MICHAEL ROBINSON’S dyspeptic pop concoctions can be unsettling. The first time I saw Light Is Waiting (2007)—a hallucinatory edit, incorporating stroboscopic and mirror effects, of clips from the television series Full House—more than a few experimental film veterans walked out. Robinson’s ability to shock and upset his audience, especially in the context of something that calls itself avant-garde, is significant. He certainly isn’t the first video artist or filmmaker to salvage lowbrow materials, but his use of found footage is distinctly different from the educational filmstrips, newsreels, and classical Hollywood clips typical of many film recyclists. Instead, Robinson mines artifacts of the too-recent past—Top Forty hits, video games, pulpy romance novels, and prime-time sitcoms that haven’t yet accrued the familiar patina of nostalgia—and explores their still-shifting meanings, these semiforgotten objects still rotting atop our collective cultural garbage heap.
Yet beneath the ironic distance that comes easily when confronting yesterday’s junk, Robinson’s films are moved by an undertow of affect, the pull of the pop hook. He doesn’t avoid the sour connotations of bad taste, but plunges deeper, beyond shame or disavowal, to those secret places where we might take seriously Cyndi Lauper’s vigil in “All Through the Night” or shed a tear for Guns N’ Roses’ cold “November Rain.” And though Robinson, twenty-nine, grew up during the 1980s and ’90s, this isn’t Generation (DI)Y irreverence, either. Rather, his work, interlaced and garbled with VCR tracking, confronts media as media, seducing viewers on multiple registers. The dark thicket of And We All Shine On (2006), for example, opens to a Sega Genesis dreamscape menaced by an 16-bit chimera. And in the karaoke-style video Hold Me Now (2008), a hysterical Mary Ingalls (from Little House on the Prairie) strains against her husband’s embrace as the lyrics to the eponymous Thompson Twins song appear in the frame, inviting us to sing along. But I’ve never heard anyone do it, not aloud. Robinson knows better than most how these cracked pop objects continue to work their power over us even after they’ve been discarded.