In colour

13 April 2017

Pixels is a visual and technical triumph, but its retro sci-fi tropes don't speak to Lily James


I watched Nothing is Coming, the Pixels are Huge with the Club Tropicana night in mind and it was just as retro. For a play with such innovative processes and tech, the images are as old and camp as anything. It’s a real throwback of a dystopia. The artist’s fear of the high-rise has been spoken aloud since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927: the tiny apartment blocks, the pleasure gardens, the plastic faces. The grey roll-necks, too: last seen in any pastiche of the genre from Futurama to Red Dwarf.

A student show that makes the audience gasp with delight at the excellence and intelligence of its industrial magic is rare and special. David Callanan’s tech is not just slick, but witty and self-referential: the set pretends to be just cardboard, and then turns out to be anything but. It flies in the face of the expectations of student theatre. Even the marks taped to the floor look like a ground map of Pompeii, runes.

But. The built images don’t speak to me, or scare me. Brutalist architecture means utopian social projects, Ragnar Kjartansson’s rowboat on the Barbican lake, the video for Skepta’s "Shutdown". Higher buildings, integrated restaurants, community gardens: sign me up. But please can my roll-neck jumper be yellow or something.

It’s cluttered, referencing pollution, plastic surgery, meat shortages, automation, synth autonomy, urban planning, class gaps, rioting, extinction. I’ve spoken to people who didn’t feel preached to but I do: if Pixels is a dystopia, pick a singular issue and take it to its endgame. The environmental impact of reduced housing and population density in cities would have been fine.

If it’s not a dystopia, but a neutral projection of an imagined future, why is it so relentlessly negative? To say “I was born in the wrong era” and to not mean the future is an abdication of any care about anything but aesthetics. In Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker suggests that “cosmopolitanism”, the urbanisation of our attitudes and cultures, is making us kinder, wiser and more connected. I wish this was at least looked to in Pixels.

The pacing of this piece would work if it wasn’t a play and instead was an installation that you could walk around, in, and out of. As it is, it drags.

During final scenes, every “this is” drops like a very heavy stone into a very deep pool. It’s rhythmic, but pedantic. This is every time I wanted you to speed up stacking boxes. The boxes are fragile and the marks they must be placed on specific: I get it. But it’s achingly slow. With no strong musical motif except vague whirring strings, and no confident differentiation between the lives of each character, it looked like a mobile phone advert.

There’s not enough poetry. The boxes they bring up are cliché, the writing over-focused on dramatic dichotomy: “this is every time I left/this is every time I stayed.”

When the boxes are used like pieces in Minecraft, it’s utterly captivating: the making of a sofa, of apartment stairs, of little lakes and buildings. I’m surprised in the final scene they never play with scale: where is the visual gag of bringing on an enormous box for “this is every time I watched porn”?

This is every time I laughed (imagine a tiny, tiny box).

Put it in a warehouse, and let people wander. Framing it in a more neutral and less didactic space than an auditorium would have reduced its sombre tone down to something more speculative and impartial.

In Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, there is an episode in which after death, you are uploaded to the cloud. Most people choose to spend their time in a faded seaside town that hosts an 80s disco every night. What an unfamiliar, terrifying future for participants of NSDF.


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