Monday, March 2, 2009

Hammond's Arcana wins Gold Medal of Excellence

Special Note: Judith Bernanke, composer of the soundtracks to Erewhon Films shorts Hammond’s Arcana, or the Paradise of Birds (2007) and The Trimorphic Hypotheses (2008) just won the Gold Medal Of Excellence from the Park City Film Music Festival in Park City, Utah, in January 2009 for Hammond’s Arcana. Congratulations to Ms. Bernanke and we look forward to many more musical collaborations in future projects.

PXL THIS 18 (2008)

CATEGORY: experimental narrative
LENGTH: 17:30
TITLE: The Trimorphic Hypotheses

A ludic and quizzical short about one man’s search for the many dimensions of the universe and the screen. A loose adaptation of an idea known as “Concerning the topological deformation thesis in the phenomenology of parallel realities,” Ashby and Parkhurst conclude their ‘pataphysical trilogy with a hypothetical fiction about the clichés of science and science fiction. Inspired by the low-budget aesthetics of the B movie or sci-fi television series of the 1960s, this short imagines what it might have been like if Teshigahara had directed an episode of Lost In Space. Starring the ever-popular “scientist” and props made out of makeshift detritus and discarded washing machine parts, we are now in a position to make nostalgic psychotronica with the most economical of means. In an oblique tribute to the short-lived but immensely influential 3-camera / 3-projector system of Fred Waller’s “cinerama” process, Ashby & Parkhurst create a widescreen, PXL*RAMA extravaganza for the PXL THIS 18 Film Festival.

The Trimorphic Hypotheses is the conclusion to the ’pataphysical trilogy begun with Ashby & Parkhurst’s 2006 entry to the PXL THIS 16 Film Festival. Although well-received for Somnigraphic Traces of the Otherwise Undocumented Friedkin Institute for Sleep Disorder Research, and then followed by 2007’s entry, Hammond’s Arcana, or The Paradise of Birds, it was decided to cease making PXL-films because of other projects in development. However, the insistence of PXL THIS founder Gerry Fialka proved too persuasive to refuse. While developing a database cinema installation project known tentatively as The Surveyor, Ashby & Parkhurst decided that the PXL THIS venue offered an opportunity to test out some ideas for the installation project. The Surveyor was already beginning to interrogate some aspects of New Zealand’s artistic concerns with “landscape” which can be found in much of its creative work throughout its history, from painting to literature to film. The Surveyor began as a means to explore the colonial notion of “the land” by focusing on a character who “measures” the land through surveying, a potent metaphor for the gridding off and construction of a domesticated nature. Huge tracts of New Zealand wilderness were historically cleared for farming, particularly for the raising of livestock. The Trimorphic Hypotheses took on a life of its own and instead began to tap into notions of “alien landscape” still using very particular New Zealand locales for the topography. The “surveyor” from the work in development became “the scientist,” a figure who mysteriously and obsessively performs some kinds of unexplained experiments in the landscape with strange results. As in the previous PXL entry, the project became much more complex than anticipated and took a little over 10 weeks to produce, but has resulted in a work that will hopefully amuse the PXL enthusiast while remaining somewhat cinematically unique in the spirit of the previous two Erewhon Films PXLworks.

Although having rejected an optional “Twilight Zone” approach in the previous PXLwork during its inception, the new work returns to the childhood memories of watching cheesy B&W science fiction on television in the 1960s and 1970s. The B&W, splotchy and grainy texture of PXL video seemed ideal for exploring those memories of old, public domain ‘50s B-movie sci-fi in television broadcasts and series like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and the first season of Lost In Space among many others. With their eerily electronic soundtracks, bizarre alien contraptions, and low-budget special effects, today’s most basic consumer video equipment and digital editing / effects software makes it completely possible to make no-budget work at home that looks about as equally unconvincing but reassuringly familiar as those old television-watching experiences from childhood.

The work began, as last year, in August with some test shooting at a local beach to see how convincing a few bits and pieces of wood, aluminum, plastic, and wire or some discarded television roof antennae could become an instant “neutrino detector” or “electro-magnetic inducer” etc. Foregoing, as the first two PXLs did with any dialogue or script as such, the work tries to engage the audience with its visual oddity and strangely reminiscent sound design and stylistic references to the genre. As with Hammond’s Arcana, Ashby & Parkhurst found the incredibly chunky look and lack of detail of PXLvision video in anything other than human subjects in extreme close-up to be problematic. PXL is not well-suited to landscape work, yet this was going to be an important part of the look of the piece. A discussion about various attempts to work with a video “triptych” ensued, both Ashby & Parkhurst discovering that they had each had this notion prior to knowing each other and were both quite taken with the possibility. As with Hammond’s Arcana, the perceptual resolution of PXLvideo can be dramatically improved by artificially squeezing down the screen size in digital editing. This normally means a huge amount of wasted black space around the image. With Hammond’s Arcana, the solution was to have multiple small screens all over the larger screen in the form of an imaginary, illuminated book of some kind.

With The Trimorphic Hypotheses, three smaller PXLscreens were lined up horizontally to make a widescreen-like aspect ratio and three panels of (not always so) synchronised video. The work was shot with this knitted-together, three-screen idea in mind and both matched and subverted at various points throughout the work. In the end, the work became an admiring nod to Fred Waller’s famous “cinerama” process of the 1950s which the filmmakers irreverently named PXL*RAMA.

