Category Archives: de Forest

Retro Future

A workstation of the future, as imagined in the 1970s.


Nothing becomes obsolescent faster than predictions and projections for the future. This marvelous photo comes courtesy of Retronaut (“see the past like you wouldn’t believe”) an online “bulletin board” of wacky, nostalgic, and absurd images from that vast, inexhaustible territory we call the past.


365 Days of Obsolescing

Initially begun as a 30 day project  documenting things that are obsolescing in my life, I’ve now gathered steam and am continuing on until I run out of objects. Everyday I will photograph things hanging around in my studio (or bring them from my apartment) that I am classifying as either obsolete, or becoming obsolete. In a nutshell — clutter. — Deanne Achong, The Obsolescence Project

It seems fitting, given Obsolescing’s retrospective focus, that I’m informing you of Deanne Achong’s brilliant blog, The Obsolescence Project, after it’s already ended. For 365 days (with minimal breaks for flu, a wedding, and other of life’s interruptions), Achong, a Vancouver-based artist, has documented a different “useless object” each day.

Day One, February 1, 2012, the blog begins with a light meter and a straightforward, bare-bones caption:

Day One – Light Meter

Light Meter I bought at a garage sale a few years ago. Love the leather case. I did use a light meter like this when I first went to art school.

On Day 365, the Obsolescence Project concludes with a picture of a fossil, an ending that takes us back to distant beginnings, where the ephemeral also endures.

The end takes us back to distant beginnings, where the ephemeral also endures.

Day 365 – Fossil

Achong follows a simple formula, which evolves over time: simple close-up photographs accompanied by short captions. The objects portrayed range from true treasures (fine china, old leather-bound books) to true trash (broken lamps, old power cords). Yet hers is a leveling eye. The sharp gaze of her camera lens exalts the lowly and humbles the proud. The obsolete parade by without value assigned, certainly not monetary value (though she will sometimes reveal what she paid — or didn’t — for something, especially if a treasure was plucked from a trash bin). Achong’s aim is not so much to reveal an object’s beauty, though her photos accomplish that, as to reclaim the trivial, broken and outdated.

The Obsolescence Project is in one sense a year-long artist’s manifesto, in which Achong considers her own magpie tendencies:

As an artist, I have kept a lot of stuff. Thinking one day it might have some kind of value. Not eBay value (although there’s that too) but become an idea for a project. Possibly I’ve imagined these things might magically assemble themselves into another type of object, present themselves to me as a story or at least a lead on a narrative that I want to pursue. I’m not giving up that hope, but I am hoping that by documenting their presence, I might detach from them and make the leap towards shoving (some of ) them out the door.

As our guide to this successive collection, Achong is inquisitve and wry, never authoritarian. She muses, rather than asserts. She usually shows her pieces from a variety of angles, then writes about its personal associations — where she acquired it, what she thought she might do with it. As her approach developed over time, she did research as well, so the curious reader will learn interesting facts about an object’s origin and history or even, say, how many Viewmasters appear for sale on E-bay.

Though this phase of the Obsolescence Project has now ended, this is a perfect time to go back and review the whole. Following Deanne’s process as she shapes the blog and discovers in the daily practice of photographing and writing exactly what she is doing, is fascinating and rewarding — a privileged glimpse of an artist at work.

On that last day, last February, I was  happy to read  that the Obsolescence Project will not itself become obsolete. Achong is taking a break after her (nearly) daily documentation over the course of a year and then plans to move on to Phase II — content and focus not yet announced.

I can’t wait! Brava Deanne!

More Typewriter Tales

Ryan Ashley and his typewriter Jolene hang out their shingle at Clark Park Farmer’s Market

A young man sidles up to me at Clark Park’s Farmer’s Market and tells me that when I’m finished buying my eggplant he will write me a poem. He is dressed like a street performer, a juggler or mime: striped shirt, suspenders, a battered felt hat on his head.  But he is an itinerant poet in the old tradition of the troubadours. He’s traveling the country by train, setting up his folding table and hand-lettered sign, propped up on his typewriter case. He’s like Lucy in Peanuts when she’s dispensing psychiatric wisdom: “That will be 5¢ please.” What I am drawn to of course is not so much the quixotic nature of his profession but the tools of his trade. His companion and instrument in this venture is a sleek Smith Corona that he has christened “Jolene.”

(“You name your typewriters?” I ask.

“I named this one,” he answers.)

