Sunday, March 1, 2009

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.

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