Steve Fore – Waliczky in Wonderland

The Adventures of Tom Tomiczky in the Realm of Machinic Vision and Bodily Engagement

Over the course of a distinguished career in experimental animation and digital art installations, Hungarian artist and animator Tamas Waliczky has earned an international reputation for creating works that simultaneously are cognitively challenging, affectively intimate, and artfully playful. Cumulatively, his artistic project is concerned in part with exploring the parameters of what John Johnston (1999, p. 46) has called “machinic vision,” a mode of seeing and perception characterized by “a distributed system of sentience, memory, and communication based on the calculation (and transformation) of information.”  Johnston’s construction is an extension of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the machinic, through which they attempt to develop an understanding of the complex and dynamic network of relationships between bodies and machines (which for Deleuze and Guattari encompass social systems as well as toasters), in which the organic and inorganic are not distinct entities but parts of an assemblage that is constantly moving between states of equilibrium and change.  Johnston, whose primary interests are in areas of cybernetics and artificial life, notes that Deleuze and Guattari did not specifically apply the concept of the machinic to the processes of vision, but he finds their articulation of processes of “deterritorialization” and “reterritorialization” applicable to the inherently mediated nature of seeing.  That is, we live today in a world that is visually mediated not just by images and image-generating devices, but by images that are less and less purely the result of human intention and intervention, and devices that are no longer indexically aligned with the representation of a material world. This is the world, more specifically, of computerized vision, sensation, and perception, a world in which concepts of “virtual” and “augmented” reality have become familiar not only in our everyday vocabulary, but also in our everyday activities.

Waliczky, however, is not articulating a conventionally posthumanist argument in which human agency and the physical self are progressively displaced by automated vision machines.  All of his projects are constructions of computer-generated imagery (sometimes also incorporating digitally modified photographs and filmed scenes), but while Waliczky is interested in exploring the expressive capabilities of digital tools as such, he ultimately grounds his works in a philosophical and physical consideration of the materiality of human existence.  Specifically, his art requires, in addition to a visual encounter, a bodily engagement with perspectival universes deliberately configured to contradict our normal understandings of space and time. Media theorist Mark B.N. Hansen includes Waliczky among a group of new media artists for whom “the historical achievement of so-called ‘vision machines’ comprises nothing if not a felicitous pretext for an alternative investment in the bodily underpinnings of human vision” (2001, p. 61). That is, Waliczky’s work expresses ideas about the shape of “post-visual” experience from a vantage point that is neither technophobic nor technologically determinist, but on the contrary is fascinated by the opportunities created by digital machines to enhance human potential and achievement.  His imagined worlds, though, are not expressed on the grand, operatic scale of something like Kubrick’s 2001; rather, Waliczky’s typical subject matter is a small slice of mundanely quotidian existence, which he translates into a playfully surreal sensory experience.  For instance, his 1994 work The Way portrays nothing more than a man jogging through a picturesque European village, but Waliczky transforms this scene, and the viewer’s experience of it, by inverting linear perspective such that the figure “runs toward an endlessly widening horizon, while the houses defining the vanishing point converge and disappear in front of the viewer—they collapse right before the eye, dragging the gaze into their fall” (Duguet 1996, n.p.). 

This transformation of the apparatuses of perception may seem like a radical break with past practices, and to a degree it is; but it is also the most recent marker of a historical process that began with the rediscovery of the principles of linear perspective that drove the engine of the Italian Renaissance. Perspective gave artists and scientists an unprecedented tool for both expanding and disciplining human understandings of the physical world, precisely because the mathematical foundations of perspective made it possible to create images of that world with a startling new fidelity. As Lev Manovich has noted (1997, p. 5), accompanying this desire to create realistic illusions was a desire to automate the process, in part because working with pencils, paints, woodcuts, and other imaging tools was difficult and specialized work. The first revolution in this area came with the invention of photography, which automated the process of creating “perspectival representations of real objects,” and not incidentally also significantly broadened access to the tools of representation. Then came the computer:

By automating perspectival imaging, digital computers completed the process which began in the Renaissance. This automation became possible because perspectival drawing has always been a step-by-step procedure, an algorithm involving a series of steps required to project coordinates of points in 3-D space onto a plane. Before computers the steps of the algorithm were executed by human draftsmen and artists. With a computer, these steps can be executed automatically and, therefore, much more efficiently.  (Manovich 1997, p. 6)

