Film making and catching the invisible: Aristofanis Soulikias
curated by Daniela Veneri
“This kind of consciousness of the physical is something that we feel, and I think that, in a way, it is evoked when we watch a film made of handmade images. There is a parallel between feeling that sensual life of the material city, which we often neglect, and the viewing of film animation made by hand, frame by frame, and I think there is that same humanizing sense of meaning that speaks to us when we are surrounded by an architecture that is less mechanized, less copy-pasted."
- Aristofanis Soulikias
#relevance #physicalpresence #cityatmosphere #pleasureofmaking #imaginingthroughtraces #feelingplace
Ari, what projects are you currently working on?
I'm working on a sensorial exploration of a spatial element of the city. This is a project for which I have been hired by one of my supervisors, Dr. David Howes, where we are examining the urban environment through our senses, especially those less studied by planners and architects, namely, the non-visual. I am called, as a film animator, to look into the urban park and its use, especially during this time of the pandemic, since, for many months while Montreal was under a relatively strict lockdown, many of the group or public activities that people would normally do indoors could only take place in the park.
There are a lot of things to look at and examine. It is very interesting how all these activities all of a sudden intermingle in spaces where there are no walls, and generations and cultures mix, there is no shelter from the elements of nature, and you look at how people adapt to this environment and how they themselves adapt and create space.
I proposed to express the senses of the urban park through my animation, and to make a link between this sensorial environment and my sensorial way of making things with my own hands.
Since I myself was also going daily to the park to exercise, I had my own sensorial experience all throughout last winter, with the snow I ran on, the tree I would use to exercise, the changing light and sounds, and I was going to transfer all this into the handmade animation medium I use. So, I thought of connecting my perceptions in situ with the act of making in my studio – because I cannot bring my studio into the park – by making sketches in the park, and then re-enact these sketches in my studio, so a correlation between the bodily practice, let's say, in the park, and that in my studio would be established. All of a sudden, the sketches done outdoors begin to move.
It is all great explaining it; doing it is another story. It is a long process. I really want to capture my personal experience but also the invisible architectures that are formed in the park, with the groupings and the movements of the people, and this may be a hint of what architectures the city may need to have. This is one of the goals of this project, but I'm still at the very beginning. I'm thinking of three parts right now; the first part is about my personal encounter with the elements of the park, and will be made of charcoal on paper, which is a type of animation that isn't my main technique, but with which I would like to play, also because it's very plastic, as you can “move” and smudge the charcoal drawing on the same paper with your fingers; the second part will be to animate paper cuts on a light table, which is my primary technique, in order to represent the multilayered activities that take place in parks and then, as a third part, maybe to have these possible architectures “crystallized” into watercolours with some minimal movement.
What drives you in your work?
Right now, as a Research Assistant, in this specific project – and then for one more that is coming up soon – I work with themes chosen by my supervisors, but, of course, I steer them toward my own research interests, which lie at the intersection between the fabric of film animation and the urban fabric. There is also a narrative film on Lisbon during the first stage of the pandemic, which I began last year there under the supervision of Portuguese film animator Dr. Pedro Serrazina, in which I am looking at the city as a body that needs to be felt and celebrated.
I'm always trying to reveal that which is there but is often overlooked, that which is very human, relatable and tangible but which, most of the time, especially in our societies of inane spectacle, distractions, and thirst for instant gratification, we don't indulge in or even pay any attention to. This is a very general statement, but I think it characterizes much of what drives my work. It goes all the way back to my interest in telling a story, a documentary, about buildings, which are neglected, and which are about to be demolished. I think I'm trying to shed light on something and put value on to it, and this applies to a story, a place, a way of living, or even how to design our streets, especially now that we are all forced or lured into abandoning this physical environment and going virtual.
This kind of consciousness of the physical is something that we feel, and I think that, in a way, it is evoked when we watch a film made of handmade images. There is a parallel between feeling that sensual life of the material city, which we often neglect, and the viewing of film animation made by hand, frame by frame, and I think there is that same humanizing sense of meaning that speaks to us when we are surrounded by an architecture that is less mechanized, less copy-pasted.
To some it might sound nostalgic or backward-looking, but I thought about this quite a bit, and I believe it is just another way of looking forward, the same way as taking care of the natural environment. Is it romantic to want to preserve human life on earth or to preserve nature? No, it isn't. It is our survival, and I think it has to do with our survival in this case as well.
Where do the architect and the artist meet in your creative process?
