The Drifting Canvas


2010 revised edition by Robin Footitt

As the wide introduction of cameras challenged traditional art practice a hundred years ago, the current ubiquity of digital recording devices again changes paradigms of the credibility and reliability of images, whether reality driven or fiction-inspired. The images are often witnesses to or excerpts from a larger world into which the work serves as a window.

Klaus Biesenbach

A part of the Digital Art – A New Renaissance program of events held at the Tate Modern in September 2006, Joe Letteri, a visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital and CGI (Computer Generated Image) effects collaborator with Lord of The Rings director Peter Jackson, described the process of anticipating production on Kong. As a remake of the 1933 original King Kong movie, Letteri commented that a thorough pre-emptive body of research was undertaken to encapsulate the iconic New York 1930s cityscape – with particular attention to identifiable landmarks such as the Empire State Building; interviewing historians, reviewing documentary footage and architectural plans to build three-dimensional computer models. The problem they faced, however, was that the action had the possibility of covering any of the Manhattan area with the realistic free-roaming will of a wild gorilla,s rampage. As non-descriptive parts of the New York borough could not be as readily analysed, Weta Digital produced a piece of software called CityBot to which fictional buildings grew at suitable heights in the vacant spaces around the landmarks. By inputting textures of brickwork and authentic architectural features such as window facades, billboards and water towers, the software program randomly generated limitless combinations and this was demonstrated in an animated time-lapse projection inside the Tate Modern,s Starr Auditorium. Seeing the imagined space become real instantaneously, with buildings rising organically from the ground up, opened the possibility of inventing a time period – imagined or otherwise – that wasn’t actually 1933 Manhattan but, for the purpose of the film, action could take place anywhere within its grid of hybrid buildings. This drift from the now to a timeless other place leaves Kong watchers reminiscent for the adventures he has in the elsewhere. It is an opportunity that can be thought of as producing two diverging paths, of rescue and escape.

To the extent which this attitude has effected narrative possibility in cinema is somewhat revealing when considering the original inventiveness towards King Kong (who was animated using stop-motion, a process of capturing the gorilla frame by frame). This analogue, hands on approach, testing and experimenting with the limitations of the camera lens, gave life to a monster. Producer of Jaws, Richard Zanuck contemplated the possibilities that new technology may have given the 70s thriller; Steven (Spielberg) and I have talked a couple of times recently about had we had the ability to do a CGI shark, we probably wouldn’t have made as good a picture. It would have been too perfect and we would have used it too much. The fact is we intended to show the shark in the first scene with the girl. We didn’t have it, so in a weird way because we didn’t have the tools we had a better picture. We had to invent things to keep the shark alive.

Writing of the conception of poetry, Christopher Caudwell writes, Man made a tremendous stride forward when he injected the dream into waking life, which forced it to answer the categories of waking reality . When confronted with the prospect of waking reality, the poetic order has been rearranged to contend with what has been understood as the credibility of the image. To Caudwell it was essential that he [man] should do this without losing the very quality that made the dream useful, its plasticity. , now it may be the case that computer generated virtual space has suspended these malleable dream qualities. Of course the other option is that perception of external and internal realities have converged.

The opening of this essay is a remark made by P.S.1 Chief Curator, Klaus Biesenbach in his introduction to Greater New York 2005. The purpose of Greater New York was initially to survey work by emerging artists in the Greater New York area at the turn of a new century. This led to the 2005 follow-up which had to contend with the rebuild of MoMA in Manhattan and a post-9/11 environment ? this year a third installment is due. Through this general surveying Biesenbach highlighted the growing popularity in the film industry toward the superhero (Spiderman, X-Men) and the animated (Shrek, Finding Nemo). He states, In artists, eyes, apparently, the regression into a simplified, childlike, two-dimensional world in some parts of mainstream culture offers a strange and interesting perspective on the politics of the everyday. Most cartoons depict dirty, smelly, wet, and loud impressions of the world in bright colours; their universe is one in which everything seems potentially reparable and reversible. The discussion of childhood ideas imposed on current affairs is comparable to those adopted by Walter Benjamin in Unpacking My Library, in particular, the notion of a cartoon universe being constantly repaired and renewed. Benjamin writes, Among children, collecting is only one process of renewal; other processes are the painting of objects, the cutting out of figures, the application of decals – the whole range of childlike modes of acquisition, from touching things to giving them names. . If it is possible to suspend these childlike modes of acquisition, which place the child amongst its collection then there is potential for an internal overcrowding of imagery. Rather than inventing ways to keep the monster alive it is now commonplace for this monster to be seen in its monumental virtual greatness. The way Benjamin writes of unpacking his library collection it becomes apparent of the essay,s relation to the physical spaces such collections hold in terms of volume. The idea that this can be cognitively replaced by memory (in the context of a computer generation) cannot hold the same two-dimensional idea of renewal.

