Fully Animated by John Muse
Fully Animated by John Muse
John Muse’s essay, Fully Animated, on Nomi Talisman’s and Dee Hibbert-Jones’ exhibition at Grizzly Grizzly, Then That Night…, is part of a series of essays archiving one year of Grizzly Grizzly exhibitions, in celebration of our 10th year as an artist collective. Throughout the year, we will be collaborating with exhibiting artists and emerging and established writers to produce essays that critically reflect on the exhibitions and expand the ideas explored in our experimental project space. In addition to being posted on this blog, the collected essays will culminate in our first bound publication, to be released in September 2019. Support for this year-long project, that fosters writing in the visual arts, was generously provided by The Velocity Fund administered by Temple Contemporary with generous funding from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
1. Two black men: Troy Anthony Davis, October 9, 1968–September 21, 2011. Manuel Pina “Manny” Babbitt, May 3, 1949–May 4, 1999. Both men were convicted of capital offences, Davis in California for the 1989 murder of Mark MacPhail; Babbitt in Georgia for the 1980 murder of Leah Schendel. Both men were executed by lethal injection: Davis at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Butts County, Georgia; Babbitt at San Quentin State Prison.
2. The previous sentences tie names to dates to places to life and death and race, all knotted around “lethal injection” and “were convicted… were executed,” passive voice constructions. These phrases measure the full weight of the legal real, the machinery of state power where saying makes it so and where the doing of this saying is allocated to collective agencies: the People of California vs. Manuel Babbitt; the State of Georgia vs. Troy Davis. Judges and Supreme Courts hear appeals; Governors are called; Wardens supervise; physicians attend; but no one individual, as a matter of will and caprice and in their own name, arrests, tries, convicts, incarcerates, executes, pronounces dead. Individual officers, Individual lawyers, individual judges, elected officials, all operate under the various colors of authority, authority ultimately derived, said to be derived, from the governed, from a sovereign people, from us. So, let me revise one of the passive verbs and supply an active grammatical subject: we executed Davis, we executed Babbitt. I did; you did; we did, we the people.
3. How to represent these ties and these lives and deaths so as, on the one hand, to characterize and affect the massively entangled agencies of the State and yet, on the other, not crush Davis and Babbitt beneath representational modes that would reduce them merely to names and bodies handled and marked by their encounter with the law? Nomi Talisman and Dee Hibbert-Jones take up this challenge in an exhibition at Grizzly Grizzly entitled Then That Night… This titular phrase is a narrative hinge, constituting as it does a moment that divides before from after. But “then that night…” is less a well lubricated joint in an otherwise clockwork unfolding, e.g., “and then… and then… and then…,” than a decisive turn. “Then that night” proposes a cut, implying that what came before might account for what comes after, but in mysterious, troubling ways. A surprise, a shock, something will be marked as irrevocable and yet explicable. The title thus signals that the exhibition and the artists’ efforts to represent life, death, murder, and execution will commit to storytelling, to tracking breaks, to excavating enigma and the proliferating power of trauma. They will commit not only to storytelling but to storytellers, to voices that will say and say again, in various ways, “then that night…” Sentiments, tears, and laments will illuminate these nights because the ones telling have survived, are surviving, if only for a time, to tell a tale of hurt that itself hurts; the hurt is the cause and the effect. The hurt is what is to be told and what the telling continues to cost those who tell and those who know how to listen.
