Imperfect Loops & Screen Memories
The audio-essay I recently produced in collaboration with Justin Barton, On Vanishing Land, was in part a disquisition on the eerie.  For us, the eerie was defined by problems of agency. In the deserted spaces which often trigger the feeling of the eerie, we are forced to ask if there is an agent present, unseen but watching us. If an agent is present, what is its nature? Is it hostile, friendly, or merely indifferent? The feeling of the eerie is also likely to be provoked by the contemplation of the relics left behind by agents who have long departed. The statues on Easter Island, the stone circle at Avebury – these confront us with gaps in our knowledge. What kind of agents built these constructions, and what (now irretrievably lost) symbolic regime made sense of them?
The synthesiser pioneer, artist and designer John Foxx was one of a number of musicians who contributed music to On Vanishing Land. Part of the reason we asked Foxx is that we felt that his sonic and visual work is saturated with a sense of the eerie. This is because Foxx’s work is so informed by the imagery and logic of dreams – and dreams always pose the question of whether there is some agency, unknown to us, which constructs our dreams as coded messages.
One of the events accompanying On Vanishing Land was a performance by Foxx and video-artist collaborator Karborn of their ongoing project Electricity and Ghosts. Foxx played some limpid piano over some of ambient sounds recovered from cassettes he had recorded in the 1970s, and a montage of animated GIFs, all of which had been discovered on the internet. When he introduced the performance, Foxx said that he had become fascinated with GIFs because they functioned like memory.
Yet this locking of the mind into loops, which it is compelled to repeat, is more like Freud’s concept of screen memory than the ‘ordinary’ function of memory. In screen memory, Freud claimed, the mind repeatedly replays an apparently innocuous (sometimes confabulated) scene, in order to cover over – or screen – something more traumatic or unsettling. Freud, for instance, tells of a patient who recalls being two years old, sitting outside a cottage in a meadow with some other children. They are picking dandelions together.
One of the girls has the best bunch when “as though by mutual agreement, we – the two boys – fall on her and snatch away her flowers”. She runs away and is given some black bread as consolation. When the other children see this, they throw away their flowers, and they too are given bread. “In my memory the bread tastes quite delicious,” Freud’s patient continues, “and at that point the scene breaks off”. Like the invocation of the “screen” itself, the expression “the scene breaks off” cannot but make us think of film, and there is something very reminiscent of the animated GIF in this little vignette. Of course, it turns out that the apparently banal scene refers to more troubling emotional events (part of the interest of this particular screen memory for Freud is that it refers to events that occurred later in the patient’s life, when he was a teenager and had fallen in love with one of the girls).
The animated GIF, like Freud’s scene, is an unresolved loop. But there is evidently a difference between what Freud describes – an initially enigmatic scene that is in the end capable of being explained – and the orphan GIFs endlessly repeating on the internet, unmoored from any context. These GIFs are externalised memories, the significance of which cannot be recovered for the vast majority of those who see them. They are not so much found objects as found memories – someone else’s memories, often in the double sense that they are memories of feature films, memories, that is to say, of other people’s memories, captured by the cinematic apparatus. The more obscure and untraceable the source, the more banal the scenes that they show, the more haunting an animated GIF becomes.
That brings us back to the eerie. For if the eerie necessarily revolves around the unknown, for that very reason, it always involves a fascination. We are fascinated because we don’t know, and in many of these cases, because we can’t know; the fact that the meaning and context of many animated GIFs is unlikely to be recovered makes them intrinsically eerie, but they are also eerie because of their relationship to time. The unresolved in the GIF takes the form of trapped time, a bad infinity. They are somewhat similar to audio samples, but the difference between an audio sample and an animated GIF is telling.
An audio sample can be looped perfectly, but this is rarely the case with film. Whereas an artfully looped audio sample can conceal the point at which it loops, the loop point in animated GIFs can never be smoothed out. The jerkiness of the GIF, its failure to convincingly loop, is what gives GIFs so much of their melancholy and their eeriness: like a mind mechanically forced to keep trying to solve a puzzle it cannot even recognise.
 Mark Fisher and Justin Barton, On Vanishing Land, 6 February – 6 April 2013, The Showroom (theshowroom.org).