Nostalgia for the Now

By: Peggy Nelson
January 6, 2011

Photographs give us the ability to capture what we see, more or less. And apps give us the ability to capture what we wish. So what do we wish for? The seventies or a reasonable facsimile? More beautiful memories? A more beautiful everyday? A more beautiful war?

[Damon Winter, 2010]

Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It’s not just that apps like Hipstamatic add a fade and a blur, and a single-color cast to a scene, imbuing it with more presence than perhaps it had claimed for itself. That’s all right, presence is absent, it lives in the mind’s eye, if at all. Imbue at will. Nostalgia’s trickiness is measured in the values embedded in the algorithms. That striped t-shirt on your back? That empty afternoon coffee mug? That corpse with the artfully lifeless fingers? All gesturing towards some time in the past when life was slower, when colors had time to fade, when transitions were softer and easier on the heart, when possibilities beckoned. Never mind that there was no time like that; or rather, that all times are. In our memories, it exists. And in our digital outputs.

But memories actually exist in the now, as do apps. A new app, Decim8, attempts to take on the nostalgia challenge by introducing the look of digital artifacts: hard edges, high-chroma blocks of color, and partial repetition. Instead of mimicking errors of paper and ink, it celebrates errors of light and speed. The stutter replaces the fade.

[Chris Morris, Industry, 2010]

[à Rebours, C3P0, 2010]

And celebrate them it does; the abrupt, noisy images are a riot of color and angle. But hard edges don’t necessarily mean the here-and-now. Representation of computer display “glitches” can be just as sentimental as lowered contrast and softened edges. Digital stutter does not force pseudo-Modernist insight from the tiny lens. It’s another gloss on the past; albeit the recent past, as opposed to the less-recent past. Hey, remember the ’90s? And San Francisco? And Burning Man, and art school, and thinking that you still had, if not all the time in the world, then still some, and getting in on this internet thing . . . oh, sorry, my memories. Help yourself, though. Basically, nostalgia about the CRT-glitch look is to instamatic film as nostalgia about cassettes is to vinyl. It’s all nostalgia, unless you’re turning it to new purposes.

[à Rebours, Franklin, 2010]

And nostalgia, for all its trickiness, isn’t terrible, just problematic. It’s possible to have good memories, sure, or to segment and enhance the ones that were not really that good, instead of sinking into an overwhelmed bitterness like an inverted Benjaminian Angel. But nostalgia is not neutral. We need to remember, along with all the memories, that our lives in the now are partially cast from the look of our past. Maybe it’s fade and maybe it’s stutter, or maybe it’s different looks on different days.

[Andrei Molodkin, The Red and the Black (glass, oil and black-market blood), displayed at the 2009 Venice Biennale]

But whether you edge your memories in straight-up lines and hard angles, or soft fades and scribbles, whether you’re busy reconstructing or deconstructing, remember that your preferred nostalgic perspective is a design choice. One is not more virtuous. One is not more real. Pick your past, and design your future accordingly.


Most Visited, Spectacles

What do you think?

  1. I did >:( What really killed me was the Polaroid shutdown a few years ago.

    Not that we should keep everything around forever, but some goods and services become so quickly absorbed into and spread throughout the culture that we come to think of them as part of the cultural commons. And then when something happens to remind us that it’s private ownership and we’re not the owners — problematic. Some artists stockpile towards the eventuality.

    But what happens when it’s not an art supply — when it’s your tweets, or part of a life scrapbooked on Facebook, or all your data that you’ve stored in the (private) cloud? In which case, hopefully you’ve exercised your nostalgia muscles, because you’ll be remembering what you can of it in your head.

  2. Speaking of nostalgia, as an archivist I am amazed when folks, even those in the tech field, make this assumption that because something exists online it exists forever…it’s just…out there. Even though there is some sort of technician behind every site on the internets, it seems to exist as a world of its own, populated by a community of anonymous personalities. When I come across a dead end livejournal entry from years ago written by someone with a handle like kiki2000 or marcoo or whatever, I look at it as an artifact from some sort of digital wild west ghost town.

  3. Bruce Sterling touched on similar sentiments as part of The WELL State of the World 2011 conversation the other day:

    *I think the real reason I do it is to watch this visual aspect of the Internet mutating. Photos and the Internet have been changing violently, in ways that conjure up powerful ideas like “drive toward free” and “cult of the amateur.” I watched analog photography die, and it could be that pretty soon I’m gonna have to watch FlickR and Yahoo!
    die, too.

    *And then my thriving FlickR set is gonna have the melancholy grandeur of an album full of rapidly fading Polaroids, only much, much more so. FlickR was the ur-Web 2.0 social network, and it was brilliantly designed, but then, so was the analog Brownie.

  4. To a life-long devotee of photography, there’s something so false and almost crass about the digitized patina of age being given to a photograph instantly and with no meaning, merely through choosing an app.

    As Donald Draper’s character so brilliantly notes when discussing the nostalgia inherent in looking at personal photographs… “In Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound’. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”

    What brings us to memory and to longing when we see an old photo, isn’t the fade, the discoloration or the grain. It’s all of the time that’s passed since we tried to freeze that particular moment.

    Those aren’t feelings that can be created by something as soulless and mundane as using an app.

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