PIXELVISION: THE AFFINITIES WITH THE LOW-RES MATERIALITY OF THE WORLD

This entry was posted on August 9th, 2018

If Every Girl Had A Diary (2010), Image copyright of Sadie Benning, courtesy of Video Data Bank, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

 

By Hyemin Kim

Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series of Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision (August 10 – 16, 2018) surveys the American independent movies that have channeled the toy camcorder PXL 2000’s obsolescent media specificities into the affinities with the low-res materiality of the unexplored desire, flesh, and historicity of the ’90s America and beyond.

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Artist Peggy Ahwesh utilized the PXL 2000 to materialize the abstract and cumbersome surface of the haunted landscape in her Nocturne. Still from Nocturne (1998), Courtesy of Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery

 

In the history of American alternative media, independent (or experimental) filmmakers & videomakers have been materializing audiovisual forms in an uneasy relationship with mainstream media’s narrative and aesthetic conventions that reinforce the sense of the reality built upon their dominant measures of seeing the world. Far beyond the mere inclusion of the sensorially distorting or semiotically elliptical sequences within the more accepted format and grammar, these artists endeavored to cast the alternative figures, sensations, tales, and documents of the world by turning to the format of medium itself and its materiality in order to challenge the ways of sensing the surface encircling the world that we believe to live in. In this vein, they were attracted also to low-resolution mediums – “poor mediums,” so to speak – such as Super 8, Pixelvision, ASCII, and VinylVideo that are no longer produced due to their technological inferiority for the commercial standards of taxonomizing and mapping the world. Pixelvision or the PXL 2000, initially conceived as children’s toy camcorder in 1987 by Fisher-Price Toy Company, was discontinued three years later for its unattractively noisy output due to its recording mediums: a myopic plastic camera and a regular audio cassette tape. However, some risk-taking independent artists in the ’90s tested this failed tool and utilized the unfashionably compressed, sandy, colorless imagery in hopes of attenuating the privileged realism of up-to-date media, concerning how media archives the portrayal and cartography of the world.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s upcoming series Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision (August 10 – 16, 2018) surveys the unorthodox achievements of this medium by traversing a range of the ’90s independent movies that have deployed it in their entire format, as part of multimedia hybridism, as hypnotic or subversive trying-on within feature films (e.g., Nadja and Slacker), or in (non-)stereoscopic 3D transformation of 2D Pixelvision images. (The show includes 38 works by 15 artists: James and Sadie Benning, Michael Almereyda & Amy Hobby, Joe Gibbons, Cecilia Dougherty, Peggy Ahwesh & Margie Strosser, Elisabeth Subrin, Eric Saks, Tammy Rae Carland, Alex Bag, Michael O’Reilly, Richard Linklater, and Ben Coonley) The Film Society’s Programmer at Large, Thomas Beard, a defender of queer avant-garde and independent cinema, gathered a group of ‘90s queer/feminist videos & films together with other rarities that tackled Pixelvision’s optic and sonic limitations towards the intriguing imagination and records of the world. Not only does the title of the series Flat Is Beautiful (named after Sadie Benning’s B&W Super 8 and Pixelvision feature which portrays an androgynous cartoon-masked teen, Taylor) announce the affirmation of underappreciated queerness in the ’90s subcultural media, it also signifies a broader invitation to the daring and poignant low-res surface of the Pixelvision movies that have gone against the illusive depth of more realistic media’s sellable visibility and content.

 

Stills from A New Year (1989) and It Wasn’t Love (1991), Courtesy of Sadie Benning and Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

 

In Sadie Benning’s early videos, the boxed-in, grainy Pixelvision imagery functions as an alternative media that stages burgeoning lesbian bodies, texts, and direct-to-camera confessions as well as girlhood activism in socio-economically marginal environments. Before the PXL 2000 (a Christmas gift from their [Sadie Benning’s] father James Benning), Benning, mostly in their bedroom, reveals the flesh of their mouth and lips, eye, ear, and hands and fingers, which also at times mutate into the featureless figures where the look of Benning is replaced with the animal-like molecularity, interacting with pixelated light. These images are intermixed with the coarsely recorded vocal tales of this queer adolescent’s melancholy and acting-out, languorously emerging from isolation in the ’80s and ’90s American town of Milwaukee. (Also, Benning’s precocious choice of love songs taken from the FM radio hits– quintessentially, Crazy You in Jollies (1990) – accentuates the hazy urgency of lesbian longing in menacingly heterosexual social geographies.) On top of that, the Pixel camera, similarly to the Dadaists’ visual poetry, graphically peruses Benning’s DIY collage of cut-out texts from diaries, drawings, posters, cartoons, magazines, newspapers, and television images. Rather than simply rejecting pop-cultural iconographies, Benning, a practitioner of found footage aesthetics, remixed them in the fuzzily microscopic platform provided by Pixelvision. In their early, rather unfinished work A New Year (1989), a nearly story-less despairing, daydream-like texture abounds. Later, in It Wasn’t Love (1992), Pixelvision records a secretive thumb sucking scene – with its quasi-pornographic lesbian eroticism and fantasy. And then in Girl Power (1992), which combines Benning’s autobiographic home video with imagery from punk-feminist “riot grrrl”s zines, security camera footage, and other historic television footage, the artist organically exercises the possibility of Pixelvision tapes as a form of feminist documentary beyond the confessional diary video.

