The 9th Under the Radar animation film festival took place in the MuseumsQuartier, the Blickle Kino and the Filmhaus Kino in Vienna from 1-5 July. The event has a conference component which enables an in-depth level of presentation and discussion that informs the screening program, developing a fertile dialogue between theory and practice. The presentations occur in the morning and early afternoon, followed by a screening program flowing into the evening.

For Holger Lang, the festival’s director, the digital has transformed the world of animation into an ever-expanding field. How to showcase its various voices? Lang’s curatorial move to screen different competition animations together in the numerous programs, provided for a richer viewing experience. As well as an eclectic mixture of animation styles, stories and approaches this programming strategy placed an array of cultural sources in relation to each other. For Jury members it could get confusing, I suppose, given films in each category are no longer clumped together. It has always been a useful assessment and comparison tool to view contenders next to each other. When a program of short films screams at you, each vying for your attention, which 5 to 10 minute packet stays with you once you exit the cinema? It can be a single gesture or phrase that survives. Like any song, some films thrive and some films do not survive this test, but reveal their considered depth and complexity through isolated or multiple viewings. The more theoretical conference presentations were helpful with this, with interesting films picked apart, contextualised and ruminated on.

As an artist Lang creates experimental moving image work. He transitioned into cinema from an earlier interest in comics. He has been running his own gallery for eight years, focussing on presenting artists concerned with the combination and crossover of and between multiple forms of media. As part of Asifa Austria with Stefan Stratil, Lang has curated programs of Austrian and European animation internationally. Asifa Austria also hosts an artist in residency program, where animators install their work in a shopfront in Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier. Through his programming and academic presentations he has further demonstrated an interest in animated gifs, loops, online and hybrid media. He has also been involved in organising academic symposia in Vienna and Zagreb.

At one of those events, the Scanner Symposium in Zagreb, Croatia in 2014, Marcel Jean, then Annecy Animation Festival Director, gave a keynote address about the shifting role of film festivals. Jean noted that in 2011 BLU’s Big Bang Big Boom and Patrick Jean’s Pixels were both prize winners. Pixels won The Annecy Cristal for Best Short Film, while Big Bang Big Boom won a special Jury award in the same category. Critically, both films had a million hits online between the time they were selected and then screened in the festival. The gateway to new work had changed. For established festivals there is still a role in evaluating new work, which itself has exploded, but its access and distribution has been transformed. This technological change requires a shift in the festival’s role more to one of providing context through historical programs and retrospectives that contextualise shifts in animation practice.

Lang has taken up this challenge in a constructive mobile way, and Under The Radar brings together other actors in this dynamic curatorial space. Birgitta Hosea, Reader in Moving Image at University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, UK, focuses on performed and expanded animation practices, The Polish curator Piotor Kardas presented a historic program of documentary animation and Noel Pallazzo, co-director of the mobile biannual Punto y Raya Animation Festival, focused on abstract animation gleaned from the festival’s online archive.

Piotor Kardas’s mobility is most clearly expressed in the documentary animation festival he set up in Liverpool; Rising of Lusitania – Animadoc Film Festival, after fertile discussion with local stakeholders. It was initiated to celebrate the centenary of the premiere of Winsor McCay’s short film The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), considered the first documentary animation. The port of registry for RMS Lusitania was Liverpool. McCay’s animation portrays the 1915 WWI sinking of RMS Lusitania, a passenger ship for which there was no imagery available. Kardas packaged a number of contemporary shorts from that ongoing festival.

Apart from Travelogue Tel Aviv, these recent documentaries were grounded in soundtracks annotated by imagery in a variety of styles. They remain illustrated podcasts, where the essential core of the story is embedded in the soundtrack. Acted voiceovers (The Driver is Red), personal essay (32-Rbit), diaristic mockumentary (Life of Death), Hiroshima survivor (OBON), intimate conversations (Las del Diente) and community interviews (Les Enfants du béton) are the essential sound-centred substance of these stories. Travelogue Tel Aviv has the image as primary, bringing to life a sketchbook and journal entries drawn during a student exchange in Tel Aviv in 2016. Director Samuel Patthey sketches a series of bustling city life vistas, observed from the sidelines. These films have all travelled on the festival circuit, so stand up to program presentation.

Life of Death (Bryan Arfiandy and Jason Kiantoro)

Bryan Arfiandy and Jason Kiantoro’s Life of Death is a comedic mockumentary, where death, wandering around with scythe in hand, is the central character. He finds it difficult to find a balance between work and family life. Death’s job can be both stressful and entertaining at times. Anna Samo and Andre Hörmann’s OBON illustrates a Hiroshima survivor’s reminiscences of her father and her traumatic memories of the blinding event she survived. Akiko Takakura’s voice is the soundtrack. Some of the most poignant images in the simple illustrative animation style is an old Takakura wandering through a crowded street, invisible to those around her, her battered and worn body lost in thoughts and memories. The Driver is Red by Randall Christopher has actor Mark Pinter reconstructing the voice of Zvi Aharoni, an Israeli secret agent tracking Nazi war criminals. The animation is sparse but realistic and recounts the hunting down and capture of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960. Showing my age, I remember reading Aharoni’s account in the newspaper in the mid-‘60s and this slick documentary did not extend my insights into this celebrated event. The documentary reinforced the event’s official story.

Victor Orozco Ramírez’s 32-Rbit contemplates the dark side of the internet and surveillance. Shock YouTube videos are rotoscoped and re-animated in a painterly colourless style. A solid essayist, poetic critique of the Internet, to line up a cavalcade of recognisable traumatising fragments. Ana Pérez López’s Las del Diente is light and entertaining on the surface but has a distinctive animation style riddled with blue metamorphosing images reminiscent of Gauguin. The dynamic conversations between the film’s three women are powerful, musical and real. Pregnancy, periods, maternity, giving birth, freezing eggs, polycystic ovary syndrome, miscarriages, and tumours all find their way into the conversation: “The female body is a business from the moment you are born until you die.” Les Enfants du béton (The Children of Concrete) by Cho Chamson is also powerful and insightful, exploring the darker in-between space that defines the national identities of second and third generation Parisian immigrants. The charcoal drawn style is graffiti-like and dynamic, communicating an unstable streetwise sincerity. One interviewee explains: “It is not identities that are murderous but those who use them to reduce men and women to their peculiarities.”

Another powerful animated documentary, again driven by an original voice recording was not part of Kardar’s program, but the international competition winner, Kathrin Steinbacher’s The Woman Who Turned Into A Castle. The Jury stated in part that they anointed the work, “For the ability to keep us involved in a socially and psychologically important subject using a drawing and graphic metaphor.” Reminiscent of Camouflage (2001), Jonathan Hodgson’s exploration of schizophrenia, this fleeting animation style captures the unstable identity at the heart of it. The soundtrack is of a woman, a case study from the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, who was captured by sleeping sickness into 40 years of solitude, and re-animated to motion using the experimental drug L-Dopa. Her identity as a 20 year-old young woman resides in a 64 year old-body. She enunciates the fascinating perspective of young people dancing as “making memories”. She is “a book that has fallen down and lost all its letters.” She may have been resuscitated, but the people she knew are gone. She consequently decides to stop her medication, to stop this existential horror and return to her petrified state, her castle. The documentary’s power lies in the insights it delivers around this self-erasure.

The Woman Who Turned Into A Castle (Kathrin Steinbacher)

There were a number of animated documentaries in the international program and the symposium that delivered moments that stayed with you. Nikolina Bogdanovic’s archive-based The Place From Where I Write You Letters was another prize-winner. Both formal and content-driven, this intimate photo-based animation delivers an upwardly mobility attitude of a 1960s young couple through an elegy to home ownership and kitchen gadgets. It brought back the migrant houses of my school friends that I entered as a young boy in the ‘60s western suburbs of Melbourne, in Newport and Altona, and their lounge rooms, covered in plastic and white sheets to keep them in pristine condition. Reinhold Bidner’s In trance it was a local Austrian prize-winner, a digital work that metamorphosed seamlessly between a series of portrait paintings. These were photographed on a weekend in the local Museum of Art History in Vienna, bringing them to life in front of a thronging crowd recorded in time lapse. Different experiences of time faced off across history.

