Interviews | Stop Making Sense: Martha Colburn’s Anxious Animations

By Max Goldberg

Several weeks into preparing this piece, collage-animator Martha Colburn sent me a link to footage of a shadow-puppet play of the Obama inauguration she had staged with her friend Matthew Varvil a few days earlier. Here again was Aretha’s proud hat and Rick Warren’s brimstone drone—though none of the television networks I watched showed the restored White House spinning its top to Bootsy Collins’ “Bootzilla.” The inauguration jubilee is breezy next to Myth Labs and Triumph of the Wild, Colburn’s two most recent films, but as with all her work it demonstrates a fierce distrust for received images and a daredevil’s fascination with the chaos of live performance. Colburn’s is an art of unrest, both in terms of stop-motion animation’s termitic form and the palpable laboriousness of its undertaking. Painting, collage, found footage, music and research slug it out frame-by-frame; edited entirely in camera, her clamouring films plunge towards unreality with the conviction of Méliès. Like all great miniaturists, Colburn materializes time and concentration; unlike most, her forms do not reassure us with presupposed order. The films resemble 24-frames-per-second tornados, atomizing rifts opened by cigarette advertising, pornography, television, cosmetic surgery, and, in Myth Labs and Triumph of the Wild, the language and landscape of political fantasy.

Colburn’s first films were made entirely from scraps of found footage so immaculately defaced as to draw an equivalency between destruction and creativity—a current that runs through all her work. Asthma (1995) staples outtakes of the ‘40s heyday of glamorous cigarette smoking to a garage-rock soundtrack that ends with a false start. The film has the rough aesthetic of a photocopied zine, but its witty decoupage anticipates the full-blown punk surrealism of her stop-motion work. Many of her early forays into animation draw on pornography, some aiming for depraved comedy, as with interspecies smashups like Cats Amore (2001)—a pulsing short in which kitty-headed porn models vie for the canine gaze—and the self-explanatory Spiders in Love: An Arachnorgasmic Musical (1998), while others, like the eight-minute tour-de-force Skelehellavision (2001), are glaring infernos. The latter film’s structurally sophisticated aural-visual collage arrests gleaned porn close-ups in a distressing ballet mécanique, as Colburn disfigures the moaning faces by obsessively scratching the film stock until they appear as skeletons.

What makes Colburn’s collage-animations remarkable is that they do not stop with juxtaposition. Whether comic, horrific or, in the case of her latest work, epic, the films present complex circuits of repetition which deny any hope for easy catharsis. In Skelehellavision, for instance, the reiterations of the skeleton motif come to seem an act of demonic possession. The fanaticism of Colburn’s process is both the condition and consequence of her inexorable subjects. This willingness to risk total exhaustion strikes me, above all, as brave.

The films are based on fantasies, but the desperation is real. The ultimate test of this equation—one Colburn has acquitted herself of admirably—has been Bush’s War on Terror, a collage war if ever there was one. Colburn’s latest works are still funny, but less so on the second and third viewings when their nightmarish interpolations of foundational Americanisms cinch their loony moments. The turning point seems to have been Cosmetic Emergency (2005), a film Colburn made after leaving Baltimore to spend a few years in Amsterdam. Essayistic in structure, this multi-media short deconstructs the cosmetics chimera with figure painting, medical footage, and face time with the Dutch Ambassador of Cosmetic Surgery (no, really). Most provocatively, Colburn uses the recitation of a simple fact (“The U.S. military offers free cosmetic surgery to all active duty members of the Armed Forces”) as a springboard for a richly satiric sequence of paint-on-glass military makeovers. A bloody knife is reshaped into lipstick; soldiers are painted with ballooning breasts, then covered with inky burqas.

Symbols, like the archetypes they hatch, are subject to mutation in Colburn’s restless animation; dissolved of their hierarchical command, they enter entropic turmoil. Hence, in Destiny Manifesto (2006), the conflation of two permutations of the frontier mythos: the winning of the West and the occupation of Iraq. It’s a familiar argument, but one given fresh spark by the eye-popping reliefs of Humvees exploding out of cowboy illustrations. Or take Meet Me in Wichita (2006), a surrealist firecracker which throws Osama bin Laden and The Wizard of Oz into a blender to represent the mawkish storyboarding of American foreign policy. It makes sense that Colburn would have wanted to develop her animation system to keep pace with the newfound volatility of her iconography, but this hardly prepares us for Myth Labs and Triumph of the Wild. With these two films, Colburn opens her craft to the furnace of American history. Her febrile animations now stretch across multiple planes of glass, an expansion allowing for greater dimensionality, detail, and movement. More than ever, Colburn’s frames are in constant flux: a literal fact with metaphorical life.

