Dusty vinyl records, vintage film cameras, rickety typewriters are the creative tools being used by some emerging artists. Pure nostalgia? Or a laudable refusal to escape the speed and sanitised perfection of contemporary digital culture?
With indecent haste, the digital revolution has consigned many of our once-cherished artefacts to the dustbin of history. Though enthusiasts and obsessives have stayed loyal to pre-digital formats, for the rest of us it feels like the vinyl record, the photographic print, the Polaroid camera, the analogue recording studio and the darkroom have been cast aside, rendered all but obsolete by a digitally driven culture that devours all that preceded it. Soon, we are told, the newspaper and the book may share the same fate.
The young artists featured here – a poet who composes on a typewriter, a musician who has built an entirely analogue recording studio, a photographer who shuns digital for manual vintage cameras and an artist who DJs on a gramophone – are all, in their different ways, reacting to digital culture’s fast-forward momentum. Are they driven by nostalgia for a past they did not live though and in retreat from a present that makes them uneasy as it makes everything easier?
This is a common reaction. In 1970, sociologist Alvin Toffler coined the phrase “futureshock” to describe a psychological state for those faced with “too much change in too short a period of time”. Today, for instance, there is a creeping anxiety about the ways in which the internet is rewiring our brains and, some experts have argued, making us less literate and less able to concentrate for long periods on a single subject. Nowness is everything, reflection seems old fashioned; opinion is dominant; scholarship and expertise seem scarcely to matter.
The work of these artists is born of a dissatisfaction with digital culture’s obsession with the new, the next, the instant. It values the hand-made, the detailed and the patiently skilful over the instantly upgradeable and the disposable. In his book The Craftsman, American thinker Richard Sennett warns that we are in danger of losing ourselves if we turn our backs on the learnt skills and craftsmanship that helped give our lives meaning. Instead of constant distraction, he celebrates modes of creativity that involve slowness, attentiveness and contemplation. Today, though, our lives are so taken up with tweeting, blogging, browsing and networking that the time it takes to master a trade or a musical instrument, or read a discursive book like Sennett’s, is time many of us think we can no longer afford.
What also unites these four is a willingness to slow down, to run counter to the furious momentum of digitised contemporary culture, its speed and its pursuit of sanitised perfection – of sound, image and format.
In the age of [computerised music producing platform] Pro-Tools, where every miscue, dropped beat and fluffed syllable can be corrected digitally, musician Lewis Durham, perhaps the most obsessive champion of all things analogue, has constructed a recording studio in which a resurrected Elvis would feel at ease. “It’s not about the era,” insists Durham, “more the quality of the equipment made.”
For Durham, and his rockabilly group, Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, though, authenticity is all: the sound of the recording matching the cut of the period clothes, the curve of a vintage guitar, the propulsive thump that only a stand-up bass can produce.
For artist Naomi Kashiwagi, old technologies are simply a means to new and surprising ends. She customises mechanical musical hardware – gramophones, shellac records – then plays them to create live sound that allows for, and thrives on, the accidental: distortion, repetition, amplified crackles, rumbles and echoes. She calls up the ghosts in these old, supposedly obsolete machines, then exorcises them with a gleeful conceptual flourish.
For Daniel Grendon, a photographer who uses vintage film cameras, and Claire Askew, who composes poetry on a typewriter rather than a laptop, the process of creating art seems as important as the end result. Again, it is the hands-on approach that matters, the care and attention needed in both the preparation and execution of a work.
In 1936, philosopher Walter Benjamin published his influential essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in which he suggested that a painting possessed a certain “aura” which a photograph or a film did not. The aura was to do with its uniqueness, its originality and, thus, its authenticity. He did not mourn the loss of this aura in art; instead, he mused on what might arrive in its place and what kinds of collective experience might replace the solitary appreciation of a piece. Who knows what he would have made of the digital age in all its dazzling possibility, its endless capacity for distraction as well as its thus far underused capacity for inculcating knowledge rather than disseminating information. However much we resist the digital tide, we’re all caught up in its undertow. It is time someone updated Benjamin’s essay for the digital age.
