The kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the Earth, and men do not see it.—The Gospel of Thomas
Like video games, experimental video art poses a unique critical challenge. In what way do you approach such dense, ambiguous, and sealed-off works—art that is almost airtight? However, when the emotional response provoked by a particular video eclipses the tired one-two punch of even your most un-average film, a personal response is practically demanded.
The fascinating thing about this video is its intense spirituality. It combines aspects from the philosophy of Joseph Campbell and Aldous Huxley with the deconstructionist goals of post-modernism, and its unwavering dedication to the purity of the aesthetic experience recalls Joyce and his famous definition of art.
Michael Robinson is part of a recent shift in Experimental video that is distinctly post-postmodern. Beyond “glib…ironies” he attempts to “accept the failure…of the grand designs of modernity [but] still operate on a plane of sincerity, commitment, and belief.” He’s been making videos and films throughout the 21st century using a variety of styles and techniques. They incorporate elements from video games, personal home movies, and found footage with varying amounts of unique material shot for the specific projects. Even though they’re often very different in content, they all approach modernity with the same sense of great tragedy and childlike wonder. The first video of his I saw—and the one that has most affected me—is Light is Waiting from 2007.
Anyone who has an experience of mystery at all knows that there is a dimension, let’s say, of the universe that is not that which is available to his senses.—Joseph Campbell
Using found footage from two Season 3 episodes of the sappy pop sitcom Full House and forcing a simple but powerful kaleidoscoping effect onto it, Robinson evokes characteristics from the original material that can only be described as “spiritual.” In fact, I would go as far as saying that he momentarily captures the image of God itself.
After watching it, all I could think of was Joseph Campbell and his personal emphasis on God’s radiance, mystery, and impersonality.
Poetry is a language that has to be penetrated…it opens, it’s the rhythm, the precise choice of words that will have implications and suggestions past the word and then you get what Joyce calls the radiance, the epiphany. The epiphany is the showing through of the essence.—Joseph Campbell
Full House‘s undeniable awfulness may make it seem like a problematic choice for reappropriation to some, but for me, Light is Waiting is able to foreground its apparent mystical investigations into the nature of existence precisely by utilizing a generic, uninspiring, and even blatantly regressive text. No matter your spiritual or political persuasion, nobody can reasonably argue that our modern world is a very sacred place. It’s profanity is echoed in every politician’s lie, in every child abused, and in every injustice gone unnoticed.
This doesn’t mean that the world is devoid of mystery or majesty; if the world is a rotten fruit and shows like Full House are the worms, then God is the Void that will eventually claim them both. God’s glory, if you will, is in every link of the chain of being, not just the ones at the top.
There’s another emotion associated with art which is not of the beautiful but of the sublime, and what we call monsters can be seen as sublime. They represent powers too great for the mere forms of life to survive.—J. Campbell
All of this grandstanding should stress one main point—that Light is Waiting is a paradox. From the opening strains of its appropriated schlock score there’s a palpable tension between what’s actually onscreen and what’s in the artist’s heart. Our first emotional reaction is inevitably ironic, absorbing DJ and Kimmy’s inane and self-reflexive blather as the detritus of a society so far gone that laughing at our own demise is the only recourse left to us. But by the end—by the time the light has burned away every ounce of blindness and death, by the time we’ve danced with our shadow and whispered its name, by the time we see ourselves reflected in the face of the “other” and our radiant consciousness has shimmied up to the screen and started leaking in (out?), the video has taken us far beyond the rainbow, far beyond the moon, and into the void and back again.
When you’re lost out there and you’re all alone / a light is waiting / to carry you home—John Stamos in the Full House theme.
Most of the video culls an episode of Full House called Tanner’s Island. In this Season 3 opener, the Tanners go on vacation to Hawaii where Danny (Bob Saget) gets them lost and shipwrecked, but in the end they are all onstage at a Polynesian luau having a blast and performing Elvis’s Rock-a-Hula. The largely unchanged opening minute-and-a-half is from the second to last episode of the same season—Fraternity Reunion. This episode’s particulars seem a little less significant, although oddly enough this was an episode that featured a little cross-dressing and a night in jail on the part of our patriarchs.