There are many ways to answer this question from a design perspective. For me, it was architecture and storytelling coming together. Architecture is temporal, because we're experiencing it in time, but it has many constraints that film animation doesn't. For example, making a project alone, having so much control over the whole artistic process and its product, is something that I don't think I could have as an architect. I always wished to be the architect who is the storyteller, who is able to finish the product and communicate architecture by incorporating the living experience, incorporating the human story in it.
What I'm answering here is about how I am an architect by means of animation. On my light table I have made models of towns, elevations of streets, sections of buildings, plans of intersections. Ultimately, both the architect and the animator are visual artists. When architects are designing, they communicate ideas about the world, about ways to live in space, and the animator too can represent a world that is still not built; an imaginary world. They both imagine and they both deal with space; even the animator, eventually, will have to deal with space. I think it makes sense for an architect to become an animator. I am not the only one to have done so.
What are your most important objectives as an animator and as an architect?
As an animator, I think that there is still much to be discovered within traditional stop-motion techniques, especially with regard to spatial representations. I see the transition between handmade animation to that made exclusively on the computer as an indicator, a paradigm of the loss of human physical imprint across a large range of activities of making. To me the role of the hand in animation is as important as architectural theorist Juhani Pallasmaa claims it to be for the architectural drawing. And, indeed, handmade techniques are not dead.
One reason why handmade techniques have been revived in recent years – and I also have been benefiting greatly from this – is digital technology. Digital technology has helped the handmade. A paradox which makes me hopeful. There are possibilities for hybrid processes, where the handmade can be re-valorized or re-consolidated, somehow reinstated within them. I think it is important that the craft part, the tactile part, that part that's away from the computer screen, that in which one makes one’s hands dirty with materials, so to speak, still has a place, survives, has an important place in the process. Then, I think, it also becomes crucial in our perception, in the way we perceive these artworks when we view them.
As an architect who is doing animation, or let's say simply as an architect, my objective is to promote urban places that respond to the human body, its capabilities and limitations, and have meaningful stories to tell us; and just as we have slow food and all these slow movements, maybe we need to slow down in certain ways, and even to slow down in our voracity for consuming materials and space, and just try to look at the quality of our existing spaces, and at the possibility of having buildings that are in dialogue with the pedestrian on the street, and are in harmony with the public realm, where communities are formed, and where the city acquires its soul, its atmosphere.
I think atmosphere in a city is created by that invisible synergy between people and their immediate surroundings, and that's what I'm often trying to communicate in my work. To me, it is these collective and cumulative interactions, or even their traces, in real space, which create atmosphere. It cannot happen on Facebook or on Instagram; atmosphere has to be in real space.
As an architect, I'm trying to remind people of these values, and as an animator I want to put them into motion and, equally, to preserve a way of making animation and underline that the latest gadget in technology is not going to make a story better. I say to myself: “I'm going to make a story more meaningful, more touching with the simplest of means”. We have the capacity, as viewers, to suspend our disbelief, and we have imagination, the capacity to imagine things. We don't have to be given everything on screen; and, of course, by “simple means”, I don’t mean lesser means.
What do you mostly value of the interaction that emerges between your works and the viewers?
I first sensed such interaction when showing my documentary, Last Dance on the Main, at festivals back in 2014-2016, which was about some events that were happening here in Montreal at the time concerning a historic neighbourhood that was scandalously under demolition and the successful resistance put up by a burlesque venue. I thought it was going to affect, or to be relevant mostly to Montrealers, but soon realized that it was very relevant to many other people who didn't know anything about Montreal. For me, this was very valuable, the reaction of people from another part of the world who also felt and understood the film, because a lot of these issues are universal.
The other thing, which I found satisfactory, is when some people were not even commenting on my animation but were just outraged by what was happening in Montreal, which means that my work, without being noticed, was able to communicate exactly what I wanted to express: my disapproval of what was going on. And all this, of course, was communicated with my humble paper-cuts, so that was enormous for me.
I think it is a revelation for some people from the audience to recognize, when they see that this work is made with paper silhouettes, to realize how much they prefer this aesthetic or feel, I would say, almost “at home” with those types of visuals. I think it's a reminder that we can all think of ways of doing that don't require computers and so much technology all the time.
What role does the sensorial experience play in your creative process?
