Confessions of a Pixil-Picker

Publication TypeUnpublished
AuthorsAldighieri, Merrill
Source (2004)
Full Text: 

Nov. 14, 1969

I am 17 yrs. old. I take one of the high school's precious 8 mm film cameras and board a bus, my first time leaving home since girl scout camp 4 years ago. Someone hands me a joint of maryjauna soaked in pure liquid THC. After one toke I no longer can tell where my hands are. Somehow I don't drop the camera. It is dark when we arrive and someone gives me a candle. I follow a mass of people into the streets. An old lady in front of me turns and holds her candle to mineナit flickers with light. There are hundreds of thousands of small flickering lights. It is a massive entity, the crowd of peace-fanatics facing the Washington monument. Hours later, I am sleeping under a table on the floor in a large dark hallway of some kind of church conference room. We are packed in pretty tight. Everything is a bit damp, but surprisingly, calm, peaceful. When I wake, it is a brutal sunny morning. I check my camera and, yes, it seems I loaded it with some film last night and shot something. There is still footage left. In the glare of day, this teeming mass of denim-clad optimists is less individual to me.You can't see much unless you can rise out of the crowd. I see one guy wearing a Nixon mask climbing a tree. I shoot the rest of my film.This is the culmination of months of going door to door in my mountain town, telling people who are old enough to vote the anti-Viet Nam war position in an effort to raise consiousness. I go home and develope my film. It is too contrasty to see hardly anything. I leave it in my hich school locker untouched for a year until a janitor throws it out.

1971-75 Massachussettes College of Art

The most important lesson I learn in college comes from an unlikly course called "Materials and Immaterials" by Virginia Gunther. She tells us if we are dedicated to being artists, we should consider the choice and creation of our tools as a potential for expression of invention and self-empowerment. She tells us to look in the industrial wastelands for possible materials to create something with. This helps me to develope a feeling of potential everywhere. It's an ideal that is not always easy to live up to, but sometimes it keeps you going.

Glowing with the combined influences of such legendary pioneers in non-narrative experimental film and video as Michael Snow, Bill Wegman and a dash of classic documentary tutillage from Michele Chalifour, Dave Carpenter, Kevin Burke, I found myself volunteering to be an associate producer at the first cable access news station which was set up in an idyllic california coastal town called Santa Cruz.

I should tell you how I landed this job. I was waitressing in an all night bean joint on the main streetナno pay except tips ! Most nights this would amount to as low as 5 cents for all night, but sometimes I could clear a few dollars, and I had all the chile I could eat. It was fairly peaceful. I had no idea what else to do, and if I had a good sci fi paperback to read, I usually didn't care. I was renting space in a garage behind a house that was home to a parade of transients who would collect their welfare checks at the mailbox and have a hot shower once a month. My space was a raw greasy shack that I was alergic to for a month until I scrubbed it and insolated it with rolled up newspapers.  I was sleeping on a plank of wood that had been the workbench, I was wrapped in a veil of aluminum coated celleohane that was called a " space blanket " and would keep you alive on a cold rainy night but not really happy.

So, into the bean joint late one night walks David Castro & Nick Hanks, who have just been awarded a grant to start an experiment in public communicationナthe first cable access station. It is called CATV. At the end of the first round of chile, David asked me what do I do. I told him I just finished college as a film major, and I was going to make films. At first he assumed I wanted to be an actress like most young woman in California, but I told him, " NO, I don't stand in front of the camera, I hold it. " He said, well, that is quite a good coincidence, because I am such a heavy drinker that my hands are starting to shake, I think we could use a cameraman if you are interested. There is no pay, but we can promise you sandwiches and you will get to meet eveerybody. You've had enough of this chile, haven't you ? I couldn't argue thereナ.

The production group numbered 6. David was now the tape editor. There was a 2 inch videotape machine as big as the Taj Mahal, if memory serves me well. Editing was done with scissors and tape. There was a sound engineer named Noel who was also in charge of the archives, which is another word for the garbage bin.There were two anchor people, Nick Hanks, and Sarah Nelson.

Sarah eventually became the president of NOW, the national organization of women, and then she became head of the Crystic Institute who successfully shepherded the Karen Silkwood case through it's paces. In the early days of cable T.V. Sarah was very motivated to do important investigative journalism and support the community in a meaningful way. She also had a kind heart and wanted to help her fellow collegues overcome the many hurdles that faced women in the industry. I was just the opposite of Sarah Nelson in many ways. I was not interested in politics and thought it was all phoney baloney. I wanted to do tide reports so we could go to the beach...I wanted to make surrealistic portraits of the local dog catcher....and we both had our way in the end.