This is the world that Tamas Waliczky engages in his work. His creative tool of choice is the computer, and his preferred medium of expression is animation (or, more precisely, what might be described as “expanded animation,” in that Waliczky explores multiple configurations of digital imagery). The subject of his projects is in one sense the dynamics of the digital interface, how the computer “sees,” as well as how the technology’s default capabilities can be modified and manipulated to produce forms of vision that are distinctly different from the normal visual perception of human beings, and representations that generate alternatives to linear perspective. These alternative vision systems, including the “waterdrop” perspective of The Garden (1992) and the intense, eerie, infinitely expansive domain of The Forest (1994), are on the one hand literally otherworldly, as they can only be constructed through an algorithmic interface—the intricately interlaced perpetual tracking shot of The Forest and the constantly shifting visual perspective of The Garden simply could not be drawn by hand.  But these images are simultaneously vibrant and alive and very human in their inspiration and sensibility. This emotional resonance comes in part from the forthrightly autobiographical nature of Waliczky’s work; when human figures are represented, they are most often images of himself, his wife, and/or his daughter (in a sense, he makes what have been described as home movies from the future: The Garden’s full title includes the phrase 21st Century Amateur Film). But the presence of familiar people, places, and activities in these perceptually and spatially disruptive animated worlds has another effect: to make clear that what is portrayed is not the product of an apparently autonomous “vision machine”—some kind of artistically-inclined surveillance camera—but a projection of human imagining and desire constructed through, and in conscious cooperation with, the computer interface (e.g., again, something we do every day).

Waliczky’s 2011 animation The Adventures of Tom Tomiczky is superficially easier, in that it is more immediately approachable and apprehensible than are many of his previous projects. Most of his works have been exhibited in gallery spaces, where individual visitors stand in front of moving images projected on a screen (sometimes large, sometimes small) and engage with the art as a kind of aesthetic puzzle to be deciphered, as well as a beautiful thing to be contemplated. For the visitor, the art gallery or museum experience is normally one of wandering, purposefully or aimlessly, among an array of works, stopping to examine those images, sounds or shapes that capture one’s cognitive or emotional attention. It is not normally an experience that, unlike traditional cinema-going, involves sitting and attending to a work for a substantial length of time. Consequently, many of Waliczky’s animations are structured as loops, or as infinitely recursive spaces. He circumvents a narrative that the spectator will have to follow for a substantial temporal duration in order to make sense of the work; rather, he provides the viewer with vectors of engagement within a spatially and temporally infinite world that is represented through a deliberately pared down set of visual images (The Forest, for example, is nothing but: bare, black trees with only a hint of texture and shadow against a white background).

Tom Tomiczky, on the other hand, does encourage a more conventionally cinematic form of engagement.  With a sequential, incremental structure and running time of more than forty minutes, Waliczky invites us to have a seat for these adventures, which are presented as a non-linear but successive, accumulative, and thematically coherent series of thirty-seven situational vignettes, each introduced with an individual title card (e.g., “Tomiczky goes to work,” “A small, local atomic explosion,” “The first snow in Karlsruhe,” etc.). These are not precisely mini-narratives, but more like visualizations of memories, ideas, and feelings gathered over the course of a lifetime. Our guide through this externalized interior world is named Tom Tomiczky, an almost-homonym for the artist, informing us that the ambling, bearded man wearing a black jacket, black trousers, and a red baseball cap and who is on screen in all but five scenes (and the others are implicit or explicit point-of-view shots from Tomiczky/Waliczky’s perspective) is a computer-animated avatar of the filmmaker. As we watch the film, the incremental accumulation of mostly small-scale events makes it clear that Tom Tomiczky is a kind of autobiography or memoir, although in practice this is a highly unconventional example of those literary genres, in that there is distinct absence of a linear time frame or a dramatic narrative. Instead, these are fragments of a life, related through the language of visual images. Most of these fragments show Tomiczky at home (in Budapest, Karlsruhe, or Japan) or traveling (by foot, bicycle, automobile, train, or airplane) through or to one of these places. While Tomiczky is the central character here, Waliczky’s wife and daughter are also featured prominently, plus a number of close friends taking on a variety of roles (and at one point, Tomiczky encounters himself in a rain-soaked plaza, where additional Tomiczky clones are created in shimmering puddles).

The visual appearance of Tomiczky and the other characters introduced over the course of the film is fundamentally representational and illusionistic, as are the physical spaces in which the scenes are set. The bodies of the characters are substantially mimetic—they follow the laws of physics (although their movements through space occasionally do not), rather than being subjected to the “squash-and-stretch” plasticity typical of much character animation.  If the world of Tom Tomiczky begins with a “reality effect,” however, that effect is immediately modified through a graphic style that emphasizes clean, straight lines; a complete absence of texture for facial features, objects, buildings and landscapes; a painterly, sometimes exaggerated use of horizon lines to suggest three-dimensional space, rather than the volumetric style characteristic of much commercial computer animation; non-naturalistic color; full color saturation of figures, structures, and objects, along with a selective and at times expressionistic use of shadow and reflections; and a different color scheme for each scene, unified by drawing in each instance on a restricted palette.[1]  The cumulative appearance of these stylistic choices is a visual world that, while preserving a realistic echo of the figures, objects and spaces is obviously artificial. There is a passing resemblance to the graphic style of Rick Linklater’s Waking Life (2001). That film, created with Bob Sabiston’s Rotoshop software, which allows animators to create an animated scene by “tracing” over a template of live-action video footage, favors a style that is more strongly illusionistic while encouraging a series of participating artists to improvise with vivid morphing effects such that there are “authorial” variations of the visual style from one scene to the next.  The visual style of Tom Tomiczky, though, is more unified, clearly the work of a single artist.

