Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?

By Adam Pugh

big-kiki-jeff-sher.jpgBig Kiki, Jeff Scher

The manipulated image shines brightly in Norwich this Autumn

Earlier this year, Norwich International Animation Festival became AURORA – a change which arose less because of any need for a snappier or more marketing-friendly title, more because the words ‘animation festival’ had become little more than a noose. Ironically, last year’s event, whilst successful, failed in a small way, both to attract a new, broad ‘visual arts’ audience and to communicate satisfactorily with a traditional ‘animation festival’ crowd: the visual arts people were put off by the animation label whilst that audience were alienated by programmes which contained what they perceived as ‘non-animation’.

In short, it exposed how ludicrously myopic definitions of animation have become – and beyond that, how fruitless the very attempt to define so mercurial a set of techniques (for that is what it is reduced to, inevitably). Rather than discuss bald mechanics, we’re more interested in what animation – in the wider, though still clumsy, guise of the ‘manipulated moving image’ – makes possible, how it allows us to see the world, and in particular how it accesses experience and emotion. In short, the festival is a call to arms to dispense with arguments about definition and let the work itself take centre stage.

It’s this notion of the ‘interior’, of the unconscious, which informs a large part of this year’s festival. Under the theme ‘Possible Worlds’, thematic film programmes refer to, variously, the foreign, alien and other and, importantly, the human interior, from Toronto-based artists’ collective Pleasure Dome’s programme On Creaturely Life, which looks at the human animal, abject yet beautiful, to Edwin Carels’ structural, quasi-scientific collection antimatter and Gareth Evans’ dream-journey Mindscapes: Another World Is Possible.

The festival’s five artist programmes, which invite filmmakers to present their work at the festival, are likewise guided by the theme. Both Robert Breer, seminally important to the history of experimental film and the avant-garde, and fellow New Yorker Jeff Scher’s work present layered worlds in which realities collide and leech through to one another via the technique of rotoscoping they employ. On the other hand, Jim Trainor’s marker-drawn pieces about ritual and impulse from within the animal kingdom are altogether more naïve in style yet reveal profound truths – as do, similarly, the nightmarish otherworlds of Naoyuki Tsuji, with both forming a kind of counterpoint to the virtuosic abstraction of form and plane in work by Tokyo-based Takashi Ishida.

Despite the breadth of styles, all the work presented here deals with the world in a remarkably non-literal way – one of the hallmarks of the manipulated moving image, at least in its ability to work with perception, to see beyond, which ties it less to film and more to music or painting. Inevitably, the work is not free of representation or metaphor – in Tsuji’s films, for instance, we can determine symbols which stand for people, symbols which stand for buildings – but since animation doesn’t have to default to language, the aggregate of the symbols doesn’t amount to a literal account of the world, at least not any world we know. It’s the world of dreams, perhaps, of the subconscious. It makes sense at an emotional level, a human level: we can’t use language to explain it.

It’s also important to consider how work with no basis in the moving image might interact with and complement the traditionally screen-based. Indeed, the screen installation from Yuiko Matsuyama (Flower) and the formal, reductive landscapes of Axel Antas’ video pieces gives way to a remarkable piece (SwanQuake) based on the gaming environment by artists Igloo. Finally, a new commission – Back Space – by sculptor CJ Mahony for AURORA is a site-responsive piece which is in effect a closed environment. Interestingly, though, its sense of place and theatricality – the interior world it creates – has perhaps more in common with the emotional and experiential as conjured by animation.

Finally, and most importantly, AURORA will remember its friend, advisor and source of inspiration, Dick Arnall, whose untimely death in February was such a shock. Now dedicated in perpetuity to Dick who, amongst so much else, was behind the change of name itself – the festival will present a modest tribute this year, with a selection of Dick’s favourite films as chosen by his friends and colleagues from the breadth of his working life. The tribute, which will include an informal discussion event with some of those friends and colleagues, will also launch a new award in his name – a cash prize to be awarded in the festival to the work which most embodies the kind of radical approach to the moving image that he was so passionate about, and which AURORA hopes to take forward into the future.

Adam Pugh is Director of AURORA. It takes place from 7 – 10 November in the new Cinema City and venues across Norwich. Tickets are £6 / £4, with festival passes available from £30. It’s best to come for the whole four days – cheap accommodation is available in Norwich. Find out more and book now at www.aurora.org.uk or on 0871 704 2053.

The first AURORA dvd will launch at this year’s festival. A special selection of some of the best work from the 75 films in competition, it includes new films by Ben Rivers, Sylvia Schedelbauer, Kotaro Tanaka, Damir Čučić and others.