Abstraction and Visual Music
CONTEMPORARY ANIMATION FROM LOS ANGELES ARTISTS
UCLA James Bridges Theatre (Melnitz 1409)
The burgeoning VJ scene has recently made live performance of Visual Music very common. However, artists have long explored Abstraction and Visual Music using the techniques of film animation, video synthesis, and computer graphics.
Los Angeles, although known for mainstream Hollywood media, is also home to a thriving community of independent animation artists. The iotaCenter presents films by several local artists followed by a panel discussion. Although varied, their films are united by an expressive approach to cinema. As paintings in motion, or music made visual, they transcend conventional film form with personal freedom and technical virtuosity.
The iotaCenter is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and celebration of the art of abstraction in the moving image.
We wish to thank the artists for providing their films and appearing at the screening and James Latham for moderating the panel. We also thank Melnitz Movies, the ASUCLA Student Interaction Fund and the UCLA Graduate Student Association for providing additional resources to make this program possible.
This screening was coordinated for iota by James Latham, Julie Gumpert and Rebecca Newman.
Nine Trips and a Travelogue:
Experimental film screenings are to Hollywood blockbusters what budget traveling is to packaged vacations: through them one often rediscovers one’s thirst for the unconventional. “Abstraction and Visual Music: Contemporary Animation from Los Angeles Artists” exemplified such an adventure. Co-sponsored by The iotaCenter and the UCLA Film Archive’s Melnitz Movies, the program featured nine groundbreaking but rarely seen pieces by local film and videomakers. These works belong to the rarified tradition of visual music or abstract animation, terms that approximate the formal rigors and synaesthetic pleasures of creating and experiencing non-representational images and sounds. For those who attended “Abstraction and Visual Music,” the February evening indeed offered a stimulating journey for both the mind and the senses.
Fittingly the evening opened with Jules Engel’s The Meadow (1994). Not only was Engel a masterly painter and animator, but he also founded the Experimental Animation program at the California Institute for the Arts (CalArts), where he fostered generations of exceptional artists by providing them with the necessary stimuli and support for developing their own styles. In fact, more than half of the filmmakers on the program have studied or taught at CalArts. Engel’s generative presence radiates from The Meadow. While its title suggests a placid pastoral reverie, the film is anything but quiet or mild. Instead it skips and surges with organic energy, matching bold painterly strokes with dense autumnal colors. Motifs cycle like the seasons: samples of natural sounds play against scattered ringing notes, while futurist angles and curves alternate with expressionist vistas. There is a bracing freshness to the ensemble, as though one were striding outdoors, continually startled by nature’s vividness and abundance. With or without its evocative title, The Meadow conjures a space that welcomes exploration and observation.
If Henri Matisse, Bobby McFerrin, and a roomful of precocious schoolchildren made a film, it might look something like Kitsch in Synch (1975). Like its clever and charmingly self-deprecating title, Adam Beckett’s animated cut-out and optically-printed film appears disarmingly quirky while delivering great formal sophistication. This is not a haphazard hodgepodge, despite the film’s multiple contributors (its images and sounds were created by the students Beckett taught at CalArts) and its title’s pun (“everything went in except the kitchen sink.”) Instead, Beckett employs two powerful structuring devices for introducing and elaborating his disparate materials: one in space and one in time. Spatially speaking, Kitsch in Synch is strictly bisymmetric. Like the blots of a Rorschach test, each design on the frame’s left side is mirrored on the right. Color poses the only exception, producing enticing momentary asymmetries: a diamond may be turquoise on the left, but fuchsia on the right. Temporally, Kitsch in Synch develops through additive cycles – simple graphics become complex during multiple iterations, often through their interaction with new layers of designs. Kitsch in Synch is also distinguished sonically. Its collage of banjo twangs, rubber-toy squeaks, and a host of unexpected yet congruous sounds underscores the film’s sly good humor. It is regrettable that Beckett died tragically at the age of 28, and that until now his works remain relatively inaccessible to general viewers. However, the iotaCenter is in the process of reviving Beckett’s legacy: to learn more, please click on The Adam Beckett Project.
Vibeke Sorensen’s Nloops (1989) possesses stately scale and logic. Her few recurring figures – cubes, tauruses, and other three-dimensional variations on straight and curved edges – achieve monumentality through painstaking repetition and articulation. The film’s nine-part presentation, adapted from its original format as a nine-monitor installation piece, calls to mind a giant tic-tac-toe grid. One’s attention thus freely jumps among several competing yet complementary modes of perceiving the screen: as a single entity, nine independent compositions, vertical and horizontal triptychs, and a checkerboarded array. This mathematical modularity extends into NLoop’s minimalistic soundtrack, coolly understated color scheme, fractal-like figure designs, and rhythmic transformations. Indeed, the ways and rates by which Sorensen builds forms upon forms may lead us to contemplate the infinite ways by which infinity may be visualized. Nloops thus offers viewers the uncommon experience of sensually working through abstract concepts and questions.
