ILY : What are you working on at the moment?
SB: Well, Tramway called me up about the show I’m doing there and said I could show something I’ve shown already. But I think in terms of the space all my old work is too small, it’s not built for that space. I can show the layout of it here. [walks over to a 3d model in a corner of the room]ILY: [looking at the model] So your approach is to see if you can inflate it on this different and massive scale? SB: Maybe. It’s all new work. I think it’s important that you can’t see the whole installation from a single point of view. It’s necessary to move through the space. You have to go inside it. I want it to look a bit like bad reception on a TV, grainy or dark, where you can’t quite make things out. The situation is like when you’re in a flat, or a room and you hear weird sounds through the wall but can’t quite figure out what it is.ILY: Sounds noir-ish. SB: Yes. It’s like those sounds that come through walls in a muffled way. The projections will appear quite fragmented, but the sound could develop into something else. Together image and sound form an associative chain, and it’s this idea of association that is really the basis of a lot of my work right now. The projections I’m creating are perhaps the inner workings or representations of what’s going on in the other room.ILY: So, there’s a withholding or a suppression of information going on? SB: It’s more a map of someone’s mind, trying to join incidents together where someone might be projecting certain ideas onto their neighbours or onto the space outside. But these are quite abstract things.ILY: Abstract how? SB: You could have yellow as a representation of a sound, for instance; it’s not a realistic representation of something…
ILY: …but it can stand in for something else. SB: For a previous work I did at the Whitechapel Project Space [‘Turf Waltz’, 2007], I used abstract forms that became quite descriptive of something.ILY: In an oblique way? SB: It becomes quite a tight description without having to make it appear as something literal. So this is my grand plan. I want to have projections up in corners, so you get an image stretched over three surfaces. I see the show as being quite an expressive and fragmented thing.ILY: Are you trying to disorientate the viewer, or develop a claustrophobia that isn’t perhaps expected of a space as big as Tramway? SB: Yeah, for sure. This is something I’ve been doing recently. Disorienting the viewer can become a kind of hypnosis technique.ILY: Using visual triggers? SB: Yes, to uncover someone’s unconscious thoughts or images. You can use it to open the door to another emotional consciousness. The feeling of disorientation can actually help you to engage, or develop a different level of engagement than is usual. That’s probably the way I see how my practice works; it is always fragmented details that make a bigger picture. Just drawing the bigger picture itself is boring. It’s more interesting to create a quick succession of images that go somewhere else.ILY: That seems really clear in your animation ‘Purple Grey’ , which is full of these tiny details. I distinctly remember a very short scene of a ticking wall clock with dead flies caught behind the plastic cover, or someone’s saliva trails on the top of a chewed pencil. It’s these weird details that you never see represented anywhere. The only example I can think of is Hitchcock, where these details stack up and become seemingly repulsive with magnification. Like the slicing of an egg, which he uses in Frenzy and which appears in ‘Purple Grey’ in much the same way. You zoom in on detail that seems repulsive, and yet it is rendered in this sleek, flat, Flash animation which is itself seductive. I often feel that in your animations there’s an antagonistic relationship of what you’re looking at and what is represented. SB: In an exhibition at The Showroom gallery I exhibited ‘Blur Belt’ , which was much more abstracted than my previous work. Although they were based on real representations that only I really know about, every scene was devoid of context and stripped of information. I don’t think the Tramway work will go that far. But it was an important work for me in realising how much you can do with abstracted forms connected with sound, or how you can open up an emotional engagement in the work. I’ve always liked the idea that the audience can be the author of the piece.
ILY: Where the audience ends up engaging with their own personal references and unravels the narrative from these abstracted forms themselves? SB: Yes.ILY: But there are elements, in ‘Blur Belt’ for example, where you develop this rhythm of abstracted shapes that is counter-pointed with these very literal renderings of a frosted glass door. This door is an authored device that transforms a viewer’s interpretation of the abstracted scenes that follow. A rectangle becomes figurative of light, another shape might imply a figure walking through that door. So I see your presence in constructing these narratives too. • Formally speaking though, ‘Blur Belt’ appears to me to be an extension of that very early film Moholy-Nagy’s ‘Light Play’ [‘Light Play: Black, White, Gray’, 1930], where he constructed this rotating metallic object as a prop to film something incredibly abstract. I think there’s this resonance between both these films in terms of a desire to represent a sense of velocity in the moving image. It seems to be quite a futurist engagement with the way of looking at things. SB: But I look at a lot of work that maybe doesn’t have a clear connection to my own, like Svankmajer [points towards Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films DVD on his desk]. It’s always more interesting when someone is doing something differently from you, like how someone else might have a certain quality that I can’t call my own. For example, I’m interested in how Svankmajer works very symbolically and manages to contain quite complex ideas within very simple forms. I find I’m always struggling in this containment of reality. Also, someone who is too abstract perhaps but very interesting is filmmaker Tony Conrad. At certain points Conrad can seem quite boring or quite predictable but he pushed the variables of film by looking at the complete material of projection and of the film media. His films appear like continuous ‘thought imagery’. It can be physical too. So out of his black and white 16mm film footage, the viewer’s eye begins to generate colours. And he does this in a very abstract way. It’s interesting to me from a physical point of view. But generally I find looking closely at another artist working in a similar way to me can be restricting.ILY: I often see elements surfacing in your work that tend not to have anything to do with art. Many of your themes, the way you work in and around narrative and action, seem to associate more with films. Not necessarily artist’s film, but rather in terms of genres, like horror, thriller and so on, particularly in your details of human movement and gesture. SB: I perhaps wouldn’t see my work coming out of this single thing, but I certainly see the connections. I had quite a journey with animation.ILY: When you initially started working with the medium and technology? SB: Definitely. I’ve not been working with animation that long. My first project was this quite funny and surreal standoff in a backstage theatre situation. But making that work really opened a door for me. As it was my first film I felt like I had no confidence in it. The Centre of Attention gallery screened that work [Rio Cinema, London, March, 2005] and many things came out of their screening, which I found really surprising. Then it was more about how could I make animation work as a means of expression. My work always comes down to a visual presentation of how inner brain structures or emotional structures might work.
