Minimalist Design in the Age of Archive Fever

On Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s “Interesting” Films about Networked Media

How to Cite

Ananya. (2021). Minimalist Design in the Age of Archive Fever: On Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s “Interesting” Films about Networked Media . M/C Journal, 24(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2794 (Original work published August 12, 2021)
Vol. 24 No. 4 (2021): design
Published 2021-08-12 — Updated on 2021-08-24
Articles

In a listicle on becomingminimalist.com, Joshua Becker argues that advances in personal computing have contributed to the growing popularity of the minimalist lifestyle. Becker explains that computational media can efficiently absorb physical artefacts like books, photo albums, newspapers, clocks, calendars, and more. In Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s Happy Old Year (2019, ฮาวทูทิ้ง ทิ้งอย่างไร..ไม่ให้เหลือเธอ) the protagonist Jean also argues that material possessions are wasteful and unnecessary in the era of cloud storage. In the film, she redesigns her old-fashioned and messy childhood home to create a minimalist home office. In decluttering their material possessions through a partial reliance on computational storage, Jean and Becker conveniently dispense with the materiality of informational infrastructures and digital archives.

Informational technology’s ever-growing capacity for storage and circulation also intensify anxieties about clutter. During our online interactions, we inadvertently leave an amassing trail of metadata behind that allows algorithms to “personalise” our interfaces. Consequently, our interfaces are “cluttered” with recommendations that range from toothpaste to news, movies, clothes, and more, based on a narrow and homophilic comparison of datasets. Notably, this hypertrophic trail of digital clutter threatens to overrepresent and blur personal identities. By mindfully reducing excessive consumption and discarding wasteful possessions, our personal spaces can become tidy and coherent. On the other hand, there is little that individuals can do to control nonhuman forms of digital accumulation and the datafied archives that meticulously record and store our activities on a micro-temporal scale.

In this essay, I explore archive fever as the prosthetic externalisation of memory across physical and digital spaces. Paying close attention to Sianne Ngai’s work on vernacular aesthetic categories and Susanna Paasonen’s exploration of equivocal affective sensations, I study how advocates of minimalist design seek to recuperate our fraught capacities for affective experience in the digital era. In particular, I examine how Thamrongrattanarit problematises minimalist design, prosthetic memory, and the precarious materiality of digital media in Happy Old Year and Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy (2013, แมรี่ อีส แฮปปี้, แมรี่ อีส แฮปปี้).

Transmedial Minimalist Networks and Empty Spaces

Marie Kondo famously teaches us how to segregate objects that spark joy from material possessions that can be discarded (Kondo). The KonMari method has a strong transmedial presence with Kondo’s bestselling books, her blog and online store, a Netflix series, and sticky memes that feature her talking about objects that do not spark joy. It is interesting to note the rising popularity of prescriptive minimalist lifestyle blogs that utilise podcasts, video essays, tutorials, apps, and more to guide the mindful selection of essential material possessions from waste. Personal minimalism is presented as an antidote to late capitalist clutter as self-help gurus appear across our computational devices teach us how we can curb our carbon footprints and reduce consumerist excess. Yet, as noted by Katherine Hayles, maximal networked media demands a form of hyper-attention that implicates us in multiple information streams at once. There is a tension between the overwhelming simultaneity in the viewing experience of transmedial minimalist lifestyle networks and the rhetoric of therapeutic selection espoused in their content. 

In their ethnographic work with minimalists, Eun Jeong Cheon and Norman Makoto Su explore how mindfully constructed empty spaces can serve as a resource for technological design (Cheon and Su). Cheon and Su note how empty spaces possess a symbolic and functional value for their respondents. Decluttered empty spaces offer a sensuous experience for minimalists in coherently representing their identity and serve as a respite from congested and busy cities. Furthermore, empty spaces transform the home into a meaningful site of reflection about people’s objects and values as minimalists actively work to reduce their ownership of physical artefacts and the space that material possessions occupy in their homes and minds:

the notion of gazing upon empty spaces is not simply about reading or processing information for minimalists. Rather, gazing gives minimalists, a visual indicator of their identity, progress, and values. (Cheon and Su 10)

Instead of seeking to fill and augment empty space, Cheon and Su ask what it might mean to design technology that appreciates the absence of information and the limitation of space.  

