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State of the Festival: Bite Size Methodologies—The 2nd Small File Media Festival

A look at the environmental impact of streaming media & the possibilities of lo-res filmmaking through the Small File Media Festival.
Andrew Northrop
Still from Convalescing Camcorder and Two Cats (Rachel Stuckey, USA, 2021)
Streaming media technologies have recently been calculated as contributing to 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, though the Jevons Paradox dictates that the increased productivity of our electronic devices and the availability of higher definition formats causes resource consumption to rise at an exponential rate. It’s a difficult conversation that we in the cultural sector often shy away from despite good intentions, spurring Laura U. Marks to conduct research with ICT engineers1 and establish the Small File Media Festival, which hosted its second edition online in August 2021.
The Small File Media Festival is often playful and light-hearted in its tone. The website’s landing page, in various iterations, has poked fun at the societal distinctions between high and low fidelity, employing a tongue-in-cheek marketing tone with phrases such as “maximum eye and mind candy with minimal environmental damage” and “The SFMF makes HD, 4K, and 5G look unnecessary! Unsexy! So pre-pandemic!” 2020’s awards included Best Cat Video, Best Obsolete Technology and Best New Media Idiocy, and awardees receive a tiny, 3D-printed trophy of a bear that also adorns the festival’s laurels. These inviting qualities help to lessen the blow of the issue the festival responds to, pivoting the response towards encouraging creativity and discussion. After all, environmental concerns are so often framed as being the burden of individuals to fix on a collective scale, when the biggest potential change can often only be enacted by large and stubborn corporations.
One of several mini bear awards given during the Small File Media Festival’s awards ceremony
Nonetheless, file sizes and processing times accompany the regular festival metadata, and the festival encourages you to select the 240p option at the top of its program pages. The website’s aesthetic and technical solutions encourage artists to counter e-waste by digging out retired cell phones, webcams and video cameras, and visitors can access guidance on how open-source software can reduce file sizes and/or produce glitches. Using obsolescent equipment can trigger poignant reflections, something Rachel Stuckey explores in Convalescing Camcorder and Two Cats (USA, 2021) as she turns a dying compact VHS camera on her adopted, elderly cats. “Embracing aging technology is like loving an old pet” she muses. In turn, the contrast, slightly erratic auto-focusing and artificial sharpening of the camera’s sensor amplify the textured landscapes of fur, giving Stuckey’s film a haptic quality for those with pets of their own.
Still from it’s raining but i don’t believe it’s raining (Eric Butler, USA, 2020)
That’s familiar ground for those versed in Marks’ writings in The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (2000), Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (2002) & elsewhere. Images with a difficult relationship to clarity often have the potential to simulate and stimulate the qualities of touch, evoking sensuous and affective qualities. In addition, highly compressed video files can cause surfaces to uncannily mirror other surfaces and digital artifacts to carry across multiple frames. Eric Butler’s it’s raining but i don’t believe it’s raining (USA, 2020) slowly downgrades a low-resolution self-portrait, with some slowly forming compression artifacts almost taking on the form of cigarette burns and water droplets. The glitchy collision of digital disintegration and a representation of the self produces an uncanny image that evokes both Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests series and the familiar but benign format of a website avatar. In Muscles (Greece, 2021), Michael Demetriou flickers between various images from a gym, with biceps, neck muscles, chest hairs, nipples, weights, and poles fusing through alternate frames. The flurry of oscillating and compressed images creates an uncanny approximation of the male body; one that is both disconnected and connected—a compressed and homo-erotic assemblage of flesh.
Still from Back Home (Homa Khosravi, Canada, 2021)
Likewise, the complicated visuality of low fidelity can evoke diasporic connotations. In Back Home (Canada, 2021), Homa Khosravi overlays several videos at different scales and opacities. Within two minutes a dancer’s movements intertwine with a flower blooming, the sound of a foreign news report unfolding, a calming view out of a window and relaxing instrumental music. The various parts evoke both familiar notions of the home and more personal, diasporic specific ones. The compressed nature of the file helps to blur those elements together, and it’s a reminder that so much ground can be covered in such a small space of time, evoking multiple temporalities. Khosravi’s work ultimately works like a triptych or a diorama, showcasing the unfolding possibilities of the short form. 
Meanwhile, 10 Megabytes of Memory (Austria, 2021) by Markus Maicher combines the Small File Film Festival’s methodologies with that of the archival footage or diary film. 10 years of home movies flicker by within 2 minutes, the length of time required to make the film achieve a 10MB file size. Maicher developed the film in an earlier workshop run by the festival and spoke about it in one of the “Makers’ Forum” events, where participating artists were encouraged to discuss the challenges and aesthetic qualities of working within small file sizes. Conversely, much of the ethos around the Small File Media Festival reminds me of the discourse found around 3D printing and other maker communities—a sense of open-source exploration and information sharing. You try, you respond to your efforts, acknowledge it as part of the process, then share your investigations with others and engage in further discussion.
Still from Blake 32 (superogue, the Netherlands, 2021)
In one of my favorite pieces at the festival, daemon45 by byteobserver (Canada, 2021), a tiny executable Linux script plays back kernel data as audio. A glitching sea of audible rhythms respond differently on every playback owing to the stored history of the CPU. It’s a seemingly simple exercise on the surface, hiding a deeper complexity behind it, and immediately filled me with the desire to learn how to write a similar script myself. Another work—Blake 32 (the Netherlands, 2021) by superogue—is the video output of a 32-byte MS-DOS script; a shimmering low poly nebula of moving diamonds. Both works grab unseen computer processes and spew them back out into something that feels both unintelligible yet compelling, like the old internet dial-up tones we jokingly anthropomorphize. They also blur the seams between file size and playback length.
