These 80s Videos Are Why I Got Into Computer Animation and Video Art

I've been slow to realize the early influences on the work I'm doing now. I never really addressed issues of artificial embodiment & figuration except at the very start, and now. Avatars, talking heads, animatronics, CGI, digital clones, haunted houses... and once these memories opened up, I remembered that my first childhood career ambition was to be a ventriloquist. No joke!

This Kraftwerk video was created by pioneering digital/interactive artist Rebecca Allen in 1983 using then-state of the art facial animation software and beautiful low-poly avatars of the band.

I don't mind confessing that Matt Frewer's Max Headroom persona was a huge revelation. Not only the pseudo-AI character himself but the morphing, ambient modernist/new-wave grid background environments that prefigured 'screensaver art'. The first and only cyberpunk stand-up comedian? (Matt, are you listening? Let's work together!)

These funny skits from Laurie Anderson feature her interacting with a greenscreened altered 'clone' of herself and aired on the PBS show Alive From Off Center. At the time they seemed like magic -- how could any artist have access to the technology to make this?! -- and they are still really witty.

Everybody was creeped out and fascinated by this ground-breaking music video for Herbie Hancock's instrumental 'Rockit' from his album Future Shock. Directed by Godley & Creme and featuring a terrifying domestic tableau of fragmented, spasmodic androids by British robotics artist Jim Whiting. Hancock himself appears only in a talking-head partial view on a TV screen.

This seems like where I'd insert an easy reference to TRON, but before there was TRON there was this mostly forgotten 1981 Michael Crichton action thriller 'Looker'. In this movie, a shadowy corporation run by James Coburn (doing his best bad Bond villain impersonation) is creating a database of 3D scanned human models that are programmed to be "perfect" virtual advertising actors and political candidates... after which the original human actors are murdered using a perception-altering ray gun. Yup! I don't know I was allowed to watch this film but it had some wonderfully prescient ideas about the media, and a hilarious shoot-out finale with the real and virtual characters 'interacting' before a horrified audience. Quote: "You don't need people anymore. You use computers to create perfect commercial images! ... Don't look at the screen! They use computer animation to put a hypnotic light pulse in the eyes of the commercial."
This scene is a stylish high-tech ballet where Susan Dey gets 3D scanned for the first time.

I'll continue to add to this post as I remember more ... stay tuned.

Production notes on The Metamorphosis

I was recently asked to provide some additional notes for a presentation of my video "The Metamorphosis: Daphne in 4 Parts". I held off on responding until the last minute, as usual, but when I finally sat down and got my head into it, I realized there was actually a story there. The preproduction process was a very interesting experience for me, but I don't assume it would be to anyone else. Anyway, here's the full transcription of my account, which I wrote and shot off in a single go. I'm glad to have a history of it down in one place, anyway.

Production still from 'The Metamorphosis: Daphne in 4 Parts', 2014

Production still from 'The Metamorphosis: Daphne in 4 Parts', 2014

Dec 9, 2016
To: Barbara P
Re: Daphne-Metamorphosis

Dear Barbara, hi and thanks. I'm not sure what to say beyond the usual exhibition statement:

"The Metamorphosis (Daphne…) is a staged retelling of Ovid’s poetic myth of desire, punishment, and arboreal transformation. Here, the nature spirit Daphne is presented as a subject in a stylized interview, framed in the manner of psychological case studies, or reality-TV talking head confessionals: unstable but lucid, defiant, continuously morphing and dissolving into her own delusions and narratives. As a response to sexual violence, the transmutation of Daphne’s self into an aspect of the natural landscape (an efflorescing tree) serve as a kind of defense mechanism, a “screen memory” — but also as an act of radical self-affirmation, a willing destabilization of physical form in favor of generating a more fluid notion of identity.

As with all fables, the language of myth invites the audience to commune with historical forms and themes that resonate with contemporary concerns.”

Perhaps some pre-production notes would be more illuminating (to me as well):

When I first embarked upon this production, I was interested in the media form of the ‘talking head’. A conveyor of truth, news, emotions, stories, or as simple portraiture.
Around this motif, I was making work with actors (or just interesting people I knew) who I would direct to perform monologues in a semi-improvisatory way. Some of the material they recited was purely biographical; some was information that I supplied or would guide them to say on the spot; some of it was poetic or literary material from other sources. My goal was to construct a ‘media personality’ that dissolved the boundaries between fact & fiction, documentary & acting, or at least raised the question in the viewers’ minds about how they look at and learn from media-staged characters. This process would begin with me asking the actors one question: “do you have any memories that you know are false, but seem more real to you than what actually occurred?”

‘Daphne/The Metamorphosis’ grew out of these experiments, combined with my interest in ‘adapting’ motifs from classic mythology and science fiction. I constructed a framework around “what if Daphne were a person alive today, and how would a mythological, morality-lesson story be interpreted through a contemporary lens — and from her point of view?”

MetamorphosisDaphne-Stills-HDvideo-2014-SeanCapone-3.png

I chose the NYC-based transgender performance artist Nicholas Gorham to play the part. I wasn’t trying to make a particular point about gender, drag, or trans-identity at this stage; Nicholas was simply someone who I knew and felt was the perfect person to play the role.

