This article addresses the practice of animation and its relation to physical space and the social experience. It was presented in 2018 at the Society for Animation Studies conference (Montreal, Canada) and was written not long after the completion of a PhD dissertation dedicated to the concept of animated space. As a practice-based academic project, it began with a focus on the use of space in animated short films and evolved to include both music videos and the production of site-specific installations.
Figure 1: Serrazina, 2016. É preciso que eu diminua, an animated music video for Samuel Úria’s music and lyrics, which relates the character in the song to the city. The video was produced during the author’s PhD studies.
Rather than a fully accomplished articulation of ideas leading to a firm conclusion, this essay instead constitutes a deliberation on the use of animation and its impact on public space and – ultimately – a reaction to the specific and wider socio-spatial “ill-feeling” that was spreading across my home country of Portugal, through the people around me, and on a global scale as I was approaching the final stages of my PhD research. As such, this text reflects on the potential of animation to be a reaction against the ongoing process of the global gentrification (or perhaps more accurately an “empty-fication”) of city centres. I posit that its practice can be seen as a means to counter the dilution of social and cultural memory.
Figure 2: Venice leaflet against AirBnB found online on social media.
Gentrification is obviously not a new phenomenon, nor is it exclusive to Europe. In fact, when the original version of this text was presented in Montreal, the conference venue itself (Concordia University) was surrounded by cranes peering over every city block – a common sight in the city over recent years. Gentrification’s arrival in Portugal, however, was sudden. Over the past five years, it has affected – perhaps irreversibly – the physical and social landscape of Portugal’s two main cities: Lisbon and Porto.
As I live in the very centre of Lisbon, I had a front seat to this rapid transformation. The view from my window and the change that it framed happened very quickly. Within the two-week window prior to the completion of this text, I saw the destruction of a historical (and supposedly protected) chimney. This reflects a wider change that has affected not only the landscape of the city, but its social dynamics and the lives of people close to me, many of whom have been forced to move to the outskirts due to the established pattern of increased rents and land speculation following in gentrification’s wake.
Figure 3: Room with a view to how gentrification works: the destruction of a historically-significant chimney in Lisbon. These chimneys are supposed to be protected and preserved.
Rapid gentrification of this nature is not exclusive to Portugal. As an animator, I am interested in this allegedly generative (but mostly destructive) social and economic because of my background in architecture. Despite never graduating as an architect, issues of space – in terms of structure, composition, display, and experience – have clearly shaped my work and the way I look and produce animation and moving images. Over the course of my PhD, I researched what I called “animated space” and looked at examples of animation practice that goes beyond a traditional character-based approach. Eventually, I produced site-specific animation-based work that engaged with the wider community. Some of this work actually led specific communities to engage with their own history and the spaces they inhabit (Dream City 2015, São Paulo, Cidade Sonhada 2016, Sephardi Interpretation Centre installation, 2017).
Figure 4: Serrazina (2015), Tunis Dream City, double video/animation projection installation, questioning the sense of identity through the visual (re)construction of an imaginary path combining first person footage of city walks through the streets of the Medina (Tunis) and Alfama (Lisbon).
Figure 5: Serrazina (2017), Centre for interpretation of Sephardi culture, sand installation.
At the root of this interest, and much before all these projects, my first film, Tale about the Cat and the Moon (1995), was already strongly informed by a spatial mode of composition and thinking, an approach I addressed elsewhere. My background in architecture instilled a strong practice of drawing to observe and sketch the space that surrounds us (Serrazina 2016, n.p.). It is thus not a surprise that the first sequence I ever animated transposed this practice to the screen: a reflection of lived space, but also an intention to bring the spectators into its drawn (re)creation. Tale about the Cat and the Moon reflected a particular period of change in my life and, importantly for the context of this article, it was located in a very specific, real place.
The Importance of Place
Figure 6: Serrazina (1995), location sketches for Escadas dos Guindais (Porto, Portugal).
When I made my Cat and the Moon short film, I was living in one of the narrow streets of Porto, in Escadas dos Guindais. The animated drawn line and the animation process in itself were, in effect, the tools that connected three different layers of my experience at the time:
- my past in architecture studies,
- my future in animation,
- and a feeling for the place I lived in – a sense of home.
