"Each venture is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate"

Digital abstract expressionist animation, or how to constantly pull the rug from under one's feet, and be grateful for it!

(This article was commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada for its now defunct "Vox Ars" magazine. It was edited by Michael Fukushima, producer at the NFB.)

On Sunday, October 21 2001, I presented a workshop on "Animated Abstract Expressionism" at SAFO 01.
With the help of Scott Lahteine (musician/programmer) and Tien Yang (animator/painter), I tried to create a short animation, live, from scratch (see the initial results here).

Forced out of natural media by serious allergies, I had been looking for ways to work digitally, ways that would be the continuation of the experiences I have had, as a painter, for nearly 40 years.
Painting with oils on large canvas (6'x 8') can be the source of a dialog between the doer and the done that often initiates a loss of a clear sense of separation between the painter and the painting. This was something I felt would have to be found in the digital work if I were to continue to explore it.
This "oneness" with the painting had long been for me the most important aspect of the work, very much the point of it all. I was far from being convinced, when I began working with computers about five years ago, that this experience would be possible, if at all, in the digital realm. Very quickly, I found that bitmap work was much more responsive to my needs than vector work, and almost immediately, I dropped all interest in working with 3D applications. Discovering "Painter" (then Fractal Design, now Corel) and later, "Studio Artist", was very encouraging, and this opened avenues I haven't stopped exploring since.

Most animation seems to have to be done by extensive planning, from the story board to the final "product," there usually are many tiers of fairly complicated "plumbing" that are required. Yet, this was something I felt very early I did not want to have anything to do with; it belongs to an approach to Art that is definitely not my own.

As a painter, there is an immediacy and directness I relished in working, a directness that heavy plumbing nearly destroys, or even prevents from happening at all.
I felt that there had to be ways to create images and animation that would support and make possible the kind of flowing process I was only too familiar with as a painter, creating the possibility of "fortuitous accidents," accidents that have always been, for me as for many others, the source of our better work, the very way by which this better work is made possible.
The painters who have had (still do) an influence on my work all dwelled in this approach , an approach I can't see as being possible with 3D animation packages, or any process that would require steps during which the artist would no longer be in direct immediate and intuitive contact with "the whole."
In fact, it is almost a cliché amongst those painters (Rembrandt, Cézanne, Pollock, Giacometti and so many more) to say that the only aspect of the overall process one is responsible for is NOT the painting process itself, but instead, it is the setting of conditions in which, by which, the hoped-for fortuitous accidents may happen.

However, it seems to me that most animators approach their work not as a source of discovery (by trial and error leading to fortuitous accidents), but instead see it as a way to demonstrate what they already know, a way to arrive at where they have already decided to go before even starting. In this particular case, it seems to me that "control" is superseding "experience," definitely a sure recipe for stagnation if there is one!

Becoming increasingly familiar with the animation community, I find there are very few "artists" in it, few artists in the sense of people being more than willing to jeopardize the end product in favour of the quality of the experience that generates it. In that sense, if "result is god" and "process is a necessary nuisance," most animators are indeed, in my book, glorified plumbers.
This can be seen as a harsh judgment, but it reflects my sincere opinion. Switching from a milieu in which art is lived as a near-religious vocation focused on finding the meaning of life (or absence thereof), and landing in one in which animation is a trade, a skill, and a path to fame and fortune, was and still is a considerable shock!

So many of the discoveries made by painters over many centuries, discoveries that in fact map out the way our perception (or "mind") works, are conveniently ignored in the making of "ordinary" animation (with remarkable exceptions, some of which we will look at shortly).

For example, most animation still dwells in a pictorial space that is made of a literal rendition of a taken-for-granted three dimensional "objective" world. A world that remains constant and in which solid objects move about in empty space, never losing their separate identity, interacting without any loss of "self," and without having a significant impact on the world in which they live.
This very naive view of "reality" has received many blows from all sorts of directions, from painters, scientists and philosophers alike, and yet, this naive world view still dominates the making of most of the animation we see today.

In order to proceed according to this "solid objects in empty space" faith (it is indeed a faith), we have to constantly deny our own experience, constantly editing out all that does not conform to the dictates of this "objective world faith."
This editing-out/censoring of one's own particular experience is totally at odds with the point of Art, negating the possibility that "the particular leads to the universal." (Some may even say that "the particular and the universal are one.")

"Each one of us is a brand new point of view on the world" said Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and if he was right (I believe so), where is that particular point of view on the world reflected in most animation created today? Where is the uniqueness of vision each one of us is endowed with as a birthright? Where is that which each and every one of us can bring to the whole, making it richer with our own irreplaceable contribution?

Instead, most animation I see today seems done by people who are begging for "belonging," desperately trying to be "like others," all following the same path that slavishly borrows a form long ago established (most likely by Disney). And it's not just commercial animation that is bereft of any originality, even "auteur animation" has fallen into the same trap, both mostly trying to do what the major studios are doing, but with less money.

I trace some of this sad state of affairs in the animation world to several sources, from the kind of training would-be animators receive at the hands of schools and teachers who have themselves abandoned the search for their own vision, to the choices made by those same students when faced with having to follow either societal models or their own voice, their own "little music."