4. Then That Night… features a looping version of Talisman’s and Hibbert-Jones’ Oscar nominated, animated documentary short Last Day of Freedom, as well as looping versions of two clips, one a work-in-progress excerpt from a soon to be animated feature, Run With It, and another, a stand-alone fragment titled 94124. Last Day of Freedom tells Manny Babbitt’s story; Run With It, Troy Davis’; 94124, the story of James Hill, who was shot at a block party in Hunter’s Point, CA—hence the zip code, 94124. The exhibition also features color inkjet prints of frames from Last Day of Freedom, these organized into grids, clusters, and some hung singly, all mounted sparely and neatly with magnets. White paper. White walls. Films that mostly feature white grounds upon which nervous, spritely black lines map the contours of black people, places, and things. All that whiteness undergirding black lines, black lives, black pain, black death. The blackness of the storytellers and the characters that inhabit their tales is as much in the quality of these lines, in the lines as trembling, insistent cuts in the field of whiteness, in the difference that a line can make, giving shape to something, inscribing contact zones between figure and ground, between citizen and state, between the present moment and history, between the abyss of death and the shudder of life—blackness is as much in these inscriptions as it is in the legible if imagined colors of a body, in the legible if imagined features of a faces, hands, voices.
5. The prints on the wall are all derived from film frames. These film frames—and the films as wholes—were rotoscoped. That is, they were made by drawing, in this case on a graphics tablet input device, tracing digital cinema images: of interview subjects, of archival footage from the Vietnam War, of children on the beach, of hands searching through coat pockets, etc. Lens-based images (found images and ones created by the artists) are the ground, the drawings mostly being tracings, thin black lines on expansive white ground, contours and textures, of a face, of tears coursing down a face, of a hand, a roof, a room, a helicopter, a soldier. Occasionally, posterized or high-key color appears: a green slice of a desk drawer, a chair, a book or two, a stack of manila folders, a red necktie. The color establishes a block of reality, not by piercing the veil of drawing to give what truly lies beneath, but to signify “partiality,” only this much and no more, and to signify “pieces,” obdurate and thick, redolent of memory and partial recall. The lines may be thin, separating positive from negative space by the sparest of means, but the colors and occasionally solid or shaded areas of bodies or objects provide counterpoint. The concrete and the abstract are on a turnstile: a line is a horizon; a splash of color is a beach; these contours sum to a person; blocks of red are a blaze of streetlamp revealed and obscured by a windshield wiper, a blocky stream of cars on a freeway, a stained, sprocketed film frame presenting the letters “EN” of “THE END.” The prints amplify the labors of abstraction, the rotoscoping being transformative, a way to sculpt generality—Babbitt’s story, Davis’ story, Hill’s story, these are to have reach—plumping the sensuous punch of color and line while voiding the merely idiosyncratic. These cases, their courses, will capture the contour of many.
6. The exhibition is thus more than the longest of these films, The Last Day of Freedom, and more than the three time-based works together. The artists, by including the prints, remodel the white box of the small gallery: now a workspace, now a repository for memento mori, now a laboratory for forensics. First, the prints say, “this is our look board” and “this is our story board,” the working images of filmmakers needing to emblematize their visual style and palette, the characters, locations, themes, and sequencing. Second, the prints are also archival remnants of a moving image work, staid and still and to-be-remembered; parts that refer to absent and ephemeral wholes; less the spatialization of a temporal medium than a counter-temporal assembly. With these prints the time of looking, unregulated as it is, has been unmoored from the time of the represented events. Third, the prints also seem to be the product of third-party attention: having seen something, having witnessed a life, a crime, a death, someone, wanting to understand, has mapped its most sensitive points, the clues and wonders. This latter regard asks viewers to treat the prints as the truth of an event, a truth though that must be set in motion, that is, narrated, ordered, and temporalized, the pieces having finally been put together; The Last Day of Freedom would be that truth. Sitting to watch this film then is to grasp a whole and to hope for a clear vision of justice, whether delayed or merely promised. These three utilities overlap: the artists invite viewers to step into the role of maker, into the role of collector, into the role of witness and investigator, which entails stepping into the role of citizen, into the role of “we the people.” The good-enough viewer accepts these invitations and accepts these responsibilities, accepts the call to be both a spectator, enjoying the sophisticated play of a sensual experience, and a citizen, ethically bound to the means and ends of collective projects as well as to liberty and justice for all.