One major philosophical point of view I developed at this time about the impact of media on society came out of a dispute I had with my collegues. I am often feeling like Don Quiote battling windmills, but I believe in getting emotionally involved in news stories and showing your bias openly. Sarah and Nick and David and the new cute journalism student who saved my life by grabbing me by the crotch to prevent me from falling off a speed-boat with the only videocamera, tried to explain to me why this was impossible. To this day I still disagree, although I understand the validity of their point of view. The crucial problem for me, besides the fact that I am " pathologically transparent " by nature, is that, for me, the subconsciuos reaction I have to seeing a newscaster present the story of some disaster with an emotionless " neutral voice " is to think that this is something I should not get upset aboutナit's no big dealナthe anchor person is unruffeled so it can't be serious. That is absurd of course, and a rift developes, an emotional-reality rift. It has always haunted me and I was much more sensitive to it in the beginning, but little by little we forget how to feel. I resist the erosion and try to remain cranky, but it is constant and I am becoming mellower every moment.

One of the most interesting people who passed my roving camera was Jerry Brown who was running for governor. Nick Hanks, the regular field reporter was not available for some reason, and Sarah thought it would be therapeutic to give her friend who had a serious speech impediment a chance. This knowlegable lady stuttered like a buzz saw. She was not overcoming her phobia, it was worse than ever in fact, and at the last moment she shoved the microphone in my hand while I was shooting AND carrying the humongous port-o-hernia by Sony. I had no idea who I was talking to, so I threw him a softball question, I asked him what he thought of Fellini's "8 and a half"? For me, this film was a life-changing experience, and I couldn't believe everybody in the world had not seen it. Jerry was, for one time in his life, completely speechless. So were my fellow producers when they saw the footage later. What can I say?

Moving on, I went on a vacation to NYC and, while volunteering at Global Village, I got a phone call that my flophouse was burned down by my housemates for big bucks so that the landlord could sell the property and have a prison built there...So I stayed put in NYC. My flop-house mates had a garage sale of all my possessions and among the things to go were my only copy of my first 16 mm film, " Rinsing Scrambled Egglegs ". If anybody reading this has a copy, do drop me a line !

I answered an add to be an apprentice at Rombex Studios where I had hands on experience with one of the first synthesizers. If you played with it all day, you could make some wavy blobs. It was fabulous. It was also another plunge down the "no-salary  free- for-all" I call my career.

The only other person who showed up to apprentice at Rombex besides me was a Columbia grad student named Joe Tripician. After a night of jazz bars and alcohol, I became his permanent shadow. He soon landed himself a job at the Muppet Show, and I followed along, making myself useful. After a week of frenzied work in this creative chaos, the accountant asked me why my name wasn't on her payroll list ? I said, I like that question, I can spell it for you. This is how I landed my first full time paying job in the entertainment business. In fact, I was really interested in animation and confused the Muppet show for their partners, Sesame Street, which produced the animated sequences, and was the erroneous reason I hung around in the first place (besides Joe of course). The puppet builders were so much fun and fascinating that I stayed on, and they really needed help.

While cleaning out a closet, I found and saved the original KERMIT who now sits in the Smithsonian Institue. I brought Big Bird's feet to the dry cleaners, and plenty more glamorous tasks. I sometimes worked directly with Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Jim & I had a strange chemistry together, like two positive magnets that repel each other.  Frank Oz had the most interesting challenges for me, my favorite request being to walk down 5th Avenue on easter Sunday and interview old men for a research he was making to create a voice for YODA of STAR WARS. My first question was a serious one, " Where is the Easter Parade ? " You know that song that sings about it, I don't see it. Do you ? Were are the bunny floats ? I was very disillussioned. I have a very literal mind which borders on the surrealistic by proxy.

The big opportunity for self expression came as a side-effect of setting up an in-house video system to make screen tests of new puppets. I documented the development of a feature film project called " The Dark Crystal ", and shot hundreds of hours of the process of design and construction with Brian Froud, Dick Smith, and dozens of other talented artists. This was edited together to raise money to do the feature.

