REGARDING OBSOLESCENCE

In response to Deluge artist Paul Halliday and sociologist Francisco Calafate Faria presented papers discussing obsolscence, waste and redundancy to an open audience at Tapescape Catford Regarding Obsolescence

An essay by Paul Halliday responding to his own art installation ‘Deluge’

Ob-sol-escence. What does this word mean? Such an intriguing word. A word that points to a rich etymological journey contained within the form itself; possibly even hinting at some remaining traces of onomatopoeia. A word such as ‘bang’ sounds like a bang, and a word like ‘swift’ conjures a visual image of an object moving quickly and resolutely through space. And when I hear the word ‘obsolete’, its lilting, downward trajectory makes me think of an object that is coming to rest. Ob-so-lete. As if those three syllables contain an implicit reference to its own imminent, unavoidable demise. A de-energising. I’m not sure that the vast majority of professional marketers working with planned obsolescence whose daily tasks within the machinery of twenty-first century global capitalism involves the development of things fit for human markets – real or imagined – would be that concerned with the life journey of a word such as this. Why would they be interested in a critical socio-linguistics of this, or any other word whose sole purpose, it would seem, is to reflect eventual extinction and technological failure? It is enough that they should make objects fit for extinction without considering the words that describe such processes.

Marketing, by its very nature is surely all about the here, the now, the happening. Commodity fetishism is driven by the desire to make more profits, to be able to tell shareholders that a good return on investment has been achieved, and that significant proportions of the market have been captured for the company, after long wars with competitors also seeking to maximise profits and dominate the economic ground. Marketeers are trained to think and act like military personnel facing an enemy; the enemy being the competition. Accordingly, there is no place for compromise or for concern about job security, social obligations and the lives of others, but rather, marketing’s primary focus is with the perpetuation of the myth of the invisible hand of economic forces directing human minds and energies towards the realisation of maximal profits; and within such a scenario, any meaningful discussion of social obligation becomes, by definition, redundant. Indeed, within such a framing, one might almost think of such concerns as ipso facto, paradigmatically obsolete.

I recall attending marketing courses during the 1980s. I had been sent there by the Greater London Council to learn how such techniques might be applied to the development of adult and community education programmes. ‘Educational marketing’, as it is now termed, was something that had only just entered into the lexicon of post-compulsory education at the time. I remember sitting in a team meeting at the adult education centre in Greenwich, where I was based at the time, and trying to explain that marketing was not, as one colleague liked to put it ‘selling crap stuff to those stupid enough to buy it ’. On the contrary, there I was, an enthusiastic apostle of the new-found technology for rethinking how ‘products’ could be developed to reflect the lifestyle aspirations of various social groups. There were the As, Bs, C1s, C2s, Ds and Es; and they all reflected a capacity to afford what the material anthropologist Daniel Miller describes as ‘stuff’. Objects that have meaning, that are perceived as life-enhancing, that are enmeshed into the material and social networks that constitute our ideas of community, culture and belonging.

Marketing for me, was something that could be liberating, it could be used to develop educational courses and arts programmes that might be life-enhancing. I found myself gravitating to what was a rapidly expanding field of ‘social marketing’, that is, where the ‘product’ was something perceived to have social value such as education, art development, charity services, NGOs etc. I thought less about how one might develop a critical response to the gradual encroachment into the world of social provision hitherto provided by the national health service, social services, education departments and many other institutions founded to put users, rather than ‘customers’ first. The models we were given have stayed with me until this day, based as they were, on the notion of the ‘product life cycle’. There are many variations on a theme here, and I will spare you some of the more eccentric versions, but one thing they all had in common was the idea that the starting point for any product was the existence of a pre-existing or potential demand from customers that could be linked to a commodity. Accordingly, the classical product life cycle has a shape like a bell-curve and includes sections that reflect the research, introduction, development, consolidation and eventual decline aspects of the thing’s journey through time and geography.