I didn't know it played any role when I started, when I discovered these techniques, I just liked the end result, and I also liked the fact that we have control over the medium, that we feel comfortable with it. But somehow, looking back, I recognize that it was fun to make things by hand, to make these silhouettes, to play with all these paper surfaces instead of sitting in front of a computer screen. And that fun originates from having a physical experience with real materials. That's definitely a sensorial aspect.
The materials I choose, all have a reason for being chosen, that has to do with how they can be manipulated but mainly what feel they communicate. When we see these animated objects on screen, we feel a certain touch that resonates through our bodies. This sensation is called by scholars a haptic one, and it is a key aspect of my research.
I quite enjoy being immersed in my work. Usually, I begin by absorbing the place of my story as fully as I can. This perceived experience, inevitably, is transferred onto my animation. Then comes the making and of course the viewed work as projected. So if one was to divide the sensorial life of my film into three phases, one would have the perception of the artist, the act of the artist, and finally the perception of the viewer. I see this process of transferring these haptic experiences as a unifying thread between artist and viewer.
Who are your most important interlocutors or partners in your creative process?
It is true that what I do is highly individualized; I work alone, and I have to be alone, and sometimes that's not that great because I am also a collaborative person. I chose this because I want to have control over my work. However, I do have my PhD supervisors as interlocutors who have employed me to research and create, through this technique, very interesting interdisciplinary projects while guiding me in theorizing my own research. I cannot ask for anything more or better than this, to have people who are willing to hire me to do exactly what I want to do.
I can say that even my readings, often people about whom I knew nothing, or films, like this silent film from 1927 that I saw yesterday, called Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, can be very inspiring. There are interlocutors that may not even be alive, that are not there but whose writings are quite enlightening. And of course, my colleagues at university, with whom I have discussions, and who challenge me sometimes with important questions; so they are also interlocutors.
Other possible collaborations that I had in the past and would like to have again are with people who work with music and audio, and this is interesting because, surprisingly, I have musical ideas that I give to them, and they, in turn, have visual ideas that they give to me.
What is the relationship between past, present and future in your artistic practice?
Making animation the way I make it is definitely very engaging, I'm really living the present when I'm animating. At the same time, the work is based on past experiences, while there is the anticipation that through this work something new will be born in the future, which is not completely planned. A lot of things are unplanned, they happen, and they are surprises.
On another level, my films are often about historic places, voices from the past, and yet I try to show their relevance today and what can be imagined about them in the future. For me, the past is never a dead thing, it is something that is always alive, and in the end, my animation is trying to illustrate that liveliness and how it still animates our lives.
What kind of contribution would you like your work to have?
I would like to bring to the surface those qualities of urbanity that are essential in community building, social consciousness and a sense of belonging to a place. I hope to make these qualities become better appreciated and understood by ordinary citizens, but also by planners and designers, and urge them to protect what is meaningful to them in city life.
I try to raise awareness through sensitizing. I’m not interested in making smart or shocking statements. We are so inundated with shocks these days that one more shock will only be lost in the noise. My ambition is to make poetry in animation, a pathway of connection, a shared experience that will enrich both my life and that of the viewers' day, and, who knows, their life just a little bit.
What kind of impact do you see emerging from the most recent pandemic? How do you feel or sense this experience is affecting our ways of producing, sharing and experiencing art?
It seems that this pandemic encouraged and accelerated things that were already on the way. The ongoing virtualization became more prevalent, even amongst people who were not into communicating or living virtually. At the same time, and this is evident everywhere, there was an awakening, I think, about the need to have real human interactions in real places, in squares, sidewalks, cafés, etc. I see it here in Montreal, the yearning to get back to the city and reclaim it.
The city had been emptied and, I think, the value of interacting physically in and with the city is something that, because of the pandemic, is more recognized than ever before. So, some of the arguments that I'm positing are now more convincing.
Digital technology can be great in facilitating remote collaborations or communicating across thousands of kilometers, as we are doing now for this interview. It is an extraordinary tool. At the same time, I am a little bit afraid of this aggressive push towards doing everything virtually, and I find this fusion or confusion between the real and the virtual a bit disconcerting.
I don't think it is a generational thing. I listen lately to these radio interviews by seasoned scholars who are excitingly saying that there is this inevitability in how our lives will be more and more mediated by technology, or that we are going to somehow abandon our own human consciousness and outsource it to artificial intelligence because that is simply where things are heading towards, but these are decisions that we, humans, will have to make.
What do you feel needs attention now?
I am noticing an ongoing process that is taking place everywhere, and which is quite evident here in Canada; the fragmentation of society, the isolation of people, people being disconnected from their surrounding environment and being "connected" always somewhere else and keeping themselves "busy" with some activity or another that involves them being absorbed into their smartphone, wherever they are. I'm also not immune to this, and it's something that we all have to struggle against, but I think that it has become clearer now, especially during the pandemic, that this virtual hyper-connectivity, with all its conveniences, has not made us any happier. I don't think we're happier than when we were without smartphones 20 or 30 years ago, and I believe recent research is showing that. It is obvious to me that convenience and happiness are two conditions that are often wrongly conflated.
This is important because when people are conscious of their immediate surroundings, they are also conscious of their fellow humans, and only then can they develop empathy, help each other to solve problems, but also live in sanity. That engagement with our immediate surroundings is important for their appreciation and eventual improvement. It is this appreciation that I try to heighten in my films.
In your personal experience, if you look at the current landscape and at how arts and culture interact with the social field, what is that you notice? What do you feel needs some attention or change?
When we talk about art and culture, we can presume that all people are participating, or experiencing a certain culture and enjoy a certain art. What many call "art", which is in galleries and museums, may not be accessible to the wider public and may not be communicating to them anything that will touch them profoundly.
There seems to be a huge gap between the art destined for mass consumption and high art, or pioneering art, and bridging this gap is always on my mind.
What I quite enjoyed with Last Dance on the Main is that all kinds of people got to see the film, and all kinds of people had something different to say about it.
I think film is an art form that, even when not purely commercial, can still reach a broader public than, let's say, painting. I often think about how artists can inspire larger segments of society and – may I use the forbidden word – elevate people, like the way I got elevated when I saw the film I mentioned before, or as many artworks from past centuries are able to do, even if they come from completely different societies or value systems. By elevating, I don’t mean pleasing but offering a new positive outlook into the world, empowering through something that connects us, something that, no matter how small, can reveal something greater, perhaps too large to grasp with other means.
Throughout history, art has been an important part of public life. I'm thinking of a baroque church in Italy, where you go in and you see art that speaks even to the most uneducated person, and every person can gain something different from it. These are artworks that have many readings, that are rich in levels of understanding, and are also public, and are also part of the physical, the built environment. That is something that interests me very much.
I always have this idea that maybe animation can also leave the dark rooms of the cinema and become the new wall paintings of today that speak to everybody.
Is there anything that you would like to do differently, on a personal level, in your artistic practice?
I would like to keep myself open to other handmade techniques such as drawn animation, charcoal animation, or animation of 3D objects. It is true that working on a light table with paper silhouettes is a long love affair of mine, but I need to be careful not to become complacent with past successes and begin imitating myself.
I would also like to expand my theoretical framework in the area of projection. As I said, I am all for projecting my animation outside the cinema, where people are less static and can experience it within an urban context. I will have to think outside the conventional ways of projection and also see whether there could even be a place for the physical bits of my work.
Is there anything important for you to mention that I did not ask you?
I would like to add that even though much of the joy I get in my work comes from the unplanned, the opportunities to be impulsive and make spontaneous decisions at any given stage of the process, the thought of creating hundreds of excess frames that may need to be scrapped is quite daunting and at times debilitating. It takes discipline and courage to jump into a film animation project, and I feel that I still wrestle with accepting that not everything can be resolved in my head before I begin. I need to be more willing to dive in. By getting immersed into animating, one gets fresh ideas as well.
What are a few keywords that resonate with you right now, at the end of this conversation?
The pleasure of making.
Imagining through traces.
Aristofanis Soulikias is a film animator and architect with a BArch from McGill University, an MA in Building Conservation from the University of York (UK), and a BFA with a Major in Film Animation from Concordia University. The sensibilities he developed having worked extensively on historic buildings in Greece and the UK, served him significantly in the making of, Last Dance on the Main, an award-winning animated documentary on the precarity of Montreal’s downtown built and social fabric. The film’s capacity to successfully communicate its story across borders and different categories of people, with almost all of its images fabricated with paper-cut silhouettes and other tangible objects, moved manually in the stop-motion technique, prompted questions about the relevance of bodily ways of making animation to express physical space, materiality and atmosphere in the face of the ubiquity of CGI technologies.
These questions are expanded in his current research-creation PhD project, titled Sensing the city: revealing urban realities and potentials through handmade film animation, and supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, under the supervision of Dr. Carmela Cucuzzella (primary), Prof. Luigi Allemano, and Dr. David Howes at Concordia’s INDI programme.