Review: Animation and Public Engagement Symposium (APES) 2018

Beaumanor Hall,    Woodhouse, Leicestershire, UK

Beaumanor Hall, Woodhouse, Leicestershire, UK

Beaumanor Hall,   Woodhouse, Leicestershire, UK

Beaumanor Hall, Woodhouse, Leicestershire, UK

Tuesday 22nd May, Beaumanor Hall, Woodhouse, Leicestershire, UK

Surprisingly only in its fourth full year since its inauguration as part of the Bradford Animation Festival in 2014, the annual Animation and Public Engagement Symposium is swiftly becoming a staple of the animation studies calendar. Wonderfully co-ordinated by Loughborough University's Melanie Hani and Roberta Bernabei, this year’s event was held at the imposing Beaumanor Hall, Woodhouse, Leicestershire, UK, and offered a vital glimpse into the impressive and wide-ranging work that is enveloping animation practices across a multitude of disciplines and intellectual fields. From child healthcare and personal trauma to sports education and physical impairments, the many stories of animation’s pervasive function as a tool of public engagement was enthusiastically told by speakers whose shared objective was to show how animators can capture the word (its people, its landscapes, its challenges) through a variety of multimedia platforms. A community of practitioners, scholars, researchers, teachers and filmmakers spent the day reflecting on the creative, therapeutic, pedagogic, social and political capabilities of all kinds of animated media to identify the interconnected issues that support animation’s artistic credentials and define just how it continues to pull in its engaged public.

The symposium kicked off with keynote speaker Andrew Everitt-Stewart, an illustrator with over thirty years’ experience working in the publishing industry. Known largely for his drawings as part of Eric Hill’s Spot the Dog (1980-) series of children’s books, his work has spanned other characters and commissions including Beatrix Potter and Thomas the Tank Engine, as well as many book and card illustrations. Everitt-Stewart took the audience on a lively journey through the perils of character animation, the illustrator's need for versatility, the shift to digital processing/drawing, and even pop-ups and paper engineering, before presenting his own artwork from a recent personal exhibition showing off his history as a draughtsman. The insights provided by Everitt-Stewart into the arcs and curves of Spot the Dog’s design and its use of space organised via concentric circles, through to the role of the artist within wider workflows of production, presented a complete ‘layout’ of how drawing flexibly serves a range of illustrated and interactive adventures. The first of the day's panels began with Francisco Ortega-Grimaldo (Texas Tech University), who discussed the application of animation within the specific pedagogic context of speech pathology. Ortega-Grimaldo presented work from a collaborative research project concerning language and learning disorders (Specific Learning Impairment, or SLI), identifying how animation can promote successful learning as a representational – rather than purely decorative – art. Framed by similar issues of collaboration between the arts and sciences, Tessie Liddell (Griffith Film School, Australia) next argued that animated film can function as an engaging and formal communication tool within the context of environmental research beyond simple illustrative data reflection or digital re-enactment (as in the BBC television series Walking with Dinosaurs). Liddell explained animation’s role in engaging students and creating knowledge by putting complex ideas into the public domain to heighten their critical consciousness. As part of her talk, Liddell screened A Tale of 2 Pods (2017), her eco-critical animated film telling the story of a split-seed pod travelling down two rivers and out to sea, which was based on science conducted by SNAPP: Ridges to Reef Fisheries working group. The panel concluded with Victor Jeganathan (Loughborough University), who presented his work on guide running and visual impairment both ‘live’ in person and through an extended video essay-style format. Jeganathan’s critique of conventional conference papers was matched with an innovative presentation style that countered the often sterile delivery of scholarly work and pre-existing academic registers. Yet at the core of Jeganathan’s impressive (and deliberately comic) performance was a seriousness to the science, and the challenges faced by visually impaired runners using guides to navigate a particular environment. The result was a highly animated talk whose own method of delivery was itself carefully directed and effortlessly controlled.

