The Art of Jim Campbell: Seeing In Pixels

A man runs. He falls down. He struggles back onto his feet and he runs some more. It's a simple narrative. Even without much detail, you can understand what's going on. Pause the video, though, and the scene isn't nearly as clear. Movement makes up for the lack of other visual information. Your brain can read and understand a video at much lower resolution than it would need to make equal sense of a still frame.

Meet Jim Campbell, a former Silicon Valley engineer turned visual artist. Inspired by early Bell Labs experiments with pixelated images, and by his own engineering work with digital filters, Campbell makes art that toys with the human brain.

I first saw Campbell's work in early October, at a conference about LED lighting. He was there to teach the techie types about art--which is somewhat ironic because, in Campbell's case, art comes from a very techie place. Specifically, the November 1973 issue of Scientific American. Much of the inspiration for Campbell's current work comes from a story in that magazine, written by Bell Labs' Leon Harmon, about low-resolution images and the minimum threshold of information the human brain needs to recognize faces. The now-classic example Harmon used was a 252-pixel, grayscale portrait of Abe Lincoln.

Since the '70s, plenty of artists have worked in pixel mosaic, but Campbell was more attracted to the the question Harmon was asking: How low resolution can an image or video be before we no longer recognize what's going on?

This boxing match video--using only 88 pixels--is probably the furthest Campbell has pushed the idea. "Most people still get it, but it might take some people 10 minutes. I don't think anyone would get it at all if it were in black and white," he says. "With color you need fewer pixels total, because there's more information per pixel."

It's that extra information per pixel--particularly the information provided by movement--that makes Campbell's art understandable at all. While he's read a little about brain science, most of Campbell's theories about what's going on between his art and viewers' heads is based on simple observation and guesswork. The way he sees it, his art is tapping into a more primitive sort of seeing. "It's pretty well known that there are different parts of your brain that are just looking at movement and rhythm. Just as there are parts that only look at color or just at analytical things," he says. "I think when you take away the detail and it's just movement, the image doesn't have to be analyzed as much. It's just there. You're getting at that primal vision, the simple job of hunting and survival."

To see it in action, just look at a still image from the "Running and Falling" video. The extra information of movement makes all the difference between completely clear, and completely abstract.


The other big thing Campbell has noticed is that low-res images--even moving ones--make a lot more sense once you've put them through a filter. At the end of the boxing match video above, Campbell comes into the shot and removes a plexiglass panel, revealing the blinking LEDs underneath. Suddenly, even if you were getting the idea of a fight before, the image loses most (if not all) of it's meaning.

Filtering is important to Campbell's art. The idea is based on what he used to do, back when he was a full-time Silicon Valley engineer, with digital reconstruction filters for processing sound and images in a computer. According to Campbell, a digitized image has a "stair step" effect. It's essentially broken into a bunch of individual pieces of information that are next to each other, but not really connected. Reconstruction filters take these pieces and smoosh and blend them, combining a bunch of separate dots into a coherent whole. "I took that idea and just created an optical process, instead of an electronic one," Campbell says.

He does this in several different ways. Besides the literal plexiglass filter used in the boxing match video, Campbell has also found that simply turning the art away from the viewer can have a similar effect. That's what's going on in this last video. Campbell has a square panel, with LEDs around the edges of it. He hangs it up, with the lights facing the wall. Instead of seeing the individual dots of light, you see the smoothed out, low-resolution video projected on the wall. If you didn't know ahead of time that the piece was cycling through scenes of a fire, freeway traffic and a walk through a park, you'd probably still have trouble understanding what you were seeing. But without the filter, you'd likely never get it.

Videos and still frame used with permission of Jim Campbell.


  1. Apparently the second video (“Jim Campbell 2”) is region-locked and inaccessible within the US. A shame, because I was rather curious to see it.

    1. So, apparently, despite the fact that I got these videos directly from the artist and have his permission to post them, YouTube is claiming a copyright infringement on the Jim Campbell 2 video. I’m trying to get it worked out. Apologies for the inconvenience. It’s a cool video and I want you all to see it so I’ll see what I can do to correct this mistake.