In the off hours at the Muppet Workshop Joe & I made our first video movie, "Love Among the Mutants", which is probably still in a closet at Electronic Intermix. Two years had passed quickly at the Muppets, and since neither of us were interested in puppets especially, the idea of what our ambitions were to evolve in the workshop were difficult to answer. The company was at a crossroads, always in a tug of war between England where the show was financed, and NY where the puppets were made. We left.


Independent again, Joe & I persued the distribution " of our movie Love Among the Mutants. The question as always was, who wants to see this? I was hoping MOMA would jump at the chance, but the subway system was causing a magnetic interferance, and I was informed that they would not be accepting any color video works that year. (yeah right, pull the other leg barbara...) But, strangely enough, Ron Jagger from a nightclub in midtown called HURRAH had heard about this tape and asked if they could show it as the warm up act for the US debut of a group called JOY DIVISION. I said, could I hang out at the club for a week and create a video ambience please. I didn't like the idea of my movie coming on and breaking into the atmosphere like a cold fish,

I noticed they had an interesting installation of TV monitors in an open cluster, suspended over the dance floor & bar. I began to build up an archive of abstract rhythmic images from 16 mm scratch animated loops that I made with a pin mounted in a wooden handle and a jewelers loop attached to my eyeglasses, and shot these loops off of various surfaces with a one-tube panasonic videocamera. Some friends gave me a carton load of Betty Boop cartoons that had been censored off their New Jersey local station as being racist. And there were a few odd nature films. This was my multi-media arsenal. I used my latent puppet building skills to make myself a giant yellow melting eyeball which covered my head completely. There was a hole in the iris so I could breath and see. I was nervous as hell, and sweating like a melting eyeballナ.it was like being inside a fishbowl in a dark tunnel.

I arrived early and tested my beer sipping abilities through a straw into my iris. We all waited. The club was mysteriously empty. Finally, a handfull of people arrived, among them was Pat Armstrong, who informed us that the lead singer of Joy Division commited suicide (Ian Curtis). I stewed in my cyclops prison and the staff insisted on showing my movie anyway. It was a catastrophe with a big " C ". But I was hooked on the video improvisation with live DJ and musical groups, and the club owners Robert Boykin and Barbara Lackey were enthusiastic, as well as Ron Jagger, who was a visionary guy with cataracts who wore an eyepatch. It was his trademark at the time, as well as his long natural platinum hair, he drooled, and he was in spite of that, devastatingly handsome. I think it's his laugh.

Durring this time I had been also working a day job teaching puppet building to handicapped kids, but corruption in the city bureau of funding for special projects for the handicapped caused a freeze on my budget, and I convinced the nightclub to hire me full time to keep the video flowing as a parallel stream to the music. This way I could pay puppeteers out of my own pocket to do shows in the hospitals durring the daytime. The look on those poor happy children's facesナI was a suckerナthe contrast was kind of bizarre. This whole paragraph is hard to place, because it was a double life I was leading.

By night I called myself a V.J., and I interpreted the music played by the D.J. by shuffeling between two U-matic decks with a simple switch, jamming tapes frantically into these top-loaders, and sometimes a live camera and a 16 mm projector. I figured out a way to record stereo feeds of sound, one live mic and one from the line feed of the mixing board, and I videotaped almost every group that passed through that club durring my break. I got in the habit of carrying a thermos of coffee and a few hard boiled eggs to keep me going.

I had the pleasure to showcase other video artists. The " creme de la creme " graced those screens....John Sanborn and Kit Fitzgerald, Shalom Gorewitz who's videos sent the more sensible viewers into epileptic seisures, Edin Velez, Screaming Mad George, just to name a few.

The nightclubs offered an alternative place to show our work and see how a public reacted. With non-narrative works, this was an interesting environment to show in. There were not too many obvious alternatives to TV which has been fairly inaccessible to the independents.

Towards the end of this club's history, two guys would often come into my video booth with note pads. They dressed like the bad guy Mr. Smith in Matrix. One of them was named Bob Pitman. After several nights of skulking behind me and never once offering me a drink, they asked if I would like to show all my work on T.V.? "WOW, yeah, I'd love much will you pay me?" I asked. "Well, nothing" they replied..."but you will have excellent exposure" they promised.

This sounded pretty awful to me, and I politely declined. A year later we would be in a face-off across a mile long teak wood conference table.

