In her essay “The Spam of the Earth,” Hito Steyerl describes the sheer bewilderment that alien intelligences will face when they attempt to parse our interstellar transmissions. Michael Robinson’s mesmeric exhibition “Mad Ladders” appeared to enact the efforts of such an extraterrestrial interpreter, for whom our cultural imagery would hold indeterminate meanings and could be recoded into new systems of signification.
Situated between experimental cinema and video art, Robinson’s corpus employs techniques comparable to Stan Brakhage’s frame-by-frame composing, or Paul Sharits’s structural editing. It also has an affinity with the sci-fi dystopianism of J. G. Ballard. An eschatological impulse pervaded “Mad Ladders.” The show comprised a series of collages (all works 2015), the 2-channel video Desert States (You Win Again) and an installation of the short film from which the exhibition took its title. Bearing names like Hard Disk Neolithix, Obsidian Superstar and Historic Future Error, Robinson’s paper-and-rubber cement collages combine drawings of prehistoric tools, computer-generated graphics, circuit-board diagrams, and black-and-white photographs of entropic geological ruins reminiscent of Robert Smithson’s work. Crisp cutouts of human figures hunched in labor occasionally appear; their schematic rendering recalls the aluminum plaques that Carl Sagan launched into space.
To the left of these collages, Desert States silently looped on two adjacent monitors angled toward each other. The video’s footage is sourced from the 1987 and ’88 Miss U.S.A. pageants. Contestants clad in neon one-pieces strike pinup poses against a backdrop of the American Southwest. Protracted zooms and pans frame the rapid, repetitive pulsing of the hyperfeminized bodies, invoking the explosive rhythms of Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79). Robinson focuses exclusively on the contestants, editing out things like the judges’ commentary and numerical scoring. Unmooring the contestants from the mundane objectification of the pageant, the video positions them as unstable signifiers floating in the space of a depopulated desert.
Mad Ladders was screened in a black-box space. Hypnotic and hallucinatory, the film brings occult latencies in contemporary media to the surface. Sister Donna, a self-styled prophet on YouTube, narrates a gamelike odyssey through space oddities and golden triangles toward the impending Rapture, while static and other effects associated with VHS artifacts flicker across the screen. As Donna’s speech is distorted and set against a chiptune remix of a Tori Amos song, footage of early American Music Award broadcasts erupts into view, revealing stage designs steeped in geometric abstractions evocative of both Kazimir Malevich and 8-bit Nintendo consoles.
In the gaming industry, downloadable content packs are periodically released to multiply the set of encounters a user can have in a game world after its narrative possibilities have been exhausted. Mad Ladders shares its title with a pack distributed for the puzzle-platformer game Quantum Conundrum. Operating like a downloadable content pack for popular media, Robinson’s film suggests that we might yet expand and alter the outcomes of our collective narratives.