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SCMS Dispatches: “Defining Experimental Animation”

To address some of the problems and possibilities facing animation scholarship, the Animated Media Special Interest Group sponsored a night of short experimental animated films at SCMS this year.  Defining Experimental Animation was put together to address the following questions:

            How does one “conduct” an animation experiment?

            Can experimental animation play with character and figuration?

            Is animation itself an experiment with cinema?

The last question suggests something of the relationship between animation and live-action film, a matter with which a number of scholars have struggled for the past decade.  The second question speaks to the problem of animation’s relation to experimental film, whose critics and champions have mostly favored abstraction; thanks to the dominance of cartoon studio styles, it is difficult to think of animators’ uses of characters and figuration as “experimental.”

But both of these latter questions depend fundamentally on how the first question is answered, which effectively asks us to consider what counts as an experiment in animation.  Rather than thinking of “experimental animation” as something like a genre, akin to cartoons or avant-garde film (with its own canons, communities, theories, etc.), it may be more productive to interrogate the notion of experiment as such.  This is a tricky matter.  I detect some ambivalence even in the phrasing of the question, as if the word “conduct” can’t be meant literally here.  But it offers a starting place for thinking about the films.  And it’s worth considering the event itself as an experiment with its participants, who were asked to put these questions (printed in the program) to the films.

The experiment was conducted at the Cinema Borealis in Wicker Park, several flights of stairs above a furniture store.  The Borealis houses three rows of cushioned seats that don’t fold upward like movie theater seats should; sitting in one feels like being in an old miniature recliner (and, to add seats, the Borealis added some actual recliners).  The stone walls, hardwood floors, and open space gave a sense of being in the den of someone’s very large house.  It took about two minutes for the projectionist to change 16mm reels between films, leaving the audience free to whisper in the dark for indeterminate stretches.  The experience had something of the secrecy and comfort of a slumber party.

The films were curated by Alexander Stewart and Lillie Carré, selected from their previous work at the Eyeworks Film Festival in Chicago.  The program mixed better- and lesser-known animators, arranged in a way that aimed for variety of mood and unexpected overlap of techniques.  Selections from the contributors in the program notes are in quotes, followed by own thoughts in the context of the program.

LMNO (Robert Breer, 1978): “Grounded initially in a line-drawn policeman whose body over the film is stretched, altered, and cut in half, Breer quickly begins to toy with spectators as well by interlacing images into graphic transformations to construct sexual and other puns.”  (Andrew Johnston)  This film softens the edges of much of Breer’s earlier experimental work, even as it consolidates a dizzying number of Breer’s characteristic techniques (including his frame-by-frame intercutting, his color Xerography, and his rotoscoping).  Breer eases his piles of ideas and images into gentle rhythmic figures, aided by the ambient-rhythmic soundtrack.  Even his trademark Pop Art intensity of colors is less prominent, favoring cooler tones and subtler hues: the recurring policeman seems to have been drawn with the Yellow-Green from Breer’s Crayola box.

Mirror People (Kathy Rose, 1974): “[I]n Mirror People reflections…turn inward, as the animated images begin to mirror one another and mutate through their encounters.  Figures are reflected in various planes and surfaces, fuse, split, and continue on their way toward becoming someone else.”  (Alla Gadassik)  Rose puts her two gibberish-emitting “characters” through an astonishing number of transformations, all at a relatively smooth and uniform pace but never stabilizing on a bodily form.  The space around the characters goes through similar transformations, often changing its contours with the figures, never quite allowing our sense of perspective to settle down.

Make Me Psychic (Sally Cruikshank, 1978): “Moments of plasmatic mobility [in the film’s characters] are offset by a disturbing lack of control that characters often have over their bodies and perceptions, dissolving our familiarity with the once-cheerful elasticity of the cartoon form.”  (Pierson)  Cruikshank’s film is easily the most cartoony of the program, but cartoon conventions are aggressively warped in ways that suck the laughs out of the gags.  While I wouldn’t call it funny, I can’t call its humor “failed.”  Gags don’t fall flat; they plunge into some cavernous void below a place where the floor is supposed to be.