Poetics aside, and retrospectively, this film achieved yet another level, by capturing an experiential interpretation of a place that has since changed in economical and social terms.
Figure 7: Serrazina (1995), background for the Tale about the Cat and the Moon.
In 1995, this was how I drew Porto. In those days we could hardly see any cranes at all over the cityscape while, at the time of writing, there is no place to turn without finding some form of building construction. Changes in the landscape are obviously nothing new: city life is pure movement, and cities themselves continuously regenerate through the perpetual motion of change.
Early cinema and films as Ruttman’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927) or Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), are iconic in their representation of the city as a living entity and the connection between the moving image and city space(s) is as old as the cinematic projection itself: after all, the Lumières filmed one of their first films at the door of their own factory, forever linking living, working space, with the cinema. Arguably, most films do tend to reflect the time, place, and culture they were produced in, and in animation there are many similar examples. Famously, in their films from the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Fleischer Brothers represented the jazzy night life they enjoyed and frequented (Klein 1993, p. 59). In contrast, Disney’s films of the same era established another, altogether more traditional, view of the world, with character-based and family-centred narratives that carried strong moral values. The physical implementation of Disneyland in the “real” world would later provide a concrete embodiment of not only those characters’ environment but also a way of viewing the world: in a few decades, Disney developed from escapist screen-based entertainment to a solid alternative reality, where daily problems were meant to be forgotten.
These examples are all very well-known, as well as the understanding of the relationship between context and the work produced. In this article, however, my aim is not to dwell on this aspect of animation – what interests me is what I call the social potential of animation, and how it relates to the experience of using and understanding public space. I will contextualise what I mean by travelling back in time to prehistory.
Figure 8: Cave of Pettakere, Bantimurung district (kecamatan), South Sulawesi, Indonesia. The hand stencils are estimated between 35,000–40,000 BCE and (right) Cueva de las Manos , located in Perito Moreno, Argentina. The art in the cave dates between 13,000–9,000 BCE. Public domain.
A quick online search for “the beginnings of animation” takes us far beyond the first projected films and traces the birth of animation back to the cave paintings. The history of animation “started long before the development of cinematography. Humans have probably attempted to depict motion as far back as the Paleolithic period” (History of Animation, n.p.). Fascinatingly, researcher and pre-history specialist Dr. Azéma, has proposed that “our distant ancestors were already making films” (Azema “Auteur,” n.p.) and the juxtaposed cave painting poses of animals in Chauvet were in fact early animated movements (Azema “Animation,” n.p.) In these wall paintings and hand marks, the earliest manifestations of the intention to carve a mark for posterity and reinforce their presence in their habitat can be identified. This intention continues until today, with various degrees of artistry.
Figure 9 and 9a: Grafitti in the streets of Lisbon and by Banksy.
The use of public space to reflect the individual and even social struggles, is probably as ancient as humankind, and will not disappear. Coincidently, we can find similar gestures and intentions in the early animation pioneers’ work:
Figure 10: Cohl (1908), Fantasmagorie; McKay (1911), Little Nemo.
Early animators left their handprints on the films in much the same manner our ancestors left them on cave walls. The notion of leaving a personal mark, either on the surface of films, the city landscape, or in the walls that framed our early relatives’ lives, places the creators of those marks on a specific moment in history, time and space. As Nicolas Bourriaud notes, in his musing on art and its relation to time and its social context, “Art is not immutable, it it evolves with periods and social contexts. To understand it, we must understand the artists’ ‘situation’” (2009, p. 20). Similarly, I am interested in the connection between the object of art (perhaps animation, perhaps the gesture that leaves a mark) and its situation, its social context.
Figure 11: French artist JR’s Child over the Mexican wall. Photography by John Francis Peters.
As Figure 11 exemplifies, public space can be considered the ultimate canvas for the most essential and sometimes urgent forms of expression. In this sense, I can’t help but to trace a direct connection between these images with the many mural paintings of the 1974 revolution that brought democracy to Portugal after 48 years of dictatorship.
Figure 12: Post-revolutionary mural painting (circa 1975, Setúbal. from “As Paredes na Revolução”, 1978, Mil Dias.
