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KAON NA @arlduc.org > WORD

The Penetrating Needle, a reflection

I. Opera | Animation

The Penetrating Needle has a tiny root in SKIN, a chamber opera I wrote two years ago that is set to text from a Roald Dahl short story of the same name. PN's raw audio materials, textures, character shapes, and some of its plot elements draw from the opera and the short story, but its final realization bears no major resemblance to SKIN in either its tone or conceptualization.

When I started to work on the animation last summer, I planned on calling it SKIN since I meant to make an actual animated version of the opera. The opera has not been performed, so I thought that an animated version made sense. I would have a recorded version of a sort of "performance," but I would be able to use actors, settings, and sounds that could not exist if I tried to stage the piece. I envisioned an animation that was visually inspired by the dark, grimy, exaggerated, and expressionistic animations of the Quay Brothers. I started work on the project by doing a bit of research on the painter Chaim Soutine (who is a character in the Dahl story) and modeling a head for each of SKIN's characters. I foresaw the heads as being the most challenging to work with since they would be mouthing the words of the opera.

The summer passed, and I spent more and more time refining my little family of caricatured heads. I eventually realized that while I was becoming increasingly attached to these heads, I wasn't progressing much beyond them. More distressingly, by the end of the summer, I still couldn't logistically see myself making an animation that fit my Quay-like idea or that was in any way true to Dahl's story. The most obvious reason for this is that I do not have the skills in character and facial animation to make the Quay-like idea really work in the way I imagined.

Other reasons underlay my lack of progress. One is that my acoustic chamber music aesthetic doesn't quite match my emerging animation aesthetic. My methodological concerns in each area are somewhat similar: I like to work with counterpoint, rhythm, and especially gesture. I am (and I think always will be!) concerned with narrative and pacing. Nevertheless, I wrote the music in the sharply macabre, maniacally melodramatic vein that runs through operas like The Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Weill), Le Grande Macabre (Ligeti), Sweeney Todd (Sondheim), and even Wozzeck (Berg). Though my animations so far are highly colored and textured, I think of them as cooler, less explicit, and less emotive than any of the acoustic music I have written.

Finally, over the past year I've come to think of myself as less and less of an acoustic music composer and more and more of an electronic music composer. If I were still an acoustic composer, the convincing adaptation of an acoustic score to an electronic medium would be an interesting challenge-- but to an electronic music composer, it is not nearly as compelling.

Though Dahl's story and my opera seemed less and less accessible to me as an animator and even as a composer, I was reluctant to give it up entirely. Not only had I been devoted to the idea of it for almost two years, I still felt at the time that the music I had written was still meaningful and deserved a life of its own outside of me.

I don't think this is true anymore. I have some regrets that the opera will never performed by a live or synthetic cast, but the work I've done since last summer has lodged the opera firmly in my artistic past.

II. Resonance | Analysis

Until I tried it, I always thought that independent 3D computer animation was a waste of time. So much labor for so little temporal output-- this had very little appeal since I am drawn to working with longer time forms. I also thought that a lot of the 3D computer art work I had seen was not very inspiring. I pretty much took my first animation class because it sounded like an advanced computer art course to add to my undergraduate curriculum.

The first time I used animation software, I was astonished at how quickly the process of this kind of art-making came to resonate with me: even though I was still skeptical as to the quality of product I could produce with this software, I thought that using it was really, really fun. It was this resonance that I tried to remember and analyze when I started devising a new plan for my thesis project.

I enjoyed the sculptural aspects of 3D modeling even before I tried animating. I would hardly characterize myself as prone to three-dimensional visualization-- I'm used to envisioning time-based art in terms of a proscenium, and most of my pre-college "experimental" computer art was made when I was first learning to use a computer. This was in the 1980s, when the "digital aesthetic" (if there was one) was still very two-dimensional. Nevertheless, I always liked the tactile and textural sensations of working with clay, and using the modeler evoked that process: that of stretching, piercing, molding, and merging crude shapes into something more refined and interesting. I think that this enjoyment shows in how The Penetrating Needle's figures are made and in the way they move.

While computer modeling reminded me of my old affection for clay, the animation of those models introduced appealing opportunities that were completely new to me, though I have come to realize that they are intrinsic to any kind of animation. What particularly interests me is that the physical concepts of scale and space can be completely subverted. This makes it easy to depict interactions between subjects of widely varying physical sizes and to use the mobility of the camera to follow these interactions. When I was brainstorming for new thesis ideas, I thought about aspects of containership-- the way that a massive object can be the container for smaller objects, which in turn can each be a container for even smaller objects, which can contain miniscule objects, and so on.

