Animals, Tamers, and Clowns: Martin Arnold

Martin Arnold and Emmanuelle André in conversation


This interview takes stock of Martin Arnold’s recent work and its key  concepts. The artist revisits the methodology behind the creation of his cartoons (de-celing cel animation), his interest in loops, and the role of the color black. He describes the method he has used since his earliest works, which consists of de-animating a corpus of Hollywood works, which links back to the preoccupations of modern art.


EMMANUELLE ANDRÉ: We could begin with the image of the tamer and the animal. Do you perceive this as a metaphor for the animator as such, or for you as a “de-animator” playing with classical cartoons? Since your film Shadow Cuts (2010) it seems that you have found your chosen field of investigation in cartoons. Can you explain how you switched from feature films to cartoons, from Hollywood actors to animated animals?

MARTIN ARNOLD: Well, the images of the animal tamer and Disney that I sent you are definitely not about myself. I just wanted to start our conversation with one of the main ideas of cartoons, which is to dress animals up to seem like humans. My earlier films like pièce touchée (1989) or passage á l’acte (1993) quite often got interpreted along the lines of sex and gender issues. At a certain point I got tired of this and asked myself: What do we all have in common? Essentially we all are animals, dressed and tamed animals. You can hear and see it everywhere. Females who are in love call their boyfriends “my big bear” and in return with a lot of empathy get called “my little mouse.” If you enter a restaurant you can immediately notice who eats like a bird, who gulps like a pig, who in conversations tries to be a smart fox and who plays the donkey.

EA: Something that’s been said about your earlier work is that your practice of deconstructing elements in very small units, with extreme precision, is a way of revealing the hidden signification of the original movie. Your work with the cartoons is different—you not only change the temporal flow of the clips by running them forward and backward, but you also interfere with the image itself. Would you agree?

MA: Basically, in the older found-footage works, the editing took place in between the single frames in order to manipulate the flow of time. I didn’t touch the content of the frames as such. In the cartoons, I also digitally do some intra-frame editing, which means I manipulate the image itself by “cutting-out” certain elements and leaving others untouched. So in certain frames you just see the ears or the eyes of what was originally a fully drawn face containing all of the elements a cartoon face usually is composed of. It would also make sense to switch from the term “editing” to “cutting.” You can cut in between single frames or, metaphorically speaking, cut out elements within a frame. The filmic results are of course different: in the cartoons you only see parts of the original while most of it disappears and is replaced by a black background.



EA: It seems to me that both approaches refer to the production process of movies. But in the first case it’s about the basis of cinematographic movement, and in the latter you seem to reflect on the principle of cel animation, which uses transparent sheets on which elements of figures are drawn for analog animation. Could you explain this a little further?

MA: In the cartoons, not only is the single frame important, but also the fragmentation of the frame itself. I cut out various parts of the body and face and place them in front of a black background. Due to the clearly defined contours—for example one of Mickey’s hands—this can be achieved really well with animated films. At the same time, as you indicated, my fragmented forms refer to the production process of cartoons made in the so-called cel animation technique. This is an animation style that employs a team of drawers in which everyone is responsible for one specific element: the head, the eyes, the legs, and so on. Each is drawn individually on transparent sheets. In a final step the sheets are laid on top of each other to create a complete image. Visually speaking, what I do is pull out some of these celluloid sheets from the pile of sheets with body-part drawings and break down the image to some of its original layers. Metaphorically speaking, I’m de-celing cel animation. Of course I do it digitally, but if the original sheets were still available and I could have gotten access to them, I could also have done it in an analog way.

EA: Watching your series of cartoons, we discover that the original films are not as important as in your former movies; in your later movies such as Tooth Eruption (2013) or Whistle Stop (2014) the original images almost seem to disappear totally. What’s your relation to the original movies?

MA: Overall, I’m not so sure if the original movies were ever important. I guess they were stand-ins for particular styles in filmmaking, for concepts of representing the world by cinematographic means. I never took “the movies” very seriously and I dislike movie theaters. But I have always been interested in the succession of frames and what can be done with it.

EA: If the original movies are not important, why the Hollywood background? Is it because you want to create an effect of the uncanny, playing with the memory of the spectator?

MA: Well, “Hollywood” stands for my childhood cinema, where sometimes I watched feature films, sometimes cartoons. You are absolutely right in terms of the uncanny. For Sigmund Freud, the uncanny comes into being as a mixture of the familiar and the eerie. And of course we all know classical Hollywood cinema and we all know cartoons. But at the same time I come up with something unfamiliar in the familiar. Writing in German, Freud talked about das Unheimliche. Etymologically the term is derived from Heim, which means “home.” So the uncanny can be interpreted as a feeling of being at home while at the same time realizing that we’re not at home at all.



