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Animation - notes for a talk

Dear Animate Assembly, thank you so much for having me here today, and thank you for asking me to speak about animation. As you know, I am not an artist or an animator, and my work is only metaphorically visual. I try to present my ideas in the form of ‘figures’ rather than of concepts, borrowing at times from art and at times from mythology. I try to do this because I believe, like many before me, that knowledge is a form of imagination and that any conceptual exposition is, at least in part, a form of mental theatre – where the stage is occupied by figures rather than by abstract definitions.

But except from this metaphoric connection, my actual engagement with the craft of animation is that of the non-specialist. So, please allow me to talk about animation in terms that I feel familiar to myself. This means, for example, that I’ll try to observe animation from the perspective of culture at large, instead than from within the artistic field. I will try to discuss how contemporary and, especially, future culture interrogates animation today. And what animation could do in response to this interrogation.

I said ‘especially future’ culture, because of my growing pessimism regarding our present situation, at a socio-political and at a cultural level. It might be the case that we have fallen in an era of cultural disaggregation, and we might have to skip a generation or two before a new cultural fire ignites again. It wouldn’t be the first time in history, it won’t be the last. On account of my pessimism for the present, and of my hopefulness for the future, and to keep my perspective as familiar to me at possible, please allow me to begin with my own family, and in particular with one very young boy, my son.

Looking at a child can be very instructive, on countless levels. One of them is that you, an adult, are given a second chance to witness how culture is born and what it is for. As Adam Zagajewski once remarked, childhood is the time when a person “first [begins] to recognize, to suspect, some kind of doubleness in the world’s nature.” (1)

Like any child, since he was a toddler my son has been creating a general map of the world to orient himself. He’s been doing this at the same time by learning the name of things, and by making them speak – that is, by animating objects around him. This coincidence between making sense of the world and making it speak is the very heart of what is meant by the notion of ‘culture’.

Culture operates just like a child, making the non-human speak: materials, strokes of colour, shapes, words, sounds, notions are magically turned into as many voices. Culture in all its forms has to do with a sudden animation of something inert – even in the case of an actor, whose body is turned into flesh and animated again by a new-coming soul. Culture is, in a sense, the stylised repetition of a wonderous event that we witness all the time, ever since it first befell us: that things come into existence, that something appears into the world that wasn’t quite there before. The eternal spring, of which Dionysus is a symbol. But culture is also the repetition of another event, simultaneous to the first and equally astounding: that things go out of existence, that something moves away from the world. This second, autumnal feeling, like the figure of Apollo (whose month, Apellaios, started in late October), cuts and separates what the vines of spring had bound together. Rather than as a wonder, however, we tend to experience the face of Apollo, the vanishing of existence, as a trauma. The fundamental trauma that plagued philosophy since its origin: the problem of becoming and of mortality. Culture has to do in equal measure with these two doppelganger events. As much as through presence and creation, culture operates through silence and pauses.

Culture is a way to make sense of the world by making it speak and then by letting it fall silent again. In both ways, culture deals with that two-headed monster that fundamentally traumatises and mesmerises us: the fact that things are, then are not, and then they are again – and that even meaning can sink and vanish, and then emerge again as if out of nothing. Culture tackles directly the continuous, portentous event that we are constantly made to witness – and in doing so, culture functions as the groundwork that allows us to operate in the world. If you wish, it is a regulated smoked-up lens, that allows us to turn blinding light into liveable luminosity. Through culture we are able live in the world without shielding ourselves entirely from the portentous event at its heart, while also avoiding to be paralysed by the trauma of witnessing it. This is why, for humanist thinkers, culture is the main tool that can that truly helps us live a full and dignified existence. This is also why the dilemma posed by Polish philosopher Henryk Elzenberg still rings acutely true: should culture-makers tell the stars about their generation, or tell their generation about the stars?

In this sense, animation deals precisely with the central object of culture: how to make a piece of music ‘speak’, how to make an actor ‘perform’, how to make a painting ‘emanate’? Animation isn’t just a field of cultural production, but it’s a meta-branch of culture itself – addressing by its very name (‘life-giving’) the fundamental event that leads to the creation of culture itself. And visual animation does this continuously, with the obsessiveness of a ritual. From stop motion to digital animation, visual animation symbolically repeats at each instant the double event that is the wondrous and traumatic bedrock of our entire psychic experience: that things come alive and then die and then come to life again. That existence moves through the world, and that it doesn’t coincide with any of its names or of its temporary forms. The objects moving at each frame, the flow of energy of a computer program igniting patches of light – and then the objects suddenly stopping, the lights that go off. Animation infinitely repeats this gesture in its most stylised form. The general question of ‘animation’ runs through the heart of culture, and the obsessive ritual of visual animation repeats at each instant the very origin of culture itself. It is precisely such a relationship to the origin what differentiates culture from entertainment and propaganda.

In the hands of the merchant, of the police officer or of the politician, so-called ‘cultural’ activities rapidly move away from their own raison d’etre. Reduced to serve social ends, they become tools for competition, control and war. When culture is too far removed from its portentous origin, from the metaphysical trauma that confronts each of us at each instant, it quickly withers away. Better, it withdraws, shrinking to its core. Moving away from its function in the social arena, culture withdraws towards the memory of the very event that birthed it. This is how culture addresses animation today – not just visual animation but the question of animation in itself. The shattered army of contemporary culture comes to it questioning, but not with the tone of the bureaucrat or of the exploiter. Animation is addressed by contemporary culture with an intimate tone, like a child asking their parents to tell them again a story they’ve heard a million times. Animation, in turn, seems to be replying to this gentle questioning by making its own tone even more intimate. This doesn’t come as a difficult task, particularly to visual animation. While the origin of cinema is the theatre, with its stage and public, the origins of visual animation are the kaleidoscope and the shadows in dark room. Intimate experiences, like dreams or sleep, that fundamentally precede ‘sociality’. But that also create the intimate treasure of metaphysical experiences around which any true sociality is built. At its heart, visual animation is a private form of communication, so subtly different in tone from other artforms that have a more innately ‘public’ attitude.