  2. Great post…its bizarre because last month we put up a holderpage for our website (whilst we do a much needed renew) which uses a similar theory to get over the message – if you don’t keep moving in this current creative climate you disappear…

  3. I watched the one video for a long time, and all I could get out of it was different coloured blobs. Then I read that it was a boxing match and it suddenly all clicked.

    It’s similar to the Abe Lincoln picture. If you hadn’t seen that exact same photo of Lincoln before, you certainly wouldn’t figure it out.

    Maybe this guy should make some vision impaired video games for Sony.

  4. Good news! We’ve got the mistaken copyright dispute worked out with YouTube! I’ve put the Boxing Match video back in the story. If you can’t see it, just reload the page. It’ll be there shortly.


  5. This is the same as my SatanVision, but taken to an extreme. I used 12,288 pixels to produce what are amazingly detailed images of people and other recognizable things on a big LED television.
    It is quite interesting to watch a low-resolution display. The things that your brain fills in are astounding, such as the sheen on a suit jacket or the wave in a hairdo – stuff that obviously can’t exist in the red dots that your eyes see.

  6. Phenomenal timing! I was just in Shanghai last week and bought the following artwork:

    Here is a ton more. Click on one and then on the video tab on the bottom right of the new frame

    The low-rez videos don’t do the high quality/contrast LED’s justice.

    But the same concept – the gallery owner (a cool Frenchman called Thomas) told me that “models” are all performance artists specially selected for these. The ballerina is a lieutenant in the Chinese Army, and studied something like “military ballet.” Whatever…that’s certainly not as weird as many of the things I had to eat…


  7. The low-resolution running man combines two degradations: low resolution, and non-adjacent pixels. Changing the scene from a dot array to filled contiguous pixels without changing the colors or the resolution makes a big boost in recognition. I was given this as a project as a young engineer in 1975, when it was realized that the 8 x 8 pinpoint display of an IR image sensor didn’t yield anything recognizable. Expanding the dots to squares with some TTL logic and fun, suddenly made the images recognizable. Blurry still, but recognizable.

  8. Is this the same Jim Campbell who went to Kcai in the 90s? It was funny cause I did too and my name is the same. When I was a freshman in 1995 he had gallery shows in town. Maybe that was a different video artist, but it would be quite a coincidenceif he is not one and the same.

  9. funny thing about that still frame from the run/fall vid is, when it’s scrolling by on my screen, it reads as a man in a place, but when i stop moving it, it goes back to abstract red dots.

    neat stuff!

  10. It’s amazing how much filtering really does make the image easier to see. I added a blur filter to Running and Falling, and the image just jumped off the screen. You can see it here:

  11. I saw a bunch of paintings in a small gallery in Newcastle a few years ago which took the same kinds of ideas. The gallery owners suggested that looking at the paintings through the camera of your mobile phone increases the clarity. This worked for me with the “Man Running And Falling” video. It’s quite interesting. Also this reminds me of Chuck Close’s later works, which everyone should check out as he is fantastic.

  12. A cool application of this is restoring vision to the blind. I can’t find any links about it, but I remember a small camera sends a signal to an array that can transmit electrical info directly to the optic nerve. The array in the example I saw was something like 6×6. The patient wasn’t about to see the Mona Lisa again or anything, but it worked well enough to tell shadows and borders of objects. Imagine if, after 30 years of blindness, you got to see the world again, but only through pixels. It only works with a developed visual cortex, which you don’t have if you are blind from birth.

  13. I was struggling with the boxing one – until the ref’ walked through the shot, then it all just made sense. However, I was totally gob-smacked when the filter was removed at just how little information there actually was.

    Mind = blown!

  14. I saw a bunch of this work at MICA in Baltimore when I was a freshman, circa fall 2004. The stuff is very nice in person.

  15. Hi, I would like to cite this article in a paper I am writing. Where did you get the quotes from Jim Campbell from? Did you interview him personally?

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