Liminal Spaces: A Digital Memory

Recently the internet has been full of videos, galleries and subreddits pertaining to something known as the “liminal space”, or alternatively the “oddly familiar place”.

If seen in video form, it is usually accompanied by nostalgic or unnerving music, as seen here:

An example by Boaty Boat on Youtube.

These spaces can be anything from green fields with suburban houses to water parks, or abandoned subway stations, or places that are indescribable but yet – somehow – familiar to us.

If these images don’t seem familiar to you it may be because many of these images come from the 2000s, and many of the creators of these ‘liminal space collections’ are people in their early 20s, or late teens, the growing popularity of these spaces lining up with the access to large social media followings for people of these age groups.

Now, let me explain why I think ‘oddly familiar spaces’ exist.

Film photography’s popularity began to wane severely in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when larger camera companies began to shift production towards the new digital formats suddenly available on market, and particularly towards the easily usable and portable CCD camera.

The Nikon Coolpix 2100, a classic CCD

CCD stands for charge-coupled device, which is the sensor used to capture images inside a CCD camera. These cameras were more widely known as “point-and-shoots”, since they could be used by amateurs and professionals alike to take hundreds of JPG photographs that could then be uploaded to a computer and printed.

So now we have hundreds of thousands of various images of the early 2000s being uploaded to home computers and the internet at the same point in time (1999-2010) just before a large boom in quality of camera equipment around the mid 2010s.

Popular edited liminal space image showcasing the highly-saturated grass and high exposure inherent in photos taken with CCD technology
Early 2000s image of a Toronto museum showcasing the same high-saturation and high exposure, taken with CCD point-and-shoot camera

The cameras themselves had quirks, since they were early versions of the digital SLRs we have today, they were still very visibly different from film photography. From what I’ve analyzed in looking at images taken with cameras using CCD sensors the earliest ones do three things with their images. They oversaturate the picture, causing grass that looks almost too green. You can see this effect used stylistically in Smash Mouth videos of the time as well, which is in some part why they look so dated.

Secondly the images are usually very high exposure. Since they are point and shoot for the most part, this is a quirk of the sensor, not the photographer.

Finally, the last part of the images is an over-clarification. Many of these images have a sharpness to them that makes them look surreal and otherworldly.

All of these quirks can be applied to many different Liminal Space images.

Finally, for those who find these images oddly nostalgic and familiar in some way, I have a few explanations.

Sample video from Jack Gallant on YouTube.

The description of this video is “The left clip is a segment of a Hollywood movie trailer that the subject viewed while in the magnet. The right clip shows the reconstruction of this segment from brain activity measured using fMRI.”

While it may be the limitations of the technology itself, the right-hand image is fuzzy, grainy and out of focus. If this is truly what memory looks like then this may be why we find these spaces so familiar.

Another Liminal space from Boaty Boat‘s video.

I’ve found that many of these liminal space images are either low-fidelity, motion blurred, or low quality in other ways. This adds to both my theories on the visualization of memory as well as the fact that many of these images were taken with point and shoot cameras at a certain point in time, the quality of these images varying with every photographer, and with the faults in the cameras themselves it was more than likely that images would come out blurry or lo-fi.

In a YouTube comment I found about a month ago, there’s a great quote regarding liminal/oddly familiar spaces.

Which is true, that’s exactly what it feels like. Many of these places have real-world counterparts that we’ve visited as children. Images of arcades, amusement parks, cement stairwells, school lockers, all of them empty and alone. When we look back on the thousands of archival images of this vivid point in time, we fill them with our own memories.

An image of my local Blockbuster.

I remember going to the Blockbuster near my house in about 2008. Blockbusters had a certain smell of popcorn and plastic tapes, and even today I can still smell it when I look at pictures of those old video stores.

It closed at about the same time as they all did when Blockbuster went under, and now it’s a Tim Hortons, but every time I see the liminal space pictures with bright, strange colors and the surreal, empty quality I will always think of places like that Blockbuster. The minute parts of a 2000s childhood that came and went so fast that we never even knew they were there.

And that’s what I think Liminal Spaces are for, in the end. They’re a way to remember things like Blockbuster, or the time you closed your locker on the last day of Grade 8, feeling like you were closing a chapter of a long book.

We remember these melancholy spaces that shaped us, and we pay our respects.

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