Sara Ahmed – An Affinity of Hammers

I loved this essay by Sara Ahmed about the  trans “debate” that is currently raging in the media. This part really struck me as so important

An existence can be nullified by the requirement than an existence be evidenced. The very requirement to testify to your existence can end up being the very point of your existence […] When you are asked to provide evidence for your existence, or when you are treated as evidence, your existence is negated. Transphobia and anti-trans statements should not be treated as just another viewpoint that we should be free to express at the happy table of diversity. There cannot  be dialogue when some at the table are in effect (or intent on) arguing for the elimination of others at the table.”

In the course of the essay she discusses the way that part of questioning trans people’s existence is doubting their very experiences. So people do not take seriously our demands that people gender us correctly or use our correct pronouns. Ash she says “some forms of violence are so often understoood as trivial, or not as violence at all. Violence is so often reproduced by not being understood as violence.”

Being trans gives me a different perspective from the world, I want to capture this in my final project and show at least a glimpse of this world to my peers:

“We learn about worlds when they do not accommodate us. Not being accommodated can be pedagogy. We generate ideas through the struggles we have to be in the world; we come to questions worlds when we are in question.”

 

 

Aaaaand I’m done!

I exported my children’s society project today, with animation, colour and sound – the full shebang! Although it’s definitely not a perfect film, it is the first one I’ve ever made so I’m feeling pretty proud.

Things I have learned about making a charcoal animation:

Mistakes are the best way to learn
Don’t be lazy, it’s always worth putting in that extra in-between
Don’t start colouring until you’ve decided how to do it, I ended up colouring a lot of shots twice 🙁
Don’t forget to check the frame rate in photoshop!
Use the resources around you, I got excellent advice from Steve, Shaun, Kimmo and Anita
Flying is much easier to animate than walking
I’m sure there’s more but that’s all I can think of for now!

 

Decolonising Drawing workshop

Two artists I really admire, Jacob V Joyce and Rudy Lowe, were running a workshop at the CSM library on decolonising drawing this week, so I went along. Jacob did a really interesting  presentation about their work which broke down some of the ways art can be used to decolonise, including:

  1. Reverse anthropology – for example their zine (above) describing and dissecting different types of white liberal
  2. Reclaiming repressed histories – telling stories that are purposefully ignored such as resistance to slavery, queer precolonial communities etc…
  3. Afro-futurism – imagining a different past and future. Things like Black Panther fit into this, i.e. what would Africa be like now if colonisation hadn’t happened.

How can we use our art to decolonise rather than embed current racist, imperialist systems? Jacob and Rudy describe the tools of decolonisation as:

  1. Representation: We need to show people who are not part of the mainstream, not as objectified tokens but as the heroes and tellers of their own narratives
  2. Research: we need to find out the histories that have been hidden from us and make the visible.
  3. Weaponise: not just to attack the status quo, although that is important but also to nourish and empower those whose voices need to be lifted up.

After the talks they got us to find images in the library that we wanted to decolonise and each of us made a zine responding to that image. I found the task difficult, but interesting as it forced me to ask myself some complicated questions that I as a white artist, need to be thinking about in all my work (and life in general actually).

This was the image I chose.  I think there were a few things that interested me. The whiteness and thinness of the bodies pictured is extreme, almost unreal. The covering up of genitals as androgyny or prudishness? Whose hands? Why are they there? What does the nail varnish do to make these hands more/less threatening? What is being shown and what hidden?

 

I decided to think about what it means to cover up sex markers, such as genitals in an image and how does the effect vary depending on what kind of hands, and what kind of bodies are being used to do it. So i cut lots of different hands from magazine and placed them on more found cut out bodies:

One image I found that was particularly disturbing was this photoshoot of a father and daughter at a purity ball, so i decided to show it being used to shake heteropatriarchal white supremacy over the cartoon people huddling below.

The final page of my zine was bodies free from the hands and the poisonous rain, I guess as a hopeful note:

The nightmare walk

So I decided the last scene of my short film would be a shot of my main character walking down a street from the back until he finally (almost) disappears into the distance but actually takes off superman style…

This proved so so much harder than I had envisioned and so I thought I’d log a few of my different attempts here to remind myself to never ever try this again…

I tried multiple times trying everything from tracing paper guides and mathematical formulas.