EA: Your movies are constructed in loops and as loops. Loops are connected to modern and contemporary experiences in art and cinema. The looping is also a consequence of new practices of watching images today; everybody can stop a movie and repeatedly go backward and forward. What do loops mean to you?

MA: We could also go backward in time and talk about some of the precursors of cinema in this context, for example the zoetrope and the phenakistoscope showed loops as well. But this is not the focus of my interests. For me loops stand for the “hamster wheel,” for the impossibility to move forward, for the mercilessness of being stuck and getting exhausted. What I like about this form is that it is what it is. And that’s it. Let’s take Self Control (2011) for example. There’s a cat that first seems to be furious and seconds later takes a brick and bangs itself on its own head. What I like about this image or these images is that there’s no explanation and no solution. No causality and no consequence. It just goes on and on. It’s not like in life or in feature films where everybody constantly is looking to explain things that very often can’t be explained. On the other hand, watching things repeatedly in a loop also allows us to analyze the footage, to find out what was going on in the images. My classical example in this case is the Zapruder footage that accidentally documented the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. The CIA and the FBI were called in to solve the case and had to use the Super 8 amateur film material of an onlooker named Abraham Zapruder for their analysis. They put the twenty-six seconds long Zapruder footage in a loop and watched it infinite times to reach a ballistic conclusion by means of Kennedy’s head position, which would give an answer to where the projectiles were fired from. Honestly, I could never make any sense linking these very different approaches. And at the end I thought, let them simply stand for themselves. But shifting the topic to the presentation of my work: it is also important that the loops as such can stand by themselves and can’t get or shouldn’t get mixed up in short film programs. Museums and galleries guarantee that these works will be presented next to each other, rather than in succession, as short film programs do. I find the next-to-each-other way more respectful; the successive format reminds me of my grade school days when we all had to stand up when being called alphabetically by name: Ablaidinger, Arnold, Bartholner, Czeika. It’s disgusting in grade school and more so in short film programs. I mean, short-film curators do their own editing by putting already-edited pieces together, prioritizing their editing over the filmmaker’s editing.

EA: Could we say that your practice of working in loops creates a kind of particular hysteria because the characters seem lost in temporality? It reminds me of some of very first movies from the end of the nineteenth century. In Comment Monsieur prend son bain (Georges Méliès, 1900) for example, you see a man who tries to undress but the more he removes his clothes, the more he discovers that he’s still dressed.

MA: Exactly! That’s what happened to me in puberty when I tried to undress a woman for the first time. I got stuck in between the layers and in consequence it got very hysterical [laughs]. But on a more serious note, what you said is a very precise reference to my use of the loop. Maybe I left out a point before when mentioning the hamster wheel and the analytical options that repetition provides. The loops within my movies are not exactly loops in the sense of a belt, rope, or carousel. They could qualify as spirals that move slightly forward by going back and forth repeatedly. It’s like what Jean-François Lyotard said in an interview with Alain Pomaréde.1 Lyotard cites Freud and Friedrich Rückert, remembers Samuel Beckett, talks about a “stammering duration” and “tiltable extensiveness,” and concludes that a person who’s limping doesn’t know where the floor is. He is mistrusting the floor. But his mistrust is clever and without resentments, because he’s still walking, but by doing so also reflects the principles of horizontality and verticality.

EA: The loop transforms the image of the characters and the way they were represented in cartoons as well as in live-action footage. But the loop also creates a particular way of perceiving the images. Is it one of your goals to play with the perception of the spectator? And as what kind of spectator would you describe yourself?

MA: I guess I’m not so different from any other spectator. Let’s return to Freud once again, who coined the term “free-floating attention.” What he meant is that the psychoanalyst should listen not only to what the patient tells but also to what he or she does not tell—to the blanks in the story. Furthermore the psychoanalyst should focus on small details that initially seem to be totally insignificant. Everything can prove equally meaningful or meaningless, important or unimportant. In the permanent repetition of the loops in my films, free-floating attention establishes itself quasi-automatically. In pièce touchée a kiss eventually becomes just as significant as the slamming of a door. And the stories narrated in cartoons like Soft Palate (2010) or Haunted House (2011) are  full of blanks.



EA: In a well-known text called “The Defilement” (1973), Thierry Kuntzel called the analyst of film “a de-animator” because he first destructures a movie into very small units and then recombines them in a different way to bring some of its significations to light. To deanimate the original movies also seems to be a part of your way of working; one of your pieces is called Deanimated (2002). On the other hand you have repeatedly stated that accident and coincidence also direct your choices. How do you deal with this tension between analysis, de-animation, and coincidence?

