The Errant Pixel

Curator's Note

We have become accustomed to the glitches that appear when we stream media online or watch digital, satellite-beamed television: the blocky grays that crowd the dark margins of a media file, or a figure momentarily frozen and buried in a mess of pixelated blurs. We naturalize these incidental "corruptions" as part of the condition of viewing digital media, chiefly as the result of compression. In her essay, "In Defense of the Poor Image," Hito Steyerl contends that the economy of compression, particularly the media files that are copied and clandestinely circulated online, also corresponds to a political economy. In this hierarchy, high resolution images are valued over their degraded and illicit copies, a kind of high culture for high definition. "Focus," she writes, "is identified as a class position." In considering the poor image at work in Basma Alsharif's Home Movies Gaza (2013), we might also understand it as an effect of war.

The poor image is most acutely manifest in pixels that appear out of place: frozen where they should be moving, moving where they should be still, oddly clustered, or singularly straying. Such errant pixels may appear as artifacts of the compression or transmission process, or tiny pinpoints on our LCD monitors that refuse to obey their software protocols. (The latter, alternatively called stuck, frozen, or dead pixels, can sometimes be "woken up" by running screensaver flicker programs, or by rubbing the screen.) They trace the routes of media circulation, the flows of political economy, and, with Home Movies Gaza, the movements of war.

In Alsharif's film, the television signal is scrambled by an unseen force, that of Israeli drones patrolling the Gaza Strip. We see a lion pride climbing over an elephant at night, a view of a stealth attack enabled by infared camera technology. The image on the monitor intermittently chokes, riven with streams of pixels. What we might normally dismiss as system hiccups become, in Alsharif's steady view, an injunction to look at the political constitution of the screen. Because the film is shot almost entirely indoors, in the absence of explicit images of war, the errant pixel is what registers the pervasive, though invisible, presence of an occupation. Home Movies Gaza calls on us to notice these erratic, indeed besieged pixels, and to unearth in them political forces that only appear as momentary disruptions on a smooth surface, their paths otherwise traceless.


Genevieve, thanks for this great post. I think what you say about Home Movies Gaza nicely parallels, and expands on, some of what Paul Benzon's post indicates about possible intersections between war, the destruction of media, and a politics of media archaeology. Similarly, what you note about the political economy of degraded images pairs in an interesting way with Catherine Russell's post on her copy of A Message to Garcia.

Hi Genevieve, This is a great post, and it raises all sorts of provocative lines of thought about the circulation of media objects and how decay, distortion, deterioration, etc., play into that circulation. Your description of these pixels as "errant" gets at that nicely -- we have to not only see them as malfunctional, but also consider where and how they've arrived at our monitors/sets in such a form: what routers, cables, servers, nations they've passed through. While your discussion here alludes particularly to streamed material, Brian Larkin's takes up some of the same issues in his work on the aesthetics of Nigerian video piracy, and the degradation this clip shows also appears all the time in scratched DVDs (a la Netflix), and always makes me think about how and how much that disc has been seen before it arrived in my mailbox -- and your post makes clear how deeply we have to ask those questions of pixels and bits as well.

I have been interested for some time in the bugs of new technologies that often seem to make for more degenerated and distorted images than the promise of technological progress would suggest. The errant pixel that you discuss is especially provocative because of the disparity of sites and imagery in the clip: lions and elephants in Gaza? There seems to be a collage effect created by the receding levels of imagery, which is quite beautiful, except that it is not beautiful but violent. And yet, once the images are removed from that scene, in another level of representation, the violence recedes into the media itself. Thanks for a provocative post!

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