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New is Now, Now is Then: Exploring Rob Feulner’s Analog Remix of Off the Air’s “NEWNOW” as a Case Study in Digital Aesthetics

New is Now, Now is Then: Exploring Rob Feulner’s Analog Remix of Off the Air’s “NEWNOW” as a Case Study in Digital Aesthetics

While the 2010s have certainly brought with it unmatched technological advancements in the way of “smart” devices, ever-improving “apps,” and, more recently, commercial virtual reality headsets (reminiscent of the hallucination helmets in Cronenberg’s Videodrome), such an influx of developments seem to have sparked a prevalent interest in the more nostalgic components of media. While it is difficult to pinpoint how exactly the analog aesthetic has become so popular over the past decade, one might argue that it is perhaps due to the longing of Baby Boomers, Generation X-ers, and even “first wave” Millennials who were brought up using analog devices, to return to a simpler time before technology began replacing spirituality more rapidly than ever before. But that’s a discussion for another day... Regardless of its origin, it is safe to say that the stylized use of analog aesthetics has become a popular trope in different forms of visual art, especially internet videos.

So here, on the one-year anniversary of my original post about Adult Swim’s experimental television program Off the Air, I return to analyze the most recent installment of the series: an “analog remix” of the visually stunning “NEWNOW” episode, uploaded (unannounced) to the Adult Swim YouTube account on January 26, 2018. The original version of “NEWNOW” aired on television during late 2015 and was advertised as a collaboration between visual and musical artists who were regular contributors to Off the Air in a celebration of the New Year and the fifth anniversary of the show’s first broadcast. As mentioned in my “Turn On, Tune In, Go Off the Air post from last February, each episode of the show consists of a series of vibrantly eccentric video clips set to underground music and loosely based around a central theme. Since “NEWNOW” follows Off the Air’s general format, its fluent transitions and lack of narrative give the episode a flexibility that can easily allow for the addition of stylistic enhancements and the creation of alternate renditions. In other words, because the episode is so widely open to interpretation in and of itself, one can potentially add his own unique twist by interacting with it on virtually any level (getting back to the McLuhan-heavy focus of last year’s write-up).

Recognizing this unique aspect of creator Dave Hughes’s series, Adult Swim commissioned Montreal-based video artist Rob Feulner to create the “NEWNOW” analog remix. Given the opportunity to aesthetically transform the original episode to fit his own analog vision, Feulner explained on his website part of his inspiration to pursue the project, stating, “the intent was to unearth a once clean episode after decades of decay and damage.” While the content of the original episode and the remixed version are essentially the same, Feulner (in keeping with his specified intent) took the liberty of distorting the original footage so that it resembles a gorgeously marred VHS tape– an elegant “tracking nightmare,” if you will– in which bleeding color spectrums, interlaced video techniques, television static, and VCR error messages merge (literally and figuratively) to tell a digital-analog tale of changing times and changing media, further giving a degree of creative legitimacy to visual effects that were once simply perceived as nuisances. To add even more to the retro aesthetic of “NEWNOW”’s analog counterpart, Feulner was also able to warp the audio of the original episode’s soundtrack, adding to it a rough, raw (but aurally inviting) synth-pop ambiance, accompanied by the discreet perpetual buzzing of audio feedback.

