Review: Experimental & Expanded Animation
43 years after the publication of the first edition of Robert Russett and Cecile Starr’s seminal text Experimental Animation: An Illustrated Anthology, experimental animation seems to be finally experiencing a very welcome surge of public interest and critical attention. Over the last few years there has been a rise in the number of screenings, performances and academic publications related to the multifarious art form, including the recent edited collection Experimental and Expanded Animation: New Perspectives and Practices (2018) (Fig. 1). Vicky Smith and Nicky Hamlyn’s book, published in late 2018, was the catalyst for the one-day conference Experimental & Expanded Animation, which took place on February 13th at the University of the Creative Arts, Farnham. Organised by Smith and Hamlyn themselves, the aims of the conference were to investigate “further into understandings of what experimental animation is and has been since Robert Russett and Cecile Starr defined it 1976.” The day’s talks mirrored the book’s desire to both pay a debt to foundational work within the critical study of experimental forms and also to plot a new set of possible pathways for their close interrogation. With many of the event’s speakers being practitioner/scholars, a particular focus on expanded animation practice allowed for insightful investigations into developments in animation performance, technological intervention and live ‘making’, drawing continuities between contemporary work and traditions of experimental animation and expanded cinema. The Experimental & Expanded Animation conference offered a range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches; broader themes of the conference included feminist perspectives, posthumanist and new materialist approaches, intersections with science and technology, engagements with space and place, and experimental and expanded animation’s evolution over time. Changing technologies and moving image art contexts have meant that contemporary experimental and expanded animation appears across multiple platforms, from cinemas, public sites, festivals and galleries to online and digital platforms. Hamlyn’s observation during the round table that culminated the day’s conversations regarding the difficulty of summarising developments in this elusive art form over the last fifty years therefore reflected the overarching ethos of the day, borne out in a number of the papers presented.
The conference began with a keynote from Gary Thomas, co-director of Animate Projects (with Abigail Addison). Thomas has been instrumental in the development of independent animation in the UK since he began working for the Arts Council England/Channel 4 Animate scheme in 1992. His talk took the audience through a brief history of British experimental animation by way of the various organisations, sites and funding schemes that have afforded a range of artists the opportunities to produce experimental works in the UK since the 1960s. Thomas’s reference to Animate Project’s self-description as an organisation that ‘works at the intersection of animation, film and art’ set the tone for the rest of the day’s broader interrogation and situating of experimental and expanded animation’s place within today’s multimedia landscape/ecology, if not the creative diversity and formal heterogeneity of the animated medium more broadly.
The first panel, entitled ‘Women in film poetry and animation: feminist perspectives’ addressed issues related to the shifting place of women in the production and labour of film and experimental animation. Referring primarily to Paul Wells’ influential 1998 book Understanding Animation, Annabelle Honess Roe (University of Surrey) began the panel with a talk that questioned a tendency in animation studies to align women’s animation with feminism and experimental or unorthodox aesthetics, describing the ‘feminine aesthetic’ as ‘inevitably political’ in its opposition to the male-dominated mainstream. Honess Roe pointed to the ambivalence of such an equation: on the one hand celebrating and validating the creative contribution of women’s independent animation coming from the margins, but simultaneously being attentive to the potentially less helpful ghettoising aspects of such a categorisation. Next, artist filmmaker Mary Stark’s paper focused on the largely forgotten history of female editors in the film industry between 1895-1927, pointing to early associations of cutting and joining film with craft-based practices of cutting and sewing cloth—both considered menial women’s work until editing started to be seen to play a more primary role in the artistic process, and male editors began to predominate. Stark’s paper detailed her own expanded project ‘Film as Fabric’ (2012-present), also the subject of her practice-based PhD, which explores ideas of tailoring as film editing and film as fabric and thread. In some of her installations, Stark projects light through woven tapestries made from filmstrips and uses cotton spools to project 16mm film loops in the exhibition space in order to draw attention to the contributions of women film editors throughout cinema history. Finally, Suzie Hanna (Norwich University of the Arts) similarly discussed her expanded animation performance Emily Dickinson and the Responsive Body - Disruption, Interruption and Temporality, which features improvised animation set to a live musical performance of Dickinson’s folio and fragment poems. Hanna described her process of creating animated fragments and loops of plants, lace curtains and other materials (often using antique glass bottles as lenses) that were inspired by Dickinson’s life, poems, music folio and herbarium. She drew connections between her experience mixing these loops in a live context to VJing, where VJ artists use libraries of moving images and specialised software to improvise visuals in reaction to sound and music, in particular via her use of modul8 VJ software to ‘paint in time’. The panel’s overarching focus on women’s labour – within the frameworks of experimental animation’s modes of production – seems particularly appropriate considering wider scholarly shifts within animation studies towards the value of craft-based approaches to the medium, and their often highly gendered cultural connotations.
