the animated GIF loops in a crude, jerky manner, foregrounding the act of repetition itself, producing an insistent, stupefying effect. This type of ceaseless repetition is not intended to produce the transcendent states we associate with other kinds of minimalist aesthetic repetition, but acts as a cudgel, underlining and infinitely extending the already straightforward message the GIF carries. It is no accident that many of the most recognizable reaction GIFs enact a kind of self-demonstrating nihilism.


Nihilism in GIF’s

This kind of tribal, snarky, and renunciatory rhetoric predominates throughout a great deal of the web’s discursive spheres, in countless forms, both visual and textual. The reasons for this are complex and contested, but one worth dwelling on here is the “theory of pundit war” sketched by Gavin Mueller in a recent blog post, which locates some of the character of social media feuding in the ongoing deprofessionalization of journalism.

A 2013 New York Times profile gives us a particularly extreme portrait of the demands made by the effort to maintain some kind of career in online media, in the form of a full-time GIF producer: Deadspin contributor Tim Burke:

He works from home here, in what his colleagues call the “Burke-puter,” for its seamless integration of man and machine. It is less an office than an organism: a flashing, beeping, glowing, thrumming assault of screens, wires, remotes, tuners, phones, receivers, computers and general electronic effluvia wrapped around a person (“the monitor situation up there is insane,” said Burke’s wife, Lynn Hurtak.). Burke sits here alone in the dark day after day, for about 100 hours a week, watching dozens of sports events simultaneously…“I am not able to do many other things,” Burke said of his life in general.

Burke is something of an oddity as a GIF professional. Most GIFs, even the ones generating profit (or at least investment) for Giphy and Buzzfeed, are the vernacular creations of hobbyists. But most of those hobbyists have jobs too, many of which increasingly make the kinds of practical and psychic demands of Burke’s and offer far less compensatory satisfaction or acclaim.

The situation that Mueller describes does not apply only to those who have or seek careers in media, but to anyone who uses the social networks where discourses and information flows are guided by such people. As quotidian self-presentation becomes more widely public — searchable and permanent — people come more and more to comport themselves like media professionals. After all, their self-fashioning is creating surplus value for the owners of media networks.

More than a singular medium, the animated GIF is one of the tools by which social media users seek tribes and distinguish themselves. It loops endlessly because of a series of contingent technological decisions made at different corporations in the 1980s and 90s. But it is not technology that made the signal medium of our time one that repeats endlessly, never changing, telling us the same thing again and again and demanding a response it will neither heed nor acknowledge.


Lenin says “Deal with it,” endlessly

*This article originated as a paper presented at “Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture,” a conference held at Hunter College, City University of New York, November 7-9, 2014.

Image Credits:
1. Shut Up Nerd
2. Grumpy Cat
3. Early Animated gif
4. Intervene Racist
5. News Bite
6. Early Cinema
7. Lorna Mills
8. Infinite Dolly
9. Reaction: Happy
10. LOL Nothing Matters
11. Lenin says Deal with It

The Ethical Implication of Zeros, Circles and Loops
S. Topiary Landberg / UC Santa Cruz


Home of the Brave (dir. Laurie Anderson, USA, 1986, 90m)

“Now, I’m no mathematician, but I’d like to talk about just a couple of numbers that have really been bothering me lately… zero and one. Now, first, let’s talk about zero. Nobody wants to be a zero. To be a zero means to be a nothing, a nobody, a has been, a clod. On the other hand, almost everybody wants to be number one. To be number one means to be a winner, top of the heap, the acme. And there seems to be a strange kind of national obsession with this particular number. Now, in my opinion the problem with these two numbers is that they are just too close. It leaves very little room in there for everybody else. There’s just not enough range. So, first, we need to get rid of the value judgements attached to these two numbers and realize that to be a zero is no better, no worse, than to be number one. Because what we are actually looking at here, are the building blocks of the modern computer age. Anything that can be expressed in words or numbers in any language, can be communicated using this simple, fool-proof system. It’s all here in a nut shell the entire alpha-numerical system, A-Z, 0 to infinity of digital intelligence.”
– Laurie Anderson, “Zeroes and Ones” Home of the Brave (dir. Laurie Anderson, USA, 1986, 90m)

I first started thinking about zeros when I saw the Laurie Anderson concert film Home of the Brave, when I was an undergraduate. I had never seen any film or theater performance like it—one in which there was no plot or narrative, just a performance of anecdotes and stories and ideas and it totally blew me away. And I especially loved how Anderson was talking about gender binaries and archetypes while seeming to just be talking about numbers. Because back in the late ‘80s, and really well into the ‘90s, I was thinking a lot about gender and spectrums… and, you know, rainbows. At that time, I was trying to be a playwright, but in all my classes on scriptwriting, I was taught that plays had to be about narrative and plot and dramatic structure. As a feminist, it seemed to me like plot itself was a structure of oppression. Linear trajectories seemed like an inescapable kind of masculine determinism, usually defined in sexual, or violent, phallic terms and I hated having to think in terms of action and conflict. The male archetypes of conquest, climax and fall were everywhere embedded in the essentialisms of comedy and tragedy. And, as I think about it now, it seems that, implicit in this structure of conflict was an assumption that you can’t go back. You can only learn from the embedded authoritative structures of might = right: inherently masculinist and conservative.