 

Stills from Elegy (1991), Courtesy of Joe Gibbons and Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

 

If there’s a glimpse of animality on Benning’s pixelated images of flesh, Joe Gibbons’s Elegy takes a step closer to a possibility of interspecific perception and friendship. Despite Gibbons’s elegiac shouts while observing autumnal shades of death on a wander in the cemetery, the star of the tape is perhaps his dog Woody, who is a witness of Gibbons’s black-comedy-kind soliloquy, alongside the impromptu attention from the point-and-shoot PXL 2000. At one moment of the tape, Gibbons speaks to Woody “You can’t see these autumnal colors…all orange and red…because you can only see black and white.” Whereas it’s proven that dogs can see more hues than black and white, this utterance, resonating in the monochrome amorphous Pixelvision imagery, induces the viewer to question whether the whole tape is an experiment to approximate Woody’s vision and other sensations. And later, we find the shimmering figure of Gibbons’s face, resembling a fictive look of an alien and even perhaps a dog. The Pixel camera in Gibbons’s work – often a combination of faux documentary and absurd performance – renders nonhuman (animals and dolls; as in his Multiple Barbie) and even perhaps extraterrestrial humor and oddity of low-res cognition and relationality.

 

Stills from Joe-Joe (1993), Courtesy of Cecilia Dougherty and Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

 

The series also visits Cecilia Dougherty’s video Joe-Joe (starring Dougherty and Leslie Singer) that used Pixelvision alongside Hi8 (8mm color camcorder) to create a queer utopian atmosphere, a multilayered tone-poem-like narrative, and a corporeal geometry and optical kaleidoscope of lesbian eroticism (more than the seemingly satiric intention of dyke-doubling gay playwright Joe Orton). Even while Joe-Joe predominantly used the PXL 2000 as its medium, it’s alternating with another medium (Hi8), which captures the buoyant colors and textures of the happy and lewd moments of this lesbian home video in its travelogue and erotica. In the beautiful bathing scene at the beach house, their naked flesh loosely crosses and brushes against each other while sheltering the oceanic zone in the middle of their soft pleasure. Besides, the PXL 2000’s shifty amateurish recording techniques enabled its dreamy, improvisatory dialogue-like narratives, akin to the collective performances of San Francisco underground poets’ theater. Relevantly, the presence of new narrative poet and writer Kevin Killian’s acting (in both Joe-Joe and  Coal Miner’s Granddaughter) further uncategorizes the queer campiness of Dougherty’s videos.

 

Stills from Nocturne (1998) and Strange Weather (1993), Courtesy of Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery

 

Peggy Ahwesh’s Nocturne (a combination of B&W 16mm and Pixelvision footage transferred to 16mm for a projection print) is a ghostly and perhaps circular tale of a woman’s impossible desire, erotic murder and burial, and possession, and mystery surrounding another reciprocated murder. Nocturne, an adaptation of Steven Shaviro’s “Ch. 5. Nocturnal” of Stranded in the jungle (which is also a literary reenactment of Mario Bava’s 1963 gothic horror film, The Whip and the Flesh) deploys Pixelvision to convey the dreadful horror of love and obsession that permeates its landscape. Shaviro wrote in response to Bava’s The Whip and the Flesh: “The film’s most beautiful sequences have almost no dialogue, feature no dramatic twists, and exhibit no acting to speak of. They are purely atmospheric effects, conjured out of fluid camera movements, abrupt cuts, and subtle variations of light.” For Ahwesh, whose medium is a camera unlike Shaviro’s illustrative words, Pixelvision was a powerful tool to transpire that indefinite tone of eerie silence in support of her montage techniques. Similarly, Pixelvision’s reductive and oozy texture in Michael Almereyda’s The Rocking Horse Winner (1997), an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s 1926 titular story, expands the supernatural atmosphere of the source literature with the uncanny visual qualities of objects added in the film – most exemplarily, an oracle ball floating in the pool.

 

Stills from The Rocking Horse Winner (1997), Courtesy of Michael Almereyda

 

Also, it’s notable that Nocturne’s credited audio enhancer Bradley Eros (who also starred as a corpse and ghost in the film) provided distorted audio cassette tapes to Ahwesh for her to create a sinister mix of sounds such as the ambience of forest, water, insects, wind, fire and so on. If the visual noise of the Pixelvision cassette tape was reduced in its transference to the 16mm print, Bradley Eros’s audio-cassette sound contribution helped the film to revive Pixelvision’s degenerate noise in the convergence of sounds and images. Using Pixelvision’s dusty sensation, Nocturne turns out to be a psychological horror adaptation grounded upon these sensory mixtures; Strange Weather, shot entirely in Pixelvision, functions as a fictional ethnography on four crack addicts in Miami. The detailed imagery of the addiction confuses the faith and comfort of the viewer with regards to what is true and what is ab/normal. The eye of Pixelvision here is a close witness of the trembling chaos and dread of addicts and their amoral, social and personal descent.