The work is loosely inspired by a sketch of a sci-fi film idea about an alien landscape called The Last Outpost and a graphic novel idea tentatively called “Concerning the topological deformation thesis in the phenomenology of parallel realities” after a dream from 2005. In the original story, a character discovers that parallel realities share a lot of similarities but that subtle shifts take place, primarily with other characters and settings. The premise was vaguely reminiscent of a curious Outer Limits episode titled “The Borderland” (1963) in which an experimental scientist finds himself caught between two different spatial dimensions and sees two simultaneous but distinct, overlapping landscapes: one in the experimental lab where the device is being tested, and in a strange, alien, rocky and desolate landscape in the parallel reality. The underlying premise in this formulation was that parallel realities may spatially co-exist, but their actual topographies / topologies may be distorted in the different dimensions.

It seemed only fitting to appropriate the wonderfully pretentious notion of the “trilogy” to wrap up our PXLcontributions. As part of the tripartite structure, the concept of “three” was literalized in the final work — three screens, in the title, in the props and actions, in the locations, etc. While Hammond’s Arcana was described as a “’pataphysical satire,” it was decided that the entire trilogy, which had all been produced using a similar but unconventional methodology, should be seen as a group and hence the ’pataphysical trilogy was born. The concept of ’Pataphysics can be traced back to the works of early modernist iconoclast, Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). Jarry is most famous for the proto-theatre-of-the-absurd Ubu plays, but he wrote a particularly interesting work he described as “a neo-scientific novel” entitled The Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician (c.1895 but not published until 4 years after his death.) At another point in his life, he suggested that the novel might be referred to as “a hypothetical fiction” which we have borrowed for the subtitle of The Trimorphic Hypotheses. In Exploits and Opinions, Jarry defines ’pataphysics as “the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments” (p. 22 in the Exact Change English edition 1996). Jarry states that “pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general” (21) and that ’pataphysics “will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one.” In some respects, one could argue that Jarry has already invented surrealism with this statement, and the Dadaists and Surrealists will embrace Jarry as a founding father of an alternative reality to modernity.

Canadian poet Christian Bök has discussed ’pataphysics the most thoroughly in his book ’Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science (2002). In this book, Bök points out the three principles of the ’pataphysical exception: 1) Anomalos: The Principle of Variance; 2) Syzygia: The Principle of Alliance; and 3) Clinamen: The Principle of Deviance. If ’pataphyiscs is the philosophy of the exception, then these are the three techniques for achieving it. All of the Erewhon Films PXLproductions have been loosely made under parallel circumstances. They have not been pre-planned in the usual film production sense and have been made spontaneously as they go. This is in complete variance to the recommended method of making films. Additionally, each Erewhon PXLfilm has made some attempt to explode the usual visual language of PXLvision as well as offer three completely different visual treatments. In terms of source texts for the three PXLfilms, the filmmakers have freely collected various materials and ideas, some quite arbitrarily but embraced as inevitable. If syzygia in Jarry and much avant-garde French literature is founded on the “pun,” the trilogy’s alliance is with intertexts and sources loosely adapted and transformed: Dean Motter’s Mister X comic in Somnigraphic Traces, the tradition of bird-people illustrations and visionary books in Hammond’s Arcana, and with the derided but quaint world of the science fiction genre film treated ironically as the Euro-art film in The Trimorphic Hypotheses. All of this has also been done in the context of chance operations and serendipity, following the swerve from idea to idea without looking back or exercising conventional reason. In one sense, the filmmakers have asked an imaginary question: What would a ’pataphysical film look like? Unlike most of the other major modern arts movements (Naturalism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, et cetera), ’pataphysics has never had an equivalent historical example of filmmaking (the closest modern example might be the experimental music videos of The Residents and Ralph Records in the early 1980s), so we have provided the imaginary answer to such a non-question. As later ’pataphysicians have expanded on the basic idea, Pablo Lopez coined a new ’pataphysical term, “the pataphor”:

As Jarry claimed that 'pataphysics existed "as far from metaphysics as metaphysics extends from regular reality," a pataphor attempts to create a figure of speech that exists as far from metaphor as metaphor exists from non-figurative language. Whereas a metaphor is the comparison of a real object or event with a seemingly unrelated subject in order to emphasize the similarities between the two, the pataphor uses the newly created metaphorical similarity as a reality with which to base itself. In going beyond mere ornamentation of the original idea, the pataphor seeks to describe a new and separate world, in which an idea or aspect has taken on a life of its own.

Like 'pataphysics itself, pataphors essentially describe two degrees of separation from reality (rather than merely one degree of separation, which is the world of metaphors and metaphysics). The pataphor may also be said to function as a critical tool, describing the world of "assumptions based on assumptions," such as belief systems or rhetoric run amok. The following is an example.

Tom and Alice stood side by side in the lunch line.

Tom and Alice stood side by side in the lunch line, two pieces on a chessboard.

Tom took a step closer to Alice and made a date for Friday night, checkmating. Rudy was furious at losing to Margaret so easily and dumped the board on the rose-colored quilt, stomping downstairs.

