"Village Voice" - december 7, 1993

Up From the Underground

by Susan Sturgis

The story of the Fisher-Price PXL 2000 toy camera has been full of twists. Following its debut at the 1987 New York Toy Fair, the item gathered dust on toy store shelves. After its discontinuation, it was discovered by low-budget filmmakers. And then this year, it emerged from the fringe film circuit into the museum with an appearance at the Whitney Biennial.

Well, add one more twist, to the delight of some aficionados and the unease of others: it's slated to be back in stores next year in a "new and improved" version.

The PXL 2000, or Pixelvision, is to video what zines are to perfume ad-laden glossies. Costing a mere $150, the compact, light-weight plastic camera runs on AA batteries and records its heavily bordered, infinitely focused, grainy black-and-white images on ordinary high-bias audio cassettes. Riot grrl artist Sadie Benning has used the technology's intimate feel to explore her queer teenage sexuality. Her pieces Jollie and A Place Called Lovely were screened at MOMA in 1991, and It Wasn't Love appeared at the Whitney Biennial this year--a long way from the toy fair.

"The kids never really went for it." said Jack Martin, a spokesman for Fisher-Price in East Aurora, New York. "The ones who went for it the most were the avant-garde filmmakers." Of course, filmmakers were never the company's niche market, and the financially strapped tiy maker discontinued the item in 1989.

Attracted by the camera's low price, however, artists with visions greater than their budgets grabbed up many of the 400,000 cameras sold from the backrooms of toy stores. Among them was Philadelphia filmmaker Michael O'Reilly. Glass Jaw, which documents O'Reilly's recovery from head injuries sustained in a bicycling accident and then an assault, appeared with Benning's It Wasn't Love at an exhibit at the Kitchen last spring and won first place in the experimental category at the USA Film Festival in 1992.

"If you use the Fisher-Price camera to do Hollywood stuff, it isn't going to work," said O'Reilly. "It has its own unique set of rules." Most artists agree that Pixelvision is best used for close-up work and for shooting small detailed objects. Designing pieces with the technology's limits in mind gives great aesthetic value for the dollar.

"Pixelvision is a pretty amazing example of what can be done with very little money," said tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE, a filmmaker, videographer, and self-proclaimed "psychopathfinder" from Baltimore. Indeed, not only are Pixelvision works made on the cheap, but until Benning's museum appearance they were shown mostly in low-rent venues like warehouses, cafés, and video stores. tENT, for eaxample, organized one the the first Pixelvision festivals in 1991 in BAUhouse, a small performance space/gallery in Baltimore, in which he showcased pieces from more than 20 different artists.

"tENT is really the granddaddy of it all," said Gerry Fialka of Venice, California, who had several pieces in that festival. "He made me say, 'Hey, I can do one of these.'" Fialka organized the third annual "PXL This" festival, a two-hour screeningsof about a dozen Pixelvision works, which took place November 13 at the Roth Studio in Venice, and will screen again on February 11 at Vidiots, a Santa Monica video store.

While the camera's unavailability has made it a cult item, that may soon change. When Fisher-Price stopped marketing the cameras in 1987, the licensing rights reverted to James Wickstead Design Associates of Cedar Knolls, New Jersey, inventors of the technology. Wickstead said he plans to have a new and improved version back in stores by mid 1994, wearing a 1990 price tag.

"We are currently attempting to put together a company to manufacture PXL as it was, only better," he said. Planned ugrades include better resolution and longer tape-playing time, and Wickstead said he expects a color version of the camera to be in stores by 1996.

But some artists worry that improvements will detract from the camera's distinctiveness. "I really think they might just improve themselves out of being intersting to people," said Al Eingang, who makes mixed-media queer pornography using Pixelvision in Philadelphia. "Why make it look more and more like regular video technology, the price of which gets closer and closer to the price of Pixelvision all the time?"

However, when informed of the camera's imminent reappearance, Fialka whooped, "I've been waiting for this for a long time!" Although he's keeping his fingers crossed, Fialka said he's optimistic that Pixelvision won't become just another techy cliché, even with the art world's discovery of Benning and the camera's reentry into the marketplace.

"I think it's going to remain underground because most people who use it have that kind of sensibility," Fialka said. "Sort of funky."


to the tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE movie-making "Press: Criticism, Interviews, Reviews" home-page

to the "tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - Sprocket Scientist" home-page

to the "FLICKER" home-page for the alternative cinematic experience

to find out more about why the S.P.C.S.M.E.F. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Sea Monkeys by Experimental Filmmakers) is so important

for A Mere Outline for One Aspect of a Book on Mystery Catalysts, Guerrilla Playfare, booed usic, Mad Scientist Didactions, Acts of As-Beenism, So-Called Whatevers, Psychopathfinding, Uncerts, Air Dressing, Practicing Promotextuality, Imp Activism, etc..

for info on tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE's tape/CD publishing label: WIdémoUTH

to see an underdeveloped site re the N.A.A.M.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Multi-Colored Peoples)