A number of older films came up during the symposium that left their impression. Michelle Cournoyer’s The Hat (2000) deals with the vicissitudes of traumatic memory, of how a hat continually inserted itself into the ruminations of a rape victim as she struggled to untangle this overwhelming experience. Jonathan Hodgson’s Feeling My Way (1997), a mix of image and animation, texts and rotoscoping, predicts what became of the darker side of surveillance technologies and google maps. No longer the personal inner ruminations that Hodgson maps, but the inscriptions of colonised space mined from our online presence for capital gain. The film that cleverly straddled both documentary and abstraction was Samantha Moore’s An Eyeful of Sound (2009), an animated documentary about audio-visual synaesthesia; “all sounds have colour and shape, the alphabet has colour”.

Noel Palazzo’s abstract cinema program appeared to be the antithesis of animated documentary. But, as Moore’s film suggests, a closer examination of these films reveals that there are always reference points about story and structure available. In her talk on identity construction in abstract cinema Palazzo noted that these unique compact films present insights into the artist’s identity. They require new ways of reading, useful in negotiating our media-saturated daily lives. Rudolph Arnheim’s concept of visual thinking is productive here. For Arnheim the ancient dichotomy between seeing and thinking, between perceiving and reasoning, is false and misleading. These films address very real emotional and conceptual states.

The Hat (Michelle Cournoyer, 2000)

In some of the films in Palazzo’s program the real is locatable not far under the film’s skin. Bird Shit (2013) by Caleb Wood streams mobile phone images of crow shit sampled in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park. Wood extends the infinite monkey theorem for typewriter-written texts to birds producing visual poetry on bitumen. It’s a kinetic dance of Jackson Pollock splatterings. Blutrausch (1998) by Thorsten Fleisch is a camera-less animation where the filmmaker’s blood has been smeared on the films’ emulsion. The film’s skin is laid bare. Lachlan Turczan’s Two Hundred Years (2015) travels through an 1800 mulberry tree’s wood grain, shaving away layer after layer. Its speed transforms tree-ring growth into a flow that is reminiscent of Oscar Fischinger’s wax slicing experiments between 1920 and 1926 and Michael Lee’s Razzle Dazzle (1992), although Lee used coloured plasticine, instead of wood or wax, all in highly saturated negative and positive colour.

Other films from Palazzo’s abstract cinema program mine chaos to unravel hidden rules of cause and effect. In Descent (2014) Johan Rijpma drops a cylindrical porcelain cup, breaking it into fragments. These fragments are replayed and re-animated. Rijpma fabricates through various iterations of this fall a new three-dimensional object monumentalising the originating crash. An everyday re-enactment of the big bang? A sculptural patchwork illustration of traumatic memory? In Point (2013) Matt Abbiss extends Norman McLaren’s aesthetics into a more dynamic space. Distance is used to great effect as is the use of shadow to provide a glimpse of machinery. A scribed annotated molecular space is laid bare, with its own unique laws of cause and effect. There is also a rhythm here reminiscent of the artefacts sprinkled through Dog Star Man (1964), where Stan Brakhage’s closed-eye vision bought the afterimage, the flash and random phosphene patterning to the surface, the body’s neurologic hum. Jeroen Cluckers’ Oneiria (2014) is the product of glitch and image breakdown. For Cluckers these are the “ghosts in the machine”, as the tape splice, light flare and scratch were the badge of honour of the independent 16mm and Super 8 filmmaker. Datamoshing here corrupts file data to unexpected ends, to lay out a language of disappearance unique to the technologies infected and attacked.

