Towards a Genre Materiality

This is a somewhat theoretical post meant to underpin future posts about something I call genre materiality atm. The point is to describe how screens have gone from passive transporters to active participants. Their qualities play an important role in media literacy and human taste. Screens are a good example of genre materiality, since they are still considered to be quite neutral whereas most other media are under the scrutiny of constructivism. It’s not as obvious as e.g sound storage media, or computers.

The screen used to be a syringe. Before the age of TV, academics thought that media consumers were injected with the message of the sender. Humans were seen as passive receivers, and the screens were like passive relays.

Fast-forwarding to the 1980’s, most things in the world was described as social constructions. Technology was considered to be shaped by culture and controlled by humans. Afaik, this perspective was applied much to screens (although the McLuhanites probably wrote something?). Even in the height of postmodern SCOT, screens were somehow able to be left out of the constructivism. And they still are. Screens are just, you know, showing what we feed them with. They don’t really affect the content.

But if you’ve ever been involved with printing, you know that screens are manipulative little bastards. People tend to blame the printers, but screens are calibrated differently and therefore the printers seem to print it wrong. There are professional calibrators out there, who come to calibrate your screen-printer-lifestyle. Then it’s smooth sailing from there.

Moving on to here and now, screen qualities have become crucial parts not only for hipster literacy and nerd aesthetics, but for pop culture at large. We interpret images differently due to the artefacts of the screen. It doesn’t take long for us to understand how old something is (supposed to look). We can feel a difference between CRT-screens and plasma screens. Right? Obviously, it’s easier to see the difference with production and storage technologies (VHS-camcorder versus 16mm film), but it’s there with screens too.

For example – modern TVs have a mode that doubles the framerate. It makes for a good sales pitch, since you can show soccer games to old men and demonstrate how smooth and clear the game is. But if you watch a movie in this enhanced mode, it totally destroys the atmosphere of the movie (atleast until you get used to it). The cheap interpolation algorithms used to create the new frames can make any movie look like a cheap camcorder class reunion party. I suppose that there are good aspects of it too, like the ability to make faster pans and tilts without revealing the framerate. After all, cinema has a pretty low frame rate, which likely has affected the genre of film.

So the screen becomes an active participant in the experience. Just like media consumers have gone from being (considered as) passive to active, so has the media themselves.

Some screen qualities can also be important for genres. In some cases, you can’t even use modern screens. If you create media-specific visuals and/or use machines that have an odd output signal (like a PAL C64 running in 50.125 Hz) you are likely to run into problems with modern screens or beamers, as I’ve written about before. More importantly though – you lose the qualities of the screen. Ian Bogost talks about e.g texture, noise and color bleed as important parts of the experience. This results in a very different experience from watching it in, for example, laser. Still, it is not all clear which is the most accurate representation: clear non-emulated pixels on a modern screen, or CRT-mangled images on a TV.

Even music could, with some effort, be connected to the screen. For platforms where the whole system is connected to the framerate of the screen, you would get a different tempo and tone with PAL and NTSC respectively. The music is tied to the raster beam of the CRT screen.

I will return to this in the future, and make something out of it. For now I have to go to a farm, and I’m also working on two texts that’ll hopefully be published later this year. Cowabunga, chipsters!


6 Responses to “Towards a Genre Materiality”

  1. Omri Suleiman Says:

    not at all what I’ve come to expect from your blog, though it seems that like Borges, you can talk about almost anything and make it thought provoking.

    look forward to seeing where you’re going with this.

  2. Peter Swimm Says:

    You can kinda see this in chipmusic performances. Crappy pa = bloopy indifference, massive sound body movement. Does (speaker) size matter?

    • goto80 Says:

      Not sure if I understand you right. But I’d say that there are genres where big speakers (bass) are a material necessity for the genre. A crucial part of dub, dubstep and bass music is that the listener can really feel the physical stomach-bombarding body-vibrating frequencies. Without massive bass, it doesn’t have much to offer.

      Chipmusic otoh, was made for super-crappy speakers back in the days and that probably influenced the development of the genre. No use in making megabass on C64 in the 80s or GBC in the 90s, because nobody would hear it. :)

  3. Datathrash Recordings Says:

    “The cheap interpolation algorithms used to create the new frames can make any movie look like a cheap camcorder class reunion party.” <– Thank you! I've pointed out and described exactly this countless times only to get blank stares or noncommittal grunts in return. At least I know I'm not nuts!
    Slightly more on topic: This makes me think of the "media purist" motto that everything should be experienced through the medium it was designed for. As in: vinyl era recordings sound best on vinyl, digital recordings sound best on digital players, film looks best through a projector, etc.

    • goto80 Says:

      Yeah the 100hz effect is a subtle one for many, but I’m sure it’s super annoying for many people. Atleast the people who made the movies. :) I remember an old C64-hacker (Linus Walleij) talked about how C64-music was made for TV-speakers, and in that sense actually sounded worse when played on normal speakers. And there’s plenty of music that doesn’t sound good on huge soundsystems, or hi-fi storage media, and so on.

      I don’t think it’s a coincidence that chipmusic has changed after it started to be played on big soundsystems, for live/dance/PA-settings. Once you’ve started to perform live, it’s not easy to disregard of that context when composing…

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