Famed country singer Mickey Newbury probably didn’t have the odd feedback loop created by science fiction speculation when he wrote “The Future Is Not What It Used To Be” back in the 1970s.* His ballad does, however, give us a wonderful bit of insight into the disruption of time and space caused by what I’d describe as a sort of “drunken nostalgia”:
I left Decatur hell-bent to forget
Bought a ticket to Skowhegan, Maine
I wound up in Seattle so drunk and so rattled
Thought I’d caught the wrong train
Found some fast easy women and some hard drinking men
Swore I’d drown the sorrow in me
I once had a lot but the future was not
Not what it used to be
What Newbury’s lyrics and the titular phrase itself present is a sort of meditation on the uncanny situation produced when the past’s projection of the future is corrupted by the “real” nature of the present. In other words, a failure of expectations.
Sabrina Ratte’s short video, The Land Behind (2013, 5min.), is a visual/sonic representation of “drunken nostalgia,” which could be a new aesthetic category. By using a combination of digital rendering and analog manipulation, Sabrina creates a disjointed alien landscape that brings the spectator to an “unreachable destination” (qtd. from artist’s description). Behind uses a simple tracking shot of an unspecified alien/future world – the ground is a neon grid, the structure in the distance could be a mountain range or a piece of architecture – and disrupts the forward movement with layers of wipes, screens converging on screens, digital effects, and other visual distortions. Combined with the glitch-driven music composed by Ratte’s longtime collaborator, Roger Tellier-Craig, the “future” presented in Behind is an uncanny representation of the worlds depicted in experimental computer animation and cyberpunk narratives of the 1980s. Ratte’s neon psychedelia is, in a sense, these past futures seen through a prism, reminding us that the future is not what it used to be.
The archival nature of the internet has helped solidify the postmodern mechanism of pastiche to an almost absurd extent. One could argue that it’s gotten to the point that the remixed, reused, borrowed, stolen, etc. nature of certain post-internet art relies so much on the re-appropriation of past forms and content to the point that we can no longer rely on the definitions of “postmodernism” to describe them. Nicolas Bourriaud touches on this in his description of the “postproduction” work of art. Hito Steyerl uses this idea as the base for her discussion of how the “poor image” operates as a (somewhat) revolutionary object. And many other media theorists, philosophers, artists, bloggers, vloggers…have made contributions to this idea as well.
The Land Behind falls on the middle ground along the spectrum, if we are going from re-presenting outright (for an example I will use one of Bourriaud’s: Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho – which is Hitchcock’s original feature slowed down to last 24 hours) and mere “influence” (without forgetting the anxiety that comes with it). For lack of a better word, this middle ground is nostalgia, which is a notion that has been beaten to death recently, whether through enacting the term or through trying to navigate its complexity within art or history. Even so, I feel like it works because it encapsulates the sense of déjà vu that runs through a large amount of recent cultural output – think soft-grunge, pastel-goth, the films of Nicolas Winding Refn and Xavier Dolan, or even Midnight in Paris.
The particular aesthetic that Behind references, marks a very important time in the history of the intersection of video and computer art. Similar to Behind, works like Snow Cannon (1981) and Carla’s Island (1982) show an interest in worldbuilding, which is something that computer animation had mostly stayed away from up until the 1980s – more than likely due to technological restraints. Early computer animation was more analogous to abstract animation; for example, compare the work of Walter Ruttman or Norman McLaren to those of the Whitney Brothers or Chris Casady. For Behind, worldbuilding exists beyond the fact that another world can be rendered; today, there are countless instances of high-quality images from movies and videogames, even if they are “life like” or not. Ratte’s other world is then distinctly familiar and distinctly strange: The spectator is familiar with the graphics, if not from movies, then from videogames, even though the presented world does not exist. The glitches are familiar too, at least in the opening shot; the spectator can see the horizon being rendered as the shot progresses, and anyone who has played pre-Playstation 2 games understands this necessary “flaw.” By reusing these bits of “outdated” animation, Ratte is able to present the spectator with a fragmented unreality, a drunken nostalgia (or an aesthetic drunk on nostalgia) that could be seen as analogous to the worldbuilding that happens in our individualistic society: perception being our own bit of personal rendering of our “real world.”
Interestingly enough, Ratte also uses a trope that moves through all of these earlier works (even those of Ruttman and McLaren): the use of a contrived synesthesia by mixing particular visuals with particular sounds.** This mechanism reached a high point when Don Slepian introduced his visual synthesizer in the early 1980s and made wonderful music/videos that aimed to “feedback colorized video smoke the way Jimi Hendrix would feedback tones on his guitar.” Hell yeah! This literal convergence of experimental electronic music and experimental video work is very apparent in Behind and the rest of Ratte’s work. Especially in her collaboration with Roger Tellier-Craig, Le Révélateur, a music/video project similar in sonic quality to the heavy synth psychedelia of Emeralds, Stellar Om Source, Sun Araw… all those kids influenced by Popul Vuh, Klaus Schulze, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane… or, in other words, well I think you get the point.
– Paul Gonter
* Finnish filmmaker Mika Taanila did have this meaning in mind when he used the same title for his 2002 documentary/film essay on Erkki Kurenniemi.