Here is my first finished attempt:

My second:

and third

Still not quite right but probably as good as I’m going to get it this time.  I actually managed this by watching this film again and again to catch the sequence where he walks into the park.

So turns out cheating is the answer?

 

More animating

So work on the Children’s society project goes on, I’m deep into the animating now and am finally getting the hang of the charcoal process, although I  definitely still have a long way to go. Things I have learned about charcoal animation:

  • Patience patience patience patience. Sometimes you have to do a shot four times, sometimes it doesn’t look any better on the fourth, do it again.
  • Using tracing paper and a lightbox as guides is extremely useful when animating straightforward, sometimes it is impossible without.
  • Walking sequences are a nightmare, why I have three in my film I’ll never know.
  • Soft charcoal, soft paper and soft putty rubber, all work a lot better than the harder alternatives.
  • Try to make the background boil consistently as you animate, otherwise it looks a bit weird.
  • It doesnt matter if the character doesn’t stay consistently the same size and volume but it does matter that he doesn’t look stiff, so remember to keep the lines fluid and not be too lazy to do an extra frame if that is whats needed.
  • Sometimes fill works better than lines, especially for transformations, metamorphoses.
  • A lot is forgiven when the animation is beautiful
  • Nothing else is noticed when it’s not
  • Give characters time to stop and think between movements

Here’s a not very good quality video of one of my favourite shots so far…

Queer theory at Camden Arts Centre

The Camden Arts Centre is currently hosting an exhibition by Sadie Benning, one of the founding members of the riot girl band Le Tigre. Alongside the exhibition they not only ran a three part queer theory evening course but also offered a bursary to go,  so I jumped at the chance.

The course was run by the amazing artist, author and educator Linda Stupart, who I have admired from afar for sometime, so I was excited to go meet them in person.  Linda started off by giving us a slide show about a huge variety of queer artists whose work involved collage. We talked about how collage itself was a queer medium because of the way it takes images out of their original context and often places them where they are not expected. With collage it is easy and accessible to create new bodies, new worlds and new realities. Some artists whose work Linda showed us:

    • Claude Cahun

  • Hannah Hoch

      • Wangechi Mutu

We talked about how queerness is realising the strangeness of the everyday. For example zebras in a zoo stand out, but in the wild they vanish into their natural habitat. Queers also are very visible on the street, but in the gay club they disappear. Whose camouflage then is the street, the everyday world we live in?

Then Linda gave us each a piece of queer theory to read, some essays, some articles, some short stories and some poems and asked us to make a collaged zine that responded to the piece.

I made this:

Animating

The jump from animatic to animation was quite scary. I had a moment where I realised I couldn’t actually draw well enough to make any of the things I’d imagined actually look real! I felt pretty paralysed for a day or so, but then I realised (with a helpful shove from Steve) that it was too late to go back and I might as well get on with it.

First we filmed some LAVS (Live Action Video shoots) where I and some of my classmates acted out all the shots in my film. It was really useful to think about where characters are coming from, what their moods are and how this influences their movement. It wasn’t always easy to direct people to do these things however, I guess that’s why in professional animation outfits they use actors. Still I got some useful footage.

Then I (again with Steve’s help) set up my camera on a stand and linked it to a computer with dragon frame installed. I had a Lightbox directly underneath the camera and I taped each piece of paper to the lightbox and marked out the viewable area in charcoal. Here’s my set up:

 

 

I am using soft thin willow charcoal, a putty rubber and watercolour paper, which I’ve cut down to the right size. It’s pretty low tech. First I drew the background and then the character on top, so that as the character moved the background would get rubbed out behind it and have to be redrawn – this gives the whole thing a kind of wavy effect that I really like.

Here is my first shot. I definitely won’t use it in the final film, as I think I will need to practice this sequence a couple more times, but for posterity:

 

Character design

My characters are basically two versions of the same person, one at 13 and one at 19. They are both wearing the same outfit: red hoodie, blue jeans (in the children’s society colour palette) but the younger character’s clothes are much too big for him, and hang off him, whereas the older version fits his clothes perfectly.

I tried drawing some sketches of my character last night, I think I’ve still got a long way to go, but it was probably a good exercise to get the hang of how people move in baggy clothes. I’ve kind of got too used to
drawing people naked now!

Storyboarding

I’ve really enjoyed storyboarding for this project, mostly because it’s basically like making comics which is what I used to do before starting this course. I decide to take a very low tech approach to my story board, drawing my individual panels and then cutting them out so I can try my story in different orders and combinations:

I started out making very rough sketches of whats happening, then making a slightly more detailed coloured version before moving on to the cut out panels.

