Alison Loader – Re:Animating Moths

The Animatic, The Death Drive and The Forest Tent Caterpillar

One mid-September morning, Virginia Woolf sat watching a hay-coloured moth flit back and forth across her window, trying to escape into the promise of the warm autumn day. Vibrant despite its meagre, limited existence, the moth struggled valiantly before weakening and finally succumbing to inevitable death. Perhaps identifying the insect’s plight with her own—a life of intense activity despite restrictive societal norms and recurrent bouts with mental illness—Woolf wrote:

What he could do he did. Watching him seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life. (1942, p. 4)

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays was published posthumously in 1942, a year after Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones in preparation for her final journey into the River Ouse. Within her story exist the primary elements of my inquiry: movement, light, vitality—a meditation of life and death—and the identification with a little moth through care-full observation and representation. These I carry to my own study, a project that uses research and creation to consider the ontology of the moving image, and its connections to the nonhuman animal represented and embodied by it. It is a project I call Re:Animating Moths, named for its overarching engagement with animation (frame-by-frame filmmaking) and those lepidopteran animals whose lives comprise unceasing and radical transformations—emerging into light as caterpillars and sometimes ending with a flight into flame. Although this is a study of animals in animation, it is not an investigation of the imagined and anthropomorphized beasts that so often populate the more popular cartoon as comic (or tragic) stand-ins for human actors. The bugs in this investigation being the bodies of dead insects reanimated for the screen.

The re: of my title stands for “regarding”—a concern about and a looking at—as an approach with multiple, situated and partial points of view in a practice closer to Donna Haraway’s (1987) “feminist objectivity” than scientific empiricism. The re:animating signifies that this is an examination of the revivification of corpses—the indexing of flesh—rather than the animation of the always already dead (such as drawings, clay, or digital bits). It focuses on experimental works that feature the carcasses of insects including my project Malacosoma disstria (2013) and the films that inspired it—Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963)[1] and Paul Bush’s While Darwin Sleeps… (2004). Having crossed boundaries between art and science in the sharing of insects and knowledge, this exploration applies posthumanist concerns to moving image production and the theoretical discourse of Animation Studies, and is largely driven by the following questions:

  1. Where is the animal and its death situated within the ontology of the animated film?
  2. How can one address the asymmetric relations between humans and nonhumans, inherent to working with animals and their remains?

Exploring the instrumentalism of the nonhuman beyond filmmaker and viewer identification through filmic representations, my work is premised on the notion of moving images as “animatic”—what Alan Cholodenko (2007, p. 43) describes as the “very logics, processes, performance and performativity of animation”—without fully rejecting the “animism” that Philip Brophy (1991, p. 67-72) ascribes to an “apparition of lifelikeness.” Re:animating Moths considers movement, time and temporality as themes symptomatic of the technological origins of motion pictures by examining materialities and operations that are highlighted by Brakhage’s camera-less Mothlight and Bush’s frame-by-frame animation While Darwin Sleeps…

Akira Mizuta Lippit (2000) contends that with its disappearance from modern life, the animal reappears as a spectre within the operations of the machine. Beyond connections to their corporeal counterparts, motion picture animals can then be considered self-reflexive representations of the animatic apparatus itself, with the construction of the filmic body through the interval being a response to the modernist rise of inorganic technology that is accompanied by the revelation of the entropic death drive. To better follow a call in cinema for liveliness in the face of death, I explore Henri Bergson’s notion of “sympathy” (which he attributes wholly to insects) as a potential methodology for film animation, and consider its relation to “sharing suffering” posited by Donna Haraway (2008) as a pragmatic approach to the ethics of working with laboratory animals, especially in my own work which features caterpillars and moths raised by scientists at Concordia University in Montreal.

Part I: Moths in the Animatic Machine

Malacosoma disstria premiered at Galerie les Territoires, a white cube gallery in Montreal. The installation consisted of a looping five-minute sixteen-foot wide wall projection of real-time and timelapse video featuring various stages of development of the M. disstria moth, alongside a small desk embedded with a screen that displayed live action footage of specimen preparation and stop motion animation of moth remains, underneath petri dishes of moths, eggs and egg masses. The project came out of my work in the Fluxmedia Lab, a university-based bioart research facility in Concordia’s Communication Studies department where an inverted (backlit) tissue culture microscope inspired my desire to explore the philosophical and physical mixings of death with the illusion of life (animation) through the capture of organic materials and their corporeal manipulations. I had been using a digital single lens reflex camera connected by adapter to the microscope’s viewfinder like a miniature animation stand. Instead of recording live action or still images, I manipulated materials with my relatively giant hands while capturing images frame by frame. I found that the richly abstract and luminous, backlit magnifications combined with the challenge of working at such a small scale resulted in animation that resembles camera-less filmmaking (also known as direct animation) with its often erratic movement and emphasis on light. Inspired by this likeness, I expected to make what I assumed would be straightforward homage to Mothlight—using a microscope to image and animate the materials similar to those used in the original film. Yet a closer investigation of Brakhage’s work, the researching of numerous connections between animals, death and cinema, and my growing relationship with an entomology lab (made originally to acquire moth wings) significantly changed my project.

It is easier to describe the making of Mothlight than the product itself. To make the experimental, non-narrative, abstract film, Brakhage sandwiched moth wings and plants between clear strips of perforated plastic, and re-photographed them in an optical film printer to create film footage that, in Stan Brakhage’s words, was subsequently edited into “what a moth might see from birth to death if black were white” (Kane 2009, p. 64). His friend, the poet Robert Creeley, who shared with him shared similar influences and approaches, used fragmented verse to convey the film’s rhythmic rush of wings, plants, and light:

pulsing –
kinetic – flicker
tones, brown, green
details of (moth) wing, other parts —
occurring between light source — and
the light now on the wall—
scale — as detail of “size”
the presence (present-s as he would say)
of what occurs in the light.

