ACTING DUMB & PLAYING DEAD Let Me Feel Your Finger First in conversation with Angela Kingston

Angela Kingston: Ontologically Anxious Organism is an episodic series of animation and comic strips. How did you settle on the rock as a ‘character’ – and eponymous ‘hero’?

Let Me Feel Your Finger First: The idea for the charactercame about partly because of seeing these comic rocks in European graphics novels like The Smurfs and Asterix. You see these boulders in the backgrounds and they’re so beautifully drawn.

AK: I just laughed when I saw those boulders because they were something I’d seen without noticing. To have them pointed out is just very funny.

LMFYFF: I think there’s something about the strange triangular form of the boulders. The OAO boulder character is also a progression from other characters, like Francis, like The Bastard in the Sandbox, he’s another character who exists somewhere in-between. You know, is he animate? Is he inanimate? Is he a vessel? And he was also influenced by what I was reading, R.D. Laing’s ideas about the petrified subject[1].

AK: So was it one of those coincidences, or serendipity? You’re reading a book and you jump up with recognition because you’re sort of handed something that you must act on?

LMFYFF: In terms of the way the characters are developed, it often seems to be the combination of a theoretical idea and a visual stimulus. Suddenly the two seem to meet in some way. For one of the first animations, Homo Zombies, I was interested in theories about zombies and re-animation. But the visual impetus for the work was the image of gay men congregating in parks at dawn and particularly those voyeurs who are remote, who stand a little way off and rather than participate physically, watch others having sex.

AK: I thought it was very funny to take the metaphor of a stone in the R. D. Laing, because he only touches on this briefly. To take his metaphor and just enjoy it. To magnify it to such an extent.

LMFYFF: There’s a chapter in The Divided Self where Laing talks about three forms of anxiety experienced by the ontologically insecure person. Engulfment, implosion and petrification. Being stone seemed like the perfect camouflage. Laing also spoke about the ontologically insecure individual constantly oscillating between two polarities, so on the one hand there’s complete isolation, and on the other, complete merging of identity. The boulder’s shift between comic backgrounds plays with that idea of not being pinned down, of being in-between.

AK: So you’re playing on it and also supporting it as an idea.

LMFYFF: In some sense it’s almost illustrating it.

AK: Or elaborating on it. I think the voice in the first episode is so interesting. It’s very carefully modulated, and I’m sure that’s been very conscious. On the one hand I think, ‘Oh right, this is crass psychiatric labelling, this is an aberration, this is absurd, and the animation is sending it up’, and on the other hand I think there’s a lot of recognition of those states. They’re not such unfamiliar states, are they?

LMFYFF: Absolutely.

AK: I love the way the boulder has the last word, in the thought bubbles. He thinks, ‘Reference, Reference, Reference’. I poured into that the idea that the boulder is answering back against the labelling, saying ‘can we have some academic footnotes here please? Can you please be more precise!?’ And it’s a rather glorious thing for a boulder to do. You know, to challenge authority, and on such an intellectual basis.

LMFYFF: The voice-over could certainly be putting thoughts into the character’s head. It says ‘Ontologically Anxious Organism thinks…’ etc. and then at the end, once the backgrounds and voice are gone, the boulder’s lost his reference, he’s just in this white void. And it’s interesting the way that you’ve read it as the voice-over being the psychiatrist or authority, because I think there is an element of that.

AK: So who do you think the voice belongs to?

LMFYFF: In the initial OAO cartoon strip, the voice belonged to the boulder. But in deciding to make the animation and use a voiceover that speaks in the third person – rather than thought bubbles that are in the first person – the voice is taken away from the character.

AK: Maybe this is a tangent but within film and literature you have the idea that you don’t have access to characters’ thoughts, and so contemporary novels are generally narrated in the first person. Because you can’t have Tolstoy-type access to everybody’s inner world. But within cartoons you do. You have thought bubbles, don’t you? In psychoanalysis, within the practice of counter-transference, and maybe also within psychiatry, there’s the idea that you do have access to other people’s thinking.

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AK: The Let Me Feel Your Finger First family of characters resemble stereotypes, or composites, with traits taken from characters in mainstream animations or fairy tales. A stereotype has a kind of preposterous coherence.

