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Lossless and Found

- Esther Leslie


Never before have so many people been equipped with cameras, perhaps integrated in their phones, always ready to shoot a disaster or a pop concert. Hunting out bits of the real, these image-snatchers render the new aesthetics of the close-up (as favoured in mobile phone photography) and the ghostly, those lo-fi resolutions of events barely discernable but adequately marking out the presence of the recordist in the shared space. Even or especially in its unclarity photo-flurries come to be markers of news actuality: an example is the cloudy footage filmed by a survivor in the tube tunnel at Russell Square, after a bomb detonated on 7 July 2005. ‘User-generated material’ was on TV twenty minutes after the attacks. Every event generates its doubles and triples and thousands and finds its way to YouTube or blogs. And that which did not originate with us becomes destined for us on the websites we harvest. We are exhorted to scan our holiday photographs retrospectively for images of paedophiles, should we happen to have been in the right place at a crucial moment. Or we voyeuristically scan footage – such as that released of Lisa Lopes, the R’n’B star videoing herself back in 2002 as she drives a car, taking her eyes off the road as she records, until the car swerves, she screams, the camera twirls and falls – recording the moment and scenario of her death. This material is so accessible – it plays again and again and in quantity. Recently in a moment of idleness I searched on YouTube for traces of an obscure busker-saxophonist called Karl Mellor I used to know. I found a video uploaded – it was of his funeral in Tenerife, where, unknown to me, he had died in a cave. The video displayed a strange traipsing of a unseen recorder capturing the dead man’s distracted young children and a performance from the Spanish cemetery employees, who cranked the coffin up with some awkwardness on a spindly scaffold and shoved it in the niche, like a baking tin into the oven. Wafts of saxophone could be heard. I found myself asking – who is this for? Why is this here? Who possibly wants to see it? Only to realise in a flash of recognition that re-included me into the experience, that it had found its viewer. I was hunting for it – or at least looking blindly for something – and found it. It reached its destination. All this data: either it swamps us, or we use it in some way to piece together meaning not just of the world but of the world that mediates itself so resolutely. This is not just rubbish without meaning or addressees. It simply may not know its recipients or when they will arrive.


In 2002 the author and filmmaker Iain Sinclair reflected on images after video and digitalism. London Orbital is a video-essay, with found-footage, low quality recordings from surveillance footage, and voice-over in the form of a dialogue between Sinclair and friend Chris Petit. To know London, to find its ‘condition’, Sinclair went to its margins, out of the centre city, to the edges, where all the refuse and the rags have drifted. All the details stumbled upon, unearthed, fantasised by the flaneur or drifter and compiled in the book of the same title threaten to disappear in the video. Details surface intermittently in filmed photographs taken on his journey or old home movies of London and Sinclair’s wife: indexical forms that hold onto memory. The video delivers relentless views through a car windscreen. Visible predominantly in the surveillance camera feeds is the road, its signage, and other cars engaged in an identical circumnavigation. The miles of videotape chase the miles of motorway. The machinic vision of London Orbital sees nothing, amassing ribbons of data waste, forgettable, wipable stock, until it ‘sees’ the accident or crime, the aberrant event for which it provides forensic evidence.

London Orbital rescues rubbish, proposing it as exclusively the hunting ground of cultural meaning, while simultaneously condemning it as perceptual landfill. As Sinclair’s archaeologies of London and elsewhere indicate, junk engulfs us. Where it was once the tangible junk of flea markets that attracted the Surrealists, our age groans under digital junk. An abundant form of this is spam – email in-boxes clog daily with offers of sex aids or loans. This unceasing data-waste, like the outmoded trash that attracted the Surrealists, becomes at least potentially interesting because it has a history, because it changes, and so tracks something other than its own useless (non)appeal: it is evidence of technological shift, of commercial adaptation, of social realities, and it proposes, quite unknown to itself, an aesthetic. There was period – around 2004/05 - when it came to us as if from people bearing the most extraordinary names: Unreservedly P. Niggardliness; Groundhog
R. Cytology; Ellipse B. Queers; Doggiest J. Freethinker; Hydraulicking A. Sleazes, Chrysler Q. Dalmatian and so on. All those randomly generated names proposed an imaginary population were sending in the same period emails of randomly generated verbiage or cut ups stolen from zombie computer hard drives or online texts. These linguistic concoctions are known as ‘hash busters’ and were an effort to evade the anti-spam filters that incorporate Bayesian analysis techniques, which calculate the probability of an email being spam based on the message's contents – the more words that are not Viagra or loan the better. The spammers and the anti-spammers have changed their methods now, but I collected some of these at the time, amused by the ways in which these could be seen to propose an advanced poetics, possibly as or more intriguing than that represented by Language Poets, J.H. Prynne or word-salad lyricists. Of course I was not alone in this and there is a mini-genre known as Spamoetry.