Flesh Flows (Adam Beckett, 1974): “[T]he sense of moving forward [in space or time] alternates with a sense of expansion and contraction, as the finished cycle [of movement] returns to itself and rushes to catch up with its successor.”  (Gadassik)  Beckett metamorphoses strange life forms and spaces in a way somewhat similar to Mirror People, but he seems less interested in pre-personal notions of flexible identity (like Rose) than in absolutely impersonal notions of coupling.  Nonanthropomorphic fleshly things interact and produce new forms from sex organs without subjects.  The film’s central tableau (repeated three times) features two phallic figures penetrating a mouth and a vagina respectively, attached to treerootlike forms.  The smooth cyclical uniformity of the act doesn’t suggest sexual pleasure (which would imply some ebbs and flow of intensity).  Instead, it suggests nursing, or some symbiotic sleep ritual.

Wax Experiments (Oskar Fischinger, 1921-26): “Pillars of multicolored wax are thinly sliced; each successive cross-section is photographed… The process unleashed an unseen continuous metamorphosis, already embedded in the layers of the pillar.”  (Gadassik)  While Fischinger’s bands of wax don’t resemble anything, the way they move nonetheless suggests weight and forces.  Movements are relatively localized and varied—one can see dark tones reacting with light tones, sucking inward or dissipating outward—but there’s no figure/ground distinction.  Such forces suggest a contradictory world wherein pure thickness and pressure take the place of volumetric space.

Black Ice (Stan Brakhage, 1994): “[T]his film combines handpainted imagery with an optical zoom.  Cracked shards of color flash and superimpose over a black void, subtly approaching us as they strobe.”  (Pierson)  Brakhage offers just enough “zoom” continuity to suggest a single shot, without providing a steady point of reference.  The result undercuts the sense of temporality for which Brakhage is usually known.  Instead of a disorienting perpetual present wrought through a destruction of expectation and memory, Brakhage elongates and warps the present into one long moment.  This continuity gives the flashing abstract colors a considerable intensity.  The silence in the room was nearly absolute—thanks to the film’s soundlessness, we could effectively hear our collective fixity on the image, unable to so much as shift position in our seats.

Sonata for Pen Brush and Ruler (Barry Spinello, 1968): “Spinello here fuses his fascination with geometric abstraction with his interest in synthetic sound…lines, circles, and wavering grids are alternately interwoven with and interrupted by bursts of truncated wordplay…”  (Gregory Zinman)  Much of Spinello’s technique recalls Norman McLaren: the simple moving figures drawn directly onto the filmstrip, the perfect synchronization of drawing directly on the soundtrack (the shapes emit the kind of gurgling-motor drags and mechanical farts familiar to some of McLaren’s figures).  But Spinello shows a much greater concern for texture and rhythm.  Figures occlude and move past each other, albeit in ways too limited to suggest a full spatial field—everything is crowded.  Temporal successions take precedence over spatial coordinates, a strategy that reaches its apotheosis in the isolated words that flash on the screen.

The Red Book (Janie Geiser, 1994): “Geiser’s [paper cutout] technique works with multiple superimpositions and layering…  [The film’s] subject is complex – in an odyssey through imagination and changing surroundings, a female figure struggles with the deconstruction of herself and of logos and the confusions of language.”  (Suzanne Buchan)  This was the only film in the program that suggesting something like a character, with intentionality and interiority.  Possibly for this reason, I admit I found The Red Book the least engaging of the films on the program.  Though the film had stunning moments (the selective bold use of the titular color, the shadows from window panes that seemed to cut into characters’ thin paper bodies), it seemed to take its figuration too much for granted.  Editing was front and center: Geiser compiles her pieces to suggest the emotional timbre of a story (even if the specifics of that story remained deliberately fragmented and obscure).  But because of the brevity and purposefulness of each shot, I felt I wasn’t being allowed to really look at the images.

