In comics in the US, there is a prevailing stigma of creators being misanthropic shut-ins. A stereotype that afflicts not only content but creators’ self-hood alike, and an identity which is defensibly bunk.
I first met Lyra Hill during a class we had together at the School of the Art Institute. Hill is a filmmaker, cartoonist, and the producer behind the experimental comics reading series Brain Frame. Since it’s conception in 2011, Brain Frame has served as a storytelling platform for a mash-up of emerging and more established artists (myself included).
Every other month audiences are invited to a celebration of strangeness and a showcase of eccentric ambition. In it’s many iterations, the event has become a beloved happening among independent artist communities in Chicago. What began as an exploration into what a comics reading could be, has become a site of social engagement within a medium still haunted by rigid versions of its self.
Lyra and I sat down recently to draw upon and reflect on Brain Frame’s final year.
Guest post by A.Martinez
I was introduced to the work of Sara Drake at my first Brain Frame event, March 2012. Brain Frame is an event series that invites comic artists to explore the performative side of their work. That night, Sara’s shadow puppet performance “The Romance of the Tiger Lady” truly blew me away. I try to avoid using the word ‘magic’ to describe work, but the kind of child-like captivation I felt in response to this piece was both unexpected and incredibly moving.
Bad At Sports last spoke to Sara just before her two-month teaching venture in Cambodia. It was this trip that inspired “The Romance of the Tiger Lady”, and it was also this trip that inspired her (most impressive) self-taught movement towards shadow puppetry. You can find Sara’s work online at http://saradrake.info/; she is also the comics writer for Bad At Sports.
A.Martinez: How did you get from making comics into performing shadow puppetry?
Sara Drake: Estrangement. I had just returned to the US from Cambodia where I had been teaching comics, and every way I knew how to articulate myself became erroneous. I needed to communicate in a mode which wouldn’t come off as abrasive or didactic within an insular arts community in Chicago. I wasn’t ready to process my experiences abroad with other people yet. It takes me a long time to process anything, including my new found political awareness.
Shadow puppets signaled tedious, meditative sessions alone in the dark and allowed me to find a voice I was aware of in the back of my mind but wasn’t sure how to wield. So much of my creative life is prefaced with writing and asserting justification for making things. When I’m speaking in shadows, I am literally fumbling around in the dark trying to find bits and pieces to a story.
Martinez: So to begin talking about your piece, The Romance of the Tiger Lady, I want to start with your trip to Cambodia to teach comics to a group of young women. When were you there and for how long?
Drake: I was there for two months in 2011 through an initiative called Independent Youth Driven Media Production in Cambodia. My former teacher, Anne Elizabeth Moore, was looking for creative responses to issues relevant to young women in Phnom Penh. I applied with a gendered comics and self-publishing workshop.
Martinez: How did living in a completely different country teaching comics influence your work?
Drake: I was there for such a short time! I wouldn’t exactly consider two months “living” in a foreign country. It did completely shift my life. As for my work I attribute it most to an entangling and dispossession of my morality, which I’m only just beginning to explore through comics.
I am definitely an advocate for travel if you have the means or opportunity to do so, but hesitant to encourage others to pursue a project like mine. There are unique risks and potentially hidden power structures at play. To walk into a community as an outsider with limited understanding could be devastating, despite how well-intentioned an artist may be.
Martinez: Did you watch much shadow puppetry there?
Drake: Only as a tourist. Not as someone who has the ability to talk about the medium affluently or with respect to a long, and important cultural tradition.
Martinez: Of all the comics you read while you were over there, what made you decide to choose this story to work with?
Drake: That’s the thing. I did not speak or was literate in Khmer. I had to find comics in the market places and through word of mouth, typically through western expats. Cambodia is still rebuilding from and coming to terms with decades of illegal American bombing, the Khmer Rouge regime, civil war, and persistent corruption. Comics, like all artistic production during the regime, were completely wiped out. The Romance of The Tiger Lady, by Im Sokha, is a horror comics from the 1980s about a were-tiger lady who falls smitten for a hunter. Aside from it being a good story, it was one of the comics that was well liked and looked at often among the women that came to my workshops.
Martinez: So, you made a decision to make this into a shadow puppet performance, and then how did you begin this process?
Drake: I spend a lot of time writing and collecting fragments of ideas until I internalize and visualize moods and feelings. Then I have to somehow translate them into puppets. I am still a bit mystified as to how that happens.
Martinez: The piece is 17 minutes long. About how long did it take you to just cut out all the scenes?
Drake: For Tiger Lady, I wasn’t just cutting out the puppets, I was also teaching myself how to make shadow puppets. The show took about three months to physically cut out. A clumsy, one foot after the other sort of business.
Martinez: Did you work mostly by yourself?
Drake: Yes and no! When I’m starting to work on a show there is a germination period of a few months, where I’m working solo on scripting out the story and making all the puppets. Then I get together with a group of puppeteers and a musician to figure out the rest.
Martinez: How did you decide to use an overhead projector for your performances?
Drake: They are the staple, it seems, for shadow puppet shows. The puppet community in Chicago is incredibly supportive. Julia Miller of Manual Cinema, another shadow puppet group, gave me a lot of pointers in the beginning. Knowing about their work was an invaluable resource in the beginning and their work is mind-blowingly gorgeous.
Martinez: Comics are usually a very solitary act, so was it difficult for you to switch to an art that is so collaborative both in its making and its viewing?
Drake: I see this logic posed often to cartoonists and frankly, it’s missing the point. Comics are solitary as a process sure! but similar to other art forms, communities have formed up around and about it all over the place. It would seem odd to ask a writer this question. Chicago is not as lonely as my cartoon predecessors would have most believe, yet certainly alienating at times. It bores me when artists use this paradigm as an excuse.
But to answer your question, there was never a time when I haven’t been collaborating. Maybe the result isn’t always a visual one or one whose end goal is something tangibly producible. For me, cultural production necessitates community involvement and being exposed to as many voices and encouraging access to as many voices as possible.
Martinez: When did PUPhouse form?
Drake: During the production of Saltwater Weather. Early on I realized that the project was going to be ambitiously technical and require a deeper commitment from the artists who stepped up to be puppeteers. Each of us had been collaborating in some form or another outside of shadow puppets. The range of mediums each of us is coming from is pretty protean: textiles, animation, comics, music, filmmaking, theater. PUPhouse, or giving our time together a name, became a way to reinforce what we were building together.
Martinez: Do you like working with a crew of people like that?
Drake: As with any group of humans, you can expect drama. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I mean, I couldn’t have it any other way.
Martinez: What’s the strangest or coolest thing that’s happened to you while working together?
Drake: Being around other artists is strange and cool in general.
One of the perks of being in an experimental puppet company, is that no matter what event or show you are at, if it’s going badly or is boring, I always have seven weirdos who I adore to hang out with on the sidelines. Eternal friendship lifestyle.
Martinez: How often do you meet and rehearse for shows?
Drake: When a show is in the works once a week. Sometimes two, three times a week.
It takes longer time than one would think to show someone how to move a small piece of paper from point a to b. . .
Martinez: What is the most difficult thing for you about shadow puppetry?
The physical and emotional labor that goes into it. Shadow puppetry may look effortless from the front but there is a flurry of movement, sweat, and awkward body positions happening backstage. It takes an exceptional group of people to be able to maintain strong friendships after tense long hours of being told their fingers need to act more like animals.
Sometimes puppets catch on fire . . . which, is definitely difficult.
Martinez: What are you currently working on?
Drake: I’m taking a break from puppets for a moment to make a new comic – but I don’t want to share all my magic tricks just yet. On top of that, I’m heading out of Chicago for a bit to do an artist residency in Colombia.
