Dossier 11: A Lighter Internet

The Power of the Poor Image

With new media and digital technologies, there is the underlying assumption that newer is always better. We are primed to always want more—the newest iPhone, the highest resolution videos, the biggest screens. Despite the ephemeral metaphors of ‘the cloud’ and the aura of immateriality surrounding digital technologies, the digital ecologies that we are part of on a daily basis have a big environmental impact—and it’s only growing. In her paper on the carbon footprint of streaming media, researcher Laura U. Marks writes that our consumption of streaming media is only increasing, particularly with new habits that were formed during the pandemic.

Our habits, and the addictive design of streaming platforms, pushes us to continue to consume video content endlessly. On top of that, those of us with the privilege to have access to unlimited (and relatively affordable) high-speed internet often don’t think about the impact of our hours of streaming and video call meetings with colleagues. We’ve been trained to think that the higher the resolution, the better it is. But how can we turn that thinking around, and find beauty in low resolutions and in tiny media files? 

This is exactly what the Small File Media Festival (SFMF), founded by Laura U. Marks, aims to do. As they write on their website “The Small File Media Festival celebrates videos of under 5 megabytes that show movies don’t have to be big HD files to be beautiful and inspiring.” Already coming into its third year, the 2021 festival took on a hybrid form with an online presence and site-specific events across the world. On the SFMF website you can even learn about technical and aesthetic solutions to help you create your own small file media. This ranges from tutorials on different tools that can be used for compression to promoting the use of obsolete technologies and minimal camera movements when shooting a video. 

It can sometimes be surprising when you start to learn about the size and impact of streaming media. When working on our event that is linked to this research dossier, The Hmm On a Lighter Internet, we experimented with different ways to make our live stream lighter. We were inspired by Jaromil’s HasciiCam, a software released in 2000 with the intention to provide all GNU/Linux users with a tool to stream live ascii-video on the web. However, in the process of researching how this might work, we learned that converting video to ascii and sending so many ascii characters to a livestream actually used up more bandwidth then just having a low-res video. 

But how are other artists, designers, and filmmakers working with small media? SFMF 2021 showcased 90 movies from 16 countries, and we chose eight of them to share with you here. These small media files were generously shared with us by the artists who made them. They also gave us a little peek into their process, sharing any challenges they came across in the process of making their work and whether the constraints of making such a small video opened up more creative processes and ideas. 

1.Convalescing Camcorder and Two Cats by Rachel Stuckey

USA, 2021, 4:30, 4.7 MB, processing time 22:50

This video work from Rachel Stuckey, takes the form of a video diary about ageing technology and cats. The video is recorded using what many of us consider obsolete technology: a JVC VHS-C camcorder. Rachel is a new media artist living in Austin, TX and the Director of Digital Arts at the Museum of Human Achievement, where she advocates for new points of entry for diverse voices in digital arts and indie games. Rachel told us that the challenge of making such a small size video was something that spoke to her heart, as she is a fan of low-res and outdated media. She wrote that “It felt incredibly cute, efficient, and accessible to submit a film festival entry via email. The small file ethos has continued to impact my artwork and how I facilitate arts programming.” 

2. mirARTE interFACE II (look at you interFACE II) by Hernando Urrutia

Portugal, 2020, GIF image, 0:05

Mirarte Interface Ii GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Hernando Urrutia’s work takes shape in a small file format that is ubiquitous all over the internet—the GIF. Now over 30 year’s old, the GIF rose in popularity during the early days of the internet, fell out of fashion in the early 2000s, and then skyrocketed back up again. Hernando is a multidisciplinary artist, designer, curator, and researcher, and chose to create a GIF for his contribution to the SFMF. 

3. Pocket Theatre (Covid Collaborations: In the Beginning; A Common Thread; Next of Days; Directives; Planet B; System Malfunction) by Monique Motut-Firth & pr0phecy sun

Canada, 2020-2021, series length 4:50, series size 6.46 MB

Pocket Theatre is a series of animated shorts created as an improvised call and response collaboration between artists Monique Motut-Firth and prOphecy sun. Monique is an artist who uses paper cut-outs to explore the recent past of pop culture—recombining familiar images into playful reconstructions of visual understanding. prOphecy sun is an interdisciplinary performance artist, queer, movement, video, sound maker, and mother, whose recent work has focused on ecofeminist perspectives, co-composing with voice, objects, smartphones, surveillance technologies, and site-specific engagements. When talking about their process of making the Pocket Theatre series they noted that working in a small file format allowed for more rough experimentation, layering and sampling. Living in different cities, the small file format of this project allowed them to easily share files, ideas and collaborate artistically while being isolated in their homes.