7. Bill is Manny’s brother: Bill tells Manny’s story. Martina is Troy’s sister; De’Jaun is Martina’s son and Troy’s nephew: Martina and De’Jaun tell Troy’s story. Daisy is James’ mother; Daisy tells James’ story. Talisman and Hibbert-Jones sustain these bloodlines through interviews, through the voice and moving image of the storyteller. They give us the teller and other things as well: incidental sounds, other voices, music. Both standard and exquisitely refined techniques of non-fiction storytelling abound. Standard: the interviewees look not directly into the camera and thus not into the eye of the beholder but just off axis, into the eyes of the interviewer, a third party. Standard too: the tellers tell of X and we see them telling of X and also see X. Guns are mentioned, and we see guns; a puppy is mentioned, and we see a puppy; an arrest is mentioned, and we see an arrest. Exquisitely refined: sometimes we see what we will soon hear about, rippling the smooth envelope of the present tale with the turbulent forces of soon-to-be futures and archaic pasts: police activity, children at play, paratroopers, headline news. For example, after Bill tells of Manny’s increasingly erratic behavior, we see rotoscoped news clippings; one headline, partially obscured by churning black chopper blades, reads “Murder leaves elderly in terror.” We then see the name “Leah Schendel” several times until it finally fills the screen—all the while there is the dull thump of the now absent chopper blades, the long-over Vietnam War continuing to sound and bear down on Manny and Leah and Bill. Only then does Bill begin to tell the story of how he learns that his brother has killed Schendel.
8. Note the careful orchestration of this sequence and its consequences for time and narrative order: we know that the death penalty is coming, that lethal injection is coming. Bill well knows the story he’s telling, having lived it. The usual enigma—who murdered Leah Schendel?—isn’t an enigma at all. And yet by showing us something happening before it is explicitly mentioned, before we even know who Leah Schendel is, and by steeping this happening in the sights and sounds of the Vietnam War, Talisman and Hibbert-Jones foreground a thesis. In some stories, what-happens-next is the enigma; in this story, it is what this happening means, its rootedness in trauma, in both an accident suffered by the 12-year-old Manny and his later experiences in Vietnam. These are synchronous, are of a single time and space. Bill’s story is ordered, chronological, driving; Talisman and Hibbert-Jones don’t disorder Bill’s story—the headlines go unremarked but Schendel dies just outside the frame of Bill’s narrative—rather, they ground this story in the disorder of Manny’s life, in Manny’s life as it reverberates in Bill’s telling. A polemical move, certainly: the soundscape argues that when Manny kills Schendel, it is the continuation of the war, its ongoing occurrence, and further, that the war is the ongoing occurrence of a childhood injury. Bill tells of these fully animating overlaps, and the artists instantiate them visually and acoustically.
9. Also refined are Last Day of Freedom’s first few seconds, which the artists decisively recirculate at a crucial moment. First, a black screen to white screen, a cut not a dissolve; abrupt and pure. An electric guitar offers a spare, dissonant melodic line: one instrument, one musician, personal, close, of and for “the 60’s,” rock and roll, but an echo, a lingering trace, not a citation but an allusion. Black diagonal lines then creep across the white frame forming a corner, then circles, staining fields of muted, neutral colors; it is a rooftop: vents, shadows, a few doorways—an aerial view, the view from a helicopter or drone; surveillance, policing, a total view, a manhunt. The buildings are drawn, nervous, quick, sketched and trembling rather than CAD-precise or CGI-level simulacra. We’re looking at handwork that forthrightly asserts rather than hides its status as handwork: deft, simple, simplifying, but rough, searching. Cars move along a street; time passes, and we see time passing. Quick dissolve to children with a football, happy, sketched in, color vibrating and reversing, like a photographic positive flipping to a negative, a spark and sparkle. Not so much particular children as “Children” with a capital “C”; a somersault that says, “Play” and “Idyll”; hooded coats that say, “East Coast Fall.” Then San Quentin Prison appears in the background, its iconic tower, its iconic 19th century architecture; then a slip of beach, a sea gull. A hand as large as the screen wipes across the previous images; we hear someone say, as though guided by this very hand, “When they started bringing back the death penalty, I embraced it.” Thirty-two seconds have passed. We see Bill after we hear Bill. Bill too is built from quivering black lines, assembled from mobile, rotoscoped contours delineating head and shoulders, facial features, an open collar. Eyes, dark with large, glistening, radiant eye-lights. Bill, like the street and childhood and prison and beach is iconic, a storyteller about to begin, but Bill is also a particular person as San Quentin State Prison is a particular prison.