The visual connection to Waking Life brings us to another distinctive aspect of the visual world of Tom Tomiczky: the movement of human bodies within and through animated space. Waliczky uses a combination of motion capture and keyframe techniques to portray the movement of individual characters in each scene, lending a sense of naturalism and animism to that movement. Computerized motion capture systems are, of course, descendants of the rotoscope device developed in the U.S. by Max and Dave Fleischer in 1915. Both technologies  are used as a means to combine animation techniques with those of live-action filmmaking, particularly when animating human (or human-like) characters. When rotoscoping or motion capture is used as a character-creation tool in animation, the intention is to bring a “ghost” of the human model, as initially captured on live action film or video, into the world of an animation, which otherwise has no ontological connection with material reality. As Joanna Bouldin argues, rotoscoping

facilitates an indexical transference of reality and materiality from an original body into its filmic copy, and then again into its animated incarnation…. [T]he rotoscoped image draws its power from its contagious contact with an original. Through this “material connection” the rotoscoped animated body is able to conjure the uncanny, supplemental presence of an absent body, the body of the original.  (Bouldin 2004, p. 13)

Bouldin also notes (2004, p. 13) that motion capture similarly “implies this kind of relationship between animated and real bodies[…..] It is ‘captured performance’—the term ‘capture’ imparting a sense of a body detained, a human motion snatched from one realm and secreted off into another….” In The Adventures of Tom Tomiczky, the bodies, both animated and human referents, are significant in no small part because this is a silent film, in the classical sense—there is no synchronized dialogue, and there are no diegetic sound effects. The animation’s soundtrack is composed of a series of free jazz improvisations created by the German musicians UFO: Unidentified Flying Orchestra (Katrin Scherer and Sven Decker), and the discontinuous, at times atonal ebb and flow of the music complements (and at times challenges) the visual images quite evocatively. The absence of a conventional cinematic soundscape, however, means that the primary task of creating meaning must be carried by the visual images. Here, the performance of the animation’s eponymous hero is the primary on-screen focus and main source of kinetic propulsion. On the one hand, Tomiczky maintains a bland, expressionless facial expression—Buster Keaton’s stone face is a clear reference point—throughout his adventures, and Waliczky uses almost no close-ups of Tomiczky or any other characters. On the other hand, Tomiczky’s mimetic, motion-captured body, which suggests Bouldin’s “body of the original” through the character’s idiosyncratic gait and gestures, moves expressively through, and responds to, a series of animated environments that sometimes obey the laws of physics and sometimes do not. In the first post-credits scene, for instance, the narrative action consists of nothing more than Tomiczky leaving his apartment, walking down several flights of stairs, and exiting the building. But as he descends, Tomiczky suddenly starts hopping and dancing up and down the steps like a demented Fred Astaire, asserting his physical presence within this space (and encouraging the viewer to linger on the lovely filigreed wrought iron on the Art Nouveau staircase). In the following vignette, a bridge appears to respond to Tomiczky’s psychic communication, and undulates like a snake. In a later scene, one of a few that plays like a dream fragment, Tomiczky visits Waliczky’s The Forest as he walks a tightrope between the upper branches of mysteriously interconnected trees.

The reference to dreaming is no coincidence, as the point of view throughout the film may be described as a kind of bemused surrealism—the world Tomiczky encounters is alternately beautiful, frustrating, startling, or mysterious, and while it sometimes confounds him, he nonetheless finds his way from one adventure to the next with an endless reserve of wonder. Another thematic and kinesthetic reference point in some scenes is Jacques Tati’s M. Hulot, especially in Play Time (1967), Tati’s most elaborate meditation on modernity, architecture and technology. Tati’s performances as Hulot relied on body language in a cinematic world in which the spoken word was all but absent, and in this world Hulot recurrently and humorously defamiliarized the mundane material objects, spaces and behavioral routines of contemporary urban life. Similarly, Tomiczky has comic encounters with a train restroom, finds himself trapped without a keycard between a pair of automatically locking doors, and is defeated by an artificially intelligent bathtub. That is, these inorganic things seem to take on a malevolent agency intent on depriving Tomiczky, at least temporarily, of his last shred of dignity.