Panel two after lunch began with the symposium’s second keynote paper, presented by Professor Paul Wells (Loughborough University), who began by reminding the audience that animation as a term remains highly divisive, and is indeed still the art hiding in plain sight. The enunciative and rhetorical possibilities of animation as a graphic art provided the ‘way in’ for Wells to think more generally about the very identity of the public in animation’s own public engagement, but also the many socio-cultural contexts in which animation itself ‘plays out’. In its delivery of the idea (including social and cultural problems and practices) animation is a multidisciplinary medium, able to advance resilience in problem solving and cross disciplines through collaborations that speak to multiple stakeholders. Animation’s complex ‘public’ must, as Wells contended, be thought of as receivers and givers, not just an audience for animation but a co-creator of is vocabularies and with a vested interest in its multitude of applications. The next speaker, BAFTA-nominated animation director and filmmaker Susan Young, also reflected on animation’s rhetorical commitment to epistemology through an autoethnographic approach, which also drew from a philosophy of new materialism as a way of working through personal experiences of trauma. The ability of animation to function as a coping mechanism, and to reflexively explore trauma narratives by animating memories, emotions, desires and thoughts, was positioned by Young within the flows of emotional affect between past, present and future. Young also shared with the audience her recent film The Betrayal (2015), which tells the story of an emotionally destructive relationship between doctor and patient. The final panel speaker, Jorgelina Orfila (Texas Tech University), took her cue from animated music video games, and specifically “The Beatles: Rock Band” (2009) music video game developed by Harmonix. Orfila noted the many physical forms of engagement with animated media incited by active digital gameplay (resulting in their use in care homes) as a way of thinking about the social aspect to games that have themselves multiple degrees of uses and points of access. Coming in a long history of both visual music and sound/image experimentations within a cartoon context, animation’s 'rock and roll' future was mapped out by Orfila as a new kind of participatory tradition rooted in specific kinds of physical interaction.

Dear His Majesty  (Avishkar Chhetri, 2017)

Dear His Majesty (Avishkar Chhetri, 2017)

The final panel began with Avishkar Chhetri (Royal College of Art), whose film Dear His Majesty (2017) – subtitled 'An open letter to the King of Bhutan' – was made by Chhetri in direct response to Bhutan’s national status. Chhetri explained the complex history of Bhutan as a way of framing his personal short film at the point where political commentary and investigative journalism meet the animated medium. Chhetri’s main focus in Dear His Majesty are the refugees caught amid the fraught political relationship between Bhutan and Nepal, resulting in a film that takes the form of a posthumous open letter to the King of Bhutan to appeal against the historical events of the late-80s/early-90s. Nor Hazlen Kamaruddin (Loughborough University) next presented a suitably colourful account of colour manipulation as a way of thinking through the attention spans of young children. Within the context of the design and illustration of a digital picturebook, Kamaruddin considered the ways in which colours of complementary intensities and hues intensify their brilliance, and it is these new combinations that can themselves be combined with eye tracking technology to measure attention span. Kamaruddin's analysis of certain graphic elements added to the wider understanding of animation’s visual language, but also the political charge of drawing. Indeed, research was conducted at a KEMAS preschool in Malaysia populated largely with children from low-income families (with academic success often required for Malaysian students to escape poverty). Elis Mokhtar (Loughborough University) pursued the intersection of animation, therapy and grief disorder in her paper that considered the animated medium as an alleviating tool able to chart chronic feelings of longing and yearning. Mokhtar suggested that animation’s relationship to self-help and person-centred therapy can be used to record life experiences and personal emotions, often through visual journaling that facilitates an individual’s compassionate conversation with themselves. The transformation of ‘feelings’ into lines, shapes and colours was demonstrated by Mokhtar’s self-designed journal, which showcased animation’s central place as part of a self-help toolkit predicated on drawing as a form of cathartic release. The symposium was rounded off by Ash Routen (Loughborough University), who looked at animation’s role both inside and outside the classroom, and in particular its identity as an intervention that can help improve a child’s activity levels. Routen advocated for animation’s ability to tell an educational story, and in collaboration with HEART (Healing Education Animation Research Therapy) Animation, showed how the medium could teach curriculum topics by drawing on the ClassPAL (Physically Active Learning) support package enabling primary school teachers to deliver physical activity in a classroom setting.

The diversity of the papers – if not the impressive international flavour to the speakers lined up by Hani and Bernabei at this year's APES event – was ultimately underwritten with a series of common currents and overlapping themes. These included animation’s fundamental nature as a medium well-suited to the representation of (often marginal) identities, but also its radical and subversive political credentials that are themselves put to use in a wide range of pedagogic and political contexts. The strengths of the APES event has been historically been its explication of where we 'see' the mark of animation, which in turn yields a much-needed critical commentary on the medium's place on a variety of creative and informative spectra. If the quality of papers at this year’s symposium is anything to go by, animation remains both a progressive and progessing medium that continues to find a home in the most refreshingly unexpected places. 

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