In The Poetics of Cinema, Raúl Ruiz critiques the Hollywood adherence to what he terms the “central conflict theory,” model of plot where “someone wants something and someone else doesn’t want them to have it” (( Ruiz, Raul. Poetics of Cinema: Miscellanies. New York: Art Pub Incorporated, 1995. 11. )) For Ruiz, the attachment to this model is not just an aesthetic question but a directly political one: a logic which he felt had come to dominate not only cinema but contemporary politics itself. Ruiz suggests that this central conflict framework forces us to disregard events which require only indifference or detached curiosity, such as a landscape or dinner with friends. But, I want to push this idea further and suggest that perhaps this embedded structure, with its usual expectation of individualist fulfillment might also be problematic because of its linearity.

To my mind, linearity and linear forms of thinking are attempts to assert control and to determine a meaning for which the end justifies that meaning. I’m thinking about the ways in which the assumption that a character or subject must change implies that this character does not return to the same place, either physically or metaphorically or both, but rather is forever and irrevocably changed. In this assumption, the meaning of the story comes through revelations arrived at in the place where one ends up. Classical comedy ends in a happy resolution, the baudy marriage. Classical tragedy ends in death and destruction. Morality is determined by action and through trajectory with the individual as an embodiment of this linearity.

In contrast to linear story structure, circular plots contain a central character or group which usually leaves, receives new inputs, experiences change in someway, but then returns back in order to share these new things or ideas with the people and places one began. Return in this kind of structure is an opportunity to consider context, community and interaction. Change occurs with new inputs, but those new inputs feed back to the originating context. Thinking about how circular structures function, lead me to start researching loops.


The “White” Loop

The loop is one of the most basic structures of computer programming. A “for” Loop is used to repeat a specific block of code for a known number of times. For example, if we want to check the grade of every student in the class, we loop from 1 to however number of students we have in the roster. When the number of times is not known beforehand, this is called a “while” loop. Whereas an “infinite loop” is one that lacks what is generally called an “exit condition.”

In ecology, the term “feedback loop” describes a type of systemic inter-relationships, which which can be thought of as either “vicious” and detrimental to the ongoing health of the system or as a balanced and self-regulating loop. Confusingly, the “vicious” type of reinforcing loop is called a “positive loop,” and is one which models exponential and “infinite” growth; you know, like what Wall Street wishes would be true for the economy. Whereas what is referred to as a “negative” loop is one which demonstrates balance and self-regulation, or what is generally considered to be ecologically sustainable.


Reinforcing and Balancing Loops

One thing to note is that the “negative” loop is all about interactivity. Do something, check its effect on the greater context, adjust and change. This structure is, in an archetypal way, reflexive and contextual. And, one might also note the ways in which the archetype of natural, ecological, biological rhythms, is often considered to constitute the “feminine.”


Example of circular reasoning from “Systems of False Doctrine”

But regardless of whether we think of circularity and roundness as an inherently female structure, it’s interesting to consider the ethics of the circle or the loop. The structure of return, reconsideration and reuse can be thought of a type of ethical social engagement with the world which incorporates the cycles of life, death and renewal. The cyclical ethics of return, renewal and feedback can also be thought of as expressing forms of non-hierarchical interactivity. Yet, from a rhetorical standpoint, “circular reasoning,” has often been something to be feared, derided, ridiculed and mistrusted: a “loopy” logic which self-reinforces its own folly. Yet, despite the recognition that not all circles or loops are the same, somehow, culturally, the circle often seems to engender a certain deep rhetorical fear in the potential of being misled. Along with the denigration of the zero, to which Laurie Anderson refers in Home of the Brave, circles have often been used to represent sinister cabals and conspiracy theories, secret worlds, the dark arts. spin their own webs of influence.


Plastics can be recycled

However, I want to contend that circularity and looping structures, can also be structurally hopeful. As an archetypal structure, “negative” and self-regulating loops invite possibilities to bring new inputs and new information into a previous context and change that context, rather than make a new one. In these cases, the circular structure provides an alternative to a linear logic and provides for experiences of change and growth to be inclusive and fundamentally non-combative and non-competitive.

In conclusion, I want to suggest that the contemporary trend in cinema toward new forms of “immersive viewing,” typified by puzzle films and experiences which blur the lines between spectacle and spectator, fact and fiction, and representation and information indicates a shift in relationship toward a new value of circles and loops evident in popular films like Momento (dir. Christopher Nolan, USA, 2001, 113m) and documentaries like Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley, Canada, 2012, 109m) and The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012, 122m). In accepting the new normal of our climate changed environment, we are seeing, not only returns to various 1970’s aesthetic tropes, and gentrified nostalgia for eco-hippie fashion, but also an embrace of reuse, and with it, a new kind of meaning and value for the zero itself. Nowhere is this new value for zero more evident than in the San Francisco Department of the Environment’s goal for “zero waste” by 2020 goal, publicized in a″>PSA produced by Recology. It’s a short film which nods to structuralist filmmaking and specifically, I think, to Zorn’s Lemma (dir. Hollis Frampton, USA, 1970, 60m); invoking a progressive aesthetic from the past to make a provocative statement about the way that, today, zero has acquired an environmentalist value, while urging us to join in that call and embrace the zero as the highest value to aspire toward.


Recology: Zero Waste, dir. Brainchild Creative, (USA, 2013, 45 sec)

*This article originated as a paper presented at “Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture,” a conference held at Hunter College, City University of New York, November 7-9, 2014.

Image Credits:
1. Home of the Brave, screencapture courtesy of the author
2. “White” Loop, from Programming via Java, by Carl Burch
3. Reinforcing and Balancing Loop
4. Circular Reasoning
5. Recycle
6. Recology, screencapture courtesy of the author

The Recordist as Enunciator; Looping in the work of Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram
Lyn Goeringer / Michigan State University


Daphne Oram in a television studio

The familiar bass line from Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” sounds. (( Queen, David Bowie. Hot Space. Elektra. E1-60128, 1982, LP. )) We are denied our expectations, and at the moment when the piano would enter, we hear the voice of Vanilla Ice. ((Vanilla Ice. Extremely Live. SBK Records. CDP-96648.1991. CD. )) The song unfolds, and, the use of the introductory musical phrase from “Under Pressure” loops and is contextualized differently by the words rapped by Vanilla Ice in “Ice Ice Baby.” The piano does eventually come in, and we are reminded that the loop is there to imply pressure but the ability to remain cool. This signifying moment is to direct us towards an appropriated meaning, drawn out by rap artist Vanilla Ice.

Looping is integral in electronic music and sound art. Audio loops can be made using recorded materials that are then repeated in succession. In the instance of “Ice Ice Baby,” the listener is provided a culturally recognizable symbolic referent to another song, “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie. In this article, I will discuss how it is used, and how looping practices can be analyzed using enunciation theory. I will be looking at the work of Émile Benveniste and Anette Vandsø to consider the music of Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram.

Anette Vandsø proposes the use of enunciation theory as a methodology of analyzing sound art, illustrating this approach using Alvin Lucier’s work “I am Sitting in a Room,” (( Lucier, A. I am Sitting in a Room. Lovely Music, LTD. LCD 1013, 1993, compact disk. )) a sound art piece that is created by stating the same phrase and recording it in repetition over time in the same location (( Vandsø, Anette. “I am Recoding the Sound of My Speaking Voice. Enunciation in Alvin Lucier’s I’m Sitting in a Room.” SoundEffects – An Interdisciplinary Journal of Sound and Sound Experience [Online], 2.1 (2012): 96-112. Web. 5 Sep. 2016. )) . I propose to expand on this notion by considering the loop as a site where enunciation is critical, and meaning of a loop can be determined through enunciation and application of the materials in repetition. Émile Benveniste’s definition of enunciation is useful here, in which “enunciation is the enactment of language through an individual act of use”. (( Benveniste, Émile. “The formal apparatus of enunciation”. In The Discourse Studies Reader, edited by Angermuller, Johannes; Maingueneau, Dominique and Ruth Wodak. (John Benjamins North America, 2014) P. 141. )) In this approach, we must concede that music and sound can function as a language, where intonation and phrasing of materials can be seen as a form of enunciation. Because electronic music is a form that may not easily work within common practice standards of music making (notes, rhythm, etc.), we must consider this idea even further.

Some electronic music relies on the act of recording to create its materials rather than using traditional instrument conventions. The roll of enunciation may at first appear abstracted, particularly as enunciation theory is often reliant on deictic signifiers, such as ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘they’. In recording, the referent is more immediate, as recorded sound is captured from the perspective of the listener-recordist as they have heard something in a particular way, recorded the sound, and then disseminated it through other means. Deictic markers, however, are not specified verbally. (( Vandsø, Anette. “I am Recoding the Sound of My Speaking Voice. Enunciation in Alvin Lucier’s I’m Sitting in a Room.” SoundEffects – An Interdisciplinary Journal of Sound and Sound Experience [Online], 2.1 (2012): 96-112. Web. 5 Sep. 2016. )) There is an implied enunciation; a voice has arisen in the capturing and re-presenting of materials. Through the act of listening, the recordist has chosen an instance to appropriate a moment of language (sound), and then re-present it to us from their perspective. Anette Vandsø proposes, within the context of the “implicit narrator”, that this system does not refer to the artist or their intention, but to imply that in the act of recording, the artist “doesn’t transmit its content in an unmediated, direct way, but reflects a number of choices”. (( Ibid, p 105. )) I would counter that this is furthered when we consider the potential semiotic relationship between recorded or sampled materials and culture or society at large.

In the work of Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, it’s possible to consider that the recorded works, relying on electromagnetic tape looping techniques, propose two different meaning constructions that are dependent on the application of loop. Looped materials become culturally significant in the work of Delia Derbyshire because of their role as a sonic signifier, particularly in the arrangement of the original theme song for Doctor Who. (( Ayers, Mark. “Making of the Doctor Who Theme Music.” Effectrode. N.p., 2015. Web. Accessed September 18, 2016. )) In the work of Daphne Oram, we have the construction of new sounds that become a signifier of objects whose meaning and implication can only be understood through repetition of the sound itself, as illustrated in her commercial short Tumblewash. (( Oram, Daphne. Oramics. Paradigm Disks PD 21, 2007, compact disk. ))


Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonics Workshop, looping

Both the theme song for Doctor Who and Tumblewash require looping in their formal construction, though the application of looping is different. In the Derbyshire arrangement, the piece begins with a rhythmic motif, that shifts pitches harmonically under a melodic tune. The bass line was created by making a recording of a string instrument on electromagnetic tape, changing the tape playback speed to shift the pitch, relying on physical looping of the medium at varying speeds, to convey tonal information. Here, we can consider an enunciation based on temporal speed as having a direct impact on the overall message and content of the sonic material. This temporality is created through enunciation, in the manner of its re-presentation. In its application, the only way to impart the needed meaning, that of a specific pitch, must be imparted by shifting the temporality — by speeding up, slowing down— and thus enunciating the sound differently. The act of enunciation creates the temporality, where the manner in which the statement is uttered creates the time conditions of the present in which it is manifested. (( Benveniste, Émile. “The formal apparatus of enunciation”. In The Discourse Studies Reader, edited by Angermuller, Johannes; Maingueneau, Dominique and Ruth Wodak. (John Benjamins North America, 2014) p144. ))


Daphne Oram at the BBC Radiophonics Workshop

Daphne Oram brings us a different approach to the recordist as enunciator. In Tumblewash, we listen to a sound of water sloshing about, while high-pitched sounds alternate in pitch over it, eventually becoming melodic. As the commercial continues, a voice over states, “Do your wash the new way, the Tumblewash way”. (( Oram, Daphne. Oramics. Paradigm Disks PD 21, 2007, compact disk. )) It is here that we confirm the sounds we are hearing are signifying the washing machine of the future. The looping in this piece become signifiers — the looped water sound implies mechanical motion, while the electronic tones sounding above imply the future, where our laundry is automatic, timely, and above all, part of the space age. We are provided two levels of information to help us in our analysis: sonic and verbal. We are provided further meaning of the loop through voice over, which indicates what is implied by the sounds. This differs from the Derbyshire arrangement as the signification is direct, reliant on the symbolic meaning of water and time.

In each of these examples, the loop functions differently. In Derbyshire’s arrangement, the loop that holds a dual purpose: to provide us awareness of time, and to complete the musical function of harmonic pitch relationships. In this piece the implied meaning of the loop is through enunciation, through temporal shifting creates meaning and facilitates understanding of the piece through the perception of pitch changes over time. With Oram’s work, Tumblewash, we are given a different relationship to the loop, one that indicates labor and time saving machinery. In this moment, the context we are provided through enunciation gives us an indication why the loop is critical: It is not only sonically interesting, but through repetition, the sound conveys information the listener will find relevant. It is through the enunciation, the context of the loop, where we find our meaning.

* This article originated as a paper presented at “Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture,” a conference held at Hunter College, City University of New York, November 7-9, 2014.

Image Credits:
1. Daphne Oram TV
2. Delia Derbyshire
3. Daphne Oram

Loops within Loops: Reflections on the work of Marco Brambilla
David Bering-Porter / The New School


This article addresses the work of Marco Brambilla, a contemporary director and artist whose work in installation and video collage speaks to the broader themes of this special issue: the loop. My interest in the loop began with a previous article that I wrote on the gif as a file format and cultural form in digital media that reflects something important about the temporal patterns of our current stage of late capitalism. (( David Bering-Porter, “The automaton in all of us: GIFs, cinemagraphs and the films of Martin Arnold,” The Moving Image Review & Art Journal (MIRAJ), Volume 3, Number 2, 1 December 2014, pp. 178-192. )) The repetitive loops of time appearing in gifs are symptomatic of a temporality in which patterns in our political and economic discourse reflect this repetitive impulse as a temporal signature of our time. I would like to return to the loop here and revisit this temporal form through the work of Marco Brambilla and the relationship to the loop that plays out in his work. Brambilla’s richly layered video collages, particularly the Megaplex trilogy, address the loop in different ways, bringing the reflexivity and reflectiveness of this temporal form into greater relief, providing a rich environment for further unpacking of the significance of the loop within our hyper-mediated environment.

The Megaplex trilogy speaks in a language of cinephilia. This is partly informed by Brambilla’s past experience as both a Hollywood director and an avid watcher of movies and these affective investments are reflected in formal qualities of the pieces themselves. (( FondationBeyeler. “Artist Talk: Marco Brambilla at the Fondation Beyeler.” Filmed January 17, 2015. YouTube video, 20:26. Posted January 2015. Before turning to art, Brambilla had a short-lived career in Hollywood as a director of mainstream movies. In 1993, Brambila directed the off-beat futuristic action film Demolition Man (starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes), which despite its mixed critical reviews debuted number one in the box office, and went on to direct the film Excess Baggage in 1997, but soon after that he retired from Hollywood to pursue his artistic career. In early 2015, Brambilla stated in an interview with Michiko Kono at the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland that he found the Hollywood system too restrictive an arena in which to create the kinds of works that appealed to him as a lifelong and avid watcher of movies. )) The Megaplex trilogy is composed of three pieces, Civilization (2008), Evolution (2010), and Creation (2012) and each one displays an intricate collage of looping video footage sampled from a wide range of sources and brought together into a complex, visually dense bricolage of repetition and citation in 3D. Brambilla argues that this trilogy is made in reference both to his past career, which is richly illustrated by the breadth and complexity of visual citation apparent in these works. (( Ibid. )) Cinephilia comes to the fore again in the title of the series, Megaplex, which refers to the massive, multiscreen movie theaters screening many different films at once. This multiplicity of screens is echoed in the very substance of the pieces themselves as each one is made up of looping pieces sampled from other films.


Civilization (Megaplex), by Marco Brambilla, 2008.