For those who have grown accustomed to post-Pixar hyper-real-and-super-rendered computer animation aesthetics, Michael Scroggins’ Power Spot (1986) at first presents an endearing reminder of lower-tech days. Its too-perfect geometric forms, alien-planet-fantasy palette, and decidedly unprogrammatic music all point to conditions that no longer exist, when the potentials of computer-generated graphics were idealized along quite different parameters. However, as Power Spot draws us into its world, any nostalgia or even condescension one might feel is soon replaced by a sense of urgency. One realizes that Scroggins’ investigations remain germane, especially given the contemporary overabundance of anthropomorphic computer animation. Power Spot engages our visual imagination anew through its slippages between foreground and background, its encounters between acute angles and sinuous curls, and its contrasts between instantaneous and progressive changes. By employing both flat and three-dimensional forms, Scroggins creates a curiously conditional setting in which neither modernist planar conventions nor classical perspectival geometries holds dominance. Power Spot thus unfolds without hurry or hesitation until it becomes possible to set aside extraneous concerns to concentrate on the particulars of a work that has stood the test of time.
The French philosopher Luce Irigaray wrote:
The sea shines with [sic] a myriad eyes. And none is given any privilege. Even here and now she undoes all perspective. Countless and shifting and merging her depths. And her allure is an icy shroud for the point of view.
No rapture, no peril is greater than that of the sea.
These lines could almost describe Kathy Smith’s Indefinable Moods (2001), and yet, of course, the film inevitably eludes characterization. It is both ironic and strangely appropriate that the most “representational” film of the evening is arguably the most “abstract” – even more so than many non-representational works, Indefinable Moods resists attempts to glean from it a linear narrative or development trajectory. Along with abstract forms, Smith’s film contains several readily identifiable figures, such as the ocean, grasses, a letter, a baby, and a dwelling. However, each of these symbolically-charged figures defy simplistic interpretation. Instead, they are variously juxtaposed to convey messages that seem to be just at the edge of our comprehension, on the very tips of our tongues. Meanwhile, Smith’s Mediterranean hues and drifting surfaces seem to call forth strong contradictory feelings: there is both threat and longing, serenity and violence. Indefinable Moods holds its viewers in extended spatial, temporal, and narrative suspension, such that it is impossible to emerge from the experience unchanged.
Jim Ellis’s Believer (1998) packs a punch: it possesses that particular confidence and clarity of design that charms viewers to feel that the work is both unprecedented and inevitable. Believer’s abstract computer animation of motion-captured data succeeds where many other music videos fail: it exponentially enhances the performer’s presence, endowing her voice with the god-like power of universe-creation. It is an elegant and intimate universe, in which a dark infinity attends the pure white ellipse at its center. The circle speaks – it whispers, moans, seduces and sings – and with each utterance it sends out finely etched emanations into its ebony surroundings. This is not lip but body or possibly spirit-synch – the text matters much less than Ellis’s execution of Mimi Goese’s delivery. As our foveae offer dancing afterimages in the wake of every charismatic vowel and consonant, the screen’s center becomes presence and orifice, self and other, being and world.
JWalt Adamczyk’s In The Moment (2003) explicitly pursues – and achieves – a state of transcendent immersion. A toddler gleefully chases a beach ball across a green lawn – and in a moment, the commonplace home footage shimmers and transubstantiates into an ecstatic swirl of pigments and gestures, a Pointillist’s wildest fantasy. One half-sees the wheeling of a lattice of leaves overhead or a scattering of headlamps and street lamps in the night. Indeed, there is something about Adamczyk’s appreciation for light, movement, and immediacy that echoes the radical ideals of French Impressionism, an association strengthened by the soundtrack’s Debussy-like melody. Given the video’s beauty and technical polish, its seeming spontaneity is even more impressive. Computer-generated imagery, however diffused or smudged, tends to look as still and sharp as glazed pottery. But the pixels of In The Moment resemble paint or even watercolor – freshly mixed and barely dry, requiring quick and decisive application. By strategically superimposing successive frames of live-action video clips, Adamczyk powerfully intensifies our experience of the everyday. As the screen returns to the child’s play with his ball, it becomes quite plausible that one might behold eternity in a wildflower.