Thus, the pataphor has created a world where the chessboard exists, including the characters who live in that world, entirely abandoning the original context (Wikipedia)

If one rereads this explanation of the pataphor in a genre fiction context, it could just as easily be a definitive description of fantasy and science fiction, genres which take literally an entirely imaginary world and narrate within that context as if it were the given context. While it might be said that science fiction has often had an allegorical function and therefore returns it to its metaphorical roots, it is by no means necessary, and in fact, the more primitive the B-movie versions of science fiction, the less they have to prove or argue; they simply are what they are: tacky, escapist entertainment with little anchors in reality as we usually think of it. This particularly notable “willing suspension of disbelief” has been well-discussed by film genre theorist Steve Neale in his essay “’You’ve Got To Be Fucking Kidding!’ Knowledge, Belief and Judgement in Science Fiction” (in Annette Kuhn, Ed., Alien Zone, 1990: 160-168). It is equally fitting for Gerry Fialka’s subversive but joyful PXL THIS Film Festival. As Fialka often points out, one must be willing to suspend one’s value judgments when viewing PXLfilms because they come from a parallel reality with different sets of criteria and artistic intention than much other cinema. They create their own context. If Fialka likes to call the PXL THIS Film Festival a “genuine fake film festival,” we prefer to think of it as a hypothetical film festival, an imaginary film festival, in other words, a clearly ’pataphysical film festival. Fialka says we must consider the effects of such media, not its meaning as such. In that spirit, we have always attempted to directly confront the effects of digital media through a subversive and dishonest approach to PXLfilmmaking. We question both the aesthetic assumptions of current digital media and film culture as well as put into question the status and ontology of work produced with the Fisher Price PXL 2000 camcorder. All three of our PXLfilms have been partially fantastic or science fiction-oriented. While this was never the original intention (the clinamen clearly rules here), it is only fitting that these three works are pataphorical in that Lopez sense. In our final PXLfilm, we finally abandon ourselves to the effects and go with the flow.

For this PXlfilm, we have rejected the use of conventional “music” for the most part. As in Hammond’s Arcana, Judith Bernanke constructs a soundtrack that may have a compositional structure to it, but without the usual musical elements (such as melody, regular rhythms, etc.) associated with traditional scoring. The sound texture is inspired by the goofy electronic sounds of science fiction, from the theremins of Herrmann’s brilliant score for The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) to the bizarre synthetic sounds of the Barrons’ groundbreaking Forbidden Planet (1956), and the raucous space-sounds of 1960s’ television series like The Outer Limits and Lost In Space. Thanks to friends and colleagues, the sound designers and editors were able to borrow a vintage Korg MS-20 analog synthesizer as well as a modern knock-off DIY kit for a theremin, and additionally utilized the digital sample-based sounds of the software synthesizers inside Logic Pro to generate the sound textures for the work. Devices and locations have their own abstract form of the leitmotif which serves to reflect the film’s atmosphere as well as structure. The use of found music for the “bookends” of the film highlight the reflexive and absurd dimensions of the work as well.

The key to the visual language of the work comes from the application of a three-screen “cinerama” style, carefully edited and constructed by Struan Ashby. This required much careful planning in the initial location shoots with the knowledge that this would have to be re-constructed in three panels later. Inspired by a particularly “poor” copy of How The West Was Won (1962), one of the most famous of the original cinerama narrative features that Parkhurst happens to own, the obvious “joins” of the three screens were amplified rather than hidden in the PXL*RAMA work and became central to the idea of the unfolding of the protagonist’s situation, escalating toward the end. The work was shot in three main, distinctive, but rather desolate locations: Wainuiomata Beach in eastern Wellington, the Foxton Beach sand dunes northwest of Wellington, and on the top of windswept Boulder Hill, part of the Belmont Regional Park in the northern Wellington suburb of Lower Hutt where the two filmmakers’ families currently reside. Ashby’s neighbor and physicist / computer programmer Andrew Holster authentically plays “The Scientist” with fabulous resolve and a stone face as remarkable as Buster Keaton’s for the film. Most of the original footage was shot with a Sony HDV camcorder on location with a few special effects shots produced in the Massey University Media Studio, and then reprocessed in post with the usual “PXLvision reduction”™ method the filmmakers have developed for all three of their PXLworks. Narratively, everything is pure suggestion: the protagonist goes about his serious business which is completely readable on the one hand yet totally opaque on the other, wielding a variety of fantastic scientific devices lovingly cajoled into existence by Struan Ashby’s imaginative carpentry. There are three locations with three sets of instruments — radio wave, optical, and electro-magnetic — as well as three climactic moments — a migraine attack, a fainting spell, and a mysterious final episode which leads out of the film. The plot is otherwise open to interpretation with some sense that the percepts of time-space are fragmenting, merging, and exploding.

Does this mark the end of the ’pataphysical PXLcinema? “’Ha-ha!’ said Bosse-de-Nage,” only time will tell.

PostScript... for press stills, here are a few frames from the original, High Def footage:

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Best of PXL THIS

Gerry Fialka, founder of the PXL THIS Film Festival in 1991, has been putting together a touring selection of "best shorts" for some years now. The latest incarnation covers PXL THIS 13-16 (2003-2006) and collects highlights from these years. Fialka's enthusiasm for the Erewhon shorts has convinced him to include Hammond's Arcana, Or The Paradise Of Birds from PXL THIS 17 (2007) in the touring collection throughout 2008 and 2009. Erewhon Films is pleased to have been well-received and we are hoping he will include our PXL THIS 18 short as well in future versions of this collection.