The first of the series sets the tone with a complex imbrication of moving images, sampled and interlaced together. Images from different films are pieced together to form a landscape that changes over time. Each sampled image moves with its own time, looping in a collage of repeating gestures and actions. It is only taken together that these various samples form a landscape within the larger collage and this larger image, too, is moving slowly along the vertical axis. Civilization transitions from a tableau of fiery volcanoes and storm clouds into a more bucolic picture of green hills and clear skies. This shift along a vertical axis, from a hellish landscape towards a more idyllic and utopian space, appears to work as commentary on the title itself, suggesting a grand narrative of progress, a movement ever upwards. The repetitive motion of Civilization, a loop from hell to heaven and back again, lends an air of futility to this progressive narrative and makes it seem less like an absolute change and more like a journey informed by Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Brambilla’s cinephilia is apparent as he draws upon samples and scenes from a host of famous and iconic scenes from other films in order to bring together these pieces into a highly textured bricolage. The samples of looping footage that makes up the larger image serves to animate the piece as a whole. As the eye moves from one pocket of gif-like movement to the next, the whole video seethes with life. Because each video sample operates according to its own temporality, each one remains independent, allowing Civilization to play upon the viewer’s own cinephilia as she searches for the citations and references that are playing out in concert on the larger screen.


Evolution (Megaplex), by Marco Brambilla, 2010.

Evolution is constructed in a similar manner, composed of a collection of semi-independent samples taken from popular film and culture, this time scrolling into itself in a loop along the horizontal axis. Once again, cinephilia becomes a self-referential gesture as the work itself speaks in a language of repetition and citation, using iconic films to tie-in their meanings and connotations into the piece. The micro-loops created here seem to compound and operate at multiple levels at once; each sample loops on its own, according to its own time, and these temporalities join in concert into the large piece, which, itself, loops along a horizontal axis. The cinephilia of the piece calls out another loop, working through the language of citation and the love of cinema that resonates between the artist and the audience.

In “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” Rosalind Krauss argues that the medium of video operates not only through technological elements or physical mechanisms, but also through the “human psyche used as a conduit.” (( Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October Vol. 1 (Spring, 1976), 52. )) Krauss relies upon a certain ambiguity in the term “medium,” which, as she points out, brings together connotations from art, mass culture, and the occult or parapsychology, in which the term “medium” maintains its definition as a conduit of information, only this time with a “human receiver (and sender) of communications.” (( Ibid. )) Krauss’ argument shows the way that video creates a feedback loop between psyche and technology; a series of reflections that creates a circuit of engagement between self and object. As Krauss puts it, this is a process of “[s]elf encapsulation – the body or psyche as its own surround” which, she points out, “is everywhere to be found in the corpus of video art.” ((Ibid. 53. )) This plays out in Brambilla’s trilogy in this logic of citation and sampling, which emerges from his own cinephilia and traverses through the cinematic references understood by the audience in order to gain its full significance. In Krauss’ words, “video’s real medium is a psychological situation, the very terms of which are to withdraw attention from an external object – an Other – and invest it in the Self.” ((Ibid. 57. )) In other words, video exhibits the conditions that psychoanalysis attributes to narcissism.


Creation (Megaplex), by Marco Brambilla, 2012.

From a formal perspective, narcissism is especially relevant to the final piece in Brambilla’s Megaplex trilogy, Creation, where visual movement in the piece takes on a spiraling motion, recalling a formal echo of a vortex, in which the image exhibits the most explicit version of looping in on itself, doing so quite literally in an expressive logic of involution. (( Krauss uses this idea of narcissism to differentiate the reflective and the reflexive as they appear in relation to video, each of which, I am arguing pertains to the notion of the loop as I am trying to think it through. )) For Krauss, reflexivity fractures into two categories and it does so through a kind of iteration – it is a matter of returning to an object. To be reflective, in contrast, is to lose distinction and it “implies the vanquishing of separateness. Its inherent movement is towards fusion.” (( Krauss, 56. )) The first is repetition with the acknowledgement of difference, whereas the second is the celebration of sameness. Both the reflective and the reflexive illustrate a kind of loop that can be discerned in video art, including the works of Marco Brambilla, but the citational quality of his work of sampling and collaging video into a larger aggregate images seems especially resonant with the notion of narcissism, as it works with and through the affective investments of both artist and viewer. To call out Brambilla’s work as an example of narcissism, or as one that is operating according to a logic of narcissism, is not an insult to either the artist or the work. Narcissism is applied here to suggest that the loops of meaning and reference that take place in and around the Megaplex trilogy necessarily move through the psyche of the viewer and illustrating the way that the loop, as a temporal form, structures Brambilla’s trilogy at a number of nested levels at once. Thus, Brambilla’s work is speaking not only to the significance of the loop as a temporal form reflective of our time, but also of the indistinction between technology and psyche when it comes to the path of the loop and the medium of video, even in the digital age.

*This article originated as a paper presented at “Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture,” a conference held at Hunter College, City University of New York, November 7-9, 2014.

Image Credits:
1. Evolution Cover
2. Civilization
3. Evolution
4. Creation

One Hundred and One Sinkholes: Notes on the Film Loop
Josh Guilford / Amherst College


Jenny Perlin, installation view, 100 Sinkholes, 2014, ink on watercolor paper, 56 x 83 in.

Upon entering a recent exhibition by the artist Jenny Perlin, the viewer confronts an unsettling display: a freestanding wall made to hold one hundred sinkholes. Arranged with deceptive uniformity in a ten-by-ten grid across the wall, the sinkholes are drawn in a minimal style on small rectangles of paper, monochromatic blots of colored ink that render, abstractly, actual sinkholes in the world. Many are accompanied by mysterious lines, straight or curved, which extend to suggest some arbitrary point in the built environment where a given sinkhole intervened. The blots seem to dislocate the lines, appropriating the frame and making the lines appear fragile and meager, like vague memories of a grand, infrastructural ambition, some dream of rationality dispelled by terrestrial collapse.