I interviewed another friend privately, a woman who I had known to be a survivor of sexual abuse. I wanted her perspective on how a rape survivor might communicate such a trauma, and rationalize it within herself, so that I could speak to this subject matter in an authentic voice. Proceeding from this, I devised a loose torso of a script that would contain certain themes and talking points, which reconstructed the original narrative of Daphne and Apollo, and put the characters into a contemporary context.

I presented these notes and ‘concept images’ taken from art history (Bernini’s ‘Apollo and Daphne’ being the most famous) to Nicholas. He developed the costume and mannerisms based on this, with the idea that she would be lucid but delusional, and residing in a mental institution. We shot the ‘interview’ in one sitting, with me off camera in the role of the ‘psychiatrist’ and director. My voice doesn’t appear in the film, and aside from a few specific directions and key lines that I had scripted, the performance was entirely and brilliantly improvised by Nicholas. He struck the right balance between ‘pathos’, ‘camp’ and sincere emotion that I was looking for.

At this point I still didn’t have an idea about the visual direction of the piece. I imagined incorporating some special effects, some trippy visuals like in the other videos I made, but basically the character would be presented as she was shot. It took me a full year and a half between shooting and final editing of the interview; several sequences were ultimately cut about Daphne’s ‘father’ (a river god who was actually responsible for casting the spell of transformation on her, in a spectacular act of "blame the victim for being too beautiful to resist"). At some point during editing, I began experimenting with the 3D computer-generated look that rendered Daphne in a way that reflected her inner psychological state in a more interesting way than the usual ‘weird’ effects would do. So this process ended up being a lot more time-consuming and deviated significantly from my original vision, but for the better, I think. It took that much time for this piece to let me know what it wanted to ‘be’, if that makes sense.

The sound design was also all composed by me, inspired by some campy electronic recordings of ‘music for plants’ that I had come across while researching this whole human/plant hybrid concept. Finally, I designed a series of 'chapter headings' -- the "4 Parts" -- as interludes, using extra bits of footage I had, mostly as a way to give the viewing audience a break but also to accentuate some of the 'punchlines' delivered by Daphne and give this long video a bit more of a narrative structure.

A more abstract moment; one of Daphne's less lucid moments

A more abstract moment; one of Daphne's less lucid moments

Dec 10, 2016
To: Sean Capone
Re: Daphne-Metamorphosis

It is in an hour and a half and this text is of GREAT HELP AND INTEREST

Thank you so much !

-Barbara

Passages

Today I bid farewell to my ten-year commercial art identity as 'The Supernature' with a look at some favorite past projects -- and I contemplate the slightly fascist undertones behind my experience getting banned from Facebook.

Read More

Studio View #1 : GUIDE for Electric Objects

Okay, one more bit of old business, but one that transitions into the now. I've been working on a series of looping 'generative drawing' animations, which on the one hand was just a bit of fun, formalist play, but if you think about it , also functions as a kind of 'Turing Test', which is a concept that's really driving me right now. How far can one push the parameters of an algorithmic system to produce something that is convincingly "expressive"? What are the boundaries of the 'gestural' in contemporary digital art and animation, which is increasingly automated and procedural?

If this is the kind of question that's important to you, then you've probably already argued for or against the encroachment of digital production into the vexatiously ever-widening parameters of what painting means. The authenticity of the artist making a mark, so to speak, may be subsumed behind the screen, mouse or tablet pen, but still manifests in a zone somewhere between the material and the computational ... in the case of this series of work, tweaking parameters of the system, until I arrive at my own kind of aesthetic confirmation bias.

GUIDE, animation collection for Electric Objects

A modified collection of these animations, titled GUIDE, was commissioned for the Electric Objects digital art streaming platform. The above video shows the anims playing on the custom EO screen (get yours today!), captured on a nice balmy afternoon at my studio here in Omaha.

You can watch a more detailed clip of the animations in the GUIDE collection on the website HERE.

Synchromatics

A bit of old business to circle back on, before we start with the new. I have updated the 'Public Art' section of the website with a completely revamped & re-edited look my largest public video art project to date, a series of 35 commissioned works from 2014, collectively renamed Synchromatics to better reflect the original concept. You can also read an expanded artist statement that talks about the "visual music" concept in greater depth. I've broken the videos up into into four thematic montage reels, which lets me highlight the themes a little clearer (abstraction, still life, landscape etc).

If you've followed this project in the past or seen the video snippets I've posted online, you can refresh your impressions with a few pieces that have never been shown before, outside of the original installation.

Visit the SYNCHROMATICS project page here. Or just click on the Public Art tab in the main menu.

still from IMAGINARY ATLAS

still from POLYCHROME VARIATIONS

still from CITIES & THE SKY

Live From Omaha

It's always hard to get these kinds of things started, so I thought I'd kick off the blog with a couple announcements. First, I've left NYC for the time being after 12 amazing years, it was simply time to change perspectives and cleanse the palate. Second, I'm currently an artist in residence at the Bemis Center in Omaha, which is what gave me the motivation to hit the road in the first place. The residency actually has a theme, "Sci-Fi and the Human Condition", which is a very open field, really, across the vast range of fantasy, fiction, film theory, cultural studies, and of course in the real world where technology has taken such control over our inner lives & creative time. Many avenues to explore & plenty of work to be done.

So, the plan is to use this section as a kind of diary for the things I'm working on, looking at and thinking about -- the psychic noise here is significantly lower here than NYC by several orders of magnitude -- and given my natural tendencies towards distraction and wandering, please check back in periodically, to make sure I'm staying on point.

Hello from The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts