Editor's Note: This interview is the first in a series called TELEPHONE. (One artist chooses another artist to interview; that artist then chooses another artist to interview and so on. The last artist in the chain will interview the first. There will be 12 interviews in total, taking place once a month over one year.)
Dan Starling: To start with something more general: you studied animation at Emily Carr and it is obviously a big aspect of your work. What was your ambition to use animation in the first place? Has that always been your idea or did you arrive at that at some point?
Barry Doupé: Animation has always been central. I was making animation even before Emily Carr. I was doing a lot on my own in high school. I started out making flip books on yellow post-it notepads of people killing each other. But then after that I started making more complicated things like water dropping, or more intelligent stuff. I think that something about the combination of drawing and the idea of there being a scenario and then sound, it was the three things that I really liked combined together. And then it was also that you could be impressionistic in a way that films or videos aren’t impressionistic. It’s more impressionistic. At Emily Carr each program gave little talks, and I remember Martin Rose giving a talk about the animation program and just the way he described it, it turned me on. It seemed like one of the more challenging things.
That sounds like you were pretty direct, that you had an idea of what you wanted to do. But, with a program like animation at Emily Carr, I guess there are various things you can do coming out of that program, but you seem to have become an artist pretty quickly. You didn’t try to get a job working for Disney or something like that. So at the same time as you were interested in animation you also knew that you wanted to use it for artistic reasons.
Definitely. I’ve never worked in an animation studio and I’ve never really thought about it. I do have certain technical skills where I could get a good job and not work in a kitchen, but I don’t want to spoil myself in a way. The type of work that is being made in those studios, even if I tried to distance myself from it, it would influence me. I’m not attracted to it so I don't want it to influence what I’m doing. I’d rather do something totally different.
Let’s start with your newest work and go backwards. So, with Dots (2016) that you showed on the façade of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I was thinking of the movement in your work towards abstraction. Dots is totally abstract. Is abstraction becoming more foregrounded in your work?
Not necessarily. It's not the thing that tickles me in a special way. Still it’s the feature films. The two that I’ve done plus the one that I’m working on now are what I think of as me, my main thing. But, say there is something that comes up where there are these certain parameters where I feel that an abstract piece is best suited for that. I mean, I love that stuff too, but it is harder to become emotionally involved in it and that is what I like. I like to be sucked into something like a longer form narrative. For the front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I wanted it to be more abstract. Especially with the curvature of the architecture, you can’t really do anything narrative there because it just wouldn’t be appropriate. There are people walking by and they are not there to stop. They are there to go from this point to this point. There are certain things that you should do there and there are certain things that I don’t think would work.
I’m interested in the relationship between film and art, because you have chosen strongly to be an artist, and some work is more appropriate for certain spaces than others. So how do you approach an art gallery exhibition?
A gallery is kind of a neutral space. Depending on the space, I have shown the feature films in galleries before and I’ve shown drawings in galleries. I’ve shown different things. I like the neutral space of the gallery but if you are comparing it to the theatre… it depends on the work. It depends on the context.
Your film in a gallery space versus the film in a theatre, do you feel like there is a difference? Do you feel like one is more suited to seeing the work or they’re just different contexts?
I do think that the feature films work better in a theatre, but I have shown excerpts from them in a gallery, and that works too because if you have a five-minute excerpt of something, people’s attention spans are geared for that, and if you have the right excerpt it can still be good. But I don’t necessarily think that the full-length thing in a gallery works that well. But it depends on the person looking at it.
So when you have shown your work, do you find that it depends on the person, the audience who would see the work in the theatre versus in the gallery? Do you see a difference?
Well for me, because the people that usually come to my film screenings are usually artsy people and the people that aren't artsy people usually leave after 20 minutes, it’s probably a similar crowd. However, when you go to the theatre, you are mentally clocked in to committing to the time. Where I think most people that go to galleries, depending on the event and on how much you know about the show before you are going, I think their time commitment is typically shorter.