10. All of the pieces are in place, collaged and shifting, as well as the pertinent, structuring oppositions: a storyteller and an auditor; a view from above and a view towards the horizon, i.e., vertical and horizontal; childhood and adulthood; innocence and guilt; play and death; freedom and incarceration, all the way to execution; and error: once upon a time, I embraced the death penalty, but now… Accordingly, several dates and temporal zones overlap. First, Bill is speaking to the artists in 2010; later he will locate himself in this very present: “Thank you for putting that box out there in front of me; ‘you stand on this box and tell that story.’ Thank you for that rooftop.” A box, a rooftop; so, so high, Bill shouting from the rooftops, more than 10 years after the death of his brother. Second, Bill speaks of a time when “they,” his fellow citizens in the state of California, voted to reinstate the death penalty: 1972. Third, the images of childhood; his childhood, his brother Manny’s childhood: the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Fourth, San Quentin, where his brother was incarcerated and then executed: 1981 to 1999. Fifth, the beach: there are several, one in Half Moon Bay, one on Cape Cod, one on Bodega Bay; Bill and Manny together, digging for clams as children, Bill and Manny digging for clams as adults when Manny moves to California to live with Bill and his wife: the 60’s again, the 70’s when they’re living together, 1980 when Manny kills the 78-year-old Schendel, 1999 when Manny dies and Bill and his wife spend the day in Half Moon Bay. As in the sequence that includes the contemporary reporting on the murder of Leah Schendel, the artists don’t so much mix times and spaces, years and coasts and landscapes, but reveal the mixing that enables and complicates storytelling and structures a meaningful life.
11. Talisman’s and Hibbert-Jones’ title, Last Day of Freedom, cites a pivotal line from Bill’s interview, two actually, as he uses the phrase twice: First, “I lied to my brother. On his last day of freedom.” And then, “Her [Bill’s sister] last image of Manny when Manny was making her kids squeal with delight. He made those little tent sheets out of sheets the day he was arrested. That’s the memory she has of Manny on his last day of freedom.” Bill lied to his brother: he lured him out of his sisters apartment with the promise of a day at the pool hall, one game being traded for another; the police were waiting. The last day of freedom then refers not only to the day Manny was arrested for the murder of Leah Schendel and not only to the day Bill lied to his brother—the phrase also refers to play, to the freedom of Bill’s sister’s children and thus to Manny’s freedom with and for them: children are free to play at almost anything, at building tents and forts, sheets and blankets and furniture, hiding and seeking, playing at war even. But the irony of the title is apparent, especially given the way that the artists stage the work and build the exhibition. When precisely was this last day of Freedom? Was it the day before the 12-year-old Manny was injured in a traffic accident and began to suffer in school, to repeat grades, unable to read and write? Was it the day that Manny joined the Marines and shipped off to Vietnam, though he had failed to pass a written test but was admitted anyway? Was it the day before the 1968 Battle of Khe Sanh, a battle Manny survived but relived, it coming to him and for him again and again? Or was it the day before he was born, a black child who would grow up to be sentenced to death by an all-white jury represented by a white lawyer who discounted the relevance of the jury selection?