Romanticism’s linking of the natural world to spiritual exchange and transformation has become of increasing interest to me—Michael Robinson
One element of the Tanner’s Island episode that becomes crucial in my reading of Light is Waiting is that the kids end up handling the family’s precarious ‘deserted island’ experience with greater aplomb than their more experienced counterparts. The Romantics (William Blake, in particular) believed that childhood was sacred, and that children were wiser than adults who’d been corrupted by “society.” For me, Robinson’s interpretation of the Full House material suggests a Romantic reading: the opening excerpt that implies a spiritual and intellectual discord in our overmediated era; the movement from suburb to Jungle that’s accompanied by an ecstatic sense of “otherness;” and the climactic performance wherein Jesse’s embrace and elevation of Michelle takes on both sacrificial and transformative qualities.
Joyce’s formula for the aesthetic experience is that it doesn’t move you to want to posess the object—that he calls pornography. Nor does it move you to criticize and reject the object—that he calls didactic, social criticism in art and all that kind of thing. It is beholding the object. He said we put a frame around it and see it as one thing. And by seeing it as one thing you become aware of the relationship of part to part to part and the parts to the whole…when a fortunate rhythm has been struck by the artist there is a radiance, and that is the epiphany.—Joseph Campbell on James Joyce
One of the incredible things about Light is Waiting is the way it takes something as loaded with audience expectations as Full House and renders it entirely judgement-neutral. On repeat viewings even the opening minute of the straight TV footage becomes mysterious and magical in light of the intense psychedelic journey Robinson takes you on afterwards. James Joyce’s ideas about art and epiphany are relevant here, because Robinson is explicitly not asking you to laugh at or judge Full House in all its conformist madness. Instead he takes it and “put[s] a frame around it” with his crazy mirroring effect.
I’m not necessarily mocking Full House, I am underlining its problems and letting it speak for itself.—Michael Robinson
The inherent narcissim, the rehashed jokes, the unwavering fear of any non-white characters—they’re all rendered meaningless in face of the spiritual apocalypse that Robinson drops on them. In the opening clip, Kimmy and DJ seem worried that they’ll miss something—if we watch the news we’ll miss the Top 40 or vice/versa. Yet, its because of both the Top 40 and the news that they’re missing the everyday wonder that gives human life meaning.
They need something to start their mystical journey—something to open them up. After they drop the TV, we see the footage of a boat lost at sea and a plane hovering in the air and you can hear someone asking:
What happened? You can tell me anything. Did you drop [my emphasis] something? Did something break?
Of course, in this context the authoritarian inquiry into whether or not something was “dropped” can only refer to the colloquial expression for ingesting a psychedelic substance. Here’s where Joseph Campbell, Romanticism, and Aldous Huxley all meet.
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Aldous Huxley uses that quote at the start of his book The Doors of Perception. In it Huxley conflates the psychedelic experience with the religious—a relationship that actually stretches back to the very start of man’s history. For Huxley, our “doors of perception” close at childhood, and we lose the general all-around amazement that characterize the religious life. Psychedelics, with their dramatic consciosness-reorientation, break open these “doors” and leave you with pure cathartic, childlike wonder. Light is Waiting recreates this same intense experience without psychedelics, bridging the gap between what is fantastically Real and eternal with what is ordinary and transitory.
Goethe says all thing are metaphors…everything that is transitory is but a metaphorical reference. That’s what we all are.—Joseph Campbell [All Campbell quotes are from the final episode of Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth.]
Certainly this look at Light is Waiting isn’t meant to be the final word on its aesthetic significance. Its a fascinating onion, with limitless interpretability. Like Andre (from My Dinner with Andre) I saw demons and voids, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Wallace would see something different. However, if you are to approach the work with the seriousness that Michael Robinson displays in the several interviews I’ve read with him, then you have to account for its perverse sincerity and utter lack of didactics. He isn’t just saying that Full House sucks, who would care? He’s telling us that all of our lives our as empty as those characters, but not for a lack of God. We can’t expect God to step out and tap us on the shoulder and deliver a religious experience, we have to be looking—searching—for it under every rock we find—even the ugly ones.