Get Animated

A new University of Tampa exhibition showcases the best in digital art.

Electronics Alive III is the third annual exhibition at the University of Tampa's Scarfone/Hartley Gallery of new computer animation and graphics from the U.S., France, Japan, Canada and the U.K. Many of the works in this show were first seen at the 2004 Annual Animators Conference, an industry showcase of the world's best new animation. Gallery director Dorothy Cowden has assembled the kind of cutting-edge digital multimedia work that is not usually available to the public. As one of the visitors to the gallery said, "This is the kind of show that you won't even see in San Francisco or New York." In fact, curators from those cities are already asking if the show might travel to their venues.

All works in the show were created using computers. There are animated short features, interactive computer programs, and prints of digitally created images, constructions and installations. The work is accessible to everyone who has ever watched TV or used a computer mouse. There is a rich sampling of the most contemporary digital work, and it would be possible to spend hours in the gallery to experience every piece.

For the computer-challenged, I recommend just watching and listening. Graphic designers, "new media" artists, animators and computer guys can feast on the didactic materials. My favorite artist's statement comes from Mark Stock, describing his print "Twigs #23": " … diffusion-limited aggregation (DLA) creates, through a stochastic diffusion, incredibly detailed branched structures." I have no idea what he's talking about, but the print he describes is a mysterious jumble of delicate intertwined branches, which may or may not be based on photographs of actual objects.

Digital Artists have a hard time not getting sucked into the magic of technique. In order to create an affecting work, they can't allow the vast possibility of technical manipulation to overshadow the human factor. What one artist calls the "virtual time-space generated by computer" often creates a spacey sci-fi world that is both bloodless and dated. The layered, pixilated movement of the computer can result in the "flying toasters" effect, an endless looping of the inanimate. You long for an artist's touch, for narrative, composition and drawing.

It cannot be easy to create digital images and characters that suggest life. But the works that stick in the memory are the ones that come closest to capturing human action and emotion. Two memorable characters, the diabolical housewife of "Dear Sweet Emma" and the dreamy inventor of "Otsu," blend reality and fantasy in engaging ways.

Contrasting two different politically oriented pieces puts an interesting spin on the idea that art imitates life. An animated, guitar-slinging Colin Powell ("Rock the World"), with his trademark furrowed brow, shows more humanity than the real-life Condoleeza Rice giving a speech (Barbara Lattanzi's interactive software "C-Span Karaoke").

The installation is flawed by the competing sounds of multiple works running simultaneously. It takes great effort to hear an individual work and block out the surrounding audio. This is a problem that should have been addressed, as the stray sound is not only distracting, but diminishes the experience of each piece. It may not have been possible to build booths for every work, but perhaps the timing could be staggered to reduce the noise level. The PCs in cubicles playing DVDs offer a chance to see and hear the work in relative quiet.

The standout achievement of this show is Chris Landreth's "Ryan." This 15-minute feature is nominated for this year's Academy award for best short animated film, and won three prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. Landreth employs spectacular new animation techniques to create a narrative in a vein that he calls "psycho-realistic."

Live action is modified with drawing and animation to represent the psychological and emotional states of the speakers in this documentary. "Ryan" is the true story of Ryan Larkin, a gifted 1960s pioneer of animation, who Landreth discovered on the streets of Montreal, broken-down and panhandling. Human heads are shown as disintegrating, electrified and bound together by neon straps. The effects are both macabre and very moving. The use of the actual voices of the speakers brings home the reality. And the inclusion of Larkin's own award-winning animation reminds us of the inimitable grace of drawing by hand.

For those who want to learn about the methods used in these works, there are lectures and demonstrations by the artists scheduled throughout the duration of the show. They are not all esoteric. In addition to Chris Landreth, Anthony Lamolinara, the Oscar-nominated animation supervisor for the Spiderman movies, will visit as well.

Two artists from the University of Tampa faculty present strong work. Matthew Burge shows brightly colored digital prints and the animated work "33 Vertebrae," with action that flows across three monitors. Doug Sutherland's "Homage to Al" is a mixed-media construction employing digitally rendered and recorded images printed and mounted as layered relief sculpture. It features a large-scale reproduction of the Hieronymus Bosch painting "Garden of Earthly Delights," and a Christ-figure nailed to an airplane below the neon inscription "INRI."

Contemporary animators would do well to study Bosch's fantastic and alien creatures painted in the 16th century. Working in the low-tech method of oil on canvas, Bosch could focus completely on imagining the frightening and delightful possibilities of human creation and imagination, without the use of wires or pixels. The artists in this show are finding their voices with entirely new media. This exhibition is a world-class selection of electronic art, and should not be missed.

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