07 June 2017

Along with hip-hop, sitcoms, and the economy, screen savers flourished during the Clinton years…

Zack Hatfield’s article from the Paris Review on screensavers turns out to be quite wonderful. I like passing that quotation from it around to introduce it, because it made me laugh, but the whole thing is thoughtful, and wonderful. And it made me think:

You can’t consume a screen saver in an instant. You can’t fast-forward or rewind one. The genre, its own kind of endurance art, shuns immediacy. Fugitives from time, screen savers possess no real beginning or end. Their ouroboric nature is perhaps why preservations on YouTube, whether ten minutes or twelve hours long, tend to evoke disenchantment.

Screensavers are anti-images.

Susan Sontag, in On Photography, remarked that a photograph describes “a neat slice of time, not a flow.” But if you take Hatfield’s point – that the screensaver only makes sense in its infinite form, summoned unbid, and existing until it is dismissed… then a screensaver is only ever flow. The act of quoting a screensaver is inadequate, almost impossible. Which takes me back to Sontag, who goes on to describe a photograph as a quotation: “a photograph could be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations“.

A screensaver cannot be meaningfully sliced; it cannot ever become quotation. A photograph is a choice of a single moment of time, and thus, implicitly, a rejection of surrounding moments. But Hatfield describes screensavers as if they only ever are surrounding moments, each a moment leading to another. And they resist comparison to film, to: they are elliptical, not structured, not ongoing. There is art film that probably stands comparison best: for instance, Christian Marclay’s The Clock functions as an ongoing, 24-hour loop, and precisely works because it has no formal beginning and end. (It feels a little trite to describe The Clock as a screensaver, and yet it would make the most wonderful screensaver – a little world running in parallel that only emerges when you step away from a screen).

And: I liked his description of screensavers invoking “rapture and reverie, and stillness“; how appropriate that something designed to be continuously, but unobtrusively, changing, should be a meditation upon stillness.

When you put it like that: screensavers are our only functional perpetual motion machines.