Sixth in a ten-part series based on myths and data drawn from the solar system, Mondi’s Zeus (2005) bears a dark, elegiac, and sometimes threatening grandeur. Zeus’s beautiful score, also created by Mondi, sets much of the film’s mood. A trancy layering of variations on a theme in a minor key, the piece advances with the relentlessness and regularity of a Baroque composition. Electronic instruments and classical strings are woven with the uncanny “sucking” timbre of recordings played backwards to form a dense, even suffocating aural texture. Meanwhile, the screen pulses with shadows and scars; the film’s surface seems as battered and yet detached as a wartime photograph. Like certain Cubist paintings, eerily familiar figures emerge and submerge within a brown-gray riddle of lines and planes. Jupiter’s indistinct image impassively reigns at the center of this inorganic terrain, as mesmerizing as a looming thunderhead.
I am not alone in bemoaning an unwanted yet stubbornly reflexive association between car commercials and other banalities with the powerful strains of “Winter” from Anton Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. How welcome it was to be presented with an alternative visual representation! Mar Elepano’s Winter (1984) is as bold as its eponymous soundtrack. Simple and stark white figures dance on the velvety black background, perfectly synchronized to the music’s beats and measures. Elepano builds his own associations: we quickly learn which themes are paired with given figures – meandering vertical strokes, percussive drips and splatters, decisive parallel scratches. The result is enjoyable partly because it seems so predictable and self-evident. Yet those who have worked with direct-on-film methods and optical printers recognize that there is no formula for finding one’s own balance between control and improvisation as Elepano has in Winter.
The nine works were followed by a panel discussion that five of the artists were able to attend. Michael Scroggins, Jim Ellis, JWalt Adamczyk, Mondi, and Mar Elepano each provided candid answers to questions from moderator Jim Latham and the audience. The discussion lasted well over an hour, and conversation continued in the lobby even after the theater closed. A transcript of highlights from the discussion follows:
On their works and themselves:
Michael Scroggins: I have a love-hate relationship with my work, sometimes I look at it and I find it really exciting and vibrant, other times I wonder “what was that?”…It comes and goes; I realize that the responses are all very conditional.
Jim Ellis: [Believer] is an older work. I took some time to be introduced to real-time animation, for parties, raves, rock tours, etc., and recently I decided to get out of that a little bit to use real-time tools to get a gestural dance into the animation itself, then to tweak it a bit and make it extra pretty. So I’m in the process right now of moving back into film. I’m working on a feature film of my own music and animation.
Mondi: Jim is the reason I started doing this, and Michael taught me how to do it, so I feel like a student more than an artist, I have a lot to learn.
Mar Elepano: It seems to me that you can see someone’s personality on the screen and it’s interesting, it’s like you want to meet these people and talk to them more through their work. So I don’t mind seeing this over and over again, it’s the only way I can enjoy it, to see it again. The more you see it the more you realize what it’s all about.
On storytelling and self-expression:
Ellis: To me, to evoke an emotional or physical response, to make someone nervous, uneasy or relaxed is pretty crucial, and if that’s all my goal was, then I could just take a camera and get some actors. For me, I push for an expanded perception whereby there’s a higher state, sort of otherworldly, and if I’m lucky I can bring back a piece of my experience from my own crazy headspace and say here it is.
Scroggins: …in how it affects us, music doesn’t need a story nor does it have to be programmatic. There’s an absolute quality to how many forms of music work, and that’s my intention, to create an effect…through this element…What interests me about the real-time process is there is a stimulus feedback loop that takes place. If you’re working in real-time, the work you’re seeing affects you and that causes you to make a particular change, and that change feeds back to the next change and the next. This is like how improvised live music functions. On the other hand, formal structures that are well thought out…also create a power without having been done in real time performance; it originates in the analysis and building of structure.
JWalt Adamczyk: I think story is form imposed upon life. So there are all sorts of different forms and ideas that can be expressed outside telling a piece of a story of someone’s life. I think that’s what we’re exploring here. Most explicitly, I think of tonight’s works Indefinable Moods suggested that there are things for which there are no words. There are other ways of expressing them. This is the commonality we share in the work that we all do. We see something and recognize “There’s some truth to that,” or something we understand, a worthwhile thought.
Elepano: …story is really a kind of movement, in its primal state, and that’s the kind of stuff I like to see: the more abstract, (the more) I like it.