Palazzo demonstrates that abstract symbolism can reveal compelling narratives. In Max Hattler’s Collision (2005) conflict is efficiently compacted into a graphic two-minute Busby Berkeley-like dance of nationalist symbols, directly communicating its political insights, without proselytising. Collision channels early Russian Constructivist work like El Lissitzky’s poster art Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919), whose graphics, though abstracted, also impart a succinct political narrative. Shelley Dodson’s The Dancing Line (2016) infuses seduction into the humble line by dancing it to David Rose’s classic jazz instrumental “The Stripper” (1962). This short animation demonstrates Poffenberger and Barrows 1924 paper “The Feeling Value of Lines”, discussed in Kathrin Steinbacher’s talk on animation’s unique ability to visualise the experiential. In that study subjects identified downward flowing curves as sad and angles as powerful and agitating.

The tradition of visual music is a fertile historic line of experimentation. Recent digital work marries musical and sonic patterning to nature’s rhythms. In Sune Petersen’s computer graphic Sobling (2016) shapes behave like rain hitting the road. Or is it a TV screen close-up with sonic hum? (UN)evenness (2016) by Pedro Ferreira ripples liquid surfaces to sound vibrations. Forms systematically divide and multiply, mirroring the process of cellular Mitosis. Similar mandalas are produced by a Chladni Plate with which Aura Satz’s in Onomatopoeic Alphabet (2010), performs a very materially grounded form of visual music. Pernille Kjaer’s Amoeba (2018) is a mixture of sonic shape-shifting, metamorphosis and flicker. An example of the microscopic structures infiltrating abstract cinema, traceable back to that seventeenth century lens technology that opened up those micro-terrains beyond vision, and introduced us to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s “little beasties”. The sophisticated camera-less animation Quimtai by Camilo Colmenares rhythmically laser engraves Quimbaya indigenous cultural patterning directly onto the film’s surface. The materiality of cloth is embedded into the patterning of photographic grain.

Paul Fletcher’s abstract Blackhole Mandala represented Australia in the international program. Fletcher frames his metamorphosing mandalic permutations with that black and white star-blur that industrial cinema employs to signify a starship’s switch to hyperdrive. Fletcher describes his mandalas as “ocular, technological, philosophical and ethical visions”. It is their organic quality and how these structures shift that catches my eye. The sound design, honed through decades of experimentation, also captures something unique. Fletcher’s image and sound activity, its rhythm, I would argue, is influenced and suggested by the vegetation and organic structures and spaces experienced as part of daily life in regional Victoria.

Collision (Max Hattler, 2005)

Three other artists worth highlighting were animators Anita Killi and Terril Calder and the online Austrian archival work of Peter Putz. Festival guest Killi presented her work as part of the conference program in the MuseumQuartier. Her studio Trollfilm was established in the idyllic Norwegian countryside in 1995, where she continues to work with a team of animators. Her films take commentary on violence and abuse to another highly accessible public level that enables real social change. These contemporary fairy tales are used in educational and counselling settings in schools. Her Angry Man (2009) and current project Mother Didn’t Know draw comparisons to the celebrated animation work of Yuri Norstein. Using her multi plane animation rostrum camera, Killi’s meticulous perfectionist puppet animations show an exceptional eye for detail and gesture. Canadian Métis artist Terril Calder’s confessional Canned Meat (2009) hit with more punch than any other animation in the festival. Its mutilated animation style expands the visceral black dog dialogue into one seamless knotted lament. Calder’s work was part of a strong Canadian retrospective program curated by Canadian animator Maddi Piller, another participant in this evolving international curatorial network or space.

Local artist Putz’s work was presented in a special screening of his early animations and later archival work. Peter Putz’s “eternal archive” is an online collection of photographs arranged through his idiosyncratic collection strategies. Images were photographed daily and connected through form over 40 years. Putz calls it an evolving collection of the mundane, the “spectacularly unspectacular”. This life-long project follows through on the question: “Is it possible for an individual with limited means and resources, to reflect upon the world, to acquire knowledge through precise observation of what surrounds him?” This is not all that different to the rhizomatic connections that Under The Radar itself opens up and makes possible under Lang’s guidance.

Under the Radar
1-5 July 2019
Festival website: http://www.under-radar.com/

About The Author

Dirk de Bruyn has been practicing, writing and curating in the area of experimental film and animation for over 35 years. He is currently teaching Animation and Digital Culture at Deakin University in Melbourne, Victoria (Burwood Campus).

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