A University of California
Multi-Campus Research Group

Fall 2000 Conference: November 3-5


Vivian Sobchack
University of California, Los Angeles

Nostalgia for a Digital Object:
Regrets on the Quickening of QuickTime

It as though all this material represented an underground network in which the only visible landmarks were the boxes and collages, and the difficulty of communicating their meaning was a source of both regret and satisfaction.

--Dawn Ades, on Joseph Cornell

Whenever I watch QuickTime "movies" (a nomination I want to interrogate here and thus keep under quotation), I find myself drawn into someone else's--and my computer's--memory. Even when the content speaks of the contemporary moment, the form itself seems a remembrance of times--and things--past. Faced with its strange collections, its moving collages and juxtapositions of image-objects whose half-life I can barely re-member, I tend to drift into the space and time of a reverie not quite my own. Indeed, as QuickTime "movies" play out and often repeat their brief, ambiguous animations and elusive, associative narratives in those "little boxes" that I "open" on my computer "desktop" (or web "browser"), the form most frequently evokes from me the kind of temporal nostalgia and spatial mystery I feel not when I go to the movies, but when I try to "inhabit" the worlds of Joseph Cornell's boxed relics (1), or wander among the enigmatic exhibits in the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California (2), or leaf through pictures of the personalized collection of "curiosities" found in the Wunderkammer of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (3)

Most of all, however, QuickTime "movies" remind me of Cornell boxes. (4) Both preserve "under glass" the selected and static fragments of a "read-only" memory that, paradoxically, evokes memory as "random access"--that is, as dynamic, contingent, and associational. Both QuickTime "movies" and Cornell boxes also do not open out onto worldly horizons of space and time. Unlike big-screen, live-action movies, they draw us down and into their own discrete, enclosed and nested poetic worlds: worlds re-collected and re-membered; worlds more miniature, intensive, layered, and vertically deep than those constructed through the extensive, horizontal scope and horizonal vision of cinema. (5) Both QuickTime "movies" and Cornell boxes also salvage "the flotsam and jetsam" of daily life and redeem it as "used" material whose re-collected and re-membered presence echoes with bits and traces of an individual yet collective past: personal memories, narratives, histories that were, from the first, commodified and mass-mediated. And, through reverential framing, both QuickTime "movies" and Cornell boxes construct what might be called "reliquaries": they preserve and cherish "the fragment, the souvenir, the talisman, the exotic" as precious matter, and treat "the ephemeral object as if it were the rarest heirloom." (6) In sum, both QuickTime "movies" and Cornell boxes contain "intense, distilled images that create a remarkable confrontation between past and present." (7)

Indeed, this "remarkable confrontation between past and present" is furthered by QuickTime's stuttering attempts to achieve "real-time" movement--or to capitulate to and embrace the temporal and spatial lacunae which visibly mark its expressions. While cut-out statues and matted silhouettes may float gracefully like collaged dreams across photorealist backgrounds that effortlessly warp and melt, "live-action" and "real-time" balk and stiffen in contrast. Strangely static and consequently moving, the temporal field of QuickTime "movies" is oneiric and uncanny--and its animations more effluvial than continuous. Full of gaps, gasps, starts and repetitions, made "precious" by their small size and "scarce" memory, QuickTime "movies" seem to intensify our corporeal sense of the intensive molecular labor and matter of human and worldly "becoming." Thus, they evoke for me not the seamlessly-lived and wholly present animation of "real-time" and "live-action" movies, but, rather, the "half-life" of certain time-worn and ambiguous kinetic objects: wooden puppets with chipped paint, forsaken dolls with gaping head wounds or missing limbs, Muybridge-like figures in old flip books hovering with bravado and uncertainty between photograph and cinema, images of nineteenth-century strong men or belly dancers hand-cranked into imperfect action through old Kinetoscopes found deep in the dark corners of amusement arcades. What comes to mind as I watch QuickTime "movies" is not "live-action" and "real-time" cinema at all.; instead, I associate them with those forms of animated film that foreground the cinema's usually hidden struggle to achieve the "illusion of life" (8)--with the works of Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay in which kinetic objects inhabit miniaturized worlds and achieve a laboriously animated life that somehow (and at some deep and molecular level) reminds us of the labor of our own. Hence, I take pleasure in the rumor that the thin-faced master puppet who gets caught up in and subjected to the intense, time-encrusted, miniature world of the Quays' Street of Crocodiles was modeled after Joseph Cornell. (9)

At the risk, then, of sounding retrograde and nostalgic, I don't want QuickTime "movies" to get any quicker. I also don't want to watch them get any bigger. Furthermore, given the value and pleasure I find in their fragmented temporality and intensely condensed space, I don't want them to achieve the "streaming" momentum of "real-time" and "live-action" --measured, although it need not be, against the standard and semblance of cinema. Indeed, precisely because QuickTime's miniature spatial forms and temporal lacunae struggle against (as they struggle to become) cinema, they poetically dramatize and philosophically interrogate the nature of memory and temporality, the values of scale, and what we mean by animation. In sum, I don't want them to become "real movies" at all.

Nonetheless, they will. At least that's what every computerphile enthusiastically tells me. It's just a matter of time--and compression and memory and bandwidth--before the "limitations" of the medium in relation to moving images no longer display themselves in their peculiar specificity as "different" and "other" and (for many) "less" than the space-times of cinema or television. Before that happens, however, before QuickTime "movies" as we see them today disappear (becoming both an extinct aesthetic form and a computergraphic expansion of cinema and television), I want to consider--and celebrate--them for what they presently are.

Refusing the "Myth of Total Cinema"

In QuickTime, a set of time-based data is referred to
as a movie.
--Developer Documentation

All this is to say that it is a shame that QuickTime movies were ever called "movies": in being so named, their extinction as a specifically discrete and computergraphic form of aesthetic expression was virtually preordained. And this need not have been--yet could it be otherwise? Digital theorist Lev Manovich has made the astute observation that the basic metaphors reified by computer interfaces--metaphors such as the "desktop" with its "files" and "trashcan" or the "cinema" with its practices of "cutting," "compositing," and virtual "camera movement"--are also, and more significantly, cultural interfaces: pre-existing and wide-spread cultural forms of conceptually organizing and visualizing data borrowed upon by a new medium that, after all, had other options. (10) Consider, for example, the developers' documentation for QuickTime, "a set of functions and data structures" that permits applications to cooperatively "control time-based data." QuickTime itself, we are told, is not an application, but a "true multimedia architecture": a specific "enabling technology. . .comprised of pieces of software" that allows an "operating system to handle dynamic media" so as to "integrate text, still graphics, video, animation. . .and sound into a cohesive platform." However, this rather open initial description turns proscriptive at its end: hence the emphatic epigraph that introduces this present section of my essay and reduces QuickTime to a "movie." (11)

Long ago now, André Bazin wrote "The Myth of Total Cinema," an essay which argued that the novel technical discoveries "basic" to cinematic invention were "fortunate accidents but essentially second in importance to the preconceived ideas of the inventors." (12) That is: "In their imaginations they saw the cinema as a total and complete representation of reality; they saw in a trice the reconstruction of a perfect illusion of the outside world in sound, color, and relief." (13) Thus, "the cinema was born. . .out of a myth, the myth of total cinema." (14) And the myth of "total cinema" still remains--this despite technical discoveries that have allowed the invention of a "new medium" (one which digitizes, integrates and, in so doing, transforms all others). In this regard, as a primary cultural interface with the computer, the cinema and its mythic teleology have, on the one hand, merely carried on and extended the representational imagination and realization of cinema from sound and color to "relief" (QuickTime 3 now incorporates 3D graphics and Virtual Reality navigation and interaction) and, on the other hand, blindly or willfully asserted the primacy of cinema in the face of its transformation into "something else" by another medium. (15)

Again, the developers' documentation is telling. Its very first sentence introducing the "set of time-based data" upon which QuickTime operates as a "movie," the documentation nonetheless continues: "A traditional movie, whether stored on film, laser disk, or tape, is a continuous stream of data. A QuickTime movie can be similarly constructed, but it need not be. . . .The movie is not the medium; it is the organizing principle." (16) Here we have the significance of cinema as a primary cultural interface: while its very principles of organization enable a certain comprehensible use of the new medium, they also constrain its capacities and influence the trajectory of its "development" and practice. Thus, for all that the cultural interface of cinema allows, it also causes a certain "blindness" to both the phenomenological and material differences between QuickTime "movies" and cinematic movies. The aesthetic values of the former are measured against those of the latter--and the true computergraphic "novelty" of QuickTime works becomes historically inverted and transformed into a false cinematic "primitivism." Hence the desire to make QuickTime "movies" quicker and bigger rather than stopping to wonder at and privilege the strangely stalled momentum of their animation and the heightened intensity condensed by their miniaturization and framing.

Indeed, I would have much preferred naming QuickTime works "memory boxes" rather than "movies." Such a nomination not only evokes Joseph Cornell's work, but also evokes the essential nature of the new medium that is the fundament of QuickTime's existence: the computer in both its physical form and essential function. Also, insofar as it refers to a range of diverse containers (from reliquaries to children's "treasure" boxes to shoe boxes filled with photographs or souvenirs), "memory box" is a nomination that--particularly in the present technological moment--insists upon memory's immaterial and dynamic status as well as the historical transformation of the material conditions of its preservation. The computer (and all its extensions) is nothing else but a fathomless "memory box"--one that collects, preserves, and allows for the conscious retrieval and re-membering, the visible re-collection, of selected fragments of all the possible memories "cached" in the "enormous, underground network" of past images, sounds, and texts that constitute the utopian totality of a potentially infinite and hyperlinked database.

"Memory Boxes" and the Database

A well-calculated geometric description is not
the only way to write a "box."