Stepping past the display into the dark room behind, one finds a 16mm projector modified to hold a looper with a black pool of celluloid continuously gathering, escaping from the platter on top. The film, which is thrown onto the rear surface of the wall separating these spaces, presents images of the same sinkholes rendered in graphite and arranged in a linear sequence. Each drawing emerges in steps through a process of single-frame animation, then holds momentarily as an image before giving way to the next. The runtime of the film is just over 14 minutes, but the print is joined end to end, with no title card to designate a beginning or conclusion. One after another, a hundred sinkholes cycle in an unbroken loop, surfacing relentlessly but accumulating nothing, emerging to collapse, emerging in collapsing. Through circularity, the film’s time is made to fold, returning by extending forward, progressing to return. Each new image becomes an echo and the gallery itself a sort of eddy that echoes the swirl of celluloid atop the projector. Between the viewing space and the images onscreen, a resonance arises: time as a blot suspended in the white cube.


Jenny Perlin, installation view, 100 Sinkholes, 2014, 16mm film, b&w, silent, 14 min. 13 sec.

In both its content and its form, Perlin’s film – 100 Sinkholes (2014), from the exhibition One Hundred Sinkholes (2014) – would seem to affirm an intriguing complicity posited by Maurice Blanchot between the artwork and catastrophe. Examining art’s pursuit of an aesthetic realm separate from reality, Blanchot writes of the work of art as an unworldly thing, an alien arrival summoned by that which “puts the world into question.” “[E]verything that surpasses, denies, destroys, threatens the body of relations that are stable, comfortable, reasonably established, and anxious to remain,” he explains, “work[s] for art, open[s] the way for it, call[s] it forth.” The work of art, Blanchot contends, thrives on interruption, on forces of destabilization that “shatter the validity of the common world.” (( Maurice Blanchot, “The Museum, Art, and Time” in Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1997), 23. ))

In this short article, I would like to propose the film loop as one such world-destabilizing force. If “world” is conceived in both concrete and imaginary terms, as “that space of practical life but also of truth as it is expressed, of culture and significations,” then the loop’s capacity to disturb routine modes of practice and habitualized modes of perception does render it a potential threat to the world (( Ibid. 33 )) . The loop can facilitate experiences with the moving image that allow one to stretch or fray the practical and psychic fabric of daily life, opening a seam through which to glimpse other forms of living and relating.

Given the loop’s resurgence as a privileged exhibition form within contemporary art, and the central role looped projection has played in what Erika Balsom has referred to as the “increasing spectacularization of the museum space,” it may seem naïve to argue for the loop as an interruptive technology (( Erika Balsom, Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2013), 31. )) . When viewed from the galleries of the late capitalist museum, the loop appears as a decidedly worldly phenomenon, a medium of perceptual intensification thoroughly embedded in the financial and attentional economies that undergird contemporary exhibition cultures. But the loop harbors a potential to disturb these economies. It offers a strange, abrasive time that erodes the temporal ground of the common world, providing an occasion for the viewer to slip away from the experiential continuum of daily reality. This erosive temporality – constant, repetitive, mechanical – renders the loop a sort of slow expulsive force, one capable of putting the viewer not violently, but gradually “outside the world, outside the security and intelligence of the world…” (( Blanchot 33. ))


Jenny Perlin, 100 Sinkholes (still), 2014, 16mm film, b&w, silent, 14 min. 13 sec.

The temporality of looped projection can facilitate an alternative viewing practice that swerves from conventional modes of relating to the filmic image. Looped installations organize the time of filmic exhibition as an open, durational expanse structured by perpetual repetition. They evoke a “forever repetition,” as the artist Shambhavi Kaul recently remarked – a temporal form that suggests “a cinema playing for nobody.” (( “In Conversation: Shambavi Kaul with Jordan Cronk,” Brooklyn Rail, 3 May 2016, ))

This open, recurrent, and seemingly inhuman temporality contrasts markedly with the linear and singular structure of traditional cinematic screenings. Unlike the standard moviegoer, who arrives to the theater at a set time, attends to the film as it unfolds, and leaves when it concludes, visitors to a looped installation may choose to view a given work multiple times in a single sitting. This makes the loop a rare context for repeat engagements with films that can be difficult to access, let alone view repeatedly. By providing such a context, the loop can encourage a nuanced appreciation of a film’s internal structure, which often passes unnoticed on an initial viewing. (( Other experimental filmmakers have sought to utilize this aspect of repeat viewing in works designed for theatrical exhibition by repeating an entire film multiple times on a single exhibition print. Peter Kubelka is most notable here for making works such as Adebar (1957) available for distribution on reels containing an individual film two or five times, and for requesting that such films be viewed at least twice in sequence. For Kubelka, repetition serves, somewhat paradoxically, both as a means of memorization, where the spectator is encouraged to get to “know [a film] by heart,” and as a reminder of nature’s basis in perpetual change, where one’s constantly varying perception of a repeated occurrence is valued for its ability to provoke ecstatic dream-states. See the Film-Makers’ Cooperative’s online catalogue at; and Peter Kubelka, “The theory of Metrical Film” in The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: NYU Press, 1978), esp. 154. )) But it can also catalyze a distinctly pleasurable attunement to the polyvalent character of the moving image, allowing the viewer to wait and watch as a film shifts over time, revealing itself as a complex nexus of different readings, problems, gestures, balances: a sort of tangle laden with opacities to be teased out and let loose, resumed, mulled over.