The Interestingness of “Total Design and Internet Plenitude”

Sianne Ngai argues that in a world where we are constantly hailed as aesthetic subjects, our aesthetic experiences grow increasingly fragile and ineffectual (Ngai 2015). Ngai further contends that late capitalism makes the elite exaggeration of the autonomy of art (at auction houses, mega-exhibitions, biennales, and more) concurrently possible with the hyper-aestheticisation of everyday life. The increase in inconsequential aesthetic experiences mirrors a larger habituation to aesthetic novelty along with the loss of the traditional friction between art and the commodity form:

in tandem with these seismic changes to longstanding ideas of art’s vocation, weaker aesthetic categories crop up everywhere, testifying in their very proliferation to how, in a world of “total design and Internet plenitude”, aesthetic experience while less rarefied also becomes less intense. (Ngai 21)

Ngai offers us the cute, interesting, and zany as the key vernacular categories that describe aesthetic experience in “the hyper-commodified, information-saturated, and performance-driven conditions of late-capitalist culture” (1). Aesthetic experience no longer subscribes to an exceptionally single feeling but is located at the ambiguous mixture of mundane affect.

Susanna Paasonen notes how Ngai’s analysis of an everyday aesthetic experience that is complex and equivocal helps explain how seemingly contradictory and irreconcilable affective tensions might in fact be mutually co-dependent with each other (Paasonen). By critiquing the broad and binary generalisations about addiction and networked technologies, Paasonen emphasises the ambivalent and fleeting nature of affective formation in the era of networked media. Significantly, Paasonen explores how ubiquitous networked infrastructures bind us in dynamic sensations of attention and distraction, control and helplessness, and boredom and interest.

For Ngai, the interesting is a “low, often hard-to-register flicker of affect accompanying our recognition of minor differences from a norm” (18). There is a discord between knowledge and feeling (and cognition and perception) at the heart of the interesting. We are drawn to the interesting object after noticing something peculiar about it and yet, we are simultaneously at a loss of knowledge about the exact contents of that peculiarity. The "interesting" is embodied in the seriality of constant circulation and a temporal experience of in-betweenness and anticipation in a paradoxical era of routinised novelty.

Ngai notes how in the 1960s, many minimalist conceptual artists were preoccupied with tracking the movement of objects and information by transport and communication technologies. In offering a representation of networks of circulation, “merely interesting” conceptual art disseminates information about itself and makes technologies of distribution central to its process of production. The interesting is a pervasive aesthetic judgment that also explains our affectively complex rapport with information in the context of networked technologies. Acclimatised to the repetitive tempos of internet browsing and circular refreshing, Paasonen notes we often oscillate between boredom and interest during our usage of networked media. As Ngai explains, the interesting is “a discursive aesthetic about difference in the form of information and the pathways of its movement and exchange” (1). It is then “interesting” to explore how Thamrongrattanarit tracks the circulation of information and the pathways of transmedial exchange across Twitter and cinema in Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy.

Digital Memory in MIHMIH

Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy is adapted from a set of 410 consecutive tweets by Twitter user @marymaloney. The film instantiates the phatic, ephemeral flow of a Twitter feed through its deadpan and episodic narrative. The titular protagonist Mary is a fickle-headed high-school senior trying to design a minimalist yearbook for her school to preserve their important memories. Yet, the sudden entry of an autocratic principal forces her to follow the school administration’s arbitrary demands and curtail her artistic instincts. Ultimately, Mary produces a thick yearbook that is filled with hagiographic information about the anonymous principal. Thamrongrattanarit offers cheeky commentary about Thailand’s authoritarian royalist democracy where the combination of sudden coups and unquestioning obedience has fostered a peculiar environment of political amnesia. Hagiographic and bureaucratic informational overload is presented as an important means to sustain this combination of veneration and paranoia.

@marymaloney’s haphazard tweets are superimposed in the film as intertitles and every scene also draws inspiration from the tweet displayed in an offhand manner. We see Mary swiftly do several random and unexplained things like purchase jellyfishes, sleep through a sudden trip to Paris, rob a restaurant, and more in rapid succession. The viewer is overwhelmed because of a synchronised engagement with two different informational currents. We simultaneously read the tweet and watch the scene. The durational tension between knowing and feeling draws our attention to the friction between conceptual interpretation and sensory perception. Like the conceptual artists of the 1960s, Thamrongrattanarit also shows “information in the act of being circulated” (Ngai 157). Throughout the film, we see Mary and her best friend Suri walk along emptied railway tracks that figuratively represent the routes of informational circulation across networked technologies. With its quirky vignettes and episodic narrative progression, MIHMIH closely mirrors Paasonen’s description of microevents and microflow-like movement on social media. The film also features several abrupt and spectacular “microshocks” that interrupt the narrative’s linear flow. For example, there is a running gag about Mary’s cheap and malfunctioning phone frequently exploding in the film while she is on a call. The repetitive explosions provide sudden jolts of deadpan humour.