A cartoon universe can conjure up an almost limitless amount of possibilities from the crude to the sublime. One particularly nascent environment in the context of its attachment to the artist,s hand was produced in the 1974 eleven-volume manga graphic novel entitled The Drifting Classroom, written and drawn by Kazuo Umezu. Umezu is a noted horror writer and in The Drifting Classroom an impression is ascertained that his art becomes inflicted upon the story. The plot follows a young boy named Sho Takamatsu who attends Yamato Elementary School. After a disagreement with his mother prior to setting off for school, disaster strikes and the school vanishes from its foundations in the city and replaced in an unrecognisable, desolate wasteland. As the story unfolds we see a mother,s attempts to communicate with her lost child in the present, whereas the children come to learn of their fate – they are still on Earth but in a future which has erased the signs of life they have come to recognise. What if the world were to suddenly vanish one day? What if you were teleported to another dimension? , asks critic Saburo Kawamoto in his essay The Nightmarish Imagination, A grown-up would automatically file this premise away in the genre of science fiction, with all the condescension that it implies, but Umezu confronts it with dead seriousness and unblinking terror. The shrunken, confined world of school is suddenly connected to the awe-inspiring notion of the end of the world. The mundane explodes into the cosmic. With their power of imagination, children can make this leap, but the average adult is too enmeshed in everyday life.

What ensues when we are invited to take this leap with the grade classes of Yamato Elementary School is that we bare witness to their struggle to survive one danger after another; a flood, reptiles, poisonous plants, giant insects, a psychotic murderer, the plague, cannibalism and hysteria. It becomes apparent that these dramatic episodes are drafted upon a totally blank environment. A blank, drifting canvas which Umezu subjects the drifting classmates to all conditions and the school serves as a window

Madness is a diagnosis or verdict of some of our greatest doctors and geniuses, and of their man-disappointed minds. Oh, man stunned by the rebound of man,s powers. And what to do? In the matter of histrionics, see, for instance, what that furious world-boiler Marx had done, insisting that revolutions were made in historical costume, the Cromwellians as Old Testament prophets, the French in 1789 dressed in Roman outfits. But the proletariat, he said, he declared, he affirmed, would make the first non-imitative revolution. It would not need the drug of historical recollection. From sheer ignorance, knowing no models, it would simply do the thing pure. He was as giddy as the rest about originality. And only the working class was original. Thus history would get away from mere poetry. Then the life of humankind would clear itself of copying. It would be free from art. Oh no. No, not, not so, thought Sammler. Instead. Art increased, and a sort of chaos. More possibility, more actors, apes, copycats, more invention, more fiction, illusion, more fantasy, more despair. Life looting Art of its wealth, destroying Art as well by its desire to become the thing itself. Pressing itself into pictures. Reality forcing itself into all these shapes.

Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler,s Planet,

Now, from a technical point of view, I,m still unconvinced by the achievements of CGI. If you take, say, a recent film like Troy, where you see armies of hundreds of thousands of men, I can,t stop myself looking at the rear of the shot. The film-goer,s looking, too, and says to himself right from the start that the backdrops and people have been done with CGI! [laughs] Sometimes, even certain events that occur in the foreground of the shot are done with CGI, and honestly, as a director, CGI movement disturbs me. Given that all the footage from the shoot is then handed over to the person responsible for the CGI, and not to the director ? then even if the latter doesn’t like such and such an effect, he runs the risk of having to accept it anyway.