LMFYFF: Sander Gilman spoke of them being ‘crude mental representations of the world’[2]. I’m interested in stereotypes as projections of anxiety, in visual representations that expose contemporary attitudes and anxieties. One of the things I think the work is interested in is this idea of looking under the surface and teasing out intentions. It’s not a position against stereotyping. It’s a position against pathological stereotyping, certainly, but it’s more of an exploration of stereotyping. And stereotyping in relation to language. Language often seems to ‘paper over the cracks’, to create an illusion of coherence where there isn’t one, and it relies on associations as stereotypes do.

AK: Your interest in popular forms of animation is very unusual among artist-animators, and it seems to lead to all kinds of fascinating possibilities that the medium is loaded with.

LMFYFF: Yes, absolutely. I suppose as an artist working with animation you can decide either to reject conventional character animation and go somewhere else or you decide – although I don’t remember deciding – to go with it. I find the origins of character animation fascinating, especially the reasons characters came to be constructed in particular ways, or why backgrounds appeared in certain ways. Donald Crafton[3] talks about how the introduction of industrialised animation techniques led to the articulation of ‘a vocabulary of gestures’ in early animation. How characters’ gestures, the way they walked, their mannerisms, etc., were reused and the character or background drawings repeated across different animations. And this somehow created this integrated animated world.

AK: A kind of evolutionary life form that has a distinct DNA.

LMFYFF: Absolutely.

AK: What I’m struck by, though, when I watch your work, is a kind of rage. You know, the rage of someone who keeps their emotions buried but their blood vessels are about to explode. Do you know what I mean? With Francis, with all of them… I asked this psychiatrist friend of mine to watch the pieces and he went through masses of discomfort, he felt hugely accused. And I said ‘I don’t think you’re the kind of psychiatrist this might be directed at.’ Because, you know, I wouldn’t have shown it to him if I thought he was. So there’s this very calm, and attractive, and kind of la-la-la tempo through the films and yet I’m not alone in sensing that there is this Aaaargh!!!

LMFYFF: The work utilises the cute characters, the sweet backgrounds – and the intention is very much to draw the audience in visually, the way that mainstream animation does. But, contrary to mainstream animation, the work is intended to function as a provocation. The name Let Me Feel Your Finger First is a provocation. The characters put the audience in a position that isn’t a comfortable, passive position. Now why that is I’m not entirely sure, but it’s the intention.

AK: Are you aware in the decisions you’re making as an artist of cranking this up?

LMFYFF: Partly. There are points where you get interested in some specific thing and it becomes about running with it. Grabbing on to some idea, like a dog, and shaking it! Maybe that’s where the rage is.

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AK: What about the cooking pot?

LMFYFF: That is Post-Colonial Cannibal – an animate cooking pot. Once the liquid inside it starts to boil, characters emerge from the pot. And they’re like Frankenstein characters, reconfigured from past characters. There is a genre of 1930s and 1940s American cartoons where the white ‘hero’ character is marooned on a desert island, is caught by black cannibals and ends up in the cooking pot. These animations aren’t broadcast any more but memories of the imagery remain, of the iconic pot etc.

AK: I was a bit stunned. There’s almost this process where memories expand outwards and become distant and dispersed. But they’re not lost. Seeing this animation had the effect of drawing previous encounters with that type of cartoon back towards me. I was shocked to think that all this time I’ve been carrying those cartoons around in my memory. That’s a very interesting thing to do to people’s memories.

LMFYFF: The vestiges of highly questionable, racialised imagery are still visible. Mickey wears white gloves and the white gloves hail from this antiquated form of early American theatre, blackface minstrelsy.

AK: There’s a retrieval of stuff and then it’s mined.

LMFYFF: In the case of the ‘savage’ in the 30s and 40s cannibal cartoons, the designs are based on stereotypes of ‘savages’ and stereotypical images of African-Americans that were prevalent at the time and popularised by blackface minstrelsy. The images for me carry with them a real sense of being the creations of one group trying to denigrate and belittle another group. They exposed the animators’ and their society’s racial and colonial attitudes. I think that the representations communicate a real sense of fear of Otherness.

So my question is, considering that the animation medium has historically relied upon simplification in its representations (due partly to the economic constraints of animators needing to draw a certain amount per day), and that, historically, animation has been a medium designed to entertain and induce hilarity in its audience (and ridicule of the Other has been one of its strategies for doing this), is it possible for animators today to construct an Other character that is not in some way derogatory, especially with all this historical baggage?