 And I find myself seeing “blank” film
at the end as particularized now – dust bits,
scratches, something in the light (in Kane 2009, p. 64-65)

For Creeley, like Brakhage, tended towards autobiography and romanticism conveyed through improvisation, silence and punctuated structure, with “the process of speech, vision and thought […] central to the idea of revelation in the work of both” (Brabner 1987, p. 381). In a 1961 radio interview (taped by the Creeley), Brakhage explained that exploring and emphasizing those attributes that are “particular to cinema as a medium of expression” were essential to his work.[2] The camera-less creation of Mothlight as a form of direct animation achieved this aim.

Direct animation forms a long and varied tradition most often associated with the cinematic avant garde and experimental animation, and works of this genre assert the materiality and operation of film, which as a physical medium can be modified directly to create or alter images and sounds.[3] Such films index the artist’s physical presence through their scratch, paint stroke, or other mark, along with any materials directly collaged onto the medium, but the small scale (usually 35mm frames or smaller) limits the ability to align the frames or render them in detail. Camera-less filmmaking generally privileges abstraction through hard-to-control and therefore jerky movements, which are magnified during projection along with the luminous imagery of the modified celluloid strip. Despite the resemblance between microscopic stop motion and direct animation, the processes are considerably different: the stop motion animator frames and photographs images one at a time, while the direct animation filmmaker engages with a whole and continuous strip of film before seeing it fragmented into sequences of frames that create the illusion of movement and change. This aspect of the process also privileges erratic and rapid motion since the animated effect can be difficult to judge before projection (unless modifications are made to pre-photographed footage). Moreover, the preliminary synchronic and holistic experience of a filmstrip is unique to direct animation, and generally impossible for filmmakers working with exclusively photographic or digital animation.

Brakhage once claimed that he was “the most thorough documentary filmmaker in the world because [he] document[s] the act of seeing, as well as everything that the light brings to [him]” (qtd in Brabner 1987, p. 381). Yet within this proclamation of process and sight, there is also the presence of the authorial me, which is perhaps an acknowledgement that the seeing in his films was always from his own partial and situated point of view. With himself as the actual subject of a film about cinema, the moths of Mothlight are treated with a “symbolist attitude” similar to one, described by Brabner (1987, p. 374), towards women in Brakhage’s early work (wherein they tended to be abstracted as objects of the filmmaker’s anxieties). About Mothlight, Brakhage remarked,

Here is a film that I made out of a deep grief… I said, “These crazy moths are flying into the candlelight, and burning themselves to death, and that’s what’s happening to me. I don’t have enough money to make these films, and … I’m not feeding my children properly, because of these damn films, you know. And I’m burning up here… What can I do? (By Brakhage, 2003, DVD commentary).

Mothlight could be understood as representing three captivations by illuminated flickers: Brakhage as the driven artist, the insects inside the film, and even ourselves as the movie’s spectators—all beings drawn to the cinematic light. Like Woolf, Brakhage identifies with a moth in the final (perhaps suicidal) throes of life, yet in place of prose that conveys attentive observation, he creates a chimerical mix of carcasses and film. In the same year that Mothlight was made, the filmmaker would write that, “possession thru [sic] visualization speaks for fear-of-death as motivating force” (qtd in Brabner 1987, p. 373). The deaths of the actual moths are secondary.

In my initial plan to remake Mothlight, I likewise gave little thought to the lives of my animal subjects, even as I thought about relations between death and animation. My attitude shifted with the realization that I needed to obtain dead moths to image. Though I have no aversion to killing insects, baiting and terminating them only to reanimate them seemed unnecessarily cruel. Having decided to borrow bugs that were already dead, I contacted a Concordia University biology professor Dr. Emma Despland, an ecology specialist that researches plant-insect interaction through the study of local lepidoptera in her laboratory located near Fluxmedia. Despland’s researchers raise forest tent caterpillar moths (malacosoma disstria), gather and analyse statistical data (weights, fecundity, colour analysis, etc.) based on experimental variables such as dietary changes. Though microscopes and video cameras are used in their research, they likened my interest in imaging their insects to centuries-old methods by natural historians. However they were happy to help me. In our first meeting Despland spoke with me about how interesting it might be to reproduce how an insect sees, and for the first time I began to think about my project from the moth’s point of view. She also introduced me to Jessica Ethier, a then-doctoral student who became a valuable collaborator.

Jessica taught me all about her charges and I invited her to help me in my image making. Watching her manipulate the Fluxmedia microscope (its view being transferred in real time to the adjacent computer monitor) allowed me to see through a scientist’s eyes. Remarkably, she had never seen so closely the wings she was studying nor the scales that give them their colour. It was exciting to witness her excitement—seeing her see what she only knew previously by inference—and together we hacked the microscope to capture front-lit imagery that reveals the object of her study–wing colour variation. In an email report for the entomology lab, Jessica commented,

It’s one thing to see diagrams in a textbook, drawn and simplified by someone else, and another thing entirely to make the discovery for yourself. I have read that Lepidoptera wings are a mosaic of individually coloured scales, which give rise to the overall colour seen by the naked eye. I still wasn’t prepared for the discovery Alison and I made […] that the two distinct melanic and non-melanic phenotypes I observed in the males wing were simply a result of the proportions of the two types of colour scales.

With Despland’s encouragement and Jessica rearing disstria from egg to adult moth, Reanimating Moths came to include living laboratory insects in action: caterpillars hatching, feeding, spinning cocoons, etc., Even the caterpillars themselves collaborated on the project by forming queues to follow lines of pheromones that we painted on paper to choreograph and record animal precessions what resembles living drawings in time. Jessica and I made movies with little consideration about contributing to either of our disciplines, but we were having fun. If I had to name this interdisciplinary method, I would call it “curious play.” Instead of the entomologists becoming my own Burke and Hare, the nineteenth-century killers who sold fresh corpses to the unquestioning anatomists, my scientific body suppliers became key to rethinking my project, as did the thousands of caterpillars and moths that lived in their lab. I decided to reanimate the insects in the context of their own lives instead of identifying them, as Brakhage does, with human mortality though I too immortalized what would be dead within the moving image, and reanimated their corpses into a kind of cinematic limbo.