4. fuzzy time series by Elysia Bourne and Ross Birdwise

Vancouver, 2021, 4:49, 3.8 MB, encoding time 7:11, aspect ratio 134 x 110

Elysia Bourne and Ross Birdwise’s ‘fuzzy time series’ is a work that refers to the scientific measurement methods of forecasting in uncertain scenarios. It connotes a blurry time of pandemic uncertainty and altered emotional states. Ross is a Vancouver-based musician and occasional visual artist and Elysia Bourne is a video scholar and educator from Vancouver, Canada. In this collaborative work they created an animation-like effect by experimenting with various settings and doing multiple passes of video footage through the Handbrake software (a process taught by Radek Przedpełski, which you can learn all about here). The software allows you to sharpen or soften the pixel box edges of the visual phenomena within the frame. The original images in the film were obtained with iPhone videos of the swirling of boiling water in a frying pan under LED lights, raindrops falling into a puddle at night, and fireworks.

Continuing the love for small media, Ross even created a small file music video for their track the cold light of day, which can be watched here:

5. striking! popping! CAAAAAANDY by Dani Rodriguez

Canada, 2021, 4:09, 4.8 MB, processing time 4:09

Originally from Mexico and an avid (word) eater, Daniela Rodríguez Chevalier (she/ella) is passionate about analogue and lo-fi practices, poetry and hybrid forms, art making in community, and independent radio. She is also a part-time book shelver and a full-time dog lover, and considers that freedom to experiment, accessibility, creative exploration and play should always be taken seriously. Dani told us that “if the breaking down of pixels had a sound, it would be the sound of pop rocks in your mouth.” This is what she first thought when encountering datamoshing for the first time at a small file media class with Laura Marks and Radek Przedpełski. Datamoshing is a technique that messes with a video’s compression, causing the pixel information to become corrupt and creating a glitch effect. Dani was also inspired by the ‘constraints’ of such small files in both form and substance. Dani told us that “after datamoshing, my video was still too big for a small file! To compress it properly was a challenge (that was worth it! considering I have 0 storage left).” 

6. Diaspora by Noor Abouchehade

Canada, 2021, 2:08, 3.9 MB, processing time 8:00

Noor Abouchehade is a second year Visual Arts student at Simon Fraser University. Her work Diaspora is informed by her own experience as a Lebanese-Canadian. The film situates Lebanon in Vancouver by inserting the Lebanese landscape into the Vancouver one—imagining their differences and similarities while capturing the complex emotions and memories tied to the diasporic condition. Noor told us that this was only her second small-file film and her challenge was “how to consider aesthetics in its making as well as considering things like the intervention of technology and how that informs the finished visual work.” She added that we often link the ‘low-quality’ aspect of a film as something that also carries over into its content as well, but she felt that working within the parameters of making a small-file film can broaden our artistic scope. For example, the pixelation of a video can add a sort of dream-like quality, and can transport us into another world while watching. Noor wants to encourage artists of all disciplines to try and make small-file films, as it “is a rewarding and unique artistic practice, both creatively and environmentally speaking.” 

7. Toxic Acceleration Spell by Fereshteh Toosi

United States, 2021, 1:13

Fereshteh Toosi designs experiences that pose questions and foster animistic connections through encounter, exchange, and sensory inquiry. Their artwork often involves documentary processes, oral history, and archival research. For their work for the SFMF they captured a video from their computer screen as they processed an image of Abrus precatorius, a prolific tropical plant that is extremely toxic to humans but popular for use in jewellery, rosaries, and ornamentation. Fereshteh writes that they “passed the image back and forth between sound and image using slow-scan television (SSTV), a mode of communication designed for image transfer via radio.” Fereshteh pointed out that “media capabilities continue to become more accessible and data storage has become less expensive, but with these advancements we tend to forget that we have choices. In the art realm particularly, there’s a persistent assumption that resolution is paramount. This leaves little room to question whether the heft of data objects is appropriate or necessary. How do we define quality and significance?” For Fereshteh, the SFMF gives permission and encourages us to work with a different set of priorities. They write that “even though it’s often more challenging to create a small file, it’s also liberating to celebrate the ethics and aesthetics of the ‘poor image.’ While so much of the digital art scene is swept up in the hype around NFTs, I’m grateful to be in conversation with people who share ecocentric values and appreciate the beauty of being small.” 

8. Glow in the Dark Slime by Noah Weninger (aka byteobserver)

44-byte JPEG XL file

Deviating from the other small file formats, this work from Noah Weninger (aka takes the form of an image instead of a video or a GIF. The image format is JPEG XL which is a brand new standard that offers significantly better image quality and compression ratios, making for a smaller file. Noah is a PhD student studying combinatorics and optimization at the University of Waterloo. His many side projects, released under the alias, include explorations of computationally-limited art and open-source software for digitally processing audio and generating algorithmic music and visuals. The methods that he used for this work are inspired by the demoscene, a subculture in which people have been making tiny computer art since the 80s. He told us that his approach was to build the artwork from the ground up, trying very hard to keep everything as small as possible. He said “I believe many other works in the festival were made by producing some artwork and compressing it to fit within the size limit, so the most interesting part of the festival for me was seeing the vastly different approaches others used and thinking about how these approaches could be combined.” 

💜 Big thank you to Laura U. Marks, the festival director and founder of the Small File Media Festival for her support with reaching out to the artists about their small file media, as well as for sharing her research on the ecological impact of streaming media. 💜