Koyannistocksi: A Modern Classic, Recreated With Stock Footage

A film that once argued against capitalism now embodies it.

Koyaanisqatsi / Jesse England

This is the trailer for Koyaanisqatsi, the 1984 art film directed by Godfrey Reggio. If you’ve seen the film before, or know what the trailer looks like, keep reading.

This is Koyaanistocksi, a recreation, released this week, of the original trailer above. Except where the images in the first were created by Reggio and his cinematographer, Ron Fricke, every shot here is replaced by a piece of free, watermarked stock footage.

At the time of its release, Koyaanisqatsi famously defied description. It was a “visual tone poem,” a series of moving images, slowed down and sped up, set to a churning and monumental soundtrack by Phillip Glass. Sunlight passing over cities, flowers opening to face the sun, clouds blooming into convection—the whole documentary articulated that human life had gone awry. According to the filmmakers, Koyaanisqatsi was a Hopi word that meant “life out of balance.”

Without ever using words, Koyaanisqatsi made an argument. At the time, Reggio’s official biography declared he was “interested in the impact of the media in conveying ideas rather than promoting commodities.” Koyaanisqatsi was beautiful, gargantuan, tranquil, yes, but it also positioned itself against what we would now call extractive capitalism.

Which is, to put it mildly, funny. Because nowadays, the Koyaanisqatsi style of filmmaking is most associated with television commercials. Set this new film, Koyannistocksi, to any Paul Simon track from the ’80s and you’d think it was selling you a 401k. The plodding style of cinema that Reggio invented to indict modern globalized civilization has wound up selling the thrill and simultaneity of globalization.

Jesse England, the Pittsburgh-based artist who made Koyannistocksi, writes that he made it as a “testament to Reggio’s influence on contemporary motion photography, and the appropriation of his aesthetic by others for commercial means.” England has previously made a typewriter that types Comic Sans and a film camera that produces Google Streetview-like images, down to the navigational interface.

This move—an anti-establishment aesthetic getting adopted by the very thing it was originally protesting—is hardly new. It might even be the central story of 20th-century art. It’s happening all the time, and it’s happening right now. Earlier this year, for instance, Pantone declared the tranquil tones called rose quartz and serenity the “colors of the year.” Colors might seem like they don’t have an ideological valence, but critics argued that the company was de facto stealing an anti-capitalist aesthetic from the Tumblr community that invented it. It was those teenage Tumblr users, they said, that popularized seashore pastels in the first place.

But while this transition can often be glimpsed mid-phase, it’s rare to see the chain be so complete: a visual language moving from one of protest to one of power. That’s the story of Koyaanisqatsi, and that’s the victory of Koyannistocksi.