Animating the Archives: Making New Jokes from the 16th Century
#photography & visual arts
default, Letter 'E' from 'Initials of Zeghere van Male' by Kajetan Obarski, photo: courtesy of the artist, center, e1-499p.gif
In his project 'Initials of Zeghere van Male', Kajetan Obarski has brought movement to 30 still scenes. By animating the ornate letters the original 500-year-old manuscript is known for, he highlights and strengthens their innate humour, creating something more than a simple reanimation.
A man standing waist-deep in a cauldron of boiling water, whose shoulders are being wrapped around by a snake, lightly fidgets and blinks his eyes. His form shapes the letter ‘T’. A naked person reaches for a stork’s nest full of eggs from his drooping branch and is pecked at by an angry bird. That picture forms the letter ‘B’. Chasing each other in a circle across the braided branches of a tree, a cat and dog stop for a moment to catch their breath. They form the letter ‘O’.
Similar static scenes fill the Songbook of Zeghere van Male in larger amounts. The charm of the project comes from the dialogue between its modern animator and his dialogue with a historical item – which, on Obarski’s page is defined as a kind of ‘artistic collaboration between a 21st-century animator and a 16th-century painter’, a conversation beyond the reaches of history. The creator says of his project:
I first came into contact with the Songbook of Zeghere van Male years ago. On a visual level, it’s the kind of work that reminds us that despite the passage of time and progress in artistic disciplines, not much has changed in the world of humour. Of course one can disagree, and simply prove that it has undergone evolutions, but on the other hand, tripping over, accidents and human mistakes in a broad sense have been amusing us for centuries. I won’t hide that the illustrations from the manuscript are close to my heart, that’s why I chose to work on them, at the same time reinterpreting and adding my own personal flow to them.
The Songbook of Zeghere van Male is a manuscript from Bruges, containing local and international songs and motets. Completed in 1542 and containing 1,200 pages, its importance is highlighted not only by its (current) excellent state of preservation, but also its visual substance: decorative letters and illustrations, sometimes taking up almost a whole page. One can closely study a digital version of the songbook, made available by La Bibliothèque Virtuelle des Manuscrits Médiévaux (BVMM) and Bibliothèque Universitaire de Cambrai – UVHC. On Obarski’s project page, the songbook is referred to as a ‘truly unending source of happiness and inspiration’. Looking at the final animations resulting from the dialogue between the artist and the original work, it is hard to deny the claim.
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This is a multi-year project for me. The four tomes of the Bruges songbook contain so many illustrations that it’s hard for me to say when I’ll finally reach the end! In the meantime, I have to comfort myself with a couple of projects more or less related to the archives. Scripts for the animations are waiting, the list of ideas for animated GIFs is waiting, the catalogues of archival graphics grow exponentially and, on top of all this, I’m working on the first feature-length animated film based on the life of Julio Zachrisson with the Panama Film Production Company ‘Animal’ (although his works cannot be found in the public domain, so that’s another story).
Initials of Zeghere van Male is another of Obarski’s projects that relies on historic materials available in digitised archives, museums and libraries. Referring to himself as an ‘assembler’, Obarski underlines what is characteristic of his artistic style – playing with original works (most often from a distant time) which he reassembles, processes and often also collages together with elements taken straight from modern visual culture. This practice results in art that’s full of humour (most often dark), steeped in the grotesqueness of animation and digital projects. Obarski’s style became recognised by a larger audience through his GIF projects such as Kiszkiloszki (2015) and Death Fairy Tales. As the creator himself says:
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I, as a person with a touch of weltschmerz and subsequent misanthropy, search for materials related to devils, the failure of morals, widely understood pessimism and, my favourite, death. These archives are practically crawling with contrasting materials related to these issues, and I think everyone would be capable of finding something in them to cheer themselves up or to just think about. Which I highly recommend. Scrolling through digital archives of public domain materials is addictive, much like scrolling through social media, with the only difference being that everyone’s dead.
