Friday, February 5, 2010

Art, Obsolescence, and the Endangered Analog Species

A piece for my fNews class.
The film “Obselidia,” recently chosen as recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Award at the 2010 Sundance film festival, is written and directed by Diane Bell. It follows the life of George, a lonely, “old-fashioned,” librarian with one goal: to create an encyclopedia of all things obsolete. In addition to a charming cast and beautiful score (composed by Liam Howe using only obsolete instruments), “Obselidia” identifies recurrent, and often relevant themes in both our society and the SAIC psyche.

As the self-proclaimed “last encyclopedia salesman on Earth,” George (played by Michael Piccirilli) finds himself in a mental state that is both cynical and fatalistic. While he finds extreme joy in simple interactions (say, a cluster of ladybugs on his hand) he also believes the world around him is quickly pushing valuable people, places, and things into a forgotten past. “The notion of perfection is platonic trick to make us feel inadequate,” he claims. And perhaps he is right.

For artists and art students, feelings of both insecurity and inadequacy often lead to a wild hunt – a quest for that-which-is-flawless. We deal with this feeling incessantly. Am I done? Should I change this? That? What we don’t realize, and what perhaps George means, is that the idea perfection is fleeting, even nonexistent, in a transitory world.

Later in the film, George befriends Sophie, a projectionist at a silent movie theater and they venture to Death Valley to visit an author-turned-hermit named Lewis (Frank Hoyt Taylor.) At this point, Bell’s film becomes subtly environmental. While Lewis’ perspective offers a pragmatic, albeit dark evaluation of humanity’s overconsumption of natural capital, his attitude is that of reserved contentment. His character is much like that of an Edward Abbey / Nathaniel Hawthorne hybrid – living in the desert, tending to his bees, blissful.

In addition, the character Sophie (played by Gaynor Howe) balances the attitude of the film with her wildly optimistic paradigm. “Nothing is obsolete as long as you love it.” Though her dialogue is clichéd at times, she effectively salvages the audience from total, apocalyptic depression. Sophie’s career and hobby have been eroded by changing times; yet rather than turning bitter or hermetic, she drives a Mini, texts on her iPhone, and uses a computer rather than a typewriter.

Sophie embraces the convenience of the modern world, and still remains connected to the roots of her analog past. She has a strong faith in humanity that counteracts George’s platform – that if everything is temporary, why risk involvement?

While there is much discourse (especially in the art world) regarding the ephemerality of human interaction and possession, this idea can also be applied on a larger scope. If each innovation, or idea loses meaning faster and faster, are we telescopically advancing towards an end that is bereft of all meaning?

Like I said, a tad fatalistic.

Many arguments can be made about the transient way in which society functions. In the early 19th century, a group of discontented British textile artisans, known as Luddites, set about destroying mechanized looms, in rebellion against the industrial revolution. 100 years later, Chaplin released “Modern Times,” a representation of people all as “cogs” in a giant, industrial machine. It seems this idea is nothing new.

Instead of being written in stone, our postmodern history will perhaps be written in stucco. Expiration dates necessitate future consumption, and at the speed technology advances, the iPad will look like TI-83 graphing calculator in a matter of years. The trajectories of planned obsolescence are all around us. It’s beginning to look as if an encyclopedia of the obsolete would just include, well, everything.

To most SAIC students, the concept of ephemerality is pervasive. While some suck at the teat of the ‘trend,’ or others thrive on ideas of spontaneous absurdity, we are constantly reminded that things tend to be short-lived.

Some believe that technology’s impact on the art world has been overall, advantageous. Cody Tumblin is enrolled in the VisCom Department as part of his first year program. When asked about the computer, he says, “It used to be you had to get your name out [in public,] but now a graphic designer has to have a huge Internet presence as well. I mean, your portfolio’s online, people find you online, and clients find you online… Social networking’s becoming key. You couldn’t survive in the design world without having that relationship with the computer. Which is kind of a shame. But I don’t mind it, I like it, it helps me connect to more people.”

Some would even argue that our mass-produced, consumer economy requires fast-paced technological advance to survive. But whether we worship it, or despise it, artists are always products of it in some way. There is always  level of assimilation into our culture, even if you are the one standing on a soapbox in dissent. “Everything thrives off the media. So it’s necessary for America, but it’s not necessarily helping it,” says Tumblin. I think most would agree.

Bell indicates through characters like Lewis that times, indeed, are changing. So rather than crawl into a hole somewhere, perhaps we should learn to situate ourselves accordingly to this new environment. Though “Obselidia” is considered by some to be a story about love, it is also a powerful commentary on the paradigms in our postmodern world.

Maybe what Lewis points to is that we shouldn’t just throw our hands in the air, rather, we should find our source of rapture. The late American mythologist Joseph Campbell said memorably, “If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”

So whether you’re a neo-luddite, an Apple advocate, an anarchist, a situationist, a Marxist, an activist, or a disgruntled art student that sits on a Target futon and grumbles about anti-consumerism and impending doom, the message is clear.  Find what you love – a person, place, object, idea – and scratch it up a bit. Make it imperfect so it’ll last. And then share the passion you have for it in the best way possible.

After all ‘obsolete,’ to quote Merriam-Webster, means, “No longer in use.” Well. If you’re still using, loving, or living something out, then that definition just doesn’t seem to apply, now, does it?

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