3.6 / Aliens vs. Venetians

The Slacker, the Protestor, Cosmic Gestation, and Me

By Carol Anne McChrystal December 7, 2011
Mindglow, 2011; film still. Courtesy of the Artists

Mindglow, 2011; film still. Courtesy of the Artists

The slogan “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” expresses a sentiment about an ideological generation gap that was at the heart of American youth counterculture movements in the 1960s. It’s attributed to a twenty-four-year-old activist in the Free Speech Movement at U.C. Berkeley who later asserted that he didn’t actually even believe it, but rather made the comment as a taunt to question whether or not there were outside adults manipulating their organization.1

The Mindglow project, originated by Bay Area– and Austin-based artists Eric Svedas and Sam Wohl (working under the name Virtual Pubes), is also a sort of goading cultural prompt. Mindglow exists in a zone that lies between what we like and what is vital, a variable space between art and entertainment. While Mindglow displays obvious characteristics of a short film, it’s more interesting to read the work as a moving image that works through the language of a movie. Like Dan Graham and Tony Oursler’s collaborative video-performance-installation-extravaganza DTAOT:Combine (2005), Svedas and Wohl frame this work as entertainment. What began as an exploration of the space between video and performance art spiraled into a collaborative endeavor between Svedas, Wohl, and a handful of their friends. Authorship dispersed; Mindglow transformed again from a feature-length film into an action-packed seventeen-minute short in the guise of a buddy film. It’s a movie that humorously pokes at its own mistrust in the movie industry—it even had its “world premiere” at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater in November 2011.

Taking as its topic material conditions made possible by an entertainment industry, Mindglow plays with and within a viewer’s expectations for the movie framework. While it does ask a question about the basic nature of entertainment, in and of itself, Mindglow doesn’t reroute what a short film can be. Instead, it uses a production model that, in tandem with the subject matter of the work, continually refers back to those material conditions that foreground its very production. Together these elements in Mindglow work to reposition how a viewer is produced as a subject under entertainment’s conditions and who can participate in production of realities and how.

Distilled, Mindglow is the story of two slackers, brunette Sam and blond Eric, who birth an extraterrestrial named Craig after eating contaminated burritos. In the quirky plotline set in the near-distant future of San Francisco in 2012, Mindglow opens as the pair frantically brushes their teeth together in the bathroom mirror. Later, as the two idly bicker about whose turn it is to buy lunch, a horrifyingly abject subterranean troll messes around in a shit-filled toilet, making faces in the mirror and incanting in his underground hideout. Leaving their fate up to a slug at hand, the answer is decided: Sam and Eric summon the troll up from the subterranean depth, and he takes their order from inside of the trashcan at the top of his subterranean lair. It’s really gross in a playful way: the abject creature makes Eric’s burritos from an overflowing toilet and then injects each one with a mysterious fluorescent fluid.

Afterward, surrounded by burrito wrappers, an aggressive military doctor, played by same actor who depicts Sam, questions a poisoned Eric. The diagnosis? Eric is pregnant! Later aboard a submerged submarine, the same spectral doctor attends to Eric in the process of birthing; his third eye glows as the creature emerges from Eric’s “manhole.” As the slacker pair adoringly speculates about which Ivy League college their new son should one day attend, the newly christened Craig is declared by the spectral medical army general a “level-six-illegal-extraterrestrial.” Sam and Eric plead with the General to let their eleven-eyed purple Craig go free, and two figures in Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) uniforms cover the pair’s heads with black bags. The next thing you know, the two, tossed out from the submarine and dragged onto land, are shoved through a crowd of longhaired ragamuffin protestors, thrown into the back of the INS’s deportation van and driven away.

As the car recklessly swerves through the streets, the narrative cuts to Wohl dressed as yet another character: the actor who portrays Tubeman, the mascot for the peculiar pastel-yellow Rodentadent-brand toothpaste with which Sam and Eric hysterically brushed their teeth in Mindglow’s opening sequence. As Sam and Eric roll around in the back of the van, Tubeman goes about his business: he signs autographs, discusses his career on his cell phone, and waves to admiring fans. Absentmindedly, Tubeman crosses the street and he’s mowed down by the same INS van that has abducted our loafers and their puffy little puppet alien baby. In the wreck’s aftermath, the two protagonists and Craig make a disoriented escape. Tubeman’s doughy yellow paste spills out into the street, and Sam and Eric with Craig in his arms amble into the distance. Together they return to the trashcan where they bought the toxic burritos. Each sipping on a forty, Sam and Eric nod eagerly as Craig describes his otherworldly origins and purpose here on Earth. With no other explanation, Craig will teach humans to transcend banal existence simply by eliminating a number of conditions—most of which qualify simply as minorly irritating facts of life, and at worst, annoying bummers. As Craig endlessly inventories the material conditions to be done away with, the camera zooms into the ground under Sam’s and Eric’s feet where a pair of slacker rats watch television in their nest. As they idly complain about how long it has taken the landlord to get around to fixing the feeder, the camera zooms into the TV: it’s playing the Rodentadent commercial.