Having followed trails of the animal through a history of thought, Akira Mizuta Lippit concludes that despite its increasing disappearance from daily life, we perceive the animal as incapable of death. We allow it no language that would make it aware of its own perishing and fail to count individual animal deaths, thinking them as eternal multiplicities or packs. This might be even more true of the insect, so often imagined as swarms. In the “Death” chapter of his alphabetized musings on insects and people, Insectopedia, anthropologist Hugh Raffles (2010, p. 42) cites the poet Wislawa Symborska:

For our peace of mind, animals do not pass away,
but die a seemingly shallow death
losing—we’d like to believe—fewer feelings and less world,
exiting—or so it seems—a less tragic stage.

Lippit (2000) states, “if the animal cannot die but is nonetheless vanishing, then it must be transferred to another locus, another continuum in which death plays no role” (p. 189). That continuum, he claims, is cinema—“a technological crypt,” which preserves “the radically absent other in a state that can be defined as neither life nor death.”[4] Instead of dying, Brakhage’s moths and Jessica’s caterpillars become the moving image itself.

Death, however, may threaten the animal encrypted in cinema in the shift from celluloid to digital technologies that inspired a relatively recent resurgence in direct animation. Stephanie Maxwell, Bärbel Neubauer, Richard Reeves and Steven Woloshen are just some of the filmmakers actively using and expanding the technique since the 1990s. In deference to Walter Benjamin who interrogated the aura in the presence of original works of art, Tess Takahashi (2005, p. 167) calls the return to direct animation, “a reclaiming of the auratic of the work of art for film,” further noting its occurrence “just at the point at which the medium of film seems most threatened with obsolescence, both figuratively and literally.” In other words, as an endangered species, film — the celluloid strip itself—becomes fashion(ed). This revitalization may have renewed interest in works like Brakhage’s, attracting new filmmakers and new audiences despite the scarcity of such works in their original film formats. The digital reproductions of Mothlight on DVD or YouTube (or as Quicktime movie files) re-present multiple absent bodies. There is the animal that is swept away by modernity, the insect cadavers destroyed during their initial reprinting onto film by the optical printer, and then there is the film itself, deteriorating from decades of use and decay, now reconstituted with further degradation and speed changes inevitable in the shift to video and digital formats. Mothlight now signifies at least two deaths and two reanimations—that of the animal and that of the film. Following Lippit’s (2000) speculation that, “the cinema developed, indeed embodied, animal traits as a gesture of mourning for the disappearing wildlife” (p. 195), invoking discourses of early filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov who discussed cinema as if it were a biological organism, digital Mothlight and post-celluloid projects are haunted by layers of dead animals.

Imagine for a moment, what it is like to be surrounded by a quarter of a million dead bugs on display like objects of art. Paul Bush’s While Darwin Sleeps… features some 3500 insects from the Walter Linsenmaier Collection of 250,000 specimens housed at the Natural History Museum of Lucerne, Switzerland. Reflecting on a visit to a similar collection at the Insectarium in Montreal, Raffles (2010, p. 44) observes that the collection’s visitors are tentative around the insect remains. In “The ‘Uncanny’,” Freud (1958) repeats the theory (originally described by Ernst Jentsch) “that a particularly favourable condition for awakening uncanny sensations is created when there is an intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not” (p. 139) and it seems likely that this effect is at work at the entomological museum. Raffles claims that even non-living insects can “possess intense psychic” power (and indeed a librarian hesitated when handing me Raffles’s book, perturbed by the small gold beetle embossed on its spine). Raffles (2010, p. 44) further comments:

How strange that we look at insects as beautiful objects, that in death they are beautiful objects whereas in life, scuttling across the wooden floor, lurking in corners and under benches, flying into our hair…The impulse even in this place, would be to lash out and crush them…Despite death, they enter our bodies and make us shiver with apprehension.

If the dead bugs of Lucerne entered into Paul Bush the animator, they provoked in him a considerably different impulse. Perhaps addressing the anxiety provoked by the uncanny uncertainty of liveliness, Bush consciously brings the pinned cadavers of beetles, butterflies, moths and other assorted bugs back to life through the magic of sequential juxtaposition.[5]   Though Freud (1958, p. 154) asserts that, “Catalepsy and the re-animation of the dead have been represented as most uncanny themes,” he recalls narratives that feature resuscitation and the animate “come to life” (including fairytales, myths and religious parables) as “nothing that perhaps could be more remote from the uncanny.” Is it believability (or nonbelievability) then that banishes doubt and neutralizes dread? In While Darwin Sleeps… the insects are convincingly alive as Bush’s work deftly demonstrates the illusion of change and movement. Where Mothlight emphasizes the materiality of insects and film, While Darwin Sleeps… explores the illusion of movement by investigating the interval between frames. Though working digitally as well as on film,[6] Bush explores the operation of motion pictures through a technique called pixillation, the frame by frame photography of still objects and people (but not puppets) sequenced to effect the illusion of movement or change. In earlier works such as Furniture Poetry (1999) and Dr. Jekyll and My Hyde (2001), Bush challenges the tendencies in traditional animation to make small incremental changes between motion picture frames for playback at frame rates (generally 12 frames per second or faster) that create the appearance of smooth transformations. Though not as radical as the flickering shifts in imagery that occur in Mothlight, Bush’s experimentation with slower frame rates and the switching of disparate forms (such as different chairs in Furniture Poetry or different actors in Jekyll and Hyde) explores the thresholds of change and frame rate that can be perceived as motion or metamorphosis. In While Darwin Sleeps… Bush shifts between similarly composed images of different species of insects, making the dead specimens of the Linsenmaier Collection appear both alive and evolving.

The transformations of Bush’s bugs literally enact the organic flow that can be extended from theories posited by Eisenstein and Vertov’s on cinema.[7] Lippit (2000, p. 194) likens Eisenstein’s notion of montage as “hieroglyphic copulation” to the sequencing of genetic code that tranforms the filmwork into a “body,” and cites Vertov’s explanation of minute edits wherein Intervals (the transitions from one movement to another) are the material, the elements of the art of movement.