Honestly, today,s CGI specialists are really shameless ? that or very good businessmen! From the word go, as they,re watching the shoot: You,ll have to use CGI there! In that walking scene, would you be interested in using CGI? The colours will be so much better!, And so on, for every detail ? they,re a real nuisance! [laughs] And if you tell them it won,t be necessary, they get insistent: With CGI, we could improve the finished product., Even for a straightforward scene that involves returning a sword to its scabbard, instead of making do with an ordinary movement, they underline the fact that with CGI the actor could, like an acrobat, sheathe his sword behind his back, without looking.

Takeshi Kitano

There is always a certain safety with a recognisable special effect. A safety which allows you to stand back and see it for what it is, empty space filled with a spectacle. The children of Yamato Elementary School would often spin tales which would be disturbed by such an effect; the empty spaces conjured up with life. One such story reads as follows.

A man walks alone between his home far in the desert to the nearest convenience store. The walk is long, measured by his strides at about fifty minutes, travelling 5000 strides per hour – in analogue terminology, just over half a side of a 90-minute audio cassette tape. On his way the journey becomes secondary. This is the space where neither destination is in his field of vision and the walk is stripped bare to its elements; speed and direction. Intuition guides this man as if a compass were hooked to his chest; he feels the magnetic pull due north. It is an isolated time for such a man incapable of becoming part of an audience. He continues past dust tree marker and stone, forward in a mission of two halves ever to be repeated when his convenience needs to be satisfied. A walk so desolate that it recalls time.

Time arrived back a few minutes later and the man is surprised. Where once the memory of his destination would have greeted him, he is now impeded by a ghostly presence. Elements selected from a form of blown glass with the fragility of static dust, inward layers of grey, green and orange capitulate. It became illuminated. It made no sound but the escalating movement, similar to a cloud unfolding itself, pressed play inside the man,s internal tape deck. It recollects a BBC archive compilation of explosion sound effects. Once it reached the end of Side A the form in front of him imploded, revealing nothing. The convenience store was not there and the man had no idea where he was.

There is always a certain safety with a recognised special effect. A safety which allows you to stand back and see it for what it is, empty space filled with a spectacle. There is no intimate way of recording such a feeling. CGI worlds must be interacting with real people as if their gravity holds the landscape down and commits it to memory.

Does it fill in gaps which imagination used to occupy and has the need for new visual forms damaged the satisfaction of a mental picture of an idea?
When an effect is unleashed upon an unsuspecting audience is this advancement or an advertisement for the process?

– Children, discuss these ideas with your Grade Teacher

It can be deemed an interesting perversion to a sense of vision that in electronically mediated culture, such as the film entertainment industry, something which has replaced visual trickery with a virtual presence is just as – if not more so – suspicious to the audience. When Japanese film director Takeshi Kitano responds to the prospect of movement and the visual opportunities that CGI could provide, he questions not only authenticity but its necessity altogether. Kitano sees no reason why a simple action (returning a sword to its scabbard) needs elaborating to, or be made in such a way that it becomes extraordinary. As such, representation begins to have less to do with the world as we know it than the physiological conditions of vision, conditions that can now be simulated.

It is hard to imagine if computer effects are replacing images that were once conjured, or elaborated upon; they are not also imparting narrative aspects of film making. An unlikely source, the film poster for U.S. horror remake of 2004 Thai film Shutter, contains an unexpectedly insightful tag line which states The most terrifying images are the ones that are real.