The loop’s capacity for repeat viewing may seem to align it more closely with the private and domestic viewing practices facilitated by electronic media technologies. As Laura Mulvey has noted, these technologies do cater to an enduring “repetition compulsion” provoked by the cinema, easing the viewer’s ability to replay privileged moments within a film and thereby attain a sense of mastery over the image. (( See Laura Mulvey, “The Possessive Spectator” in Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2006). )) But as Kaul’s remark suggests, the practice of sitting inside the “nobody cinema” opened by looped projection must be distinguished from such personalized and domesticated experiences of repetition. Whereas users of such devices perform repetition themselves, affirming self-possession via a possession of the image, the viewer who chooses to remain with a loop relinquishes control, subordinating her or his time to that of the apparatus. Rather than a user, this viewer is closer to a visitor, with all the connotations of externality this term implies. Such a visitor engages in a practice of being-with, a sitting-alongside in a time of estrangement, the yield of which is strangeness itself.


Jenny Perlin, 100 Sinkholes (still), 2014, 16mm film, b&w, silent, 14 min. 13 sec.

To be sure, the loop’s invitation to duration is generally declined. As Laura Marks observes, the typical viewer of a moving-image installation stays “just long enough to get ‘an idea of it,’” wresting some minor cognitive reward from the work installed before moving on to something else. Whether prompted by the call to mobility conveyed by the museum’s expansive architecture, the anxiety of completion this architecture induces, or the poor viewing conditions it tends to provide, the distracted museumgoer enacts a viewing practice that tends to reduce the loop’s durational form to a mere “idea of duration,” a potentiality that is largely unutilized in practice. (( Laura U. Marks, “Immersed in the Single Channel: Experimental Media From Theater to Gallery,” Millennium Film Journal 55 (Spring, 2012), 21. ))

But duration is there in the loop if you want it. And looped projection can encourage extended viewings that contrast with the distracted itineraries promoted by the museum, drawing viewers into a mesmerizing, vertiginous engagement with the moving image that few other media technologies can approximate. This is most clear when a linear work made for theatrical exhibition is projected via the non-linear form of the loop. Here, the viewer, who inevitably enters the film in some indeterminate middle zone, watches the film conclude and begin again, projecting this beginning backwards in time to imagine how it would read when positioned before the conclusion, while looking forward to a middle whose moment of arrival is unknown. When this point of entry does return, it returns with a difference, now recontextualized and renewed, invested with a new significance, made to signify differently. It concludes one’s viewing of the work but fails to function as a conclusion, instead giving way to the return of the conclusion, itself different again and somehow incomplete without reviewing the beginning. (( This viewing experience is not exactly novel. As Stanley Cavell reminds us, it was relatively common before cinema adopted the theater’s more regimented exhibition structure. Writing in 1971, he complains of the negative impact that the formalization of moviegoing was having on both the private and public dimensions of cinematic experience: “One could say that movie showings have begun for the first time to be habitually attended by an audience, I mean by people who arrive and depart at the same time, as at a play. When moviegoing was casual and we entered at no matter what point in the proceedings (during the news or short subject or somewhere in the feature—enjoying the recognition, later, of the return of the exact moment at which one entered, and from then on feeling free to decide when to leave, or whether to see the familiar part through again), we took our fantasies and companions and anonymity inside and left with them intact. Now that there is an audience, a claim is made upon my privacy… I feel I am present at a cult whose members have nothing in common but their presence in the same place” (Cavell, The World Viewed, enlarged edition [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1979], 11). ))

In such cases, the loop’s structure generates a complex, heterogeneous temporality that facilitates a disorganized viewing experience mediated as much by projection and retrospection as by the presentness of perception. When given the time, this temporality can catalyze a deliberate unraveling of the imperative to immediacy at the heart of contemporary culture. If the latter is increasingly guided, in Jonathan Crary’s terms, by a “hallucination of presence” that envisions human life as “an unalterable permanence composed of incessant, frictionless operations,” the loop can help to blot out this vision, allowing the viewer to puncture the operational surface of communication and sink into the “victorious strangeness” of an otherworldly time. (( Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2013), 29; Blanchot 23. ))


Caption: Jenny Perlin, 100 Sinkholes (still), 2014, 16mm film, b&w, silent, 14 min. 13 sec.

* This article originated as a paper presented at “Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture,” a conference held at Hunter College, City University of New York, November 7-9, 2014.

Image Credits:
All images courtesy of Simon Preston Gallery, New York.

Data Visualization, Loops, and the Taming of Big Data: Wind Map
Tess Takahashi / Independent Scholar


Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg’s Wind Map, Hurricane Sandy, October 30, 2012

On initial viewing, Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg’s Wind Map seems to be a real-time data visualization of wind patterns across the United States, appearing to “let the data speak” in a way that feels direct and immediate. However, despite the seamlessness of its animation, closer inspection reveals that Wind Map is an animated loop, rather than a direct and seamless feed, whose data (taken from the US National Weather Service) is updated once per hour and accurate within a 2-mile radius. While Wind Map seems to produce a real-time indexical correlate of an otherwise invisible force, the wind, a closer look reveals its delays, approximations, and repetitions of official data. But what does it mean for a loop to masquerade as real time? In the case of Wind Map, this seemingly minor deception suggests that the world is fully available to us – without gap or absence.