While early filmmakers theorized montage as the interrelations and juxtapositions of shots (from live action recording), as pixillation and other animation techniques demonstrate, their notions recall the more fundamental interval—the space between individual frames that affects the illusion of movement. This interval (or rather series of intervals) exists in all moving pictures, but in animation it results from the synthetic construction of movement by the animator rather than the inscription and breakdown of movement by the motion picture (film, video or digital) camera. Consider the well-known statement by animation filmmaker Norman McLaren (who used both direct animation and pixillation):

Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn; What happens between each frame is much more important than what exists on each frame; Animation is therefore the art of manipulating the invisible interstices that lie between the frames (qtd in Furniss 1998, p. 5).

Animation Studies scholar Paul Wells (2009, p. 154) notes the powerful relation between this dictum and the “interval” of another theorist—philosopher Henri Bergson who in Creative Evolution (1907) responded to Darwinism with the speculation that, “a vital impetus (élan vital)” motivates evolution. Lippit (2000) notes that “Bergson proposes an examination of the interval between states, the transition from state to state, and the movement that determines the character of each state as a way to address the broader question of being” (p. 84). Bergson argues that tendencies to intellectualize and abstract experience as a series of states constitutes the failure of philosophy and modern science to perceive duration as a constant existential change characterized by qualitative, evolutionary and extensive movements. Denoting the paradox of Zeno’s Arrow (that dividing an arrow’s movement into infinite increments results in its never reaching its mark) and using the cinematograph as a metaphor for human perception, Bergson (1944: 334-333) claims: “The movement slips through the interval, because every attempt to reconstitute change out of states implies the absurd proposition, that movement is made of immobilities.” However, as Mary Ann Doane (2002) explains (after Deleuze), cinematic motion refutes Zeno and in recognizing that, “the [movie] spectator does not see not the succession of photograms but, instead, an intermediate image,” Bergson’s philosophy (which anticipates Vertov and McLaren) is “ironically […] consonant with the cinema” (p. 176).[8]

Wells (2009, p. 154) argues that the most significant aspect of Bergson’s “interval” exists for the animator, as it did for Bergson, not between cinematic frames but in the perceptual space between instinct and intelligence. For Bergson (1944, p. 172-174), “sympathy”—the instinct/feeling/action (wholly possessed by the insect)—is gradually lost with the human evolutionary acquisition of intelligence/thought/mechanism. The interval that lies between these modes of knowing might be accessed by the animator at a “level of profound empathy” that allows them to become a character or a movement in the process of representation (Wells 2009, p. 154-155).[9] Bergson elaborates that

an effort of this kind is not impossible, is proved by the existence in man of an aesthetic faculty along with normal perception. Our eye perceives the features of the living being, merely as assembled, not as mutually organised. The intention of life, the simple movement that runs through the lines, that binds them together, and gives them significance escapes it. This intention is just what the artist tries to regain, in placing himself back within the object by a kind of sympathy. (p. 194)

It is possible (if not likely) that by “aesthetic faculty,” Bergson means a “sensitivity” and his “sympathy” as a kind of intuitive knowledge might be activated as an animation method that posits an embodied understanding of the object of representation. In The Creative Process McLaren observed, “when you’re animating a creature, if the creature is moving, you are that animal, you feel that motion” (McWilliams 1990, DVD).

Becoming the object of inquiry may also be unwittingly practiced by some scientists. Much of my knowledge of forest tent caterpillar moths came from my scientist-collaborator Jessica who in explaining the disstria lifecycle or relating her experiences would perform as a caterpillar or as a moth. And I have seen Dr. Despland do the same. Watching entomologists become-insect reminds me of animators physically portraying their characters to better understand and portray their motions and emotions through timing and gesture. If this is Bergsonian sympathy—which the philosopher claims science requires to compensate for intellect’s lack—then I know of at least two biologists practicing it. Similarly, Despland’s laboratory recalls the “Sharing Suffering” of animal research proposed by Donna Haraway, (2009, p. 72) in which unequal and instrumental relations of use (be they between humans and animals, or humans and humans) should have workers thought of as “significantly unfree partners” rather than as “victims or as other to the human”—their suffering and deaths not as sacrifices. In other words, the “significant others” of the laboratory are recognized as actors, with some agency and some power in the relationship even if that is only the will to not survive. Likewise, their employers are responsible, providing them well-considered care and never being free from the ethical burden of “nonsymmetrical death and suffering” (Haraway 2009, p. 77).

In Dr. Despland’s lab, research must be timed according to the one-year life cycle of the insects, which is seasonal and weather dependent. Eggs that I helped researchers collect from the field in February were taken out of refrigeration to hatch when the local trees began sprouting in May. In the ensuing two months of constant feeding and growth, the scientists engaged in non-stop study, data collection, and (most of all) caring. Using video and time-lapse photography to capture the lives in transition was relatively easy compared to the constant work of the entomologists to keep caterpillars alive through the stages of growth known as instars and the radical transformations required for them to reach maturity. Tent caterpillars increase a thousand fold in size in a matter of weeks, and, while picky eaters that ingest the leaves of only certain trees, they consume fifteen thousand times their birth weight (Fitzgerald 1995, p. 2). The labour of finding or preparing food and cleaning them is often shared among human researchers, along with specimens and data (which are also sometimes shared between labs). The maximizing of resources is not only practical but also may help to minimize harm (in the lab and in the wild). Vulnerable to weather, starvation, predators, parasites, and viruses, wild populations of forest tent caterpillars remain stable if one only in one hundred lives to adulthood but numbers fluctuate periodically and in years when more survive, outbreaks occur that defoliate host trees affecting associated species, causing economic loss and other types of damage associated with large swarms (Fitzgerald 1995, p. 211-232). Among Jessica’s lab colonies, the average mortality rate has been 71.2%, including those who died in the egg and never hatched. Caterpillars in her care have thirty times more likelihood of becoming moths.[10] For while they may remain vulnerable to parasites and viruses, so long as their human caregivers are attentive, they always have food and never are food. Most of the forest tent caterpillar moth’s waking life is spent as children, they are social as a means of survival and most importantly to support their primary activity: eating. Their lives as adult moths, mourned by Woolf and Brakhage, is but a fraction of their existence.

