Jiří Ptáček: Can you remember the first work in which you consciously applied animation principles? It was the animation “It’s Just Film”, in which you re-drew trailers for three classic horror moves? What inspired you to do this work?
Matěj Smetana: Before I studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Brno, and in the first years of my studies with Petr Kvíčala I wasn’t all that interested in video and animation. I was more fascinated by conceptual thinking about objects and installations. But I was constantly struggling with my own lack of practicality. It surprised me that objects I could see in my mind in ideal form and I produced with all the care I could still looked different. I mean imperfect, ugly, and disruptive details. That was one of the main reasons why in my third year I had a period in the drawing studio, which at that time was run by Josef Daněk. Josef and I had already had a lot of discussions about drawing and its possibilities. I was pleased that he didn’t pressure us into studying drawings – I wasn’t much good at that anyway, and I don’t even think that mastering drawing from life is essential to the production of good art. I can no longer remember precisely how I got the idea of re-drawing the horror movie trailers, but I know that the weird genre of trailers already interested me back then. These are normally done by a different director and are short, strictly limited film works used as a lure. The point is to convey suggestions that make the movie attractive but avoid spoilers. At the same time the trailer usually emphasises dramatic passages taken out of context, and sometimes this enables new contexts to emerge. At the time I had no inkling of the term rotoscope, but I knew that I wanted to exploit drawing in a kind of dumb way, by drawing round existing motifs. Usually I’m interested in ways of working that run counter to virtuosity or exceptional manual skill, and that’s why it seemed attractive to me to put an LCD monitor on my lap and start tracing individual frames using transparent paper and spirit fix.
As regards content, I knew that the result would be a chaotic and unsteady drawing, in which the original contours would be partly outlined. Thinking about a suitable motif I decided to exploit the trailers for old horror movies. Their main purpose is to frighten the viewer in simple ways, but at the same time they keep him in an entertaining tension because the terror is the safe kind. It occurred to me that the aspect of fear might work in combination with the unsteady drawing and the original sound.
JP: At the time at the Faculty of Fine Arts there was a wider circle of visual artists who were finding starting points for art works in animation – begining with Filip Cenek and Jiří Havlíček, and then through Pavel Ryška and up to Jan Žalio. Did this have help to deepen your interest in the field?
MS: When I think about it, not so much, surprisingly. Not consciously anyway. I didn’t usually worry about whether I wanted to work with the moving image – I just had ideas, which sometimes for some reason eventually crystallised into the form of animation, while at other times they became an object or something else. The form of the animation usually depended on the particular idea, too. I didn’t have the feeling of belonging to a circle, but at the time I very much admired the work of the artists you mention, for example Solaris by Filip Cenek and Jiří Havlíček or the experiments of Petr Strouhal, and so they must have had some influence on me. Pavel Ryška’s s sequential prints, Ursonata were fundamental for me. Now I think that the schematic, stiff movements of the 2D drawings in the series Instructions must have been inspired by the tempo and mode of narration in the digital animations of Jan Šrámek (VJ Kolouch).
JP: All the same, your attention to the principles of animation and the production of the moving image became stronger. Your graduation work was a collective animation – you brought together a group of friends so that in the course of one day spent together they would create a short animated sequence, with each bringing a puppet they had chosen. Were you trying for a kind of democratisation of the principles of directing?
MS: I’m wondering what that democratisation of principles of directing ultimately means. I looked as though the directing genuinely shifted into the hands of the participants – they freely shared in the form of the film on the basis of self-organisation, mutual interactions and so on. Everything was completely in their hands – for example one of my friends decided to animate a massive candlestick in the shape of a swas-tika he had brought. I was afraid that an object like that would harm the context of the work, but I had forbidden myself to interfere in the animation process. All the same, it’s not clear whether I really managed to offload the directing role. My plan (apart from an attempt to realise a practical graduation piece in one day) was to make a short animation so stuffed with action that it had to be watched many times over for all the overlapping events to be taken in. I probably managed that.
