January 16, 2018

Freezeframe: Q&A with Herb Shellenberger, curator of Independent Frames

Freezeframe: Q&A with Herb Shellenberger, curator of Independent Frames:


1. What was the inspiration for this series?

I've been fascinated by this work for a number of years. I first came across the films of Suzan Pitt, Sally Cruikshank, Pat O'Neill, Frank and Caroline Mouris and many more while doing research for the first screenings I curated at International House Philadelphia around 2010. Over the next years, I kept discovering other filmmakers whose work sat on the edge between animation and experimental film. While I was keeping a running list of these artists, I discovered a reference to the 1978 publication Frames: A Selection of Drawings and Statements by American Independent Animators which was published/edited by George Griffin and several other animators. It's not only a really fascinating book of ideas and artworks, but it convinced me that this group of independent and experimental animators did in fact exist as a cohesive community. They were united by their love for unconventional animation and traded ideas and techniques, collaborated to make work, exhibited together and organized themselves both professionally and socially. I could speak at length about my reasonings, but it quickly became apparent to me that there was a movement of American experimental animators and the films, installations, performances and ideas they were working on during the 1970s and 1980s. And this movement has been largely ignored in the fields of animation studies, experimental film and contemporary art, though their work should be appreciated by all three. 


I continued my research of these artists during my graduate studies in London, at Central Saint Martins and in collaboration with LUX, eventually writing my dissertation on the erotic animation of Mary Beams, Lisa Crafts and Suzan Pitt. During my studies, I met Andrea Lissoni, Senior Curator of Film and International Art at Tate Modern. Andrea was familiar with several artists in the series and interested in the proposition of showing their work in conjunction with many other artists I was researching whose work he hadn't seen. When my colleague Carly Whitefield started as Assistant Film Curator at Tate Modern, the three of us started meeting and discussing ideas for this series, which acted as a survey of American experimental animation in the 1970s and 1980s, trying to argue for this movement of artists through showing five programs of short films. In the end, we showed 51 films by 35 artists and the enthusiastic response from audiences, critics and the artists themselves was enough to convince me that I should try to build on this research and show the series elsewhere. Jesse Pires and Robert Cargni have been supportive of my research since the very beginning, so it is very exciting to bring the series to Lightbox Film Center, as my years working at International House Philadelphia really prepared me for work as a curator and film programmer. 

2. Can you describe your process for finding and choosing the films?

This work was researched over about seven years. I visited many film archives, had conversations with filmmakers, consulted film festival programs and distribution catalogs, did a lot of research online. Selecting the films was very difficult and I went through several drafts before arriving to the final program for the Tate Modern series in February 2017. There were some key works, like Desire Pie (Lisa Crafts), Frank Film (Frank and Caroline Mouris), Asparagus (Suzan Pitt) and Quasi at the Quackadero (Sally Cruikshank) that I knew needed to be included. As well, there were artists like Kathy Rose, Sky David and Mary Beams who I wanted to have represented in some way. There were also several films which actually predate the 1970s which are so rare, and which stand out from the known experimental animators of the 1960s, that I felt it would be good to include alongside the films from the 1970s and 80s.

The structure of the series emerged from curatorial themes that I felt arose from the work, such as films about sexuality and bodies, personal and autobiographical films and works that use structure and form as organizing principles. Through this, I wasn't limited to focusing on single artists, or work produced in one region or with one technique. As such, some filmmakers who I included multiple works by might not be showing in the same program. And I also don't think these thematic programs are completely separate from each other, as concerns from media and representation can bleed over into works about sexuality, for example. 

3. What surprised you most during your research and discovery? 

One thing that has consistently surprised me is how little the artists in the series are known, especially outside of the United States. Even to those who know experimental film and animation, artists like Mary Beams and Paul Glabicki aren't known as they should be, given the quality of their work and its relevance to what artists are making today. 

Another surprise that emerged at a midpoint in my research was realizing how many films made by these artists were deeply personal, autobiographical, diaristic and introspective. For some of them, it's quite evident in the films themselves, but for others it might require some background knowledge of the artists to understand. Somehow the majority of films that I encountered earlier in my research might not have seemed to have much personal relation with the maker but this was something that emerged later on. 

4. Without a series like this one where would people access these works? Why is it important to see them in this context?

A few of these works are more available than the others. Suzan Pitt's Asparagus was released on DVD by French distributor Re:voir last year and is now viewable on the streaming site Fandor where it is one of the site's most popular films. Several others are put on Vimeo by the artists themselves in good quality. Yet more can be found on YouTube in poor, bootleg quality. But half the films in the series are not available in any form digitally or on video. That's why seeing them on 16mm and 35mm in a cinema is the best way to view these films. Some are full of subtlety while others are quite full-on, immersive experiences. Seeing them together, one after another big, LOUD and on film is the best way to appreciate the diverse, exciting and unexpected work that experimental animators were producing during this era. It's worth noting that during the 70s and 80s, artists working with animation almost exclusively worked on film, whereas in the 90s many started examining digital and computer animation which transformed their practices in a different and interesting way. 

Also, though some of the films can be seen online, in wildly varying forms of quality, it's pretty unlikely that the audience will already be seeking out the work of Fred Mogubgub, Mary Beams, Irene Duga or any number of the really wonderful but unfortunately not well known animators who I've chosen to highlight with this series. In seeing their work all together, one really gets a picture of the wide field of experimental animation during this era, and a sense of how the artists were collaborating, looking at each others work and gaining inspiration from their peers. 

5. The screenings are broken down by themes, but are there any themes that emerge across all of the work?

The themes that the films are broken down into are by no means airtight. There's lots of spillover and reasons why one film could be placed within another screening. I think that's reflected in the fact that multiple films by the same artist will be shown in different screenings. I wanted to stress the importance of the themes reflected in the organization of the screenings: psychedelia, abstraction, media theory; the influence of structural film and ways of formally organizing works; sexuality, eroticism, pornography and the flexibility of representing the body; personal reflection, autobiography and even self-therapy; and the influence of cartoons and commercial animation, despite what might seem like an ontological opposition to that work. 

6. What do you hope viewers will take away from Independent Frames?

With Independent Frames, I'm arguing for these artists and this work, American experimental animation in the 1970s and 1980s, as a distinctive movement in which can be acknowledged in the histories of American independent film, animation, contemporary art and experimental film. I've not seen this expressed before, though some of the artists (particularly George Griffin) have given histories of this era which explore the breadth and depth of works produced. I want to show that even through five screenings of about 50 films by about 35 artists, this is just a small sampling of really high quality work that was made and should be more known, studied and exhibited today. The works by these artists were very prescient in terms of the importance of animation today, from feature films like Waking Life and Waltz with Bashir, to the complex and often mature work shown on Adult Swim and the boom in animation in a contemporary art context, from artists like William Kentridge, Mathias Poledna and Jordan Wolfson. A closer look at the artists highlighted in this series shows that they pioneered these complex representations of animation. 


As a closing note, the Independent Frames series is only the first part of this series, as I intend with a future research and exhibition project to show how some of the artists featured in this series used animation in practices outside of film in the context of contemporary art, including installation, performance, theater, painting and drawing, conceptual work, books and other artist publications.