The first time Nick Zammuto saw a vinyl record under high magnification, his mind was blown.
"It's very elegant," Zammuto tells me. Likewise the pits that contain CD data, which, he adds, are "remarkably beautiful" when viewed up close.
Zammuto, formerly of now-defunct pioneering found-sound glitch duo The Books, has taken to light microscopy and dissecting microscopes ever since. It's an interest in making the invisible visible that goes back to his days studying chemistry in college, particularly his research on liquid crystals. From there, Zammuto got a gig working in the analytics wing of an art conservation lab at the same school, where he learned how to work a scanning electron microscope. Today, he remains close with the technicians at that school, who let him tinker after hours with an array of instruments.
When it came time to make the video for "Great Equator," the lead single off his forthcoming long player Anchor, Zammuto knew what he had to do. He grabbed a "good" dissecting microscope and a scanning electron microscope, and got to work. What he came up with, and what we have the good pleasure of premiering here on Motherboard, is what you see up there.
The dissecting microscope, which shot everything you see in color, didn't take true video, although it could do quick time lapse sequences. The scanning electron microscope, which shot everything you see in black and white, imaged surface areas using accelerated electrons, not light, affording Zammuto more magnifying power. It takes very crude video, he explained, but is great at capturing hi-res stills. It took "a bit of a retrofit" to pull it off; both of these microscopes are built expressly for scientific research instruments, after all, not RED cinema cameras.
After 10 days of shooting, Zammuto had amassed hundreds of images and videos, "mostly of sound media, coins, and insects I collected from the windowsills at home," he explains. Among scratched vinyl and CD data pits is a sprawl of other specimens: rubber stamps, a house fly mounted on the surface of a record, 1-point font ink-jet laser printed onto paper and transparencies, various USB electronics, audio tape parts, loose change, a spider mite, the surface of an iPad, and, finally, over two instrumental choruses, a string of what look like early-80s era National Geographic wildlife photos, predominantly of exotic monkeys (but for good measure, an errant lamprey.)
I imagine this is what it's like to sonify the detritus of the age of anxiety, and set it all recursing toward some tilted singularity.
It's maybe a love song. "Oh, my love // It's been more than fun," a narrator coos, in androgynous Books'-like fashion. But beneath the sweeter nothings is the sort of primal iconography—echo chambers, empty pyramids—befitting of both ancient cosmological superstitions and the sobering realization that the grand arrow of time is really just a long chain of blips. (You get this right at vinyl level, too: what you're hearing during the 'scratch' rhythm intro on "Great Equator" is the result of scratching patterns into a record's locked grooves.)
"T]he most striking thing about microscopy is that machinery of life, like a house fly's eye, for example, makes the man-made world look very crude and clumsy by comparison," Zammuto says. The dust mite in the middle of the video, for example, could fit on the head of a pin, and yet by all accounts is an organism that's not just successful, but ubiquitous.
"Their kind will be around long after we are," he admits, "and yet we're so proud of ourselves and our technology."
Anchor is available September 2 via Temporary Residence Ltd.