--Gaston Bachelard

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes of a character in a novel who basks in the solidity and order of his oak filing cabinet: "Everything had been designed and calculated by a meticulous mind for purposes of utility. And what a marvelous tool! It replaced everything, memory as well as intelligence. In this well-fitted cube there was not an iota of haziness or shiftiness." (17) Despite its lack of solidity, I get the same feeling from my computer "desktop." It reassures me with hierarchy, with clarity and order, with principled and logical menus, commands, and systems through which I can access vast amounts of information (if not intelligence). This database of information while unseen, does not seem "hidden" to me; rather, it is "filed" away in "folders" and, more deeply, in "records" and "fields." It is rationally organized and always hypothetically available for retrieval and display. Indeed, the "well-fitted cube" that is my computer gives me access to what seems an infinite store of information (if not knowledge)--and I take comfort in the hierarchical logic of its "unhazy" and "unshifty" memory (of an order quite different than my own). Here is the logical--and "official"--organization of the "office," of the catalog, the library, the museum, and the stock room. Here, everything has been "designed and calculated by a meticulous mind for purposes of utility." Here, I've no sense of the "secretive" or "unconscious": at worst, information gets bureaucratically "classified," misplaced, or erased (not repressed). In sum, the phenomenology of comfort afforded by the "file cabinet" and the "database" refuses ambiguity, ambivalence, poetry. (18)

Human memory and its re-collections don't compute so neatly. The orderly and hierarchical logic of the file cabinet and the database is not that of Kunstkammern or Wunderkammern, of Cornell or QuickTime "memory boxes." Some other rationale--and phenomeno-logic--operates here: one more associative than hierarchical, more dynamic than static, more contingent than determined (even when "given" to us as spectators or users in "read only" form). Its search engines driven to the past by a present moment of desire (not utility), this is the eccentric, ever-extensible, yet localized logic of the hyperlink. The contingent nature and function of personal desire as well as the non-hierarchical and associative logic of the hyperlink transform the organization--and phenomenology--of the file cabinet and the database into something quite other than it was. The file cabinet becomes charged with experience, temporality, and desire and its hierarchical order becomes jumbled by logically incompatible--if psychologically comprehensible--functions. Following Cornell's description of just one of the file folders relating to his work, we could say that the entire file cabinet is now transformed into "a diary journal repository, laboratory, picture gallery, museum, sanctuary, observatory, key. . .the core of a labyrinth, a clearing house for dreams and visions." (19) And the database? No longer hierarchical, its order becomes that of a comprehensive but incomprehensible labyrinth: a vast and boundless maze of images and sounds, dreams, and visions in which one follows, backtracks, veers off, loses oneself in multiple trajectories, all the time weaving tenuous threads of association in the logically endless teleology and texture of desire. Here, the materials of the world are never fixed data or information merely requiring re-collection; here, from the first, they are unstable bits of experience and can only be re-membered.

The poetic and phenomenological power of both Cornell's and QuickTime's "memory boxes" emerge explicitly from their relation to a larger totality of material and memorial possibilities: they and their found objects exist not only as fragments of personal experience, but also as "emblem[s] of a presence too elusive or too vast to be enclosed in a box. These missing presences crowd the imagination." (20) Thus, in differentiating QuickTime's "memory boxes" from "movies," it bears pointing out that watching a film, I usually don't have a profound sense of all the images that weren't shot or all the stuff left on the cutting room floor; watching a QuickTime "memory box," however, I always feel the presence of an "elusive" and "vast" absence, a sea of memories shifting below the surface and in the interstices of what I watch. In other words, I am always aware of an effluvial database.

Thus, by virtue of their framing, their miniaturization, their valuation of the fragment, and the slightness and ambiguity of their associational links, both Cornell's and QuickTime's "memory boxes" point to their own presence as the poignant and precious "visible landmarks" of an unseen, lost, and incomprehensible field of experience. And what Carter Ratcliff says of Cornell's "memory boxes" is equally true of QuickTime's: "Ultimately, the mode is enchanted by fragmentariness itself, which serves as an emblem of a wholeness to be found in other times and places," and it produces "an aura of loss which is as perfect in its own way as reunion would be." (21) And thus, as James Fenton notes: "Here was a place for private contemplation of the beautiful and curious. The important thing was to stay alone with these boxes for a while. . .allowing them to exert their slow influence." (22) And under this slow influence, "the panic of loss gives way to nostalgia." (23)

Frames within Frames

Two kinds of space, intimate space and exterior
space, keep encouraging each other, as it were, in
their growth.

--Gaston Bachelard


Yet "a mode enchanted by fragmentariness" which serves as "an emblem of a wholeness to be found in other times and places" cannot stand as a complete description--for we cannot ignore the presence of Cornell and QuickTime's "memory boxes" and their fragments as themselves containers. Furthermore, their miniature size, their collector's sensibility, and the discretion of their enclosures gain particular power from and exist always against their own containment by a larger--and marked--visual field. Both externally and internally, Cornell and QuickTime works provoke a structural and poetic tension between two different logics: one represented by the hierarchical and rational organization of the "file cabinet" and computer "desktop" where everything has its place in some comprehensive master plan; the other by the associational organization that is the psycho-logic of the "memory box" and the "hyperlink" in which everything has a relative and mutable order that, as a totality, cannot be mastered. This tension is simultaneously framing and framed.