Part II: Regarding the Dead

The cinematic reanimation of insects has a long history. Almost a century before While Darwin Sleeps…, Wladislaw Starewicz, the Lithuanian Natural History Museum director animated puppets made from dead bugs in The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), a stop motion fable of infidelity among anthropomorphized insects and vengeance wrought ironically by motion picture technology. Entanglements of the carcass and film therefore exists even among the earliest of animated films. Yet the presence of cadavers in early cinema is hardly surprising. Calling it a “home to residual body images,” film theorist Giuliana Bruno (2002: 147) likens the cinema to the cemetery, and of the connection between death and film, she writes:

As a machine of death, film technology engages in a time play with spatial movements. Capable not only of multiplying time and space but of extending time with prolonged mechanical movement, as well as freezing frames and slowing or accelerating movement, the language of film inhabits a boundless desire to capture life. The shadow of such longing is a drive to trespass spatiotemporal confines—that is, to overcome the finiteness of death. Preserving the moment of time and space, film travels the geography of death and immortality.

In her Atlas of Emotion (2002: 144-150), Bruno maps a history of death on display—including fourteenth-century corpses preserved with wax infusions, skeleton dances of seventeenth-century magic lantern shows, and the live but frozen bodies of tableaux vivants—as practices that foreshadow cinema. Yet despite this long tradition, Doane (2002) argues that around the nineteenth century there is an epistemological shift in the understanding of time, which engenders a distinctly modern connection between death and spectacle.

Doane argues further that the rethinking of time as contingency was a function of modernity and that the emergence of cinema, psychoanalysis, and statistics can be read as symptomatic of the nineteenth century. Not only are these phenomena interrelated, they also connect powerfully to the development of thermodynamic theory and industrialization. In the 1840s, physicists articulated two laws of thermodynamics: the first being the atemporal notion of the conservation of energy; and the second being the assertion of the dissipation of energy towards an unusable state of equilibrium (the systemic death also known as entropy), pushing an understanding that time must have an inevitable and irreversible forward direction.  Doane (2002: 115) responds to Anson Rabinbach assertion that the apparent tension between these laws—optimism (with conservation suggesting the possibility of efficiency and control over nature) set against inevitable (entropic) decline—is a relation that, “defines the contours of modernity,” by explaining that both thermodynamics and historiographic narratives of “progress and degeneration emerge in the context of an ongoing Industrial Revolution” with notions of time, loss and efficiency being interrelated with economic concerns. They emerge from unfulfilled promises of the perfect machine and the desire to maximize profit through machine labour.

Within the return of the animal in, and as the animatic machine of cinema (as the disappeared animal that we do not allow to die), there are tensions relating to the ambiguous relationships between cinema, death and time. As Bruno makes clear, film technology offers numerous opportunities to manipulate representations of time and immortalize those it represents. However, the alternate temporalities offered by cinematic illusions remain founded on an understanding that time must unfold in one direction. Doane (2002: 23) writes:

Film, in its mechanical and unrelenting forward movement, appears as the incarnation of the thermodynamic law of irreversibility, and as such gives witness to time as the erosion of organization and the free field of chance.

Doane (2002: 136-137) argues that the two modes of early cinema—event-based document and trickfilm—privilege a temporal contingency that is inextricable from the theory of entropy. Lumière’s realtime, inscriptive long takes allow for the shooting of random and unplanned events, while the precursors to animation and pixillation—Méliès’s special effects films—celebrate the unexpected, by narrating the loss of control through surprising appearances, disappearances, and transformations. Moreover Sean Cubitt (2004: 38-41), arguing that narrative is “not an essential quality of film” resolves the seeming contradiction between the thermodynamic laws as they are expressed in the linear, sequential structure of cinema by citing Brian Rotman’s “semiotics of zero.” He explains that zero is the origin of any numerical system that includes it, and a “ ‘witness’ of an indefinite and counting subject.” In cinema the counting subject is placed in the “framelines”—the darkness or intervals between frames—as a “temporal and temporary subject of the procession of images” that begin and end in blackness (zero).

If we may assume as an experience admitting of no exception that everything living dies from causes within itself, and returns to the inorganic, we can only say, ‘The goal of all life is death’ and, casting back, ‘The inanimate was there before the animate (47).[11]

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud turns to biologism in an attempt account for the destructive and self-destructive tendencies witnessed in his clinical practice and daily life, especially among the shellshocked veterans of World War I. He explains the Pleasure Principle as the economic system that governs mental processes through the regulation of tension or excitation—its release is experienced as pleasure and its increase experienced as unpleasure. Positing the psychic apparatus as a “living vesicle” (which sounds not unlike a chrysalis enshrouded within its cocoon), Freud (1922: 32) explains that pain and trauma result from breaches in the barriers than protect the organism from stimuli (both external and internal). This excitation requires binding—“a translating of it [as new energy] from free-flowing to the quiescent state” (36). It is an atemporal model analogous to the conservation of energy in the first law of thermodynamics, and indeed, Laplanche (118-119) points out that Freud’s mobile “free energy” and unusable, cathetic, “bound energy” derives from the physics of Maxwell and Helmholtz. However this need to bind or control stimuli may activate different topological regions of the psyche and so when investigating the paradoxical pleasure of unpleasure (for example, the compulsive repetition of traumatic events in child’s play, dreams, and everyday relations), Freud concludes that both can be experienced at once by different and opposing mental processes as “‘pain’ in respect of one system and at the same time satisfaction for the other” (20). Freud however noted that certain compulsions to repeat can offer no pleasure (hence operating “beyond the pleasure principle”) and through investigating the instinctual nature of repetition he arrives at the conclusion that all living things possess the instinctual and inevitable drive toward death. The Death Drive or the Nirvana Principle aligns itself with thermodynamics and zero semiotics since (like cinema) it posits the irreversible release of all tension to stasis in an inevitable forward march of time. His observations of the compulsion to repeat and the movement of all living things towards death resonate with the insect-identifications of Woolf and Brakhage—the suicidal captivations of moths to flame. However, Freud also states, “It remains to be added that the organism is resolved to die only in its own way” (48). The life drives (Eros) governed by sexual instincts facilitate this by delaying the inevitable. Eros therefore aligns with  reanimation, creative evolution (élan vital) and the animal that is not allowed to die.

If Freud is correct and we are drawn to death as well as its resistance, and reanimation is a recurring motif in multiple cultural texts (film, literature, poetry, etc.,) then what can be made of representations of the insects so wholly driven by instinct? Jussi Parikka who tracks the archaeology of Insect Media (2010: 22) recalls the noted nineteenth-century entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre who “insisted on the mechanistic nature of insects as machines of inner repetition, unchanging their predetermined nature.” While decades later, Roger Caillois writing for the Surrealist journal Minotaure associated the mimetic faculties of insects and the psycho-sexual carnivorous nature of the female praying mantis with an entropic psychic disorder whereby the experience of the body, “the ‘I’ is dispersed into a depersonalized matter ‘whatsoever’” (Parikka 99).

In short, one we have established that mimicry cannot be a defense mechanism, that a disorder of spatial perception is the only thing it can be…Matters become critical with represented space because the living creature, the organism, is no longer located at the origin of the coordinate system but is simply one point among many. Dispossessed of its privilege, it quite literally no longer know what to do with itself …This, then, takes us into the realm of psychasthenic psychology or, more specifically, of legendary psychasthenia, if we thus term the disorder in the relationship between personality and space outline above (qtd in Frank 2003: 99-100).

Callois’s insect psychosis—a dissolution of the self into space—as a “catastrophic drop in the level of psychic energy” (Krauss 1985: 49) relates powerfully to thermodynamics, the Death Drive and the Surrealist notion of informe which Rosalind Krauss explains as a term “meant to allow one to think the removal of all those boundaries by which concepts organize reality, dividing it up into little packages of sense, limiting it…” (39). This also resonates with Bergson’s concern with the abstractions of human intellect that organize, divide and analyze the world, in opposition to the direct access through instinct or sympathy that is available to insects. The informe also returns us to the animal in cinema, in the Surrealist documentaries of biologist Jean Painlevé, who instead of anthropomorphizing his animal subjects (including the octopus, the seahorse and the vampire bat) presents a series of becoming-animal, “performing a sort of cinematographic psychoanalysis,” that makes humans seem more like animals than vice-versa  (Parikka: 95).

If the artist and the spectator become-animal through the experience of reanimation, then what remains of the ethics of making art with dead insects? How can being nonhuman animals (that humans “become”) make their bodies immaterial? In While Darwin Sleeps… the insect specimens escape the scientific apparatus of the Natural History Museum into the temporality of creative evolution, before a final flight in which the camera takes off from the place and point of view of the animator, the scene of the animation stand itself. The film closes with the line, “No creatures were harmed during the making of this film… not by me.” Seeing the filmmaker humorously attempt to shake off the responsibility for his subjects’ deaths on to the naturalists who collected them (just as I relied on university entomologists for my bodies), I wonder if the actor/insects have worked some magic on him. No longer mere signifiers to Paul Bush, the bugs of Walter Linsenmaier seem to have become his “significant others.”[12] In other words, like Haraway’s dogs and other companion species that co-evolve with humans, they have become bodies that matter.

Part III: Malacosoma disstria

My experience in the entomology lab as a neophyte bugwatcher gave me a new appreciation and respect for the lives of moths and their caterpillar progeny. The entomologists taught me that a moth’s life is much more than its death, and I find that death somehow more meaningful when I consider the extraordinary energy and change an insect must accumulate just to get there. Yet after working sporadically with scientists and their specimens (both dead and alive) for over two and a half years, my reanimation project transformed and expanded into an almost unwieldy assortment of footage. After several intense weeks in the cocoon-like shelter of an editing suite, the would-be short film emerged as an installation of material artifacts and moving images. This is another story of metamorphosis. For here I will briefly describe my final project, Malacosoma disstria—its exhibition, production and my attempt to use it as a tool to think through Freud’s notions of the life and death drives, problems of time and temporalities, and the mediation and manipulation that transpires in both the lab and the animation studio. The work is perhaps a response to too much—films, texts, ideas, sensations—and as a result, perhaps says little. This is not really for me to assess. All I can do is explain a little about how it came about and what I was thinking.

Malacosoma disstria  premiered January 2013 as part of the De la Nature exhibition at Galerie les Territoires in Montreal, Canada. Featuring work by four Fluxmedia artists— Brandon Ballengée, Claire Kenway, Kelly Andres and me—the show was curated by art historian and curator Ann-Marie Belley who has followed the development of the lab and its members since the lab’s inception in 2010.[13] Though other Fluxmedia artists such as founder Tagny Duff use tissue culture engineering and other practices more commonly identified as “bioart,” the exhibition featured work more akin to old-fashioned natural history and although our works are thoroughly and self-consciously technologically mediated, we share related concerns for nonhuman life. Ratsdeville webzine reviewer Claire Moeder comments,

Non sans évoquer les curiosa collectionnés par les amateurs éclairés depuis la Renaissance, les œuvres de Brandon Ballengée ou encore de Alison Reiko Loader sont portées par ce même désir de collecte de spécimens de la nature qui a vu naître les cabinets de curiosité et les premiers musées.

[Reminiscent of amateur collections dating from the Renaissance, the works of Brandon Ballengée and Alison Reiko Loader are carried by the same desire to collect specimens of nature that saw the birth of curiosity cabinets and early museums.]