Deploying a familiar narrative structure, Mindglow’s story nudges steadily forward as well as inward and outward. While this woven narrative isn’t exactly as intricate as One Hundred Years of Solitude, it does nod to the offbeat, semi-surreal 1980s BBC sitcom The Young Ones. Specifically, several almost non sequitur subterranean narratives intersect the primary narrative. Each of these uses off-kilter humor to deal with the idea of subject formation in a media-saturated culture. Zooming into and out from Sam and Eric’s world, one of these cutaways exposes the movie the viewer watches from a theater seat instead as a television program being watched by a funny but abject family in their home. A viewer’s gaze turns now to watch the family watching Sam and Eric’s underwater adventure. These mise en abyme fragments are like the experience of channel surfing: continually diverting the viewer’s attention around and away from the main narrative.

It is in this way that Mindglow both encourages its viewer to indulge in the fantasy spun by the narrative despite the concurrent insistence on prohibiting a viewer’s full engagement. Like Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of TenMindglow nests worlds within worlds. Hinting at ordered magnitudes enables Mindglow to linger in a conceptual loophole: the film displays the subjects that are produced by a media-addled reality without forgetting that without those realities and subjects, Mindglow would never be a conceptually viable project in the first place. It’s a film that takes up as its topic the question of who can participate in cultural production and how they can participate in that production—a sentiment that is echoed in the way in which the movie itself was made.

Mindglow, 2011. Courtesy of the Artists.

Collaboration is a common practice among contemporary artists: cobbling together a range of skill sets from their circle of peers, Mindglow developed out of the community of artists that surround Svedas and Wohl. While this collaborative approach to Mindglow wasn’t built in to their initial concept, it is the result of their both having lived together at Bay Area 51, an intentional community of artists and musicians premised on the free flow of ideas, opinions, skills, and time. It was in this self-proclaimed microcosm that Svedas and Wohl learned to work together organically: “being around each other a lot, being friends… and helping each other out [on projects].”2 Relying on each individual involved in Mindglow to do “their little shining part,” Svedas and Wohl express a desire to work in opposition to the atomization or super-specialization of labor, a process by which a person’s “skill set or talents [are] kind of extracted through society, [for] capital.” Svedas believes that Mindglow was a channel for his friends to “participate in a very real way that they felt very connected with.”3

Mindglow’s production model speaks to a drive for one to be his or her own cultural producer. It bears the trace of an impulse known as punk cinema. Think trash classic Desperate Teenage Lovedolls, movies characterized by cultural theorist Stacy Thompson as employing an “open, writerly aesthetic,” whose narrative gaps insist that the audience connect the dots and whose subject matters also tend to critique their own potential for commodification. Thompson points out that most importantly, these films have “an identifiable aesthetic bolstered with a correlative economics.” 4 This is to say that the kids who historically made these films from within the territory of their subculture embraced an aesthetic of images clearly produced with extremely limited resources. Simply put, these films stand as a testament to getting together with your friends to make something meaningful for yourself, to do the best you can with what you’ve got. Ultimately this gesture strives to generate a sense of history in which one can participate. It speaks to the very possibility of making music or film or art, but also carries with it an in-built critical awareness of the culture industry that makes possible the production of these types of works in the first place.

In the historical context of the 1980s, a gesture like punk cinema may have been enough of a challenge to pose questions about participation in a dominant culture. However, in a time where broadcasting oneself is a rule, not an exception, is this type of DIY transmission simply a release valve, a carnival protest? Simply because a film is produced in a subcultural arena doesn’t mean that it is revolutionary, or even resistant to the dominant model; sometimes they can be understood to reinforce the entity they hope to offset. YouTube, Ustream, and Vimeo all bear witness to the fact that people broadcast images of their own productions for so many reasons—for personal and professional ambition, to share information, to test the limitations and possibilities of these technologies, or just because they can.

Mindglow’s endearing recursive exploitation and amplification of its own questionable production value could be understood simply to be a symptom of the mediascape that allows us all to broadcast ourselves. However, it’s the concomitant nesting of this work into the context of entertainment that asks a question about the nature of entertainment itself. As a vessel for the creative potential of their collaborative team of San Francisco artists, musicians, designers, and filmmakers, Mindglow’s placement within the larger context of Hollywood or American cinema points to that “hope of retaining the notion of a history that can be participated in.”5 What Mindglow lands upon is the surface of a will for a palpable change related to creating a sustainable art practice and creative economy around oneself, an impulse toward the will to create cultural artifacts despite the fact that they may never have meaning for anyone outside of the group of people who made them. 

