Last week, news out of Seattle: someone uncovered pictures of the very first Nirvana show – if one can really call it that. The performance happened in 1987, in the basement of a house in Raymond, Washington. It was spring. On lead vocal that night was Kurt Cobain. On bass, Krist Novoselic. On drums, Aaron Buckhard. And joining on guitar was Tony Poukkula, Cobain’s friend since childhood. The group played two Led Zeppelin songs. Someone took pictures.
Twenty-eight years later – last week – Tony’s daughter, Maggie, tweeted the pictures with the caption, “Pictures of my dad and Kurt Cobain playing together back in the day”, followed by an emoticon of a smiley-face wearing sunglasses. As of writing, it’s garnered over 3,000 re-tweets, and has been favourited more than 4,800 times. Maggie apparently had no idea what she was holding when she first tweeted. Folks were quick to let her know. The pictures are “priceless” user @Arch_Pixel told her, before wondering whether Rolling Stone would soon publish them in an issue. “I don’t know,” Maggie replied, “are they??” @Arch_Pixel replied, “Ya these are huge.”
There are three reasons these photos survived. One of those is because they were of Nirvana’s first show. The other two should make us wonder whether something like it will ever happen again.
At first glance, it feels like it could. After all, as Anthony Barba tweeted to Maggie, “If your dad had an iPhone the world would have had footage of the whole set. Viva technology.” User @Toolism asked: “Do you have any more??” Indeed, no longer are rock shows about fists thrust skyward; the default position for anyone now is an outstretched arm clutching a mobile phone, recording every moment.
We each capture thousands of photographs now, either to post online or to keep for ourselves, that are, in either case, stored away in a hard drive somewhere or in the cloud. There, they sit on the precipice of existence. We know the truism that the Internet never forgets is a lie. It forgets all the time, when it does, there’s no going back. As Maciej Ceglowski put it, with computers, “memory is strictly binary. There is either perfect recall or total oblivion, with nothing in between.”
Yet, despite knowing this, we barrel on, shovelling the machines full of memories. And the only thing really stopping us from avoiding what we accept as an inevitable total delete, and committing some of our pictures to photographic paper, is, ironically, the very fact that we take so many of them. Frankly, who has the time?
What would happen if we managed to stop this cycle, and make a photograph as opposed to simply taking one? We might display it. We would certainly keep it somewhere safe. Above all, we would hold it. This obvious detail stares at us from Maggie’s tweet: the pictures are in her hand, not on a computer screen. What happens when we hold something? Simply put, we own it.
Earlier this year, after Apple released its ballyhooed streaming music service, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote that, in using it, “you sense declining interest in the particulars of genre, in the personalities of artists, in political messages, in cultural contexts. Differences are flattened out: music really does stream, in an evenly regulated flow.”
It wasn’t merely pining from a non-believer (anti-disruptor?), but a point worth considering. The stream, that conveyor belt of information – words, pictures – we’ve accepted as normal in the past few years, is all about simultaneous flow, and equality of all things. Momentous or fleeting, they are all caught up in the current. There is little distinction, nothing necessarily to allow us to separate one thing from another, no literal space between moments. Not even a simple, plastic photo album divider.
To echo Jean Baudrillard, the stream has succeeded in transforming “all our acts and all events into pure information.” It's nothing but expendable data.
Maggie’s photos are distinct, and you can touch them. And so, they survive from another time. Things are much different now. We hold our phones, not our photographs. We don’t save the pictures we take, nor do we own them; the computers do. All we do is observe the flow of the stream, reduced to the role of passive audience to our own existence.