Figure 13: Revolução (Ana Hatherly, 1975), a short film that combines images of mural paintings with political speeches recorded during the aftermath of the Portuguese revolution.
Revolução (1975; in English, Revolution) by Ana Hatherly (Porto, 1929-2015) brings us back to the animated image. Hatherly’s short film uses fast editing to abstract revolutionary mural paintings, reducing them to their bare essence as symbols and visual patterns, with an overlapping soundtrack of the speeches of assorted Portuguese political figures returning from exile to capture the vibrant and chaotic nature of an historical moment. Hatherly, a Portuguese artist and pioneer of concrete and visual poetry, studied animation in London in the early 1970s. She planned to go to Canada to learn with Norman McLaren, whom she greatly admired, but the revolution changed her plans: she stayed in Portugal instead, and produced a few short films and some experimental animation.
Revolução has an historical awareness, combining both public and social space with filmic space and animation as means of expression. This particular film is not “animated” in the traditional sense (ie., frame by frame), nor does it conform to the established forms of animation, but its editing style and use of imagery crosses over between experimental film, visual poetry, and animation. Hatherly’s editing process is comparable to animation: quick shots of parts of mural paintings, tightly framed, are reinvented to suggest a visual narrative; they create a fast rhythm that takes the viewer on a journey that replicates the feeling of an animated sequence, all the while echoing the revolutionary spirit taking over the streets at the time. In this sense, Revolução reflects a particular mode of looking and produces a striking multi-layered result: the public space and the shared walls that framed daily routine, become simultaneously canvas (of expression of the times), background (of people’s lives) and screen (of filmic representation).
Relating social issues, public space and animated imagery, the piece is filled with the “here and now” that was so relevant to Benjamin in his definition of the work of art:
In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art-its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence-and nothing else-that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject. […] The here and now of the original underlies the concept of its authenticity… (Benjamin 2008, p. 21)
Figure 14: Svankmajer (1965), Bach, Fantasia in B Minor and The Flat (1968).
In Svankmajer’s work, Bach, Fantasia in B Minor (1965) the walls are similarly treated as the main characters. Their surface and textures are animated and become a symbolic representation of an historical and political sense of entrapment. In another of the Czech master’s classic shorts, The Flat (1968), the main character scratches his name on the wall of the eponymous flat, therefore inscribing himself within a mark-making tradition dating back to prehistory. In films such as these, which are located in a specific historical context, the use of moving imagery, manipulated frame-by-frame, transcends notions of so-called traditional animation, and moreover, by creating movement and intangible spaces, it reflects and (re)creates the real world that surrounds us.
A clear product of its time, Revolução nevertheless follows the tradition of now classical works like McLaren’s Neighbours (1952), and Svankmajer’s work. These films reflect their socio-political and historical context, and – as shared with my own work – the depictions of the walls and the spaces provide a tactile connection and a sense of the invasion and destruction of the private space.
Figure 15: McLaren (1952), Neighbours, and Lisbon works in progress.
More recently, and in response to the theme of “art and social bonds” of Dream City 2015 (the Tunis Multidisciplinary Biennale of Contemporary Art in Public Space), I created a site-specific double projection installation. Combining hand-drawn animation extracts over video footage, I proposed a renewed look at the public spaces of the Medina, which is being abandoned and forgotten by the more affluent Tunisian population. This kind of approach, which engages animation with physical space and its social dynamics, can be contrasted with another contemporary use of animation that relates with and is also used in public spaces:
Figure 16: Stills from Lisbon Under Stars, Immersive Spectacle, by OCUBO. Carmo Convent ruins, Lisbon 2018.
Lisbon Under Stars, Immersive Spectacle (May-June 2018), took place in the old ruins of Convento do Carmo (Carmo convent) in Lisbon. Built in 1389, the convent was greatly damaged by Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake and the resulting city-wide fire. It was partially rebuilt until 1834, when it was officially decided that it would stay like that, open and incomplete and responding to the nineteenth-century Romantic taste for ruins – and it remains like this to the present day.
