Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Analogue obsessives

Low-tech movement's proponents find satisfaction doing things the old-fashioned way

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In a world of e-this and i-that, where a new techno-gadget can go from must-have to has-been in a matter of months, it's not surprising that some people might feel a need to unplug from our increasingly digitized existence.

They're not necessarily opposed to -- or afraid of -- technology, but they do seek a slower, more hands-on way to engage with the world around them.

So rather than download and share MP3 files by the thousands, they flip through bins of vinyl LPs at neighbourhood record stores and make mix tapes. Instead of camera phones and Photoshop, they're souping film and making prints in "wet darkrooms." Instead of e-books and Tumblr, they're keeping the printed page alive through bookbinding, 'zine publishing and letter pressing.

A recent New York Magazine article referred to "a neo-Luddite counterculture" populated by artists, tinkerers, DIY enthusiasts, hipsters, and "the merely tech-weary."

Few members of this so-called analogue renaissance altogether reject gizmos and gadgets of convenience. Many simply want to use old-school technologies in new and creative ways.

Winnipeg multi-disciplinary artist Andrew Milne, for example, is currently working on an "accessory" for the giant (four-by-five-foot, two people can sit inside it) wooden land camera he built in his living room: a laser scanner that will allow him to create 3-D computer models of his portrait subjects' faces.

Milne, 38, says he's seeing not only a "groundswell" of interest in things analogue in many different disciplines, but also a recognition that digitalization is a different process, with different philosophical underpinnings.

In a sense, the digital world can only deal with things that can be quantified, says Milne, 38, who has an engineering background. "So things like experience, even spirituality and religion -- all that stuff that we can't push into a rational, logical framework, sort of drops off the map."

Much of his work aims to reconcile and integrate the two worlds, he says. "Right now we're creating a world in which the human being is totally devalued and computers are somehow heralded as more intelligent than we are. We're sort of creating a technological future for ourselves where we become second-class citizens."

 

Here's a peek inside Winnipeg's low-tech bubble:

Instead of keyboards...

"A LOT of people say they like to write with a typewriter because it gives them time to think about what they're going to write," says John Tavares, owner of JFT Typewriters & Office Equipment (2179 Portage Ave.) for the last 34 years. While it's not exactly a booming business these days, Tavares says his company still services plenty of typewriters, most of them at government and law offices.

Winnipeg poet Christoff Engbrecht owns between 30 and 40 typewriters, all manual, some of them dating back a century. The click-clack-ding and the spooled ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and tangible byproduct of all that clacking turn the writing process into both an auditory and visual experience, he says. "It's like you're seeing writing happen."

 

Engbrecht, 37, is one half (along with David Streit) of the "writing-event collective" Poor Tree, which uses old typewriters and portable turntables to create their sound art. He and Streit will co-write (alternating lines on their respective typewriters) and then read aloud their poems onstage, sometimes alongside live musicians.

Another benefit of the old technology, says Engbrecht (who also owns a Mac laptop), is that it makes it harder to self-edit.

"So much of writing is formalized: It's been read over and over and edited and changed... With a typewriter, I think the idea is sort of 'first thought, best thought.'"

 

Instead of MP3s and iPods...

GREG Tonn recognizes that vinyl will never regain its status as king of music technology. But two decades after it got dethroned by CDs -- the demand for which is currently on a downslide -- vinyl is a "healthy hobby market," says the owner of Into the Music, the record store he opened in 1987.

And while sales still likely account for around one per cent of all music sales, Tonn says that vinyl is definitely enjoying a quiet comeback. Part of that, he says, has to do with corporate culture. "Advertisers who want to appeal to a young, hip audience these days use one of three things: a snowboarder, a skateboarder, or a DJ spinning records."

The retro-cool factor aside, Tonn, 54, says many people who are "into vinyl" see it as a valuable collectible and possibly a statement against an overly digitized culture.

"Collectors, by and large, are people who really value music as an artifact," he says. "My record collection up on my wall means much more to me than a bunch of files on my computer."

Apparently there are also those people for whom listening to records is more about ritual than mere audio enjoyment. As one poster on the World Record Day (April 21, 2012) website put it: "You can't roll a joint on an iPod -- Buy vinyl."

 

And instead of music file sharing...

GEOFFREY O'Brien, editor-in-chief of the Library of America, once called the personal mix tape "the most widely practised American art form." Creating and distributing mixes in the form of shared MP3 playlists has become the contemporary method of choice, but Chris Jacques says something gets lost in the mix with digitalization -- especially for the kind of music he's involved in.

"To certain genres -- experimental music, hip hop, some heavy metal -- cassettes are really integral to their history," says the 39-year-old noise metal artist (a.k.a. White Dog) who runs two cassette-only labels: Prairie Fire Tapes and Dub Ditch Picnic. Since the labels launched in January 2010, they have released 40 cassettes by artists from across North America.

Part of the reason was financial -- he can produce a cassette for under $2 -- plus it's an art that can be practised in the basement by anyone with two tape decks and a stack of blank 9 x 5.5-cm plastic audio tapes.

A more raw sound is part of the deal, says Jacques. He concedes some music, such as smooth jazz, might be better suited to CD.

"I work really hard to create a good master so there's not a lot of hiss, but sometimes that's just part of it. It's a lower-fidelity medium."

 

Instead of YouTube and Netflix...

DIGITAL technology can approximate the crude charms of low-fi celluloid film, but as Heidi Phillips, 32, will tell you, nothing beats being up to your elbows in Super 8 soup and then working the images by hand in the darkroom.

"It's kind of like making spaghetti: You just roll it all into buckets and then you put on some big rubber gloves and put it into the next bucket," says the 32-year-old filmmaker, who works in experimental formats with Super 8 and 16-mm film and does contact printing.

Low-fi filmmaking is not only more tactile, it allows for more creativity and authenticity, says Phillips. "You're working directly with the medium, instead of using software that's designed to make things look a certain way."

As the neo-Luddite spectrum goes, she places herself somewhere "in the middle" and says the film purists would likely disapprove of her practice of introducing her computer at various points in the filmmaking process.

That said, Phillips is currently hoarding Kodak film amid rumours of the company's pending bankruptcy.

"I can only buy as much as I can afford at any time. Right now, I've got a mini-bar-fridge full."

 

Instead of camera phones and JPEGS...

SIX years ago, Steven Ackerman was a "film purist," and says he'd still be one today if his clients were willing to put up with the extra costs and risks associated with "wet darkrooms" and single sheets of 8x10 film.

"I'm fully embracing the digital technology, but I'm also moving backwards towards a more sensitive, thoughtful way of taking portraits as well," says the 30-ish professional photographer, who recently purchased an 8x10 view camera.

Where shooting digital allows him to take and store an endless number of images, Ackerman says knowing he has just 10 sheets of pricey 8x10 film really forces him to engage his subject.

With film, "there's a lot more communication between photographer and subject," he says. "I find it can be more of a collaboration."

Ackerman, who shoots film about half the time, is a bit of a rare bird in this digital era.

"We probably have the most film shooters in the city, and it's still only about one per cent of our business," says Chris Insull, 34, manager of Photo Central and himself a professional photographer.

"It's going back to your roots; that's the appeal for a lot of people. They feel like they're going back to something that's more pure, more real than digital."

The local market may be small -- the bulk of the film being sold is for trendy and inexpensive, plastic toy or "Lomo" cameras -- but Photo Central also sells film supplies across the country, Insull says, because "a lot of places have just given up on it."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2012 C1

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