Around this time the club closed, and I finally focused on finishing a few pieces. Up to that point, everything had been fluid and in flux. With a budget of food stamps and very odd jobs, I collaborated with a group of musicians I met at the club to make a collection of short music clips which were "non-commercial" commercials. They did not follow the formula of the day, very little on-stage performance footage and sometimes no images of the group at all. The pieces were shot in video and film mixed. Since I had a Bolex camera, special effects were cheaper to invent in the camera than to spend money in a T.V. studio.

When I had 30 minutes finished, I went to SONY HOME VIDEO and asked John MacDonald if he would like to "BREAK MUSIC ON VIDEO"! Usually, the first commercial release of a piece of music is on record, on the radio...but most of my friends in the underground music scene couldn't get a record deal, so I thought this could be a way to leap over that problem, and an interesting way for Sony to make an innovative step in their marketing. Sony liked the idea. John MacDonald was a cross between a cowboy and a guru with a maverick spirit. I developed a series which I called "DANSPAK". Oliver & Adolpho Sanchez made the packageing art under my coordination in an attempt to make something more hip and also hold the costs down so I could pass something along to the musicians. The contract I had worked out with a lawyer who specialised in escargoe but was intersted in doing my contract for free to get some experience with show biz, was 100 times more logical than the 12 lawyers battling each other at Sony. Things worked out for everybody. Where there's a will, there's a way.

Now I had a product to sell, and I went to MTV headquarters to say hello to my old pal Bob Pitman, his associates and programmersナ.the table had turned so to speak.

One of the reasons they gave for refusing to play the tape was, they said, that there was a black guy in the group, and blacks don't buy music ! I was really shocked. Unbelievable ! Jim Fourat happened to be there, someone I crossed paths with in the club scene, and the only one to stand up to this B.S. and laugh in their faces. Eventually, of all people to save the day, ELVIRA who was slated to host the Special Halloween Night show, called to say she would boycot the show if they wouldn't play this clip. The clip was featuring an eclectic bunch of artist-performers called " Strange Party " and included Joey Arias, Ann Magnusun,  and Tony Ferer. (probably spelling that wrong. Sorry Tony) These guys were great, and one of the best collaborative experiences of my life. Each one could bring unique talents to a production environment that made it better, there was a complete synergy and flow.

I'd love to say we all became millionaires, but in fact, we all made a couple hundred dollars. The first DANSPAK sold over 5,000 copies, but the costs for the packaging were high, and next to a Tina Turner tape that sold millions, my tapes were not shining brightly on the balance sheet. Still, it was a nice package, and there was a certain buzz created, and in fact one of the groups told me it was the biggest royalty check they received, creative accounting in the record industry being what it was.

After this I took a break from the music video genre and got some documentary projects going. Winning a stay at the ETC, experimental television center, gave me exposure to Nam June Paik's "wobbulator", it had a playful aspect to it and comprised of some kind of magnets with electricity making it do funny stuff...I hope I'm not giving away any trade secrets here... There were also enough cables hanging on a tree rack in the middle of the loft space to make your own version of "Little Shop of Horrors.

Using an analogue synthesizer is like painting with vapours, like choreographing sentless perfumes. Bathing in the industrial sink was the only thing I regret not having photographed durring my ETC experience. It was a silly idea to try and sit in the sink, but in fact, it was possible if there were no dirty dishes around. On my second stay at ETC, I had my first fateful meeting with the Amiga personal computer. I was too cheap to pay the technician Hank to stay and teach me anything and speant a few days with the mouse making images one pixil at a took hours to make a simple line....I didn't know you should hold the mouse button down to make a line. If you want to see how far I've come, have a look at my website,

This early contact with a computer in an experimental and open-ended environment, no pressure to produce anything special, gave me important confidence to pursue working in this teqhnical medium with an intuitive, rather than a mathematical approach. Otherwise, I would have been too intimidated and turned off by schematics, graphs, words on paper, tables of contents, it all makes me glaze over.

Anyway, the documentaries were very rich experiences to make, and brought me back to my roots of cable news. One of the documentaries I made with Joe Tripician even won an EMMY. (METAPHORIA, distributed by Mystic Fire) and PBS did a limited airing thanks to Lois Bianci's tv series which was too short lived. I also made a series of animations on counting using 3 Amiga computers hooked together which won Sesame Street an EMMY that year. So, things kind of connect if you take the long view.

Those are some highlights of my experiences in the noble calling of video art. I now live on a street where the last working guillotine in France was stored. Still learning. Still experimenting.

Merrill Aldighieri, 2004