There is some irony in this mild expression of technophobia, given Tamas Waliczky’s evident fascination and effortless fluency with the human-computer interface.  Writing about an earlier Waliczky project, Manovich sees it as a commentary on the isotropic nature of computer space, which is not inherently tied to any particular perspectival system.  However, he continues, “computer space is also the space of a human dweller, something used and traversed by a user, who brings her own anthropological framework of horizontality and verticality along with her” (Manovich 2001, p. 262).  The computer is both a tool through which Waliczky articulates a perspective on the world around him and a mechanism for exploring an ongoing series of intellectual problems involving the status of human visual and bodily engagement in that very world, which is characterized increasingly by the technologies of machinic vision. More precisely, as Mark Hansen puts it (2001, p. 61), Waliczky’s is a type of media art that constitutes an investigation of humanity’s collective contemporary encounter with “doubled” perception, one of which consists of “a machinic form, mere sight,” while the other takes “a human form tied to embodiment and the singular form of affection correlated with it, vision proper.” In The Adventures of Tom Tomiczky, Waliczky addresses this theme less aggressively than in some of his earlier works, but it is still evident, and is linked here with an implicitly expressed meditation on the role of the virtual camera in computer animation. In several of the film’s vignettes, in addition to relating a Tomiczky adventure, Waliczky subtly calls attention to his own artistic techniques. For example, one mini-narrative focuses on a squirrel that runs up the wall of Tomiczky’s apartment building, where it discovers a nut left by Tomiczky and his daughter on the window ledge. The squirrel snatches the nut, runs back down the building, through a fence, across the yard outside, and up a tree, where it eats the nut, washes its face, and then scampers down the tree and disappears across the yard. The “camera,” meanwhile, continues to track right, close to the ground, coming to a halt on the edge of a road, where the focus shifts to an aluminum can in the roadway, which has a couple of near-misses before being flattened by an oncoming car. This entire event is “photographed” from a perspective that closely follows the squirrel’s moves—when the squirrel goes up the wall and up the tree, the “camera” follows the action, all in a single-take tracking shot. All of this seems very ordinary; our naturalized understanding of cinematic grammar encompasses the convention that the viewer generally is situated in the most visually optimal location in relation to the filmed scene. The problem with this particular shot, though, is that it could not be filmed in the real world—no existing camera technology could move as nimbly and smoothly in real time as the virtual camera does here. And yet the scene appears entirely “natural” because we have internalized both the conventions of the cinema’s ordinarily linear perspectival system and the conventions of machinic vision.[2]

In The Adventures of Tom Tomiczky, then, the protagonist’s body is our primary point of entry into Tamas Waliczky’s unthreatening (except, perhaps, for an occasional “small, local atomic explosion”) but perceptually skewed world, as well as the site of affective engagement with the perceptual disorientations his character experiences. Despite (or because of) his occasional pratfalls, though, Tomiczky is an adept and genial guide through this domain. He is, despite his digital origins, quite literally an everyman in this context, in that he helps us to comfortably bridge the perceptual gap between the machinic and the human. Waliczky’s clear-eyed examinations of the evolving dynamics of this relationship are enormously valuable, and, in Tom Tomiczky, have found an especially droll, visually eloquent expression.

This paper was presented at Society for Animation Studies Conference 2013 (Los Angeles, June 2013).

Steve Fore is an Associate Professor at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong.

Notes


[1] Waliczky has said that his use of color in The Adventures of Tom Tomiczky was influenced by the woodcuts of the Japanese artist Hiroshige Utagawa (1797-1858). I would suggest that there’s another connection here as well, by way of Hiroshige’s numerous series of travel prints (e.g., The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido, 1833-1834), which, like Waliczky’s animation, are structured as a series of visual anecdotes.

[2] These systems are regularly blended these days; there are many examples of “impossible” cinematography in “live-action” digital filmmaking, which itself has been famously described by Lev Manovich as “a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements.” (2001, p. 302)

 

References

Bouldin, J., 2004. “Cadaver of the Real: Animation, Rotoscoping and the Politics of the Body.” Animation Journal, 12, pp. 7-31.

Duguet, A.-M., 1996.  “Tamas Waliczky.” In Trilogy: Tamas Waliczky. Tokyo: NTT/ICC Gallery, n.p.

Hansen, M.B.N., 2001. “Seeing with the Body: The Digital Image in Postphotography.” Diacritics, 31(4) , pp. 54-84.

Johnston, J., 1999. “Machinic Vision.” Critical Inquiry, 26 (Autumn 1999), pp. 27-48.

Manovich, L., 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Manovich, L., 1997. “Automation of Sight from Photography to Computer Vision.” Available at http://www.manovich.net/articles.html [Accessed 15 Jan., 2014]

© Steve Fore

Edited by Amy Ratelle

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