In the lo-fi arts, it is common to say that limitations serve as a source of inspiration. It’s such a common phrase that it’s become nearly as hollow as saying that less is more. This paradoxical expression basically means that less can be good despite not being more. Less is good only if it’s like more. If you flip the expression around into more is less, which Barry Schwartz does when arguing against freedom of choice, it actually means the same thing. Less is always worse.
It’s a truism to point out the ideological connection with a capitalist focus on eternal growth. Much less obvious, is how this belief permeats so many artistic, scientific and journalistic accounts of lo-fi computing. There’s a strong focus on limitations when it comes to lo-fi computers, but not when it comes to hi-tech stuff. There’s a fetish with lo-fi limitations that I think we can all recognize, and therefore there is also a fetish with the hi-fi unlimited. Right?
We should probably talk about verbs rather than nouns. Saying that certain characteristics are limitations or not… well… says who? All systems have limitations, depending on how/who/when/where you ask the question. Can you imagine something that is actually unlimited? Invisible? Isn’t it actually the “limitations” that gives character to something? A piano without the limitation of discrete notes? Well, now that’s just not a piano anymore, is it?
But anyway – the real question is: how are those characteristics limiting? Can it be limiting to only have squarewaves and 3 oscillators? Yes, of course. And can it be limiting to have 3 million custom waveforms and 12 million super oscillators and a frictionless interface between man and machine? Yes, that too can be limiting. It can be too much. It can push is into making the familiar, because it requires a mega fresh brain to get out of the path dependence. It’s much easier to have an interface that suggests unfamiliar ways.
A lot of artists show love and respect for the technologies they use. In the digital art, not so much. For digital artists, the tools are mostly commercial products, and it’s not exactly arty to celebrate a commodity (unless, you know, you have a conceptual reason to do so). Computers are hidden in art galleries, screens are turned away from the audience at laptop gigs, and so on.
We’re also quite obsessed with critical and transgressive uses of these technologies. We imagine that we’re doing something that we’re not supposed to do, and call it critical uses or hacking or appropriation or something like that.
Smells like humanist spirit. As if we’re in control, eh?
8-bit artists, on the other hand, are often positioned in a much more posthuman way. As slaves of technology. Underdogs. We often portray ourselves as suffering artists – or even handicapped – who make stuff despite technology. And yet, that once again reinforces the idea that hi-fi tech is somehow less limiting than old tech. But here’s a few reasons why a lot of old tech is superior:
* Fast, reliable, sturdy. It’s not your work laptop that you have to be super careful with. It doesn’t take 1 minute to boot or shut down. It doesn’t break if you check your luggage in. It’s fixable and still cheap to buy.
* Super control. For me as a musician, I can do almost anything that the platform allows me to do. That’s not at all the case with hi-fi platforms, that hides most of it potential.
* Aesthetically, you can work with instant genrefication. If you keep it simple, your song/picture/animation is instantly recognized as 8-bit/retro. This can be negative, but also positive. No need to worry about aesthetics. Just let the machine provide it for you.
(this post was revived from the 2012-archives)