I am not sure whether to call my process emergent or simply ill-advised. Belley invited me to participate more than a year and a half before the exhibition, and a year later when I saw the exhibition space, my concept was still fairly nebulous. I planned to debut the caterpillar and moth work but had no idea how to deal with the piles of footage that had accumulated. For instead of working with a specific shot plan, a final form (linear film or looping video installation) or genre (experimental or documentary), I had found myself creating footage in an organic fashion dictated by cycles of both caterpillar and human time. On one hand, live action and timelapse photography of live insects had to follow the relatively strict but predictable timetable of the caterpillars as they made their way towards mothhood. On the other, the stop motion animation of their nonliving remains depended on access to time and equipment, which occurred most often between university semesters when those resources were freed from curricular demands. This somewhat irregular and prolongued shooting process mixed with a relative absence of direction left me with a good quantity of seemingly unrelated and varied footage, often inspired by Jessica as well as by the insects themselves. There was stopmotion, timelapse and video imagery shot with a camera connected to the backlit microscope, others that used the same setup with specimens lit from the front, and slightly less magnified footage made using a macro lens on the camera. Digital software was used to composite stop motion shots of dead moths into scurrying swarms, correct colour and exposure, generate text and time codes, add image masks, and edit.

I shot and prepared footage with a few principles in mind. First, I decided to not represent a romanticized or teleological vision of the M. disstria’s final hours but rather record key moments from its entire lifecycle. I collected footage of eggs hatching, caterpillars feeding, cocoons being spun and moths emerging from chrysalids. Second, I avoided trying to disguise the conditions of shooting (in the laboratory and under the microscope). Petri dishes and specimen containers figured prominently in numerous shots, unexpected hands or sudden disruptions to the image (a camera shift, a fallen specimen) went uncorrected, and colour was adjusted only to improve image contrast and exposure. Additionally, dates and times were recorded and added directly to the picture of all live recordings to track and reveal the manipulation of time at both shooting and playback. Although the imagery may be appealing, I had no intention to glorify nature or science but rather highlight processes of research and representation. Mixing an ethic of self-reflexivity with an aesthetic of manipulation split the project into two parts—table and projection.

I included a table display of real specimens to counterbalance the extreme magnifications of projected imagery and to reference the mediations by scientist and artist. Beneath the petri dishes of moth remains, an embedded television acts as both light table and screen, with videos that feature scientific reenactments and animated fantasies. Moths are dissected and de-winged, eggs are bleached, and points of views shift between human and specimen. Meanwhile lifesize moths move in geometric patterns that recall caterpillar precessions and then scurry away as if trying to avert a scalpel or lens. These bug reanimations enact a kind of resistance, highlighting both process and play. I tried to use the table to express the pleasure I experienced in the lab and in the animation studio. Perhaps I should have acknowledged the lengthy and tedious nature of both scientific study and artistic pursuit, though I tend to enjoy the consuming quality of repetitious labour, which is why I probably became an animator.

Time, the compulsion to repeat, movement and stasis also figure within the projection component of Malacosoma disstria, designed at the same time as its more self-reflexive tabular companion. The resemblance of microscopic stop motion animation to direct cinema had formed the initial impetus for the entire project, but the flickering imagery proved too much on a large scale especially given the cycling nature of the installation. Therefore all but a few moments of stop motion were relegated to the table since it better fit the small scale and theme of manipulation, leaving mostly live action and timelapse imagery of live caterpillars and moths for the wall projection.

Malacosoma disstria is not a refusal of the irreversibility of the moth’s progress towards death, but it does resist chronology in favour of finding corresponding tendencies within the organism’s life. Placing sequences in apposition draws out the tendencies of the caterpillar towards repetition and circularity—a pattern that forms the larger looping structure of the entire projection sequence. This endless return remains unidirectional but instead of representing a linear sequence, the entire work is cyclical with various stages of life displayed simultaneously. This is an attempt to grasp a life and its movements as a whole—inspired by Bergson’s frustration with intellect’s tendency to privileges states over intervals and continuities, as well as his (and Freud’s and Muybridge’s) contemporary Jules-Etienne Marey, the chronophotographer who sacrificed intelligibility in his attempts to picture uninterrupted time within a single image of animal movement (Doane).[14] It is also meant to resist the teleologic privileging of the sexual maturation that coincides with the animal’s death.

Instead of an homage to Brakhage’s Mothlight or Woolf’s Death of a Moth, Malacosoma disstria aims, like Bush’s While Darwin Sleeps…, to release the insect from being a metaphor for death. However, this escape is not into flight, but through a re-collection of childhood pleasures—from fluffy wee infants to electric blue eating machines that increase in mass a thousand fold. For I would rather identify with the social and insatiable caterpillars than the feeble brown adults they strive to become. With the M. disstria wiggling out of ebony chrysalids, crumpled, awkward and drab, sexual maturity never seemed so overrated. And yet, the moth and the butterfly have always garnered more attention than their larval precursors Despite an abundance of texts on their adult others, only recently have any field guides on caterpillars been published (Raffles 2010: 170). “Caterpillars are the last unknown group of big things on the terrestrial world” (qtd in Raffles 2010: 163) and yet as infants, lepidopterans are so distinct from their adult counterparts, they hardly seem the same species.

Beings that are one and the same could not be more different: clayfooted yet ethereal, earthbound yet aloft in the skies, scurrying to the shadows yet drawn to the light, a grinder of leavers yet a sipper of nectar, unencumbered by genitalia yet dedicated to sex…the event that lies between these states of being [is] a “revolution,” an “astonishing tour de force” (163-164).

Fewer than one percent of caterpillar eggs survive to adulthood and while their chances are much greater in a laboratory, many still do not live to adulthood. I asked some of the researchers in Dr. Despland’s entomology lab if it bothered them when their charges died. They said it made them really angry when they failed to survive long enough for them to complete their experiments since, reliant on the tent caterpillar’s lifecycle, they can only conduct research with live animals once a year. So much effort goes into caring for the caterpillars and moths that members of the lab may collectively mourn accidental losses such as one suffered one summer when a hungry racoon raided an outdoor experiment. Chastisement ensues (mostly as good-natured but persistent ridicule), when junior researchers neglect their charges, and starvation and disease result. Still, they acknowledge that their work is ethically more comfortable than that of biologists who work with larger animals such as rats, which Jessica tells me require interactive play as part of their care.

