The Animate! Book: Rethinking Animation was edited by the Lux’s Benjamin Cook and by Gary Thomas, who was Head of Moving Image at Arts Council England at the time of publication. Despite the fact that its really quite awful cover looks like some kind of utilitarian Arts Council funding brochure the book is fine as a graphic object. The interior has plenty of frankly delicious images from many of the animate commissions and one can animate them with one’s eyes…. However, the section where the bonus DVD slips in doesn’t work and is an example of shoddy paper engineering, inconsiderate of the actual use of the object by a reader.
The book either posits radical reinterpretation of what animation is/is not or, thanks to Mike Sperlinger’s fruity interviews, simply engages in fascinating conversation with animation artists themselves. The book is refreshing because it generally resists a centralised argument and summary; neither does it attempt to homogenise diverse artistic practices beyond locating them in the very broad area of animation. The bonus DVD is actually surplus – duff despite the inclusion of a few gripping works. In the main, it doesn’t so much fail as disappoint, some of the artists interviewed in the book offering work that seems remarkably mediocre or pedestrian compared to their thoughts and musings on animation. They really talk it up well and then go pancake with the tweening.
Many of the artists are, naturally enough, primarily concerned with the cinematic, and in this case televisual, display of their work. Ian White’s essay ‘Occupation’ concerns itself with expanded cinema and installation-based work, but on the whole the book pays scant attention to video games, motion graphics, the internet and converged media (for example, mobile phones). It’s important to note that, as stated, the work included on the DVD was manufactured for a major British TV channel (C4) and is therefore likely to be suffering from an impeded artistic brief because you know they’ve just got to put something on between the animated adverts and American Football coverage.
Sadly the medium of TV is also squandered heavily as a topic in the book, which is odd considering the longstanding benevolence of the televisual industries to animators. Odder still, it is also squandered by the artists on this disc (who, it must be said, represent only a small sample of many of the artists commissioned since 1990). TV, that most coquettish of mediums and an environment only slightly more corporate than a Clear Channel billboard is a potentially fertile space for artistic resistance, one would think, but there is little here to conquer the small-fry détournement of animating the TV yourself by pressing little rubber numerals on a remote control handset at stroboscopic speed. Certainly, there is nothing that would make the casual accidental viewer ask anything other than ‘Is this an advert?’. Nothing is particularly confrontational and I so wanted the work to seethe with self-loathing at the futility of its very existence in the dank shadows of Pixar and Dreamworks.
Contrasting with the overall uninspired works, the essays included in Animate: Rethinking Animation are captivating, even when they appear to be quite silly and excitable. In Edwin Carrel’s ‘Animation = A Multiplication of Artforms?’, Carrel talks of the Russian term for animation multiplikatsija. Animation as a concatenated artform, then. This is a red rag to Carrel’s bull and he uses the term as a banner for his oblique polemic on animation. He argues that animation is unique as an artform because of the variety of techniques deployed and sensations it evokes; ‘a multiplication of stimuli: visual, perceptive, cognitive, art, historical, technological, emotional, racial, gender based, psychological, biographical, religious and gastronomic.’ This could also be applied to football, pop videos, a box of eggs on the back of a speeding motorcycle on a motorway in a snow storm, cinema, darts, roller skating, aerial displays by The Red Arrows, Pizza Hut, The Antiques Road Show, anything starring animals, a circus, an orchestra, the back of the bus or a pub. It is meaningless and feels like a slippery Belgian’s witty attempt to shake off the cloying grip of binary criticism and call a spade a spade. Looking for film-historical support Carrel opts for a quote from that master of aphorism Jean-Luc Godard (whilst riffing about Norman McClaren and multivalent artforms), the familiar cinema = truth = 24 frames per minute thing. A quote so over-used it ceases to have any meaning other than the inference one has when one sees it deployed; that the user is still soppy over the bourgeois Marxist cinematic unorthodoxies of the 1960s. I mean, sure, in loose application it kind of works because animation is usually a frame-by-frame process but so what…?
Nonetheless, it doesn’t prevent Carrel’s essay from being a thoroughly entertaining wee read that asks tonnes of questions. For instance, I was left asking myself the following: Are photographers the ultra-minimalists of animation? Reducing activity to one frame. A frame that undulates so rapidly it appears to be static. Maybe curators can be thought of as animators, organising images and physical objects sequentially in space and time; or it could be that architects and urban planners are the real animators, organising our perception of the totality of space and time… Overall, I think perhaps it’s best not to ask the question when the answer is so inconclusive… perhaps the best thing to do is worry not about how what is done is defined but to just do it.
Talking of doing it, Gareth Evans and Dick Arnall use the 17 years of Animate!’s existence as a prism to view changes in technology and therefore practice. In ‘Build It and They Will Come’ they place the animators within the context of Britain’s alternative cinema and briefly look at the pros and cons of the expanded creative autonomy that digital technology enables. They also lightly pick at the dichotomy between mass consumption and compromise that the average TV commission foists upon artists. The hybridization of Hollywood cinema and computer-generated imagery is examined too and they acknowledge that the fusion of cinematic live action with digitally synthesized live action should be the bulls-eye of any contemporary animator’s target. This last point still seems a little cock-a-hoop when one considers that even the most basic, entry-level, motion capture technology retails at $30,000 plus. But at least people in rubber suits are still getting the work 53 years since Ishiro Hondo’s Godzilla, and they don’t have to do anything depraved either.
Tantalizing work not included on the DVD is discussed in Angela Kingston’s piece ‘Curating The Animators’. During 2005 and 2006 Kingston curated a touring exhibition entitled The Animators. It was an attempt to reflect on the cross-pollination of what is commonly known as artists’ films and animation and how this is mediated by digital technology. She talks of how she learns that animation as a term has become so expanded that it now includes ‘all manner of real-time footage that has been messed about with’. Thing is, I’m convinced that most mainstream movies – Dodgeball, The Fantastic Four, Hidden, you name it – consist of real-time footage that has been messed about with. Can we call these movies animation too? Probably, if the term is so elastic then it is only right and proper to stretch it.
In ‘Occupation: Animation & The Visual Arts’, Ian White takes on the subject of animation beyond the screen. He recounts Oskar Fischinger’s experience of xenophobia at Disney and successively examines an animatronic George W. Bush that in a Philip K. Dick-like twist is more convincing than the real George W. Bush; Paul McCarthy’s film/installation piece ‘Caribbean Pirates’, a mutant Disneyland theme park ride, a gross ketchup and chocolate sauce anti-Disney splatter-fest that antagonises the web of simulacra that comprises American home comforts, exports, entertainments and imperialism and perhaps even animation itself. He then moves onto Valie Export’s intriguingly paranoid, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers-style pyscho-sexual sci-fi horror ‘Invisible Adversaries’, which is an autopsy of Austria’s history amongst other things and closes with Catherine Sullivan’s ‘The Chittendens’, a kind of QE2 nightmare spread across multi-screens. All of these artists like to expose the seams in their work and favour the stylings of chaos over those of precision. Whether you concede that these people are animators or not is a test of your snobbery and patience but I take my hat off to Ian White for broadening the scope of this book and for being bold enough to deal with politics. In essence, I think White is saying that animation, especially of the kind exemplified by the aforementioned artists, can be a perfect metaphor for the macabre banalities of contemporary Western existence and those that it is imposed on. I disagree with this, I have been to Oxford Circus.