The subversion of scale and space is just one of the opportunities that arise from the fact that animation is not bound by physical laws. This makes animation a useful tool for surrealist expression. For a composer turned animator who is just beginning to deliberately introduce autobiographical aspects into her work, surrealism is a comfortable fit-- for now, it allows me to express real ideas and emotions without exposing them to the harsher setting of reality. Instead, I can express them in the more open-ended, implicit, diffuse setting of surreality.

As I mentioned, 3D computer animation did not previously appeal to me in part because its process seemed too laborious. Now that I have some experience, I can vouch that animation (at least the kind I've done so far) is very laborious. However, this laboriousness is not as uniformly negative as I thought it would be. It induces me to engage with the computer more intensely than I ever had with any piece of imaging software. It also puts me in the midst of a flux that runs between manualization and automation: keyframe animation involves a lot of manual effort, but depending on how many keyframes that are used, it also involves a lot of automation from keyframe to keyframe. This flux is present at many levels in computer animation. Moreover, I think that since computer animation software is the most expansive of any that I have used, the flux between manualization and automation is the most pervasive in it. That pervasiveness is part of what makes animation with computers so compelling to me-- it allows me to control most aspects of the image but gives me the option of automating certain details. This works out quite well, since I consider myself a control freak but not a perfectionist-- there comes a point for me where the larger gesture takes greater precedence over minute details.

III. Reimagination | Reification

In reimagining my thesis project, not only did I try to remember why I am drawn to computer animation, I also tried to parse my interests and issues outside of my work with computers. I also tried to distinguish the themes in Dahl's story that were the most appealing to me. I hoped to eventually synthesize all of these things into a new narrative that would match my emerging computer art aesthetic without abandoning my past work completely.

It's probably the simplest to start with Dahl's story. I used to say that somatic vulnerability was the story's primary theme. I still think that this theme is important and certainly easy to infuse into the physically surreal world I wanted to create. However, I have come to realize that the body, its vulnerability, and its use as a canvas holds more of a distant interest than an immediate fascination. It is accessible, useful, and flexible, but it doesn't really reflect the kinds of issues I regularly think about.

One of the story's secondary themes is more relevant to me-- that of the artist's relationship to her work, and artist's struggle to balance work on one hand and everything else on the other. For me, that "everything else" is human relationships-- sexual and platonic, close and distant, self and non-self.

My work on The Penetrating Needle eventually came to reflect the loose heuristic I use in dealing with and observing other people. I think everyone has some sort of heuristic, and I think everyone's heuristic is partly automated, which is why The Penetrating Needle's figures exhibit such mechanistic actions and interactions. The nature of actions and interactions arose from my everyday observations of what I think of as "mundane and necessary systems of generosity and mistreatment"-- social and psychological systems perpetuated by any person who interacts with any other person. For better or for worse, I take part in these systems-- to give to my loved ones, I sometimes mistreat outsiders; to benefit myself, I sometimes mistreat my loved ones; and to serve an unrealized notion of who I should be (particularly in terms of relationships and work), I sometimes mistreat myself.

September 11 came at a time when I was just beginning to think about introducing elements of this heuristic into my thesis project. The fallout of that day made me briefly consider explicitly connecting that event to my thesis project, but I came to realize that my challenge right now, especially with my biases as a music composer, is to look less outward for simple answers and to look more inward for difficult questions that cannot be answered or even adequately expressed. For me, September 11 ultimately made it imperative to make something that was not just more personal that what I had done before, but more humane. Some have said that The Penetrating Needle is a very dark, brutal piece. I do not disagree with this, but I think of this piece as brutal in much the way that Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is brutal. Part of why much of The Penetrating Needle is mechanistic is that the animation's figures are not committing premeditated acts of violence; rather, they are engaging in rites. The "mundane and necessary systems of generosity and mistreatment" that I mentioned are so internalized that they really are rituals. While these systems vary from person to person, and these systems are open to change within each person, and these systems vary widely over time and geography, I think that each person's capacity for this kind of change is limited. By no means is this an entirely negative limitation-- we are as capable of generosity as we are of mistreatment. As an artist, I am not interested in denouncing, championing, or changing these systems-- I am concerned with becoming more aware of them, particularly my own, and finding the best way to exist within them. This is the most humane thing I can think of to do for myself right now.