As a framing device, this tension exists in--and as--a space exterior to, and containing and juxtaposing, the associational logic of the Cornell box and the museo-logic of the vitrine in which it sits, or the hyperlink logic of a QuickTime "memory box" and the hierarchical logic of the computer "desktop" upon which it is opened. That is, the larger frame of the museum vitrine or computer desktop allows the smaller frame of the "memory box" an intensified condensation and concentration of its visible contents into an aesthetic totality: a personally meaningful and contained microcosm structurally homologous to--and nested within--all the potential order and meaning (not meaninglessness) of the macrocosm that surrounds them. In this aspect, both Cornell and QuickTime "memory boxes" take on the magnitude and function (if not the geometric size) of the Wunderkammer and Kunstkammer , chambers of curiosities and art curated less on logic and rational principle than on the personal sensibility and desire of their wealthy collectors.

Writing of these condensed collections, Anthony Grafton wonders what sixteenth and seventeenth century visitors sought in them and concludes it was the experience of totality and plenitude: "They hoped, that is, to encounter the universe in all its richness and variety, artfully compressed into the microscopic form of a single room that showed all the elements, all the humors, all the musical intervals, all the planets, and all the varieties of plant and animal creation." (24) Neither hierarchically arranged nor meant to serve utilitarian or scholarly purpose, the compressed totality of the Wunderkammer was also not fraught by the implications of its own contingent desire and arrangement nor overwhelmed by its (to our eyes) chaotic clutter. Indeed, historicized, its totalizing impulse can be read as a celebration of mastery, order, harmony, and structural homology: that is, man's comprehension of the "universe in all its richness and variety" was represented mimetically in a single chamber complacently "nested" within the larger frameworks of both the master's residence and God's "master plan." Certainly, there are similar compressions and homologies articulated in the smaller Wunderkammern of Cornell and QuickTime "boxes" as they emerge structurally and figurally as both "framing" and "framed" within a larger field. But this "compression" of a homologous "universe" is apparent also in the content of these more contemporary "memory boxes." Their multi-layered and rich imagery is marked repeatedly by the recurrence of maps, planetary and astrological charts; hourglasses and clocks and other measuring devices; diagrams and schematics of optical devices from the microscope to telescope; evolutionary and devolutionary biological images of microbes and spores and skulls and skeletons. In sum, consistently asserting homologies of shape and structure across scale from the microscopic to the macrocosmic, much like the Wunderkammer these "memory boxes" position themselves as both framing and framed by larger cosmologies and cosmogonies.

Nonetheless, times and cosmologies change. While contemporary manifestations of the Wunderkammer may situate themselves in homologous relation to smaller and larger worlds, their relation to "totality" and its "mastery" is historically transformed. The assertion of homologies between the micro- and macrocosmic is not emblematic of man's security and mastery in Cornell's boxes--and, in QuickTime boxes, this assertion foregrounds a relativism quite other than the comforting and "nested" unity of God's master plan. Cornell's references to, as well as containment of, macro- and microcosmic images seem nostalgic--indeed, elegiac--in relation to a totalized harmony and order, homologies between quotidian and cosmic objects thus provoking a sense of the great loss--and mystery--of perfect "comprehension." (Here we might remember Ratcliff's description of the boxes as generating "an aura of loss. . .as perfect in its own way as reunion would be"). In QuickTime "memory boxes," homologies between the micro- and macrocosmic are also not about mastery or a sense of security and "nested-ness": here the revelation of self-similarity across scale and structure constitutes a disconcerting and chaotic relativism, often evoking the vertiginous and non-hierarchical totality of "infinite regress" and "cosmic zooms"--and thus undoing an entire hierarchical history that positions and privileges the mastery and rationality of both "man" and "God." Indeed, in QuickTime, it is not God's rational master plan mimetically framing or framed by the "memory box" opened on my computer desktop or browser: rather, these images of maps, measures, microbes, and constellations mimetically contain and figure and point to the total containment and mastering structure of a more contemporary--and secular--"main" frame: the computer.

As indicated earlier, the tension between the two different logics that organize the objects and structure of these contemporary "memory boxes" emerges not only in the juxtaposed relation between the interior space of the boxes and the external space that frames them. It also emerges framed within the intimate space of the boxes themselves--revealed in imagery that manifests both an appreciation and fear of the associational contingencies, oneiric secrecy, and mysterious material poesy that pervade lived experience and yet threaten to overwhelm it. Bachelard writes: "For many people, the fact that there should exist a homology between the geometry of the small box and the psychology of secrecy does not call for protracted comment." (25) Nonetheless, it is worth noting that within both Cornell and QuickTime "memory boxes," we see such a homology literalized again and again: the associational vagaries and "hyperlinked" debris of contingency, dream, and secret desire overlaid and in palimpsestic relation with the hierarchical and "orderly" order of the rational "file cabinet." Cornell's work evidences this internal tension even in name: his boxes exist in taxonomic series titled "Jewel Cases," "Museums," "Pharmacies," "Aviaries," and "Habitats." Furthermore, as Ratcliff notes, "When Cornell feels the clutter becoming too oppressive, he sweeps it into those compartmented formats which draw on the orderliness of Victorian cabinetry and the museological devices of natural historians." His "Museums" and "Pharmacies," in particular, are "works which tuck images into drawers and vials and grids." (26) Compartments, grids, drawers, slots, and boxes within boxes: these manifestations of hierarchy and order do not only point to potentially larger (and smaller) frameworks of organization so that "scale is more than flexible, it is multiple, in Cornell's art" (27); such nesting also frames and contains potentially uncontrollable fragments of temporality and experience that are infinitely extensible in their generation of memory and meaning and secrecy.