Using historical references as its starting point and combining striking visuals with the participation of urban artists, dancers and locally- (and some internationally-) known musicians and singers, “immersive” shows of this nature are designed to “wow” spectators with a sensorial hyper-stimulation wherein the “historical” becomes the footnote of the spectacle. Arguably, no one attends such a show for a proper lesson in historical accuracy, and there is nothing wrong with a great visual show: the issue resides elsewhere. As such, Lisbon Under Stars was described as “an immersive and multidisciplinary spectacle that aims to enhance the culture and heritage of Lisbon […]”, providing “[…] a new way of experiencing the city’s history.”
Site-specific shows in historical buildings have become increasingly more common. This particular use of animation, in conjunction with video-mapping, is crossing over into multiple practices and is becoming widely used by artists, advertisers and local councils alike.
While the use of video mapping can be quite interesting and exciting (for example in the works of Refik Anadol or Robert Seidel), the most common use of animation related to space is revealing – to use Bourriaud’s term – of its own “social context”: immersive shows of this nature have become public celebrations of a technological expression of decorative grandeur, wherein the artistic value of the animation is often secondary (to say the least). One cannot fail to sense a certain irony when seeing the latest digital technology used in such displays: triumphant shows recreating, in this case, a scenario of Portuguese world domination and glories past. Nevertheless, the “wow factor” of such displays, has a twofold interpretation that I find interesting and relevant to my interests:
- it reduces animation to a state of decorative art; and
- dresses up and disguises the destruction behind the standing walls.
Figure 17: Convento do Carmo
In this case, the destruction is quite literal, it is real, as the convent is already in ruins. It is also symbolic, in the way in which it echoes the goings-on around it, in terms of the gentrification of the city of Lisbon itself.
In this vein, I am reminded of Esther Leslie’s reading of Baudelaire’s “petrified unrest” applied to animation: animation renderings of the real are, Leslie says, “stuck in a form of life and world simulation, which can be read symptomatically – or critically – as an inability to move on socially, to sketch out new lives and worlds” (Leslie 2013, p. 90). In a single sentence, the much-propagated idea of animation as this lively art form that prides itself in giving life and creating joyful movement is symbolically undermined and questioned. Leslie’s quotes are relevant here, in terms of the use of animation in these so-called immersive shows, but they are also relevant in other contexts.
Recreating Space: Online Museums and Personal Memory
Questioning the use of animation and the so-called immersive shows can be similarly pointed in another interesting direction: most famous museums have recently begun to present projected displays of artefacts or places we cannot access in person, due to the decay of the materials or location. They also offer virtual online tours, which are promoted as effective and engaging solutions to solve real problems (of display or excess of visitors), these raise a different issue: if everything is available virtually, why visit at all? The physical experience of the perception of art, and its social element, in both historical sites or even the museums themselves, is lost in the digital realm (and that in itself is another interesting question, beyond the scope of this article).
In many of these cases, animation is used to recreate or reproduce the extinct or inaccessible and, while its use in educational contexts is undeniably powerful and valuable, these reconstructions of the past and what has been lost contrast widely with other approaches.
Figure 18: Panais Bouki (2017), Primeira Casa
In Primeira Casa / First Home (2017), the Greek/Brazilian architect Panais Bouki reconstructs his childhood home with the precision of digital realism. In one sense, the process is similar to the one used in the “immersive show” or the virtual museum tours, but Bouki does it via memory, introducing a vital element: a personal point of view and the history of spatial experience. All of these approaches to the construction of images border closely on the trap of a self-contented nostalgic view: happy to gaze into the past, instead of looking forward, they may represent the “petrified unrest” to which Leslie refers.
Although apparently similar in their recreation role, they are in fact very different: the “immersion” shows making full use of the latest digital tools, wowing the viewer into an experience that never goes beyond external contemplation, is a contemporary show for current times, full of spectacle and concentrated in the entertainment factor; the museum virtual tours detach us from the experience of seeing the works of art in their real scale, with real texture, pigment and colour (the original purpose of a museum altogether), yet they provide a cultural service for those who cannot visit in person.
