In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center 18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.
Miljohn Ruperto's Artist Lab residency and exhibition at 18th Street Arts Center, "Mineral Monsters," is an interdisciplinary exploration of human vision and experience. The starting point for Ruperto's collaboration with illustrator/animator Aimée de Jongh and neuroscientist/engineer Rajan Bhattacharyya is a quote from philosopher Georges Canguilhem's book "Knowledge of Life:" "there are no mineral monsters." Canguilhem, who wrote about the effects of pathology and disease on the human psyche, meant to suggest that minerals would form according to their own internal structures and not according to human expectations of ideal or universal standards that he described in the practice of medicine and biological sciences. Ruperto and company take this pronouncement as a prompt to explore the limits of our ability to project ourselves and our interests -- as individuals, as a species -- onto everything we encounter. The three will present their collaboration and insights in a panel discussion in 18th Street's main gallery on Tuesday, September 16. The exhibition is on view through October 3.
The animations of rocks on view in the gallery are so simple that they are barely animations. Two frames flicker, triggering the left and right eye so as to challenge normal stereo vision. The rocks take on unusual qualities against their cave-like backgrounds. Ruperto describes how "the 2-frame animation is composed of the left and right eye views cycling back and forth to trick the eye into experiencing parallax and therefore a 3D effect. The effect is popular in GIFs and is at other times called wiggle stereoscopy or 'piku-piku' ('twitching') in Japan." Specimens have been chosen collaboratively for de Jongh to render using Adobe Photoshop and TV Paint. She adds, "Each stone is digitally hand drawn on the computer, and each animations consists of just two frames: the right-eye view and the left-eye view. By rapidly switching back and forth between these two frames, an illusion of space, or 3D, is created. During my stay here I tested different types of animation, style, and intervals. I based the rocks on existing minerals that we selected."
Miljohn Ruperto is a Los Angeles-based graduate of Yale and UC Berkeley whose work has appeared in the Whitney Biennial 2014 and in Made in LA 2012. His first collaboration with Netherlands-based de Jongh was "Janus". Says Ruperto, "I wanted to work with Aimée again after the wonderful animation she did for 'Janus', which we showed at the Whitney Biennial this spring. I felt that we could somehow look a bit deeper into what constitutes 'animation', which 'Janus' was interested in. I wanted to think about the process of animating by using as a starting point a neutral ground: the inertness of mineral. The mineral monster quote by Canguilhem set us onto the path." Canguilhem is concerned with how scientific thinking seems to privilege an ideal form for each specimen it describes, one that becomes normative but is potentially unattainable and clashes with individual realities. Science as Canguilhem describes it is a process of typifying individual examples, such that the individual is never fully aligned with the characteristics of its type, and the inevitable dissonances are regarded ontologically as abnormal. He argues instead for the "anomal," understood as idiosyncratic without the abjection associated with disease. Minerals, he argues, can exist in this anomal state, being resistant to human-imposed aestheticism of the kind that he identifies in the life sciences. Says Ruperto, "I have been fascinated with Canguilhem's quote since I was made aware of it. The possibility of a neutral material or a neutral ground seemed full of possibilities."
Ruperto's interest in animation as a medium to explore these themes is rooted in his reading of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. "I started thinking about animation when I read Agamben's 'Notes on Gesture'. In the text Agamben talks about Tourette's syndrome and its relation to cinema. The twitching rocks are a bit of a joke on that. His idea of the image becoming both an entombment and also an exploding out when in cinema was the idea which spurred my interest in animation." Agamben is interested in how gesture - informed by the posture, movement, and affect of a living body -- is approximated but not replicated through the rapid staccato of the cinematic image. Neither a living being nor a static image, early cinema completely re-orders our understanding of gesture by isolating it from context. Agamben describes Tourette's patients as symptomatic of an era in which gesture has become fractured and indistinct due to a loss of social cohesion around the bourgeois lexicon of actions that defined the modern era. His argument is akin to the postmodern view that signs and symbols are today subject to potential slippages of meaning and not fixed or mutually agreed as in the past. Ruperto's body of work consistently questions the production of social and academic knowledge through images that operate in this state of slippage or indeterminacy. Here, he echoes the isolated gestures of silent film by reducing animation to its simplest elements.
