A Floating Phrase explores the nature of art, fear and snow puddles through the experiences of Cesarine, a stop-motion animator caught up in the intrigues of international diplomacy in 1970s continental Europe. At that time, national delegations for international conferences on European issues, such as those leading up to the Helsinki Accords, typically included defectors from the other side of the Iron Curtain. This led to scientists and artists with little experience in diplomacy being involved in high-level politics.
|Product dimensions:||5.58(w) x 8.42(h) x 0.41(d)|
About the Author
Trent Portigal is a writer of political tales and urban anecdotes. He spends his days planning cities on the Canadian prairies.
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A Floating Phrase
By Trent Portigal
John Hunt Publishing LtdCopyright © 2015 Trent Portigal
All rights reserved.
Cesarine takes a break from staring at the shadowy ceiling of her bedroom and glances at the clock radio. Fifteen minutes until the alarm is set to go off. She sighs, leans over and fumbles with the radio's on switch. Voices from the international segment of the morning current-affairs show fill the room. She finds them overly argumentative for the predawn, but, having expended the only energy she has at the moment, settles back into staring at the ceiling.
"It's going to be another Yalta. We gave all of Eastern and a large chunk of Central Europe to the Soviets last time. The only real question is: what are we going to give them this time?"
"I think that the conference could be an opportunity to discuss broader issues, to deepen the detente."
"Have you read any of their newspapers lately? The detente is just a game they play for our benefit. Their politics rest on ideology, and in their ideology we will always be the enemy. Of course, it isn't much better here: the East is still the bogeyman of choice for the vast majority of our politicians, despite their supposed diversity of opinion."
"Well, we haven't had any more crises, so I would say that it is working rather well. That doesn't mean, though, that there isn't room for improvement; improvement that won't happen if we refuse to sit at the same table and discuss issues."
The debate continues. The speech rhythms wash over Cesarine while the content sinks to the floor. It has the same level of impact as the morning reminder that shoes can be bought at the shoe store from before she emigrated. The sounds' energy slowly reinvigorates her, enough in any case for immediate reality to take hold. A mechanical reality; a series of almost but never quite identical events repeated ad nauseam. She is no different, needing her mainspring wound for her gears to revolve. The parts are of questionable quality, so the revolutions are at best approximate. She is no longer surprised at the sporadic loss or gain of time, gear slippage and the like.
A recurring fantasy: to be able to pop off the top of her head, pull out the mechanism and futz with it. This fantasy has been prominent in her animation since the beginning. The innards have not always been gears, but also transistors, musical instruments, miniaturized large animals, rocks, etc. Sometimes one could only catch a glimpse of the inner workings through a window opened in the skull or a conveniently removable ear or eye. The fantasy took hold before the trend of disposables, when the works started to be locked in with tamper-resistant screws doubled with copious amounts of glue. A trend that passed Cesarine by, stuck as she has been in her robotic inertia.
The objects of her characters' worlds were comparable; humming with internal movement regardless of how static they might seem on the outside. Sometimes everything was compatible, or at least in rhythm. Swapping in a gear from a streetlight might very well allow our hero to come up with the idea that had up until that moment escaped her. More often than not though, there was perpetual discord, categorical differences that the hero could see through every window in the pavement and the trees – a disconcerting reminder of the superficiality of the resolution of her particular plot line.
In the old country, critics occasionally suggested that this background detracted from the principal narrative arc. Worse, it could be seen as undermining one of the fundamental tenets of the state: normal relations between everyone and everything. The mumblings and grumblings were marginal, pushed to the side by a spectacle of seeing inside things. A spectacle that ended up making her the darling of the establishment. It also didn't hurt that politics did not play a significant role in Cesarine's films or life.
Looking back, the only thing that seemed unquestionably significant was technical curiosity. For instance, rounded river rock was ideal for coming out of a tap, or other situations where rocks needed to flow freely. At the other end of the spectrum, an aggregate with a high percentage of angular faces was great for locking up under pressure; lovely for roads. Somewhere in the middle was rock that represented thought. Rocks stable under pressure, with decent energy transfer through the system, yet sufficiently dynamic, bordering occasionally on pseudo-random, in their movements and connections. The technical side was then covered in a veneer thick enough to make the movements adequately entertaining for the audience, so they would see it as more than a technical demonstration.
"What is significant now," Cesarine declares to the shadows fading in the increasingly pronounced pre-dawn light, "is to get up and go to work."
Cesarine recalls an old article in a national newspaper from September 23, 1874 recounting a visit of Marshall M___ to R___, her current home city. It was noted that, "It is not that R___ holds any antipathy for the Marshall. However, it is a city where enthusiasm never wins out." The alignment of the streets was simply "incompatible with popular effervescence." Walking to school along the same streets a century later, Cesarine qualifies her declaration with the thought that significance is of course relative. Years ago, the notion of popular effervescence would have seemed strange, as her sense of liveliness for herself and everything around her bubbled up from an internal source, a curiosity more often than not inexplicable. She suspects that this is what led her to be curious to see the inside of things, but she can't be sure.
Although her source of interest had been changing gradually over the years, it was only with the sudden break of leaving the old country for good that she really noticed her increasing reliance on popular effervescence, that her new environment was actively undermining her sense of the importance of things, and that she lacked the inner fervor to shore up what she might recognize as potentially significant. Standing in front of the rather stately – a grey, bureaucratic sort of stately – building where she works, the already rather modest significance that motivated her to leave her bed has been lost, replaced by a functional indifference. She chooses to see this as part of the age-old tradition from the old country, even if the tradition usually manifested as functional alcoholism.
The building houses the School of Marionettes. While the name has not changed since the founding of the institution, the institution itself has been absorbed into a major university. The curriculum has evolved to a point where it would be hardly recognizable to the old masters. One can still study marionettes, as well as the inseparable folkloric repertoire, but the majority of the small student body prefers more modern forms of animation. The school supports this tendency, not only in an effort to stay relevant, but because the new techniques and technology are genuinely useful for expanding the artistic experience.
Cesarine attended a very different school, where passing down the old traditions was the most important function. It had a similar, and under the circumstances far more accurate, name: The National School of Puppetry. Her ultimate niche, stop-motion, benefited greatly from the education, even if she found little guidance for her more modern explorations. It would have been nice had the evolution of techniques for her own niche been slow enough to develop a solid tradition of its own, though perhaps two millennia of small, incremental changes was unreasonable. On the other hand, there was something attractive about a form of expression that had never been hegemonic, that existed alongside and intermingled with other techniques peacefully and productively.
Entering the building, she makes her way through cinderblock corridors directly to the room of the first of two classes she is teaching today: Introduction to Armatures. The class is more of a studio these days, an opportunity for students to build basic skeletons out of wire and wood. It is all about approaching animal movement – typically human, though insects make a consistent, non-negligible showing – with primary materials that don't require significant skill to manipulate. Movement is essential in creating a character, so it is useful to become familiar with it before putting in the time and effort into building more sophisticated armatures and encasing them in foam and fabric. The class starts with videos showing just how expressive a wire can be and how a well-placed piece of wood can add recognizable form. The first challenge is to mimic the movements on the screen, the second to deviate from them in imaginative ways.
Animated behaviorism; characters that go no deeper than their actions. It is a pleasant enough reduction; instead of digging to find the inner workings, it tries to bring them to the surface. Without a fully fleshed-out surface, a well-defined environment or a voice, the actions often slip into an abstraction barely connected to experience. Here again, there is a risk of the animation becoming a tech demo. Unlike at the beginning of Cesarine's career, however, basic stop-motion techniques have already been thoroughly explored. While she could probably coast on name recognition and impeccable – read: borderline obsessive compulsive – execution, nobody today would find it interesting. As for her students, the vast majority concentrate their efforts in other areas of animation. Still, there are usually a couple of former students a year who mention how much the basic skill of creating consistent movement in real three-dimensional space has influenced their later, largely two-dimensional, work.
Regardless of interest, Cesarine recognizes the importance of producing work from time to time if she does not want her name to be buried by the tide of other peoples' creations. The school also encourages new work rather forcefully, particularly from a foreigner with an oversized reputation and a questionable grasp of the local language. Happily, she was able to improve her language skills fairly quickly and turned out to be a competent teacher. Administration was not overjoyed that the school was going to be deprived of the significant bump in prestige they were expecting when they brought her on, but slowly came to accept her as a solid albeit unremarkable contributor to the institution. One of the tricks to maintaining functional indifference is to ensure that the level of functioning that is required stays modest.
Sometimes, when coherent thoughts take hold in the time staring at the ceiling before her alarm goes off, she wonders why the culture shock of moving to this country didn't do more than make her aware of her slide into indifference; why it didn't motivate her to change, to create. It is not as if the city's pervasive lack of enthusiasm completely overshadowed the initial sensation of newness or friction caused by misaligned norms and the energy from the community at the school. Years of playing with the idea of inner workings were not enough to elucidate the enigma of her own situation.
The class is spent wandering around the tables, giving tips here and there for emulating joints and ensuring that the armatures are stable. There is little more frustrating than an armature that won't stay in place between shots. At the end, she gives an assignment of putting together short films showing a variety of basic movements, to be presented and peer-reviewed during the next class. There is some time before her next course, Theories of Esthetics, so she makes her way through the cinderblock corridors to her still-bare, practically empty office.
