Review: Society for Animation Studies (SAS) - 30th Annual Conference
Within the limited space afforded here, it is impossible to do justice to the full scope (and, indeed, the many successes) of the recent Society for Animation Studies (SAS) conference, this year held at Concordia University between 19th–22nd June. Co-chairs Alison Reiko Loader and Marc Steinberg – as well as the rest of the wonderful Concordia team – deserve special mention for putting together a truly dizzying array of international speakers, animation workshops and screenings (including a climactic showing of the emotive Eleven Moving Moments with Evelyn Lambart by Donald McWilliams). SAS 2018 and the surrounding city of Montréal provided the perfect critical space to kick off the summer conference season, whilst its community of scholars and practitioners only serving to secure the longstanding rumour that animation studies might just comprise the friendliest group of people around (despite a typically hard-fought pub quiz in the midst where rivalries, as it turns out, still run deep). With its theme of “Then, Now, Next,” this special 30th anniversary event offered reflections not just upon animation’s varied multimedia history and the medium’s critical function as a paradigm to ask broader historical questions, but likewise ruminated over its current iterations and the very ‘state of play’ of animation as we see it today. The past and present of animation were then used to establish important questions about the futurity of a medium, one that is perhaps as pervasive as it has ever been. Speakers across the three days asked how animation might cause the destabilisation and deformation of the past; how contemporary understandings of the medium’s national and media specificity might inform issues of theory and/or practice; and whether it is possible to speculate about animation’s possible future in ways that can accurately unpack its multitude of contradictions and ambiguities. By taking on and thinking through the many temporalities of animation, speakers at the SAS “Then, Now, Next” conference sought to proclaim animation’s sustained relevance within a variety of cultural and socio-political terrain, asking who makes animation (and why), who owns and possesses it, and where animated images might ultimately be found.
Preceded by a direct animation workshop and series of Emerging Researchers seminars on Day 1, Professor Thomas Lamarre (McGill University) provided the opening keynote speech on the “Then” of animation, which took its cue from manga series Norakuro (1931-1981), Japan’s first popular animal very much in the vein of Otto Messmer’s earlier Felix the Cat series. Lamarre used a discussion of animism and species integration within a cartoon context to argue that animation does not just have its own history and set of isolated visual practices, but can also be productively interwoven into a more unified moving image history that is often itself highly animated. As part of his historical survey, Lamarre also drew from the work of Japanese film critic and film theorist Imamura Taihei, whose piece “Manga Eigaron” predates Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s oft-cited formal appreciation of the Disney studio in the 1940s, and which calls for animation to be considered the essence of cinema through its capturing and combining of multiple influences. The conference’s second keynote, provided by Dr Amy Ratelle (University of Toronto), focused on current U.S. adult animated series BoJack Horseman (2014-) created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Ratelle’s “Now” paper situated the eponymous lead within traditions of anthropomorphism and the cartoon’s heritage of non-human representation. Through its satiric register and adult themes, BoJack Horseman is predicated upon, for Ratelle, a metaphorical mode of expression that permits the exploration into contemporaneous cultural anxieties surrounding human/non-human levels of engagement. Drawing on the history of animation’s latent animal instincts and the cultural imaginary of horses, and in combination with the very surrealism of its premise, the animal body in BoJack Horseman is co-opted by the programme’s makers as a way of diagnosing equine existentialism. The final keynote, presented by Dr Mihaela Mihailova (University of Michigan), was tasked with working with the “Next” of animation and animation studies as part of her provocative talk on CG femininity and the posthuman cyborg. Drawing connections between Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017), Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2014) and the recent adaptation Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017), Mihailova revealed the troubling identity politics that continue to underpin the purportedly progressive representations of the posthuman woman in Hollywood genre cinema. Beyond the many acts of violence waged upon these woman/machine hybrids (and upon the stars like Scarlett Johansson and Alicia Vikander who play them), the technological prowess of the cyborg performers sits within wider traditions of digital bodies in contemporary effects/science-fiction cinema, which largely flatten any real (post)feminist agency at the expense of pure cyberpunk spectacle rooted in durable sexist tropes. But for Mihailova, and despite this troubling screen history, the possible future for the female posthuman cyborg is altogether more positive, thanks to Björk’s VR video Family (2017) and the work of Janelle Monáe. It is Monáe’s android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather that invites important questions not only about the labour enacted on – and seen through – digitally-augmented bodies more broadly, but the role of ambiguity and fluidity within a more racialized framework of representation. For Mihailova, this very “reprogramming of digital technology” through such intersectional and FX-heavy media provided a crucial backdrop to claim for the scope of SAS as a society committed to confronting head-on questions of absence and erasure when it comes to the politics of representation.
If the conference’s three impressive keynotes encompassed an empowering spectrum of animated multimedia, then individual panels and papers were no less superlative throughout, with speakers taking on a variety of challenging subjects as part of the event’s whirlwind of creativity and critical insight. I was lucky enough to attend work on the 1930s-style of recent videogame Cuphead (2017) from Studio MDHR; the challenges in teaching historical cartoons that both distil and mediate (the effects of) race through animation; musical artists and videogame design; historical traditions of the animated mockumentary; the labour and industry of women animators; digital craft, questions of de-skilling and glitching; visual effects and medium specificity; studies of the voice, voicework and performance; Masaoka Kenzō’s lecture notes on animation; the Kyoto Animation studio; the integration of cel-animation and CGI in Studio Ghibli; computer software and the algorithm; British animated advertising and “useful” animation; schemes of violence in Woody the Woodpecker shorts; animation and the sex educational video; space, depth and dimension in the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoons; black culture, Afrofuturism and animated ‘colourism’; and U.S. counter-cultural filmmaker Ralph Bakshi.
The diversity in papers, as well as the methodological continuities and ruptures that allowed the conference to speak directly to its temporal themes, helped to shore up and develop a range of exciting critical narratives vital for the study of animation moving forward. But it also proclaimed the need to also look back at the medium’s possible genealogies as a way of mapping its more contemporary currents. The interplay of fantasy and animation was additionally a spectre that loomed large over many of the topics under discussion, including work that by any other name might very well have been a discussion of “fantasy/animation” per se. The centrality to several of the papers of key filmmakers (Disney, Bakshi, Miyazaki) invested in forms of fantasy storytelling were matched by broader examinations of animation’s ultimately “fantastic” potential, from CG effects imagery to sound design and audiovisual arrangements. Where fantasy might fit within these highly animated discourses is something that the Society for Animation Studies, as a much-needed scholarly community, may very well turn to when the annual conference next pitches up in Lisbon in 2019.