The same is true of QuickTime "memory boxes." Frequently "overlaying" the image fragments and detritus of their re-membered experience are orderly grids and schematic diagrams, geometry in the form of mattes that segment and compartmentalize. And more specific to the particular medium, this compartmentalization and grid work point not only to the larger order and framework of the surrounding "desktop," but also to the smaller geometries and hidden, "secretive," orders of microchips, bits, and bytes. That is, re-membered experience in QuickTime is often "bit-mapped" and "pixel-ated": boxed fragments of photorealist images are fragmented and compartmentalized further into smaller boxes yet, un-resolving the personal meaning and contours of human memory and re-solving them as the visible and controlled geometry that in-forms the computer's underlying memory and structuration.

There is, then, both without and within QuickTime and Cornell "memory boxes" the tension between two kinds of logic and order and between a desire for re-collection and for re-membering. Memory itself is thus generated and enacted by both "box" and "viewer" as a multi-stable phenomenon--one echoed in a layered and palimpsestic structure and imagery that together provoke a richly poetic ambivalence and ambiguity. On the one hand, the geometry of compartments and mattes and pixels re-collect and contain the amorphous and ever-extensible material of experience; on the other, the composited and collaged accumulations and associations of this experiential material always also challenge the neatness of re-collection by re-membering it--and we are reminded there is a radical difference between a "pharmacy" and a "treasure box," between a computer's memory and our own. Thus, we could say according to Bachelard, that the "two kinds of space"--"intimate" and "exterior"--that frame and are framed by Cornell and QuickTime "memory boxes" gain poetic power through their juxtaposition and layering: they "keep encouraging each other, as it were, in their growth." (28)

"Little Movies": Memory, Miniaturization, and Compression

Here the poet inhabits the cellular image.

--Gaston Bachelard


Although arguing "cinema" as a primary "cultural interface" in our engagement with the digital, Lev Manovich has used QuickTime to make a series of what he calls "little movies" that use "classic" cinematic imagery as the "raw material" of a digital exploration that interrogates the differences between these media. (29) Furthermore, all six of his "little movies" privilege and foreground the limitations of computer memory and storage space under which they are constructed and by which they are constrained. (30) Appearing in only a small portion of the lower third of a black background (itself framed within the computer screen by the web browser), all six variously explore and emphasize their miniature size and compressed nature. (31) In this regard, one called "A Single Pixel Movie" is particularly striking. To a quite literally "loopy" tune reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy's theme music, we watch the already small square of a primitive "movie" in which a strong man holding a pole does rote exercises and is intermittently interrupted by the sound of a "blip" and a digitized circle of "light"--both "movie" and "digital blip" becoming smaller and smaller (and less and less audible) at each interruption until both are reduced to a single pixel on the screen. The effect is more compelling and poignant than the mild comedic repetition of mechanical motion and see-sawing music would seem to warrant: that is, we watch more and more intently as the already miniaturized image becomes smaller and smaller and we are aware throughout of the increasing fragility and impending disappearance not only of the oblivious optimism of the strong man and "early" cinema, but also of the QuickTime "movie" presently being extinguished from our human sight.

It is no small thing that these "little movies" are "small" both spatially and temporally. As Bachelard tells us in The Poetics of Space: "It must be understood that values become condensed and enriched in miniature." (32) Susan Stewart also notes of the miniature in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection: "A reduction in dimensions does not produce a corresponding reduction in significance." (33) Indeed, quite the opposite. Pointing out that "we should lose all sense of real values if we interpreted miniatures from the standpoint of the simple relativism of large and small," Bachelard writes: "A bit of moss may well be a pine, but a pine will never be a bit of moss. The imagination does not function with the same conviction in both directions." (34)

Thus, QuickTime "movies"--or, as I prefer, "memory boxes"--not only emerge from and allegorize the present objective necessities and constraints of data storage involving digital memory and compression, but they also accrue phenomenological and aesthetic value as an effect of these necessities and constraints. Objectively, the miniature is a compression and condensation of data in space, but phenomenologically and poetically, the compression and condensation of the miniature in space intensifies the experience and value of the "data" and makes of it something "rare" and "precious," something spatially "condensed" yet temporally "interiorized" and thus "vast in its way." (35) Furthermore, the miniature exaggerates interiority: in the "little movies" or "memory boxes" of QuickTime, not only the interiority of the individual perceiving subject, but also of the computer. A digital version of The Incredible Shrinking Man, the strong man exercising in Manovich's "A Single Pixel Movie" is extinguished from human vision but not from the computer's: while "in the mind of God there is no zero," in the memory of the computer there is always zero--and always also one. (36) Thus, as Stewart suggests: "That the world of things can open itself to reveal a secret life--indeed, to reveal a set of actions and hence a narrativity and history outside the given field of perception--is a constant daydream the miniature presents." (37) The miniature, then, is always to some degree secretive, pointing to hidden dimensions and unseen narratives. Its "nestedness" within a larger whole draws us not only beyond its frame, but also into and beneath it.

