Eastman School of Music:
Peter Ferry (solo percussionist)
Matthew Evans (composer)

Rochester Institute of Technology:
Susan Lakin (producer)
Anna Clem (videographer)
Joe Geigel (technical manager)
Mitchell DeMarco (technical leader)
Karteek Mekala and Sergio Vargas (web programmers)
David Bright Jr. and Jonathan Johnson (audio analysis programmers)
Kimberly Sing and Yuqiong Wang (web designers)

The Nostalgia Project

    Through the filter of nostalgia, what do digital photographic libraries tell us about our shifting digital culture? The Nostalgia Project (NP) explores this question in a collaborative work between musicians, artists, computer scientists, and the general public. It draws upon web-based photo sharing, text messaging, and musical performance to explore the notion of nostalgia in a live interactive experience. The audience is offered a moment to pause, reflect, and contribute a photographic or written expression of nostalgia to the web based database. The database resides on a central server dedicated to the collection of images and text contributed by the public when asked “What evokes a sense of nostalgia for you?”

    Nostalgia was originally described as a disease that caused a loss of the present due to the longing of one’s native home.  Later, during the Romantic period, poets and philosophers examined nostalgia not as a curable disease “but as a romance with the past.”[1] Today the hyper speed of developing technology is compressing time, shortening our sense of the past and leaving us wanting to expand the moment.  In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym argues that, “Contemporary nostalgia is not so much about the past as about the vanishing present.”[2]  Exploring the NP database, nostalgia is not only illustrated as the displacement of home, a physical location, but a desire for time to pause.  Our sensibility of nostalgia is often a reaction to the dematerialized digital culture. A desire for the tangible is demonstrated by a text sent to the project database, writing “getting mail” as a trigger of nostalgia.

    Further evidence of a shift in perspective is displayed in the NP database through a wide range of imagery that includes and expands beyond the romantic image.  One NP participant recognized photography’s historical connection with nostalgia and contributed a 1922 Eastman Kodak Autographic Camera advertisement illustrating a young mother of four on the front porch of their house photographing her children being read to by their grandmother with a headline that stated, Keep the story with a KODAK.  After studying forty years of Kodak advertisements, Nancy Martha West writes, “Kodak taught amateur photographers to apprehend their experience and memories as objects of nostalgia…”[3] Digital technology has replaced film-based photography and rendered many film products and prior techniques obsolete yet our database gathers many digital representations that resemble the aesthetic of chemical based techniques, bearing the question, do we miss what is gone?

    The Millennial Generation, although still young, is already nostalgic. Influenced by popular culture, yearning for a more stable economy, and responding to the exponential growth of technology, they reflect back on the recent past. For our composer, Matthew Evans, Polaroid imagery evokes a sense of nostalgia. We choose his imaginative composition as the basis for this project, building around the common thread of nostalgia inspired by photography.  In the NP musical performances, we engage the audience as participants, not passive observers, using photography as a bridge between the musician, Peter Ferry, and the public.  Discarding conventional concert hall etiquette, Peter solicits the audience to collaborate with him by turning on their cell phones, uploading texts and photos from their cell phone library, which evoke a sense of nostalgia for them.  The project experiments with the use of mobile devices within a performance space to unite the audience with the musician and it extends the live musical performance to the web by inviting participation from the online community.

    Advancements in the camera sensors and the processing power of smart phones, as well as the inclusion of image recognition and image tracking in these mobile devices, are extending the capabilities of cell phone photography.  Their portability enables us to record every aspect of our lives, documenting our daily activities as memory, archive, witness and spy.  When we want to capture a moment of joy or an experience, we stop to pose or point the camera to preserve or share the moment, making it a memory.  With the widespread use and popularity of cell phone cameras and the ease and speed with which we disseminate photographs to the net, we collectively share our images, via mail, message, twitter, and Facebook, devoid of print.  In the Nostalgia Project we merge the visual image with music both responding to and affecting the other.

    The photographs from the database are projected behind the percussionist, performing the composition by Matthew Evans.  The still images are arranged in a grid pattern that references a window frame as a metaphor for another place; each windowpane frames the collective views of nostalgia from the database with text messages continually streaming below.  In her book Virtual Window, Anne Friedberg wrote, “We know the world by what we see: through a window, in a frame, on a screen.  As we spend more of our time staring into the frames of movie, television, computers, hand-held displays-“windows” full of moving images, text, icons, and 3-D graphics-how the world is framed may be as important as what is contained within that frame.”[4] Images projected during any single performance are programmed to display randomly from the photographs in the database, creating a unique experience for each performance.

    Years ago a shoebox was the primary clearinghouse for photographic prints of our family events and shared moments.  The Nostalgia Project website acts as a communal shoebox, a drop box allowing the audience to upload photographs and text messages that elicits a sense of nostalgia to them, thus creating a visual exploration into the notion of nostalgia.

[1] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001), 11.

[2] Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 351.

[3] Nancy Martha West, Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 2.

[4] Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 1.