 

Stills from Swallow (1993), Courtesy of Elisabeth Subrin and Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

 

Speaking of recording abnormal and dysphoric behavior (also addressed in Sadie Benning’s shorts and feature Flat is Beautiful), Elizabeth Subrin’s Swallow (1993), uses the caged-looking Pixelvisioned footage and contrasts its layers with a compilation of high-resolution naturalistic betacam imagery and other educational film footage. The film reports on the symptomatic zone of anorexia and depression which culminates in a painfully inoperative language: silence and scream. Based on the recollection of her friend Sarah’s and her own anorexic stories, Swallow’s Pixelvision footage particularly focuses on the anorexia’s complexities that coalesce in the failure of language which is, paradoxically, crafted in Subrin’s intertextual practice. Continuing the hybrid documentary strategies of Benning’s Girl Power and informed by much more formal techniques and (Gertrude) Stein’s modernist poetry practice as well as feminist pedagogic conceptions, Swallow is a focal point of multifarious footages (including negative footage) and languages (both graphically and diagnostically) in Subrin’s difficult and compulsive search of girlhood standing on her own care and knowledge.

 

Stills from You Talk/I Buy (1990), Courtesy of Eric Saks

 

Eric Saks’ video You Talk/I Buy (1990) is a special discovery in the series. Saks, a Pixelvision theorist and curator of a 90 min long videotape called Big Pixel Theory, is keenly aware of Pixelvision’s increasingly reductive and self-vanishing materiality within its operational mechanism. Saks describes You Talk/I Buy as “a reverse prank phone call with an American automobile salesman parodying marketing and foreshadowing the Gulf war.” In You Talk/I Buy, partly shot in Pixelvision, he incorporated an explosive flicker effect throughout the video in order to aggravate the already failed utopian texture and tone of Pixelvisioned images. Instead of functioning as an ethnographic medium that portrays the self and other relations, Pixelvision here is a medium conducive to the caustic observation of broken communication in the commercial world as rendered in Saks’ epileptic montage of the discarded iconography of daily products and wry, ominous miniatures. The inordinate footage is deliberately unevenly collaged to provoke ideas of alienation and regression in a consumerist dream world.  In a very different observational mode, James Benning’s 3 min long tape Tabletop (1988) – exhibited in the first PXL THIS festival and included in Saks’ Big Pixel Theory – also manifests an intense materiality and dynamics that would disfigure the objects in favor of the end-of-the-tape glitches, even while it’s still hinting at the playful velocity of something ambiguously portrayed in time.

 

Still from Tabletop (1988), Courtesy of James Benning

 

Stills from Rotating Composition No. 5 (2017) and Sunday Decomposition (2017), Stereoscopic 3D Pixelvision videos, Courtesy of Ben Coonley and Microscope Gallery

 

Perhaps as the youngest artist included in the series, Ben Coonley began his Pixelvision project under pressure of proving something different from what other former artists had already stylized through Pixelvision. Even while, in the early 2000s, he was already successful in 3D remaking Michael Snow’s Wavelength as well as a 3D presentation of the Kuleshov effect (called 3D Trick Pony), he was unsure of how to synchronize PXL 2000 (whose resolution is 90p) images into 3D format (whose standard definition is 480p). And then, in 2015, he decided to engage with the 3D’s fundamentals (viewing independently by the left and right eyes) with his two repaired PXL 2000s and create stereoscopic 3D videos: an experiment he continued until 2017. Upon an email with Coonley, the 12 Compositions videos that will screen on loop in the Film Society’s Amphitheater (August 10 to 16) are the fascinating result of that patience that taught the artist to accept accidents, glitches, and mechanical breakdowns in the process of working with low-res mediums. Unlike usual 3D cinema, Coonley’s 3D Pixelvision video series of Compositions, eschewing the clear distinction of predigital and digital glitches, presents the mismatched or dissonant patterns and layers of 3D space, and addresses the imperfect 3D illusion. Also, his choice of writers’ elemental platform Composition Book as the visual object reminds us of conditions crucial to an image-making practice: to relate to the unexpected imagination of the ordinary surrounding us. (Coonley associates the images of Pixelvision glitches with the ubiquitous marble print patterns on the Composition Book’s jacket!) In his latest video Sunday Decomposition, these 3D images also reminisce the Mallarméan visual poetry that self-efface, in their increasingly chance-oriented mismatches and multilayers of 2D flatness. 

 

Flat Is Beautiful: The Strange Case of Pixelvision: August 10 to 16, 2018 at Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York.

 

Hyemin Kim lives in Brooklyn and Seoul and writes on experimental cinema & literature and queer studies.