Naomi Kashiwagi – the performance artist
Naomi Kashiwagi, 29, is based in Manchester where she also works as a student co-ordinator at the Whitworth Gallery. She makes art by reinventing obsolete or everyday technologies, including a performance piece which involves DJing using a wind-up gramophone and 78rpm records.
I have 200 records made from shellac – the brittle material used before vinyl – ranging from jazz to classical, and I’m fascinated by the potential sounds that can be extracted through playful reappropriation. My performance, Wind-Up, involves gramophone turntables and 78rpm records. I place electrical tape on the records to create an additional tactile layer. This creates unexpected percussive discordances, harmonies and locked grooves.
I’m always bewildered by the extraordinary sounds within these 80-year-old records. The gramophone has to be wound up to maintain the tempo. It requires physical skill and attention from the user to keep several records playing at once. The sound is surprisingly rich and clear, bespeckled with wonderful dusty grooves. It is an intuitive and experimental process, as I don’t know how it is going to sound, but that’s all part of it.
I first performed in the acoustically impressive Great Hall in Manchester Central Library in November 2009, in what is supposed to be a silent space. The sounds were accentuated and distorted by the rotunda. I have performed in other unusual places, including the Victoria Baths in Manchester. I can easily crank my turntables up outside anywhere as they are wireless technologies.
For headphones while DJing I use a contraption I invented – the gramoscope – which is a stethoscope with the chest piece replaced with an ear trumpet. It enables me to hear clearly enough to beat-match. I’ve also used the gramophone to draw – I manually engrave the records with the record needle, to produce subtle, deep marks that echo the existing grooves.
Reinventing the everyday is central to my art. I have used pianos, autoharps, typewriters and stationery as musical instruments and violin bows as paintbrushes. I’m interested in the potential within obsolete technologies because their conventional functions are redundant. They are mechanical, designed to be uni-functional and it is possible to understand how they work just by looking at them, unlike today’s digital technologies whose inner workings remain an enigma. Interview by Kirsty Styles
Daniel Grendon – the photographer
Daniel Grendon, 26, originally from Australia but now living in north London, has turned his passion for old cameras into The Vintage Portrait Experiencecorrect, a business offering photos taken with his hoard of analogue cameras.
I got my first camera at 10, and after that I always had one with me. I like to collect things, so I guess taking photos was a way of collecting memories. I always thought I was going to go digital, but I could never afford a proper digital SLR. Then my partner and I were in Prague for our first anniversary and he found a shop where they had hundreds of old cameras. He said: “You’ve got £50, buy what you like!” So I bought two, a Fed 5 and another Russian camera.
I became addicted to the results. There was this whole extra magic to using analogue cameras. A year later, I ended up getting a digital SLR, and I’ve been using that as well, but it never feels the same. There’s something missing. With vintage equipment, there’s an extra layer of depth, another dimension. You get a bit more character out of them.
I am completely self-taught and these fully manual cameras really showed me how to use and understand not only my old cameras but digital cameras as well. Being able to use the older technology helps you understand and use the newer one better and develop your skills further.
The oldest camera I’ve got is a Soho Myna, which I bought for £8 on eBay. It makes the photos look like they were taken back in 1920. I’ve also got a Russian one which leaves a little ghost on the photo every time. It works really well in black and white because it makes the image look creepy.
People ask why I don’t just use Photoshop to create the effect of using an analogue camera. You can tell straight away when somebody’s taken a digital photograph and edited it to look like it’s been taken on film. It’s crisp and clear and there’s not the obvious grain or intensity of the colours.
With a digital camera, you can go out and take 50 photos of the same thing, come home and pick the best one. But I was drawn to analogue because you have to do everything with the camera to ensure that it’s a really good photograph. It takes longer but you savour it. When the extra care you’ve taken is reflected in the photo, and it’s really good, there’s that whole extra level of excitement. Gemma Kappala Ramsamy
Claire Askew – the poet
Claire Askew, 25, is a poet who lives in Edinburgh, and is studying for a PhD in creative writing. Her parents gave her a typewriter when she was a child, which sparked her interest, and she began to collect them while she was at university. Now she owns 18 typewriters and uses them to write her poetry on, instead of using a computer. She also edits a new writing magazine, Read This, and keeps a blog at readthismagazine.co.uk/onenightstanzas.