MA: Deanimated was a kind of in-between. I did it before I got interested in cartoons. What I tried to do is erase actors out of feature films. And to see how lonely and obsolete empty sets can look. And that the camera work (shot-countershot) doesn’t make sense any longer. The camera always seems to look for something that’s not there. In terms of the texts of Thierry Kuntzel: I remember reading one a long time ago, it was about Ernest Schoedsack and Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932).2 I liked it, because it reflected on minor details in a movie that usually are overlooked. From what I remember he’s focusing on the design of a doorknob. And doors being opened and closed. Then he goes on to describe this as a metaphor for the entire movie. Maybe there’s something in common with what I’m doing. For example the endlessly repeated opening and closing of the doors as represented in pièce touchée. I like this game of shifting attention as well. I first let the images run freely in a well-arranged but relatively random structure, and only then do I want to perceive what actually happens and can happen. It’s a kind of risky business guided by chance principles. Each of these works of two to five minutes is sourced from roughly three hours of film sketches. There is a lot of coincidence involved. I use a variety of forwarding and rewinding methods and switch on or off elements such as eyes, ears, legs, and so on. I simply wait and see what is formed during this production process. Most of it is uninteresting. But once in a while something that would have never crossed my mind happens, and this I find fascinating. And therefore I end up stringing these moments together.



EA: Your cartoon movies all take place in front of a black background. Why the black? The blackness refers to the history of art: first the modernity of Édouard Manet, and then the abstract experimentations in the painting of the twentieth century, such as Kazimir Malevich’s abstraction based on geometry and pure color. But blackness also refers to the classical cartoons, made in Hollywood during the 1920s and the 1930s. In the series Out of the Inkwell made by the Fleischer Brothers, which includes Koko the Clown and Betty Boop, the characters are always coming from a black ink stain, as if the black was the origin of the process of figuration. Is your black coming from these regions?

MA: This is very different from Malevich. For him black was really black, a color or noncolor in the spectrum he described as point zero. I do like the Fleischer cartoons and especially Koko the Clown. They have a lot of humor, plus they are very self-reflective in their use of forms. In Out of the Inkwell they’re explaining their animation process and their mode of production. In Malevich’s Black Square nothing gets explained; the black square is simply what it is. If we move on from Malevich to Jean Tinguely’s Meta-Malevich (1954) the black background might even become more interesting. For me there is a reference to the abstract or absolute film movement in Germany in the 1920s by such as artists as Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter, and Oskar Fischinger. They usually presented their abstracted white curves, squares, or rectangles in front of a black background. So basically this is what I’m doing, except that I don’t work with abstracted white forms, but cartoon elements. Interestingly enough, these cartoon elements very often are abstracted forms, too. Let’s take Mickey’s eyes as an example. In the early days of black-and-white movies his eyes were just two black ellipses. And they look very abstract in close-ups, almost like some shapes in Richter’s Rhythm 21 (1921). To summarize my answer: there are elements in common, but the differences in these approaches might be stronger. Fischinger for example—based on a misunderstanding—got referred to Disney and started feeling obsolete there, since he delivered artworks and they wanted cartoons. In his disappointment he made collages like where Minnie and Mickey get shocked and frustrated looking at a Kandinsky painting. It’s very hard to cope with tamers. But since the story involving Fischinger happened in Los Angeles I also remember Siegfried and Roy, the German tamers of white tigers. And their shows at the Mirage in Las Vegas, which ended in an accident with a tiger called Montecore in 2003. Sometimes the tamed animals act back in their full bestiality. It’s like the return of the unconscious. And if they do, they’ll simply bite you in the neck.


[1] Jean-François Lyotard interview with Alain Pomaraède “Art Presént” no. 8 (1979).
[2] Thierry Kuntzel, “Le travail du film, 2,” Communications “Psychanalyse et cinema,” no. 23 (1975).


Martin Arnold is a filmmaker and artist whose work has been shown at more than 180 international film festivals, including Cannes, Rotterdam, and New York. In addition to festival screenings, his films have been shown at various cinematheques such as the Cinémathèque française in Paris, the Cinémathèque Royale in Brussels, the National Film Theatre in London, the San Francisco Cinematheque, and the Cinematheque of the MoMA in New York. Martin’s work was also included in museum exhibitions at such venues as Witte de With Art Center in Rotterdam, Bozar in Brussels, Barbican Art Center in London, Kunsthaus Zürich and MACBA in Barcelona, among others.

Emmanuelle André is a professor in film studies in the University of Paris-Diderot (Paris 7). She is the author of Esthétique du motif. Cinéma, musique, peinture (PUV, 2007), Le choc du sujet. De l’hystérie au cinema (PUR, 2011), and, with Dork Zabunyan, L’attrait du téléphone (Yellow Now, 2013). She has edited reviews and publications on the relations between film aesthetics, art history, and cultural anthropology. Currently she is working on a book on the hand and the eye in cinema.


Originally published on Mousse 62


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