12. The film asks these questions and wrecks the very idea of the last day of freedom. Not that Bill can’t mean what he says or that the relative difference between the freedom of a condemned man and the freedom of a child can’t be measured and cultivated. The measurement though is fraught, haunted by doubts, doubts the film insists be considered and drawn, diagramed. As though to salvage and so reveal this wreck, right after Bill first intones, “on his last day of freedom,” the film literally begins again: black diagonal lines creep across the white frame forming a corner—just as before. Then circles, staining fields of muted, neutral colors: a rooftop, vents, shadows, a few doorways—just as before. An aerial view, the view from a helicopter or drone; surveillance, policing, a total view, a manhunt, an arrest, capture, incarceration, death. The last day was in the first few seconds; the last day was the always-coming day.
13. Near the end of the film, and by way of synopsis, Bill mentions the Schendel family, their loss in 1980, and their presence at Manny’s execution in 1999: “Yes, they were victims. They had a terrible loss. But we’re all partners in this experiment. We all got blood on our hands now.” Though there is currently a moratorium on executions in California, these experiments continue: death is still a legal penalty in the state and 737 inmates remain on death row. Talisman’s and Hibbert-Jones’ explicitly aim their work at the injustice of the death penalty, its implementation and existence, as well as the injustices of particular cases; they aim it too at the sentencing of Manny Babbitt and the conviction and sentencing of Troy Davis. But they also seek to shift the center of gravity from the theater of the courtroom and execution chamber to our shared predicament, the proliferating blood and wounds of the death penalty. They do so formally and carefully. While the artists depict a police station, and an empty courtroom, and San Quentin—all typified and rendered iconic—Manny’s execution is described by Bill but not depicted. First, we are only shown shadows, cross-hatching really, a deep dark place without form or substance, until Bill says, “He’s just lying there with his eyes closed.” Then, just before he goes on to say, “And I'm looking at the Schendel family…” Talisman and Hibbert-Jones cut to black. And while Bill continues to speak, they hold this black for 19 long seconds. Manny’s eyes close and so do ours; for a time, an abyss opens in the representational logic of the film and the prints: no print on the gallery wall is wholly black; thus no print purports to take the full measure of lethal injection, of death at the hands of the state; no print purports to take this time and make the eclipse of time its referent. The always something of the quivering line that cuts through the fields of whiteness, that offers intelligible figures in a calculus of memory and the synchronies of time—these collapse. This is what blood on our hands looks like. Not darkness, not the night of “Then that night…,” not black, these being opposed by light, day, and white, by the turn of an event, but nothing, the nothing of something irreparably broken, a nothing done in our names and with our consent.
14. Bill will continue talking, will remain caretaker of memory and animating survivor. And he will cry. His tears, sobs, and broken syntax will show us what it looks like and sounds like and means to go on in the wake of this nothing; as he says, “Here I am! Implacable! I’m going to tell it.” The implacability of death—the standard connotation of death, the absolute master, “inevitability” itself—meets the implacability of the one who says, “I’m going to tell it!” And Bill, in saying only this, has already begun to tell, the teller and the tale being out of joint but nonetheless joined, out of joint because Bill will always be ahead of himself and behind himself, out of synch with the lives he’s touching with his tale; joined because he is the bearer and sharer of this very disjunction.
15. The tears and their representation say this; Talisman and Hibbert-Jones take particular care with Bill’s tears, allegorizing the formal trouble their film makes for representing the witness and for this witness to synchronize the truth. Bill’s tears are sometimes looping drips and droplets, sometimes coursing lines, sometimes ribbons and undulating sheets, sometimes droopingly thick masses hanging and trembling beneath his eyes. No print shows these tears, as though they can only be rendered correctly if they’re made to move; as though they only properly diagram the implacability of the story teller when they punctuate speech, putting the thickness of Bill’s body, its fluids and guttural stumbles, back into his words. Bill’s tears are animated blocks of extra-human stuff that nonetheless designate the human; they are abject, cast out and away, and yet they are the very best that a body can do when pressed by love and loss. Like color and like the nothing that comes after “… with his eyes closed,” they are a surplus and an abyss. Yes, tears mean something: they index pain, love, and attachment; they index survival and the not yet completed arc of mourning; they index too the impact of feelings reanimated by the telling. And yet they are also the limit of meaning, a break in speech and sense, and, as the rotoscoping shows, a break in figuration. The tears disfigure Bill’s face, their line weight being equal to that of nose, eyebrow, mustache, they are deep features rather than surface ones. The tears, as contours, are cuts; the crying being is a being with another flesh, a striated, permeable flesh, open and exposed.
