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still from John Tonkin’s these are the days still from John Tonkin’s these are the days
Elastic Light is a program of short computer animation works curated by Jon McCormack, to coincide with the exhibition of his interactive laser-disc work Turbulence at the AGNSW.

Animators have always been fascinated by the ease with which they could produce movement, and the ways in which the movements made by an image could be crossed by movements created through the plasticity of the form itself. Stretching, speeding, crashing and metamorphosing were the favourite activities of the cartoon character. With digitisation, the complexity of the visual possibilities was multiplied beyond measure; animators became intoxicated with it. Techno-baroque was the pervading genre for a few years, and its multi-layering of multi-coloured, omni-kinetic compositions was far more gratifying for creators than spectators of the works. Jon McCormack’s work brings concentration back into the picture. His complexity is not mere complication, the accumulation of multiple visual possibilities. It is highly selective and committed to detail, so that evolving formations on the screen explode into new intricacies of colour and movement whilst maintaining a sustained conceptual focus. Action is always an unfolding, never an arbitrarily added ingredient. Jon McCormack is a hard act to follow. After standing in a darkened space at the AGNSW for half an hour or so watching Turbulence, I took the escalator downstairs wondering how anything else could measure up. It didn’t, but Elastic Light provided some valuable context for what may be the culminating example of the first phase in the first generation of computerised animation. McCormack’s work takes the art into a new order of complexity by adopting the principle of emergence. The algorithm is the DNA of a digital idea which is allowed to develop and proliferate itself as a complex of ever evolving formations.

His choice of works for Elastic Light shows, he admits, a personal bias. But this is where it is interesting. Hanging around in the vocabulary and program notes is an evolutionary theory of animation. The program might well have been subtitled “Climbing Mount Improbable” with its Dawkins-esque commitment to making poetry out of a clinically technical discipline and its talk of “peaks” in the repertoire. A prefatory quotation from Vilem Flusser predicts a new level of existence for homo sapiens, heralded by those “who possess the new imagination”. Are we leaving the manic dizziness of techno-baroque for another kind of dizziness: the dizziness of an art married to science and heading for the heights of unprecedented human achievement? I hope not. I think there is something new happening here, and something with long-term potential but it should avoid making neo-romantic claims for itself. Its origins in John Whitney’s Experiment in Motion Graphics (1969) are described in an authorial voice that is almost comically prosaic. “My name is John Whitney”, the voice-over starts. And the camera, situated politely behind John Whitney’s shoulder, shows us the scientist at work with his light pen on a screen filled with columns of figures. He is not about to get carried away. “All that you see here should impinge upon the emotions directly” but “I must say that to get emotionally involved with the computer is not easy.” Whitney is playing with nothing so dramatic as turbulence. His research project is “Permutations”, a modest exercise in the creation of computerised non-centric movement patterns. The ghost of a future chaos principle hovers dimly as you see diving spirals go through a non-repeating choreography. It would be easy, from this short film, to read Whitney as a boffin whose literal-mindedness and naive references to art-as-emotion have a certain chunky charm for the hip-hoppers of the digital age. Whitney was nothing of the sort. He brought to computer animation a highly sophisticated and carefully schooled understanding of musical composition, and his approach to the creation of visual movement reflected a fascination with the developmental principles of “movements” in music. He sold experimental film works to the Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s and was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship early in his career. As the pioneer of a paradigm shift in the visualisation of movement, though, he remains engagingly perplexed at his own disintoxication.

The rest of the program comprised recent works. John Tonkin’s these are the days, which McCormack describes as “a meditation on the passage of time”, follows Whitney’s systematic example. With its companion work air, water part 2 (also in the elastic light program) it is a formal and restrained experiment in a minimalist format. In the first work, squares of white paper fall vertically across the screen, creating random patterns first through the air and then on the ground. The only hint of poetic indulgence is in the creation of a watery visual atmosphere with blue depths and area lighting. The second “movement” picks out floating squares with coloured light—yellow, then red, then green—to a sound track of cello playing. When I Was Six (Michelle Robinson) also experiments with the possibilities of atmospheric lighting. Furniture lit at a low angle, with distended shadows, moves around a deserted room. A chair creeps about like a spider. The child’s eye view magnifies and dramatises. Movement is the beginning of any form of haunting. “All you see here should impinge on the emotions directly.” It does.

A number of other works in the program are restrained formal experiments: Stripe Box (Kazuma Morino), Just Water (Evangelina Sirgado de Sousa), Memory of Maholy-Nagy (Tamás Waliczky). Superstars (Thomas Bayrle) moves formality towards the visual joke, making cellular image fabrics from multiple repetitions of micro-images, contoured into faces. The micro images zoom in occasionally, revealing body parts, including genitalia (with accompanying orgasmic noises). Jokes are too easy in this medium, so the tolerance level is low. Brain Massage with Robo-Insects is a clever piece of grotesque visual comedy, with mosquito-robots interfering in the work of a team of brain surgeons, but I’m not sure why it gets a place in this program, unless on the variety principle. Ian Bird’s Liberation, a video animation made for the Pet Shop Boys, comes closest to techno-baroque, but redeems itself from the generic mise-en-abîme by playing a sustained game with vertical perspective that, technically speaking, is state of the art.

McCormack’s own work combines the ambitious spectacle of Bird’s approach with the lyrical concentration of Tonkin’s or de Sousa’s. The shift from an interest in form (as a given visual idea) to an interest in formation (as the visible patterns of a continually transitional process of growth) marks McCormack’s work as the start of a new kind of animation experiment and, potentially, a new approach to visualisation itself. It’s illuminating to see this shift taking place through the work of a number of artists committed to less consciously ambitious agendas.


elastic light, curated by Jon McCormack for Sydney Intermedia Network, Art Gallery of New South Wales, October 5 and 12 to coincide with the exhibition of his work Turbulence.

RealTime issue #16 Dec-Jan 1996 pg. 18

© Jane Mills; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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