This article is not the place where I can expand on these subjects as they would command, but it definitely is a good place to publicly state my position, knowing that there are many "out there" who are desperately looking for other ways to work, other ways to live.

Even though many now acknowledge that animation as a whole (commercial and "auteur") is at a dead end, we still are going at it, in and out of schools, as if doing the same old thing could yield different results

Face it, it won't.

As to how to get out of the present rut, T. S. Eliot, in his "Four Quartets" gives us a hint about how to proceed :

"Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot
To emulate--but there is no competition--
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."
(East Coker, excerpt from part IV)

"A new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate "
Are we willing to enter the making of animation as an open-ended process, and be true to that open-endedness through and through?

Or are we going to continue to "use" animation as a tool by which, with which, we play it safe, deceiving ourselves while deceiving others?

As a painter, I see animation as being the "time" dimension of painting, possibly the next big step in its evolution.
As a painter, most of what I see under the label "animation" is a bunch of stories which may sometimes be interesting, but which are most of the time very poor as far as the form of the visual language is concerned. (See the dialog between Stephen Arthur and me here.)
Most animation I have seen to date seems to have been done by people who never realized that (for example) Cézanne and Giacometti ever existed, not to mention Pollock, Guston, de Kooning, Kline and Rothko!

Yes, I have a particular fondness for the New York School (and Giacometti). I am convinced that the issues those painters were dealing with have been dropped since, dropped because they demand of the artist more than most would be willing to give. Yet, those issues (what is there beneath "good taste" and intentional action? What are we before we turn on the mask? What gets done when "I" have lost control?) are begging to be reexamined if we are to get out of our present stuckness, not only in animation, not only in Art, but in life as a whole!

If, as I believe (along with others), animation is presently stuck, I suggest that it is in its willingness to look into painting, and in its ability to see itself as the heir of that great tradition, that animation will finally transcend the inherent limitations of linear storytelling.

"To tell a story" is "raconter une histoire" in French.
"Se raconter des histoires" ("to tell oneself stories") means to deceive (to lie to) oneself.

There's indeed a fine line between story telling and deception and besides, can't there be more to animation than storytelling?

How about Foucault's "rendre le visible visible?" (To make visible the visible.)

If each one of us is convinced that there is no room for one's own vision to exist, if we all give up on the worth of connecting with what is truly ours, then it will be no surprise if animation, like most other conditioned human activities, will continue to dumb us down. This sorry state of affairs isn't really new, what is new is the power with which it is gaining ground through the extraordinary means of distribution we have at our disposal today. Time and again, I have students who are very surprised (some are even excited) to find that their idiosyncrasies can (and do) matter, that their "little" doubts and uncertainties can be the source of renewed imagery and thoughts, that in fact, they do matter just as they are. I am convinced that the best among us did not become so by bloating themselves up, they did not acquire "special powers" or esoteric knowledge; they, to paraphrase the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, "became the men they had always been."

Mary Ellen Bute's concerns with "Seeing Sound" definitely opened other doors, Pierre Hébert's work explores other ways as well, and in Martine Chartrand's "Black Soul," one sees a huge potential for another kind of animation (please read my AWN article on those remarkable people here).

Mary Ellen Bute was attempting to make music visible, and considering the tools she had at her disposal, she was very successful at it (one wonders what she could have done today with digital tools!). She may indeed have tried to tell a story, but her story was not linear, nor was it "representational." She had to deal with "Form" in order to come close to her goal, something most animators today seem to take for granted. Unlike most of us, she did not borrow an already established language, she had to invent it at every step of the way.

Pierre Hébert is busy exploring animation in a way that to me looks like a form of worship. Like in a modern ritual in which an audience is a very important factor, not in a passive mode as in "entertainment," but more as a "sounding board" against which he, as the "high priest," bounces back and forth in order to progress in the "live" discovery of a work he does not yet know. (Very related, I feel, to "fortuitous accidents.")

Martine Chartrand struck gold (and not just in Berlin) when she began to allow her images to drift in "never never land" during the transitions from a well defined scene to the next. I see those amazingly "abstract" transitions as a source of much needed renewal, for her as well as for us, a renewal that will take place if we manage, just as she is doing it, to plug into our preverbal "mind," renewing a conscious connection with what precedes habitual consciousness: "a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate "

Whether or not those artists will "make babies" is another story, a story to be followed...

As a footnote, I would like to say that animation used to be a horribly expensive proposition, and that because of the very high inherent costs, most animators had to depend a great deal on their source of support. This dependency can have a very insidious impact on what one would contemplate doing ("don't bite the hand that feeds you!").
However, with the progress of computer technology, one now has access to very decent tools capable of supporting the making of complex work for a fraction of the cost of what that type of work would have demanded a few short years ago.

The fact that a digital file can be saved, then manipulated while keeping the "original" intact (via a "save as" for example), and add to that the low cost of that digital file (compared to hard copy), w e now have the potential for a tremendous freedom, freedom to explore and experiment in ways never possible before.

Can we, will we develop the "imagination" that will do justice to this potential freedom?

Add also the easy access to the web many people now enjoy, and we have the tools needed to create truly independent and original animation, and have it viewed by many.

What remains to be seen is if we are going to be able to "think different" and create the works that will make animation truly an Art form, finally becoming "the Art it had always been."