Moving away from relationship systems and returning to the theme of the artist and her work, many of the images in The Penetrating Needle that seemingly comment on human to human relationships double as a reflection on the relationship I have with my work. This is a result of the animation's armed figure containing and creating all the other figures that she interacts with-- these smaller figures are both her companions and products of her work. I don't think of the other people in my life as products, but sometimes I do think of my relationships with other people-- and especially my perceptions of these relationships-- as something constructed, simulated, and in some extreme cases, unreal and misrepresentational. In these extreme cases, I find that I spend more time intellectualizing a relationship than actually taking part in it. In those rarer moments that I do take part in the relationship, the simulations I construct can be destructive to the relationship-- this is an example of "mistreatment" that I mentioned previously. Where this mistreatment has its greatest impact, however, is not on that tenuous external relationship, but on my state of mind and my ability to work. Originally, I intended The Penetrating Needle to be the first of two animations, the second of which would be called The Penetrated Needle. Though these titles allude to many things, they do reflect my artistic cycles. At peak points, I think of myself as sharp, focused, and penetrating. Then, I unavoidably enact some sort of mistreatment on myself that makes me more vulnerable, diffuse, and able to be penetrated. This vulnerability is a natural part of the cycle-- at these points, I gain enriching experience that has nothing to do with my ability to produce or achieve. When I cycle back to a peak, I can use this experience to enrich the work I put forth.

The actions and interactions of The Penetrating Needle's figures imply aspects of my relationships, the ways I deal with these relationships, and the ways I perceive them. They also point to my work processes and working habits. Lately, I have been very interested in the image of worlds inside the head, particularly worlds that are an area of work. (I think that this idea lends itself really well to 3D computer animation, particularly in light of containership aspects discussed previously.) There is a two-roomed space inside the head of The Penetrating Needle's armed figure, and this space has a heaviness that so far I have found it necessary to construct in order to successfully make independent work. Work can be fun, but at my most intense working moments I become almost as brutally focused and mechanized as the needle-wielding figure in The Penetrating Needle. Physically, it's an almost painful, exhausting, drowning feeling, but in these times, the short breaks where I am not working are made more vivid. These breaks are implied in the breakdown of the rooms: there is a work room and a resting room. While what takes place is the work room is more integral to the animation, what takes place in the resting room is more vivid, more laden with meaning, more memorable.

IV. Revision | Releasings

My working process-- both the working and the breaks-- are so immersive that letting the work go to have a life outside of me is always such an empty feeling at first. Like with the armed figure in the animation, I immediately feel like I've lost something significant. I think that letting go and not just shelving the work is necessary-- it is my own way of acknowledging the work I just did, and it adds to the experience I bring to making future work. I've come to realize that making the work and putting it forth are extremely separate tasks in my mind: one is quite internal, while the other is quite external. This has led to some problems I did not foresee when I started work on The Penetrating Needle. I'm ready to move to another intensely internal working experience or an experience that has nothing to do with making work, but I feel bound to the old piece so that it can live outside of me. Unlike with the bubble that floats away at the end of The Penetrating Needle, it's not just a matter of finishing the work and letting it float away-- in order for it to exist in a way that satisfies me, the work has to be revised, polished, and manually put out over and over again. The whole prospect of it seems a bit anticlimactic and exhausting right now. I also worry that as I externalize the work, it will become more and more commodified, and less and less personally interesting or significant. Will I let the work be shelved? It is a tempting and even acceptable thought-- this animation is only my undergraduate thesis, and I'm about to start graduate work that could take me in a completely different direction, possibly rendering The Penetrating Needle as something that is uninteresting, inconsequential, and even embarrassing to me. I try not to think about this, though-- I do have a bit of time to externalize (polish, put forth) the piece, so I might as well try. I've shelved a major work before (SKIN), and I still have regrets about it. More importantly, I think that externalizing The Penetrating Needle will truly complete it. This, I think, is probably the most satisfying way to acknowledge the work and the time spent on it. Just as importantly, it is a way to honor the people who mentored me as I worked on it, the people who put up with my mistreatment so I could work on it, and the people that allowed me to study in a program where I could work on it. Finally, putting forth the work is a way to acknowledge my commitment to this kind of art and to myself as an independent artist. I have never independently made something that feels this significant and personally meaningful and I wasn't sure if I could do it. While I know that the piece is still very much a student work with its problems and obscurities, I still think I've reached... something. | May 2002

KAON NA @arlduc.org > WORD