Jolene, it turns out, is one of four typewriters this poet,  Ryan Ashley, owns. He found this one at a flea market, purchased her for $45, and spent another $100 restoring her to her current sheen and efficiency.

When I ask him what he likes about his typewriter, he rhapsodizes like a man in love, describing her contours, her smoothness, and the pleasure of pressing the keys. He loves the resistance he feels, the precise pressure required to get results. He concludes that litany with “It’s analog!” he says, as if that single word encapsulates all the typewriter’s virtues.

Then he moves from the tactile to other senses. “I especially like the sound,” he says. “It is an instrument,” The taps and clicks that accompany his own compositions, he calls “music to my ears.”

So when it comes time for Ryan to write his poem for me, I ask him to write one for Jolene instead. Here is what he taps out.

In the minute or so it takes for Ryan to compose this ode, a couple of bystanders are drawn to the spectacle, the sight and sound, of this busker playing percussion  as the lyrics formed on slanted lines across the page. (The handcrafted effect enhanced by Ryan’s not lining his paper up straight)

Watching them watch him, I think about hurdy-gurdy players with their trained monkeys, snake charmers, bear baiters, ventriloquists who speak through their dummies. Has a typewriter become like some exotic pet or mesmerizer’s instrument of enchantment? (Or of seduction: Later I read Ryan’s blog and saw that he took Jolene out bar hopping that night, where Jolene served as babe magnet. Hmmm. I see a New Yorker cartoon in there somewhere)

Ryan and Jolene are traveling, making poetry and friends across the country, as  Ryan keeps a blog of reflections and poems about his adventures and encounters. For the vagabond poet, I think, the chance interactions, the unexpected intimacies and revelations that his itinerant poetry act brings about mean more than the verses themselves. Poetry is a vehicle. A means of connection. Those poems just come. That press of inked letters on fragile paper records a moment’s inspiration, handed out freely (though he’s happy for my $5 donation). He passes them on, and like an old-time troubadour, moves on.

A Boy and His Typewriter

Writer at Work

At 13, my friend Linus is the most tech savvy kid I know. A young artist – visual and literary – he feels at home in a wide range of media. He’s been making movies, editing on iMovie and creating special effects with Adobe software since he was 8. The stories he writes tend toward the futuristic, often dystopian fantasies filled with inventive gadgets, hovercrafts, hidden cameras, remote communications devices, and evil robots. Even when words are his main medium, he draws on the technology available to him to envision and enhance the imaginary world he’s building. It’s fun to watch him move fluidly from building a virtual skyscraper in a Google illustration program to writing an action-packed paragraph and back again. For the others in the group, Linus is the go-to guy for all computer-related problems (or smartphone or iPods as well).

A few weeks ago, though, Linus turned heads when he walked into the cafe where our writers’ group meets lugging a large yellow box. He heaved it onto the table, unfastened the metal latches and revealed the object within: a vintage Smith Corona typewriter. “Isn’t that heavy?” I asked. “Hey, it’s portable,” he said, quotation marks hidden in his grin.

It was amazing how quickly the outmoded machine in the middle of our table became the talk of the Green Line Cafe. Linus soon found himself fielding a barrage of questions and expressions of admiration, interest, curiosity. Every one who came over to gawk had a story to tell, mostly about the typewriters in their youth. What was funny (to me, who got through college and grad school and even started a professional writing career in the B.C. era — before computers that is) was that most of the gawkers and reminiscers couldn’t have been much more than 30.

“Hey, I first started writing on one of these,” said a guy in a black t-shirt with multiple figures who resembled Marvin the Martian cascading down a flight of stairs.  “And then I actually used a Word Processor. Ever see one of those?” He talked to my 13-year-olds like a classic geezer lecturing the young about the lazy ease of their existence. “It had a big black screen.” He widened his hands to demonstrate the unimaginable unwieldiness of his first computer. “Plus, the letters were bright orange. Bright orange! Freaky!”

Unhindered by memories, the kids just wanted to get their hands on this cool new toy. They reached over, grabbed for a turn, punched at the keys. Linus fended them off. He wrapped his arms around his precious machine and warned his friends about its fragility. I was impressed how much he knew about the history of typewriters. He recited the origin story of the QWERTY keyboard, designed to slow typing down. Too quick and the keys would cross, stick, break, he demonstrated. The kids and I then mused about cultural habits, and how our tools don’t always evolve along Darwinian lines, how custom can trump efficiency. We’ve inherited that keyboard, long after it outlived its usefulness. It has become a language of sorts, one we learn with our fingers. Our children’s fingers learn it too, even as they touch-type messages with their thumbs on electronic simulacra of pressable keys.

