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)