Little Loops

Like most peo­ple who are not lock­smiths, I nev­er under­stood how a pin tum­bler lock worked. What final­ly did it was see­ing an ani­mat­ed gif of one in action. What had been for most of my life a black box oper­a­tion – cor­rect key goes in, door opens – became, over the course of a few rep­e­ti­tions of the ani­ma­tion, a phys­i­cal real­i­ty; my men­tal mod­el of the world became slight­ly bet­ter detailed. 

To be hon­est, though, I still have a hard time remem­ber­ing the mech­a­nism unless I am cur­rent­ly watch­ing the gif. The log­ic of the machine is suf­fi­cient­ly detailed in four dimen­sions to deflect my stan­dard ways of recon­struct­ing a process; sequen­tial dia­grams of the process in what­ev­er style, for instance, leave me fun­da­men­tal­ly con­fused. Were I to train to be a lock­smith, I’m sure I would devote the time to con­struct a men­tal mod­el that would reli­ably pic­ture and pre­dict the work­ings of major lock types, just as I did when learn­ing the rules of draw­ing per­spec­tive, or grad­ing earth. But as an inter­est­ed layper­son, the gif is my best and eas­i­est resource for com­pre­hend­ing how they work.

The gif in its ani­mat­ed form is a pure expres­sion of a minor con­tem­po­rary obses­sion, that of the lit­tle loop. The fric­tion­less imme­di­ate replay of audio and video via off-the-shelf play­ers, along with the free dis­tri­b­u­tion of var­i­ous means to edit exist­ing audio and video con­tent down into any select­ed sequence, means that any acquired con­tent is eas­i­ly enough refash­ioned into a lit­tle loop. 

Our ten­den­cy to see such forms as cen­tered on youth leads us to asso­ciate them auto­mat­i­cal­ly with the char­ac­ter­is­tics we fear in youth: con­sumer com­pul­sion, short atten­tion spans, flat­ten­ing and super­fi­cial­i­ty. Yet the gif (and let’s infor­mal­ize the word, like this, since we will be liv­ing with it in var­i­ous forms in the future) is also mak­ing its way into the mid­dle­brow main­stream. Unan­nounced, they have begun to appear in the online ver­sions of the New York Times and New York­er, appear­ing where a sta­t­ic image would be expect­ed. In so doing, they strike an accept­able bal­ance between pub­li­ca­tion and view­er – they move, they engross, but they do so silent­ly and con­tin­u­ous­ly. If they can appear in these out­lets, then gifs can be genteel.

In part, this is because they can take on an air of the con­tem­pla­tive; such loops are a very pure means of study­ing event. Two boys are at a bas­ket­ball hoop; one goes for a layup, the ball hits the hoop, and prompt­ly dis­ap­pears; as the boys turn to look at the cam­era, view­ers can scan the image for the miss­ing ball. Where is it? Where is it? If they study long enough, they can see a sliv­er of the ball under one boy’s armpit as it rolls away onto the lawn, blocked by his body.

The fixed span of the Snapchat, the Insta­gram video, or the soon-to-dis­ap­pear Vine tells us some­thing about what it is meant to con­tain. It accom­mo­dates a sin­gu­lar event in time, uncap­turable in a fixed frame but com­pre­hen­si­ble through steady rep­e­ti­tion, such that it can be seen in all of its con­tours. The more elas­tic for­mat of the gif can and does accom­mo­date both ultra-short bursts – which tend to become objects in of them­selves – as well as longer stretch­es, though the lat­ter tends to yield to prop­er video for­mats once it becomes desir­able to pause the action.

It shouldn’t be sur­pris­ing that this form of study rei­fies what it regards. Study of the event gives it bound­aries, a begin­ning and an end. Sur­veil­lance footage, when it enters into scruti­ny, los­es the infi­nite and undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed cap­ture stretch­ing to oth­er side, becom­ing delim­it­ed between the entry and exit of the prin­ci­pal actors. Like­wise, the loop turns a snip­pet of song into a rhythm; both its own, minor object, and a sort of adver­tise­ment for the uncut version. 

Con­trast the mov­ing image we tend to use most in design – the ani­ma­tion. Ani­ma­tion, when used in the pre­sen­ta­tion of spa­tial design, is typ­i­cal­ly a pros­thet­ic rhetoric, with two aims. First, it sup­ple­ments the pre­sen­ta­tion nar­ra­tive of mov­ing through the site, or con­struct­ing the site. Like any mod­el, it helps to makes the design real – both in that it allows you to bet­ter envi­sion the pro­posed design, and in that the time and care tak­en to con­struct it helps to con­vince you of its wor­thi­ness to be built. Sec­ond, ani­ma­tion demon­strates a specif­i­cal­ly con­tem­po­rary tech­ni­cal exper­tise. It shows that the design team is keep­ing pace with tech­nol­o­gy, which auto­mat­i­cal­ly equates with keep­ing up with cul­ture. Ani­ma­tion is weighty – it stands for work. 

The lit­tle loop affirms, but in a dif­fer­ent way; it has a dif­fer­ent kind of weight. Look at a Tum­blr feed and how it gar­dens gifs of affir­ma­tion, sen­ti­ment, and scorn through sub­ti­tled loops from films. Like prayer wheels, such loops take up space to reit­er­ate a mes­sage into an assumed eter­ni­ty. Again, there’s a dou­ble focus:

-To solid­i­fy, or maybe to memo­ri­al­ize, a stance through rep­e­ti­tion. An act is made to resound, to stiff­en. It gets asymp­tot­i­cal­ly clos­er to real time – one moment of defi­ance or insight is no longer fleeting.

-Across the grain from that: to bet­ter under­stand that stance, in the sense that one stands under the wheel­ing stars to observe them – that through exam­in­ing the same thing over and over again, it can be seen it in all its multiplicity.

As with the medi­um that car­ries them, these loops change the rela­tion­ship between con­sump­tion and cost. The eco­nom­ic real­i­ties that under­lie, say, a fea­ture film – the exchange of mon­ey for an hour and a half of lin­ear immer­sion – are exchanged for a mantra. It costs only your own time and attention. 

What is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing is the pos­si­bil­i­ty in loops that very grad­u­al­ly change – as with William Basinski’s com­po­si­tion The Dis­in­te­gra­tion Loops, where dete­ri­o­rat­ing tape is cap­tured in the process of dete­ri­o­ra­tion, each of its phys­i­cal tri­als being cap­tured as the base sound is reit­er­at­ed. Feed­back comes into the pic­ture, along with cost; that each reit­er­a­tion active­ly bears on, wears on, the source mate­r­i­al. At length, the slip­ping loop approx­i­mates the log­ic of cable news, as pieces of infor­ma­tion are alter­nat­ed and recir­cu­lat­ed, grad­u­al­ly phas­ing out or chang­ing in emphasis. 

With­out imme­di­ate­ly rel­e­gat­ing any thought to the store­house of prac­tice, I can imag­ine two pos­si­ble out­lets for such loops in the land­scape world. The process of land­scape change is not well-served by sta­t­ic series of dia­grams; a repeat­able com­plex mod­el can bet­ter show this form in time, just as the loop of a satel­lite weath­er image helps a local res­i­dent grasp the com­plex motion of the storm sys­tem. How­ev­er, to intro­duce a slip into the loop also gives us the pos­si­bil­i­ty of divert­ing these sys­tems over time – in adding one vari­able of decay or growth to change the rel­a­tive bal­ance of fac­tors. And here we can start to see not only a space as a spec­tac­u­lar event, but as a process in of itself, point­ed into an uncer­tain future.

(January 2017)