Saturday 14 May saw the heralding in of the RCA’s new Documentary Animation pathway (launching September 2016) with the Ecstatic Truth Symposium, a jam-packed day of presentations and discussions at the RCA. Given the eager crowd that attended, it affirmed that animated documentary is a popular genre and one that deserves to be showcased with such events. There were many questions that were posed during the day for contemplation: Is animation documentary a skillset rather than a genre? Does context define the work as animated documentary? Are all animated documentary makers melancholy?
Although the symposium was aimed at MPhil and PhD students, for non-academic types like me, there was much to take away from the animation projects presented aside from all the theory and words like ‘indexicality’ being bandied about. Also I had the opportunity to present on Silent Signal and how its artists have responded to scientific research to produce poetic interpretations.
The day kicked off with Professor Paul Ward speaking on the ‘illocutionary force’ to be found in animated documentary, clearly explaining for the uninitiated how this term can be applied to animated documentary, which captures the essence of the truth in the form it takes, rather than just conveying the meaning of the subject presented. He presented Andersartig by Dennis Stein-Schomburg to illustrate this.
Artist filmmaker Roz Mortimer spoke about how in her research she explores ‘phenomenology as method’. Roz focused on This is History (after all), an Animate Projects commission from 2014, which is part of a larger, ongoing project. Having worked with Roz on this project it was great to revisit this powerful piece in the context of the symposium.
Roz spoke about the challenges of presenting past trauma. In the work, the forest is shown to bear witness to the massacres that have taken place. Roz talked about how she had chosen to film ‘the strangeness of the visible world’, such as the birch trees wildly thrashing about, in order to point to the invisible horror. Plus some digital manipulation of the landscape coupled with audio manipulation of field recordings, produces an atmosphere of unease in order to influence the emotions of the viewer. Roz looked to avoid the seduction of nostalgia by bringing the work into the present day.
Roz also spoke practically on the importance of research; how you need to make yourself an authority on the subject even if you’re making fantastical fictional work, you need to start with fact to be able to truly understand what it is you are trying to convey.
Director Carla MacKinnon demonstrated how her work evokes physical and psychological states in the audience. With her sleep paralysis project to make the audience appreciate the fear felt by the subject and to make this imperceptible state real, abstract and symbolic representation is woven into the work.
Carla showed how her work was designed to evoke fear and unease in the viewer, using multi-sensory techniques borrowed from the body horror genre to make the viewer aware of their own tactility and physical body, making the viewer the ‘cinesthetic subject’. She also showed how this could be translated to different contexts from live performance to gallery installation, to make the viewer in each instance feel physically engaged with the work.
Carla intends to both repel and to seduce the viewer. This was most evident in the live performance visuals she produced in collaboration with artist Gazelle Twin for Out of Body, where unsettling materials have been manipulated using stop motion techniques. Like Švankmajer she wants the work to be visceral, surreal, and evocative.
Estonian film director Ülo Pikkov shared his latest work-in-progress film, Empty Space, introducing the context before the screening. He explained that a key element of the work is that the protagonist’s father whilst in hiding made the dolls’ house furniture that is used in the film. This led to much debate about how this information should be conveyed to the viewer. Some people suggesting that this needed to be made clear at the start at the film, others that it needed to be added in to the end cards that explained the history within the piece, some questioning whether it in fact mattered if it is not evident from the work what the significance of the objects is.
Ülo had been wrestling with elements such as captioning and adding voiceover to the film, so this presentation gave him the opportunity to discuss these challenges with peers. Personally I felt that the film without voiceover as it was presented, did allow the work to be more abstract, more open, and more able to avoid sentimentality.
Leah Fusco, a PhD candidate at Kingston University, spoke about her research into a deserted medieval village. She showed how she was using location drawing to produce a visual diary in order to record what cannot be revealed with a lens in such a fragile historical location. As well as recording the marks made on the landscape she brings herself into the narrative to in part try to avoid a sense of nostalgia or sentimentality pervading a work based on the historical.
She mentioned notions of ‘ruin lust’ and ‘dark tourism’ in ‘the ritualistic remembering of a disaster site’ which was evident in some of the research materials she had unearthed – sublime crumbling churches in the tumultuous landscape and the like. Such a fantastical rendering of the site was something she was keen to avoid.
Art Historian Brigitta Iványi-Bitter presented a potted history of animated documentary from Hungary and Central Europe, which proved to be delightfully experimental in the way that it reflected on the society at the time. I particularly enjoyed seeing Eszter Sabó’s painterly work and György Kovásznai’s work made in response to random radio recordings.
There were several other presentations on varied topics that I’m not going to attempt to cover here – but the lovely folks at Animated Documentary will be pulling together a round up – so do check out their site.
Image: This is History (after all), Roz Mortimer