Never forget the loop
The first time I encountered the loop was whilst using a Chinon Super 8 projector manufactured in the late 70s. Within seconds of my roll of Kodachrome entering the “auto-loading” machine the projected image began to jitter and convulse. After several further attempts the film buckled, broke, and bunched up in the gate where it was toasted by the searing hot halogen lamp.
The instruction booklet explained that although the film lacing process was totally automated, the operator would need to press and hold down a button for a duration of about five seconds. The button, located on the top of the die-cast plastic unit was illustrated in the manual with an anonymous finger pressing down on it. Underneath the illustration it said: Loop.
Having seen and heard the extent of the machine’s automation—the flickering lights, whirring cogs, belts and fans—this manual imperative seemed an unusual request for physical interaction. It felt like a moment of consent.
In art school I came across it again, this time during a tutorial on the use of the Bolex H16 camera—and with a better description of its importance. As part of the standard Camera Operators 101 the message was very clear: check your focus, set aperture, hold the camera steady, but never, never forget the loop.
Latham Loop, via Flicker user Breve Storia del Cinema
The loop is the Latham Loop, an 1895 invention widely attributed to Eugene Lauste and W.K.L. Dickson but patented by Woodville Latham. They had been working for Latham's sons, the brothers Otway and Grey, hedonistic film pioneers during the age of the Cinema of Attraction. It was their Kinetoscope Exhibition Company that needed to be able to run longer loads of film without it ripping for the purpose of filming boxing matches, a new enterprise they were pursuing with rigor and one that proved almost as lucrative as it is now. The loop provided the solution.
Writing in American Cinematographer, the late David Samuelson described the Latham Loop as “as big a breakthrough in film technology as anything that has happened since.” The loop is really nothing but a short piece of film footage, positioned on both the top and bottom of the gate, that remains slack and works as a buffer between the rolling motion of the film as delivered by the reel and the yanking motion of the claw that pulls each frame into the gate.
Up until then only short takes had been possible and the loop quickly influenced the medium by allowing longer shots and larger reels of film, fuelling the drift towards the longer, more immersive feature film format.
The integral accident; a tropism for conflict
The loop struck a balance between the fragility of the medium with the violence of the mechanized processes used to expose and display it.
Methods of producing light-sensitive material in long strips, capable of capturing images was quite possible by the 1890s. The fine-timed opto-mechanics required to facilitate it at a rate fast enough to trick the eye, to mimic movement, was also well achievable within fin de siècle state of the art—as evidenced by the simultaneous development of cameras and projectors in a half dozen places around the globe. But it was the marriage of these two elements that provided the challenge. The low tensile strength of the gossamer-thin film stock—at that time brittle, not to mention highly flammable—was constantly under threat from the overheated, pulling, yanking environment of cogs and claws inside cameras and projectors. It is as if the machines were trying to destroy the film material or at least leave their mark upon it.
“When you invent the plane you invent the plane crash... every technology carries its own negativity,” wrote Paul Virilio on his theory of the integral accident—the idea that every new technology contains the capability of its own derailment or failure. An early iteration of this idea may be alluded to in War and Cinema (1989) when he writes, “A camera motor works by holding back its potential energies.” He is referring here to the loop and its easing of the conflict between the material and the machine’s demand of speed/quality. The loop exists within the machine as a no man’s land: its images are not on the reel, nor in the gate, or on the take up reel. Like the referee at the Lathams’ prizefight, it favors a nice clean fight/image: no scratching, biting, butting, etc.
Screencap of Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph, 1894, Directed by William K.L. Dickson, Via Wikipedia
It is anti-materialist. The film stock is supported only as a means to an end. Any evidence of its physical existence is considered vulgar, ungainly, inferior. The loop’s presence only becomes apparent when it fails. The first symptom is a violent jerking upwards of the image—like the effect of too much alcohol in on the ampullary cupula, a case of the head spins. Then film gate becomes unpredictable; the film will scratch, tear, scorch.
To think of film via McLuhan, one might say the medium has a tropism for conflict, violence. Every cinematic gun is Chekov's gun, every sequence an integral accident waiting to happen.
Pistol on TV, from Blue Velvet
Coming home: The loop enters the living room
When you slide a video cassette into a VCR and it goes whhRRR–ZZrrr–whpp.
That's the sound of the loop forming.
As Vito Acconci writes in “Furniture, Television and Sculpture,” domestic visual technology has, at times, tried to hide itself away. Whereas the early film projector wore its mechanisms on the outside, as it were, let it all hang out, home TV and video tech first sought concealment in the cozy familiarity of furniture, the TV and video cabinet, and then sleek, anonymity of the black box.
Inside the VCR the cassette is opened and in a process called M-Lacing the tape is drawn around revolving heads, and held at just the right tension, critical to within a fraction of a gram allowing the head to read the tape without damaging it.
The heads on early Ampex video machines would rip so much ferrous oxide coating from the tape that they became unwatchable after a number of playbacks. They were built with special collectors for the resulting debris: little mounds of magnetically charged particles, each containing minute elements of recorded data, isolated and impossible to reconstitute into an image.
VCR with Bugs and Elmer, Screencap via YouTube
As a VCR plays a tape and lazily whirrs, what is hidden from view is the tape is being scanned by a video head rotating at 1500 revolutions per minute. Although the tape appears to amble along, the spinning 3-millimeter-long heads are actually zipping across its surface at 17 kilometers per hour. If the head were scaled to the size of a water ski, its relative speed would be approaching the speed of sound.
This electromechanical feat can be achieved without shedding the tape to bits partly because of reiteration of the loop. It pursues glossy, interference-free images, the kind the video age was built dreaming of, by negotiating just the right amount of pressure to achieve image pick-up without overexposing the 20-micrometer-thick tape to the ferocity of the head drum.
While home video may have concealed these processes within its workings, for the professional sector there was no space for such sensitivity and the processes remained visible.
It was here that I spotted the loop again: it had landed a high-profile position in broadcast television.
Someone to watch over you
Around the middle of the last century, perhaps as a result of 50 years of silently watching moving images, the loop began to develop an interest in the content of the medium. As the proliferation of imagery and potential immediate viewership exponentially increases with the postwar explosion of TV, the loop intervenes and becomes censorious as the broadcast delay, aka the seven-second delay loop.
In this process live television is recorded onto magnetic tape, which is waylaid from its natural path into a loop to provide a monitorable delay before a playback head reads and feeds the signal to broadcast.
Becoming watchful, mindful, prudish, the delay loop manages borrowed time as directors of live TV hover over the “dump” button that will divert offensive content away from transmission cables and masts, into dead air. The loop may have become resentful of its charge.
With the rise of an energized new conservatism in the 80s it was there to monitor and defuse studio invaders protesting against legislation such as Section 28 in the UK. In the US the provocative mix of race, sex, and outspoken political satire employed by comics such as Richard Pryor had already become subject to its surveillance, the edgy punch line always seven seconds away and the most raucous show on the box, Saturday Night (almost) Live.
Richard Pryor on SNL, screencap via YouTube
According to researchers at MIT it takes only 13 milliseconds for human eyes/brains to register and recognize a single image, almost four times faster than previously thought. Down the hall, some other MIT engineers have built a camera capable of shooting at a trillion frames per second, fast enough to film the passage of a ray of light.
Things are speeding up.
Predictability of the new
So where is the loop today, now that film’s digital descendants have taken over? Like everyone and everything else: online.
A popular video sharing website presents me with a “video you might like.”
The sample thumbnail shows an intensely focused man standing on a mountain cliff. He is wearing a video camera attached to a crash helmet and an outfit that makes him look like a dayglow flying squirrel, a degree of gaudiness only extreme sports types seem to find necessary. He is about to throw himself off the edge. I have no idea why the website has predicted I would want to watch this—but strangely, I do.
When I click play a familiar circular symbol appears against a black screen. This ourobouros lazily chasing its tail is called a throbber. Having just learned the loop has developed into a censorious prude, I suspect its hidden presence immediately. Why was my video taking so long to arrive? Was the loop/throbber assessing it for suitability? Is my selection being run through some vast metadata filter?
Paranoia aside, in this moment the video file may still be sitting in some server farm having just received command to run, to play, to gather its things and go. Or it may be physically in transit. Either way, it is no longer purely resting in storage and it is not being viewed; it is in the loop.
The internet is becoming about prediction. It seems to know just what we want even before we do. What we are wearing, who we are. (It’s a bit like a Hannibal Lector to our collective Clarice Starlings—it can really creep you out if you let it, but we keep coming back for more because it always has something we want. The question is, as a trade-off, how far inside our heads should we let it?)
The video arrives and the man heads off like a guided missile. His POV-cam is ultra wide-angle; other cameras capture his descent from the ground, the air, past craggy rocks, trees. As his body hurtles from one side of the frame to the next, chased by whip-pans, something happens to the texture of the video image. At points of movement, of fast radical variation of content there is sort of bubbling, blurring. The flat surfaces of the sky, the rock face are embellished with a crystalline patina.
Screencap via YouTube
This is, of course, the result of video compression: this is a process managed by the loop.