JP: I’m allowing myself a huge jump in time so I can ask you about the animation Mechanical Principles of 2015. This also seems at first sight very chaotic and illogical, but in fact it is based on a precisely given treatment of the frequency of the frames in individual sequences. I want to ask if you thought of this structuring principle first and then applied it to Ralph Steiner’s eponymous film of 1930, or whether it was the other way round. It’s because I want to know if the primary impulse for the creation of your art works is usually the need to test out the abstract rules of a visual phenomenon.
MS: From the moment I encountered the absolutely superb film Mechanical Principles I wanted to work with it in some way. As time went on that ambition became connected with another idea I had been considering for a long time. I like stroboscopes because they are able to create a powerful affect on a completely trivial basis: regular switching light and dark. The effect changes depending on the frequency. I thought it could be possible to use this principle to distinguish different forms purely on the basis of their different frequencies of flashing. I animated the whole film in this way – I tried to depict looping mechanical elements just by using flashing fields with different frequencies. The mechanisms thus changed into graphic configurations that kept repeating in multiplying cycles. In each field the white and black alternated after a different number of frames, and so at regular intervals the surfaces met for a moment in the same colour. This made it look as if elements of the machines were disappearing and then appearing again. In the context of depiction of machines I also liked the notion of “visual noise”, which would to a certain extent make an assault on our sight.
JP: Mechanical Principles strikes me as a continuation of the animation Factory (2012) and the video-animation Taylorism (2013–2016). In these too you use the metaphor of the machine, for example when you invent and animate the factory production of the symbol of the star. Do you think there is a connection between the techniques of animation and serial production?
MS: Taylorism was a theory of increased work productivity in manufacturing. It emerged in the 19th century when it was discovered that labour could be divided between individual employees into small repeating tasks and this improved productivity. It strikes me that the process of animation is very similar, including the analogy between the production line and and the film tape. In the end the principle of projection in frames, when the impression of movement arises in our brains on the basis of our perception of a rapid sequence of images, is also similar. For the series of videos Taylorism I left it to my friends to think up the simple repeating gesture. I then added, into the hands, shapes corresponding to their motions. Taylorism was happening on several levels – I too was following the pattern when I was finishing off the drawing of individual phases of the shapes on the computer.
In my preceding series of animations Factories I was bafter something a little different. The symbol of the star has interested me for a long time. It intrigues me that one of the most frequently used symbols exists as a result of the imperfections of our eye. When we look with the naked eye at stars, we see a glitter of rays that “in reality” does not exist in the sky. The sign of the star often carries political, religious and other meanings, differing according to colours, number of points, ratio of sides and so on. In the Factories animations the symbols of stars are constructed in abstract cosmic workshops according to geometrical rules. For example, the pentagram is formed by geometric construction of a golden cut. It seemed fun to me to reverse the relationship between the symbol and its object, to have the symbols of the stars being manufactured directly in the “divine factory”.
JP: Maybe I have been asking you bad questions so far, but I get the impression that you answer me just with more detailed description of individual works. I have noticed that about you in the past. I simply want to know why it is that you perceive your works so separately?
MS: I think I am a bit resistant to the interpretation or identification of some common line unifying my different works. Maybe I’m afraid of stylising myself, or creating an artificial story by linking my works up. Also I would be irritated by psychologising approaches. In doing what I do, I am satisfied by a (possibly fictive) feeling of simplicity. I want to do art in a straightforward way, and so I write down ideas, some of them strike me as having the potential to be good, so I consult with my brother or friends about them, and then I realise them or have them produced. The result either gives me pleasure, or something about it annoys me. It‘s true that I always think that I can learn something about myself retrospectively if I put older work next to new work and trace what is in common and what has been developing over time, but I’m not at all certain if this can be conveyed in any way or whether it would be a good idea to try and name and describe it. Possibly it’s just that I personally don’t want to do it.
JP: At the Mechanik exhibition in the Prague SVIT Gallery, you exhibited not just Mechanical Principles but a series of nine computer drawings showing stalactites growing up into a cave until they completely fill it. The series was reminiscent of an animation sequence, even though it would take hardly more than half a second to run and yet at the same time depicts a process taking thousands of years. Were you interested by the contradiction between these two times?