'Pataphysical New Zealand

In the ‘Pataphysical map of the world, like the Surrealists’ psychogeographies, certain spaces are “blank” as such, the most glaring of which was probably the country of Canada. This “planosphere of the pataphysical world” comes from the 1960, What Is ‘Pataphysics? special issue of the Evergreen Review (V4 N13). This map struck a cord with certain avant-garde poets and artists in Canada because of the fact that Canada was completely blank, an unknown country. From our point of view, the other serious omission is that the country of New Zealand is also completely blank, just southeast of Australia, where there is currently even an Institute for ‘Pataphysical Studies. These Canadians followed up by adopting a new College de Pataphysique in their native country, celebrated in typically absurdist fashion in a special issue (V4 N6/7, 1980-81) of Open Letter, one of the finest avant-garde, critical journals of contemporary poetry in the Anglophone world. The informative introduction to this issue of Open Letter was presented by the Toronto Research Group, mainly consisting of Steve McCaffery and bpNichol, and can be read in reprinted form in their Rational Geomancy collection (Talonbooks, 1992). In this investigation of a possible Canadian ‘pataphysics, McCaffery describes a super-inducement of a super-inducement, hence the double apostrophe at the beginning of Canadian ‘’Pataphysics. For our purposes, we might have to add yet another super-inducement, a New Zealand ‘’’Pataphysics, but suffice it to say, there has never been a formal presence in New Zealand. However, upon completing the second of our PXL THIS shorts in 2007, we began to describe Hammond’s Arcana as a “’pataphysical satire” and this has since raised some interesting questions about what it means for us to also be blank on the planospheric map. We have thus recontextualized all three of our PXL THIS shorts as a ‘Pataphysical Trilogy for the purposes of this rethinking of our project. In a country rather sparsely populated (both people and filmmakers) there are a few candidates for ‘pataphysical inclusion such as the experimental videographer Snake Beings and the experimental film festival operating in Hamilton among a few others.

From our point of view, and this is particularly apt in regards to the usual means of filmmaking, ‘pataphysics for us is primarily about a methodology (this is better explained in the entry on our third PXL THIS short from 2008). All three of these shorts have been constructed in rather associative and lateral ways with very few preconceptions and plans as such. They “wandered” into the form they currently take and there has been something quite revelatory and liberating about making moving image works in this manner.

While Hammond’s Arcana was identified as celebrating the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Huia, it is also the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Jarry. In the ‘pataphysical world, that sort of coincidence is not frivolous in the least.

PXL THIS 17 (2007)

CATEGORY: experimental narrative
LENGTH: 9:50
TITLE: Hammond’s Arcana, or The Paradise of Birds

A glimpse into the strange world of The Book Of Hammond, the Reverend W. D. Hammond's heretical but visionary prophecy. The work can be described as a ’pataphysical satire on identity crisis and cultural discourses of post-colonial New Zealand and its obsession with the environmental and ideological symbolic values of the bird in the New Zealand imagination. It is presented on the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Huia, a unique indigenous bird which met its demise c.1907. It is loosely inspired by the anthropomorphic bird paintings of Bill Hammond (b.1947), an iconic artist of postmodern New Zealand art who has spawned a whole subculture of bird art (for example, Max Podstolski’s The Primitive Bird Group in Christchurch). It is presented as an interpretation of the fictional outsider artist and the Hammondnite religious cult leader the Reverend W. D. Hammond (1816-1901) and his visionary prophecy, The Paradise of Birds, aka The Book Of Hammond dictated to him by the great Huia Spirit ariki which came to him in a vision c.1847 on the shores and forests of the Auckland Islands. Hammond is imagined as a speculative cross between William Blake and the Reverend Howard Finster or equivalent. It recounts the three sections of the Book of Hammond in an illustrated form. Long live ornithosophy!

Hammond’s Arcana, or The Paradise of Birds is a highly questionable follow-up to Ashby & Parkhurst’s 2006 entry to the PXL THIS 16 Film Festival. Having been relatively well-received for Somnigraphic Traces of the Otherwise Undocumented Friedkin Institute for Sleep Disorder Research, and being encouraged by PXL THIS founder Gerry Fialka to enter again in the PXL THIS 17 Film Festival, Ashby & Parkhurst began work on what was hoped to be a shorter and simpler piece for 2007’s festival. A variety of straight-forward scenarios were discussed and continued to play with the ongoing idea that the Fisher-Price PXL 2000 toy camcorder was particularly good at “representing” what might be perceived as an alternate reality. A fairly unambitious set up involving some kids who find a “hole in the space-time continuum” and insert a camcorder into this dimensional portal to see what is on the other side was duly concocted. We then had to decide what it was they might be seeing in this alternative reality and Parkhurst had been particularly interested in the idea of “bird people” or ornitho-sapiens and their culture. This quickly escalated into a conceptual meditation on the “bird” in New Zealand, maybe something (after Susan Sontag) one might call “the ornithological imagination.” In the end, this became much more complex a production piece than the PXL THIS 16 entry to everyone’s dismay, but was followed through nonetheless, taking about three times as long as the PXL THIS 16 entry to complete. While Parkhurst has referred to the work as a “metaphysical satire on post-Colonial New Zealand and its obsession with birds” it might be just as appropriate to call it a “’pataphysical satire” since it does make some attempt as a science of imaginary solutions.

