Standing ten to twenty feet back I can’t make out anything. Splotches of dark and shade shuffle about on the wall until washed away as waves of white overwhelm them. It’s something like the effect of someone passing back and forth close to the lens of a projector. I rejoin my friend Amy at the benches in the back of the gallery and slowly images begin to be perceptible with a bit of concentration. What looks like a DC3 is coming in for a landing. As it nears touchdown, it’s whisked away and something new is rushing madly in front of our eyes taunting us to identify it.
We’re checking out Jim Campbell’s installation at BAM, the latest work in his Home Movies series. The exhibit takes up the entirety of the far wall and is constructed of vertical hanging wires with LED lights attached at regular intervals pointing toward the wall. Light Emitting Diodes are much more ubiquitous than i realized. According to How Stuff Works, they’re the common element for providing the number displays on everything from alarm clocks to microwaves. Pop an LED bulb onto a transistor and pass a current through them and you get light, even in the infrared spectrum (invisible to the human eye) depending on the conductive material used in the diode. They generate very little heat and lacking a filament that will eventually burn out last a long time. Campbell has coordinated the charge passing through each individual diode so that they collectively project moving images on the wall. Since an LED only needs to be illuminated when light is present in its sector of the grid, a buzzing noise rises and falls in pitch as more or less of the diodes are in use. At times it’s a pleasant constant hum and at others, when the image is flooded with white, it’s like the droning of a swarm of mosquitos.
All the footage is acquired; scraps of amateur film stock that Campbell has accumulated over time. They are the typical fare of the home movies of the piece’s title, with the notable exception, as far as I noticed, of human subjects. What I did make out was the aforementioned plane, footage taken from the window of a moving car, a slow pan down a waterfall. This is the perception of a world in motion, the distinctly modern apprehension described in the book by my friend Sarah’s professor Mitchell Schwarzer appropriately titled Zoomscape. Arrivals and departures, discrete segments of journeys now running together and colliding as they loop back upon themselves.
What compels us to record these moments? It’s surely not for posterity. The fact that the footage Campbell is using was discarded is fairly telling. They were quite frankly doomed in any case as the unrelenting march of planned obsolescence replaces existing recording devices for the next media type and player. Outsourced memory has a shelf life. I think about the piles of documents sifted through and compiled for presentation at The Chinese of California exhibit. Paper hasn’t proved obsolete just yet. Will future generations be able to extract all the data of the digital age? Already video games that I played as a kid exist only as code on some superseded format. Campbell has chosen to resuscitate source material of unknown provenance. Resurrected from film or tape to digital file format what do these dimly recognizable landscapes and subjects have to tell us? If there’s anything we can say with certainty it’s that the importance of the captured images was wholly personal. The subjects are preserved, but their initial meaning is lost, probably forever.
In George Johnson’s book Fire in the Mind there is a dizzying chapter on information theory. Advocates in the scientific community believe that information may actually exist as a discrete form of matter or energy (which as Einstein hinted are just two sides of the same coin). One goes so far as to declare that we could one day power a car using information alone. Somewhere in the world of the quanta subatomic particles of information are zipping about, waiting for us to identify them. If I mucked that up Mr. Johnson, forgive me, for even in school I had problems with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I was incredulous that anyone could quantify disorder. If a dried-up leaf was blown an inch or two to the right was there more disorder than there was before? It seemed so subjective. And so it is with information. What value, if any, does meaning add to information? How do you measure meaning? The images that blossomed on the wall across from us or were wiped away as if a rolling paint brush had obliterated them: how much meaning did they have left as the private become public?
This is what is so curious about the installation. Because the projections of the array are so blurred, it takes some degree of effort to make them out. There is the strange feeling that if you tried hard enough you would not only be able to identify the images but remember them. They beg to be understood. This is eerily similar to the latter half of Wim Wender’s film Until the End of the World wherein a machine is introduced that can project a user’s dreams. The character Claire becomes obsessed with viewing the resulting grainy playback, attempting to decipher the products of her own mind, which while familiar are created by some locked away part of her consciousness. Campbell’s curtain of lights constructs a kind of archaeology of moments. They are engrossing and unsettling in their ambiguous origin, lost until the day perhaps when we discover a quark of meaning fluttering about in the cloud of the charmed and the strange.