Content and permanence
Time judges all
Ben Stiller’s film Tropic Thunder was released in 2008. I only recently saw it for the first time. I was confused and appalled.
Robert Downey Jr plays an extremist method actor portraying a black role in an action film. While the inherent racism of this plot device is acknowledged thoroughly and in part parodies the way POC characters are constructed in Hollywood, it still features blackface throughout.
Would something in this vein be accepted and praised in the same way had it come out today? I doubt it.
Yet its reception in 2008 was warm, including an Oscar nomination for Downey Jr. But a viewing eight years on demonstrates just how quickly perception of content can change.
“It was the 80s” is a common phrase to play down the questionable things of the period. It probably won’t be long before “It was the mid-Noughties, darling” becomes just as common an excuse.
How a piece of writing, film or artwork stands the test of time is a difficult. Most works of art are intended for immediate consumption.
This iteration of consumption, within the time period (and arguably before the expiration date), is coupled with the complex routes fashion, technology and general values take over history.
I would go so far as to say the way we sense and respond to things is governed as much by the space between creation and consumption as the work itself.
Beyond media that becomes inherently out of touch with the future, even minute things like the sheen of a certain photograph can appear tasteless in the future.
The iPhone camera looks fantastic today, but is that just because we’re used to its particular qualities? For most technology used to create content, the shadow of the gravestone is inherent. Think back to the painfully red-eye abundant photographs of the early 2000s, the messy flash complimented by the untasteful colour balance.
In the same respect, Food Fight, a film with a planned release of 2002-3 ended up released 10 years later after delays and reports of espionage in the camp. Now considered one of the worst films of all time, it is a museum of the horrors of what CGI could do at the time.
But things produced in a certain era needn’t be weighed down by technology. Ears prick when first learning Joy Division used an aerosol can percussively on She’s Lost Control because they couldn’t afford an instrument that sounded that way. What shines through is the ingenuity and vision of the track.
Furthermore, we’ve seen a distinct fetishism for almost every period and cultural phase of the 20th century, regardless of technological level (which in many cases adds to the appeal).
Largely this is when things have strengths aside from their particular styles, lyrics or good songwriting, for example. For every Goth group with the eternal qualities of Joy Division, there are seven that end up forgotten.
Content placed or linked to the online world is completely different. With a ‘right to be forgotten’ bill being ratified by both the EU and Argentina, the surge against digital immortality is becoming something we acknowledge when devising media.
A slight misjudgement, error or bad picture may and most likely will wind up being copied in bulk along with millions of other pieces of data and content to a hard drive somewhere physically out of reach.
A medium considered ephemeral is in fact more permanent than an engraving in stone.
It’s not hard to imagine a new industry emerging that ensures the publisher has exclusive power over the deletion, replication and alteration over media online.
In conclusion, we need to think about what stands up to time.
Take the work of Donald Judd. Installations that are engineered to withstand the years. Sheets of metal solidify and protect bright plexiglas from the harshness of outside. They seem like nothing special but have to power to intrigue and mesmerize in person.
Like Judd’s work we need an outer component that carries our creation through time; a strong and unique vision with a mindfulness of how external settings are reconfigured and values change, something to protect and validate the work.
Once this is established, the content and writing of the piece needs to be constructed in a way that defies (or attempts to defy) expiration, maintaining its vividness.
If you want people to keep returning to and remember your content, what is the point of recycling pieces of information relevant to this month? Consider eternal themes, don’t centre your writing around an event happening in the next week.
No one can predict what turns our tastes and views will take, but to future proof content we need to have our minds set on what could happen.