Ingestion, the first step in the process that routes an idea into deep-dish satellites and fibre-optic feeds destined for the sensory organs of the passive masses; global gluttony.
‘Ingestion’ is a word I see everywhere at IBC, the trade show for broadcasters in Amsterdam. Ingestion is how the makers of big screens, transmitters and mysterious boxes of algorithms turn thought into ultra-processed entertainment snacklets. The purveyors of dreams, they are the shovel sellers along the way to the gold fields. I am that which is ingested.
My father was a photographer, an ingestor, and I was his factotum. We were manufacturers in the genre of nightclub photography. He would charm and cajole in the salon while I processed in the gloomy burrow of a Volkswagen van, a portable darkroom. The tang of chemicals was periodically challenged by that of my father’s talcum and booze sweat, marking the end of the roll of film and the start of my next task. In my burrow I glimpsed black and white tableaus of the otherworld.
Occasionally we would produce art. Within the constraints of the technology and a practised sensibility there was sometimes a happy accident of juxtaposition—the wandering eye, the décolletage, the indignant husband. The photographer’s art, at its highest level, is to take a thousand photos and throw away all but one. We took a couple and usually printed the first. Nevertheless, we occasionally and unintentionally got a good one.
This task of my teens has always informed my attitude to art. First, it’s just making shit. Third, if you make enough shit, you eventually get a good one. And second, you have to know how to make shit.
Some years ago David Hockney disconcerted the curatorial classes with the hypothesis that Vermeer and others had used camera obscura and lucida techniques to create hyperrealistic perspectives. Should the examiner deduct marks? Should they berate, ‘That’s not drawing! That’s tracing’?
My mother worked in the Mullard Valve factory during the recovery of the 1950s in England. The filaments of metal were assembled by gloved hands protruding into sealed perspex boxes. The recently demobbed squadrons of young women in battery rows could not have known that they were making armaments in the culture wars that would see off the unamplified big swing bands of the forties and herald the Mersey invasion wherein four players could do the work of 40 with the help of electricity. The Beatles at Shea Stadium. Plugged! Ingested.
You have to know how the stage machinery works. Be it photographic paper, valves or stereoscopic 360-degree immersive head wear, you have to know how ingestion works. As a result of my interest in the technology of the arts, I have some competence in many redundant crafts: silver halides, super-8 movies, assembly language, music sequencers and tuning a guitar by ear. Nevertheless I am here at the IBC to steal a march on my competitors and see what toys there will be to play with in the near future.
The vast halls are almost entirely populated with incremental improvements on the existing technology. Is a 4k television really any different to its high definition predecessor? I wander, hoping to be surprised. I find the Fairlight stand. In Sydney in the late seventies a now ubiquitous technology, digital sampling harnessed to a keyboard, was first conceived and built. Page three of Billboard announced that Stevie Wonder and Paul Macartney had bought it on sight from a hitherto unknown Australian manufacturer at a trade show like the one I am at now. Few in Australia noticed. They now make film-mixing suites, have Australian employees who live in Germany and have been ingested by Blackmagic Design.
In the spirit of patriality I locate the Melbourne company Bluefish444. It has become a standard modern marketing practice to name products and companies in fanciful and uninformative ways. They design little boxes that they manufacture in France. They even have a product, deemed best in show, called the ingeSTore.
There is a steam punk Steenbeck, a film editing desk retrofitted with a digital video system. People have constantly approached Henrik, the salesman, misty eyed, saying, ‘My father worked on one of these.’ My eyes moisten too.
Sennheiser has a seemingly unremarkable nine-point surround, top and bottom and round the corner speaker system. I look at it with the scepticism of a hearing-impaired, two-eared senior. A fellow observer whispers to me that I should ask for Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. My new friend, Craig Calhoun, is American-Australian and, like me, a survivor of the music business. The Sennheiser guy helpfully complies and adds that the track has been remastered. Craig and I wordlessly communicate, ‘no shit’.
The remastering is an artful separation, percussion distant and at extreme left and right, strings spread midfield, Marvin and drums front and centre with chorus unexpectedly above. My eyes mist again but this time I close them because there is nothing to see and everything to hear.
I thank Craig for his guidance then we have a grumpy-old-fart agreement that music lost its way when we all started staring at squiggly lines rather than simply listening. But I am not here to reminisce, I am here to glimpse the future.
Aimlessly wandering, I see very little of that which is to be ingested. A conventionally pretty and articulate American spruiker barks in front of a green blankness that, once ingested, is transformed into weather maps and sports results. It offers the possibility of any imaginable environment while demonstrating little imagination.
I discover a set with a comic Turkish ice-cream vendor scooping ice cream onto a long spatula, capping it with a wafer cone and proffering it, at the end of the spatula, to guileless passers-by. With a quick twist he foils their outstretched grasp. I’m not sure what they’re selling.
I do my duty to vaudeville as the first victim of a close-up magician. As a fellow performer I feel obliged to be his shill. A crowd gathers, cards and banknotes disappear into locked boxes. I am rewarded with a tchotcke, a fish-eye lens that clips onto a phone camera. Once again, I am unsure who his employer is; some formless cloud service.
I am in a desert. There are rocky outcrops obscuring the horizon. Facing me is a ragged woman, post-apocalyptically dressed in tribal pelts. She is jabbering either to herself or no-one or to me. I neither understand her garblings nor do they seem directed anywhere in particular.
I step towards her but she betrays no sense of my presence. She looks over my shoulder and I hear an engine in the distance behind me to my left. As I turn, I am nearly bowled over by a dune buggy that roars to a halt beside me. The driver gesticulates to the woman and she joins him in the vehicle. They race away.
This is not something I saw. This is something that happened, not just to me but also to the next person who wore the headset, eyes and ears that I wore. In this immersive medium it is hard to figure who’s ingesting whom. Immersive virtual reality is at the level of development that film was a century ago. Its Eisenstein is waiting to make his directorial debut. We have passed the tipping point where a computer can fit in your pocket and we now have processor speeds that can deliver an all-encompassing image to each eye, placing you, the sentient being, at the centre of a depicted sphere.
I remove the headset and chat to the providore, a supremely confident Californian. After a hundred years of American cultural hegemony, why wouldn’t he be?
‘Have you read a book called Ready Player One?’ I ask.
‘Yes’, he replies. He knows.
I have seen the coming zombie apocalypse. Like the snake that devours its own tail, the next wave of culture will ingest us into immersion.
To call it ‘watching’ is to assume you can turn away.