Scroggins: Another way I think of my approach to working, if you think of the will to produce sound you can sing with your voice, and you can tell a story. You can have a narrative with the lyric. Or, you can sing in a more abstract way, or create an instrument or some technology like a violin or a sitar or a piano, and extend the will to make sound. You can do things with a piano you can’t do with your voice. The will to create movement, the will to kinesthesia, can also be expressed with instrumentation, like the tools we use where the will to move things is not your body moving, but as you said, it’s a sort of a dance using these distancing tools of technologies.
Ellis: One approach I haven’t quite figured out, and it relates to this physicality, is I’d like to make something non-representational that arouses people sexually. I remember being a student once in Michael’s visual synthesis class and bringing in a tape of pornography and putting it through visual synthesizers and pulling feedback on it until it was unrecognizable.
On limits and techniques:
Adamczyk: The main limits I think are time and money.
Scroggins: That said, in Power Spot, I was using a traditional broadcast television switcher. It wasn’t designed to do what I was doing but I was looking for a tool that would allow me to perform in real-time, so through the wipe generators I had the ability to do geometric form and I could find some adaptations of that which were interesting and I could work with rhythmic repetition. I could look for a language of composition within that. Also I had control over color by turning hue saturation and brightness knobs. So I learned to play those the best that I could. I could do a recording, then I could play that back, then lay a recording over that, play that back, then I’ve got A,B,C rolls going and continue to work with that. But it was very limiting in that I was stuck within the frame, so everything tends to remain in the frame. I began to learn that these limitations provided by the instrument actually help form the work. They’re not necessarily hurdles. Musical instruments have limitations: things you can do with them very well, and then things that are difficult to do. So you tend to compose for the nature of the instrument. These are the kinds of limitations I was dealing with. Because of the nature of the frame, I really wanted to break out of that, and in the work I’m doing now, with virtual reality or immersive VR and gestures, I want to be able to wear the gloves and goggles and be surrounded by the image. There’s no frame really. It’s more like sculpture in the round than it is making a movie. But that time and money is a problem. JWalt (Adamczyk) is the closest person I’ve seen to where I want to go with his live performances. I highly recommend you see his work if you have the chance.
Ellis: …I come from an improvisational music background, so when I had the opportunity to improvise with video synthesis I was very excited, but a lot of the precision was lost, I felt as if 10% was gold and the rest was crap. When I went into doing computer animation, wanting more mathematical control, at that point all the tutorials and classes were geared towards creating humans and how you make humans move. I wanted to learn all that but I quickly realized that “Wow, this takes so much time, and I want immediate gratification!” When I started there were gigantic, refrigerator-sized computers and they were slow. I even punched them a couple of times. To get time to create work as a student I was in competition with students of higher class standing. Out of frustration I thought I couldn’t render-out at video resolution; it would take too much time…As a result, I developed a technique of recursive texture mapping where instead of rendering at video resolution, I rendered it at a lower one, and I would map that image onto three dimensional objects then render that out in a slightly higher resolution, but the small image had all the lighting information I needed. I kept doing this process because it was the only way I could get anything done. That limitation led to the style in this piece, and the limitations of improvisation, regarding the only 10% as gold in video graphics, led me to computers, but I soon got frustrated with computers because everything is so mathematically precise. Where’s the dance, where’s the life? In Believer I just captured some animation channels with just a mouse. I did a few takes, got what I liked, and cleaned it up.
Adamczyk: To follow up a bit, there’s the opposite problem rather than the limits. I’m here right now with these stills and techniques at my disposal, what can I do with them?...There’s still a lot of life, still things that nobody has done…It’s very cheap to do; probably everybody has access to a video camera, so there’s a tool you have at your disposal. There are a lot of things you can do with what you have today, rather than trying to find a way out of the limitations, we work within them.
Mondi: I tend not to think about limitation but I guess time is the biggest. The version you saw tonight is probably the eighth version of that film I’ve made in the past few years. Well, I shouldn’t say that; it’s the only version of that film, but the eighth with that name. One day I’ll find a version I want to stick with.
Ellis: I think you (Mondi) and I share the same experience with limitation in that we both like to work in black and white. Part of the reason for that is that we’re not using traditional modeling techniques that a lot of three-dimensional modelers use. We find the farts and belches the machine makes, we make it puke sometimes. We see something and say “Yeah, that’s cool! Now how do I control it?” It takes no time to render (in black and white), which I love. Usually with that technique it becomes difficult to create the illusion of depth if there’s a highly defined color palette.
Elepano: For me, limitations are great, at least for what I’ve done. I worked without a camera. It was all applied directly. The only time I used a camera were for the titles and the freeze frame at the end. That really helped because I can’t imagine doing that with an actor, it would make it too difficult. The whole idea of touching the film, spattering the paint, inhaling the fumes: during that time it felt good.