Wind Map was recently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in a show on design and technology, but it also has been featured as an exemplary text in a wide variety of blogs and articles between 2012 and 2013, many of which examined the phenomenon of “Big Data” and the increasing importance of data visualization within the larger culture. In 2012, New York Times journalist Steve Lohr called Big Data “the rising flood of digital data from many sources, including the Web, biological and industrial sensors, video, e-mail and social network communications.” Many cultural critics have discussed Big Data in relation to widespread anxiety about there being, in the words of historian Ann Blair, “too much to know” in a context where, as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier say, “stored information grows four times faster than the world economy, while the processing power of computers grows nine times faster.” In this context, there has been a fundamental epistemological shift in the ways in which we figure and navigate data, a realm now defined by its magnitude. Under these conditions, the magnitude of Big Data can produce anxiety over its condition of being not only “too much to know,” but too big to see.

Looping data visualizations like Wind Map can seem like an antidote to the problem that Big Data, which, like the larger system of the wind, is “too big to see.” Data visualizations like “The Most Popular Names of Boys and Girls Over Six Decades” pop up repeatedly on our feeds, squeezing decades of information into seconds. While many data visualizations are static, they frequently take the form of the looping gif, the web’s more common articulation of punctuated emotion: “Can you even?” “So wow.” However, looping data visualizations like Wind Map are quite different in their function from bite-sized gifs of eye-rolling dogs and celebrities. Rather than playing to fleeting emotion, they reveal a common state of cultural ambivalence about what we can know today.


Six Decades of the Most Popular Girls Names

As you can see from the handful of images here, data visualizations are easy to grasp in a single glance. They combine the aesthetic, the educational, and the entertaining in the attempt to access and tame data about invisible forces in ways that make it both more concrete (in the sense that it becomes comprehensible) and more abstract (in the sense that it simplifies, condenses, and brackets its representation from context, history, politics, and concrete material effects). In its aesthetic choices, Wind Map, for one, has a clear modernist appeal, with its color (or rather absence of color), the simplified shape of its map (which shows only the outline of the continental United States without lines demarcating individual states or geographical characteristics), and the width and length of the simple flowing white lines that depict the movement, force and speed of the wind.

Despite its abstract qualities, Viégas and Wattenberg describe Wind Map as a “living portrait” of the wind. If we take this description seriously and read Wind Map as a kind of portrait, we see that it focuses on the “head” of the United States and eliminates seemingly less important geographical appendages – Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Guam – as well as the countries of Canada to its north and Mexico to its south. Wind Map’s geographical absences surround a floating, decontextualized map of the U.S. that suggests the wind begins and ends at its borders, leaving it hermetically sealed from not only the airspace, but also the politics, of the rest of the world.


The Refugee Project

Granted, most looping data visualizations present information over the form of the simplified map as a way of managing scale and complexity, whether temporal, spatial, or political. The aesthetics of these maps and the information they depict varies widely. Within them, the animated loop is used to trace various forms of movement: the movement of bodies, borders, eyes, markers, machines, and natural resources – alternately produced as abstracted lines of boundary, lines of force, dots, and sometimes written language. Their stories, politics, and context are also radically stripped and rhetorically simplified.

At one end of the spectrum of immediacy and significance, YouTube produces real-time visualizations of its most popular videos by region over the continental U.S. At the other end, The Refugee Project charts the world migration of refugees over a forty-year period over a flattened map of the world. Whether operating as a passing entertainment or an activist intervention, many data visualizations organize historical time succinctly, condensing it into periods ranging from several seconds to several minutes. This choice certainly fits the short-attention span of the typical on-line viewer, whose gaze is solicited by flashing ads, often themselves gifs. Buy this! No, this! One might also argue that the attention span of the mobile gallery-goer is not much longer, surrounded as he or she is by competing visual demands. Look at this! No, this!

Such demands point to the underlying epistemological stakes of data visualization under what Jonathan Beller and others have described as the current “attention economy.” On the one hand, data visualizations can anchor us. They locate us not only in physical space, but also within an amorphous sea of digital information by giving us the impression that we are seeing the big picture. In this way, they seem to provide a ground of certainty that makes otherwise unmotivated, unrelated, random events meaningful. On the other hand, gifs like Wind Map might also make us aware, if only dimly, of the impossibility of ever fully grasping the complexity of historical time, the vastness of geographical space, or the bigness of Big Data.

What ultimately deters us from dwelling on that uncertainty, however, is the delight such visualizations produce. It’s an epistemological delight – a delight in knowing – or thinking we know – and it’s based on the feeling of mastery over the unexpected and absurd forms of information that today pass as “knowledge.” We experience Wind Map, The Refugee Project, “Most Popular Girl’s Names,” and “Most Popular YouTube Videos” as radically equivalent. These pleasurable, abstracted, endlessly circulating, and easily discardable bites of knowledge tend to pass through us with little consequence. Like the microscope and telescope before it, data visualizations seem to allow us to see what was previously invisible to us – even as they produce new blind spots.

*This article originated as a paper presented at “Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture,” a conference held at Hunter College, City University of New York, November 7-9, 2014.

Image Credits:
1. Wind Map
2. Jennifer
3. Refugee Project