You chose the designation in your feature length film of director and so I’m curious, since you are making the whole thing, is the label because of the convention of cinema?
Yes. But also, in a way, I make these characters, and once you have made them they start to become their own thing too. And they start to tell you, “I’m able to do this role or I’m not able to do this role.” Or I make an environment and the environment talks back to you. So I still feel like I’m in dialogue with these things. I feel like I’m guiding what is going on instead of it being completely under my control.
So the creation takes on a kind of personality or a role of its own and then you can direct them.
Sometimes I will have something in mind and I think this is what I’m going to do and then I do it and it turns out awkward and I think it’s because that architecture doesn’t allow for that thing to happen that way, so I have to forget about it and then really listen to what can happen there.
That’s really interesting. So is that part of the process of creating your work? To invent certain characters and then to try to put them into a situation? It’s a more organic way to compose? The work doesn’t have the whole script written from beginning to end and it is composed more organically?
I will have areas where I have a general idea. In script, it might say: “improvise this area.” But I don’t really like trying to figure it out too much before it is ready to be figured out. Because then it isn’t really exciting to work on either. If you are going to be working on it for so long and if you are trying to figure it all out beforehand, it seems redundant to make it. But I appreciate when certain filmmakers do have that, because if I were able to do that, it’s just not natural to me, but if I were able to do that I could maybe make more complicated films because I could see it all beforehand and work in drafts in a way and then I could think, okay, at this point in time this thing happens. But for me it’s all intuitive, maybe the result would be more conventional.
Because you are doing everything, you have the freedom to compose it on the fly, compose it as you progress through it. That is a great freedom. Because if you have to work with a bunch of other people on a film you have to convince them or get them on board with what you are doing. They need to have a script. So that is the beauty of doing it all is the ability to develop the work in a more intuitive way.
Also, with the 3D, you can go back and re-do certain things really easily. With hand-drawn animation, once it’s drawn it’s set. I can't change my mind.
Maybe that leads into the actual imagery itself, you choose to abstract the body in a certain way. There is an inherent abstraction in the program that you are using itself but then you also choose to use the… what I’m trying to get at is your drawing style, it feels like there is some nuance to the style itself. Like it is not quite fully rendered, in the same way in which other 3D films try to get closer to photographic realism. So the question is, what’s your design in having the drawing have a particular level of abstraction from what we would call photographic or film realism?
There is a certain line where the character is there, no matter how it’s drawn. Like if you draw a circle with two dots on it we think of a face with two eyes. Then you can have circles around those two dots and all the sudden the eyes can move and then you can have eyebrows… eyebrows are huge for expression… and different levels of expression are what we are connecting with. How much detail you need for that expression to come through in a character is really important. But at a certain level with computer animation when it becomes too real we start losing the connection again. So there is this zone that I find where I can look into the computer at the character’s face and I can see the character there and it’s its own thing. And there is a certain level of abstract quality to that. But it is important to have in all this digital stuff some resonance or some connection. When it’s hyper-real you lose that. When I watch Pixar, I feel like I can see the animators working in a tradition and the characters moving in a tradition than moving themselves. There are certain ways of animating too, like follow through motion and timed blinking, maybe it’s just because I went to animation school I can see how it’s there and I see how it’s not letting the character be itself. So there is a weird alchemy. A mix of things that need to happen for that character to come alive.
I’m interested in the level of abstraction that you use as a style and how you see that relate to what else is out there? There is a push out there to make 3D animation look more and more realistic, but there is always the spectre of virtual reality on the horizon. Are you interested in that and what is the relationship of what you are doing to that?