This remarkable turnaround (but perhaps true of an image-obsessed, celebrity culture such as Hollywood) even slightly contradicts the sentiment in the original Thai film,s tag line Have you ever carefully looked at your pictures? When buying a digital camera the key concern is the number of pixels with which an image can be captured, measured in millions (the larger the number generally results in a way of avoiding the look of a digital image). It is unavoidable not to think in terms of large quantities when met with the idea of the pixel. By its very definition it is one of thousands of tiny spots on a computer display screen that together can be manipulated to form an image or character and is constituted of the plural for pic (an informal term for a photograph) and the first syllable of the word element – a multiplicity of images. Beyond this measurement of vastness is a microcosm, a pixel is the smallest element with controllable colour and brightness in the context of computer graphics. The paradox of equally being the largest and smallest of something which, in a sense, exists only in a virtual space is the paradigm of CGI. So, have your ever carefully looked at your pictures?

French-Caribbean writer and philosopher Edouard Glissant writes of an energetic vision of a world in transformation in Poetics of Relation:

Though the cultural contacts of the moment are terrifyingly immediate , another vast expanse of time looms before us, nonetheless: it is what will be necessary to counterbalance specific situations, to defuse oppressions, to assemble the poetics. This time to come seems as infinite as galactic spaces.

As an expatriate of the Antilles, he equates his own relative existence in 1980s U.S.A. toward issues of transforming mentalities about identity. This might not seem the most direct attempt at comparison with virtual image space but it is his belief that as a writer, he can tap the unconscious of a people and apprehend multiform culture in order to provide forms of memory and intent capable of transcending nonhistory which mirrors the code of diffusion inherent in the pixel.

The terminology of Glissant,s poetic vision runs true to the observations made by Klaus Biesenbach. His concept of a counterbalance to specific situations suggests a sense of the condensed atmosphere with which the future will be approached, in a time which seems as infinite as galactic spaces . It is not uncommon to view this as a pretext to cancelling out of history or a tactic to replace the space occupied via simulation. Perhaps more so than ever, the projection of optimism found in the images produced in the past have been superseded by the potential of what is to come. A potential within the pixel that can be both capable of rendering Jaws the shark and the bigger boat, what ever the shape, size or colour – thus creating a paradox of existing as both the hero and the villain.

Ingredients of fulfilment listed by Alain de Botton in The Consolations of Philosophy revolve around the interval between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, whether it be to produce a great work of art, achieve a worldly position or become a great lover. The essence is in the transition of this arrangement; an elaboration of experience over time is required as the act of developing cannot be spontaneous. If we consider spontaneity as a potential variant to fulfilment it would be necessary to eliminate the passage of geography. Below is a simple diagram:

Fulfilment = who we are at present + who we wish one day to be

which can also be written as

Fulfilment = experience x aspiration

To replace experience with an immediate effect (such as spontaneity) using Glissant,s mode there must be a counterbalance with aspiration. Kevin Robins, in his 1997 essay The New Communications Geography and the Politics of Optimism states, The politics of optimism wants to be rid of the burden of geography (and along with it the baggage of history), for it considers geographical determination and situation to have been fundamental sources of frustration and limitation in human and social life. This makes optimism a viable replacement for aspiration when considering the virtual experience of space inherent with CGI:

Fulfilment = spontaneity x optimism

What is interesting about this model is its prospective attraction as a utopian ideal. As with all models it is very much reliant on being a closed system with no outside effects, therefore, the problem lies with the ambient nature of computer imagery. As the essay question given to the children of Yamato Elementary School asks: When an effect is unleashed upon an unsuspecting audience is this advancement or an advertisement for the process? The fallout from this form of consideration becomes the way that virtual reality has impeded aspiration in the fulfilment of image making, potentially a situation incapable of rescue or escape.
Job Description

Sabre Artist
Industrial Light & Magic
San Francisco, California – United States

Project: ILM – Visual FX
Software Utilized: Flame/Inferno, Shake

Required Work Auth.: United States

Job Description and Responsibilities:
Summary: Composites feature effects shots utilizing Inferno software as well as ILM proprietary software.

