Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Relics of the recent past

As technology hurtles ahead at breakneck speed, we find ourselves more and more obsessing over our ever-increasingly recent past, whether through 1980s discos or remakes and reissues (Simon Reynolds wrote a good book about this subject called Retromania, which I've also mentioned here).

And so it is with physical excavations too. It used to be people would get excited about dinosaur fossils being dug up – now it's Atari games. In 2014 a landfill excavation in New Mexico revealed Atari video games (mainly E.T., often cited as the worst video game ever made) and consoles, to the excitement of geeks the world over, apparently. A documentary by Jak Penn has been made about the event.

Also in 2014, excavations began in the California desert for the buried film sets of Cecil B DeMille's first version of The Ten Commandments, made in 1923. After filming wrapped, the sets were knocked down, buried, and left for the sands of time, and the desert, to cover them for ninety years until journalist and aspiring film-maker Peter Brosnan heard the story and began his own investigations. He unearthed a Sphinx – then obviously made a documentary about the experience.

Closer to home (if you live in London), in 1916, printer and bookbinder Thomas Cobden-Sanderson spent six months dropping a ton of metal printing type from Hammersmith bridge into the Thames. He was destroying his own lovely font, Doves Type, due to a feud with his one-time friend and business partner, Emery Walker (this is the most exciting font story ever. Read more about it here). Long thought lost, over a hundred years later designer Robert Green went looking for the lead type on the bank of the Thames by Hammersmith and managed to unearth 150 pieces. No documentary but there is now a digital version available of the typeface.

(There's another story that I heard of a font in France being thrown into the sea. There's a relationship between fonts and water – no, not the church sort used for baptisms but the letter sort.)

What future generations will make of our rubbish is anyone's guess – presumably there is more of it now than anytime in history. Future historians be able to date our landfills in a similar way to geologists dating earth rock by its layers.

Russell Hoban's novel, Riddley Walker (1980), set more than two thousand years after the world's devastation by a nuclear bomb, features the eponymous protagonist living a stone-age existence in post-apocalyptic 'Ingland', struggling to come to terms with the distant past having had greater technology. The past, in the form of any object found whilst foraging in the mud – a fragment of a book, mangled machinery – is scrutinised over with reverence, but no sense can be made of it. 

Further watching:
Atari: Game Over
The Lost City of Cecil B DeMille 

Previously on Barnflakes:
Forward to the Past: Riddley Walker


seasaltyjo said...

Further to Fonts and Water... When I was studying printmaking in Sydney in the 1980s we were told that most of the old hand presses used to print newspapers were thrown away into the depths of Sydney harbour as new automated printing presses came into use... we were lucky enough in our art department to still have some of the original presses to use for wood and lino printing that had been saved, they had beautiful and ornate metalwork and suited our purpose perfectly.

Barnaby said...

That's very interesting, thanks. I think a similar fate befell many printing presses. I don't know why they were thrown in water, though. I guess it's because the metal type sinks, but why not just throw it on the tip?