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Form and Dysfunction: Fisher-Price and the Cult of the Pixel

By Erika Suderberg

A closeup of a pixelated eye.

Some of the most significant revolutions in the history of film and video have been sparked by the appearance of small and inexpensive camera—new equipment that granted individuals access to “the means of production.” Cinéma Vérité in France and Direct Cinema in the United States emerged in the 1950’s and 60’s as lighter, smaller, and less obtrusive 16mm cameras became available. These movements created a new film vocabulary based upon handheld cinematography that revolutionized the non-fiction form. The now mythic Sony Portapak video camera, introduced in 1969, became the weapon of choice for the first American video guerrillas, who waged attacks on the monolith of network television with the dream of dismantling and oppressive culture industry and replacing it with a democratic system of alternative video.

In fact, the history of independent video can be traced through each successive generation of consumer cameras introduced by the Sony Corporation; the Portapak, the Camcorder, the Handycam. But while these smaller, less expensive cameras inspired provocative theory and experiments, early utopian visions of “people’s TV” have rapidly receded into nostalgic memory as television access moves further and further out of reach of the independent artist and documentarian. Both production and post production are now prohibitively expensive as elaborate effects have become ingrained as necessities. The independent media artist is left to inhabit the "alternative" ghetto, passively awaiting the next consumer downgrade of what we know the professionals to be using.

Enter the Fisher-Price PXL-2000—a camera that moves beyond low-tech and into the revolutionary zone of Anti­ Tech. Introduced in 1987, the PXL-2000 was designed to be "the lightest, least expensive, and easiest to use camcorder on the market." The cameras were sold in toy stores for under $100 and targeted at the 10 to 16 year-old market. The PXL-2000 was conceived as a plaything, but many see it as a sort of magic "philosophical toy" that inspires a unique, culturally charged form of playing.

A pixelated woman's face from 'A Neighborhood Tour.'

The Fisher-Price camera has, in fact, attracted a large cult following of adult media artists, fascinated by the raw quality and the subversive nature of the PXL-2000 image, which has been labeled "Pixel Vision." Mark McElhatten, curator of New York's Collective for Living Cinema, explains that "the PXL- 2000 has achieved an importance, beginning as a novelty and then inspiring a body of serious work with an affinity for its idiosyncrasies. It is a rejected product that has been salvaged by artists it was not intended for." Despite the growth of this cult following, the unreliability of the camera and its rela­tively high price tag in the world of toys finally forced Fisher-Price to discontinue the model. "Fisher-Price set up a toll­ free number to call about Pixel trouble," explains McElhatten, "but they got so many calls and ended up replacing so many cameras that they had to shut down the service. They were sorry that they had ever made the camera at all." It is rumored that Sony may pick up on the technology, but in the meantime worshippers of Pixel Vision comb the shelves of out of the way Toys-R-Us stores, hoping to discover one of the few remaining cameras.

The often oppressive term "broadcast quality" is rendered meaningless in the context of the PXL-2000. The camera records both video and sound on standard audio cassette tape at high speed—a 90-minute tape will record 10 minutes of video. Due to the high speed of the transport, images deteriorate very rapidly when they are replayed through the mini-monitor included with the system, a temporal aspect explored by some artists. "The recordings are very vulnerable," says McElhatten. "Certain images disappear or get more vague each time they are played back." Sound quality from the built-in microphone is barely adequate, mainly due to excessive camera noise. A fixed lens seems to keep subjects in focus, although a strange kind of focus, from extreme close-up to infinity. "Its focus properties are remarkable," says McElligott, "you can put the camera right down on the surface of an object and still have focus."

From <em>A New Year</em>

The PXL-2000 is not compatible with any existing video hardware, and requires modifications to allow playback through larger monitors or recording onto standard videotape. Although the tiny camera takes a firm anti-technological stance, it has been grafted on to some of the most high­ tech imaging equipment imaginable: hitched to 3D rigs; passed through image processing systems; broken down into a micro-camera; adapted to nighttime infrared use; rewired a hundred different ways.

In its standard form, the PXL-2000 produces a chunky, almost cubist black and white image, distinguished by its grossly enlarged video pixels. When displayed on a monitor, the image is bordered in black, resembling an irradiated photographic print. The erratically beautiful compositions captured by the camera have inspired some to speak of it as a hyperreal image collector. Edits, made in-camera by rewinding the cassette, are clearly visible, registering on the screen as frozen pixelated gashes. "It is a medium pushed beyond its intended capacity," says McElhatten. "It has an element of being out of control." This lack of control translates into the essential rawness of Pixel Vision—a rawness that imbues its images with a unique sense of nostalgia. It is like looking at fossils from some pre-historic dawn of moving images, frozen in amber and displayed in the midst of ever more heady technological heights.

Los Angeles video artist Steve Fagin cautions that at this point Pixel images are becoming the flavor of the week, of being "recouped for a standardized look on MTV"; but the application of Pixel to his own work has specific connotations. In Fagin's The Machine That Killed Bad People (1990), a tape which charts the social, emotional and political impact of the collapse of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, all textures of video are present; Betacam for pris­ tine banal staged news reports, pseudo "cinéma veéité" camcorder for an interview with political activists and lurid, overlit video for a horrific simulated home-shopping channel. Pixel Vision is reserved for the claustrophobic interior of the ugly American reporter's hotel room. The camera is passed from hand to hand, fluidly hovering around the man as he produces a tortured news report—part existential document and part examination of the position of the cultural outsider. The camera roams the room in extreme close-up, examining objects on a tabletop, then focusing over the reporter's shoulder on the text of a newspaper, breathing clown his neck. These sections are the most beautiful in the tape, evoking what Fagin calls "spastic surveillance" while suggesting an unsupportable notion of "veracity", an abstraction more present than reality.

One of the ironies uniting filmmakers and artists working in Pixel Vision is its ability to return an audience to nascent states; as Fagin notes, to be startled today one has to return to minimal technology or literally "buy into" the other end of the scale. He was attracted to Pixel because he found "it had an equivalent, in terms of surprise, to seeing early Lumière film. Fisher­ Price was a way of making people watch. It is an image so at the edge of not existing at all that it is almost at the level of architecture." Fagin sees Pixel as an aesthetic strategy for video artists. "It involves present-tense strategies and action strategies of danger," he says, "reinvigorating, on a libidinal level, the event of video itself."

Fisher-Price has always been in the business of supplying kids with miniaturized simulacra of large-people products: sing-along radios; stoves with working buttons; electric guitars; lawn mowers; objects designed by adults to let children mimic the larger product world that surrounds them. Eric Saks, a Los Angeles media artist who has put together a comprehensive show of work done with the PXL-2000, thinks that perhaps the fascination kids have with the camera may have more to do with entering into a "simulation of shooting" than with the images they record; the sound the machine makes when running perhaps being as important as its ability to record sound and image.

The heartfelt enthusiasm that many artists hold for Pixel is precisely defined by its ability to be used by kids outside institutionalized instruction. This liberation from the media lab at school, the family computer or camcorder is exemplified in the fact that the tapes have a finite lifespan and may mutate into vague grey mush after several replays. They cannot become precious objects. As McElhatten says, "People do things with the camera that aren't necessarily meant to reach an audience, or they correspond with tapes on a one­ to-one level, like writing letters. That kind of investigation, just playing in a solitary way, is very exciting. Whether there is a place to show the tapes is beyond the point." Much of the most interesting work in Pixel Vision is being produced by young people using the camera in this kind of investigative play. McElhatten, who has screened collections of PXL-2000 work, is now rounding up the last remaining cameras for an ongoing series of workshops for kids.

Two younger artists' work stand out considerably and help to illustrate what all the attention may be about. At age 8, Sierra Le Baron Mellinger made a series of tapes that include comedic commercials staged and acted in by her parents and everyday tours of her neighborhood. In The Doctors, (1988) she follows her mom to a gynecologist appointment, Pixel Vision in tow. After her mom leaves for her examination, Sierra surveys the doctor's waiting room.The receptionist is quickly judged to be less than interesting and dismissed with a curt "thank you". Sierra then guides her marginal camera down an impersonal hall and into an examination room, surveying the cold table and stirrups with cinematic mastery and aplomb. Mom finally comes down the hall, Sierra asks if everything went alright, is answered in the affirmative, and the tape concludes.