There’s more than one way to write a story

When I asked Linus what he liked best about typing — the process or the product, he answered without hesitation. He loved the act. The click and clack. The dance of the slender metal arms as they reach for the page. He hated the result. Too messy, he said. “If you make mistakes you can only type over them.”

I, on the other hand, found myself drawn to the look of the page. A typed sheet of paper has appeal. It has, for lack of a better word, personality. Not something I ascribed to it back when I was typing college term papers (in fact I cringed that my own WhiteOut caked bibliographies might reveal too much personality).

Again and again I’m reminded that loss is a lens that sharpens our view of the past. Linus, his view unclouded by past associations, can see his vintage machine as an object of wonder, more toy than tool, though I toy that’s treated with a measure of awe. Watching him play with his typewriter, I see its wonderfulness too. I admire anew the intricacy and inventiveness, the combination of delicacy and force present in a tool I once took for granted. Rich in history. Potent with possibility. Brand new.

The Long Goodbye

“Every generation rewrites the book’s epitaph; all that changes is the whodunit,” writes Leah Price in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Her essay, Dead Again, traces predictions of the book’s demise back to the early 19th century. Long before e-readers and other digital technologies:

Théophile Gautier’s novel “Mademoiselle de Maupin” had already declared that “the newspaper is killing the book, as the book killed architecture.” This was in 1835. And Gautier was only one-upping Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” which, four years earlier, depicted an archdeacon worrying the book would kill the cathedral, and a bookseller complaining that newfangled printing presses were throwing the scribes out of work. (The novel is set a quarter-century after Gutenberg’s first Bible, when a thriving industry of manuscript-on-demand was forced to readjust.)

At long last, a New York Times writer acknowledges what we at Obsolescing have been saying for a long time: predicting and lamenting the book’s demise is an age-old habit. Cultural and social critics thrive on recycling that tired trope: looking back with regret and forward with doubt and fear (and occasionally excitement).

Personally, I was thrilled to learn that waning technology is a key theme in Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Now I’ve got to go read it!). But Price, a specialist in Victorian literature at Harvard, also offers a compelling analysis of novelists who look forward into a bleak, book-less future. She delightfully catalogues the fantastical (sometimes eerily prescient) technologies 19th and 20th century science fiction writers invented to destroy books (and tyrannize the freedom of the human imagination), from Aldous Huxley’s “feelies” to Ray Bradbury’s firemen. And she exposes the paradox in these dystopian visions: while books may vanish, the libraries that house them nearly always survive.

Writers foresaw space travel, time travel, virtual reality and, endlessly, the book’s demise; what they never seem to have imagined was that the libraries housing those dying volumes might themselves disappear.

The insight that sticks with me appears early in the essay:

In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another. Television didn’t kill radio any more than radio ended reading.

One might quibble that television fundamentally changed radio — and movies too — but how old technologies answer and adapt to the new is a topic for another essay. The larger point Price makes is more important.  Progress is rarely the juggernaut we fear. Our technologies don’t come to us like a line of tyrannical despots, beheading predecessors in order to claim dominance. Rather than usurp, they draw on and respond to what’s come before. 

Touch Type

Virtual letterpress for iPad and Mac

John Bonadies remembers well the heady early days of the digital revolution, when designers, himself included, enthusiastically discarded their outmoded tools of drafting and production, and replaced them with shiny new Macs. Creaky old letterpresses were dismantled, cases of lead and wooden type sold for scrap. Some 550 years after Gutenberg, it looked like movable type, the invention that changed history, was obsolete.

Leap ahead 25 years, and Bonadies is fostering a typesetting revival — in a digital context. He invented LetterMpress, an iPad app (and now for Mac desktop) that brings the look and feel of typesetting by hand into the digital age.

Though the app looks backward for inspiration, nostalgia was not what motivated Bonadies. He came up with the idea encountering a prototype of the iPad. The iPad’s novel interface, that glide of fingers across the screen to move and open files, enlarge or shrink images, reminded him of something. In his undergraduate days, he’d taken a course using a letterpress at Indiana University. His brain made an intuitive leap, a spark of connection: iPad = Letterpress. Thus, an app was born.

As Bonadies says:

Actually, a letterpress and an iPad operate similarly when it comes to manipulating objects in a composition. Just like placing blocks of wood type on a surface, you drag the type images across the iPad, and then move them around to create your design. This is why [I thought] the iPad would make an ideal platform for people to experience the creative aspects of letterpress and typography.”