Notably, Mary also mentions how she uses bills of past purchases to document her daily thoughts rather than a notebook to save paper. The tweets are visually represented through the overwhelming accumulation of tiny bills that Mary often struggles to arrange in a coherent pattern. Thamrongrattanarit draws our attention to the fraught materiality of digital memory and microblogging that does not align with neat and orderly narrativisation. By encouraging a constant expression of thoughts within its distinctive character limit, Twitter promotes minimal writing and maximal fragmentation. Paasonen argues that our networked technologies take on a prosthetic function by externalising memory in their databases. This prosthetic reserve of datafied memory is utilised by the algorithmic unconscious of networked media for data mining. Our capacities for simultaneous multichannel attention and distraction are increasingly subsumed by capital’s novel forms of value extraction. Mary’s use of bills to document her diary takes on another “interesting” valence here as Thamrongrattanarit connects the circulation of information on social media with monetary transactions and the accumulation of debt. 

While memory in common parlance is normally associated with acts of remembrance and commemoration, digital memory refers to an address for storage and retrieval. Wendy Chun argues that software conflates storage with memory as the computer stores files in its memory (Chun). Furthermore, digital memory only endures through ephemeral processes of regeneration and degeneration. Even as our computational devices move towards planned obsolescence, digital memory paradoxically promises perpetual storage. The images of dusty and obsolete computers in MIHMIH recall the materiality of the devices whose databases formerly stored many prosthetic memories.

For Wolfgang Ernst, digital archives displace cultural memory from a literary-based narrativised framework to a calculative and mathematical one as digital media environments increasingly control how a culture remembers. As Jussi Parikka notes “we are miniarchivists ourselves in this information society, which could be more aptly called an information management society” (2). While traditional archives required the prudent selection and curation of important objects that will be preserved for future use on a macro temporal scale, the Internet is an agglomerative storage and retrieval database that records information on a micro temporal scale. The proliferation of agglomerative mini archives also create anxieties about clutter where the miniarchivists of the “information-management society” must contend with the effects of our ever-expanding digital trail. It is useful to note how processes of selection and curation that remain central to minimalist decluttering can be connected with the design of a personal archive.

Ernst further argues that digital memory cannot be visualised as a place where objects lay in static rest but is better understood as a collection of mini archives in motion that become perceptible because of dynamic signal-based processing. In MIHMIH, memory inscription is associated with the “minimalist” yearbook that Mary was trying to create along with the bills where she documents her tweets/thoughts. At one point, Mary tries to carefully arrange her overflowing bills across her wall in a pattern to make sense of her growing emotional crisis. Yet, she is overwhelmed by the impossibility of this task. Networked media’s storage of prosthetic memory also makes self-representation ambiguous and messy. As a result, Mary’s story does align with cathartic and linear narrativisation but a messy agglomerative database.

Happy Old Year: Decluttering to Mend Prosthetic Memories

Kylie Cardell argues that the KonMari method connects tidiness to the self-conscious design of a curated personal archive. Marie Kondo associates decluttering with self-representation. "As Kondo is acutely aware, making memories is not simply about recuperating and preserving symbolic objects of the past, but is a future-oriented process that positions subjects in a peculiar way" (Cardell 2).

This narrative formation of personal identity involves carefully storing a limited number of physical artefacts that will spark joy for the future self. Yet, we must segregate these affectively charged objects from clutter. Kondo encourages us to make intuitive judgments of conviction by overcoming ambivalent feelings and attachments about the past that are distributed over a wide set of material possessions. Notably, this form of decluttering involves archiving the prosthetic memories that dwell in our (analogue) material possessions.

In Happy Old Year, Jean struggles to curate her personal archive as she becomes painfully aware of the memories that reside in her belongings. Interestingly, the film’s Thai title loosely translates as “How to Dump”. Jean has an urgent deadline to declutter her home so that it can be designed into a minimalist home office. Nevertheless, she gradually realises that she cannot coldly “dump” all her things and decides to return some of the borrowed objects to her estranged friends. This form of decluttering helps assuage her guilt about letting go of the past and allows her to (awkwardly and) elegantly honour her prosthetic memories.

HOY reverses the clichéd before-after progression of events since we begin with the minimalist home and go back in flashbacks to observe its inundated and messy state. HOY’s after-before narrative along with its peculiar title that substitutes ‘new’ with ‘old’ alludes to the clashing temporalities that Jean is caught up within. She is conflicted between deceptive nostalgic remembrance and her desire to start over with a minimalist-blank slate that is purged of her past regrets.