We can become kind of attuned to certain things. I remember in grade six there was this video that came out called Beyond the Mind’s Eye and it was this 3D demo reel of stuff happening, like a dragonfly flying through the woods or some imagery, and I remember my grade six teacher before he put it on he said, “you guys are not going to believe this but this is not real footage, this is 3D computer animation.” And I remember watching it and thinking, “no, I don’t believe him, it’s a real dragonfly.” And you can watch it now on youtube and it looks so fake. But as the years go by and we become more advanced we become attuned to it in a new way. I don’t think my reaction was a result of being young. My teacher was probably 50 and he thought that it looked pretty real. But now a 50-year-old watching that same video would watch it and say that it looks fake. The idea is the thing. If the idea is expressed through whatever level of abstraction, and comes through it doesn’t matter how connected the representation is to reality. Sometimes I wonder if more dimensions give you less feeling. Let’s say you have a video game where the controller shakes when you hit the wall. Does that make it feel more real? Or does it just make it feel different? Does it actually make me feel like I’m in the environment when the controller vibrates? Not really. It actually brings me out of the psychological space that the game is trying to make because all of the sudden I’m brought back into the real world. I think virtual reality could be more immersive and even more psychologically immersive than physically immersive because it is all around you and I think it could possibly be really great. I would probably be really into it when it comes around.
So you have an interest in other computer animations and in finding out what current technology can do?
A lot of artists who I see using 3D stuff seem overwhelmed by the technical aspects of it and they either don’t care or they are a little sloppy. I wish that they were a little less sloppy. Or that they spent more time figuring it out and making it more convincing. Because I see a lot of stuff online where they have used Poser and it’s all presets and it’s really quickly made. There could be a really cool idea there, but they weren't able to fully make that connection and make it come alive.
So in general what do you think of this technological drive, or of our society’s drive towards being online and creating imagery online? Where do you see these developments heading? Is it just to better distract people or do you find that there are profound artistic possibilities there that haven’t been realized? Is everyone going to become an artist online? I’m curious what do you think of our cultures fascination with consuming digital images?
It’s hard for me to answer. I like the duration of things and people willing to spend time with things. For example, I watched Chantal Akerman’s film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) a few months ago and it's composed of these really long takes of a woman going about her daily chores and going about her life. Just the way it was shot and everything, the setting and everything, it was a profound film experience. I don’t find I have profound film experiences when I’m sitting at my computer. I have different experiences. It’s fragmented online. There are certain things that I think online is really good at. I like podcasts online. I really like still images. Certain durational things don’t work well online.
Maybe that is connected to the idea that you have some kind of pre-conceived idea of how long something is. When you go to a movie, you kind of sign up for that experience. Whereas maybe when you are on your computer you haven’t signed up for that. You want to sift through a few things kind of quickly. What do you think future generations will think of the work you’re making now?
Even before, people said that my work looked older than it actually is. With Ponytail (2008), because I was experimenting with a number of different graphics cards, it has this kind of degenerating look to it that people associate with older technology. Even though it was made with the technology of that year. It is more like there are certain visual things that you can have happen in a certain era. I don’t necessarily identify with a certain time period myself, if things look kind of rough. But I think someone 20 years from now will think… Like when I watch movies that were made in the ‘70s I’m usually blown away by the creative impetus in them and the freedom and the colour. Probably the older they get, the more my films will be an anomaly. They will probably be exotic because in 20 years films won’t exist in the format that we watch them in today.
So in relation to your film The Colours that Combine to Make White are Important (2012), it feels like there is a narrative that has to do with the movement from representation to abstraction, or at least, there is this point where the film becomes more abstract. In the beginning it is more representational in terms of plot. I’m interested in how much you refer to the past in terms of art history? Is it something that you are interested in?
I think about how I was watching a lot of films at that time and how the devices of cinema are used. How certain things that are not done that often could be used and how to make use of them in my own way. I’m learning from other films how to create something.
In terms of that simple art historical narrative of art becoming more abstract in the twentieth century, is that something that you were thinking of at all?
The abstraction in The Colours that Combine to Make White are Important is more about the character Leena’s own dive into the world of the painting and then her own self-discovery. So it’s more applicable to her than me consciously trying to draw a parallel to art history. But it seems like the more subconscious things are, the more abstract they become. Parts of her that she doesn’t know about become available to her.
That seems to be a movement that you are interested in, things becoming more about feeling. One of the lines that I liked in that film is when the guy is floating in that abstract space and he says: “Who are you?” and she says “I am the desire that you have for me.” It made me think of that as a metaphor for the film, or for art in general, like the film as this space of desire. I was wondering if that is something that is interesting to you. You talked about becoming engrossed in the narrative, do you see that as a characteristic of film or art? Of it playing with your desire for… to find out what will happen. There is something about the structure of film that is playing with your desire as a spectator either to become engrossed in the fantasy or to find out what is going to happen next, or playing with your expectations of it. Is that something that motivates you? Another way to put it is, what is your relationship to the spectator?
Some films are about a plot reaching a certain point and your desire to find out what happens, like say a whodunnit. But at the same time you have to be tricked into finding out. If a film just reaches its logical conclusion you almost feel betrayed. Like a lot of the films that you watch, they are pleasurable when you are watching them, like any of the blockbuster films, it is pleasurable to watch them but then when you leave you feel betrayed in this really horrible way. It’s not the kind of pleasure that we actually want and there are different kinds of pleasure, more challenging kinds of pleasure. The kind where it doesn’t depend on an ending or it depends on more individual parts and moments that make up this completed thing. I went to see Travis the magician and he was doing psychic readings and he was talking about how people buy lottery tickets not because they think they are going to win but because they get to imagine for 3 or 4 days between when you get the ticket and when it is announced what your life could be like if you did win. Which I thought was a really beautiful thing. And I think that's how I relate to the pleasure in terms of the plot structure in a film.
Do you buy lottery tickets?
You mention that you watch a lot of films. I’m wondering if you’ve seen Asphalt Watches (2013) and what you
think of it?
I was really blown away by it. One of the things that I really liked about it was that in the framing of it there was always multiple things happening on the screen. And not just simple things but kind of complicated humorous things happening everywhere. I had seen a shorter version of it years ago but it just kind of came out of nowhere and they had this really developed style together. Like a really sharp sense of humour that isn’t like anyone else’s sense of humour, it’s kind of garbagy. It’s kind of crude but not the dictionary kind of crude. It’s its own kind of crude. Smart.
I like it too. I was wondering about the use of foreign languages in your work because I take it to be a kind of a distancing mechanism, it keeps you at a certain distance. That is the way that I interpret it. Is it just fun to do it or what is the effect of it?
There is something about the distance that is important. When I was doing research on my own and figuring out what I wanted to make, I was listening to the computer voices and this idea of translation came up. It seemed interesting to have the characters be from somewhere else, another place, and that place needs to be translated for you to be able to understand it. It allowed more room for abstraction or poetic things to happen. I found that if it’s in English, it’s not as possible. It doesn’t really matter what language it’s in so long as it’s not in English. But there are certain qualities about the ones that I’ve chosen that play a really big role in what I’m making. The kind of the quality of the voices is really important. What they say and how they say it really affects that kind of connection. Really it allows me to be more poetic and it to be believable.
For sure. The Japanese seems poignant since there are a lot of animated films that come out of Japan.
People ask me this question a lot. And I kind of wonder about it. Because for me as not a Japanese person, or a German person or a French person, to make something that is Japanese is just another use of my imagination. As a person making a work, it doesn’t have to be limited by my own life. Nothing else about the film is. I’m not a woman but the main character is a woman and, like any other element of the film, it’s up for grabs. I wonder if it kind of catches people off guard. Or the authenticity becomes too much for people. I wonder how it comes across sometimes to certain people and if it is a problem.
I wonder if it is something about our relationship to language. In all aspects of the film there is this area of play but especially when you are watching a foreign film you can tell that they are saying more than is being translated or the translation is wrong. But because you can’t access that language you have to accept the gap. You realize that you are at a proximity to something.
You feel like you are getting this special viewpoint of this other world. Have you ever watched a foreign film with no subtitles? I sometimes watch one and just try to figure out as much as I can.
So to go from your animated works to Life and People (2014) which is with real actors and they are speaking English: Are you trying to incorporate this distancing when you have real people playing the roles?
With that one, the dialogue isn’t poetic. The dialogue is generic and the thing that is poetic is the way the thing is composed. Or the way the camera picks up the way things are played out. So it’s almost like different aspects of the process got stuffed into different areas. Trying to take these ultra-generic moments and even if you presented them straight, the way that they are acted out would seem almost too familiar. I find that after I watch it I’m very self-conscious of the way I talk to people.
The people that you cast don’t seem like actors. But it also seems like you have instructed them to not even attempt bad acting. They are almost like non-non-actors.
I picked them for the qualities that they already had so they wouldn’t have to work on them at all. And also, they didn’t have the script beforehand. They had to memorize it in five minutes because I didn’t want them to act. But I didn’t give them much direction other than that. Maybe a certain kind of thing was created on the set. And the next time I try to do this I was thinking, “what if I get an exercise bike on the set or get everyone revved up in a wind machine?” To get people in to a different kind of energy. Some different kind of hyper energy. What would that be like? I don’t know.
There is something in the way. There is an impediment. It’s certainly different than the way an actor would normally prepare for the scene. They can’t be a traditional actor if that is placed in front of them. There are a few moments of reflexivity it seems about them, one of the characters says in talking about a film “I like how everything came together in the end” or “I wonder if he’s trying to be funny”. As the spectator you could interpret it as them commenting on the film itself that they are making. I guess it’s something that I like.
In that particular scene I didn’t intend for that, but watching it afterwards I noticed that too.
The other scene I like is when the woman is at the artist talk and she says “this is more of a comment than a question”. It seems like I’ve been to a lot of talks lately where there is either no questions or very little discussion. It seems like a more recent phenomenon of there to be no discussion at artist talks.
A lot of times when I go to artist talks, especially in Vancouver, there are a lot of intelligent people in the audience and the talk touches on something that someone in the audience is personally interested in and they will ask this big whopper question about it. And maybe the artist has thought about it in more casual way. It’s kind of beautiful, but I always feel bad for the artist because it’s not their work that is really at issue. I like how in that scenario, perhaps, she is wearing the same scarf as the artist so maybe she has come to the talk and she admires her.
Vancouver-based artist Dan Starling’s work reconsiders the formal conventions of narratives, genres and aesthetics through deep research into social and political histories as well as contemporary society and popular beliefs. He studied at Emily Carr University (BFA 2005) and Staedelschule, Frankfurt (Meisterschueler 2011). His work has been exhibited internationally, most recently in Looking Back at You: Masks by Artists, Confederation Centre of the Arts, P.E.I.
Barry Doupé (b. 1982 Victoria, BC) is a Vancouver based artist primarily working with computer animation. He graduated from the Emily Carr University in 2004 with a Bachelor of Media Arts majoring in animation. His films use imagery and language derived from the subconscious; developed through writing exercises and automatic drawing. He often creates settings within which a characters' self-expression or action is challenged and thwarted, resulting in comic, violent and poetic spectacles. His films have been screened throughout Canada and Internationally including the Ann Arbor Film Festival (Ann Arbor, Michigan), International Film Festival Rotterdam (Rotterdam, the Netherlands), Anthology Film Archives (NY, New York), Lyon Contemporary Art Museum (Lyon, France), Pleasure Dome (Toronto, ON), MOCCA (Toronto, ON), Whitechapel Gallery (London, UK), Centre Pompidou (Paris, France) and the Tate Modern (London, UK). http://www.barrydoupe.ca/
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