Cesarine sits at the desk, pulls a well-worn book on pragmatic esthetics out of her bag, lays it on the desk and gazes at it as if it has a small window through which the words assemble and reassemble themselves with rhythmic, hypnotic movements. Hundreds of words on the page are dancing around each other, avoiding conflict with grace, pausing just long enough to take in the sense of their new order before moving on.
The reverie is interrupted by a knock at the door, followed by Anne, the department secretary, poking her head in: "Hi, Cesarine. Someone came to the main office looking for you."
Cesarine checks her watch before replying, "Who? Why didn't they just come here? Anyway, doesn't matter, I have to go to class."
"Well, his name is Valery Grandville, he's with the government and he is here, behind me."
Anne opens the door wider to show a man wrapped tightly in a heavy winter coat.
"Ah," Cesarine says matter-of-factly, "you look cold, Mr. Grandville."
Valery smiles. "It seems that you have a class to teach."
"Right. You can wait in here if you like."
"Oh, I think he will probably be more comfortable in the break room," Anne suggests, sensitive to the lifelessness of Cesarine's office. "And we can put the kettle on."
"That sounds marvelous, thank you for the offer," Valery says to Anne, then turns to Cesarine: "I'll see you in ... an hour?"
Cesarine nods distractedly, wondering idly why her mind isn't giving her a show of what could be inside this government official. It seems to her that that should be more interesting than the inner life of a book she has read through countless times. As she walks to the classroom, book in hand, she ponders why her first reflection concerned the fickleness of her hallucinations rather than the implications of an apparently random visit by a bureaucrat. After her situation was normalized – an expedited process thanks to her renown in certain circles and the school's sponsorship – and once it was evident that she was going to keep a low profile, the government, along with pretty much everyone else, left her alone. It also helped that she took up residence in a provincial city short on popular effervescence, far from the avant-garde artists of the capital.
"Why do artists turn away from nature?" a student asks following a brief setting of the scene for a discussion on the weekly reading.
"Can you develop that thought some more?" Cesarine asks.
"Um, okay, well, the process of creating art is linked to the artist's experience with their surroundings, which the author basically says is nature, right? The process is just taking parts of experience accumulated over time, passions and maybe some other stuff in an esthetic way and making art out of them. But he says that art is not nature. So, I don't know, nature is incomplete? It is not enough for the artist?"
"Do you consider yourself an artist?" Cesarine considers the question of art versus nature profoundly uninteresting.
"Well, yes, or, at least, yes."
"As a thought experiment then, imagine the process of creating a work of art. Where do you get your inspiration?" Given her tendency to find everything uninteresting though, she recognizes that she is probably a lousy judge of such things.
"That's just the thing: I mainly play off what other people have created before me. That is my environment, I guess. It's not always art, not pragmatically anyway, not enough passion I imagine."
"You do not think that you get inspiration from nature, then?" It's true that nature is a useful enough context under certain circumstances.
"It's kind of unavoidable. Everything in my environment is nature, according to the author."
"Including art?" And there are specific reasons why the context is useful here, so long as one doesn't take it too far.
"I'm not sure; I don't think it's very clear."
"Compare it to the transcendental theories we were discussing last week. Do you think that this theory suggests that art is fundamentally different than nature?" Cesarine is fond of the simplistic notion that nature is the contrary of pure, man-made mechanics.
"Not really, it is more a bunch of things, including nature, mixed in a particular way. It is linked to nature, includes nature, but then, well, maybe something can include stuff yet be completely different. Maybe that's how consciousness works, you know, in relation to the brain."
"That might be going a bit far. Can we say at the very least that this theory does not treat art as an absolute ideal, or at least an object approaching such an ideal?" Any part of nature in her work is, at its heart, mechanical.
"Yeah, it's not like the transcendental theories. It is far more grounded, I'd say."
"Yet, art is not a part of nature simply cut out and put on a plate?" Which is to say that there is no nature; all trees are plastic.
"Right ... it is more than that."
"So, to borrow from the reading, why don't we use the expression 'nature transformed'?" Plastic trees with inner workings just as capable as the cello in her student's head of producing the strong, accented tonic, crisply played on-beat and resonating across the softer notes that follow.
"Right! So it is nature, it is just not part of nature, in the sense of being simply a part of past experience. It is a new experience, new passion, new intention, new connections. The base material is natural and it ends up becoming one of these past experiences, but as something new in the environment."
Excerpted from A Floating Phrase by Trent Portigal. Copyright © 2015 Trent Portigal. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd.
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