Once upon a time when I lived in San Francisco (circa 1987-1992), I often attended screenings at Artist Television Access (ATA) on Valencia Street in the Mission District. This venerable artist-run organization, which continues to operate to this day, was one of my favorite destinations for artistically and culturally important media. At that time I was working at Apple by day and exploring cinematic language and making short experimental films using Super8 film on nights and weekends. There was one particular evening at Artist Television Access that I recall as the night I came to appreciate the expressive potential of the video medium through a prescient glimpse at the future of personal media making.
On the program, one night in 1989 was Me and Rubyfruit (Sadie Benning, 1990) a video diary shot with a Fisher-Price PXL 2000 (a.k.a. Pixelvision) camera that Benning received as a present from her father, an experimental filmmaker. The video consists of a dialog between two sides of Benning’s personality intercut with shots of her bedroom. She comments on her unhappiness, sexual awakening, and the prospect of lesbian love. Morris (1999) provides a good review of the film contextualized with her other work.
The Pixelvision was a toy camcorder introduced by Fisher-Price in the late 1980s that sold for around a hundred dollars. Very few people bought them, but artists and filmmakers fell in love with its gritty, low-resolution imagery that it recorded onto audio cassette tapes. Its name, of course, coming from the unique pixelated low-res look. These cameras have sold over the years for as high as $1,000, though one appeared recently on eBay for $65.
The use of a toy camera to produce a personal video diary was quite original when Me and Rubyfruit first circulated through the art film/video community. At the intersection of experimental cinema and personal documentary, the film exemplifies the spirit of Alexandre Astruc’s caméra-stylo and is still fresh today. In 1948 Astruc imagined that cinema would eventually break free of the demands of classical narrative and images and would become a flexible means of writing with the same expressive power, complexity, and subtly, of written language (Astruc, 1968).
The pixellated images are well suited for depicting a fragmented character that floats in and out of the frame, with her audio commentary as the camera pans across textual materials in macro close-up. I remember how delightful and engrossing it was to watch for the first time, and I loved the gritty video image. I was excited by the liberating potential of working in a medium that did not require sending cartridges or cans off to the film lab and paying a pretty penny for film and processing, not to mention the hours spicing and re-splicing the film during the editing process. This was an inflection point, video was available to media makers at a price point that made it possible to experiment, take risks, video was becoming a media form within the reach of most people. I recall talking about this film and the potential it represented that night over dinner with my friend Eric, an astute cinéaste, it has left an indelible mark in my psyche.
Without access to the inexpensive Pixelvision camera, Benning might not have begun making short films at the age of fifteen. Two years later she came out as a lesbian, becoming a cause celebre in the queer community. Me and Rubyfruit is a beautiful example reminding us that expression and emotional resolution are more important than technical qualities and that experimental film and video (and documentary for that matter) benefits when more people have access to the medium when more people can create moving images with the same, or similar, ease of writing.
The PXL-2000 was well ahead of its time. While it would be many years before editing would catch up to cameras in terms of accessibility, the democratization of media was well on its way. Today we see the spirit of the PXL-2000 reflected in the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras, inexpensive video camcorders, and the cornucopia of personal videos on YouTube. What are you going to say with your camera today?
Astruc, Alexandre (1968). “The birth of a new avant-garde: La caméra-stylo,” in Peter Graham, ed., The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, Secker & Warburg, pp. 17-23, doi: 10.1080/10848770.2012.699323.
Benning, Sadie (1990). Me and Rubyfruit, 05:30, English, B&W, Mono, 4:3, Pixelvision video, available on Sadie Benning Videoworks: Volume 1 (Video Data Bank, 1990).
Morris, Gary (1999). “Behind the Mask, Sadie Benning’s Pixel Pleasures,” Bright Lights Film Journal 24, article.