Martinez: It seems like you like to travel to new places. Do you work while you’re traveling? Or mostly just collect ideas?
Drake: I have a long-term, co-dependent relationship with wanderlust. I intentionally do not go to any place wanting to make work about it. I’ve found that traveling with a purpose in mind, mediates my experiences. It is however, important that all of the materials I work with are portable. This does two things. I like culture that is definitely small – that’s human sized and encourages people to relate to it. And of course, it’s practical!
Martinez: Do you keep/have a collection?
Drake: I’m always leaving places. I do not like/enjoy owning things, maybe that’s why I work in ephemera and experiences. Although, I am a compulsive autobiographer. I keep a dated record of every book, movie, and art show I’ve ever read or seen since I was a teenager. I keep meticulous word lists of all sorts of things: new compound words I create, overheard conversations, turns of phrases that sound off, mood words, fragments.
Martinez: What is the most distracting thing for you while you’re working?
Drake: Exhaustion. Or not feeling lucid and the feedback loop frustration that comes with that.
Martinez: What’s the biggest revelation you’ve had about the way you work?
Drake: The puppeteers always note that I exclaim “do you hate it?” when I show new work or scenes to them. I have a parasite known to many as self-depreciation.
Martinez: Is there a certain time of day that you feel especially inspired to work, or when ideas come to you?
Drake: I do most of my writing and scripting when I am on my bike. Most days this tends to be the only alone time I have. And of course, shadows are more dramatic after dark. . .
Martinez: Does your cat hang out with you while you work?
Drake: Of course! We have a symbiotic working relationship. I cannot stress enough, how crucial a creative life in the company of other animals is to a human psyche.
Martinez: Is there a piece of advice, art related or not that you think of often?
Drake: When I was small, my dad always used to say, “What makes a good animal, a good animal?”
This was meant to be soothing after some brutal animal world fact on television, a pet death, watching viruses destroy human cells on bring your daughter to work day, etc. It meant, what ensures that animal survives? Is being brutal or dark, something that a human animal might consider bad, a part of what defines that animal? “What makes a good human, good at being human?” This is how I move around in the world ad. infinitum.
All photos courtesy of Gillian Fry and Sara Drake.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.
This weekend marks the second annual Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, fondly known to comics creators and fans alike as CAKE. For two days out of the year, artists and publishers from all over the US, Canada and beyond congregate in Chicago to share and shop-talk their work. The result: an overwhelming flurry of comics, prints, self-published ephemera, weirdos and spontaneity. Be sure to stop in for a visit!
Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE)
Saturday and Sunday, June 15 & 16, 2013
11 am – 6pm
Center on Halsted
3656 N Halsted
FREE and open to the public!
Amy Lockhart’s Walk for Walk. Screened today as part of the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation.
Guest Post by Faye Kahn¹
While social evidence that the rich is dividing farther away from the poor becomes more & more unavoidable, it seems that at the same time the art world is inversely nudging the them closer together. Traditional distinctions between “high” & “low” art are fading. In his essay “Comrades of Time,” discussing the definition of the term “contemporary,” Boris Groys states that “…at the turn of the twenty-first century, art entered a new era-one of mass artistic production, & not only mass art consumption.” Art-making is no longer restricted to a higher, educated or professional class. With the encouragement of advancing technologies from the ball point pen to the smartphone & increased visibility of the individual creative practice via the internet has reified this notion of art as “mass-cultural practice” ad infinitum (probably to some ad nauseum). To track the currency of art between upper & lower economic & academic classes & attempt to elucidate the creation of connecting middle classes of art, for instance independent comics & publication as well as social media experiments, it may be helpful to recognize the presence of commercial aesthetics in all classes. By following this reciprocal currency of consumerist media to high art & back, there are many significant signs pointing to a possible future of a classless art world.
Imagine this daisy in an advertisement for a department store chain. Now imagine it in a comic made by a peer. Lastly, imagine (or remember) this daisy in a contemporary art museum, as a part of a painting, a 300-editioned print of which is sold for more than $1,000. Of course this image is fairly well known- it was designed by artist Takashi Murakami in the mid-late 90s & repeated throughout his career in various incarnations (in carnations……….). What is unique about this daisy, however, is that to the unfamiliar eye its origins & environment could believably be in any of these three locations, or strata of art. It is difficult to say this of other contemporary arts images- a Jeff Koons sculpture, a performance piece by Marina Abramović, a photo by Wolfgang Tillmans (although this might be grounds for an interesting project). Most can’t be conceived in the commercial sphere-until the work becomes safely art-historical, when they can be reproduced on consumer goods & sold to a nostalgic or young audience-until then they are works intentionally too “conceptual” or “difficult” to be at home in a consumer setting where expediency of communication is paramount.
Murakami was/is famously aware of this & was actively attempting to collapse gaps between high & lowbrow art communities. Naturally, other internationally renowned pop artists like Lichtenstein & Warhol & more recently Philip Guston & Yoshimoto Nara have exercized a similar style. I stop at Murakami, not because I’m particularly fond of his work, but because his conceptual “Superflat” agenda is well articulated & aware of the collapse of economic boundaries. “When comparing a half a million dollars to ‘free,’” says Murakami, comparing to his blind-assortment collectible figure series (‘free’ with a purchase of candy) to his life-size statues of the same characters residing in contemporary arts institutions, “there’s an overwhelmingly different sense of values, almost a confusion of values.”² This “confusion of values” intellectualized by Murakami in the art scene in the late 90s/early ’00s is a significant checkpoint in the travel of commercial aesthetics, but this consciousness not exclusive to artists of highly educated stature (according to Wikipedia, Murakami has a Ph.D. from the Tokyo University of the Arts) but also in artists in so-called lower, consumer target-market classes.
Before I continue, here’s quick review these “levels of art” as crookedly defined for the purpose of this essay:
1) High Art (elite)
2) “DIY” or “Low” Art
3) Commercial Art (consumerist)
“High Art” referring to work usually made by career artists & found in the gallery, museum, & similarly institutionalized art biennials, fairs, etc., with a prestigious milieu of critics, buyers, curators & so on. For level 2, I’m wont to trade in the negative term “low” (granted this negativity is a badge of pride for some) for “DIY,” which as an adjective has come to encompass the “mass practice” of unprofessional quotidian participation in the making of art (“unprofessional” or “quotidian” not as pejoratives, but as neutral descriptors)-including student work. Level 3 is one populated by masters of an aesthetic practice but whose products are intended to be consumed by an unassuming hoi polloi. Although this stratum by nature lacks the conceptual, self-aware qualities arguably integral to defining something as “art,” certainly artistic techniques are employed (& exploited). Not only this, but it is common for early-career artists to hold jobs in this industry for obvious financial reasons, allowing them to coexist on both levels, while to varying degrees keeping their personal work separate.
This commercial universe, simultaneously seductive & repulsive, has provided us a strange key to a universalized art practice. It consists of a language instantly readable & in turn available to all to appropriate (throw legality into the wind). The visual toolbox of late capitalist propaganda is one of monumental typography, drop shadows, heavy outlines, over-emotive caricatures, light reflecting textures, shining sparkling neons, pastels, & primaries, & supreme cleanliness, (even when portraying something dirty). Whether you want simple geometrics or complex mechanics there is a commercial toolset for you. Anyone born in a first world country (& to a lesser degree, beyond) in the past 50 years has come to age in a society increasingly saturated by this imagery & fast motion. Having been the target market of any number of advertising campaigns at every given moment of a lifetime, a significant number of artists, whose headcount increases with the approach of the contemporary period, have co-opted this style in more radical ways than simple parody. Take for example (moving beyond the household names of 60s pop artists) Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats collage series, the gradients (among many other things) of Cory Archangel or the clusterfuck of American commercialism in Ryan Trecartin videos. All of this work is, while certainly of high conceptual &/or critical value, speaking with a language that is, though perverted, immediately legible or familiar to anyone who has experienced pop culture.