Then I tried organising the panels in different orders:

Then I coloured all the panels in and added some shading for contrast and depth.

Finally I scanned all the panels and made them into an animatic on premiere pro. It got a bit fiddly at this point, and would have probably been easier if I’d drawn them on TV paint, however this process was much more enjoyable!

Moving genders

This is an essay I submitted last week about animated documentary and I thought I’d put it up here as it contains much of my recent thinking…

What makes documentary animation a particularly effective/affective medium for portraying trans stories?

At the premiere of his 2018 documentary Jason Barker posed a question: “What does it look like when trans people tell their own stories?” The film, A deal with the Universe, is his answer. It tells the story of Barker and his partner Tracy trying to have a baby: after discovering that Tracey couldn’t get pregnant, Jason stepped up, as, despite having transitioned many years before, he still had the technical apparatus for pregnancy. The film is a beautifully edited mish-mash of home videos shot, mostly in their Hackney flat, over the course of several years. It is a patchwork story, one whose structure follows the to and fro debates of its protagonists. The audience is given an intimate look at a queer couple in their late thirties living their lives: they are not glamourised or derided, they simply are. Despite a narrative structure based around multiple attempts to get pregnant, the film deliberately eschews the cliched trans narrative of a journey from A to B dwelling instead in the messy middle. When bodies and surgery scars are shown, it is without isolating or objectifying them; the audience never loses sight of the human beings they belong to. This kind of film feels rare in a world where trans narratives are simplified into parody, trans bodies are sensationalised and rising panic is triggered by any questioning of the gender binary.

In this essay I want to look at how trans stories are told and the ways in which animation can add or take away from such narratives. I will be focusing on Teagan, a short animated documentary by Igor Coric and Sheldon Lieberman, which tells the story of a woman’s transition from male to female, describing both her own journey of self-discovery and the reactions of the people around her. Firstly, I will examine the way animation allows for anonymity, providing both protection for the subject and, paradoxically, bringing the audience closer to her experience by creating opportunities for empathy and identification. Secondly, I will argue that the fluidity and metamorphic potential of animation makes it an ideal form for a story of transformation. Finally, I want to look at authorship in this piece, and how it impacts on the content and the animation itself.

In the first scene, Teagan is drawn as a single line, which twists itself into the shouting mouth of her abuser and then back into her face in profile. The style is cartoonish, an audience does not know whether it resembles Teagan herself or if she could be recognised from the illustration that represents her. As Teagan begins to speak about her experience of being assaulted on a train, we see her whole body, again a simple cartoonish outline in which her face is drawn without features: she is a blank slate for our imagination. Thus, though Teagan’s real voice talks intimately of her experience, she remains unseen, her body an abstract representation. Creating anonymity for documentary subjects in this way is complicated terrain. On the one hand, an audience relies on seeing a person, their body language and their expressions, as proof of their testimony. Bill Nichols argues:

“Like the legal system, documentary discourse insists that we must be presented with the body. Witness and testimony, deposition and refutation, accusation and denial — all depend on direct encounter and physical presence.”

However, we also gain from preserving anonymity: a subject is able to give a more honest testimony when they are not afraid of exposure and retributions. This is particularly relevant for trans people who face extreme consequences when they chose to out themselves. Jaqueline Rose writes:

“It is a paradox of the transexual bid for emancipation that the more visible trans people become, the more they seem to excite, as well as greater acceptance, a particularly murderous hatred.”

In order to survive you must be seen but, for a trans person, being seen can be fatal. So where does that leave animation? Can a person be “seen” if they are merely animated? By animating Teagan in a non-realist style, the film explicitly pulls focus away from her body, so often the locus of interest in trans stories. Instead, it takes on her point of view: we are shown the people on the train laughing while she is assaulted, we hear her voice tremble when she admits to never having told anyone about it. Thus the animation works to both distance an audience from Teagan as an individual, while simultaneously pulling them closer to her experience of the world.