Animation’s intimate tone, and the intimacy with which it is interrogated by culture today echo a growing attitude among our younger generations. After decades of social fragmentation and re-aggregation, younger generations seem to be moving progressively away from the bloody arena of the public. Not just in the extreme way of hikikomori hermits, but more generally with a progressive emotional disengagement from institutional goals and social norms. Against the enlightenment project to make citizens embody the norms of society, contemporary teenagers are creating a veneer of (mainly digital) public presence, behind which they can remain entirely emotionally detached. The embarrassing earnestness of the older generations on social media finds its dignified counterpart in the youngers’ calculated disengagement. They enter social media, if they still do at all, as they would enter a hostile schoolyard: careful to publicly comply with the etiquette of their social group of reference, while making themselves as emotionally absent as possible. Unlike the 20th and early 21st century, the coming generations are trying to reinvent their sociality on an intimate wavelength, away from public arenas. Their older siblings are already decelerating the pace of their engagement with public sociality: from hip hop to trap, from hyper-drugs to tranquilisers and anaesthetics. The volume of public sociality, now at a deafening intensity, is being progressively turned down, leaving room for a more intimate dimension. The younger generations are interrogating their experience of life in the world with the same intimate tone with which a denigrated culture is addressing animation. Both seek to expose themselves once again to the portentous event itself, not to the layers of social discourse that have obfuscated it. And a wonderous event can be witnessed only privately, even when it occurs in front of a crowd.

Visual animation is in a privileged position to regroup the energies of culture – whatever of it escaped recruitment into entertainment, repression and propaganda – and to plant a seed from which culture could grow again. Not by doing something different to what it already does, but by perfecting it. In its ritualistic function, as the custodian of the very event that originated culture, visual animation might want to consider some principles of the ‘traditional’ view of art, typical of pre-modern cultures across borders. Within a ‘traditional’ perspective on art, the contemporary mania for innovation morphs into an equally maniacal focus on perfection. Where ‘perfection’ should be understood not in terms of the impressiveness of an artist’s skills, but as an artwork’s embodied loyalty to a certain metaphysical function. The perfect artist understands what aspects of existence each artform can make manifest, while remaining aware of the ontological limits imposed on manifestation as such. Hence the apparent repetitiveness of Byzantine icons or European paintings before the Renaissance, their apparent lack of virtuosism – and their relative perfection.

But perfection is not enough, when it comes to rescuing the cultural discourse from an era governed by entertainment and violence. A ritual in an empty temple is a ritual only in the abstract. And in fact, animation is not a discourse of pure production, but it is most importantly a mode of ‘participation’. This term shouldn’t be understood to refer to a form of ‘social participation’, but it has to do with the participation of the viewer in the mystery that is made manifest in an artwork. Unless the viewer takes the same position as the artist – that is, unless the viewer is able to witness first-hand the portent symbolised by animation – even the highest artistic achievements remain a deaf pile of cultural products. The fact is that culture is not a field for specialists, nor is it a social ‘field’ at all, but it’s a crucial part in the existential equipment of any person. It is not enough, it is never enough for a person to outsource their own cultural dimension to specialists, regardless of their academic allegiances – they want, they need to experience it first hand, from the same position as the artist themselves. We – philosophers, writers and artists – tend to focus on how to animate the non-human, how to repeat the wondrous event in our work. But we should also focus, and with equal intensity, on how to help our viewers and readers ‘see’ that event in the first place – instead of shielding themselves from it under the blankets of various social discourses. As artist and writers, we should help our viewers to see it through our cultural production, of course, but most importantly we should help them to see it in the world around them. This is a question of initiation, rather than of mere ‘cultural production’. And in regards to portents and mystery, any effort in the direction of initiation has to look at poetry at least as an interlocutor, if not as a model. Poetry is ‘mysticism for beginners’, as claimed by Zagajewski. “Poetry differs from religion in essential ways, [it] stops at a certain moment, stifles its exaltation, doesn’t enter the monastery, it remains in the world, among the swallows and the tourists, among palpable, visible things. […] Poetry can be less than truthful, since it yearns at times for something different.” (2) Like the process of initiation itself, poetry stretches between different registers of existence like a bridge.

If we consider animation in the terms of the gentle demands issued to it today by culture, its main contribution consists exactly in this particular form of initiation into a new realm of visibility. Like poetry before the latest great cultural crisis, animation is today possibly the main cultural form to carry the possibility of bringing back a re-enchantment, not only of the world, but most importantly of the gaze. How precisely to do this – that is, how to work on initiation – is a difficult question, worthy of discussion. I believe that visual animation is in a good position to open a path in this direction, thanks to its proximity to what both contemporary culture (understood as a dimension of the soul, not as a field of production) and the younger generations are seeking so keenly and, under their apparent cool, also so desperately. Perhaps, animation could do so by re-opening old paths that have long been submerged by time, as with the rediscovery of some aspects of traditional art. Or by understanding the problem of animation not just conceptually and artistically, but first of all ‘mythologically’. Or even by considering what it might mean for culture to employ the register of ‘prophecy’, beyond that of ‘narrative’. But once again, this might be the topic of another discussion.

1) Adam Zagajewski, Slight Exaggeration, p. 130-131

2 ) Adam Zagajewski, Slight Exaggeration, p. 135

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