After rejecting the more conventional “Twilight Zone” approach of the original plan, the new work became more exclusively about this bird world as we could imagine it. Utilizing a variety of references in New Zealand history and culture, the new work emerged out of a satirical meditation on both the technology of Pixelvision and the discourse of birds in the country. It is difficult to overstate the symbolic significance of the bird in the New Zealand imagination and a huge amount of its natural conservation involves trying to rid the islands of dangerous, introduced species (small mammals such as rats, mice, brush-tail possums, stoats, domestic cats, and so on). New Zealand had no indigenous land mammals except for a rare bat and a huge percentage of the ecosystem was occupied by birds, many of which were flightless and some which were uniquely extreme (the largest bird of prey, the Haast Eagle and largest known bird the Moa and many others were indigenous to New Zealand that are now extinct). Huge resources are spent each year trying to protect and breed rare and endangered birds throughout New Zealand, clearing smaller outlying islands of all mammal predators and relocating birds to these remote areas. The national bird, the Kiwi, is itself rare and has become an icon of New Zealand having gained status as the colloquial vernacular term for a New Zealander.

The work began in late August as a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio video presentation and through a discussion of possible cropping of the image down to its actual image area (the Pixelvision video sits at about 75% of the full NTSC image area because of its low resolution, 90 X 120 pixel CCD and is normally bordered all around with black). This meant reducing the size of the final screen or blowing up the 75% image to 100% and increasing its pixellated character which is incredibly ugly under normal circumstances. While the so-called “folk video art” of the low res Pixelvision suits some filmmakers very well, it was not considered aesthetically viable for complex video work (the work being basically wasted on the low res image) so it was decided to use even smaller video windows inside a larger 16:9 aspect ratio / widescreen space. This was achieved by treating the approximately 854 X 480 pixel area of DV-NTSC as if it were a kind of “page” space in a book of some kind of which the Pixelvision video itself served as a kind of video-illustration. From this premise was born the need to imagine a book of some sort that this video represents or interprets. The book was a conceptual construction of a lost, occult tome by a mad religious zealot named the Reverend W. D. Hammond (borrowed from Bill Hammond’s name as a tribute to his work). Parkhurst imagined this character as a strange cross between a visionary like William Blake and an outsider, religious artist such as the Reverend Howard Finster (1916-2001) and projected back 100 years to the early colonization of New Zealand by the English in the 19th C. As in the painting of Bill Hammond, various references to Walter Lawry Buller, the New Zealand equivalent of John James Audobon, was made as well as a number of other peculiar influences: everything from the “paleocontact” religions like Raëlism, Scientology, or the nutty theories of Erich von Däniken etc. to Parkhurst’s film school years in Athens, OH which has the quirky claim to fame of housing The Church of William Blake as well as to various cultural references such as Egyptian mythology and iconography (which also influenced Bill Hammond’s bird people paintings), Emily Young’s whimsical illustrations which adorned the covers of the cult postmodern chamber pop band The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Commedia dell’arte masks and traditions, silent cinema slapstick comedy, imaginary books of the dead like H. P. Lovecraft’s oft-cited, Cthulian Necronimicon, and so on. With this back story material, Parkhurst constructed the Hammondnite religion and its basic, heretical belief system (too complex and esoteric to summarize) and The Book of Hammond, the founding document upon which this church was established (vaguely reminiscent of something like Joseph Smith, Jr.’s The Book of Mormon and the divine “inspiration” he received from the angel Moroni or perhaps akin to The Book of Enoch based on the revelation to John Dee by the angels Annael and Uriel— Hammond’s “angel” was an anthropomorphic Huia bird spirit, easily mistaken for an angel if you think about it in the same way that Raëlism suggests that what were mistaken as angels — the Elohim — were actually travellers from outer space). As a representative of the lost race of ornitho-sapiens, this Huia ariki (Maori for “sage-chief” who is the preserver of music and poetry and cultural knowledge in the indigenous Polynesian traditions of Aotearoa-New Zealand) passed on the true story of the beginnings of the world which was inhabited by the birds who came down from the heavens and lived in the first paradise. This “text” is known as The Paradise of Birds and constitutes the wax cylinder recordings of W. D. Hammond heard in the film. The race of ornitho-sapiens are named the “Icarii” after the myth of Icarus and probably the most famous painting by Bill Hammond which rumor has it that it is going to be the centerpiece of an indie feature film shot in Christchurch in which the protagonist stares frequently at Hammond’s “Icarus” painting, a kind of New Zealand version of Jon Jost’s All The Vermeers in New York.

The reason I describe the work as a “'pataphysical satire” is because it is intended as a critique of bird mania and other cultural issues in New Zealand, but is also half serious as a kind of allegory of environmental destruction which is ever present in the New Zealand context. Many serious artists in New Zealand are quite fed up and annoyed with the bird mania found in so much artwork here now and so this starts to play off of this while also embracing the wonderfully archetypal potential of the ornithological imaginary.