Sierra's tape is a matter-of-fact rendering of a true slice-of-life, taking no more than a few seconds, but startling in its ordinariness, in the very direct manner in which it presents a situation usually unseen. It is this sort of unmediated infiltration that only a kid with a toy could achieve. McElhatten says of Sierra's neighborhood tour, "It is thrilling just to see a kid walking down the street with a camera and no supervision.It Is like going to the moon." The work of Sadie Benning constructs an entirely different environment. Heavily layered, planned and enacted, Benning's work, made at age 16, suggests the outer limits of Pixel Vision. She produces frames so laden with text and image that they seem like hieroglyphic representations of semi­ transparent states of mind. In A New Year (1988) the camera roves the surface of a television game show, tabloid headlines, the grey corners of her room; cataloging images with an erratic but purposeful eye. The images serve as punctuation to a series of statements written on paper and passed across the bottom of the screen; stories of rape, racism, drunk driving, crack selling neighbors, the decline of her neighborhood and larger questions of existence. A dog comes into frame and is petted after a text about "our nation addicted to drugs and money". A deck of cards is flipped quickly into a pile while a pencil scrawls "it would be so easy to die". Sadie's work has the feel­ ing of a journal written in the corner of a dark room which dares you to look—private notations that reveal a complicated and fascinating ability to create a singular, highly metaphorical visual language. "Sadie's tapes come straight from dead center, the heart of darkness, sexual identity," says McElhatten. "She has made the most of Pixel Vision."

Eric Saks and Pat Tierney have produced a maddening modern day Pixel Vision shadow puppet drama, Don From Lakewood (1989), which takes as its starting point recordings of a series of actual phone calls, made to a much beleaguered and bewildered furniture salesman who is slow to come to the realization that he is part of an extended prank call. Both caller and salesmen are represented by shadow puppets, with monstrous phone cables and elongated background sofas playing out a version of Dr. Caligari caught in a modern suburban wasteland. Pixel Vision makes a certain perverse sense here; watching the struggle of Don trying to acquire a used sofa can be seen as storytelling on a Neo-Expressionist cave wall. There is something familiar in the shadow puppets; they are evocative of another era and a forgotten way of imparting information—while the story they tell is one of modern verbal entrapment and telephonic abuse.

For Saks the camera elicits an experimental attitude, an investigative quality. "There is a psychological difference between a $100 Fisher-Price camera and a camcorder," he says. "The PXL-2000 is Buck Rogers' idea of a camera. Working with the camera gives you the advantage of working on the frontier."

It is interesting to find a product so ill—suited to contemporary high-tech consumer demands that is still able to answer some vague inner desire, a magic toy that restores a certain human vitality to the overpowering technology of video. The PXL-2000 falls at the intersection of garden variety surveillance cameras, early silent film, and an anarchistic cinéma vérité. McElhatten believes that the PXL-2000 ha s "a grounded, immediate relationship to how images are gathered that isn't dramatic," and that this has allowed it to become "a real bridge between film and video. Pixel Vision doesn't have any of the aspects of video that seem forbidding or banal." Or, as Fagin puts it, "The PXL-2000 represents a coming together of film and video—a sort of crossover space, a demilitarized zone which allows cross fertilization between film and video."

With a tenuous existence lodged somewhere between a Super-8 camera and a tape recorder, the PXL-2000 would seem incapable of effecting a cultural revolution. But the tiny camera provokes a much needed reflection on the recent evolution of film and video. It provide a sense of being able to start again; a claim that is easily overlooked and dismissed given the current escalation of technology. The PXL-2000 is a "failed" toy that possesses a strange magic, somehow suggesting a beginning and, for some, the ultimate dis­ avowal of technological determinism.

Erika Suderburg is an artist and critic. She is currently on the faculty of the University of California at Riverside.