I recently had the privilege of asking Feulner (via an email exchange) about the process behind making the “NEWNOW” remix, and was fascinated to learn the extent to which he used “antiquated” equipment in his editing. When asked how the VHS tracking aesthetic was created in our now predominantly digital age, Feulner responded saying, “The majority of my work is done ‘live,’ which is to say that the analog effects are created in real-time as I have my source footage running. So, in the case for “NEWNOW”, I dubbed the original episode to VHS and played it back using a VCR I had opened, so I was able to play with the magnetic tape rhythmically as the episode ran. Other devices I used (circuit bent processors and ‘dirty’ video mixers) were used similarly, like live instrumentation.” Therefore, one could perhaps think of Feulner in this case as a visual “disc jockey” who utilizes the analog aesthetic (created with virtually obsolete technology) for the sake of enhancing different aspects of the original recording. Feulner also discussed the role and behavior of “glitches,” a hallmark of the analog aesthetic, and how he took advantage of these technical imperfections in order to achieve his desired effect. Feulner revealed, “There is no real way to accurately predict the behaviour of these machines. I have a good sense of what it's going to look like if I apply pressure on a particular part of the magnetic tape, or turn the knob in such a direction of one of the video synths, but it is largely chaotic.” In further explaining how the chaos and unpredictable nature of glitches added to his work, Feulner referenced Dutch artist and theorist Rosa Menkman’s article “Glitch Studies Manifesto,” noting that, “in the manifesto, she describes a glitch as a moment wherein you don't know what's happening in your art, and in that same moment you don't know what will happen next. Which is to say that glitches are transient and temporary in nature.” Based on this explanation, one could argue that glitches, in the context of aesthetic video editing, are reflective of the nature of experimental television itself in that chances must be taken and chaos must be accepted and embraced. For what could almost be described as “televisual punk rock,” experimental TV is revolutionary in design and content, delivering messages in innovative ways that call on the erratic nature of the program itself, relying on aesthetics to do the talking. Thus, the glitches in Feulner’s take on “NEWNOW” are the remix’s driving force.

Interestingly enough, the revamped analog aesthetic is of a dual nature in the sense that it is not only visually and aurally nostalgic, but also nostalgic in terms of content, perhaps best illustrated by a cameo appearance of the character Space Ghost roughly four minutes into Feulner’s remix. As an homage to the cartoon that inspired the concept behind Adult Swim, characters from the 1994 series Space Ghost Coast to Coast are often well hidden in Off the Air episodes by the show’s editors. To incorporate this tradition into his own vision of “NEWNOW,” Feulner (fittingly) utilized a “ghosting” technique, as he referred to it, which allowed Space Ghost’s image to appear in the episode; to accomplish this effect, Feulner described “pressing on the VHS tape in a particular way” so that the end result would exemplify his intention of making it seem as though the tape had recorded over an old Space Ghost episode. Feulner’s clever use of what could be thought of as “filmic palimpsest” adds a layer of depth to the “hidden Space Ghost” trope in his remix, especially given the integration of his own methods and ideas regarding this quirky feature of the Off the Air series. Space Ghost’s appearance also perhaps hints at Adult Swim’s own longstanding history of “remixing” cartoons through the recycling of hand-drawn Hanna-Barbera stock animation footage (housed in the archives of Atlanta’s Turner Studios) to create Space Ghost Coast to Coast along with other original programs such as Sealab 2021 and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. These experimental reboots of classic Saturday morning cartoon characters as real-world figures with humorous, modern-day adult problems is distinctive of the network’s early style, as well as representative of a bygone cutting-edge era in television when creators actively took broadcasting risks.

During our exchange about the remixed “NEWNOW,” Feulner mentioned how he added a brief image of one of Adult Swim’s 2001-era “pool bumps” at the beginning of the video. Of its significance, he stated, “I used these images as sort of a love letter to this truly bizarre station that I feel shaped my sense of humor growing up, sort of a ‘thank you for the memories’ type of thing.” Feulner continued on to explain how, growing up, he appreciated the atmosphere of late-night television, describing it as “weird and dangerous.” “That type of programming died decades ago,” he states, “and now the whole medium of TV is basically gone, but Adult Swim keeps it going,” claiming that the network is dedicated to helping experimental media stay alive and relevant. Other pioneering Adult Swim programs have paid respect to the era of bygone television, such as Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and its spin-off series Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, both of which employ the fuzzy, low-budget aesthetic often found in public access shows of the 20th Century, as well as Alan Resnick’s short film “This House Has People In It,” which uses the grainy, saturated “home video” aesthetic (time stamps and all) in-part to promote the fictional company AB Surveillance Solutions.

Therefore, in the true style of Adult Swim, Feulner’s remix does not only promote a new way to watch and consider the original “NEWNOW” episode, but also strives to return to the erratic, offbeat soul of avant-garde. We cannot travel back in time to the past (at least not yet...), so Rob Feulner brings the past to us with his unique artistic vision, not only as a celebration of the analog aesthetic itself, but also as a celebration of an era in which experimental television was flourishing and of the institutions that continue the legacy. In the spirit of Ezra Pound’s eternal mantra– a challenge to artists to “make it new,” make it novel– Feulner makes it new by making it old, in the here and now.

Photo courtesy of: www.shutterstock.com

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