16. Then That Night… invites us to open ourselves to Bill, Manny, Martina, Troy, Daisy, James, the abyss, and these tears. Talisman and Hibbert-Jones limn the experiment that is our democracy, our citizenship, and our death penalty; in all this we are partners; we share and yet don’t share and share alike. Not yet. They seek to intervene, to show the harms of racialized policing, racialized criminal justice, the inequities that breed and are bred by war, state violence, white supremacy, anti-blackness, and the heartlessness, shortsightedness, and criminality of treating murder as both a crime and its remedy. Their work is spare but unsparing, relentless, and focused, but also loving and attentive to the perspectives and voices of their storytellers, not only in how their voices are orchestrated, ordered, and aimed, but also in how their animation, their handwork and touch, sustains the lively and rough joinery of many lives, many places, and many times. Talisman and Hibbert-Jones have crafted a visual language that justly honors the singularity of each tale while rooting the latter in a drifting field of common fate, in whiteness and survival.
17. In the clip from Run With It, low resolution archival footage appropriated from news broadcasts occasionally flash into view. Talisman and Hibbert-Jones include a title over this footage that reads, in italicized all-caps, “WTOC ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE TO BE FULLY ANIMATED.” I read this as both a technical note and a heady promise, technical in so far as the artists here signify “work-in-progress,” answering a question that someone viewing this clip might have about this not-yet-rotoscoped footage: yes, this too, just not yet; thank you for your patience. But the promise here is also reparative: would that the archive, the haunting traces of lives destroyed, could, through testimony and in the crucible of a cancelled experiment, which too would be an experiment, be completely enlivened, all the blood finding its way back into the bodies from which we, citizens all, wrung it. That would be us, living together. But “fully animated” would have to mean, given Last Day of Freedom, Run With It, and 94124, not resurrection, not miracles of time and space, but pellucid mapping, wayfinding through finer and finer lines, marks, colors, and tears; they would seek not the territory, but the best map, the best diagram, the epitome of utility. “Fully animated” would mean reduced, abstracted, contoured just enough to clarify, generalize, synchronize, share, and transport, but not so much as to lose the particularity of our attachments and loves. Then That Night… promises full animation and perhaps an end to the nothing of the gurney, the 19 seconds of nothing that finally emptied Manuel Pina “Manny” Babbitt.
John Muse is Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College. His most recent writing projects include reviews of exhibitions by Suzanne Bocanegra and Yoonmi Nam. He continues to document small cairns and other ephemera built at the corner of Ardmore and Lancaster Avenues in Ardmore PA and elsewhere.
Academy Award® nominated, Emmy® award winning filmmakers Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman have been working together since 2004. Their animated film and new media projects address critical social issues exploring how people manage and who gets heard. Their most recent animated documentary Last Day of Freedom was screened and exhibited internationally, winning international awards including the IDA (International Documentary Art) Best Short; the Filmmaker Award from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, and an Academy Award nomination. They were awarded a United States Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust Award in recognition for their outstanding national commitment to civil rights and social justice; and a California Public Defenders Association Gideon Award. Hibbert-Jones and Talisman are Guggenheim Fellows. Hibbert-Jones is a Professor of Art at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Talisman is an independent animator and editor. Born in the UK and Israel respectively, they live in San Francisco.