The typewriter is where it all comes together. I don’t start working out where the line breaks or stanza breaks are going to go until I type. When it’s in the notebook, it’s a fluid thing, but once it gets on the typewriter it becomes a poem – if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.
I find it very, very difficult to write as well on a computer as I do on the typewriter. Perhaps it’s because you have to think much more carefully when using a typewriter, because if you make a mistake you have to start all over again. If you do it on a word processor you can start and then come back to it, delete whole stanzas in a second; it’s almost too easy.
My first typewriter was a Smith Corona, which used to be my dad’s when he was at college in the 70s. It’s a very retro, grey-and-white machine. I started typing things on it because it was a bit of a novelty, but I found that I really liked it. I soon started getting interested in different makes and models. I found out that Allen Ginsberg wrote on this kind of typewriter and Ernest Hemingway wrote on that kind of typewriter – I began to learn about the mythology.
I really wanted an Olivetti Lettera 32, which is a 1960s typewriter, a bit of a design icon, so I got one of those. There are certain makes that I’m still chasing. Ginsberg is one of my favourite poets – I did my undergraduate dissertation on him. He wrote on an Underwood 5, which is a massive, gargantuan, cast-iron black thing. That’s my holy grail.
I would like to use all the typewriters in my collection, but some of them are very old and you can’t get the ribbons for them anymore. It’s a shame because some of them have really nice fonts. A lot of the time it’s very hard to repair them, not least because it’s difficult to get new parts. They’re such complex pieces of machinery that if you lose one screw it might never work again. Having said that, a laptop has a lifespan of about five years, whereas a typewriter can last for 100, sort of like people do – and that’s something that appeals to me.
Writers tend to be quite obsessive people and my interest in typewriters has, I’m not ashamed to say, become quite obsessive. It’s become part of my creative process and I’m stuck with it now. This is how I write.
My flatmates are both graphic designers, so they have MacBooks and Corel drawing tablets and I’m fully aware, from living with them, of what a fantastic thing technology is and how it can enable you to do things that previously artists and creative people were not able to do. It opens all sorts of doors. But at the same time I think there is something to be said for film cameras, photographs and typewriter poems.
You don’t necessarily have to say: “That’s outdated and we can do better now.”It’s a nice thing that people can respect old technology and are still interested in fiddling around with it.There’s a kind of resurgence of old technology, people realising that actually, it does still have something to give, and We don’t have to leave it all behind. The two can exist happily alongside each other. G K-R
Lewis Durham – the musician
Lewis Durham, 20, is one-third of sibling trio Kitty, Daisy & Lewis. He collects and DJs 78rpm records and has built an entirely analogue recording studio in his parents’ house in north London, consisting of 1940s, 1950s and 1960s recording equipment such as three- and eight-track recorders and vintage BBC and RCA microphones. He recently installed some of his equipment in a “pop- up” recording studio in the Riflemaker Gallery in London as part of an Analog exhibition. Kitty, Daisy & Lewis’s music is heavily influenced by swing, jump-blues, country & western, Hawaiian and rock’n’roll. Their last album was the first 1940’s=style hardback album book, consisting of five 78rpm discs, to be released in over 50 years. Their new single, “I’m So Sorry”, is out now on Sunday Best Recordings.
I got a lot of my recording equipment for nothing. This mixing console came from a radio station in America. It would have been used in the 1940s and they were chucking it away. It’s not about the era, more the quality of the equipment made. And it happens to be that the best stuff was built in the early 60s. The parts were precision-made and a lot of money and time went into making them. So that’s the music I tend to go towards, because I can hear that in the sound.
Even though some digital equipment costs thousands of dollars, it’s still cheaply made. It just doesn’t capture the energy or feeling of music when someone’s playing. That magic doesn’t come through on modern technology,