In this aspect, the miniature is transcendent, its "metaphoric world" making "everyday life absolutely anterior and exterior to itself." (38) One gets this sense of "transcendence and the interiority of history and narrative" viewing QuickTime's "little movies" and Cornell's small "boxes." For Stewart, however, these effects are most dominant in our encounter with what she considers "the most consummate of miniatures--the dollhouse." Nonetheless, her description also speaks to the phenomenology of QuickTime's and Cornell's miniaturization: "Occupying a space within an enclosed space, . . .the dollhouse is a materialized secret; what we look for is the dollhouse within the dollhouse and its promise of an infinitely profound interiority." (39) Thus, Cornell's miniaturized "memory boxes" (themselves constituted from compartments and spaces "within an enclosed space") become, as McShine puts it, not only "sanctifications of the small object," but also constitute "an infinity of atmospheres within a small space." And it is not merely a fortunate "coincidence" that McShine echoes Stewart when he writes: "Although Cornell's choice of intimate scale also reflects the world of childhood, of containment, of the architecture of dollhouses, it almost makes reference to Vermeer interiors--with tables, cupboards, maps, globes, light, glass--holding captive a moment in a transient, enclosed world." (40)

In sum, the spatial condensations of Cornell and QuickTime and their framings within the frame constitute an interiority that transcends quotidian spatial and temporal relations--and "as an object consumed," their miniaturization "finds its 'use value' transformed into the infinite time of reverie." (41) In the doll house spaces and interior chambers of the "memory box," now excluded by their physical size, both artist and viewer imaginatively prospect and inhabit the empty rooms, filling them with their own missing presence in fragments of autobiography, dream, memory, confession. (Speaking both to us and its maker, one QuickTime miniature superimposes over a vague, empty, and receding hallway the following textual reverie: "Here is the solitude from which you are absent." (42)) Thus, whether in my sight or not, the strong man of Manovich's "little movie" will exercise forever in the depths of my--and the computer's--memory: unlike my engagements with cinema, I never quite have the sense that QuickTime "movies" are ever really "over." (Indeed, their terminus is ever really "under.") Thus, Cornell, although he used slots, drawers, and compartments to contain and control the materials of overwhelming experience, he also used them to draw us inward into an ever-extensible reverie: the compartments, according to no "rational or logical sequence," further housing and condensing "private and nearly unfathomable associations, almost like a metaphor for the cells of the unconscious mind." (43) Here, in the space-time that is the miniature and the reverie it provokes, it can indeed be said that "the poet inhabits the cellular image." (44)

Mnemonics, Reverie, and Reliquaries

The casket contains the things that are unforgettable,
unforgettable for us, but also unforgettable for those
to whom we are going to give our treasures. Here the
past, the present and a future are condensed.

--Gaston Bachelard


The miniature "memory boxes" of QuickTime and Cornell memorialize fragments of past experience in all their secretive interiority and mystery. In framing and effect, they act as "reliquaries," preserving "under glass" remnants and souvenirs that gain power from partiality but also from the precious nature of the boxes' own small size: as discussed previously, to a great degree the "valorization of the contents" emerges through a "valorization of the container." (45) Hence the fragment and the miniature "encourage" each other, evoking the "singular," the "rare," the "fragile," the "ephemeral," and the "compressed" as materially and poetically valuable. (46) Manovich makes "little movies" that his text suggests will disappear, "the artifacts of the early days of digital media." Bachelard privileges treasure chests and caskets. (47) And Cornell creates "jewel cases" and places some of his compositions "under bell jars" as if "holding captive a moment in a transient, enclosed world." (48)

The preciousness articulated here also emerges form the particular kind of contingency that in-forms the artfully arranged but "found" objects of the "memory box." That is, we encounter these re-membered objects as objective recollections that have been subjectively assembled according to ephemeral associations, the very slightness of the links among them making their present appearance seem singular, fragile, fleeting--and thus precious. Stewart, writing of the material fragments of the past gathered in photograph albums or collections of antiquarian relics or souvenirs, points out: "There is no continuous identity between these objects and their referents. Only the act of memory constitutes their resemblance. And it is in this gap between resemblance and identity that nostalgic desire arises." (49)

This sense of a "gap between resemblance and identity," of the tenuous and fleeting associations of memory leads not only to nostalgic desire, but also to a desire to preserve the associations, to keep them "in mind." Thus, these "memory boxes" tend to contain and enact what I would call a "mnemonic aesthetic." This aesthetic both practices and privileges devices and operations that serve to fix and preserve the fleeting ephemera of memory, to "pin them down" and "put them under glass" as are the gloriously colored butterflies one sees "fixed" in the vitrines of natural history museums. Such mnemonic practices are all based on repetition and rhythm and, in the "memory boxes" of both Cornell and QuickTime, can be seen in a variety of forms and modes such as "rote quotation" and mnemonic clichés; "looping," duplication, and cyclical recurrence or repeated uses of images, objects, and sounds; rhythmic and repetitious patterning of images, objects, sounds and music whose modes can be "ritualistic," "mantric," or "mechanical." All these devices and modes are mobilized in a "concentrated" effort --to keep hold of a memory that keeps threatening to slip away and vanish.

