The Presence of The Hand in Alternative Animation

Alexander Popejoy

When looking at a garment, one of the first things one might notice is the presence or absence of “the hand.” Are the seams perfectly sewn and pressed, or do we see some threads unraveling at the finishes, some hand stitching? When we see the absence of the human hand as a force of creative work, there are instant connotations that come with this. Some connotations could be considered positive, such as refinement or perfection, but others not so much, such as anonymous labour and mindless production. While watching the material for Week 11’s topic of alternative animation, the presence or absence of the hand as a mark making tool was something that really struck me as important. The following paragraphs are my thoughts on the videos we will watch in class through this lens, with the exception of Night Hunter by Stacey Steers.

In Mary Ellen Bute and Tom Nemeth’s Abstronic from 1952, the first image in the film we see after the title is the following passage: ‘“Beautiful Lissajuous curves, can be put through a choreography that inspires—and startles— the imagination,” writes Mary Ellen Bute of her quest to visualize invisible rhythms. In Abstronic, she uses a cathode ray oscilloscope combined with conventional animation techniques and two tart musical numbers to generate a lively “seeing-sound” experience.’ As the squiggles move to the music in the video, there isn’t the presence of marks made by the hand, but because we know the technique she is using to make these squiggles, they seem more alive. Even if we do not understand the technology Bute is employing, the human being is very much present in the video because of that first bit of information we are given.

More variations of what can be thought of as “the hand” can be found in the two pieces by Robert Breer; Recreation from 1956 and Fuji from 1974. In Recreation, after we are assaulted with a rapid succession of images paired with what we later learn to be nonsense poetry spoken in French, we are shown a recording of what is assumedly Breer talking about the very video we have just seen. He is literally placing his body in the video; a reminder that this myriad of film images were not cut and pasted together all on their own, but that their assemblage had to be thought through and constructed with someone’s body and hands. He also places himself, his body within the lineage of other avant-garde video artists, a reminder that there are many bodies working. In Fuji, almost the entirety of the video appears to be made of drawings, except for the live-action shots at the beginning and end. By juxtaposing the drawings of the view from the train with actual footage of the view from the train, the presence of “the hand” is felt more intensely. Something else that really accentuates “the hand” in Fuji is the way the shading on some of the figures and scenery shifts, appearing and then disappearing, as if we are seeing the artist draw the video stills in real time and then reverse time. And again, as in Recreation, the presence of Breer in Fuji reminds us that it was painstakingly made by hand.

The video in which the hand feels most absent to me is in Jodie Mack’s Unsubscribe #4: The Saddest Song in The World, from 2010. Despite some of the stop-motion paper folding, the video is simply so digitally polished that the whole thing comes across more like an advertisement than art. The difference between art and advertising is a whole separate conversation, but I am honestly offended by this video on an aesthetic level. Specifically the moments where Mack does quick cuts of different textures within the changing frame size of a piece of paper is so reminiscent of a certain advertising aesthetic that I feel as though I might as well be watching cable, and I hate watching cable.

The presence of “the hand” in Storm de Hirsch’s 1965 Peyote Queen is first seen in flickering white lines that flash on the screen, appearing to be film that has been scratched or drawn on. The film then transitions to a sort of four screen experience made of ambient light where the subject matter is unclear, until we see ornately beaded lamps, and then what appears to be the bottom of a glass cup near some breasts. The symbol/image of the woman (who I think it is important to note is almost always historically associated with handwork and domestic activity, such as beading) is later shown in colorful scribbles against a black background in the form of the female sign, breasts, lips, and eyes. The woman is broken down, separated into pieces. Later in the video we see a live-action shot of woman’s face made kaleidoscopic though the lens of a glass, once again fragmented. To me, all of these things seem to be in dialogue with the fact that women have historically been seen as one or two useful body parts, most likely the genitals for reproduction and the hands for working and taking care of children, and that when women make creations with their hands it is considered “craft” and not “art.” This is still a really pressing issue—during her most recent lecture at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, fiber artist Sonya Clark said that she has lost considerable amounts of money because of how craft is valued differently or less than art is.

My questions for the discussion page are the following:
How does the use of music in a visual music film like Abstronic by Mary Ellen Bute and Ted Nemeth differ from the more traditional use of sound and music in film and video?
How commercially viable is a visual music app such as the one that Scott Sibbe collaborated on with Björk for her album Biophilia? Do you think that this something that one day may accompany a Taylor Swift record and not just people on the cutting edge?


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