Reports To: Executive In Charge of Production
Job Type: Project Hire External Hire
Benefited: Benefited
Exempt: Non-Exempt
Location: San Francisco, CA

Primary Responsibilities:

Take a lead roll in effect design to take advantage of Inferno software capabilities
Consult with Effects Supervisors to ensure their understanding of the Inferno system
Responsible for the layering of computer generated imagery and live action elements, ensuring that all elements are composited with consistent and seamless results
Composites feature effects shots utilizing UNIX, Shell Scripting and proprietary software
Work with the Compositing Supervisor to evaluate the look of computer graphic or live action elements to determine the visual consistency and order of layering required
Perform all tasks associated with the compositing process including 2D tracking, matte extraction, and assembly of live action and 3D elements
Maintain the overall look and colour balance for assigned shots or sequences to create uniformity in all finished work


Minimum of 3 years of digital compositing experience in a feature film production environment
Thorough knowledge of Flame & Inferno
Must have experience compositing live action and computer generated elements
Working knowledge of Windows NT, Unix and shell scripting desirable
Working knowledge of Shake required; knowledge of high speed compositing systems a plus
Strong photography skills with a knowledge of photo lighting and film
Possesses general art skills – Has a good eye for perspective, lighting, and photographic qualities in an image
Ideal candidate should have a strong sense of composition, colour and design

Ability to match and blend different elements together in a photo realistic way The article on the previous page is a job description from George Lucas, special effects company Industrial Light & Magic, whose origins lie in the visual invention of the Star Wars franchise. Through building illusory cinematic vistas of outer space in model making; orchestrating controlled fireball explosions and visualising light sabres, Industrial Light & Magic have naturally progressed into the computer generated effects business. The term Sabre Artist (for which the aforementioned job posting was made) originates from this culture and takes on board Lucas, swashbuckling light sabres a new hope?

The prescribed role of the Sabre Artist as a member of the post-production team is to utilise a combination of software programs to create new forms of special effect. In essence they are taking the pre-existing tools used to generate virtual imagery and inventing new ways of adapting them. A combination of the heroism of Luke Skywalker and the adaptive/creative qualities needed to make art, from software. Truly a hero to save the day and a prescient term when considering current painting practice.

In the final volumes of The Drifting Classroom, the children leave the school in search of Paradise (which happens to be the name of a theme park). At this point the school is divided, the prospect of being rescued and returning home has all but left their minds. When they arrive they are greeted by a Marilyn Monroe-bot and find robotic versions of various time periods (much like the classic sci-fi horror movie Westworld). The classmates believe this replica of their modern-age hometown to be their best hope of survival. It is when they reach a recreated version of what they recognise as modern Tokyo that the illusion falters – the vending machines do not vend and there is nothing behind the street door facades. There is anything but a happy ending as the children do not make it home, however, they do have a future – the responsibility for rebuilding the planet.

Virtual echoes of the past in rebuilding dimensions connect with what was witnessed in the Starr Auditorium, Tate Modern. Watching a construction of 1930s New York raised from programming software, the buildings were reminiscent of locating a certain time that occupied space where buildings as tall once stood, much like Paradise. It is this attachment that distances the possibilities inherent with CGI technology from those artists who are capable of responding to its effects in the information age. In a cinematic context it is the role of the Sabre Artist to combine these software practices in innovative ways of approaching the visual. Even to this end there are limitations such as being able to match and blend different elements together in a photo realistic way. What is fascinating with the manipulation of the pixel is its basis/potential to be anything, in any dimensional form. Still image formats such as JPEG are in themselves abstracted forms which contain only the necessary information for an image to be described visually yet become condensed in order to save (rescue) memory.

Sabre Art – when describing the practices of contemporary artists, is activated much in the same way as wish images are described in Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. It is the need to correspond to new forms of production through innovation, whereby they present images in the collective consciousness in which the old and the new interpenetrate. If we see the energy formula of fulfilment I wrote for the immediacy of the information age as the result of spontaneity and optimism, it is also possible that therein lies the resolute effort to distance oneself from all that is antiquated, especially in terms of the recent past. Beyond that there is also a possibility of indirect reference to antiquity which resonates in the poetic thought between disciplines.

Lastly upon returning to Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, to which the fulfilment formula was reconsidered; we can see the relationship between poetics and indirection:

“Poetry – thus, nonetheless, totality gathering strength – is driven by another poetic dimension that we all divine or babble within ourselves. It could well be that poetry is basically and mainly defined in this relationship of itself to nothing other than itself, of density to volatility, or the whole to the individual.