Forest tent caterpillar moths live at most two or three days. Emerging without mouths or digestive organs, they eat nothing at all, are inefficient flyers, and frequently fail to find a mate. To prevent the wing damage that results from flight, Jessica usually places her moths in the freezer shortly after they emerge from their cocoons. It is the preferred method of euthanasia to preserve specimens and mercifully end unnecessary suffering of caterpillars trapped during unsuccessful moults or other fatal predicaments. In the chill of the icebox, they fall into permanent sleep. Occasionally, Jessica allows her moths to flutter about and pass away naturally. Somehow, she admits, that’s much sadder. And so I imagine her, like Virginia Woolf at the windowsill, watching as her charges let death overtake them.

Thank you to animation: an interdisciplinary journal for additional help with editing.

Associated media can be seen online at:;;; and

Alison Reiko Loader is a full-time student, part-time instructor, a lapsed animation filmmaker and an inveterate maker. A PhD Candidate in Communication Studies, Alison studies old optical technologies, teaches production and digital media, and enjoys playing with insects, lenses, plants, projectors and assorted ephemera. Half media artist and half media historian, she enjoys collaborative projects of all sorts, and explores connections between apparatuses, bodies, representation and spectatorship by applying feminist and posthumanist concerns to research-creation. With a past that includes making computer-generated backgrounds at a Tokyo game studio and directing short animated films at the National Film Board of Canada, Alison has taught studio classes in the Computation Arts and Film Animation programs at Concordia University in Montreal since 2001. For her doctorate, she is investigating Maria Short’s Popular Observatories and Camera Obscuras in nineteenth-century Edinburgh.


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[1] Though Mothlight is generally attributed to Stan Brakhage, Wendy Brabner (1987:378) notes that, “Stan and Jane Brakhage are almost an entity unto themselves, one speaking for the other, with Brakhage film’s being signed ‘By Brakhage,’ which ‘should be understood to mean by way of Stan and Jane Brakhage.’”

[2] “KHFM Radio Interview with Stan Brakhage.” Taped by Robert Creeley in Albuquerque, c.1961. Online at Penn Sound,

[3] In 1912, Italian Futurist Bruno Corra penned the manifesto “Abstract Cinema – Chromatic Music,” which describes de-emulsifying and hand-colouring filmstock for projection. Animators such as Len Lye and Norman McLaren began making direct animation films in the 1920s/30s. Direct animation films are generally abstract and non-narrative but for figurative and story-driven examples, see Two Sisters (1991) by Caroline Leaf, The Celtic Trilogy (1987-1995) by Rose Bond and other works by Paul Bush mentioned in this paper. Because older projectors read soundtracks inscribed optically onto filmstock, sounds can be altered or created visually by drawing, scratching or photographing onto that section of the film.

[4] Lippit compares the technological crypt to the psychic crypt described by Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok (The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonymy, 1986) that prevented Freud from curing the Wolf Man because he was keeping within it a secret, unreachable subjectivity, or in other words an “absent other.”

[5] See Paul Bush Talks (2006) as for Bush’s comments on While Darwin Sleeps…, and his overall approach towards revealing the constructed nature of film.

[6] Paul Bush’s films also include examples of direct animation. For example in His Comedy (1994), Still Life with Small Cup (1995) and The Albatross (1998), Bush photographed engravings (by Gustav Doré and Giorgio Morandi) and then layered his own handiwork overtop by engraving directly onto the filmed stock.

[7] Eisenstein stressed the significance of individual shots that like cells or genetic code that through montage (as “copulation”) aggregate to create and communicate meaning, transforming the filmwork into a kind of body See Lippit (195). Instead of extending his theories of (shot-by-shot) montage into the frame-by-frame however, Eisenstein celebrated the animism and primitivism in its representations metamorphosis and anthropomorphism, rejecting Walt Disney’s work when it took on more serious themes, introduced humans and mixed cartoons with live actions—which Eisenstein felt reinforced the hierarchical division between human and non-human animals. See Esther Leslie (2002) Hollywood Flatlands, London: Verso:  219-250.

[8] Bergson’s rejection of cinema may have also resulted from the slower frame rate of early cinema. Sean Cubitt (The Cinema Effect, 2004: 23) writes that “the very halt and judder of the early ‘flickers’ that severs the frames from one another, emphasizing the discrete quality of each moment of light…complaints of eye strain, we might say, arise from the effort they put in to trying to force the incoherent to cohere.”

[9] See Wells, especially pages 142-144 for his thesis linking the animator to the animal through an autistic sensibility, citing “Thinking in Pictures” by animal scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin.

[10] Statistics supplied by Jessica Ethier.

[11] For this paper, I have been using the 1922 translation by C.J.M. Hubback.  James Strachey’s translation (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in The Essentials of Psychoanalysis: The Definitive Collection of Sigmund Freud Writing, 1991) reads: If we are to take it as truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons–becomes inorganic once again–then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of life is death’ and, looking backwards, that ‘inanimate things existed before living ones’

[12]  “Significant Others” is a coinage from Donna Haraway. See Companion Species Manifesto (2003) and When Species Meet (2008).

[13] The works exhibited in De la Nature are The Temporary Archive for Ambiguous Architecture (Kelly Andres); Un Requiem pour Flocons de neige Blessés, Deformed Northern Leopard Frogs from Minnesota, Styx (Brandon Ballengée); Acoustic aquatica (Claire Kenway); and Malacosoma disstria (Alison Reiko Loader). Belley’s curatorial statement reads as follows:
Kelly Andres, Brandon Ballengée, Claire Kenway and Alison Reiko Loader draw from their imagination to subdue the binary categories and limitations of encyclopaedic knowledge, often emphasized by the tenants of modernism. Art and science, but also humans, animals and plants; form, material and technique;, modernism and present interlock together to position living organisms in a non-definite third space. Here, technological advances are detached from their political, economic and ideological potential and instead used by the artists for their artistic and aesthetic qualities…In this exhibit, you will find that new time and size scales are created from caterpillars, moths, fish, toads, frogs, algae and mushrooms. Poetry thus arises from nature’s unruly cycles.

[14] Marey also did insect studies, designing artificial insects as theoretical models to study their flight patterns. See Insect Media (2010, J. Parikka), pages 15-18.

© Alison Loader

Edited by Amy Ratelle