Here is one I received back then: which came under the subject line ‘Crush Bartok Assuage’, sent from an ‘author’ pseudonymously known as Houston Abel.

orchestrate citizenry asphyxiate horticulture  ketch nebulae  chalkline  neologism  preach
sagacious rubin crappie ligget lying americanism foggy celestial collarbone being initiate
guanine saturable  concede guffaw  infighting  discriminatory minot  isochronous phobic
ford houdini been precess agile bagatelle catlike elmira hafnium bilayer desist gel
Buttery Hive

It is noun heavy (like Iain Sinclair’s prose, in fact, stuck in articulation and never going anywhere, only intermittently making it to verb form). But it is not closed to the gathering of meanings. Look, for example, at its self-reflexivity. It talks of orchestrating citizenry – is that not spam’s secret desire. It wants to ‘asphyxiate horticulture’ – isn’t killing nature at the heart of other avant-garde manifestos such as the Futurists. It speaks of neologisms – though it does not create them. And consider guanine – it is one of the five main nucleobases found in the nucleic acids DNA and RNA, the key to life as current science understands. The languages of science and nature – nebulae, precess, hafnium, chalkline - fold into signifiers of delusion, irrationalism and trivia – phobic, lying, guffaw, preach, Houdini, bagatelle. It mentions isochronousness – elsewhere the avant garde called this temporal descriptor simultaneity. And look up ketch – its multivalences are stunning: Ketch is a backdoor Trojan Horse that allows an attacker to control your computer by executing commands from a predetermined Web site; ketch is a sailing craft; Ketch is an oil and natural gas exploration and production 
based trust company located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.; Ketch was an executioner employed by King Charles II, renowned for he had to deal at least five strokes with his axe and finally use a knife to sever Monmouth's head from his shoulders, at the very least.

And without joking, it might be said that, hereby, poetry is rendered redundant. This is the linguistic equivalent of the ‘optical unconscious’, which Walter Benjamin identified as the perceptual trick of the camera. The machine writes the message, but it arrives in my emailbox. It was addressed to me – and several million others - and found its destination. Its words, so ruthlessly and arbitrarily culled from dictionaries that seem to miss out all the filler words - in order to create pure filler - segue their objective randomness with my subjectivity to produce shocks of recognition, association and dislocation. This may be legislating or at least proposing new poetics. Or it may have dispensed with them, resolving art into life, as has been so long desired by ism after ism. Just as Winsor McCay’s deliriously absurd comic strips of Little Nemo in Slumberland or Charlie Chaplin might obviate the need for Dada and Surrealism, this is already the practice that cannot be exceeded. Except it died out. It doesn’t exist any more. Lucas Cobb – which is not a very interesting name, but one of those more newly-coined believable pseudonyms - sent me this in 2007:

He moaned while he was pissing, and continued moaning for a long while  after it was
Although he had no way of  telling for sure,  he thought he was out longer  this second
Although he had no way of  telling for sure,  he thought he was out longer  this second
time. He reached into his breast pocket and brought out something that could only be a
picture.  Something has sure changed;  there have been no obituaries since - He flicked
back to see. He moaned while he was pissing, and continued moaning for a long while
after it was done.
He moaned while he was pissing,  and continued moaning for a long while after it was
done.  Although he  had no way of telling  for sure,  he thought he was out longer  this
second time.
Although he had no way of  telling for sure,  he thought he was out longer  this second
time. He reached into his breast pocket and brought out something that could only be a
picture.  Something has sure changed;  there have been no obituaries since - He flicked
back to see. He moaned while he was pissing, and continued moaning for a long while
after it was done.

It is not as good. It comes to me and everyone else snatched from a hard disc. It is already in its basic form someone’s processed effort at articulation. But the Steinian repetitions are presumably the machine’s auto-contribution, using an algorithm designed once more to extend the percentage of non-commercial prose to evade the spam filters. It elevates, in any case, the tawdry prose.

Could a film be envisaged along the same lines: snatches of YouTube videos, online advertising footage, Google-Video and so on. What might that ‘blind film’ technique do when combined with an equally blind technique of montage? Is there something in this automated functioning that taps more effectively social imaginations? And that also counteracts all of that rhetoric about the digital as the realm of perfection and absolute mastery, instant access to all the world’s culture and knowledge, quite literally at the fingertips. This is the junk to hunt and gather, the recalcitrant at the heart of the digital. The charge inherent in found materials, re-contextualized ready-mades is that they dislodge things from a context made for them into a space of free play, of unbounded significance, connotation and, thus, re-personalisation? Radical subjectivity is found in the radically objective. Tzara’s comment, in relation to Man Ray’s photography, might be recycled: after photography 'the beauty of matter belongs to no one, for henceforth it is a physico-chemical product'. It belongs to no-one, because it belongs equally to everyone. Is the same service done here for the beauty of words, now a silicon and electrical product belonging equally to everyone, to millions at a time?

Perhaps someone does need to be a ragpicker of this material, to make a point of sifting it and preserving that which is worth another look. This is what photographer Joachim Schmid does when he collects, as he has done for the last 25 years, photographs that have been abandoned in the streets of Europe and Brazil. These photographs, the unwanted or lost, find their way to Schmid – and galleries – by chance. They are recycled: Schmid’s watchword is: ‘No new photographs until the old ones have been used up’. These failures of representation are redoubled failures, for they often come with traces of decay: misprintings, footprints, tears. Schmid’s conservation preserves damage and loss, finding beauty in both. The stories behind their distress will probably not be known, nor will the histories of those represented. More certain is the origin of Schmid’s spliced faces - half-boy/half-girl, half-adult/half-child – made from a commercial photographer’s abandoned archive – the negatives had been cut in two to prevent their re-use. The hybrids might well bear names like Seaweed T. Mercurochrome, Immortalize R. Hypermarket or Ingratitude Q. Dustiness. In any case Schmid finds in the found a possibility of cathexis and presents it to us as such. Art is an art of delay, if delay is the moment between two actions when something is expected to occur. What occurs is the looking – the act of looking, the anticipation of finding, looking for, looking after. Like the collector in Benjamin’s typology, an object, especially one that arrives unbidden, provides a site for a social dreaming that is, actually, historical archaeology. Art is the frame of an experience that is everywhere and in flow. Strategies might yet be developed to exploit the dispersed surrealism of everyday life.

Esther Leslie

[Lostless and Found was published in the second Veer journal, 'veer off' ]


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