Drawing from thinkers such as Thomas Nagel, Karen Barad and Timothy Morton, the speakers on the second panel ‘New Materialist and Posthumanist perspectives on animation’ each drew intriguing connections between experimental and expanded practices and ideas related to posthumanist philosophy, technology and politics. The panel opened with artist filmmaker Karel Doing exploring his work’s relationship to the lineage of early scientific photography, modernist photograms and structural-materialism’s critical reflection of the cinematic dispositif. With his ‘phytogram’ technique, Doing makes cameraless films from the trace-leaving reactions of natural chemicals found in plants on film emulsion. In his paper, he connected his phytogram films with posthumanist ideas of a non-anthropocentric view of the biosphere, suggesting that vegetal experience is stored in the structure of the traces left and that these might bring us closer to feeling what a plant might feel. In both his live demonstrations and workshops, Doing discussed how he aims to provide participants with a way of finding common ground between human, machine and nature. Doing’s paper was followed by a talk by Kathleen Rogers (University of the Creative Arts, Farnham) that focused on her installation project Cosmopolitical Futures’ exploration of evolutionary posthumanism and the anthropocene through ideas related to quantum physics, biomedicine and genetic research. She focused on one of the project’s installations, Cocoon, which featured large video projections of microscopic footage of lab technicians manipulating zebrafish embryos taken in genomic research labs in London, Zurich and the Netherlands (Fig. 2). Drawing from Karen Barad’s theory of agential realism to investigate human agency’s entanglement with material, she discussed how her work emphasises the genetic connections between humans and other life forms and raises ethical questions about human interference with embryonic life forms in genetic research contexts. Inspired by new media theorists like Friedrich Kittler, Jurgen Hagler’s (University of the Applied Sciences Upper Austria) talk explored the subversive and experimental use of military technologies in arts contexts. Citing John Whitney’s modification of analogue computers in the 1950s as a precedent, Hagler worked through examples of what he called ‘artistic anomalies’ (referring to a deviation from a rule or form regarded as normal), focusing primarily on a live performance called Spaxels put on by Futurelab, Ars Electronica’s research and development think tank. Spaxels (a combination of space and pixels) consisted of dozens of drones fitted with coloured LED lights creating patterns in the night sky like complex fireworks display or animated pixels in space (see below). The Spaxels performance therefore visualised the kinds of autonomous movement central to the agency of the medium, ‘siting’ animation as ‘out there’ in the world by combined theory and practice, whilst also pointing to a common feature of experimental and expanded animation in their ‘anomalous’ and expressive interventions into the tools and products of techno-scientific spheres.
After lunch was Panel 3: ‘Expanding animation space and place’, which brought together three practitioners to continue the previous panel’s engagement with experimental and expanded creative practice. Stuart Hilton (University of the Arts: Farnham) started off the afternoon with a talk about his animation practice’s ongoing investigation into ‘semi-documentary’ film. Describing the process of making animation from personal experiences of travel, Hilton raised questions about the aesthetic mediation of actuality in relation to his current work in progress, which returns to some of the ideas that shaped his exploration of fragmented space and place in his experimental animated documentary Six Weeks in June (1998) (see below). The paper presented by Pedro Serrazino (Universidade Lusófona, Lisboa) combined his interest in expanded animation, architecture and urban experience, and in particular the animation of urban spaces as a means of combating alienation and reframing the familiar. Serrazino’s focus was largely rooted in documents from two projects: an installation in Tunisia and a workshop film produced in São Paulo, which allowed those involved to experience their surroundings in new ways, thereby politicising animation to show how the medium can develop a deeper awareness of the participants’ own shifting socio-cultural contexts. The panel wrapped up with a realtime visual performance by Marian Saunders that explored the legacy of experimental animation as it can be found in the inventive styles and techniques of contemporary VJ culture. Next followed a roundtable discussion chaired by Nicky Hamlyn and consisting of artist filmmakers and scholars Simon Payne, Lilly Husbands, Sarah Pucill and Edwin Rostron that ranged in topic from artistic subjectivity and collaboration with a medium to animation in the art gallery to the desire for more politically engaged forms of experimental animation. The day ended with drinks and a screening of works by artists David Witzling, Kelly Gallagher, Simon Payne, Alys Hawkins and Hannah Hamalian.
Overall, the Expanded & Experimental Animation conference was a thought provoking, successful event that put its money where its mouth is, so to speak, including a range of approaches and ideas as well as offering attendees a chance to see expanded and single channel works on the day. Two live expanded animation performances punctuated the busy programme: s_andra_v2.5 by Tom Northey and Laura Lee, a generative digital artwork that featured real time animated responses to Lee on guitar, as well as a mixed media live performance Minister of Loneliness by Shiya Li, Aisliing Reilly and Gloria Yehilevsky, which featured Yehilevsky on xylophone, Reilly on double bass and live and prepared animation through double projection by Li. The shift from traditional conference papers to presentations and performances fully showcased the destabilising yet enchanting qualities of experimental animation’s formal techniques, and its positioning across moving image arts and visual culture more broadly. Through its sheer diversity entirely appropriate to its heterogenous subject matter, the Expanded & Experimental Animation conference suitably expanded the critical and scholarly horizons of experimental forms of image-making, and in doing so conjured up something of the wonder of experimental animation as itself a visual fantasy. My own contribution to the Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres collection, which discusses the work of Bret Battey, argues that “abstract animation has something to teach us about animation and fantasy cinema” (Husbands 2018: 73). If the conclusions drawn at Smith and Hamlyn’s event are anything to go by, a more sustained focus on experimental forms, practices and performances will continue to play with – but also challenge – the ways in which the fantasy and animation intersection can be traced through the ever-expanded capabilities of the animated medium.
Husbands, Lilly. “Fantastical Empathy: Encountering Abstraction in Bret Battey’s Sinus Aestum (2009),” in Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres, eds. Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant (London & New York: Routledge, 2018), 73-90.
Russett, Robert, and Cecile Starr. Experimental Animation: An Illustrated Anthology (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1979).
Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation (London: Routledge, 1998).
Smith, Vicky, and Nicky Hamlyn, eds. Experimental and Expanded Animation: New Perspectives and Practices (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
Lilly Husbands is a Lecturer in Animation and Visual Culture at Middlesex University, UK. Her research is broadly concerned with the legacy and evolution of experimental animation in the context of contemporary multimedia practice. She has published numerous book chapters and articles on experimental animation in journals such as Moving Image Review & Art Journal (MIRAJ), Frames Cinema Journal and Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media. She is an associate editor of Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, and co-editor (with Miriam Harris and Paul Taberham) of Experimental Animation: From Analogue to Digital (London & New York: Routledge, 2019).