This artistic momentum is surprisingly well represented by the current proliferation of amateur comic artists, many of whom are vocally & visibly aware of the high art world. It’s safe to say that comics, originally a consumer product, have become widely accepted as an outlet for personal expression, like photography, that has become recently emancipated from its irreproducible commercial status to the disposal creatives of all ages & classes. The beginnings of this can be attributed in significant part to movements like the underground comix scene in the 60s & 70s with artists like Rick Griffin & R. Crumb (among many others) carrying through to cartoonists of the 80s & 90s such as Gary Panter & Raymond Pettibon. These cartoonists, along with experimental anthologies like RAW & Weirdo expanded comics into experimental territory, communicating more with high art logics than their syndicated predecessors/counterparts (psychedelics are a shortcut to philosophy!?). Counterintuitively, while extending the medium into traditionally elitist domains (psychedelics are a shortcut to the philosophical!?), they simultaneously introduced comic-making to a wider, younger, & unprofessional bracket. Now, comics were not only an art to be consumed, but an art practice to actively participate in, as much or as little as one consumed them.
The alternative comics community today is expansive to say the least. Contemporary DIY comics anthologies like Mould Map, Sonatina Comics, & Happiness (to name just a tiny fraction of those existing today), tumblrs, & conventions (Brooklyn Comix & Graphics Fest (although recently discontinued!), CAKE, TCAF, etc.) document hundreds of artists per year. Comics have gradually become another near-neutral visual alphabet or option for people to represent themselves with: similar to how everyone with a camera can now be a photographer/self documentarian, anyone with a writing tool can now be a comics artists/self documentarian.
Despite this hyperactivitity & close relationship to the art world, independent comics remain largely ignored by institutionalized critical artistic discourse. While there’s no shortage of books, journals, & blogs dedicated to dissecting comics culture & composition, they remain intended for readers interested in comics specifically & lack a serious concern for communicating with the larger contemporary art world. In other words, while the artwork straddles all strata of art, the reception does not (or does so very disproportionately). When consulting with a few active comic artists about this, many of them responded with reference to a class-related animosity between the comics & high art world in one direction or another, or rather, to the anti-intellectual/elitist (respectively) attitude either of the two fosters. On the one hand, comic artist & editor of the Happiness comic anthology series, Leah Wishnia states, “…art/alt/underground comics are a rejection of the elitism propagated by the fine art market, and the institution behind the fine art market may resent this and therefore, continues to label the majority of comics as ‘low art.’” At the same time, comic artist Blaise Larmee expressed a disillusion at the contemporary alt-comics sphere for its perceived blandness to outside audiences & Austin English admitted to looking to fine art for more inspired organization of text, characters & figure drawing. Unsurprisingly, the comics blog “Comets Comets” (the name a riff on the popular “Comics Comics Mag” (now also defunct) ran by Dan Nadel of Picturebox Publishing, Tim Holder, & Frank Santoro) maintained by Larmee, English, & comics artists Jason Overby & Carrie Bren was one of the only (if not the only) sources of writing that started to look at comics in a conceptually analytical way.
“Where does form end and content begin?
American comics came from newspapers and manga from ukiyo-e. There was no preciousness about the drawings that led to the printed matter until more recently. Original art can be beautiful to look at, but it’s beside the point: comics are perfect objects that have been formed by combining the raw material of an individual’s (or group of them) vision with the machines of mass production (computers, these days). They’re able to (like other modern media) lack the Bodhidharma-style transmission of artistic consciousness “Art” traffics in and allow many people to have and enjoy the same content cheaply.”