This world force does not direct any line of force but infinitely reveals them. Like a landscape impossible to epitomize. It forces us to imagine it even while we stand there neutral and passive.”

What happens with the prospect of an infinite reveal is the resolution to deflect away from, and inevitably back between the real and virtual. It is a condensing method that can also be likened to the JPEG computer image – what we are seeing is a necessary collective amount of visual/conceptual/spatial information without the abstractness that lies between layers infusing that image as recognisable. This abstraction is what defines the nature of the artwork as rescue or escape. Whether it be a unifying approach to a fragmented installation of images or a dislocation of subject and context, both of these have a relation to the Biesenbach window to a larger world.

Klaus Biesenbach, P.S.1 Greater New York – 2005, MoMA NYC, 2005, p. 13

Digital Art – A New Renaissance at Tate Modern Talk 2 held at the Starr Auditorium, Tate Modern on Monday 25th September 2006, 18:30 – 20:00.

dir. Peter Jackson, Kong, Universal Pictures, 2005

dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, King Kong, RKO Radio Pictures, 1933

dir. Steven Spielberg, Jaws, Universal Pictures, 1975

Tom Shone, Blockbuster, Simon & Schuster, 2004, p. 12

Christopher Caudwell, Illusion & Reality, The Camelot Press, 1950, p.183

“Now if consciousness is faced with the demand of completely coinciding with external reality, it then becomes indistinguishable from perception – perception of things round-me-now, perception inside-me-now.” – Christopher Caudwell, Illusion & Reality, The Camelot Press, 1950, p.183

“To be considered for Greater New York, an artist had to live and work in the metropolitan New York area and could not have had a solo show of any kind before 1997. Exceptions tested the rule and in the end around a quarter of the artists in the show were already relatively established, and were grouped together with a larger percentage of emerging artists. Around a quarter of the artists in the show were being seen by the larger public more or less for the first time.” – Klaus Biesenbach, P.S.1 Greater New York – 2005, MoMA NYC, 2005, p. 11

Klaus Biesenbach, P.S.1 Greater New York – 2005, MoMA NYC, 2005, p. 12

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Fontana Press, 1992, p. 63

This goes beyond cinema influences as computer modelling has become ingrained in many aspects of testing impossibly varied environments to adapt everything from car handling to architecture.

Kazuo Umezu, The Drifting Classroom, Shogakukan Inc., 1974

Kazuo Umezu, The Drifting Classroom: Volume 11, Shogakukan Inc., 1974, p. 181

Reminiscent of the animated artist,s hand subjecting Warner Bros. cartoon character Daffy Duck to multiple changes in clothing and backdrop in Looney Tunes cartoons.

Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler,s Planet, Penguin Group, 1996, p.148

Excerpt from an interview conducted by Shiguehiko Hasumi with Takeshi Kitano for Vertigo Magazine (Winter 2007) insert Cahiers du Cine no 600, Cine-Manga by Takeshi Kitano

This passage introduces a piece of prose written from the perspective of The Drifting Classroom students. Attaching the concept of a drifting school with the poetic thoughts of cognition and intuition allows for an interesting dynamic that is addressed in rhetorical essay questions for the pupils to consider.

dir. Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, Shutter, GMM Pictures Co., 2004 (U.S. remake, dir. Masayuki Ochini, Shutter, 20th Century Fox, 2008)

A tagline is a marketing tool which film studios use to elaborate the narrative of a film title, often used in poster and billboard advertising.

Dictionary definition taken from Penguin Reference English Dictionary 2nd Ed., Penguin Group, 2004

Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, University of Michigan, 1997, p. 156

“Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.” – Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy, Penguin Group, 2000

Kevin Robins, The New Communications Geography and The Politics of Optimism, Soundings: a journal of politics and culture, 1997 (No. 5), p. 191-202

Taken from job listings website

dir. Michael Crichton, Westworld, MGM Pictures, 1973

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 4

Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, University of Michigan, 1997, p. 159