Lyra Hill is an artist and curator living in Chicago. Her 16mm films have screened at festivals internationally. Between 2011-2014, she founded and organized the pioneering performative-comix reading series Brain Frame. She has presented her own hybrid performances at the Chicago Humanities Festival, Chicago Printers Ball, Chicago Underground Film Festival, and Chicago Alternative Comics Festival. She has also presented her work at venues across the country, including Artists’ Television Access (San Francisco), Cinefamily (Los Angeles), Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and Brooklyn Museum, in addition to countless underground shows in strange, secretive places. Lyra works as a teaching artist at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. She is currently hosting and producing a weekly radio interview show called Magic Chats. She received her BFA from SAIC in 2011.
I like to think I don’t like videos. I didn’t grow up watching TV. My mother threw ours down the hill when I was five years old. I make experimental films, with a capital F, like hardcore celluloid style, which gives me a victim complex, with everyone talking about the death of my medium at the hands of digital. This is a false dichotomy. I have always loved the internet. Maybe I spent so much time on the computer as a child because I didn’t have a TV? Leeching strange videos from the world wide web was once clandestine. Now videos leech us. I’ll walk away from any group of people who begin sharing youtube links. Images hold power. I coddle my senses. In compiling the following list, I have been reminded of what I find most beautiful about the human condition made captive to video. Let’s explore.
#5 The Organized Mind
This is Jim Henson and Dave Goelz on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1974. What you are seeing is an experimental film collage projected behind a live, disembodied puppet face. You can barely see Jim and Dave’s bodies in the dark, releasing the puppet, after the projection ends. Raymond Scott made the soundtrack. This face is named “Limbo,” or “Nobody,” and also appears on early Sesame Street episodes, counting to ten. Internet curators neatly file these videos under “fucked up kid’s entertainment” which is how I stumbled upon it. I tend to think the weirder children’s entertainment, the better for our future.
Because, first of all, look at this face! It’s as big as two men and feels the things it is saying so intensely that it periodically convulses and splits apart. Nobody’s movements are simultaneously repellent and empathetic. I feel wobbly. I am charmed and confused. Laughter as a response to discombobulation is my favorite mirth. And then, I am moved by the gentle open-ended-ness of Henson’s narrating tone. I am moved by Nobody’s attempt to offer guidance, and their abject failure to do so. Is this a cautionary tale? What’s the point here? That mental organization is too complex for consciousness to handle? Or is it more specific: don’t lump your fears together, they’ll get the best of you? This video captures a dreamy feeling of self-effacing yet earnest self-examination so familiar to me that I can’t help but return to it again and again, suspecting on some level that maybe this time Nobody will have figured it out.
#4 Look At That Horse
The devil is in the details. In addition to the obvious, this video is hilarious. The tic in the poster when he says “schneider lens” sends a thrill down my spine. Is the moth talking? The salesman’s smooth tone and ceaseless confidence access a well of deep admiration and amusement within me. He’s so clever to accuse his producer of the gaff, once realized: of course it’s not a butterfly, that’s ridiculous.
I believe the majority of celebration on the internet stems from cruel mockery of pain. I am not above the pleasures of schadenfreude. But as much as I love a good ‘fail’ video, it is those with a twist ‘win’ at the end which delight me the most. When the moment emerges from such banality, an almost inconceivable existence in the first place (as one commenter asks, “who bothers to record the Shopping Channel?”), this instance of glorious bluster achieves transcendence. I am elementally tickled. The absurdity is pure, unmarred by gory consequence. I feel grateful to be alive in this era.
#3 Pass This On
Here is a rapturous performance accompanied by performances of rapture. This is my favorite music video. I saw it at an impressionable age; my brother impressed it upon me, exclaiming, “this video has every different kind of man!” or something like that. This video turned me on to The Knife.