That brings my mind to the restrictions we have placed upon shorter durations in recent years. GIFs have been relegated to quick reactions on Messenger applications, but in the early days of the internet they were very much an emerging art form and a way of presenting moving images before platforms like YouTube. Short form video is the commerce of Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, monetized and often complicatedly ephemeral. If you are a content creator of any kind, you have probably set up or exported work to accommodate 1x1 or vertical ways of presentation, because of the expectancy for work to need to exist within a complicated social media landscape, competing for time and attention. It can often feel like works below the minute mark inherit a default existence as a social media object because the ease of sharing has facilitated that. Allison Tanenhaus’s collection of Via Vibra works, ranging from 3 seconds to 15, stood out to me as small works that deserve to escape that relegation and enter a film festival landscape. By contemporary standards, it might be expected for them to appear as part of an Instagram feed or in a VJ set, but they have a lot more staying power than that. They deal in the minutia of shimmering, colorful pixels, but more than any other works at the festival I desperately wanted to experience them projected in a dark room as I slightly defocus my eyesight. They move in elegant and complicated ways, like a psychedelic collision between Lis Rhodes’ Light Music (United Kingdom, 1975) and the work of Rainer Kohlburger.
Still from why wonder (Christopher Carruth, Canada, 2021)
The familiarities of pop culture can also be interrogated in the small file workflow of the festival. After all, videos are so often ripped and packed into different formats and differing contexts of playback, often losing a few megabytes on the way. In why wonder (Canada, 2021), Christopher Carruth buffers the Youtube playback of Kermit the Frog’s "It’s Not Easy Being Green" with glitches and Javascript errors. The sea of green, warbling sounds and glitching text that envelops the familiar YouTube player page is ultimately a reminder of how convenient the modern web has become, especially for those of us who remember booting up Realplayer or Quicktime streams to watch incredibly low-res video files with choppy framerates. I’m reminded of Vivian Sobchack’s observations around those early internet experiences2, and the festival regularly points to Hito Steyerl’s essay “In Defense of the Poor Image,3” a contemporary reflection on the complicated distribution of images in different formats across the globe. Those of us with stable and fast internet connections often take such a privilege for granted, so it is important to consider how the reverse circumstances can cause a barrier to access. A wider net of people can stream the Small File Media Festival’s selection solely because the files are short, lower bitrate and easier to load. I streamed half of the festival on an unstable connection on the coast of Essex where my parents live, and the festival coped better than anything else I tried to access during that time. Joey Malbon of the festival team calculated that the festival’s media came to around 500MB, under the size of a standard CD-R.
In the past year and a half of the pandemic, the need for festivals to stream their programs has created an awkward sense of push and pull. On one hand, more people can access the works regardless of location and ability/inability to travel. On the other hand, many of us as cultural workers are binging a handful of feature films in one evening or over the weekend around other big commitments, whereas before we might have booked a week off to take in a festival properly. I’ve burnt myself out trying to consume as much as possible of a festival over the course of a week while working in the city again, and in that regard, the Small File Media Festival felt like a nice reprieve—the works are short enough to take rests in between and don’t feel as daunting to hit play on. They are less likely to fall victim to the perils of brain fog 20 minutes in if they even remotely reach that length, and even the films I didn’t necessarily feel grabbed by never felt like lost time. 
The festival’s playfulness and loose feel is forgiving of the fact that facing huge greenhouse gas emissions is decidedly complex. Do cinemas eat up a lot of electricity? Sure. Do the movements of DCPs and hard drives leave us with a lot of hard drives circulating the globe or in storage? Yes.4 Are we going to get any aesthetic benefit from streaming the sitcom we watch so casually in 4K? Very unlikely... Do you need to watch that video in 4K on YouTube when you’re watching on a tiny laptop that has far less pixels on its screen? Definitely not. Can you switch your Zoom resolution to standard definition? Yes! Can you compress the recording of the Zoom session you need before you upload it? You certainly can, and the Small File Media Festival has done so with theirs. Is it ironic that a media festival spurred on by the impact of streaming data had to stream their first two editions because of the pandemic? Absolutely. This isn’t a cut and dry situation, and we can all forgive ourselves for indulging here and there, but something like the Small File Media Festival can remind us to be cautious and cut down our individual impact, and it can encourage us to get creative as well. There’s often a familiar modus operandi that film festivals ascribe to, but so much can be gleaned from those that try to shake up the formula or experiment with different criteria. Perhaps expecting the festival to get “bigger” considering its namesake is a misnomer, but it will be interesting to watch this festival grow and potentially attract more established and familiar names who might be willing to think outside of the box alongside their regular practices.

1. See the project page for the "Streaming Carbon Footprint: study: https://www.sfu.ca/sca/projects---activities/streaming-carbon-footprint.html
2. "Nostalgia for a Digital Object: Regrets on the Quickening of QuickTime"– Vivian Sobchack, Millenium Film Journal, Issue No. 34 (Fall 1999): http://mfj-online.org/journalPages/MFJ34/VivianSobchack.html
3. "In Defense of the Poor Image," Hito Steyerl, e-flux Journal #10, November 2009: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/
4. One of the participating artists pointed out that a DCP file of his film would be about 2GB, because of the format’s lossless nature regardless of the source file’s compression.

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