MS: I had the idea for the Cave sequence of drawings after a debate with the philosopher and caver Norbet Lacko. I was with him and some students in a cave in Kysak near Košice. He talked about the formation of stalactites and I wanted to know if the stalactites would gradually grow through the whole cave until it completely disappeared. Mr. Lacko told me that a phenomenon like that exists and is even very common. At the same time, for some time I had been mulling over the possibilities of working with animation sequences in an immobile medium, for example an installation or drawing, in such a way that they could be seen both as sequences and as a series of separate objects or drawings. That was why I decided to draw an empty cave, which I then made ever denser with growing stalactites. You are right about my interest in the relationship between a simple series of drawings and an immensely long geological process. I didn’t print the drawings. I had them shone through onto photographic paper and developed, because I wanted the black to be really dense.
JP: I was asking because I noticed a similar line of exploration in the picture sequence A Race against Time (2015) for the exhibition with András Cséfalvay in the Prague SPZ Gallery. And it was not long after that you told me on a car journey that you and András were thinking of creating a theatre programme in which you would apply animation techniques to live action. So it’s my impression that here we can see the outlines of a certain orientation to temporality in film and animation, including the effect that is obtained from its transfer to other media. Is it a theme that you are now thinking through?
MS: Yes, I’m very interested in how time can be interpreted and how to treat it. The transformation of separate pictorial fields into motion still strikes me as magic. And in the same way I am puzzled by the impossibility of imagining a resulting mobile image when we look at very slightly different static frames. Behind my interest in the moving image there may to some extent be a concern with a feeling of control over filmic time, the viewer’s perception of time and its interpretation. Generally I’m interested in whether it would be possible to see film tape as a tool for understanding the functioning of time, or if this is an artificial principle unconnected with the real functioning of time.
JP: In this interview we have concentrated on your approach to the moving image, and so we have not managed to cover much… Your objects and installations, your collaboration with your brother Filip, or for example your recent exhibition with Dan Perjovschi. It’s already emerged, though, that your approaches include bringing animation into other media. We mentioned Cave, and I remember your installations in the preceding exhibition in SVIT or the exhibition Autumn Zoom in the Olomouc exhibition space 36. What inspires you to these media transpositions?
MS: I think that in this context I am inspired by various simple and basic discoveries about ordinary things and phenomena, for example that under certain circumstances a series of similar things arranged in a row can be perceived as a sequence in time. At the same time I am inspired by how the American minimalists, or some contemporary artists such as Ján Mančuška, Jan Nálevka and Jan Šerých, deal with principles such as dimension, time, sum of elements, exhaustion of variants and so on. But maybe the answer is more general – I’m led to media transpositions, for instance between animation and sequential installations in Autumn Zoom, by the need to investigate possibilities and variants, which I conduct by constant inversion and disintegration of a particular theme. I am also interested in observing what remains of an original content when I in some way convert its bearer into another.
Jiří Ptáček is a critic and curator of exhibitions of contemporary art.
Matěj Smetana is a visual artist.
Matěj Smetana Snake, 2015 animation, 30 s., frame from the film photo: author’s archive.
Matěj Smetana It’s only a film, 2004 animation, 3 min. 11 s. frames from film.
Factory 3, 2012 animation, 4 min. 59 s. frame from film. Photo: author’s archive.
Matěj Smetana The Fall of the Louvre, 2014 digital drawing on paper 3000 cm × 90 cm, samples from the drawing. photo: author’s archive.
Mechanical Principles, 2015 animation, 9 min. 59 s. photo: Svit Gallery.
Joint animation, 2007 animation, 31 s., frame from film photo: author’s archive.
Instructions 3: Universe, 2009 animation, 7 min. 7 s. frame from film photo: author’s archive.
Matěj Smetana Star, 2011 installation, Lužánky Park, Brno 250 cm × 50 cm × 50 cm photo: Martin Polák.