In the course of a day several artistic enterprises will scroll down my various timelines and, at random, I will choose to partake of them. Most often these are music but, like most other people, if I know something of what I might expect from the people concerned, I usually let it pass on by unless what I am expecting in some way might satisfy my current mood. This, of course, is a terrible thing and an example of something I hate: knowing too much. I hate the fact that we think we know things, that things have been put in a box in our minds and, forever after, stay in that box and affect our judgment about them. Of course, one answer to this would be if creative people were so varied and imaginative that they could be surprising rather than creatures of habit that turn out more of the same thing again and again. That is an artistic fight I try to take on. But I cannot speak for others and their motives. More fool them, I say, if they are happy to be in the box.
However, it is best of all when something comes along that has no box, that is, in some sense, contextless and therefore innocent of our knowing. Then we can enjoy the pure thrill of appreciating something that comes with no baggage and about which we do not know too much. Such a thing came into my timeline yesterday. It was a 7 minute video called "Pixelate" and you can watch it HERE!
A still from "Pixelate"
A basic description of the video is to say that it is simply 7 minutes of ever-changing pixels. But that would be like describing the film "Jaws" as a film about hunting a shark. It is but its much more than that. From the moment I first watched "Pixelate" until now, after several watches, I've found the video to be both therapeutic and intellectually challenging. The surprising thing to me on first watch, as I enjoyed that virgin experience of the first time, something that can never be repeated, was that I started to ask questions about what I was seeing. First of all I asked myself "What does this mean?". This wasn't really a question of intention either. I wasn't asking myself what the author of the piece, Ian Haygreen, thought it meant. I wasn't asking after his purpose in making it. Indeed, I don't know the answers to these questions nor do I think I need to. Instead, I was asking myself if there was any meaning to be found in the shifting landscapes of pixels as they moved around in various chaotic patterns. In a way I suppose I was an observer observing myself observing as I did this too. I was asking myself about what I was asking of the video. And so it became natural to ask why I was asking myself what the pixels might mean.
The patterns of pixels on the screen were very chaotic and most of the time they shifted and changed at quite a speed. It became a hypnotic experience. The rather quiet and atmospheric ambient soundtrack played a part in this too, I'm sure. The effect was a kind of unobtrusiveness which could work its way into your consciousness unannounced. As the pixels shifted and changed I continued to ask myself the meaning question. I asked myself about the relationships of one pixel to another, whether it mattered what colour each pixel was. I imagined the pixels were people. Now, with these pixels representing people, it was a question of asking what meaning there was in all these people running around in their immediate relationships one to another like the ever-shifting pixels on the screen. I wasn't sure it mattered what colour the pixels were. But does it matter what colour the people are? There was a sense of ambiguity. What if all these pixels were just symbols for people? The pixel fields just changed. No one had more priority than any other one. Make them people and does anything change?
The hypnotic effect of the pixels changing, without commentary, guidance or context, became quite nihilistic. It seemed to be saying "Things just happen. Stuff goes on as it will. You can attach whatever meaning you like to these events but its not fixed or binding. Or even necessary." It occurred to me that within the changing pixel landscapes I could look at them as if they were moving left to right across the screen. But then, with a change of concentration, I could make it seem as if they were going the other way too. And, thus, I had power over history and events. I could say in which direction they were going and I could look at things as if they were indeed doing that. The pixels were powerless to stop me. The pixels were just material for my interpretive apparatus to get to work on. And I considered once more that other things, things that might be taken to be more serious, were just the same as these pixels. The example of Brexit came to mind. To one group of people this is freedom and taking back control. The direction of travel is a new and glorious future. But to some other observers it is disaster and xenophobia and leads directly to the dark ages. Who is right? Both and neither of course because you can see the pixels moving however you want.
I started to ask myself if the meaning question I was asking was the right question to be asking at all. It occurred to me that asking the question "What does this mean?" is a question we often ask of many things, if not everything, but that, maybe, a lot of the time we should just step back and not ask it. I am aware that notable psychologists, such as the inventor of Logotherapy, Viktor Frankl, are of the view that people have a need of meaning in order to exist. Frankl's academic and therapeutic work in the area of psychology strongly suggests that people are simple meaning-making factories who generate meaning as a means of survival. Frankl himself personally survived Nazi concentration camps (including Auschwitz) while most others in his family did not so we can understand how he reached his conclusion. But, nevertheless, it still begs the question of whether we need to be asking questions of meaning at all. These pixels I was staring at could easily have been regarded as simple meaningless and ever-changing configurations. There were, it might be said, no consequences from regarding them as meaningless. But when it comes to other things we find it much harder to believe this. Yet why? Aren't the events that go on around us, the relationships we make and build to other things, equally as meaningless in the end? Why not let go of our attachments, created always by us and for us, and just see everything as pixels?
I saw the pixels here as representatives for other things. I saw them in ever-changing relationships to the other pixels around them. This made me replace them with other things and wonder if anything had really changed. Life just goes on, I thought. Existence takes its path of least resistance always being in relation to other things yet never having any necessary binding relation to other things - unless we make it so. Nothing has to mean anything. Meaning doesn't work like that. It is plastic and some other, contrary, meaning can always be ascribed to the same events - just as I made the pixel stream change direction. (It's not even clear the pixels were in a stream actually so maybe I created the connections between the pixels and made them a stream too.) I slowly became a pixel myself and realized that that could mean both everything and nothing.
Pixelate was created by musician and, apparently, filmmaker, Ian Haygreen who is on Twitter @IanHaygreen