Myth Labs opens with Ryan Sawyer’s brawny drumming and a blue tangle of ocean. The Mayflower makes land, but this is no Malickian first contact. The Indians spear a rheumy-looking minister; as he falls, a translucent baggie springs from his Bible. The ground is sown with crystal meth instead of corn in Colburn’s counter-myth—meth, one can only assume, because it is cheap, homemade, enabling of the Protestant Work Ethic, American as apple pie. The film’s assembly-line resurrections paint salvation as another fleeting fix, but the tumult of Colburn’s panorama bespeaks an exigent interest in the transformative aspect of revelation. The camera seems to pan across a vast, continuous field of time and space, and indeed, the “making of” section of Colburn’s website shows that the film also exists as a mural. Myth Labs’ revolving door of zealotry, addiction, and busy bodies is hallucinatory in effect, but nonetheless adheres to Gaston Bachelard’s definition of a fairy tale as a “reasoning image”: “It tends to associate extraordinary images as though they could be coherent images, imparting the conviction of a primal image to an entire ensemble of derivative images.”

Triumph of the Wild is equally recursive, but as a ballad of American warfare it is elegiac where Myth Labs is speculative. As with John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind (2007), Triumph of the Wild unfolds in chronological order, marching from Bunker Hill to Baghdad. Colburn’s talent for transmogrification reaches a zenith here: the tidal churn of images leaves the visual cues of pristine nature, wholesome families, and prosperity always incomplete, phantoms for the veterans who are stuck in a wheel of regenerative violence. The incandescent backdrops make Triumph of the Wild a landscape film, but one in which that which is sought is forever being lost—a contingency ingeniously articulated by Colburn’s frenetic animation of puzzles. What is real is the vicious cycle of bloodletting and the giant letters tattooed onto a cigarette-chomping vet’s forehead: “PTSD.”

Colburn’s films obviously aren’t on the same production scale as features like Waltz with Bashir, but her recent animation is just as charged with historical memory and the need to speak. “There’s no way to get out of the scene,” Colburn tells me when I ask if she ever loses perspective going frame-by-frame. “It seems like once I get in, I can’t do any edits. The idea is so firm in my mind.” The films are maps of their own making; if we get lost, it’s only because we already are.

Cinema Scope: Did you begin collecting film with the express purpose of making found-footage films? What inspired you to make these kinds of collage works in the first place?

Martha Colburn: My friend and I would go to the Baltimore City Surplus, and prisoners on work-release hours worked there and snuck stuff out the back for you behind the backs of the government employees. Film has this seedy side, especially when you get into the “collectors and projectors” world. But as material, it never seemed sterile or sacred to me, so to cut up these old 16mm films and use tape and spill ink and bleach on them was fun and beautiful. I also found cool stuff at the public library to watch, like Stan VanDerBeek, Kenneth Anger, and George Kuchar and, gosh, the whole history of early computer and analog animation and stop action—amazing stuff.

Scope: How much has the library figured into the density of images and referents in your more recent work? Do you do research there? Colburn: Yes, I do research there; my life kind of revolves around it. The library is my place of solace. I spend my spare time riding around this sooty, colourless industrial area with a squeaky old bike and a basket full of books, making runs to the library on Roosevelt Island and the library in Queens. I have cards in two branches so I can get twice as many books. It totals up to something like 250 books and 100 movies and recordings per month.

Scope: How did stop-motion animation enter the picture?

Colburn: I was making Super 8 titles for my 16mm found-footage films, and then eventually felt the obligation to create my own films, something beyond cutting up old footage. So yeah, simple little titles, then onto films like Caffeine Jam (1995) and Killer Tunes (1996), all starring my friends and me. I’d take pictures of our heads and hands and make puppets, and then make mayhem happen.

Scope: You described your films as being like “quicksand,” for the way that taking a break from animating means making more art which, in turn, means more things to animate. Does pretty much everything you collect or create get filtered through this thought, “How can I work this into a film?”

Colburn: I like to make things that can escape the films, and to do that I have to mail it away from my room. So I send out a lot of mail. Other than that, yeah, my ideas are always more grandiose than the last and it’s kind of intense and has a tornado effect.

Scope: Both Myth Labs and Triumph of the Wild have a much richer, painterly texture than your earlier films. The scenery is just as detailed and in flux as any of the human figures or animals. Can you describe your current animating method?

Colburn: For Myth Labs, I built an animation stand based on some 12-year-old’s design, made in the ‘50s. I cut out some shelving and screwed it back together and made it a three-plane stand: it’s three levels of glass, so you have three moving levels. The film was conceived of within a moving landscape which, when assembled, is about 40-feet long and scrolls slowly under the glass. Myth Labs is about how this bleak cultural and geographic landscape has finally broken people down to send them on a topsy-turvy chase for some kind of escape; here begins the drama between the persecutors and persecuted. We are all in the same landscape and all subject to cause and effect, from the momentary to thousands of years. I try to grasp all this. It’s like I had to run with the film, to chase this concept. I grew up in the woods, surrounded by poverty. How else could I so deftly enter the living room of some trailer-trash drug-dealing Vietnam vet, right? These films are more detailed because I’m rendering what’s closest to me.

