Part of a bigger picture

13 April 2017

Lilith Wozniak and Ben Kulvichit discuss their reaction to Pixels and sci-fi theatre in general


Ben: So, Place was a piece of art hosted on reddit on earlier this month, in which users placed coloured pixels onto a blank canvas over the course of 72 hours.

What emerged was an improvised collage of text, recreations of paintings, brand logos, flags, block colour, creeping black holes. Tribes of collaborators forming in corners, drawing battle lines, making revisions, destroying other people's work.

The basic unit of the digital image as creative tool, as weapon, as information, as statements of individual identity that en masse form a cumulative portrait of a community, of cultural memory, of creative and destructive desires – Nothing is Coming, the Pixels are Huge is almost the theatrical embodiment of this. Its five voices build worlds and pull at their delicate seams until they lose their structural integrity – the universe of Pixels is full of inaccuracies, echoes, amendments, glitches, noise.

Lilith: There’s something about pixels (both the show and the things themselves) that contain rich metaphorical depth. The idea of being seen and not being seen, of a something or someone being completely invisible because the medium we use to view it is inadequate – the pixels are huge. I saw in the piece parallels with THE BEST PIECE OF ART EVER – Hito Steyerl’s How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic .mov File.

One of those things is the massive range of possible interpretations and connections to be made from the pieces; as I sat there I found myself thinking not only about Silicon Valley types hoping to live for ever through machines, but about the possible upcoming information dark age, about the inadequacy of our online presences and how they’re read – especially by analysts breaking up data and recombining it to sell us porn or tell if we’re criminals – about the inadequacy also of our physical memories, the ones stored in our heads not in hard drives, which create false memories and break down our recollections the more we try to think of them.

Ben: Yeah! The reoccurring motifs in the text of Pixels are interesting in that regard. We keep coming back to job redundancy, repurposed buildings, death, states of change, loss and flux – it's almost like an elegy for the future – but it all highlights the same kind of inherent violence in image-making.

The image-making here is never physically, materially realised – it exists in the space between the imagined images created by the text and which manifest themselves in the audience's minds, and the blank-canvas cardboard boxes with block colours projected on to them.

These are always inadequate stand-ins, surrogates for an infinitely malleable reality that is violently wrought into existence through retrospective speculation/prediction/prognostication (or *projection*, if you like – wahay!) ((((and there's an interesting contrast here in using as robustly lo-fi a material as cardboard as a proxy for pixels [i'm really having fun with alliteration here], the primary material of the digital age and of the future)))). The making of an image, or recording of a memory, or uploading information on to a hard drive might be as destructive or erasive an act as it is one of invention or preservation.

Lilith: Particularly if the information is incomplete but presented as being an authentic authority of total truth – something big data companies share with school history books. I loved the use of the boxes as the pixels – something about the emptiness of the data a pixel presents. Just like a cardboard box, it's empty. (I particularly felt this when one of the characters talked of scratching off the wallpaper like she did as a child but finding nothing underneath.)

It felt like they were more as well – stacked at the back they were like banks of servers storing our information, as well as our old books and clothes and knick-knacks in the attic. They also felt, in a very literal way, like they were the boxes that our identities are broken down into, in order to fit into categories and be more easily processed.

Ben: On the subject of stacking, I loved the way that the text functions in parallel with the boxes – fragments that, through repetition and addition, amount to a larger picture. They're text-pixels – unremarkable details gaining weight and profundity.

There's undoubtedly influence here from Forced Entertainment in the way they play with extended lists, taking a rule or sentence structure (think the questions in Quizoola! or the confessions in Speak Bitterness) and push it to its extreme.

That last section where they itemise the boxes as memory-possessions (“This is every person I've lost”, “This is every diet I went on”, “This is every job I had”) goes on for a Long Time, but it exerts a kind of mesmeric power – they're incredibly measured in their performances, they take their time, hold pauses, move at a studied adagio.

It's the culmination of this kind of haunted, melancholy tone that permeates the whole piece, and which tonally offsets the sci-fi premise – it feels less like a speculative fiction and more like an elegy for a future that has already past. You kind of buy into the Black Mirror-esque technocratic dystopia stuff because it's already happened; it's fact in the world of the performance, and what the show embodies is, as you were saying, this hollowness that follows after that, after uploading, after forgetting, after dying.

Lilith: I agree (except the implied dig at the tone of science fiction, you snob).

Ben: No dig implied! It's more the technophobia throw-your-phones-in-the-river judgey thing that I don't like about things like Black Mirror, but I didn't feel that at all in Pixels, despite it having a similar kind of conceptual content – anyway, I'll stop hijacking your paragraph now, soz.

Lilith: I am unashamedly enthusiastic about sf theatre and I think Pixels is the kind of thing that shows why. The unexpected and experimental theatrical techniques served to create complex and multiplex metaphors, but also to introduce narrative and world in an exciting and subtle way.

It’s the kind of sci-fi and the kind of theatre that isn’t just saying “we shouldn’t put our brains in machines lol”, but confronting our world in a nuanced way. I feel like this is the kind of show in which what you see is different depending on your own context, much like how the format, the machine, the processing of digital images changes what we see.

What I saw was something that may not have provided much hope for the world, but provided a lot for theatre, and I loved it.


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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato