International Fauna Q&A, 2010
Melanie Jacksonís International Fauna was commissioned by ZoŽ Shearman for Anti-Bodies (anti-bodies.net): beyond the body ideal, a rolling programme of contemporary art projects curated by a network of organisations based in the south west of England, and produced with a range of international partners. International Fauna was produced with Animate Projects, London and Picture This, Bristol.
This is a transcript of a talk that took place at Picture This on 8 May 2010, with the artist Melanie Jackson, Gary Thomas (Animate Projects) and Stephen Beasley, who wrote an essay on International Fauna.
Gary Thomas: The Anti-Bodies programme set out to address or critique notions of the idealised body. Your project isnít about the body, but it is about ideals and nationhood - how did you respond when Relational first approached you about the commission?
Melanie Jackson: I think they approached me because I was working with the subject matter, as much as me shifting my practice to respond to a brief. Iíd been thinking a lot about the relationship between kind of nature and technology and the way that natural forms are mediated or constructed by technologies.
Iíd also made quite a lot of works that look at what constitutes nationhood and how nations choose to represent themselves through objects and images.
So it meshed with what I was looking at.
GT: And it was going to be flora, rather than fauna?
MJ: It was, because I had been working a lot with botanical forms and looking to those, but I began to think about the way that those categories are now beginning to collapse. With what we know about DNA and molecular science, the categories, the familiar taxonomies of animal, vegetable, mineral are all being collapsed. And I began to think actually in terms of sport and endeavour, that the physical body and an animal body was maybe more vibrant and more immediate.
GT: And how did you set about sourcing images, and deciding which animals? Because you havenít got every nationís animal have you?
MJ: Iíve got quite a few! It wasnít about doing a kind of inclusive survey. It was working with the images that worked in a sense and putting together a kind of flow of forms that morphed into each other.
And lots of countries donít have national symbols. A lot of countries took them on, especially Commonwealth countries after the collapse of the Commonwealth, because it kind of boosted their significance as nation states. I suppose as an emerging nation they felt they had to make symbolic assertions in every way possible - a national flower and a fish and a bird and an animal. But they are quite recent impositions.
GT: And maybe literacy has something to do with that as well?
MJ: Well I donít know, though I suppose a lot of countries have deeply totemic relationships with animals that werenít to do with their being nation states. They were to do with different borders and different lines and different organisations of people.
What began to intrigue me as well was just how many were borrowed Ė countries didnít choose indigenous creatures that described their landscape or their place, but symbolic ones that talked about another kind of set of qualities that they perhaps wanted to aspire to.
And also how anachronistic they all are now. Iíd say most British people donít know why we have lions, they donít know why we have St George as a saint - itís a disconnect between what we associate with and what we recognise, and the graphic symbol of that.
GT: The structure is very important. The work is created through the selection of those images, how you collage or take them out of the context in a way, but also very much through editing and through montage. So thereís editing - how itís ordered and that rapid fire editing, which is a sort of pre-cinema kind of thing with the bird and the cage and things like that.
Thereís the psychotic panda, the eagle in a face off against itself. And the peacock and the parrot. How do you approach it as a kind of editing exercise, narrative, that kind of thing? Was it always going to be that?
MJ: Iíd thought of those bombastic ceremonial moments that are all to do with parades. Always parades, the ceremonial, and also the idea of a race to succession and the relay.
So I was thinking about the actual notion of some kind of civic launch event, and something like the Olympics, which is so complex, because itís about national power and civic power and cultural power. But in the end, itís watching men and women racing for their life Ė itís this really extraordinary conflict between this kind of primal run-as-fast-as-you-can and then these constructs of power around it.
And there are some really hilarious things like synchronised swimming.
I did organise the animals Ė first I began to think about animating them as individual images and realised that was an intrusion into the image, which could become kitsch and wrong. I decided it would be interesting to look at them as stills but the ways in which they could animate each other through succession.
And I play structural jokes - so the images get larger and larger, the sound gets bigger. There are lots of quite playful editing tricks to explore this idea of iteration and punctuation and timing. And this idea of sequence, of one thing leading to another.
GT: In Stephenís essay he says how the animals are liberated but yet still trapped. The editing and the sound, especially, generate an emotional response to the work.
MJ: Oh good. For the sound I sampled each of the animals that I chose. And I did choose - I did attempt to find one from everywhere, but itís difficult - you canít rip them off a flag, they are protected by the law quite heavily.
So I had to be quite careful about how to find the images and source them. I chose them from stamps and merchandise or sculptures that had been made of a national emblem but that wasnít actually an official graphic. I researched hugely to find those representations and then selected them for how they worked, as well as just to have the survey.
Then for each, I found the call of that animal in the wild and sampled them and then took a tone from each of those samples and matched them to the length of the frame. And I repeated it if the frame was broken, or looped it if it was continuous.
That was very much as a structural device and to let the sound kind of compose itself as a concrete evolving thing. So thereís this process of shifting the registers. But it sounded quite guttural and digital at the same time, and I wanted to bring that digital kind of feel, that digital sound, back into it.
GT: Is it only animal sounds?
GT: Because you mentioned digital, and some of the sounds are like distress calls, but, but there are also digital siren and alarm sounds. Itís very funny, itís really playful. Is it possible to be funny and serious at the same Ė this is a question very close to my heart Ė is it possible to be funny and serious at the same time?
MJ: I hope so. Yes I think it is.
GT: Itís here in the gallery, itís online and itís here on my iPhone Ė
MJ: Iíd quite like it to be a picture ring tone.
GT: Thatís a particular approach you took Ė to not be precious in a way. We even - to my horror - talked about your not being particular about the ratio in which itís shown! Was that an approach there at the beginning?
MJ: If it was being shown in a gallery for a length of time then I probably would really have sorted out the ratios, the wall size, made it quite an immersive and particular experience. But as it was, I wanted to use these calls - I mean it is a ring tone, it is a blast - I wanted to make a kind of anti-anthem. Its running time is about the length of a national anthem. I wanted to make an alternative one, and anyway Iím interested in how so much stuff, however precious, however well organised and well crafted, finds its way to YouTube and gets watched that way.
So I wanted to make something that would transfer very cleanly to it, then at least it would be seen as well as itís supposed to be there. And as good as itís supposed to be on your phone, and quite particular for it.
But I would like to show it in a gallery setting because I think it does something else.
GT: And did you think about different scales - cinema, gallery, iPhone...
MJ: Yes. I love seeing horses real scale, for instance, running round the floor. I think that works well, and this notion of some parade that happens on the floor. But given the nature of the commission, which may have gone on a big screen in the town square, may simply be downloadable, I wanted something that would hopefully hold up, and I think it works pretty well on a laptop.
GT: Thank you very much. Does anyone have any questions or comments they wanted to ask?
Man in Audience: I really liked that funny-serious comment, and I think itís important to mention the Olympics and that context, because that is part of what youíre responding to. So it is quite subversive, obviously, as well as being funny. How do you imagine it sort of intervening in that discourse of the Olympics?
MJ: Well I guess it depends where itís shown. I want it to stand alone as a thing, as a phenomenon, without having a textual analysis of where itís for and what it is. But I like the idea of it sitting in that Olympics context - you know, if they broadcast the Olympics in Bristol on the Big Screen, I think it would be funny to intersperse it with that as a kind of ident. Though I canít imagine the BBC would want to.
GT: As part of Antibodies it already has an Olympics related context...
Man in audience: I wonder if thereís a threshold where it becomes recuperated, and itís how you kind of walk that fine line.
MJ: Yes - I think that depends on where it ends up being seen. I hope it will be shown - seen - a lot in a domestic setting and be downloaded largely, and maybe at some film festivals as well. So a kind of international circuit.
I mean, itís not critical of the Olympics per se, but rather, it is lampooning some of the bombast of those kind of empty anthems and empty symbols that are still wheeled out. But also I actually really enjoyed the images and had fun playing with them as representations and exploring sculpture and line and you know, formal issues to do with structure.
Woman in audience: I just wanted to ask about the choice of colours, the background colours. Because when the background is white, itís like illustrations, and then there are very bold background colours...
MJ: Iím really interested in that digital palette - when you work on a computer basically. How those flat harsh colours are so generated how it encourages that kind of colour field. Iím interested in colour field, but also how that is used in flags, and how thatís a kind of immersive thing.
Most of the colours are sampled from flags or from emblems but they also relate back to the test card and back to that whole possibility of projecting colour. So they were kind of organised by that.
And partly by pleasure as well...
Woman in audience: They are very flat, arenít they, but then you see the textures of the animals.
MJ: Yes, that kind of contrast, particularly the sculptures. And I use the sound, where thereís a sculpture, Iíve tended to use walls of sound. I was interested in the sense of a very rough and dimensional object, so the sound becomes this sort of wall, and I was quite interested then to contrast that with the flatness of these fields of colour.
Iím interested in how digital information does actually collapse into that in the end. It comes forward and then goes back again. But I did try to limit it to an international spectrum of colour as well.
Woman in audience: Did you get Cultural Olympiad funding?
Zoe Shearman: No, there isnít any funding from the Cultural Olympiad as such, itís only Arts Council England, who were keen to support projects that are critically unpacking the idea of the Olympics, so that was really their agenda.
Stephen Beasley: Melanie and I are going to show some clips of films that the work reminded me of and which are tangentially connected to it. The text I wrote about Melanieís film talks more about the content, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk more about the form. First, Mel is going to show something.
PoÍme ťlectronique (1958)
MJ:This is a film that I knew and had seen briefly and recently managed to get a copy. It was commissioned by Philips when there was a kind of utopian moment when art and industry said they might kind of back each other up in transforming culture.
But itís a really amazing film and it interested me in many ways - for the use of stills and sequence. And how it was very much to do with rebuilding a sense of future with artists, industry and electronicsĖ although it recognises a kind of destruction and bleakness, itís very kind of utopian in its aspirations.
I was really interested that there was a structural device to bring these disparate things together, though I wanted some more irreverence I guess, and a kind of absurd, playful music and soundtrack to acknowledge this and this moment - but also to kind of tip the scale with it so it does descend into something other. But itís about images really rather than their potential to liberate.
SB: Thereís also a nice disconnection between the music and the images where the images kind of kick back. And although they are actually the real element - the sounds of animals that you have used - because they have been played around with itís the audience that seems most unnatural. They make it seem even more surreal and removed than the images.
Thatís one of the things that your film reminded me about - this disconnect between sound and image. There are millions of great examples of how that has been used. But I came across one recently which is really good, which is Derek Jarmanís Glitterbug.
Glitterbug (Derek Jarman, 53í13Ē, 1994)
Music by Brian Eno. Features appearances by Michael Clark, William S Burroughs, Genesis P Orridge
SB: The soundtrack is by Brian Eno and the film is a collage of footage that Jarman had shot at various stages in his life over twenty years, in a variety of formats. The sounds overlaid on this extract are very animal-like, reminiscent of a peacock. It makes something that seems quite benign suddenly very sinister.
Another example of image appropriation both of the animal as a corporate ident and also then incorporated within an avant garde film is Jack Goldsteinís MGM.
MGM (Jack Goldstein, 2í11Ē, 1975)
SB: The next film is quite tasteful in comparison to the others. Itís by Charles and Ray Eames, and features their house. It was made five years after they built it. Itís a series of still images that animate the house in some way. Thereís no one actually in it, but it talks about the house, its setting within nature and Ė its relationship to the countryside.
House: After Five Years of Living (Charles and Ray Eames, 11í, 1955)
Treatment of the artists' house, workshop and garden, composed entirely of stills. A collection of over 300 still colour photographs of a modern house are used to create a sense of the house and its environment. Music by Elmer Bernstein.
SB: I like the way theyíve animated this very boxy, inanimate Ďthingí and made it seem like itís in its natural habitat somehow. Itís a building thatís made of pre-fabricated systems and components so itís also a collage of found materials, almost.
MJ: The music seems really critical as well, doesnít it? Kind of imploring you to believe in this kind of pastoral idyll.
SB: You donít need to see the people, you can imagine them tripping gaily through the flowers.
MJ: Thereís something about the capacity for stills and sound to flip between this utopian and dystopian moment that Iím really interested in. They can describe a playful, idiotic absurdness, but also something quite threatening.
GT: And there are other connections with PoÍme ťlectronique... made for a World Fair context, and the Eames made loads of trade fair stuff.
Autour de la perception (Around Perception) (Pierre Hebert, 16í, 1968)
Canadian artist, early adopter of computers for animation.
SB: This is a computer animation from 1968 by the Canadian animator Pierre Hebert. The soundtrackís created by printing sound shapes actually onto the soundtrack - the optical track. Hebert was an early adopter of computer technology so this is a neat mix of both digital and analogue techniques. Thereís quite a nice sense of relinquishing control over the images and the sound. Heís just let it go, itís like thereís this very random nature to it, but itís still somehow controlled.
GT: Itís the reverse of the Le Corbusier film, where thereís this electronic music and the film is about electricity. And yet the images are celluloid - not reliant on electricity, never mind digital.
MJ: I think thereís a moment where it tips from being pleasurable to difficult, when it becomes invasive and difficult, and then conciliatory and exciting. Itís that swing between those moments, where thereís an intellectual relationship between the notions of abstraction and figuration, but then also a kind of emotional connection that is made and severed.
GT: International Fauna does that as well I think. You start laughing at the panda, and then the panda is gone Ė you donít indulge us, do you, with the humour and stuff.
MJ: Yes - itís there. And itís gone! And on one level it is absurd and itís playful and itís funny, but there is something important at stake.
SB: Here is a film by an American collective called Paper Rad, who are fascinated by the Ďancientí era of 8-bit computers from that long gone era: the 1990s.
Extract from Trash Talking (possibly titled Cat) (2006) by Paper Rad
Compilation DVD put out by Load Records. Trailer:
SB: I like the way theyíve thrown up all these different representations of a cat, including the cartoon characters which are mostly their own very specific cultural references.
MJ: And I think there is a kind of fascination between sounds made in analogue ways, and then digital things which are far more ephemeral.
Itís interesting looking at DV and this mainstream hurry to adopt DV in very high definition, and then this legacy of older technology, which still fascinates.
What have we got now?
SB: I think weíre down to the YouTube clip.
MJ: Shall we do Kenneth? Letís do Kenneth.
SB: So. This is an artist who youíll all know.
Itís Kenneth Williams singing a song in which he just uses all those French words that have become anglicised, and which, like Melís film, talks about how the familiar can be made strange. And also how weíre not this singular monoculture: weíve absorbed quite a lot of the French culture in our own language.
GT: I donít think you can top Kenneth Williams saying frottage.
SB: Yeah. How do you follow that?
GT: Shall we wind up?
MJ: Iíve got one last film I want to show, because I mean, this piece of work is relating to other work that Iím making at the moment which continues, I suppose, scrutinising this relationship between nature and technology and nature and industry, particularly.
How Some Jellyfish Are Born (Jean Painlevť, 1960)
And this was a really important starting point a couple of years ago - looking at Jean Painlevťís films. His career spanned from the 1920s to the early 1970s. He made nature films, but whatís intriguing about them is the force of graphic representations, that seems to go against the narrative, and against the soundtrack.
L'Hippocampe, Jean Painlevť