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Friday, February 7, 2003

++ MEAM's Cyborg Cinema

++ Chris Cunningham, watch out.

Cunningham is the director of videos like Björk's "All Is Full of Love," Autechre's "Second Bad Vilbel," Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker," Portishead's "Only You," and perhaps most stunning of all, Squarepusher's "Come On My Selector," a dizzying marriage of suspenseful Sci-Fi noir and frenzied cutup collage that elevated the drill 'n' bass mashup to the level of a sinister, quasi-narrative multimedia spectacle.

Feted with a retrospective at this year's RESfest (the premiere festival of digital film & video), Cunningham is rightly regarded as one of the most talented artists working at the juncture of video and music — especially electronic music, an abstract form that should by all rights yield fascinating visual complements, but all too often is only debased by tired, "futuristic" clichés and drugged-out rave imagery that takes the lava lamp as an avant-garde design motif.

But a new DVD, directed by MEAM and released this month by Skam, the Manchester label responsible for releases from Gescom, Boards of Canada, and Bola, shows that it's way too early to consign the form to the dustbin of acid house. The uncredited duo behind MEAM is also responsible for Skam's striking
Web site, as well as the biomorphic visuals that accompany Bola's live show — indeed, viewers familiar with either will recognize elements from both sources in this video. The untitled disc sets 30 minutes of choppy, short-circuiting electro and hip-hop to a dizzying, slowly evolving visual storyline that combines abstract imagery, stop-frame animation, self-portraiture, and even a baffling moment of documentary video. It's the most visually absorbing thing I've seen flash across a screen in ages — and awfully smart, to boot.

++ The video opens with the line drawing of a B-boy strobing across images of subway cars as chunky, laser-strafed beats establish a mood of rocksteady robotism. (Skam has often incorporated the trappings of electro and early hip-hop into its fractured electronica; Autechre, who form a part of the shadowy Gescom collective, were reportedly B-boys themselves in their youth.)

But MEAM quickly moves away from any buffalo stance clichés, cutting to the image of a solid state tuner flashing the Skam logo, and introducing the real subject matter of the piece: the technological interface. MEAM's interest is in the fusion of the biological with the technological, and from here on in, almost every frame draws the two closer together.

Two turntable cartridges trail miles of multicolored wiring, streaming like the tentacles of a giant squid as the heads pivot back and forth in a mirror formation. 1960s-era television sets tumble down against a black backdrop until one rights itself and the camera zooms in and still images of pastoral scenes — dusky hillocks, dandelion puffs — stream across the screen. Another turntable cartridge beast takes the scene, this time with a hypodermic syringe at the center of its body, and it soon multiplies into an entire school of robot needle-fish, propelling themselves with their plungers as they swim across the screen.

Rave visuals have always been drawn to the kaleidoscopic, to the degree that any kind of mirror imaging has become a generally inexcusable cliché. But MEAM manages to redeem the trope with a startling sequence of water droplets mirrored four ways. I like to imagine that the image of the fourfold liquid globe splashing down in an explosion of rings is a reference to Harold Edgerton's classic stop motion photography, which fused the artistic and scientific realms in much the same way that Eadweard Muybridge's did. But regardless of inspiration, the sequence — which synchronizes the droplet's forward-and-backward motion to a particularly eerie musical passage of bi-directional gasps and whispers — is totally engrossing on its own terms, transporting the viewer deep into the machinery of MEAM's automated images.

++ There's no shortage of arresting imagery. A space ship collaged together from PVC pipes, whose twisting perspective suggests interior infinities, updates Escher's optical illusionism with Sci-Fi's cold gleam. Stems with rotating drum heads where there should be blossoms pump out seed pods that might be chestnuts. A collage of flower petals turns into a rocket blasting through blackness. But the crux of the video is a long, frenetic passage depicting the members of MEAM through a fish-eye lens. Tucked into a ratty easy chair and rubbing their noses against video monitors, the two young men — shown, again, in quasi-mirror formation — manipulate an editing console as the camera pulses and strobe lights fire in time with the shuddering soundtrack.

Taken as a purely technical accomplishment of digital video, it's a masterful sequence, as detail-intensive as Cunningham's Squarepusher video, fusing thousands of frames into a blur of stunted gestures. But this is also the poetic core of the piece, the moment when abstract imagery dissolves into a self-portrait of the artist utterly absorbed in his work. As the camera's perspective darts around the artists — above, behind, below, beside — the viewer is drawn into identification with the animators, who remain engrossed in their work, as if unaware of the camera.

More biomorphic machinery follows: contraptions collaged together from aluminum pipes, copper tubing, strange boxes, pumping pistons. A black-and-white photograph appears of a room full of rack-mounted gear spilling patch cords; it suggests a nostalgic, even melancholic twist on the technological sublime, as though MEAM were comparing the massive, comparatively underperforming modular synthesizers of yore with the baffling excess of technology available in today's cheap keyboards and breadbox-sized desktop machines. Strobing lights illuminate the disappearing vision as if glancing back on some kind of degraded lost opportunity.

++ The last major sequence opens with three figures silhouetted against a black hill, fusing the iconic scene from Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" with Boards of Canada's notorious pastoralism. And then, there it is, like the flash of a life in the last moments before the void, a dizzying cascade of first person images. A sun-drenched hillside. A boy's chipped tooth. A dandelion puff. Deserts, Tube stations, satellite dishes, studio interiors stream by. A spider, a window blind, a patch of clear sky. And then, as the hollow-tubed melody pulses on, all these memories give way to the flower rocket and, finally, the Escherian space ship, which presumably is firing its engines, its coordinates set on some strange unknown: post-carbon, post-digital, post-subject.

I'm not going to describe the brief, closing segment of the video, only because to do so would spoil the surprise of this funny, charming, oddly touching scene. Suffice to say that it takes a side door from the long tunnel into the sublime and plops us down squarely in the realm of the real. After such visions, though, it's hard to say which is stranger: the life of the mind, where consciousness biodegrades into fertilizer for the chimeric life forms of a cyborg world, or the waking life among fluorescent lights, where chance alone harvests a bounty to compete with design's.


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