Based on this fairly wacky premise, Ashby & Parkhurst initially shot “scenes” of bird people. Because the Pixelvision image is best suited for either extreme, intimate close-ups or basic silhouette compositions, Ashby & Parkhurst set up a variety of actions or scenes involving a kind of evolution of the ornitho-sapiens, backlit them, and shot them as medium long shot silhouettes for the most part. There is some ambiguity to whether or not the birds are displaced by the unseen colonizers (easily read in the New Zealand context though less clear outside of this context) or if they are a self-contained allegory of human social evolution and its potential extinction. About half of the scenes were shot in a large green-screen room so other footage could be composited in later, and another half shot at various, outlying Wellington locations (with handy, portable smoke machines in tow). The birdheads were constructed by Ashby and his spouse Erica Duthie from simple corrugated cardboard with some painted details and covered with a single layer of papier maché to hold them together. The basic costumes were long, winter overcoats which give a quite good “bird” silhouette with longish bodies but very short legs. As in Somnigraphic Traces produced for PXL THIS 16, most of the source footage was shot in DV-PAL and a lot of archival, public domain footage collected from sources such as as well as some shot by Ashby and layered together with the graphics. This footage was then brought into Final Cut Pro and composited into compositions / shots which were then reshot off of the LCD screen with the Pixelvision camcorder, re-imported into Final Cut Pro, and placed into new compositions involving a lot of “graphics” and other elements the filmmakers collected from various sources. Ashby designed the graphic feel of the “pages,” worked the video in, and edited the whole together into a series of three “books” that correspond roughly to Hammond’s book of revelations. The typographic elements were generated from a mash-up font that Parkhurst generated called “Avestren” which cobbles together two digital fonts, Fremen (the imaginary script associated with the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune, itself loosely based on “future” Arabic) and Avesta (a font of the Zoroastrian script), as well as a cryptic old Celtic calendar font called Beth-Luis-Nion which Ashby used as a framing graphic. Fragments of “rongorongo,” the Rapanui glyph language and only known written language among Polynesians also appear as illustrated elements, bringing to mind the bird cult and birdman religion of the post-Moai culture of Easter Island. This typography then becomes a kind of loose interpretation of the language of the ornitho-sapiens, and while a huge cheat in that sense, the obscurity of Fremen and Avesta and their unreadability for the most part, become pure abstract graphic form in the context of the “pages” and seemed to work very well for the mood of the piece.

Otherwise, the film is fairly straight forward involving three books or steps in the evolution of the bird world represented in the film: cosmic genesis and the first paradise (Book One: Revelation), social evolution of the culture of birds (Book Two: Epochs), and the final diaspora in which the birds can no longer survive in their poisoned world and leave to go to their final rest in “the garden” a kind of second paradise akin perhaps to Tolkien’s Grey Havens (Book Three: Exodus). Thus the film is really a fairly explicit linear telling of this chronicle but done without any dialogue as such, so the story must be garnered from the visual progression alone. The voice-over narration is meant to be original, wax cylinder recordings Hammond made in his final year, mostly readings from The Paradise of Birds. The tone of the sections of the chronicle are largely a result of the sonic and graphic treatment of the pages.

The main music was composed by Parkhurst’s spouse, Judith Bernanke, then the two of them recorded and arranged the music digitally in Logic Studio Pro, more or less synchronized (roughly) to the final edit. Most of the original music appears in Book Two: Epochs and Book Three: Exodus and is meant to be a loose reference to Nino Rota and a Fellini-esque tradition as well as to silent cinema. Book One: Revelation is a montage of primary Tibetan monk performances and a sound texture of other elements meant to convey the dawn of a kind of cosmic, primordial earth. All of the elements were then re-mixed and layered with additional audio back in Final Cut Pro, tweaked, exported, and mastered to DVD for the festival.

Parkhurst has tried to justify the formal approach to treating Pixelvision source video in the context of fairly high-tech digital video as a kind of “moving image syncretism.” His contention is that we need to be open to the idea that there are no “progressions” of technology in an artistic sense, only in the technical and methodological senses, and that we need to be more attentive to the way analog and digital, low res and high res, silent and sound, experimental and narrative, graphic and moving image, etc. techniques can be combined to achieve unique results that are not restricted to or by the technology as such. Like many of the crackpot religions the film satirizes, it also partakes of their strangely syncretic tendencies, combining arcane and divergent ideas and materials into a new, if ridiculous bricolage.


A country made for angels, not for men.
— James K. Baxter, from Collected Poems, 1980

The natives prize the bird very highly for its tail-feathers which are used as a badge of mourning.
— Sir Walter Lawry Buller, from A History of the Birds of New Zealand, 1888

We will mourn them for a hundred years, but they will not return. That is the way of the world.
— W. D. Hammond, from Spirit of the Huia, 1888

The last specimen bearing full and authentic data was collected in 1907.
— E. G. Turbott, from Buller’s Birds of New Zealand, 1967

Wax cylinder autograph by the Reverend W. D. Hammond:

It spares me no sorrow as this Earth gives way to the ravages of man. Has it all been for naught? Have I tragically failed in my ordained mission? I must try and keep faith in my precious book. Herein, where I have transcribed the revelation of the paradise of birds, resides my modest contribution to the world.

Excerpted from The Paradise of Birds, aka The Book of Hammond

Recitation by the Reverend W. D. Hammond c.1901

Noble race that has passed beyond,
Go from this bloodstained land,
Go from this blackened earth,
Go from the fallen giants of fond paradise.

Go to Kauri, Rimu, Nikau, and Matai,
To Ponga, Totara, and Tawhai.
Go into the garden that awaits you.

Go Kaka, Huia, Moa, and Kokako,
Go Koreke, Whekau, and Moho.
Leave us all behind.