At each stage of the image being filmed, edited, uploaded, the frames are run through video codecs in attempts to reduce the amount of data generated and stored by comparing separated frames and then assuming what the frames in between might look like. Any frame represents a minute fraction of time and possibly something from a few moments before and after. This system of compression though comparison and prediction manages the demand for speed and quality against the limitations of the hardware.
Inter frame prediction, Via ProVideo Coalition
The predictive frame exists in a hyper-reality of images composed of copies and imagined in-betweens. This process drastically reduces file size but generates glitches, compression artifacts. At some level the process imagines and creates its own imagery.
The wingsuit man isn't flying over craggy rocks and alpine flora so much as a torrent of compression artifacts, alien forms that suddenly appear then vanish into the spewing magma, the lossy data soup.
These artifacts and glitches are ancestors of flicker, jitter, the miniature sandstorms of dust particles, the scratched and scorched frames that the Latham loop and other processes like it have sought to eliminate.
These are the imperfections that interrupt immersion, that remind the viewer of the materiality of the medium.
Birgit and Wilhelm Hein, Rohfilm, 1968, Black and white, sound, 16mm, 20’00
The cozy catastrophe and the digital scratch
When that medium starts to break down, to suffer and reveal imperfections. The technology becomes visible through its failures. Glitches and errors constitute evidence of its origins; we see the material through disruption.
—Ed Halter, The Matter of Electronics
Glitch Artists, on the other hand, like Materialist Filmmakers before them, embrace these imperfections as auratic and keys to revealing the processes of each image’s conception, levels of existence, vulnerability to damage, decay, and decomposition. Like the oil painter’s thumbprint left on a canvas, these elements are considered to demonstrate each frame’s uniqueness while contextualizing its existence beyond the limits and confines of mise-en-scene, narrative, etc. Bending, moshing, getting down and dirty with the impoverished image, Glitch Art isn't afraid of the results of overloaded, compromised, or mismatched media. It is about entering closed systems to explore the possibility for art between human error and the cold infallible logic of machines.
Glitch art, Via Deviant Art, Creative Commons license
Reams of readymade code become the substrate for sculpture, for subtle coercive interaction. It often seeks to attain, suspend, and display the effects of the moment before failure, sustain the frisson felt at the instant of crash. It aims to release a flow of randomized images and sounds, encourages failure and decay, the jarring revelation of the integral accident. In doing so it negates the predictable (and yet somehow, it often is).
Glitch Art, Via Flickr user Torley
Like a wheel within a wheel, contemporary video codecs such as H.264 contain an inner process, an In-Loop Deblocking Filter that finds and seeks to eliminate or obscure the materiality of the compression artifact. Unlike the glitch artists, the In-Loop Deblocking Filter has no truck with byproducts, spoilers, elements that are non-immersive, anti-illusionary.
Block Partition, Via Wikimedia Commons
Instead, it smoothes out their edges, paints them into the background.
I see this as the next expression of the loop and somewhat like a suburbanite Sunday painter with whom it appears to share technique and aesthetic sensibility. Its work is amateurish but there is nothing refreshingly Brut about its inelegance, only a desire to conform, to make things look “right.”
Like a sloppy watercolorist, the Deblocking Filter treats the misunderstood, the error, the out-of-place detail, with excessive washes until they are homogenized, blurred out. This obsessive flushing aims to cleanse the image. The loop has become prudish, precious, biased, as it finds itself endlessly repeating a mistake that's vexed art tutors for generations: it attempts to paint what it knows, or thinks it knows, rather than what it sees.
The Lathams never witnessed very much of the loop’s progress, their short lived company's most enduring legacy. They lost their money as fast as they made it and by 1902 both brothers were dead, Grey crushed by the steel wheels of streetcar, Otway as a result of undisclosed playboy lifestyle choices. Their loop, the referee between material and machine, demand and capability, became the very antithesis of who they were.
And today, the YouTube video wingsuit man is what every Go-Pro owner dreams of: part Viriloian image/speed machine, part idiotic, pseudo-suicide in a bad outfit.
At every movement, every protuberance dodged, I anticipate his impact and death. The predictive loop of the video codec predicts otherwise and the dude just kept going.
As Nam June Paik once said: Video isn't I see, it's I fly.
(Just preferably not into the side of a mountain.)
Should something go wrong, his body will be swallowed by the codec, merged into the surrounding environment far faster than his corpse would be under the stresses of natural decomposition. The sudden appearance of his smashed body, his exploding camera will be mistaken for a glitches, compression artifacts. They'll be washed from the image surface, blended in and in an instant, overwritten a thousand times.
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