On production schedules:
Elepano: To be honest I had thought of (Winter) for a long time. The music played over and over in my head for a couple of years really… Then I started thinking of the animation process and of Fischinger and Len Lye and McLaren and they all came together. And then in a week or two, because I was in charge of the film processing labs, I had everything I needed, so that was it. Once you’re ready, you’re ready…Normally, it doesn’t happen so quickly with me.
Scroggins: With Power Spot I worked on it for endless hours at a time. It’s a real-time process but you’re jamming and jamming and seeing what worked and what didn’t, so you’re doing multiple sessions and because access to the video studio was limited due to demand, it would be months. Power Spot was started in ’84 and took until ’86 to finish. I probably have one hundred hours. I wish I had kept journals. I can’t tell you how many elements are in it; I have no notes. Even though I was working in real-time it seemed to take a very long time… One reason it took so long is because my marriage broke up; my wife and other people were helping me work on it. When I came back to work on it, I couldn’t do it: I was emotionally devastated. It took awhile to work through that. For that reason Power Spot took longer to do than other projects I did at about the same time. There’s a whole body of work that I did with the switcher, and it’s interesting to see it all together because you begin to get a sense of what the devices are, what the syntactical structure is. At any rate, it took a long time.
Ellis: Well Believer I think took a month or two. I had to do it quickly because the album was coming out, and I had an advance copy of it. That was a time of staying up all day, sleeping on the couch for fifteen minutes, then getting up and checking my renders. It was a crazy long haul. If I broke it down into eight-hour days, maybe it took four months.
Adamczyk: Maybe you’ve experienced this yourselves, you’re sitting in a coffee shop and thinking about the project. It looks really lazy but it’s true, sometimes it just takes a long time for an idea to germinate. In December I started a project that took about a week but I had been thinking about it for the last ten years. It was only that I finally came upon the design idea that would really work and had the tools to really pull it together. So it took a week, or ten years, I don’t know.
Mondi: This is part of a ten part series I did for my graduate thesis at CalArts, and I worked for an entire year on those ten. I probably slept two or three times during that year. One piece took three hours to do, another took the whole year to do.
On music, soundtrack design, and budgets:
Scroggins: I’ve worked with composers who have commissioned me to do a video for a piece of music they did, like Jon Hassell’s work in Power Spot…In other cases I’ve made my animations silent and then given them to a composer to score it, which was the traditional way that Jules Engel always did. I’m much more interested now in doing the work silently and maybe even leaving it silent because I want to see the affective power of the visual itself…It’s true that when you’re doing a silent screening people sometimes feel they’re underwater or that their ears are plugged because we’re so accustomed to a marriage of sound and marriage…I don’t think that sound and image have to be married. And regarding money, you can find composers where there’s no money involved. In my case, Jon did it through the record company who actually gave me money, which was nice, but it wasn’t necessary…
Ellis: I just want to make my own music. I’ll collaborate with certain people. For instance Mondi and I have been doing some jamming every now and then so that’s been fun. Regarding the feature film, I initially wanted to have some kind of other name recognition. There were musicians with whom I wanted to collaborate anyway. I contacted some of them, but although they were down, the problem is one person is in Amsterdam, another is in London, and ultimately these were the sorts of people I’d trust to do what they do. Unfortunately, it was just going to be a logistical nightmare…But when it came down to it, as much as I like that music, I think the music I have to use is my own because the stuff that I like and the stuff I’m going to put in my films are two different things.
Mondi: There’s a lot of music I like but often you have to choose just one section of the music you want to use because you can’t stretch the animation to last for the whole song. For everything I’ve done so far I’ve made the music myself, even though I’m not very good at sound.
Elepano: In my case I’m interested in community-based performance, like my group of friends who do professional line dancing. I would like to do a piece based on their performance. There is a kind of music from the ritualized music in Bali…meant to exorcise the evil spirit. I listened to the tape, and it’s so powerful. If I had the money, I would go down there and work with them.
Adamczyk: I had the good fortune to meet Bill Irwin, an actor and physical comedian, and I went to a conference to give a performance where he was also performing. The organizers suggested that we do something together. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do it but I had really wanted to do a duet between a dancer and animator. When I heard “Bill Irwin,” I was really jazzed, because I don’t think there are many people as physically inventive as he is. If I had a budget, I would call him up and suggest we do a project.
Created by jeremy
Last modified 2006-10-02 21:39