- Slow, Methodical, and Mulled Over:Analog Film Practice in the Age of the Digital
From October 2011 to March 2012, the Tate Modern in London staged one of the most important artistic statements about analog technology in the digital era: Tacita Dean’s installation FILM. Standing thirteen meters high at the far end of the gallery’s Turbine Hall, Dean’s FILM was clearly more than just a film; it was a monumental paean to the analog medium that has, since the end of the twentieth century, been in rapid decline. Dean’s installation, with its epic proportions and cathedral-like setting, asked the gallery visitor to stop for a second, to contemplate the wonder, the mystery, the sheer magic of film, and to take part in a collective mourning of its passing. The experience was akin to that of being outside time, of being lost in a dreamlike space of liminality, not unlike the one in which film now finds itself—suspended between shifting economies and value systems, between a vibrant past and an uncertain future. The piece itself, as well as Dean’s public campaign to “save” celluloid, is part of a now-familiar and polarized discourse on the “death of film,” which I do not [End Page 146] rehearse here.1 Rather, I would like to use the installation as a springboard for thinking about how analog technology and obsolete media have become associated in recent years with a particular form of slowness. I argue that this contemporary framing, and its ethical implications, paves the way for new understandings of materialist aesthetics in the digital era.
In the catalog that accompanies the Tate installation, Dean outlines the fundamental technical differences between digital and photochemical modes of production and the specificities of film that drive her artistic practice. Unlike digital forms of image making, celluloid practice is “not fast and spontaneous,” she argues, “but slow and methodical and mulled over.”2 The relative ease of digital undoing and redoing, duplicating and erasing, which gives rise to spontaneity, is here pitched against the material finitude and unrepeatability of celluloid, which imposes contemplation and foresight. As problematic as this divisive dichotomy might be, it represents a recent attempt to carve out a position of autonomy for analog practice based on an oppositional temporality. Once the emblematic modernist technology of speed and dynamism, analog film, with its cumbersome mechanical processes and stubborn physical presence, now stands as the signifier of an old order, of times past. The continuation of obsolete practices is frequently perceived as a (nostalgic) refusal to move with the times, but it is also increasingly framed as responding critically to a “global culture of ever-increasing speed” with a corresponding slowness.3 In this sense, the countercultural potential of film can be seen to operate on two interconnected levels: first, the use of old technology such as 16mm film emerges as an “archaic choice,”4 which outwardly rejects the forward drive of capitalist progress and its obsession with the “relentlessly new”; second, in an era of digital filmmaking, working with celluloid requires the analog artist to enter into a temporal contract with its physical materials that is at odds with modern society’s benchmark of speed, efficiency, and instantaneity.5 Analog film is therefore as much a meditation on time passing as it is a signifier of times past.
The recuperation and recycling of discarded machinery by increasing numbers of artist-run film labs, as well as a burgeoning culture of do-it-yourself film chemistry, has given new energy to artisanal film practices such as optical and contact printing, hand-processing, hand-tinting and -toning, the fabrication of film emulsion, and direct-on-film animation. Although these practices have long been central to the history of experimental film language, their aesthetic and political relevance is now differently inflected as the status of analog filmmaking shifts from the dominant to the residual.6 New paradigms are thus required for understanding the cultural relevance of film’s [End Page 147] material properties, and for thinking about how technologies of the past—with their concomitant temporal modalities—have the potential to inflect our relationship with the present...