The decline phase might be extended beyond ‘terminality’ through the judicious tweaking of an aspect of the product’s design. Take digital cameras as an example. Ten years ago it would have been virtually unimaginable that a decade later, twelve mega-pixel cameras would be available from low-cost consumer outlets for under £100. In the early days of the technology, the fine tweaking of mega-pixels where cameras went from 5mp to 5.1mp was the norm, as if the product had ‘plateau-ed-out’. And then suddenly, the expectations of consumers and retailers alike were challenged by what might be described as an evolutionary jump into the giddy heights of double and triple the amount of pixels, all marketed at the same price. Of course, the knock-on effect of this was the decreasing use of film, as it became ‘old technology’, on the verge of, if not emblematic of obsolescence. Around this time, Art and Design departments started to notice that fewer students were using their wet darkroom resources, and believing that the customer is invariably right, started selling off their old analogue printing enlargers, film cameras and processing tanks. Sometimes they didn’t even sell them off; sometimes they were simply scrapped. Devere large-format enlargers were dumped, technologies that had previously been highly prized and very expensive were now considered little more than dust-catching remnants of an industrial archaeology. But there’s the catch; not so long ago, a colleague who runs a college darkroom told me that he had noticed a significant spike in students working with analogue photography, and that this had impacted on the use of darkroom and camera resources.

I was very interested in this as I had continued to work with film on personal long-term photographic projects and had noticed at around the same time, that my professional lab had been struggling to turn around film processing and printing within the 24 hours advertised. Indeed, they had been forced to extend turnaround to 48 hours due to an unprecedented and unpredicted rise in demand for analogue services. The lab’s printer told me that the company’s business plan had been based on a gradual, controlled fazing-out of wet services and that this sudden revitalisation of the market had taken them completely by surprise. Almost as if the analogue had refused to be categorised as ‘redundant’ and had reclaimed a position within art practice that reflected a shift that was not just ‘different’ from the domain of the digital, but also spoke to what Walter Benjamin called the ‘aura’ of uniqueness. Film, with its well-documented limitations, started to become ‘authentic’, fragile, relatively unpredictable and most importantly – tactile. You can hold it, smell it even, hear it crackling as you take it out of the negative holder; it is delicate and vulnerable. Of most importance to photographers and artists alike, is that it has archival qualities that, rightly or wrongly, are thought to preserve our memories beyond the short life span of volatile digital media such as memory cards, CDs and hard-drives. Paradoxically, the very thing-ness of film that was identified within a discourse of obsolescence is now being revisited within an argument of ‘archival-ness’, of structural longevity.

So what does all of this have to do with the installation here? How does this installation speak to and of obsolescence? How might we theorise videotape as a form of stuff? Well, perhaps the work has a presence that speaks of two domains, that of play, and that of nightmare. We have had children passing by, fascinated by the unravelling of the tape, asking if they can come in to look and sometimes ‘swim’ in the work. But we have also had people confiding that they were disturbed by the work. And it would be true to say that there are times when it glistened in the dark, moved gently by the air-conditioning, as if by a hidden force, it took on a different set of characteristics; a kind of personality missing from its daytime form. Six hundred VHS tapes, uncoiled and spreading across the abandoned industrial carpets of Catford’s Blockbuster Video. Such an organic form could only exist because local people decided to donate their used videocassettes as part of the installation. Had this not happened, the work might have been little more than a trickle, rather than the flood that it has become.

Every few days, building up to National Recycle Week, I visited the abandoned shop with a team of dedicated helpers from Platform-7 and Goldsmiths who became experts at disassembling and reassembling the videotape cassettes. We initially tried to pull the tape out manually with our hands, but we quickly realised that this would be an almost impossible task that would take forever, and would cut our hands to shreds. John’s digits bled. Eventually gravity made its presence known to us, and this became our guiding force and accepted modus operandi, combined with the application of Fordist working principles of workflow rationalisation and task specialism. Sara discovered hitherto unknown skills in the unravelling of VHS tape, which required concentration and dedication to the task, otherwise the tape would become entangled and knotted. Nick discerned aptitudes in putting the cassettes back together and collecting their discarded metallic and plastic inner-workings, which he then categorised and piled neatly into boxes on the floor.

Amidst the flowing metallic strands, we could imagine perhaps, the family wedding and holiday videos, episodes of Friends, Richard Attenborough’s Disappearing World, adolescent vampires from 1990s and 1980s disco-infernos, all woven together to make another kind of story, another kind of event, some other reconstituted thing that was and is yet to be defined, that exists through reclamation beyond the domain of obsolescence, within the realm of a possible future imagination.

Deluge, a moving art installation, was commissioned by Platform-7 at Catford Blockbuster as part of National Recycle Week.

Paul Halliday is an artist and urbanist based at Goldsmiths, University of London where he convenes the MA Photography and Urban Cultures.

Read more and view images from Catford Tapescape: The Intervention I

Watch short video of Paul Halliday and John McKiernan discussing Deluge

Text/Image Copyright Paul Halliday,