Due to the internet visibility of artists at all moments in their careers, we are more aware of this in-between group of young artists, concurrently existing in all levels of art, & in turn the levels are more connected, regardless of said existing tensions. Artists emerging from the 90s Providence Fort Thunder junk-art-music-noise-space-universe like Brian Chippendale, Matt Brinkman, & arts collective Forcefield are a few examples using this new form of commercial art inspired neo(n)materialism in a way that has caught the eye of institutions such as the Whitney Biennial & new galleries. Vancouver-based artist Chris Von Szombathy utilizes cartoon, illustration & commercial vernacular to communicate severe & conceptual topics beyond what’s normally associated with their style. Austin English put together a show at Baltimore Open Space exhibiting young artists with comic-influence such as James Ulmer & Leif Low-Beer. Strange (reciprocal?) lateral appropriation (to borrow a term from Sean Joseph Patrick Carney) is happening between artists inside & outside of the comics world not only in places conducive to such activity like tumblr but also in the gallery space. All of these instances are notable because they are garnering attention while they are happening, while they are “contemporary” rather than after they have become art historical (the art world is not lacking in Gary Panter & R. Crumb shows).
There is much more to say & countless more artists to consider in the economy of aesthetics between the different classes of art. It brings to mind for example the many lives of anime character AnnLee traded between artists Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno (her latest incarnation by Tino Seghal at the 2013 Frieze Art Fair, discussed here & many other places), the universe of fan art (recently considered here in Hyperallergic), “designer” vinyl toys & statues, & the time-based worlds of animation, photography, & film. The entirety of DisMagazine seems to be dedicated to promoting alternative use of commercial aesthetics.
I recently walked into a new-ish local gallery space called Beginnings in Brooklyn to find a show exhibiting 3 artists: a painter, a photographer, & a writer. The painter, Jamian Juliano-Villani immediately caught my eye as her work subscribed to a neon(n)materialist agenda, reappropriating known graphics like animation smear-frames & 70s illustrations by Moscoso with updated dayglo color schemes. The photographs, initially seeming unrelated, were by Jan Kempenaers & documented the abandoned Yugoslavian monuments to the socialist republic. This visual work was punctuated by framed essays referring to the rise & fall of democratic capitalism, written by Wolfgang Streeck, director of the Max Planck Institue for the Study of Societies (MPIfG), based in Cologne, Germany. The sheer variety of this show, while on second look (& after discussion with curator Matt Giordano) managing to be cohesive through the themes of ideological criticism, along with the newness of the gallery I think attests to novel locations in which commercial aesthetics can now comfortably exist & will appear more frequently in the future. Sternberg press, who published the original “What is Contemporary Art” e-flux edition from which I extracted the Boris Groys article quoted in the introductory paragraph recently posted on their tumblr an upcoming volume on “Altcomics.” All of this, while egos will never completely allow a true socialist art world, is evidence that surprising juxtapositions & convalescence of all three classes of art are becoming more possible & will bring artistic practice & hopefully also criticism to more audiences without losing conceptual value or legibility.
H. FAYE KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC & a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.
1. Many thanks to Matt Giordano of Beginnings Gallery, Blaise Larmee, Jason Overby, Austin English, & Leah Wishnia for taking time to chat with me about these subjects & providing important examples. Thanks also to Chris Von Szombathy who discussed this with me about this at length in 2011.
2.© Murakami, Takashi Murakami: Company Man, by Scott Rothkopf pg. 137
Since self-publishing his wildly successful first novel Clumsy in 2002, he’s created numerous other painfully funny autobiographical comics, co-written the 2012 star-studded film Save the Date (starring Party Down’s Lizzy Caplan and Mad Men’s Alison Brie) and penned a hilarious series of graphic novels that explore the challenges of being both Darth Vader–ruler of the evil Sith empire–and a single dad.
Brown’s newest Star Wars-themed book Jedi Academy (out on Aug. 27), is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Roan and his adventures mastering the Force while juggling all the issues that come with being a middle schooler.
Brown took the time to answer a few questions via email — keep reading to learn more about his past and current work in film and publishing.