Seduction oozes through the movement of the camera, the draping of her dress, the loose fists weaving a slow dance, and the ceiling fans, among other things. The editing, perfectly paced, punctuates every oddity equally in a smooth escalation towards anticlimax. I think about the vibe required to get people dancing in a brightly lit room, and how carefully that vibe is built up here, in a series of gentle caresses, like the way she strokes the mic stand. I like to read into every little decision. His sweatshirt says “QUEENS”! That first dancer is the male half of The Knife, Olof Dreijer. Sister knife Karin Dreijer Andersson is sitting until the end, watching Rickard Engfors lip-synch her vocals. Whose brother did Karin want to dance with when she sang the song? What is she thinking when she blinks, and ends the scene?
Rickard Engfors, according to Wikipedia, has performed for royalty. I have no doubt. Her (his, their) sinuous and captivating performance was a formative moment in my understanding of my own attraction to gender queering. I would argue that, despite its feminine presentation, this video revolves around masculine examination. Like feeling for the soft fleshy recesses between unforgiving musculature, these men (all different kinds!) are caught in a moment of weakness, moved by unexpected pleasure to celebrate through dance. (All different kinds of dance!) When the music fades, and the sounds of sneakers scuffing wooden floors rises in the mix, I feel present in these sweet and awkward bodies. I feel as though I have received a present.
#2 Sordid Algorithms
In the excellent science fiction satire Roderick at Random, author John Sladek describes a scene in which main character Roderick, the first artificially intelligent robot, discovers how to orgasm. Roderick’s sex worker friend insists on exploring his pleasure, and he suggests she use her compact mirror to flash sunlight into his eyes in an exponential mathematical sequence. Watching this video makes me feel like a robot achieving climax. I get more and more excited as each algorithm pulses past, excellently well ordered and efficient, finding perfect precision. Each new equation makes my heart beat a little faster. Will it happen? I wonder. Oh, oh, it’s happening. It’s happening again! I can’t bear the excitement!
Behind this fetishization of precision is an appreciation for the human decisions that led to this video existing on the internet. Somebody decided to present these algorithms as an animated bar graph. Somebody assigned melodic tones to each value. Somebody named these processes, and chose the ideal array, the ideal delay, for human viewing pleasure. Somebody put it online. And all of those people must have something in common with me, if they value this enough to make it. It makes me think about the immeasurable gulf between the reality of artificial (or alien) intelligence, and our collective imagination of such. Technology, mathematics: how incomprehensibly cold! As soon as we comprehend it, our warmth spoils it, wrapping it up in hot bloody brains, melting the edges. I love to slurp equations through the furnace of my mind.
#1 Battle At Kruger
This is a popular video, because it is fucking incredible. It won some internet awards. Good! This is a masterwork of amateur documentary cinema! It’s the perfect length and moves swiftly through a traditional narrative arc (coming-of-age, maybe) using nontraditional characters. There is a hero (the young buffalo), anti-heroes (the lions), and a chilling villain (the crocodile). It has a happy ending. There are close-ups, medium shots, and wide shots, all in a single shot, exquisitely choreographed. Exquisite! These animals may as well have CGI talking mouths for how expressively they are performing this epic. For this effect I also congratulate the cameraman, whose timing, pans, and zooms highlight the most charismatic players in their most dramatic moments, adding immeasurably to the glory and suspense.
Most videos shot from a Jeep on a tourist safari prompt me towards pessimistic judgments like “isn’t it fucked up that rich people pay to ogle species they’ve endangered in areas they’ve economically and environmentally decimated through racist entitlement and greed?” But in this instance, I forget about the issues, and marvel with the tourists. I enjoy the awed, accented chorus of whispers not quite drowning out the thundering buffalo across the way. I remember: the animals don’t care, they’re not putting on a show. It’s us who care, ex-animals, yearning for opportunities to express our basic instincts, eons away from our origins as ooze, willfully anthropomorphizing a regular bid for survival in a world whose rules we’ve forgotten. Am I awed by the majesty of nature? Or by my interpretation of its motivations? Or by the fact that it is captured so expressively? Is my satisfaction supplemented by my passivity as a viewer? Is this the place for these questions? Is this webpage a place? I AM BECOME NOBODY, THE FLOATING FACE. Watch out for my fears!