In many remarkable moments, HOY instantiates movement on computational screens to mirror digital media’s dizzying speeds of circulation and storage. Significantly, the film begins with the machinic perspective of a phone screen capturing a set of minimalist designs from a book. Jean refuses to purchase (and store) the whole book since she only requires a few images that can be preserved in her phone’s memory. As noted in the introduction, minimalist organisation can effectively draw on computational storage to declutter physical spaces.

In another subplot, Jean is forced to retrieve a photo that she took years ago for a friend. She grudgingly searches through a box of CDs (a cumbersome storage device in the era of clouds) but ultimately finds the image in her ex-boyfriend Aim’s hard disk. As she browses through a folder titled 2013, her hesitant clicks display a montage of happy and intimate moments that the couple shared together. Aim notes how the computer often behaves like a time machine. Unlike Aim, Jean did not carefully organise and store her prosthetic memories and was even willing to discard the box of CDs that were emblematic of defunct and wasteful accumulation.

Speaking about how memory is externalised in digital storage, Thamrongrattanarit notes:

for me, in the digital era, we just changed the medium, but human relationships stay the same. … It’s just more complicated because we can communicate from a distance, we can store a ton of memories, which couldn’t have ever happened in the past. (emphasis added)

When Jean “dumped” Aim to move to Sweden, she blocked him across channels of networked communicational media to avoid any sense of ambient intimacy between them. In digitising our prosthetic memories and maintaining a sense of “connected presence” across social media, micro temporal databases have made it nearly impossible to erase and forget our past actions. Minimalist organisation might help us craft a coherent and stable representation of personal identity through meticulous decluttering. Yet, late-capitalist clutter takes on a different character in our digital archives where the algorithmic unconscious of networked media capitalises on prosthetic storage to make personal identity ambiguous and untidy.

It is interesting to note that Jean initially gets in touch with Aim to return his old camera and apologise for their sudden breakup. The camera can record events to “freeze” them in time and space. Later in the film, Jean discovers a happy family photo that makes her reconsider whether she has been too harsh on her father because of how he “dumped” her family. Yet, Jean bitterly finds that her re-evaluation of her material possessions and their dated prosthetic memories is deceptive. In overidentifying with the frozen images and her affectively charged material possessions, she is misled by the overwhelming plenitude of nostalgic remembrance. Ultimately, Jean must “dump” all her things instead of trying to tidy up the jumbled temporal frictions.

In the final sequence of HOY, Jean lies to her friend Pink about her relationship with Aim. She states that they are on good terms. Jean then unfriends Aim on Facebook, yet again rupturing any possibility of phatic and ambient intimacy between them. As they sit before her newly emptied house, Pink notes how Jean can do a lot with this expanded space. In a tight close-up, Jean gazes at her empty space with an ambiguous yet pained expression. Her plan to cathartically purge her regrets and fraught memories by recuperating her prosthetic memories failed. With the remnants of her past self expunged as clutter, Jean is left with a set of empty spaces that will eventually resemble the blank slate that we see at the beginning of the film. The new year and blank slate signify a fresh beginning for her future self. However, this reverse transition from a minimalist blank slate to her chaotically inundated childhood home frames a set of deeply equivocal affective sensations. Nonetheless, Jean must mislead Pink to sustain the notion of tidy and narrativised coherence that equivocally masks her fragmented sense of an indefinable loss.

Conclusion

MIHMIH and HOY explore the unresolvable and conflicting affective tensions that arise in an ecosystem of all-pervasive networked media. Paasonen argues that our ability to control networked technologies concurrently fosters our mundane and prosthetic dependency on them. Both Jean and Mary seek refuge in the simplicity of minimalist design to wrestle control over their overstimulating spaces and to tidy up their personal narratives. It is important to examine contemporary minimalist networks in conjunction with affective formation and aesthetic experience in the era of “total design and internet plenitude”. In an information-management society where prosthetic memories haunt our physical and digital spaces, minimalist decluttering becomes a form of personal archiving that simultaneously empowers unambiguous aesthetic feeling and linear and stable autobiographical representation. The neatness of minimalist decluttering conjugates with an ideal self that can resolve ambivalent affective attachments about the past and have a coherent vision for the future. Yet, we cannot sort the clutter that resides in digital memory’s micro temporal archives and drastically complicates our personal narratives. Significantly, the digital self is not compatible with neat and orderly narrativisation but instead resembles an unstable and agglomerative database.

References

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Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” ADE Bulletin (2010): 62-79. DOI: 10.1632/ade.150.62.

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Paasonen, Susanna. Dependent, Distracted, Bored: Affective Formations in Networked Media. MIT P, 2021.

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