Woodrow, 2007. Wood, metal, foam core, found objects, electronics, stop-motion animation, and audio, installation view.

Animating Sculpture: A Conversation with Graeme Patterson

Graeme Patterson makes multi-disciplinary sculptural installations, often with the end game of stop-motion animation in mind. His work is rarely still, fusing robotics, video, sound, objects, and performance into immersive environments that address dislocation, alienation, nostalgia, identity, and, recently, the fraught relationship of humans, our artifacts (physical and cultural), and the natural world. His work is humorous, emotional, and honest–bracing and embracing at once.

With two large installations, Woodrow and Secret Citadel, that have toured Canada, short films that have won international awards, participation in several international residencies, and an exhibition record that includes projects and screenings in Canada, the United States, Iceland, France, and Germany, Patterson is pushing the limits of sculpture, rethinking what it means to work in an “expanded field.”

Ray Cronin: Stop-motion animation can be quite diverse, ranging from commercial approaches such as the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials of the 1960s to recent feature films by directors such as Tim Burton and Wes Anderson. What were some of your influences? 

Graeme Patterson: As a kid, it was mostly from popular culture– those Christmas specials–and when I was a teenager, Tim Burton’s animations. Also, Ray Harryhausen’s work, such as Clash of the Titans, back when animation was used as high-level special effects. I recently re-watched Blade Runner, knowing that there are miniatures and stop motion in it. I grew up when there were a lot of these effects–animation was always the magic in movies. I still watch them today and am blown away by the level of craftsmanship and what it does to my imagination in terms of believing and getting into a world. As a teenager, I wanted to be a professional animator. Later on, when I was at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, I saw Jan Švankmajer’s films and the Quay brothers’ animations, which got me re-interested in stop-motion animation, but only after finding myself at art school and having worked in sculpture.

Secret Citadel, 2013. Wood, metal, found objects, textiles, electronics, stop-motion animation, and audio, installation view.
Player Piano
, 2013. Wood, metal, found objects, automated
player piano, textiles, electronics, stopmotion
animation, and audio, 7 x 5 x 3 ft.

RC: Woodrow (2007), your first nationally touring project, took five years to make and was unabashedly emotional, with serious content about families, community, and a certain melancholy about the rootlessness that seems to be our lot these days. You moved to rural Saskatchewan to live on your grandparents’ farm and used your grandfather’s workshop as your studio. Were you worried about wearing your heart on your sleeve like that? 

GP: I think it would be harder for me to make that work now. I don’t feel the same way anymore. I was 23 when that thought process started, and family was more central to me. It still is big, but in a different way. Back then, there was a lot I didn’t know, and I had a lot of romantic ideas about my family history, about my grandparents’ lives especially. Part of the project was to discover that history. In a way, the process of making that piece was about gaining knowledge. It was an opportunity. Nobody else in my family had as much interest in it as I did at the time–my grandparents were in nearby care homes, and no one from the family was living on the farm. In a way, I took advantage of my interest and the opportunity to be in Woodrow, make the work there, and have the place inspire the project. I think that project really had to do with me as a person, being 23 and maybe a little innocent–about lots of things, but certainly about the art world. It wasn’t as though I thought, “People don’t make work about their families.” 

RC: Secret Citadel (2013), your most recent touring project, is a coming-of-age story mixed up with serious thinking about male friendships. How did the individual works in this project evolve? 

GP: Secret Citadel has to do with Woodrow–that’s where it began. It’s a kind of extension, first family, then childhood friendships. At the time, I was living in Halifax with two good friends, and that living arrangement inspired the idea of a project about male friendship. It evolved over time; and it got darker as it developed. I wanted to think about friendship from an adult point of view, getting beyond how it’s romanticized as a child, and even as a teenager. Secret Citadel ends with Player Piano Waltz, which is the darkest, saddest piece of the bunch. It’s kind of repetitive and lonely. That project was almost like growing up through the work. It’s mostly thinking about my life, but also about communicating what I wanted to say about friendship–the truths, the fantasies, the fear.

A Suitable Den, 2016. Rear-projection, stop-motion animation, interactive software, sensors, audio, vinyl wall mural, stop-motion puppet, furniture, carpet, Plexiglas, metal, and wood, room size: 9 x 9 x 13 ft.

RC: Your works always have a strong narrative quality–do you think of yourself as a storyteller? 

GP: At times. In an abstract sense, I feel I am. But I like to portray static moments as narrative. In Woodrow and Secret Citadel, there are a bunch of static moments, almost like photographs. There are a couple of things happening, or a couple of characters, and they’re repetitive, running over and over and over, and people can put them together into a broken narrative. It’s storytelling, but through another form, not in a traditional sense. It’s not scripted in that way. I enjoy telling stories, and I like the fact that people pull a narrative from the work. There’s never one true narrative to any of the works, though; they’re intended to have the ability to be a different story for every viewer. 

RC: Animation is a very physical art form; you need to move each object thousands of times to build a moving image. There is an element of performance, which you make manifest by including yourself sometimes. In Secret Citadel, the costumes that you made and wore were included in the exhibition. Sculpture, performance, animation, photography: Do you make any distinctions? 

GP: Genres don’t really matter to me. That’s not saying that anything is right or wrong; I’m a maximalist at heart–I like to throw as much at my projects as I can usually, mostly because I enjoy the process of layering and adding. I take some things away, but I always like to try new stuff. Learning new things, or trying something a little different in every project, excites me, excites the project and the work. I do a lot of thinking through the process, so when I’m doing something new it’s even more enjoyable. 

RC: Your recent installation in Toronto, A Suitable Den (2016), featured an animated raccoon that slowly destroys an office. This was your most aggressive work to date. What was the thinking behind it? 

GP: That work was based purely on opportunity and the environment– an office on the 68th floor of a bank tower turned into a gallery project space. The 68th floor is for the banking elite in Toronto. I considered who is up there, I considered the building, and I came up with the idea of a raccoon in an office dating from the mid-’70s when the building was constructed, referencing the time when raccoons really started becoming a problem in Toronto– an urban pest. The narrative asks, “What would happen if a raccoon got up here and was locked in?” Essentially you walk into the room, crossing a floor with sensors, and there’s a nine-by-nine-foot, rearprojection screen displaying a stop-motion animated raccoon that functions through a computer program. It’s not a video; it’s essentially like a video game. The raccoon “knows” where you are and might follow you around. It can pick up some words, but it also has its own random things. It’ll know where you are, but it might decide to go over in the corner and sleep, scratch the wall or furniture, or defecate. I wanted to create more of a random sense in my work. Video has a beginning and an end, even the video within the sculpture has a beginning and an end, so everything cycles. It’s always the same; whereas this may be static, but every day is different, every experience is different. I don’t know what the raccoon is going to be doing next.

Infinity Pool, 2017. Cast resin, found objects, plastic, textiles, wood, metal, plumbing, and electronics, 25 x 70 x 50 ft.

RC: That leads me back to Woodrow, which includes The House, a model of the family homestead portrayed as an infested ruin. Why the interest in animals encroaching on human space? 

GP: Animals are part of our lives, always. Living in Woodrow was the first time that I had been confronted with pests as facts of rural life–having to shoot gophers, having to kill mice, having to rid myself of these nuisances. It was a seed of something that came again later. I’m intrigued by our reaction to these animals, which are always around us. 

RC: Which brings us to Infinity Pool (2017), which you mounted in Gatineau, Quebec. With its animatronic birds fouling a group of backyard pools, this work is both funny and caustic. What prompted you to address this particularly suburban subject? 

GP: Infinity Pool was inspired by the space. It used to be a foundry, and there were birds living in it. No one cared when it was a foundry; but when it was turned into an indoor soccer facility, they closed off all the windows, which makes it really hot in the summer, so the birds couldn’t get in and defecate on the field. That got me thinking. I had already worked on a couple of projects featuring starlings, which had been an interest of mine, and I decided to put starlings up in the rafters. Originally, I thought of them shitting on the grass. But even though it would only be water, I realized that I really couldn’t do that, so I decided to add the pools. People always complain about having to clean birdshit out of their pools. It is a first-world problem, and I find it funny–we’re trying to mimic nature, trying to have a lake in our backyard, and we get angry when animals want to be part of it. I was playing with an indoor/outdoor idea. Black-tinted water was pumped through the birds on to the miniature landscapes and pools below, rendering them useless. They looked like toxic waste sites. So, it’s a kind of reversal of something we do to the natural world. It has a political edge to it, I guess, much like A Suitable Den, but with humor, and some irony. My intention is to evoke different things in people, whether those things be negative or positive. There’s no video in this work because I see the water as the animated component. It’s the unpredictable thing, the thing that evolves over time. It creates splashes, it moves the surface of the pools, it evaporates, it leaves stains–none of which I have any control over. That I find interesting. It’s a new way of animating. 

Ray Cronin is a writer based in Nova Scotia. 

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