With works like Bouki’s, there is a different double-construction at play: one that invests the maker with a renewed sense of belonging into which the viewer is invited; an evocative display that shies away from the spectacle, due to an intimate and detailed recreation of the mundane, and a non-intrusive point of view, to focus on personal experience and remembrance.
Other artists and projects address this area where animation is used in the boundaries between space, memory, and the re-creation of experience.
Figure 19: Rose Bond (2007) Intra Muros (courtesy of the author).
Canadian artist Rose Bond has developed an interesting body of work, making use of animation in public spaces to evoke the memory of buildings and their history, and combining them with a personal viewpoint. In Intra Muros (2007), Bond uses rear projections onto the windows of a building, simultaneously recalling personal experience, shadows of past lives and activating a voyeuristic view from the passers-by.
Appealing to a sense of memory and lived experience, projects like these are somehow the opposite of the virtual tours and the “immersive” video show used as an example, engaging with and proposing a new way of looking at space.
Figure 20: Pierre Hébert with Bob Ostertag (courtesy of the author).
Conceptually, we can relate installations such as Bond’s to the performances of Pierre Hébert with Bob Ostertag, in which live animation is simultaneously scratched directly on film and projected, reinforcing a sense of animation not as a laborious repetitive task (as is so often described), but as a live, spontaneous practice, engaging with the moment, in the “here and now.”
Congruent with Leslie’s critical view of animation, Hébert articulates his practice by saying, and I believe this to be the key that underpins this text, that he is more interested in “what animation does to the perception of reality […] More fascinated by the effects it produces than the worlds it creates” just by itself (Hébert in Wells, 2008, p. 74).
In the same manner that Bouki is invested in recovering his childhood home, or that I led Tunisians to rediscover their own streets, or Bond recalls the intimate, hidden life of buildings, Hébert reclaims the space of projection and the animation happening as a non-passive space, in which the moment of projection is simultaneously a moment of creation and presence.
Much like the hands in the walls of our ancestors, these approaches are invested in the recovery of an emotional mark and, importantly, a social dimension to the space we live and do animation in – a space that is alive and not a representation or a screen for something else.
Ultimately, as we witness the successive destruction and reconstruction of the city centres through gentrification, it is the space of the city that has become the ultimate animation entity: mutating faster than ever before around us, with an unstoppable motion no longer dictated by our routines, but by interests that threaten to leave us behind, background characters to the city’ real estate economic revolution. As Marc Augé refers in Non Places, we risk to become spectators of our own memories in the spaces we used to inhabit (Augé 2000, pp. 55-56).
Projects and films like those described, have in common an intention to rescue and preserve what architect Norberg-Schulz called the Genius Loci (1980), the spirit of the place, before it becomes even more difficult to identify.
What we are losing with gentrification is the content of buildings and their history, which is, of course, our own history: an history of spatial occupation that reflected various modes of living, in which social life was shaped in different, various ways. Current facades are no longer external representations of the life behind them, but simple screens for the celebration of the artificial and the simulation.
As I have discussed, I cannot offer a conclusion; this is my reflection on a current state of affairs and the potential of animation to bring to the fore what is hidden behind the surface, before history is erased by reconstruction, before surfaces are all that we are left with.
This is a revised version of a text presented at the Society for Animation Studies conference in June 2018, Montreal. With thanks to Natalie Woolf, Pierre Hébert and Rose Bond.
Pedro Serrazina is an award-winning director, senior lecturer, animation researcher and artistic director of Cinanima Festival. His first short, the “Tale about the Cat and the Moon”, was premiered at Cannes in 1996 and is still regularly screened in retrospectives. Serrazina’s work ranges from short films and site-specific installations to music videos and academic projects. He is interested in the interconnections between architecture, public space and animation, completed his MA at the Royal College of Art, London, and a practice-based PhD at Univ. Lusófona, Lisbon, where he teaches. His international work includes a United Nations commissioned project developed with the local community in Tunis, using animation to address the theme of local empowerment in Tunisia. A member of the Society for Animation Studies and co-organizer of Ecstatic Truth, annual symposium on animation and documentary practices, Serrazina is currently preparing his next film, What remains of us. In his spare time, he is an eager collector of records and graphic novels.
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© Pedro Serrazina
Edited by Amy Ratelle