Annabelle Honess Roe describes how animation: “invites us to imagine, to put something of ourselves into what we see on screen, to make connections between non-realist images and reality.” and how documentary can use “non figurative, non specific and non realist animation in an attempt to evoke empathy for unfamiliar states of being.” This idea of making connections with the unfamiliar in order to create empathy is a part of any kind of storytelling, but is perhaps particularly relevant when documenting social issues. By focusing away from the “actual” body, the film abstracts the idea of bodies in general, it shows us an eye, a mouth, a line — as if to say that a human being is made from more than these. Disappointingly, the film does still insist on the trans cliche of “the reveal” where we see Teagan at the “end” of her transition standing naked in front of a full length mirror. And yet, even in this moment of exposure, the animation provides her with her privacy — her real body is hidden.

Teagan is animated by three artists: Igor Ćorić, Sam Hahn and Declan Burn (all cis men, more on that later) and the film moves seamlessly between their different drawing styles. While the limited colour pallet ties the film together, the different styles create a sense of fluidity: of existing in several different worlds at the same time. Thus the film evokes Teagan’s transformation as she describes it. This evocative fluidity is a huge strength for animation in telling trans stories: the ability to shift from one thing into another mirrors the reality of bodies evolving and changing. At one point we see Teagan’s body melt into a puddle on the floor after a man attacks her at a party. This is in part a literal illustration of her fear and embarrassment; simultaneously it demonstrates the result of people’s refusal to acknowledge one’s existence. As Judith Butler argues:

“If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the “human” expand to include me in its reach? If I desire in certain ways, will I be able to live? Will there be a place for my life and will it be recognisable to the others upon whom I depend for social existence?”

Teagan is not seen: the attacker repeatedly insists she is a man and her body melts away into nothingness leaving only a pile of clothes behind. The clothes are the focus of the man’s outrage, and by leaving them behind, the animation exposes his inability to see the human behind them.

This ability of animation to morph from one thing to another is not only metaphorical, it can futher be construed as a call to action: encouraging a radical questioning of the status quo. In Meta Morphing Vivian Sobchack argues that morphing, i.e. the smooth changing of one thing into another is:

“a historically novel representational practice whose specific material means radically interrogate certain traditional notions of coherence and self identity in space and time, of narrative and character, of evolution and devolution.”

Witnessing the morphing of trans bodies, a viewer is forced to question otherwise unexamined assumptions about the fixity of bodies and identity — prompting not only empathy but identification. Jane Gaines argues that this is a form of “political mimesis […] a relationship between bodies in two locations — on the screen and in the audience — and is the starting point for the consideration of what the one body makes the other do.” Seeing and hearing Teagan transform on screen makes an audience more aware of their own gender fluidity and their own potential for transformation.

However, the radical potential of this film is limited by its authorship: entirely directed and animated by cis men. How far can an audience trust a sense of empathy or identification shaped by people who do not share the experience being described? This is highlighted, when the animation in Teagan is at odds with the story being told. For example, when Teagan describes taking testosterone blockers, the animation shows her holding a raging bull at bay, and when she starts taking oestrogen, she is shown picking a flower and smelling it. These representations of gender are not only highly cliched, but reinforce the idea of a gender binary that the Teagan’s very existence challenges. These stereotypes seem particularly lazy but they are perfectly in tune with the traditional language of gender in animation, which is basic to say the least. From Mickey and Minnie Mouse, to Mr and Mrs Potato Head, animators have tended to separate the world into those that wear bows in their hair and those that do not. Although, as Sean Griffin argues,  this performance of gender can be seen as queer in itself:

“the importance of motion in the creation of identity [in] recent animation theory, ties directly into current social constructionist arguments about sexual identity, that all genders and sexualities (not just homosexuality) are learned and performed.”

In conclusion, animation has the potential to be an ideal medium for telling powerful trans stories particularly through its creation of anonymity while maintaining intimacy and ability to morph fluidly between states of being and feeling. However the animation in Teagan falls short of this potential, instead it collapses into lazy cliches around binaries and linear journeys, that trans stories have too often been victim to. The hope is that as more and more trans people, like Jason Barker, step up to tell their own stories, animation will be a medium ripe for use.

Bibliography

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  • Butler, J. (2004), Undoing Gender, New York and London: Routledge
  • Gaines, J.M. (1999) ‘Political Mimesis’, in Jane M Gaines and Michael Renov (ed.) Collecting Visible Evidence. Minneapolis: University of Minesota Press
  • Griffin, S. (2004) ‘Queer Animation’ in Benshoff H. and Griffin S. (ed.) Queer Cinema: The Film Reader. New York: Routledge
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