Here’s to You, Michael Robinson
Having no prior exposure to Michael Robinson before seeing his show at tank.tv (September 2- 22nd) I’ll begin this review for similarly uninitiated readers in the most crude and straightforward way possible: by including the notes I took while watching “Light is Waiting,” an eleven-minute video Robinson made in 2007.
Scene from “Full House,” DJ and Kimmy carry TV upstairs, TV falls off balcony, cuts to flashing, epileptic static; focuses on image of sailboat, vague vibrating copy of boat nearby; zooms into airplane, garbled “Full House” voiceover, garbled image; split mirror images of people jumping off waterfall into each other; people assembled in woods with uncanny electronic shadows of themselves; abstract images overlapping images; people gathered around fireplace, Maori (?) tribesmen convening around fire (Kenneth Anger?) tribal ceremony; overlapping hallucinatory images of tribesmen & Westerners dancing; eerie, atonal noises; crowds; man performing onstage; spliced images of DJ, Uncle Jessie and an Olson twin from “Full House”; flashing primary colors cut with mirror images of people performing; white light, inverted, illegible credits. Fin.
As “Light is Waiting” suggests, one of the most striking features of Robinson’s work is his interest in appropriating cultural nostalgia—whether from vintage National Geographic magazines, Barbara Streisand songs or from the early 90’s sitcom “Full House”—and honing in on its uneasy relationship to technology. Capitalizing on the emotive capacity of pop culture—the “Oh! I love that song!” effect—Robinson picks apart familiar sounds and images to expose the pixels and bytes, and in the process, succeeds in making 80s babies distinctly uncomfortable with their not-so-distant media memories. Home movies are edited to resemble “The Ring”, Disney cartoons are spliced with their own negatives, and flashing primary colors are used as a weapon of estrangement. Like a literary theorist, Robinson parses familiarity down to its component parts then summarily turns them inside out, using the leftover pieces to launch viewers into unfamiliar—albeit uncanny—new media landscapes.
In “And We All Shine On,” a work from 2006, the viewer is subjected to a virtual UFO abduction, with likely perpetrators being a ham radio and an Atari console. The film opens on a barely visible night shot of a tree, with static hanging in the background. After a moment, the static gives way to radio tuning, and the viewer is lifted out of the scene and dropped into the Technicolor landscapes of an 80s video game. The music gains coherence, and stills from the games are punctuated by flashing screenshots to a hypnotic, hallucinogenic effect. Eventually, the music fades into cacophony and Robinson cuts back to the darkened tree before the film ends.
Through manipulating the viewer’s relationship to content, Robinson’s focus is less on the material itself than on the question of representation—that is, whether or not film as a medium is inherently untrustworthy. In his work, photos of trees are treated with the same reverence as trees themselves, confounding hierarchies of perception and raising all sorts of Benjaminian questions about reproducibility. If the camera denies us the ability to know whether we’re looking a thing or its simulacrum, Robinson’s work seem to ask, how can film or photography ever promise an authentic experience of viewership? Moreover, what does it suggest about us that the mechanization of experience is no longer a barrier to forming genuine emotional attachment? Rather than answering these questions, Robinson instead revels in the aporia, describing his work as an exploration of “the poetics of loss and the dangers of mediated experience.”
With regard to mediated experience, the only real complaint I have about the show is its actual presentation: while tank.tv’s minimalist aesthetic certainly looks good – the site features skeletal white and grey text against a black background – it could stand to include a little supplementary material. Information about Robinson isn’t easily accessible online (a Google search might lead one to conclude that he moonlights as a San Francisco 49ers running back) and given how essential pop culture is to his work, biographical background would also be helpful for contextualizing him within it.
Finally, it’s important to note that while Robinson’s aesthetic skews towards the apocalyptic, his films are anything but bleak renderings of dystopian futures. Instead, an undercurrent of humor pervades his work, adding a darkly euphoric quality to otherwise troubling themes. In 2008’s “Carol Anne is Dead,” Robinson recycles a campy, home movie version of Poltergeist – which happens to star a ten-year-old version of himself. “Hold Me Now,” another film from 2008, partitions a scene from “Little House on the Prairie” through periodic flashes of a strobe light, and sets the clip – which features Mary flailing in bed – to a karaoke version of the Thompson Twins’ song, “Hold Me Now.” In work like this, Robinson acknowledges the technological anxieties of the eighties and plays with them, suggesting that the proper vehicle for navigating our brave new world could very well be a karaoke machine or an Atari spaceship.