AK: Couldn’t this type of animation be an ideal form in which to represent Otherness?

LMFYFF: Perhaps. And I think my original question is asking whether the representation of Otherness necessarily has to involve an element of ridicule or derision. Perhaps it would not be a representation of Otherness if it did not, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s asking that, if one specific group has been stereotyped as Other, then how does their representation get away from that? I think the work is seeking to problematise pathological stereotyping, but I recognise that on some level stereotypes are unavoidable, as is the impulse by one anxious group to make Other that which it feels threatened by. The work perhaps asks where this impulse appears within drawings, animation, visual culture, etc.

AK: I think that you crank up the objectification of black people in the persona of the ‘savage’ to such a degree that you are sending up the whole racist impulse at work in those historic mainstream animations. But it’s a risky strategy, which depends on who is watching. An unreconstructed racist would maybe feel supported in his/her world-view. However, it’s a risk that other artists are taking at the moment – Harold Offeh, for example, with his Being Mammy video – and at the very least, it seems worth a try. 

LMFYFF: I think you’re right that the work is cranking up the objectification in order to expose it, and hopefully the inclusion of the references and the way that the imagery is reconfigured will indicate to the viewer that it is an attempt to comment on an aspect of animation history.

AK: Feminists have suggested paradox and perversity as forms of resistance against being objectified as Other (finding Betty Boop hilarious, for example, as I personally do). There’s the whole queer subject position, too, in terms of gay politics. Your strategy with the ‘savage’ seems to fit that kind of approach?

LMFYFF: I think so.

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AK: I’m reading a book by a psychoanalyst called Valerie Sinason[4], in which she’s mulling over the idea of deliberate stupidity. You might find it in someone with a cognitive impairment, say, who might deliberately play to an expectation, deliberately opt out of some potential. And equally, an analyst working with someone with a disability might act dumb to avoid their own unease in that situation. In the end, it’s all about avoiding pain. It just seemed to chime with a lot of mainstream cartoons. You’ve got this daaa-daaa-daaa kind of rhythm that maybe represents a kind of deliberate stupidity. In Peanuts it’s always sunny, there’s always this sense that everything’s lovely, and yet the most harrowing things are taking place, like terrible bullying and punishing self-doubt. And you seem, in a very interesting way, to be magnifying that quality, certainly in the OAO piece. Everything is lovely but what is being described is something distressing.

LMFYFF: The idea of an interdependent ‘dumbing-down’ is really interesting. And the way in which it translates visually. The backgrounds seem to me like supporting characters – they’re neglected and they’re not drawn as well, they’re deliberately a bit dumber.

AK: It seems to be one of the roles of the artist to draw attention to the ordinarily overlooked – and that happens in a very enjoyable way in your work.

LMFYFF: I like investing everyday, neglected objects with some new significance. That’s happening with OAO, and previously with The Bastard in the Sandbox. We see these yellow sandboxes out on the streets constantly, but they’re on the periphery of our consciousness. So to take something like that and put this creature inside the box – it’s just a playful thing to do I suppose.

AK: I’ll now forever have a heightened consciousness of the boulders in cartoons, and of yellow sandboxes on the street, and this is like being delivered a gift by you as an artist. I don’t mean to make a pun, but your work animates. Art like yours rescues us from our dulled, over-stimulated, over-crammed experience.

Angela Kingston curates exhibitions for public galleries and commissions art for hospitals. She writes about contemporary art for books, catalogues, magazines and websites. She is interested in fantasy literature, the natural sciences, sociology, anthropology and the sub-conscious.

This interview was commissioned by Animate Projects.

[1] In a chapter called ‘Ontological Insecurity’ in The Divided Self (1960), p.46, R.D. Laing writes about ‘the possibility of turning, or being turned, from a live person into a dead thing, into a stone, a robot, an automaton, without personal autonomy of action, an it without subjectivity.’

[2] Difference and Pathology Sander L. Gilman, 1985, Cornell University Press, p.17

[3] Before Mickey, Donald Crafton, 1982, MIT Press, p.272

[4] Mental Handicap and the Human Condition, New Approaches from the Tavistock, 1992, see especially chapter 1, ‘The sense in “stupidity”’