Scope: You thread together Manifest Destiny, born-again Christianity and meth lab explosions with conspiratorial urgency. It’s very close to insanity, but the chaos makes your treatment very visceral, even harrowing.

Colburn: The fanatical and physically obsessive nature of the films’ creation is basically in tune with the subject. As I worked on the puppets for Myth Labs, making some 400 handmade hinges for preachers and drug-pushers to be assembled and moveable fingers to grab at their Bibles and meth pipes, I was doing the work in the same way my subjects might compulsively take apart a stereo over and over while on methamphetamine or read the Psalms obsessively. Insanity is close to revelation.

Scope: I find myself forgetting to blink watching the films, which I imagine springs from your editing entirely in camera—there’s no break. Is it difficult getting from one scene to the next in something like Triumph of the Wild, where you’ve set out to cover a certain amount of historical ground?

Colburn: It’s difficult to fit everything into a reasonable time frame. It’s like fairy tales. They have to be told with a certain directness. Triumph of the Wild is divided chromatically by the progressing historical eras. I assigned the wars the colours that I found to predominately represent them in paintings and films and books.

Scope: The films have these alarming details—things like the “make-up” for the meth addicts in Myth Labs or the way a veteran has coat-hangers for arms in Triumph of the Wild. How do you see these harsh notes of realism—if that’s the right word—in relation to the more generalized, mythic imagery of Revolutionary soldiers, Disney animals or The Wizard of Oz?

Colburn: I don’t examine that in my head. I know I’m inspired by things much larger than what I’m capable of in my room. But my ideas are hinged on these spectacles of history or cinema or reality that for me to construct as one person becomes desperate, and that probably comes through. It’s having a real sense of compassion in relationship to my subjects and the impoverished and handmade and immediate and gritty nature of things in my films—well, that’s really real. Many things we call history are, unfortunately, histories of discrimination, and I’m always aware of discrimination all around me. It’s everywhere. Making my films, the way I do, is my way of breaking down the hierarchy of several things at one time, even if it’s just in my own head.

Scope: How big a part did the Bush administration’s rhetoric play in pushing you to make Myth Labs and Triumph of the Wild? There’s a broken-record quality to both films, like we’re stuck in this infinity of violence and conquest.

Colburn: Maybe I needed to make these films to work out my position in it all. As the animator of these scenes, I play out the parts of both perpetrator and victim—if more people had to do it, they never would have elected Bush. The Bush years made me angry. What else can you do but try and speak out, and propose some ideas, not in a sarcastic or ironic way, but with honesty and some kind of grace and of course guts. Put yourself in the position of those living in the wars we’ve been waging for years now, on whatever side, and I bet it must feel like an infinity. An infinite nightmare.

Scope: But then, of course, people associate animation with fantasy…

Colburn: I just did a scene where I used this really amazing photo from Life magazine from the Vietnam War. I was amazed at how the soldiers didn’t wear any shirts. They’re smoking cigarettes while they’re blowing people away; they’re not wearing shirts, they’re barely dressed. I really get the feeling of the different subjects I work with, but then I throw it into something completely fantastic: so they’re not shooting humans, they’re shooting a giant alligator.

Scope: How did you arrive at the idea of using puzzles in your animation of Triumph of the Wild? I like the way they crystallize the imaginary properties of landscape.

Colburn: They also flatten the eras and wars into a kind of “sentimental landscape.” Many people are so undereducated that sentiment is about all they are left with for clues to history. I know this from experience; I’m not talking down to anyone. But using the puzzles took root in reading about post-traumatic stress disorder and meeting people who grapple with it, from Afghanistan and Iraq. Reality changes before their very eyes; the curtain of their current reality goes up, and behind it comes the past.

Scope: Hollywood sentimentalizes PTSD when it touches it at all, but Triumph of the Wild really seems to be trying to apprehend its symptoms in the segment after the GI shoots the Bambi-like deer.

Colburn: It’s funny you pick that scene because only afterwards did I remember that my father, an ex-army-man-turned-entomologist, housebound with a bad knee, shot his last deer from his bedroom window. I have these larger ideas, but I find my personal life is always surfacing as the vehicle for them. Most people are not given enough time to think and learn and form opinions and make choices, because they have to work so much. Then Hollywood swoops in and slathers the tired souls with schmaltzy chatter and war movies probably backed by defense funds. Maybe that’s a different war or the same, right?

Scope: How do you mean? That the war waged for the imagination obscures the one on the ground?

Colburn: I mean that both wars go on simultaneously, and perhaps one as a result of the other. Some say we have entered an age of “Electronic Baroque,” where reality crumbles into the media and vice versa. This leaves me thinking that reality is, in a way, no media. We should be in touch with reality because it may hit at any given moment. There’s something about capturing the frames within seconds that is breaking down movement, preparing for the next shot, trying to recall the last, plotting the end, thinking both in progressive and reflective ways, that mimics life. It’s about being prepared and informed and not being fearful. Goldberg Max