PXL THIS 16 (2006)

CATEGORY: experimental narrative; database cinema
LENGTH: 14:23
FORMAT: NTSC DVD, B&W and Colour
TITLE: Somnigraphic Traces of the Otherwise Undocumented Friedkin Institute for Sleep Disorder Research

Dr. V. Vorlicek, an obscure neuro-psychological researcher at the Friedkin Clinic who worked with patients suffering from various types of sleep disorders, developed an experimental apparatus called a "Somnigraph" for recording actual dreams on cassettes for purposes of study, analysis, and therapy. Nothing much came of the technology in the short term but a number of boxes of tape recordings of these various dreams and their patient information was subsequently found. The tapes became the subject of an investigation into a series of unrelated missing tapes and "excerpts" of the somnigraphic material was produced as part of the investigators' general report. Potential interest in the technology was sparked by the discovery and review of the original tapes and discussion continued to evolve over the following 16 years.

Somnigraphic Traces of the Otherwise Undocumented Friedkin Institute for Sleep Disorder Research was a project specifically developed for the PXL THIS film festival. Parkhurst has been fond of the PXL 2000 for many years and has recently been using one of Patrick Gill's refurbished and modified cameras. Originally, Ashby and Parkhurst were considering something more conventionally narrative and even perhaps a narrative feature in the tradition of Michael Almereyda, but there has not been enough time to fully develop that project (maybe for a future festival). One of their former colleagues at the Massey University School of Design where both Ashby and Parkhurst currently teach, Terrence Handscomb, had an interesting experimental video art piece at PXL THIS 15 entitled The Revelation / The Passion According to Andrei and they were encouraged by Handscomb to produce one of their own for PXL THIS 16.

After struggling with various scenarios that could be developed in the limited amount of time they had, Ashby and Parkhurst slowly developed some approaches to the problem. They have been interested in a number of issues in film / video that became some of the infrastructure of the final piece, some pertaining to the art of film and its traditions, fine arts and design education, technology and new media, and conceptual problems of context itself. They have also recently been exploring the emerging genre of what Lev Manovich calls "database cinema" and running some experimental workshops with their students to explore this concept more fully. Parkhurst has long been interested in the aesthetics of "low-resolution" media of which Pixelvision video is particularly notable. Ashby and Parkhurst have further tried to explore alternative and experimental methods for working creatively with screen media and have been developing the "Synthetic Media and Screen Futures" graduate program at Massey University.

One of the curious methodological moments or "chance operations" that so enamoured John Cage and later Brian Eno for example, or utilization of extreme constraints on the artwork such as offered by the French OULIPO group, was a strange box of about 120 audio cassettes that Ashby came across at a Church Fair / Public Sale a few years ago. The cassettes were all carefully numbered and went into the 400s as well as having as many as four cassettes with the same numbers, suggesting a hidden but huge archive of lost audio cassettes from some mysterious but unknown collection. This box of cassettes became the "constraint" of the Pixelvision film's opening premise. The filmmakers then tried to imagine how such a box might be used.

The other important component of the constraints of the filmmaking process was the notion of the "impossible film." Both Ashby and Parkhurst had been particularly interested in this idea having seen a few recent, striking examples, most notably, the "psychic cursed video" from the Hollywood remake of The Ring. In the video, a common house fly seems to fly around the television and land on the monitor surface, perhaps attracted to the light; however, upon inspection, it turns out that this is not a fly landing on the television monitor, but is in fact part of the video itself, a second, removed reality beyond the ontology of possible video. Parkhurst has dubbed this phenomenon, in proper tribute to cognitive psychology, "ontological dissonance" since its moment of revelation is particularly emotive, not unlike a Freudian "uncanny" moment. From this evolved the idea that the Pixelvision film Ashby and Parkhurst were making must somehow play with the idea of "impossible video", a particularly interesting constraint in relation to the extreme technological limitations of the PXL 2000 camera itself.

A variety of self-reflexive, and more "structural" approaches to the film arose, but in the end, these were not original enough or aesthetically pleasing enough in themselves to sustain their interest. Instead, a narrative premise of what the impossible video might be a recording of emerged and initially became The Man Who Made Films With His Mind, the conceit being that a tinkerer had built some kind of device for which he could record directly the thoughts in his mind. Narrowing down such a wide possibility was difficult and so it was decided that a certain kind of thought might be recorded, such as a dream. While this had uncomfortable similarities to Wim Wenders' Until The End Of The World, it became the starting point of the shooting process.