De Jongh has been living and working at 18th Street Arts Center as a visiting artist in residence since August. She explains, "Miljohn invited me to come to 18th Street Arts Center to work on a show with him. He wanted me to make animations of scary or disgusting rocks, in other words: 'mineral monsters'. That was something I hadn't done before, because I normally focus on animating characters." She concedes that what makes a believable animated character is very different from what she and Ruperto are trying to do. Instead, they are exploring ways to trigger an unsettled reaction that is the kiss of death in traditional animated films. Says Ruperto, "I actually do not remember where the 3D animation started. Aimée sent me some wiggle stereoscopy GIFs which I thought were quite inspiring." He was keen to get a scientific perspective on his ideas, and consulted with Rajan Bhattacharyya, a neuroscientist and engineer whose work focuses on the brain's systems of data comprehension and translation. "Rajan and I started talking about ascribing anthropomorphic qualities upon the drawn mineral specimens. And it all started to make sense during our talks. Aimée started drawing samples (at first rocks that were rendered more realistically). Through her research, we found a more hand-drawn style which we all liked. We agreed on the 2-frame animation (left eye, right eye) which was an animation pared down to its bare constituents." The three sought to develop an image that would cause a viewer to become conscious of the work that our eyes do naturally. Disassociating our eyes from one another, it causes us to recognize ourselves as seeing in a way that we rarely do otherwise.
"The animation then is barely an animation," Ruperto admits. "I think Aimée does not even think it's a real animation with just two frames." He describes it instead as a series of still images that diverge from stereoscopic norms. "It's really the temporal ordering of the left and right eye views. It's as if you stared at a finger in front of you and closed the left eye with your right eye open and then switch to the right eye open and the left one shut. If you keep up the opening and shutting, the finger would seem to be moving, yet it really is your viewpoints that are animating the object." For de Jongh, the experience of creating an image that unsettles our expectations of vision and action was novel. "I'm a commercial animator for TV, a comic artist for a newspaper, and a freelance illustrator. I hadn't worked in an art space before and I've never had a show in a gallery like this. I've been a part of some illustration shows, but this was entirely different." Throughout August, the pair worked in the gallery to develop the styles and techniques as well as the presentation of the forms. "We chose 'weird' rocks from internet pictures and pictures from other people that barely look like standard minerals," explains Ruperto. "We chose ones that look a bit organic. Since we wanted to make unstable images, the initial image should also be on the cusp of being a rock." Indeed, the forms do not adhere to typical expectations of what a rock would look like. Even so, they are based on real examples. The 2-frame method operates as a dialectical space that pulsates with the tension of opposing binaries -- alive/dead, organic/inorganic, dimensional/flat.
For the artists, the residency at 18th Street Arts Center was an unprecedented opportunity to dive into collaborative art-making head-first. Ruperto describes the process of working with specialists in other disciplines: "I wanted the collaborative process to be more parallel than an intersection, but in the end it did work out in terms of specialized knowledge vectors intersecting into the project. I feel this would be the usual natural way when people collaborate - drawing all of us into the project's own orbit." Asked if the different backgrounds of the collaborators ever generated conflict, he says, "I think when you trust the expertise of the other persons, there really isn't any anxiety." De Jongh agrees. "Working with an artist such as Miljohn also gave me an insight into that world, which was very interesting." Ruperto elaborates, "Plus the project itself required expertise outside of the other's field. So I think everyone was somewhat prepared." Such cross-disciplinary discourse is a unique characteristic of 18th Street Arts Center's Artist Lab Residency, in which the gallery functions a meeting point for dialogue between artists and knowledgeable, passionate people from every walk of life. "Mineral Monsters" is exemplary of the important role that arts and culture can play to establish a social context for the innovations in visual storytelling, information technologies, and bioengineering taking place all around us.