It’s oddly fitting that the touring, Los Angeles-based Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation went on hiatus during the dog days of the pandemic. A mainstay of such programming here in Chicago, it screened everywhere from microcinemas to museums before finding a home at Northwestern University’s Block Cinema for the past several years, where up until 2019 it was an annual program.
Aside from the obvious, practical reasons for the lacuna, life as we knew it had ceased to be as animated; the frenetic movement, the often garish colors, the universe of bizarre ideas alchemized into existence that come through in the festival’s curation may have been too tantalizing to our then-static proprium.
It’s similarly fitting that opening the return of the festival on Friday at 7 PM (the first of three screenings going on through Saturday afternoon) is a selection of short films by local filmmaker Laura Harrison, whose work reminds you that you are brazenly, grotesquely, fearlessly alive.
Harrison’s Little Red Giant, The Monster that I Was (2016) depicts, through a hodgepodge of animation styles, a nightmarish barbecue where a misunderstood artist is driven to extremes after taking in the hypocrisy, back-stabbing, and general pretension of her academic peers. Recounting her story from jail, the forthright protagonist expounds upon the circumstances that led to that moment, specifically the imaginary constructs that she’d developed as a child and that continue both to haunt and invigorate her.
Harrison’s work routinely deals with characters on the margins of society; her style of animation renders such microcosms “realistic” through a commensurate mode of abstraction. In The Lingerie Show (2015), adapted from a story by Beth Raymer, a drug-addicted woman details her chaotic life over a particularly fraught interlude but with a peppy garrulousness that softens the hard edges of her messed-up circumstances. It’s evocative of films by Larry Clark and Harmony Korine, with a diverse array of animation styles that further complicate the already labyrinthine intricacies of an addict’s bearings.
Her latest, The Limits of Vision (2022), is the longest of the three films at just over half an hour. It adapts Robert Irwin’s eponymous 1986 novel to suitably psychedelic effect. Centered on a London housewife who becomes increasingly obsessed with the gradations of her mundane existence, it presents a more genteel milieu than the previous two films, but still with the intention of examining life’s bantam surrealities. Harrison will appear in person at the screening, along with festival curators Alexander Stewart and Lilli Carré.
As for the subsequent two shorts programs (which Stewart and Carré will also attend), imagine a junk drawer of animation out of which one might pull . . . well, anything that’s animated, be it by hand or computer or maybe something else not yet imagined by us laypeople. There are no overarching themes, nor are the programs limited to a specific timeframe. Swedish filmmaker Lars-Arne Hult’s Strip-tease in Shorts Program 1, for example, is from 1981. Once an animator for Disney who worked on Winnie the Pooh, Hult exhibits a more adult-oriented craft in Strip-tease. Bold lines conform to the figures of such living beings as a naked woman, a naked man, and even a monkey and a bird. The entire process of transformation via animation is the conceit of this amusing short.
The Eyeworks Festival of Experimental AnimationNov 4-5, The Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive, EvanstonFreeeyeworksfestival.com
Perhaps betraying my introductory assertion that the films included in the programming are more animated than we’ve been used to being these last few years, Latvian conceptual artist Krišs Salmanis’s 100 Still Lives (2014) depicts 100 still-life arrangements photographed after being taken down and set up again the same way 100 times; the minute discrepancies between the imperfectly replaced arrangements account for this wry animation.
David Daniels pioneered a technique called Strata-cut animation in his CalArts thesis film Buzz Box (1985). On the occasion of the innovative short film’s 20th anniversary, Daniels made a remix (2005), which was digitally remastered and peppered with new audio. In Shorts Program 2 on Saturday at 3 PM, innovation is similarly evident in Tim Macmillan’s Ferment (1999), for which the filmmaker used a time-slice technique that combines a series of shots taken in approximately five-second intervals to communicate a single moment of time in Bath, England.
Pallavi Agarwala’s Once More With Feeling (2016) and Sondra Perry’s It’s In The Game ’17 (2017) use animation as a means of exploring imperialism. In the former, Agarwala manipulates historical postcards from such countries as India, South Africa, and Iran to illustrate British military actions memorialized with statues. The collage-like structure of the animation suggests the ways in which imperialist countries often insert themselves into tableaus where they do not belong.
The latter, which screens in Shorts Program 2, features Perry’s brother, Sandy, a college basketball player whose likeness was appropriated in an EA Sports video game without his permission. Incorporating a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Perry subtly connects the theft of her brother’s identity to the history of colonizing countries stealing art and historical artifacts. Animation here is also implicated as a means of pilferage vis-à-vis the unsanctioned video game rendering.
On the other hand, Hayoun Kwon’s 489 Years (2016) also probes a fraught history, with hyperrealistic, video game-style animation illustrating testimony from a South Korean soldier about the mine-laden demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Purer modes of animation demarcate other works in Shorts Program 2, like Barry Doupé’s Red House (2022) and Matthew Thurber’s How the Dog Learned Perspective (2021). Both are charmingly crude in execution but display an exquisite level of artistry that succeeds in making the laborious seem effortless. And speaking of purity, a couple of films between both programs will be projected on celluloid: Paul Vester’s Picnic (1987) and Joanna Priestley’s Jade Leaf (1985), in 35-millimeter and 16-millimeter, respectively, in Shorts Program 1, and Rose Lowder’s Bouquets 28-30 (2005) in 16-millimeter in Shorts Program 2. The festival’s ongoing commitment to a diversity of exhibition formats is commendable, especially considering the inherent tactility of the animation process itself.