We certainly see this mnemonic aesthetic in Cornell and QuickTime "memory boxes." What Ratcliff observes in Cornell's work can be also observed in QuickTime. The artist, we are told, "is drawn to 'material facts'--objects and images--whose preciousness is ratified by memory and he often calls on popular memory to reinforce his own. His image-chains often run along lines of well-worn cliché--butterfly, swan, ballerina." (50) His boxes also contain and, through repetition, make mysterious the most common of objects: a row of wine glasses, a field of thimbles, series of cork balls or pharmacy vials. Nonetheless, although the seriality and the idea of repetition is "central to Cornell's oeuvre," this is "not the intellectualized notion of serialization, but more like the ritualized repetition of the alchemist." (51) Indeed, as Ratcliff says: "To duplicate an image endlessly is often to make its spell all the more binding." (52) The use of the term "binding" here in relation to duplication and repetition is telling for it expresses the desire to preserve what escapes preservation, to tie the ephemeral down without undoing its ephemerality; it expresses the desire to remember. Both QuickTime and Cornell "memory boxes" are thus also highly citational: that is, they don't only attempt to fix personal memories through repetition, but they also quote and repeat previous artifacts of cultural memory--especially privileging those that speak mnemonically to technologies of reproduction and preservation. Hence, both QuickTime and Cornell "memory boxes" are "deeply involved with the photograph, the postcard, the photocopy, and the printed reproduction of works of art." (53) In addition, the boxes are also marked with great frequency by repeated "art historical" images that reference the past: well-known paintings, old lithographs, classical statuary.

In QuickTime, to an extraordinary and remarkable degree, sound is also used mnemonically. That is, it marks time in repetitive patterns and, in musical form, is generally less melodic than it is insistently rhythmic. While often voiced (literally) in fragments, it is often also looped, repeating a partial thought, setting up a percussive rhythm of mechanical repetition, "scratching" or "stuck" in a temporal sonic groove as if in an old phonograph record, creating a mantra. Indeed, middle Eastern and Indian music are used to a striking degree--particularly given the often unrelated cultural imagery being re-membered.

The boxes, then, use repetition and rhythm in their attempts to grasp and preserve the ephemeral fragments and fragile relics of memory. They construct mnemonic rituals of re-membering and, as Ratcliff notes, "ritual is mechanical, so any ritualizing aesthetic must have the power to mechanize the artist's meanings." (54) This mechanization is particularly compelling in QuiickTime "memory boxes"--for, along with the aforementioned "ritualized repetition of the alchemist" that marks Cornell's work, the QuickTime boxes also convey "the intellectualized notion of serialization." That is, duplication and repetition as ritualized in QuickTime "memory boxes" often seem much more "mechanical" than "alchemical." Indeed, duplication and repetition in QuickTime derive much of their poetic power from mimesis: the boxes duplicate and repeat their "memory fragments" as figural repetitions of the functional capacities of the computer itself to "duplicate," "copy," and "paste." Here, the mnemonic aesthetic emerges not only from a desire to preserve scarce and rare memory, but also from the ritualized and routinized (or "mechanical") capacity of the computer to do the same. In "Two Marks Jump," for example, serial images are stutteringly animated as duplicated and endlessly looped images of two "Marks" leap into and out of a scene accompanied by a similarly looped and endless yell; here the titular description of "two" Marks is belied by the rote duplication of an infinite series. (55) Another example, "Hommage à Magritte" [sic], may "alchemically" duplicate and transform the artist's emblematic bowler hats, but also "mechanically" animates his famous painting "Golconde," in which dozens of indistinguishable little bourgeois men in similar hats rain down upon a sterile townscape. (56) In QuickTime "memory boxes," mechanical serialization and mnemonic repetition often combine--each "encouraging" the other to keep in mind--to re-collect and re-present--the ephemera of memory that would otherwise disappear from view.

Time, Movement, and the "Illusion of Life"

Thus we find that the disjunctions of temporality
traced here create the space for nostalgia's eruption.