Mindglow, 2011; film still. Courtesy of the Artists

In a funny way, by using images and strategies culled from collective consciousness, images that are easy to believe we already know, meaning within the film itself seems preempted from the get-go. Mindglow’s binary protagonists are archetypes—classic specimens of less-than-ambitious, sometimes good-hearted but possibly stupid partners-in-crime. Think Beavis and Butthead, Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, or those two fools from Dumb & Dumber. What is it about the image of the youthful slacker that has so much cultural cache here in America? What is it about the predictable narrative that one can unwittingly change the course of human civilization? While these archetypes are corny, there’s something in our recognition and ability to identify the set character types that encourages the viewer to continue watching. I already know that there is going to be some kind of mad-cap adventure and that I will be satisfied by witnessing how it pans out within the limitations of the genre. As formula would have it, the pair, through their seemingly willful inability to function as productive members of society, of course stumbles into some wonderful, earth-shaking adventure.

Obverse of the invocation of this particular archetype in Mindglow is a parallel deployment of the dashiki-clad long-haired hippie protestor. Synonymous with how we envision a collective will to change, they march against the INS bearing signs that read “Legalize Things” and “I’m up-S.E.T.I.” They embody revolutionary posturing: “a protest for the fucking sake of protest,” as Svedas sees it.6 The exploitation of pre-formulated characters that lead a viewer to a set of expectations points to the obvious: films are produced to fulfill expectations of genre, and audience expectation determines the types of films that are made. In this chicken-egg-thing, in this anti-thought tomb, nothing new can ever really happen.

Written in the heyday of those American youth counterculture movements of the psychedelic era, Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema articulates a relationship between experimental film/video art and entertainment. For Youngblood, the saddest and gravest aspect of generic structure in narrative film is that it transfers to how we, an audience, interpret daily life. We find ourselves thus in a present that is conditional, that has been conditioned by the past: we have no ability to comprehend the future.7

Mindglow, 2011; film still. Courtesy of the Artists

The twin conjuring of the image of the slacker and the image of the spirit of protest prompts consideration about the way in which radical social action in America has been historicized as propelled by idealistic, fully–in–the–know, passionate youths. Widespread cultural romanticization of 1960s radicals informs the way in which today’s activists are belittled as whiny and entitled, purposeless and lazy; in short, as slackers. By the same token, understanding the relationship between complacency and change is bound by a fantasy steeped in this aestheticized historicization.

By pairing the two comically reductive images, Mindglow mirrors a simplified conceptualization of a complicated contemporary relationship between resistance and complicity. In Mindglow there is no character that knows how or where to direct resistive energy. Neither Sam nor Eric nor the protestors have the power to direct any of their fates, whether because of the spooky spectral government agency that seeks to conceal the birth of Craig, because there are “massively dark forces that are far more organized and able,” or because they’re not even sure of what they protest. Working through these stereotypes and predictable plot strategies, which are so full, yet at the same time devoid of significance, emerges a question about locating agency—while  Sam and Eric are adrift in apathy, so, too, are the countercultural youths. 

In the introduction to Youngblood’s seminal text, Buckminster Fuller wrote, “The first Berkeley dissident students were born the year commercial television started.”8 In their lifetimes, they witnessed a collective will for radical social change, the first moon landing, and JFK’s assassination broadcast on television, as well as the eventual dissipation of their idealistic hopes and dreams. For the generation that mused, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” the well-known image of the star child embryo in 2001: A Space Odyssey resounded as an elegant symbol of cosmic gestation, of the unimaginable and profound evolutions that awaited the consciousness of the human species. Mindglow’s Craig is to the image of the star child as the image of the slacker is to the 1960s counterculture radical. Svedas and Wohl’s Craig is a clumsy allegorization of the complicated intermingling of lingering star-child sentiments with the stupid hermeneutic loop between material conditions, agency, and preemptive projections of participation. At the end of the day, Mindglow is a funny little movie that may not mean a whole lot to people outside of those who made it, but in its small way it wonders about the fatalistic zone that would posit that so much has happened, yet nothing has happened.


Mindglow will be screened at the Explorist International on December 14, 2011.


  1. Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations, Ed. Suzy Platt. (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1989). Bartleby.com: Great Books Online -- Quotes, Poems, Novels, Classics and Hundreds More, accessed Nov. 24. 2011, http://www.bartleby.com/73/1828.html.
  2. Interview with Eric Svedas, November 3, 2011.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Stacy Thompson, "Punk Cinema," Cinema Journal Volume 43.2 (2004): 47-66, 53.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Interview with Eric Svedas, November 3, 2011.
  7. Youngblood, Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970), 60.
  8. R. Buckminster Fuller, "Introduction," Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970), 25-35.

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