To tie this idea to the found tapes, it was decided that they would make a collection of short dreamfilms that were somehow the essence of some person or personality. Out of this convergence of all the previous elements, Parkhurst had the idea that a larger "intertextual" structure could be developed to make sense of a "virtual" backstory as it were. Parkhurst therefore selected a popular culture icon from the high postmodern 1980s that he had always been fond of, the rather avant-pop Vortex comic book character, Dean Motter's Mister X. Culling a variety of references, names, and other contextual materials from the first two volumes of Mister X (c1983, c1989 respectively), Parkhurst put together an imaginary database of patients suffering from the ill effects of Radiant City on their sleeping patterns. In the comic book, these special emergency "sleep" clinics are called "insomnatoriums," but Parkhurst kept the basic idea and teased out a more complex, even potentially conspiratorial thread out of the many elements, situations, and characters of the comic book. One of these starting premises was that the all-powerful corporate entity in the Mister X world of oligarchy is Friedkin Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturers of the powerful amphetamine Insomnalin. These "characters" (some from the actual comic book such as the architects of Radiant City, Walter Eichmann and Simon Myers) and others (who were generated from friends and their histories as a kind of tribute to their many inspirations) are the imagined sufferers of sleep disorders. These "profiles" of the characters served as the basic "script" for the shooting and editing strategies as well as imaging concepts, particularly well-developed by Ashby over a few weeks time, and collectively "resolved" in the final stages of post-production. Also referenced are other conceptual intertextual and formative media on the filmmakers' growth over the years (Ashby's archive of earlier feedback experiments and other "orphaned" footage that had otherwise not been contextualized; Parkhurst's fondness for the original 1963-64 Outer Limits series can be extracted from the reference to the episode "Wolf 359," for example). The seven short "Pixel-Films" thus represent the dream recordings of these patients framed by a "documentation" set of still photographs showing the discovered collection of "dreamtapes." Most every detail in the work has some relevant reference, though some are completely personal (birthday of one of the filmmakers) or unbelievably obscure (such as the date "7 Nov." on the P. WOLF dreamtape which is the original air date in 1964 of the "Wolf 359" episode or "6 Oct." and "65" on the MYERS, S. dreamtape, the birthdate of Le Corbusier (who was loosely the inspiration for the Mister X comic architects of Radiant City) and the year (1965) that Le Corbusier died; or KNOCKAVELLI, M., named for Tulse Luper's best friend from the Greenaway database concept, The Tulse Luper Suitcases, and which is partly constructed out of clips from some of the early experimental films of Peter Greenaway, father of database cinema, such as Vertical Features Remake or Water Wratchets and whose dreamtape is appropriately numbered "92". In any case, it's left for the archival completist or übernerd to follow up all the references and intertexts as so desired.

The most interesting thing probably for most of the PXL 2000 enthusiasts is the way this film was constructed. In keeping with the "impossible" video theme, it was not only the idea of directly imaging / recording human dreaming to tape that plays with the theme of the impossible, but it was also constructed technologically and formally in such a manner that all of the video is in fact Pixelvision video, but which are techniques and other features of the films that are otherwise impossible on the Pixelvision camera. This was achieved in the very obvious digital post-production sense, but beyond this, was constructed primarily from diverse source material with the presumption that all footage would be "re-shot" with the PXL 2000 camera off of an LCD screen before going back into digital post / editing / sound design for final compositing and output. Many intentionally impossible formal attributes were specifically exploited from wide angle and long lenses, zooms, compositing, multiple layers, colour manipulation, and so on, yet all still "looks" like it's a Pixelvision film; for example, the multi-colour-processed PINKERTON, J. dreamtape was composed of three separate PXL 2000 video source layers in Final Cut and by using various blend modes, colorizing separate layers with different colors and manipulating their interactions over time (such as opacity, controlled color shifts, and other techniques) results in what suggests quite uniquely something like an actual color Pixelvision film rather than just a tinted B&W source video. Ashby developed the montage-like dreams that the personalities of the characters might generate and worked very closely with this loose idea and the need to be quite unique in each case to brilliant effect without having a strict screenplay of any sort to follow but simply some personality profiles of a few lines each from which Ashby composed the visual structures and worked with various layers of found and processed sound.

For the sound design, the rather vast library of lifelong musical enthusiast Parkhurst served as the audio database for a variety of effects and uses throughout the video and was treated in a similar way to the video footage, as a kind of suggestive "montage" of sound texture hopefully appropriate for dreaming, weaving in and out of consciousness like the tide, watery grave of reason.

While there seems to have been a kind of "tradition" so to speak that has evolved with PXL 2000 videography involving the highly personal and more confessional approach with an emphasis on the intimacy, infinite focus, soft image, and extreme close-up characteristics of the camera, Ashby and Parkhurst also thought that it was worth really interrogating this tradition and suggesting that other sorts of things, not necessarily as tied to the ontology of the camera itself, but just as identificatory and fascinating as that tradition, could reasonably be expected from a particular application of low-resolution filmmaking. One of their ambitions is therefore to extend the artistic / creative potential of this sort of technology which keeps to its nature while not rejecting the ever-expanding world of digital cinema.

Erewhon Films Media Collective

Welcome to the Erewhon Films Blog. We will keep interested parties informed about current projects, screenings, and other info of note. Erewhon Films is a media collective comprised initially of Struan Ashby -- digital media lecturer at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts on the Wellington, New Zealand, campus, and Roy Parkhurst -- senior lecturer and director of Contextual Studies, also in the Massey University College of Creative Arts, Wellington. The two began a collaboration in 2006 to produce a Pixelvision short for the PXL THIS 16 Film Festival. Prior to this, Ashby & Parkhurst had collaborated from about 2002 on the curriculum and research development of the Digital Video production stream at the Institute of Communication Design, School of Design, College of Creative Arts, Massey University, Wellington. Some early projects in the teaching collaboration have been partially documented at

and will convey some of the thinking that was being developed there. Since then, we have also built on some database cinema projects with advanced Digital Video students and are also developing a database cinema installation project as part of Erewhon Films current work.

Since 2006, Ashby & Parkhurst with the additional help of other temporary collective collaborators, have produced three short PXL THIS Film Festival shorts (2006-2008) and are currently in production on two projects: Ebdòmero nella cittá metafisica a film adaptation of metaphysical / proto-Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico’s surrealist novel Hebdomeros; and a database cinema installation currently referred to as The Surveyor.

Pre-production is ongoing on several other projects including a narrative feature screenplay and other narrative shorts.

For information on any of these projects or other inquiries, please email Roy Parkhurst or Struan Ashby or via this Blog to