Babobilicons (Daina Krumins, 1982): “Pair Babobilicons with Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic, and it becomes a cryptic assemblage of psychic bric-a-brac; with Zbigniew Rybzynski’s Tango or Steps, a meditation on the travails of traveling mattes; with Thomas Edison’s Anna Bell Serpentine Dance or Kenneth Anger’s Puce Movement, a sensual play of color and movement.”  (Hannah Frank)  Krumins combines the concerns of frame-by-frame technics with strange lifeforms, like Becket and Rose, but from a three-dimensional angle.  Instead of metamorphic drawings, Krumins lets vaguely crustacean puppet designs skitter across rooms and in tandem with matte shots of time-lapsed seafloor life.  Textures collide together and are set into uniform motions: smooth electrical sockets slide along walls, the titular creatures wade through beds of dandelion snow.

Two Space (Larry Cuba, 1979): “Cuba wanted to fill the screen with…graphic elements to create a perceptually immersive environment, but knew that he would have to engage in aesthetic and technological trade-offs…  Two Space speaks to this desire, with rows and columns of abstract forms multiplying and moving in a patterned action that is spectacularly overwhelming…”  (Johnston)  Theatrical presentation had an enormous effect here.  The size of the screen prompts a need to focus on particular parts of it, building up a relation of space from the way that our gaze is asked to dart around in a frame (certain parts of the frame are supposed to be more significant than, or at least distinct from, others).  Cuba’s cascading tile patterns it impossible to focus like this, with any sense of purpose or space.  We simply cannot decide what to look at—if we focus on one of the “tiles,” we immediately notice exactly the same movement in all the surrounding tiles, which produces the urge to put the tiles into groupings.  But there are no significant groupings, only repeated symmetries; so the eyes wander everywhere and nowhere.  The symmetry of patterns keeps drawing the attention elsewhere, trying to take in the entire group movement at once.  As a result, the Gestalt of the action seems to always be happening just in the periphery, like an afterimage that shoots elsewhere as soon as it’s spotted.  Only by letting my eyes drift out of focus was I able to let my gaze wander over the screen, roaming fluidly along Cuba’s dotted white lines and arcs.

Each of these films in turn, and the program as a whole, suggest a means of answering the original question, How does one “conduct” an animation experiment?  The films posed certain (often severe) challenges on their viewers.  These challenges don’t involve answering narrative questions or anticipating events.  Nor do they involve sensory limits that are tested or experiences to be endured (as in, say, structuralist film).  Rather, the films challenge your ability to describe what you are seeing and hearing.  How is that figure moving, and why does it look different from what it was just doing?  What is that thing?  What is that sound?  Is that moving towards the camera, or is the camera pushing inward?  Where is the horizon?  Is there a horizon?  When basic matters of visual and sonic comprehension are routinely and repeatedly broken down, our powers of description shift from being an immediate given to being a self-conscious (and potentially exhausting) activity.

Meeting that challenge is, I would argue, essential to viewing these films responsibly.  They are extraordinarily dense and sensually overwhelming.  Without rising to the challenge of description, you risk losing the intensity of the experience.  You can only make a stimulus/response, “wowwhatwasthat” reaction so many times.  After a few films you don’t pay very close attention, and then you struggle to remember what was so singular about each one, in the way that you struggle to remember a dream you had several days ago.  The assault of novel imagery blurs together in a vague composite memory, and the specificity of the films’ wonders is gone.  Adequately responding to the film is something like conversing with another person—or, less anthropocentrically, like confronting a black box: you can see what it’s doing but not how it works or what’s inside, and you perform certain perceptual and cognitive actions that are complementary to its own actions.

