Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tangible Past -- capture and release

Earlier this week, there was piece about something (can't even remember what) on NPR, where a man made the comment along the lines of "future generations will have so much material to help document their ancestors, what with all this digital media allowing for sound and image and recordings of so much stuff."  Right away, I turned to the radio and said "unh unh...."  Digital media keep on changing.  Methods of recording, both the machinery and the process, as well as recovery, have evolved at a pace quicker than the changing of a generation.  My iPod stores a heckuva a lot more information--including types of information, like complex sound (music) and visuals (video/film) than the crazy Smackintosh I wrote my first graduate papers on.  And that Smackintosh (remember the cute little face that would smile at you from the center of the screen?) allowed me to divert attention to things like playing Tetris, which would have thrilled the professor I had as an undergraduate who kept on talking about the "incredible" new Tandy he got that allowed him to store *more than one chapter!* at a time!

Perhaps more profoundly, as a filmmaker, I entered my studies shooting on 16mm, and left as folks were recording Hi8 and trying to settle on a way to record digital sound.  Less than five years after that, Hi8 was no longer the visual medium of choice, the department was getting rid of 16mm classes, and the uber-advanced Avid training I had gone through was now de rigueur.  I don't need to point out how many "citizens" nowadays have created their own videos, with transitions and overlaid soundtracks, of their vacations/weddings/dog's first trip to "Grandma's house," right?

I can't play my Hi8 tapes from anywhere but in the machine I recorded them.  My 16mm was transferred to video, which is now being tranferred to digital.  This year's digital, mind you.  If I had done this close to ten years ago, it would have all been on a floppy drive which my current computer can't even receive, let alone recognize.

Meanwhile, I still have stashes of family photos.  A crew of men standing on top of a load of logs taller than my elementary school, in an image whose appearance is recreated by selecting "sepia" in iPhoto.  A tintype of I have no idea who in a pram.  A Kodacolor of my Nana yukking it up with her girlfriends, all in rollers.  Some Fuji slides of my one trip beyond the borders of this country.  A letter from my great-grandfather to my mother.  All of which are degrading at the same pace they were when I first looked at them in the "dawn of the digital era."  But which I can still go and examine at my own whim.

There is an article in the New York Times today exploring the need for digital forensics, as they explore the emerging generation of digital collections in libraries.  There is no standard for archiving these collections.  There is no easy method for taking a look at the 5 1/4 floppies of John Updike, the 3 1/2 floppies from Salman Rushdie, the jump drives and hard drives and captures from cloud computing that will be the format of collections yet to come.  Even as a smattering of librarians with digital knowledge (some with reasonable expertise) emerge, the only source of people truly trained in rooting out digital content are...police.

You and I are better off rolling through microfiche.

Yesterday, perfumer and blogger Ayala Sender wrote about the happy confluence of events that united her with an eBay trophy:  a vintage bottle of Patou 1000.  (Read her SmellyBlog here.)  I think about the recovery of the past, the connection that tangible objects (and smells) allows us to our past when we are able to touch/see/smell the actual something, or an actual something that somebody/something no longer extant also touched/saw/smelled.  You will notice I don't mention hearing, or taste, here...which is worth sorting out at another time.  Oh, yes, I am well aware of the inextricable connection of taste & smell...in a given moment.... And I have other thoughts about sound and recordings.   Later.  I think, and my musings run over the conversations about vintage vs. new formulations, about historical concept for the olfactory perception of a perfume (both visceral and intellectual), about ghosts on the earth.

Not to mention, of course, about whether or not I "like" something, and whether it smells "old"--both in an "off" way and in a "my Grandma!" way.

I listen to Ayala, and I empathetically get caught up in her thoughts.  I sit down to write about mechanics, and reproduction, and archiving, and saving the past, and experiencing the past, and "Grandma perfume," and I remember this exchange from three days ago:

teenage son:  Okay, so I smelled one of those papers that fell out of the magazine, and I immediately thought of Grandma.  How weird is that?  I mean, *is* that weird?  I totally smelled Grandma!

me (happy to share a meaningful moment with son):  Only weird feeling...but scientifically supported...lots of my perfume people will talk about smells associated with memory, of course, but they aren't the only anecdotes... 

teenage son:  Right, like Proust with the madeleine?  

me (I love this kid) : Exactly.  Curiosity striking  Hey, do you remember what perfume it was?

teenage son:  No, but...goes out of room, returns with insert...This one.

me:  Cognitive dissonance moment, as the evidence registers in my brain.  Oh.

meanwhile, teenage son:  So it isn't weird?  Does she wear this?

me:  feeling like I am lying  No, it's not weird.  collecting myself I don't know if she wears this, but she probably wears something like it.

He walks away feeling better.  I am...discombobulated.  I am staring at... a scented strip for... Light Blue.

So, there you go.  We've been tossing around this description of "granny perfume," and protesting or professing love or proferring evidence why it shouldn't be labeled as such.  This whole time, I am, of course, carrying in my olfactory mind whiffs of civet, of aldehydes, maybe oakmoss.

My kid is thinking Light Blue.

Life.  Constantly reminding me that the more I learn, the more I integrate and make connections, the more that await my reckoning.

No matter how we record images/presentations of our past, we'd better be sure we are clear in our offering.  And we'd also be sure to be aware of the means through which we examine the material.


Rose said...

hello! you are back! wow lots going on here.

Firstly re digital media as sort of ex historian can see it will pose problems. Imagine museums will start holding a digital file on a central backed up server on modern writers- not sure to me Rushdie's floppy disc would ever be as exciting as a Bronte manuscript but maybe in time... probably not though.

Your son reads Proust! what I find strange is the smell of YSL champagne reminds me of my Grandma but my Mother swears she never ever wore it- only Chanel No 5- which I also associate with her- so not sure why the YSL does that to me- it's a much stronger scent memory than the No 5 too- really hits me.

ScentScelf said...


I am back. I do appear to be in the middle of a brain dump. ;)

I wonder the same thing about the "excite factor" of digital data...there's a reason the phrase for written manuscripts is "I can see X's hand there." I'd be more interested in seeing Tom Wolfe's Commodore 64, for example (if he used one), than the floppy discs that captured the bytes. It's the connection...and while I know archives are about building the context around a given creator/body of work, there's something more to that than a mechanical bibliography, no?

How interesting about the YSL and your Grandma. Hmmm, I wonder if there's something like that going on with the Light Blue...the scent *I* know my mother wears is Vera Wang. So what could it be...pure concept, a sort of olfactory portrait? An amalgamation of real remembered smells in one bottle of perfume?

BTW, I happen to like Champagne. (On my aldehyde-ready days...it's one of those I can do, and happily. Again, when the situation is right.) Which raises another question...does smelling Champagne put you in a certain mood? or frame of mind? or era? Could any of *those* be a factor?

Glad to be back, btw; among other things, I can keep up with *your* blog. Which is a :) thing.