Monday, March 14, 2011

silly putty is a time bridge

photo: jetheriot

Say you're a setting sun. You're particularly proud of the fleeting half-second during which you appear to those who have gathered to watch you from the edge of an oceanside cliff as though you couldn’t glow any more dazzlingly, then your glow grows achingly golden. You want this moment to linger, you want to be remembered, so you find a receptive camera spooled with a photosensitive substance and your daylight presses its colors onto a small rectangle of film.

Say you're a song. Like a sunset, you're temporary. In order to linger, you must find a remembering substance to capture and hold your sounds, to serve as a faithful record of your singing. A long narrow strip of tape with a magnetizable coating looped onto a spinning reel provides just such a substance. It registers a magnetic echo of you on its sheer yet durable surface, an echo which can be re-played as long as the tape holds up, an echo which can be recorded onto a second remembering substance with a sapphire-tipped stylus that etches a long and delicate spiral of micro-peaks and micro-valleys circling toward the center of a platter-sized disc of vinyl.

Without substances to remember them, memories cannot be made. They float freely. Unmoored, they decay into oblivion. By virtue of its particular physical properties – its photosensitivity, its magnetizability, its elasticity, its resilience – one substance may be better at remembering things than another substance. Think memory metal or memory foam. Originally a mixture of silicone oil and boric acid, Silly Putty is a curious material that stretches without breaking, bounces higher than a rubber ball, and is also good at remembering. Silly Putty is a remembering substance.

Press a walnut into Silly Putty and the contours of the walnut will remain after the walnut is removed. There is the walnut-shaped Silly Putty and the walnut-shaped walnut. Over time, the walnut-shaped Silly Putty will fall and flatten into a blob, but for a while it will remember the walnut.

Silly Putty remembers objects in a second way. Press Silly Putty against a newspaper, then peel it carefully away, and the ink from the newspaper will be transferred to the Silly Putty. It won’t be a perfect memory. The words on the Silly Putty will be backward, lighter and more difficult to read – a memory is always an imitation, after all, a degraded version of the original – but after the newspaper has been set on fire, disappearing into smoke and ash, its words will remain on the Silly Putty. A part of the newspaper lives on as a memory, connecting the present with the past on the surface of this absorptive material like the lingering face of Jesus on the fabric of Veronica’s veil.