--Susan Stewart


The miniature encourages the phenomenological experience of intensity, interiority, and material preciousness by virtue of its compression and condensation of data in space. But the miniature also effects our sense of time. As Stewart points out, there is "a phenomenological correlation between the experience of scale and the experience of duration." (57) That is, time also compresses and condenses in the miniature: it "thickens" in significance and implodes. Constrained or "nested" in a small spaces, time is reflexive: it falls back upon itself and "encrusts," building up into the "weight" of a generalized past, or it collapses under its own weight, diffusing the present into an ahistorical and "infinitely deep" state of reverie. Thus, as Stewart says: "The miniature does not attach itself to lived historical time. Unlike the metonymic world of realism, . . .the metaphoric world of the miniature makes everyday life absolute anterior and exterior to itself." (58) Furthermore, unlike in "real-time" and "live-action" cinema, our sense of temporality as we engage the miniature never "streams" toward the future (and this is so even when movement is involved). Temporal compression and condensation conflict with forward movement and "life-like" animation. As a result, "the miniature always tends toward tableau rather than toward narrative, toward silence and spatial boundaries rather than towards expository closure." (59) Fragments and bits and traces of past experience exist "now" in our sight and reverie, not only evocative but also emblematic of irrecoverable "originary" moments of wholeness. These broken and poignant units of time are silent (or, put in motion, they stutter), but their static and tableau-like presence points to both the passage of everyday "life" from particularity into allegory and the great temporal mysteries of matter's slow and inexorable emergence and extinction. (In this regard, we might remember the tendency of the "memory box" to figure and often make thematic cosmological imagery suggesting not human temporality, but the imperceptible dynamics and perspective of "longue durée": an "almost immobile history" written not in human events, but in the cosmic temporality of geologic or climatic transformation. (60))

There is, then, an extraordinary obfuscation (and questionable utopianism) in the nomination "QuickTime." QuickTime is anything but quick: its animations are forestalled, its "illusion of life" incomplete. Compressing and condensing its imagery in a "miniature" number of bits of digital memory and display space, the material conditions that inform QuickTime's miniature "memory boxes" are literally dramatized in the "half-life" of its objects. Not only are these objects constituted as "fragments" in space, they are also "fragmented" in temporality and motion. Thus, even when they take human form, the animated "subjects" of QuickTime are experienced as partially discontinuous and without agency. Phenomenologically, their movement is seen as imposed from "without" rather than as emerging intentionally from "within." At best, like the puppet Pinocchio, they struggle against their existence as mere "kinetic objects," in frustrated fits and starts stuttering out the desire to become a "real boy"--that is, fully alive in the temporal continuity and spatial coherence of intentional and realized action.

My evocation of Pinocchio here is hardly coincidental to the temporal and spatial qualities of both the miniature and the "memory box." The way in which both together transform time and space and thus question the nature of human animation and agency seems to call up both puppets and theater, "subjects" whose lives are directed from without and a space which miniaturizes, condenses, and foregrounds the "illusion" of life. Indeed, in both QuickTime and Cornell "memory boxes," the "theatrical stage is evoked," particularly "children's puppet theaters with cutout cardboard scenery." (61) Central also here is intermittent motion: time and action broken into fragments, foregrounding gaps and the laborious struggle to "become" really human or "real" cinema. In this regard, Pinocchio's bildungsroman of self-realization is countered with the oxymoronic miniaturization and intermittencies that undo cinema within cinema in the uncanny films of Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay. Indeed, Cornell's own forays into filmmaking were meant to undo "live-action" and "real-time": he insisted that his Rose Hobart--shot at sound speed (24 fps) and using fragments of a 1931 sound melodrama (East of Borneo)--be projected at silent speed (16-18fps) to the accompaniment of scratchy phonograph recordings. (62) In Cornell and QuickTime "memory boxes," intermittent motion is always more than merely mechanical: it also articulates the temporal and existential conundrum of discontinuity. Thus, in Cornell's kinetic constructions such as his "sand fountains," Fenton tells us that "the sand was deliberately mixed with some larger impurities, so that the flow was supposed to be somewhat discontinuous rather than like an egg timer." (63) And a QuickTime work like Victoria Duckett's "Self Portrait," which shows a naked little girl running--but not--over a background of repetitious forms, merely figures and foregrounds the discontinuity in-forming both QuickTime and the medium where the selected fragment and the digital bit are animated discretely, discontinuously, in "tableau" time.

In sum, movement in time in both Cornell and QuickTime "memory boxes" becomes emblematic as it condenses and compresses "momentum" into a series of reified and frozen "moments." The effortless and continuous animation of "life" becomes temporally solidified in what we might call a kinetic "souvenir": a memory of motion that is now merely its token. Connecting the souvenir with the disjuncture between the past and present, Stewart tells us that it "speaks to a context of origin through a language of longing" and arises "out of the necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia." That is, "the souvenir generates a narrative which reaches only 'behind,' spiraling in a continually inward movement rather than outward toward the future." (64) Both QuickTime and Cornell boxes are, in the end, always engaged as souvenirs.


It is worth noting--even as we know that Pinocchio became a "real boy" and that QuickTime will eventually and seamlessly "stream" into "live-action"--that, as Stewart suggests, the "point of desire which the nostalgic seeks is in fact the absence that is the very generating mechanism of desire." (65) Both Cornell and QuickTime boxes mobilize memory and desire through an aesthetics of absence: a privileging of the poetically and philosophically charged gap between a present artifact and the past experience of which it is only a fragment. Call me retrograde: as the "gap" closes and QuickTime enlarges and quickens, I feel nostalgia at the impending loss of a unique historical experience and a rare and miniature digital object.

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Created 10/8/00 | Last Modified 10/31/00