Many of the best Pixelvision movies reveal a fascination with the processes and artifacts of everyday life: the camera has spawned a genre of confessional films, with ghostly faces speaking directly into the camera with surprising frankness. Sadie Benning, the adolescent daughter of an established experimental filmmaker, went on to fame in the art world with her simple and direct shorts, filmed in her bedroom, about coming of age as a lesbian. At 19, Benning was the youngest person to ever win a Rockefeller grant.
Filmmakers love what they describe as Pixelvisions dithering, a process designed to fill in the information between the pixels but resulting in unpredictable fluctuations in the image quality from frame to frame. Dithering, they say, calls attention to the properties of the recording medium in the same way that Jimi Hendrixs use of feedback called attention to the properties of the electric guitar. Digital filmmaker John Manoogian writes, Pixelvision is intoxicating. The way a hand blurs across the screen. A face exploding in a blossom of light and then sinking back into a puddle of shadow.The picture is dreamy, etherealghostly. The best Pixelvision movies are as simple and as evocative as a haiku.
Andrea McCarty, a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, is studying the Pixelvision movement to better understand how grassroots creativity works. She told me: “Pixelvision’s endurance and popularity prove that it was not a failed technology. The fascination with Pixelvision belies its obsolescencecollectors are seeking the cameras, artists are creating with them, technology fans are modifying them and fans are watching the films at the PXL THIS festival.”
This is what a lot of us had hoped would happen in the digital age: the technology would put low-cost, easy-to-use tools for creative expression into the hands of average people. Lower the barriers of participation, provide new channels for publicity and distribution, and people would create remarkable things.
Think of these subcultures as aesthetic petri dishes. Seed them and see what grows. In most, nothing really interesting will happen. We can pretty much count on Sturgeons law holding for amateur cultural creation: 90 percent of everything is bad. But if you expand the number of people participating in the making of art, you may expand the amount of really interesting works that emerge.
When we are talking about traditional arts, we value amateur expression as much for the process as for the product. When we teach pottery in schools and adult education centers, we dont expect most of those people to produce work for galleries and museums; creating something is personally valuable even if most of what we make sucks by any objective criteria. Think of all of the lopsided pots that have cherished places on our mantelpieces because our children made them.
You can pretty much count on our creative impulses to overcome a lot of technical limitations and obstacles. Amateur artists do best when they operate within supportive communities, struggling with the same creative problems and building on each others successes.
Amateur creativity should be valued on its own terms, judged by the criteria of the subcultures within which these works get produced and circulated. But you can also count on those within the commercial and artistic mainstream to bring the technologys impact to culture at large. In fact, the best Pixelvision films have been embraced by the art world, and the camera even has fans among commercial filmmakers. Director Michael Almereyda has incorporated Pixelvision images into his big-screen releases, Nadja and Hamlet, to much critical praise. At a time when most of the media industries are highly risk adverse, these petri dish communities are what will refresh the system.