The experience is virtual, of course. But LetterMpress never pretends to be the real thing.  The app is not so much replication or simulation as re-interpretation, a revival in the sense that it breathes new life into an outmoded technology. This digital translation aims to give those who might never have access to an actual letterpress the chance to have fun creating a design by hand, as Bonadies’ associate Molly Poganski demonstrates:

Virtual, in the case of LetterMpress, does not mean “pale imitation” either. In creating the app, Bonadies aimed for authenticity. With money raised from Kickstarter, Bonadies set about collecting actual vintage type, letterpress machines, and the proper paraphernalia, which he then scanned. The resulting interface is vivid and nearly tactile, capturing the textures and patina of old type, the battered type drawers, the metal gears and roller of the press itself. There are sounds effects too. This attention to detail, never pedantic or fussy, makes the experience satisfyingly inventive. With the bold wooden type forms evoking children’s building blocks. LetterMpress feels like an invitation to play.

The story of LetterMpress’ invention and creation has an interesting twist, a coda that even Bonadies didn’t foresee. After acquiring three Vandercook presses and a cache of vintage type to make the app authentic, Bonadies didn’t want to turn around and re-sell it. Instead, he established a typesetting cooperative in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where he lives and works. The Living Letter Press offers workshops, training, and access to the machines. The virtual renaissance spawned an analog twin, so to speak. Though, fitting for our time, the Living Letter Press maintains its own vibrant presence online, with a Facebook page and an Etsy shop.

LetterMpress Valentine

So those who mourn the passing of old technologies should take heart in the LetterMpress story, a charming marriage of hi tech and low. Reframed, reinterpreted, translated for a new medium, what was relegated to the scrap heap suddenly seems fresh and vibrant again, a creative tool poised to yield new forms of expression.

Even art.

In Trust

In the opening paragraphs of the short story “In Trust,” Australian writer David Malouf articulates so eloquently the themes of Obsolescing, that I’m quoting amply here, no need of my own interpretation or explanation. The boldface is my own. I hope that the copyright lords will be appeased if I urge you to read this book, even buy this book (The Complete Stories. New York: Vintage 2007), or anything else the masterful Malouf has written, for that matter.

We’ll let these paragraphs stand as our epigraph for 2012:

There is to begin with the paraphernalia of daily living: all those objects, knives, combs, coins, cups, razors, that are too familiar, too worn and stained with use, a doorknob, a baby’s rattle, or too swiftly in passage from hand to mouth or hand to hand to arouse more than casual interest. They are disposable, and are mostly disposed of without thought. Tram tickets, matchboxes, wooden serviette rings with a poker design of poinsettias, buttonhooks, beermats, longlife torch batteries, the lids of Doulton soup tureens, are carted of at last to a tip and become rubble, the sub-stratum of cities, or are pulped and go to earth; unless, by some quirk of circumstance, one or two examples are stranded so far up the beach in a distant decade that they become collectors’ items, and then so rare and evocative as to be the only survivors of their age.

Survivors of their age, from The Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, Vermont

So it is in the life of objects. They pass out of the hands of their first owners into a tortoiseshell cabinet, and then, whole or in fragments it scarcely matters, onto the shelves of museums. Isolated there, in the oddness of their being no longer common or repeatable, detached from their history and from the grime of use, they enter a new dimension. A quality of uniqueness develops in them and they glow with it as with the breath of a purer world — meaning only that we see them clearly now in the light of this one. An oil-lamp, a fragment of cloth so fragile that we feel the very grains and precious dust of its texture (the threads barely holding in their warp and woof), a perfume flask, a set of taws, a strigil, come wobbling towards us, the only angels perhaps we shall ever meet, though they bear no message but their own presence: we are here.

It is in a changed aspect of time that we recognise them, as if the substance of it — a denseness that prevented us from looking forward or too far back– had cleared at last. We see these objects and ourselves as co-existent, in the very moment of their first stepping out into their own being and in every instant now of their long pilgrimage towards us, in which they have gathered the fingerprints of their most casual users and the ghostly but still powerful presence of the the lives they served.

…We stare and are amazed. Were they once, we ask ourselves, as undistinguished as the buttons on our jacket or a stick of roll-on deodorant? Our own utensils and artefacts take on significance for a moment in the light of the future. Small coins glow in our pockets. Our world too seems vividly, unbearably present, yet mysteriously far off.

David Malouf, “In Trust,” The Complete Stories (New York: Vintage, 2007) pp.478-479