Published July 29, 2022
The Ann Arbor Film Festival commissioned essays from the curators of our special programs for the 60th AAFF, and published them in our program book. Enjoy this essay by Scott Northrup, curator for Sadie Benning: Pixelvisions
“Last week I almost laughed. It’s only been a year ago that I crawled the walls,” says a deadpan, teenaged Sadie Benning in their videotape If Every Girl Had a Diary (1990). A sentence, like many others delivered throughout this program, that is seemingly weightier, even prescient, in the shadow of current events, social media norms, and the precarity of modern life.
Benning, born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1973, began making films in their bedroom at the age of 15. As the story goes, they had been gifted a Fisher Price PXL2000 by their filmmaker father. This toy camera recorded grungy sound and images to audio cassettes—Pixelvision!—and led to an imaginative, questioning body of video works that still sting and stun 30 years on. Such as A New Year (1989), Benning’s first video, which questions the fragility of personal, community, and national welfare. The camera, as in many of their films, acts as an extension of the filmmaker’s body, scanning what’s directly in front of them for mooring. Everything from daytime television to text collages, the kitchen sink, and handwritten notes pass before their lens. These personal headlines contemplate Benning’s place in the world and plainly present a youthful but weary understanding of the cycles of violence.
None of the videos in this program have screened at the Ann Arbor Film Festival before now, and viewing them within the context of the global pandemic casts the politics of identity into high relief. Despite the cultural shift toward acceptance of trans and queer identities (thanks in part to younger generations’ interaction with newer communication methods), Benning’s work holds an inimitable punk rock power. This is due to their genuine exploration of the topics that mattered to a young person who was figuring things out—gender, sexuality, desire, youth culture, childhood trauma—as well as their inherent queering of popular media. Benning’s point of view and technical skill are on full display in It Wasn’t Love (1992). Convincingly posing as a series of gendered Hollywood stereotypes, they experiment with presentation and seduction. An appropriated scene from The Bad Seed (1956) is reframed and paired with Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Patty McCormack torments Nancy Kelly as Prince sings “I wanna be your mother and your sister, too,” in a moment that calls to mind Boyd McDonald’s book Cruising the Movies: A Sexual Guide to Oldies on TV, which reconsiders older films through a queer lens. Benning’s pairing of sound and image throughout this piece is smart, confident, liberating.
The final video in this program, Girl Power (1992), is a personal statement and an important cultural document of its time. In it, Benning distills moments of lived experience into a full-blown rebellion accompanied by a wide-ranging soundtrack centered on the music of Bikini Kill. The energy is turned all the way up. It is as much a riot grrrl manifesto in the guise of a video zine as it is a summation of this early body of work. Benning would later cofound the post-punk band Le Tigre with Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Johanna Fateman, performing with them until 2001. Recent works include animations, paintings, and photographs that incorporate the languages of filmmaking, collage, and music.
Benning’s pixelvision videos are canonical in the history of experimental film and video art. Connections could easily be made to Wolf Vostell’s Television Décollage works (1963, coincidentally the year of the first AAFF), if only in the treatment of the televisual image, and Nam June Paik’s Button Happening (1965), for its pioneering use of new technology, the Sony Portapak, and the performative nature of the recording. Joan Jonas’s Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy and Vertical Roll (both 1972) also come to mind, among other early video artists who were excluded from AAFF when it was exclusively film-based. But few of those works carry the emotional heft or speak to the present in the same way that Benning did as a teenager.
One of the things that Benning has said they liked about the camera was that it didn’t talk back. A camera records without question or debate; it is both a captive audience and a co-conspirator. Of course, the feedback loop was not what it is today, though there does seem to be an evident connection with direct-address confessionals on contemporary video platforms, even if most are through the looking glass, amping up the artifice, pursuing likes and fame, too self-conscious to embody the raw, jagged vulnerability and confident swagger of Sadie Benning.
Scott Northrup is a Detroit-based intermedia artist, writer, curator, and educator, and is a member of the AAFF Advisory Board. He holds an MA in Media Studies from The New School and a BFA in Fine Arts from College for Creative Studies, where he is currently the Chair of the Film, Photography, and Interdisciplinary Art + Design programs. His work has been exhibited and published in the US and abroad.