Search form

What is it ACTUALLY that you do?

Defining what is it ACTUALLY that we do.

Someone not connected to the visual arts recently asked me, “What is it ACTUALLY that you do?”

I love questions like that. They invite me to explain complex things in simple language. I answered, “I give material form to my experience of the world.” For the least interested of listeners, that alone suffices. For the more curious, I wrestle with the operative terms “material form”, “experience”, and “the world”.

Material form is the medium, it’s what allows me to capture and revisit moments that resonate deeply, in essence to fix them in time. The drive to do it is kind of like being scared by a horror film and wanting to see it over and over again to make sense of it. I see kids do it all the time; they want to reread scary stories from a safe place, cuddled up knowing they can feel the feelings without being at real risk. I’m guessing that scary rides in theme parks have the same attraction, that they work the same way.

So I’m capturing moments, not necessarily scary but in my case certainly quizzical, strange, eerie, uncanny... and fixing them in time and space so I can revisit them from a safe place. And I polish them so they reflect my aesthetic values  - high on my list of necessary components. 

“Animation?” people ask me, “what EXACTLY is that?” I recently explained it as motion with an attitude. Norman McLaren, the great Canadian animator, talked about the important part being not what happens on the frames but rather what happens between the frames. What happens on the frames is the motion; attitude is what happens between the frames. We make meaning by bridging information on the changing frames, making assumptions about emotion and motivation based on timing and almost insignificant gestures (like a one frame take before a run.)

“Experience”? We all encounter the world differently and our art works best when it reflects that honestly. It doesn’t make sense to copy someone else’s voice because the bits won’t add up. One person’s material assembly + another person’s history + someone else’s aesthetic values = a mishmash that doesn’t hold together. If I learned nothing else over 30 years of making art, it’s that every voice is unique and all the bits have to be in sync. People have very accurate sh*t detectors and they’ll suss out where the bits don’t add up - the result being they won’t fully trust the work and won’t fully give themselves up to it. It’s like intuition - we all have our own unique intuition informed by a lifetime of learning, experience, and however we’re hardwired, and it has its own profile. 

As for "world", everybody’s coming from a fabulously different place. By world I mean history, memory, and present and all the bits in between. For example, his South African-Jewish identity informs William Kentridge’s highly political sensibility, Phil Mulloy’s dry wit is very British. Coming back to materials, Caroline Leaf’s animations are gestural and painterly and Kathy Rose’s are beautifully imaginative. We borrow - even better steal according to Picasso - and when the influences become fully knitted in, the work really sings.