Andrew Pickering has suggested thinking about scientific experimentation in just this kind of “performative” idiom.  Rather than understanding science as a linear process of theory-refutation (like Karl Popper) or theory-laden world-jumping (like Thomas Kuhn), Pickering forms part of a concern in the history and philosophy of science with the messiness, uncertainty, and contingency of scientific practice.  For Pickering, hypotheses neatly tested do not come close to the reality of doing science.  He finds it more useful to speak of scientists as engaged in a real-time dance with their phenomena, through apparatuses that must be designed and tweaked.  The world of scientific phenomena is not a passive lump waiting for us to represent it; it acts upon us, in a way that suggests a kind of “agency” of its own.  He argues that much of science, like “[m]uch of everyday life…has [the] character of coping with material agency, agency that comes at us from outside the human realm and that cannot be reduced to anything within that realm.”  (The Mangle of Practice, 6)

Pickering forms only one example of how to overcome our customary discomfort with the term “experiment” and how one might be “conducted.”  If the word feels too scientific, and hence too strongly tied to the perceived rigidity and limitations of scientific practice, this sense might come from an impoverished notion of scientific experimentation.  A wider understanding of the term allows for more open and less predictable criteria.  It effectively makes our understanding of scientific practice look more like artistic practice.  (Pickering’s account mirrors, in a number of significant ways, Stanley Cavell’s concept of automatism, as well as John Dewey’s account of the ways an artist must work with his or her medium.  In both cases, it is the artist’s response to the pressures of the medium that constitutes the art.)

There is, on the other hand, a danger of using the term “experimental” as a catch-all term, a mere opposite of the predictable or the routine.  John Cage only became comfortable with the label of “experimental music” once he simply defined it as music in which the composer does not know the outcome.  There is something appealing about defining an animated experiment in terms of this uncertainty, but it’s unclear how to apply it.  Does the outcome need to be absolutely uncertain?  I know of no animator who works in such a way: accidents are allowed for, but engineered and controlled.  Conversely, it’s hard to imagine a film in which accident did not play a role somewhere in the process.  (Even in the case of music, Adorno, pace Cage, notes that classical composers have frequently been surprised at how their own pieces sound when performed.)  Pickering’s notion of experimental practice as an improvised dance between experimenter and phenomenon allows us to avoid this problem as well.  Instead of asking how experimental a piece of animation is, we can ask how it is experimental: i.e., where and in what ways.  In a certain sense, this means that all animation is experimental—albeit in a way that is not tautological but demands more specific forms of inquiry.

The discerning reader may have noticed that I’ve used the notion of experiment to slip from problems of criticism (or what I glossed as “viewing responsibly”) to problems of artistic creation.  The slippage is intentional.  I believe the problem of animated experiment does not allow perception and production to be neatly separated.  Animated experiments can be conducted in at least two mutually defining ways.  First: Animators work with tools that have a material agency which yields systematic, yet not totally predictable, effects; through a combination of intention, accident, and adjustment, animators experiment with their medium.  Second: Viewers perceive a screen presentation that yields unusual effects on their senses, to which the viewers must respond in real time, working toward a conceptual and perceptual “sense” of the film.  Both acts amount to a pas de deux of intentionality and materiality (or at least, in the case of viewers, the feel of one, since the film is not strictly reacting to them).

These remarks on the problem of animated experiment are sketchy and problematic, made more in the spirit of criticism than theory.  As such, their value is probably ephemeral.  But I believe there is value in, however briefly, taking seriously the notion that the technical apparatus of frame-by-frame manipulation we tend to call “animation” contains a seed of its own material agency (by champion tests forge).  It does not exist or bear any meaning without animators or viewers, but it is not totally answerable to either party.  It behaves in some respects like a natural phenomenon or a living thing—not because it allows us to represent natural phenomena or living things, but because our encounters with it are not already determined or knowable.  It sets, at least partly, the terms of our experiments with and upon it.

(Additional sponsorship for the event was provided by Chicago Filmmakers co-op and Cinema Borealis.  Alla Gadassik arranged the event in coordination with the Animated Media SIG.  Film notes for the program were authored by Suzanne Buchan, Hannah Frank, Alla Gadassik, Andrew Johnston, Gregory Zinman, and myself.  Color printing for the program was funded by animation: an interdisciplinary journal.  Alexander Stewart and Lille Carré designed the program cover.)