The indubitably comedic works of Obarski should not be treated as inconsequential or temporary entertainment, for at least two reasons – the first is the archival archaeology required of such creative work, and the second is its worth as a popularisation (and likewise reinterpretation) of cultural heritage. As a creator, Obarski not only collaborates with the historic creators of the works, which he reassembles, but also with modern institutions and experts, who work with digital collections.
A good example of such a collaboration is the Digital Cultures 2018 Hybridizer – an interactive application created by Obarski, in collaboration with Igor Hardy (a coder) and Łukasz Kozak, a mediaevalist and specialist in digital collections (known for projects such as Discarding Images as well as Stare Obrazki ze Zwierzętami (Old Pictures with Animals)). Obarski comes across as a perfect ally for any kind of institution that deals with digitising works.
Stills from animations by Kajetan Obarski – Image Gallery
Despite the original fears of digitised collections falling into the hands of those who, without expert control, would misuse it, today the reigning fear is the collections’ niche status. When institutions realised that sharing their archives with a larger audience did not result in fewer physical visitors or a loss in status, the new challenge became how to build a relationship with the public and how to handle competition on an oversaturated internet. The MET’s former chief digital officer, Sree Sreenivasan best summed it up, stating, ‘Our competition is Netflix and Candy Crush’, not other museums.
Based on studies conducted by Centrum Cyfrowe (the Digital Centre), the results show that despite the growing number of people freely traversing the world of digital archives – creators, designers, explorers – a larger number of people still don’t know about these online treasures, or how to use them. Members of the latter group – referred to by the centre as ‘dormant potential’ – are sometimes the kind of people (such as students, teachers and educators) who have a lot to gain from the archives. Yet it’s worth considering that trawling the archives is not an activity that appeals to everyone. Not only because of the obvious competition, which would be to curl up in the evenings with a movie, as in the aforementioned Netflix, but also because there is a lack of knowledge of how to use the archives, or that they even exist. That’s why jobs related to searching, curating, processing and improving access are so important.
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This is a banal statement, but for me as a creator, the public domain/archives are an inexhaustible source of inspiration and materials for creative re-use and reinterpretation without limits. And I, like a hyena in a cemetery, rifle through our dead grandparents and grandmothers in search of intellectual entertainment, stories about changing societies, or simply graphics and illustrations by artists of all stripes. Sometimes I like to think that I have a kind of dialogue with them, although it’s not the easiest thing when your conversation partner has been lying mute in a grave for hundreds of years. Archival materials are a tangible (though virtual) proof of evanescence, which in itself is fascinating. They’re also a reminder about firmly-held beliefs, lexicons and curious traditions that we’ve long since abandoned. It entertains, educates and surprises, and before you realise it, you’re an amateur cultural anthropologist. The public domain has everything for free. It’s hard to resist such an offer.
Archival anthropology carries with it the weight of a kind of cultural poll, allowing for questions of what is important and what matters to rise to the surface. More marginal beliefs can be found too, although they may seem less spectacular than the highlights. More than that, it is also a method of never-ending interpretation and re-interpretation of heritage and cultural history – especially from eras that are no longer easily understandable to modern viewers.
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Works from the public domain sensibly become – once the copyrighted period passes – the belongings of an entire society. This grace period after the death of the author and before the end of copyright creates a mystery to the aesthetics of a given era, as well as the historical context. Exploring the inherent characteristics of a work – both the aesthetics and form as well as the ideas and symbols – from a modern perspective helps viewers grasp an understanding despite the distance, facilitating an understanding with that which is so far away.
Kajetan Obarski’s projects, like Initials of Zeghere van Male, fulfil a dual purpose: they return historical materials to the sphere of modern visual culture (cropping, changing mediums, moving, while still retaining their original styles) while their ability to entertain and surprise helps to create a connection to distant themes, sometimes retaining their original meaning.
Originally written in Polish, translated by AZ, Sept 2019
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