ILY: Working literally, as in synaptic or fragmented? SB: It’s about pinpointing certain moments that could be fragmented in memory. I mean, you don’t remember a great conversation in all its length. In your mind it can just become two little things that become part of knowledge or experience.ILY: The animations can construct a radical condensation of time, where those points are visualised in succession to form a hyper-reality. SB: Or an acceleration of time. But sometimes it can also be about the aimlessness of those things as well, or about that physicality of that visual flow of images as it occurs for the viewer, like my work at Whitechapel Project Space. ‘Turf Waltz’ was two projections based on a similar event. It could have been two narratives from one person at different points in their life or memory. Or maybe it’s two people’s impression of the event. I can’t see the world as a linear thing at all; this always enters the work. And so I can’t make a singular thing. That’s a struggle, but it can also be the richness in a work. ‘Purple Grey’ was the most narrative-based work I had done then; it was very structured. But of course the film demolishes itself at the end— the single event becomes over-run with things and occurrences that sprawl out, and it becomes a struggle of the inner world against the outer one. I was quite interested in how you can represent that inner world, which is quite restricted. In that film it becomes more like a system, where I exchanged each ‘word’ with a certain animation. It became a visual dictionary of things.
ILY: That becomes an arbitrary system, then – something that follows its own logic but doesn’t necessarily correspond to logical visual interpretation? SB: Totally. It’s as if I’m not editing it; the system is. Like a Keith Tyson ‘Artmachine’. When I was still doing a lot of painting I was always looking for that point where you don’t seem to have control over the work anymore. Or maybe there’s control but you’re not making the work anymore; the work is making itself. It works to your advantage because you still have initiated the situation, but it allows for something that is maybe not fully comprehensible to yourself can be quite an enriching experience, and for others too.ILY: Is the work process-driven, where you propose a system and then submit to it? SB: Sometimes this comes about in the edit, or through other means. In ‘Blur Belt’ it was through the restrictions of themes, so I generated a chapter that could only have lines, for instance, or only highlights, or just reflections. So you show restricted elements in a story or chain of events but then wrap them up in a formal treatment. It’s difficult to make things within these restrictions but these restrictions are also interesting when you make something that you realise is unrepeatable, when you stand back and think ‘did I really do this’ or ‘how did I do that?’ These unrepeatable things are difficult to trace back to the point at which they were created. They have some everlasting quality. • I’m told that animation is a very planningdriven. Now I’m teaching animation. People say that you should only animate the scene you know you’re going to use. But I’m such a throwaway person; kill your darlings if you can’t use them. But with ‘Blur Belt’ and these unrepeatable moments, I really love to have them within such a planning-driven media, it’ a very genuine moment.
ILY: That also sounds melancholic. It’s a looking back on something always now out of reach. It’s a loss. SB: Yes. It’s like music, where you play something a hundred times but it might be only once where it really comes together. And if the work doesn’t have those qualities then it won’t generate that feeling for your audience. Certain unknown elements must be carried into the work. It’s really about communication in the end. I’m not trying to plan or dictate but rather supply a certain quality. Then the question is ‘well, what can you do with animation?’ The answer is you can do everything. There are no boundaries. I think that’s one of the first reasons why I started using animation. You don’t have to have something concrete firstly to present in your films; you just create. So you need to create these boundaries yourself.ILY: It’s a funny medium to be situated in. It’s like being able to work outside the confines of modernism because in animation there are none of the material restrictions as there are in the physical world, but as a producer you’re working within that visual history nonetheless .
SB: This could be a big problem. But you can investigate the material quality of vision, of acoustic perception. I was initially working between sculpture, painting, public interference and things. And there are so many things still to do. It just so happens I’m continuing in animation. Staying with a medium is something I’ve not done for such a long period of time before. It’s interesting to develop a level of expertise.ILY: Do you think creating work within the medium of Flash predicates a certain visual content for you? It presents an infinite number of ways of rendering something and so you end up having to explore a highly personal visual landscape. It is never general, it’s always your vision. So infinite possibilities are actually your possibilities. SB: I don’t treasure animation where there is no reason for it making this way if it is possible in another medium. It always has to make sense within the medium. Just to make things in animation because it’s stylish is terrible. Animation has to be used where no other media can be used, like designing a phone or a clock in a way that it doesn’t exist in the real world.ILY: But then it’s becomes about transforming reality on every single level, if you’re talking about not even using something from a photograph or a film camera. SB: Back then I wasn’t thinking about it in such a harsh way. It was about what was convenient. I can make anything up and I don’t need anyone else. It’s selfsufficiency. But it must use the animation space and stretch the possibilities of that medium. I think that’s why I’m interested in the destruction of forms or the abstraction of things just now. I already know how I work. Let’s make it that way and see what happens.
Isla Leaver-Yap is MAP’s editor-at-large
Sebastian Buerkner, Tramway, Glasgow, 6 February–22 March