Alice Cohen is a Brooklyn based artist and musician. Her animated films often feature beautiful imagery and exquisite patterns moving and overlapping with spontaneous, DIY energy. Her lovingly accumulated source material evokes lost eras. Silent film actors, Victorian families, plants and animals from some natural paradise, hippies, space-age architecture and medieval castles all co-exist, often in the form of cut-out photocopies from books and magazines, as well as drawings, material, found objects and video footage. What unifies all this in such an effective and deceptively effortless way is Alice’s vision. As she describes in the interview below, her process of experimentation is critical to her being able to tap into the feeling of the piece. In her music videos she tunes right into the spirit of the song, bringing out humour, mystery or tension through animation. In her non-music video work she often creates a gorgeous sense of reverie that connects to her interest in trance states and the ‘zone’ of creativity.
‘White Woman’ by Broken Deer (2010) Video by Alice Cohen
Alice’s work in animation is, in a number of ways, closely linked to her being a musician. Since fronting bands such as Fun City, The Vels and Die Monster Die she has been recording under her own name, releasing records such as the fantastic 2012 album Pink Keys. She has made a number of animations set to her own music, presenting them in gallery installations alongside her collage work. She has also made music videos and visuals for acts such as Grimes, Maria Minerva, King Dude and Ducktails, many of which are works of art in their own right. I interviewed Alice via email to find out more about her inspiring and captivating work.
‘Where the Walls are Made of Grass’ by Fergus and Geronimo (2011)
Video by Alice Cohen
EoF: How did you start making animations?
AC: I got into animation as an extension of my collage work. I had made collages from the time I was about 12 years old. Then, in 2008, a friend told me about an animation class at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, and suggested I try the class, in order to “make the collages move”. He showed me the collage animation work of Martha Colburn…I was already familiar with Harry Smith, Robert Breer, and other animators…and had been wanting to get into filmmaking, but wasn’t sure where to start. The SVA class had “pencil-test” rooms for the students, with huge animation stands, lights, video cameras, a “lunchbox” (old-school frame capturing device) and monitors where you could work for hours. So, I brought in a big packet of collage materials and started shooting, and I was hooked right away. I ended up taking the same class semester after semester for several years in order to shoot in those rooms. All my first animations were made at SVA, till eventually I had to build my own set up at home, so I could shoot all the time. When I first began experimenting with animation, a musician friend of mine, Matt Mondanile (of the bands Ducktails and Real Estate) was about to release an album…Todd from Olde English Spelling Bee records (incidentally the same friend who suggested the SVA class) suggested I put my animations together into a music video for Matt’s release. The video was for the song “Landrunner” – my first ever music video. It premiered on Pitchfork, and after that I just started making more music videos for my own music, and other musicians and bands, as well as other work for galleries and screenings.
‘Landrunner’ by Ducktails (2009) Video by Alice Cohen
EoF: With your music videos, do bands come to you with specific ideas that you work around? To what extent do you plan out your animations in advance?
AC: Some bands give me a lot of freedom to come up with ideas, and others have more of a concept mapped out, or specific imagery they want to see. I’m fine working either way. I see it as a collaboration, and I’m trying represent the band visually, and bring the song to life…sometimes it’s more challenging when they have specific ideas already, but it usually works out…and sometimes comes out stronger. I sometimes plan animations out in terms of a theme, or visualizing certain imagery for specific sections, but it’s usually pretty improvisational – I shoot a lot of stuff, then see what works when I edit. Part of the process is going out and hunting for imagery – I go to thrift stores and used bookstores, and never just look things up on the internet and print them out. I always xerox images and cut them out, or use swirling paint, various found objects, etc. It’s always about the random chance of what I happen to find – of course I will be looking for certain things, but what I find is usually slightly different than what I imagined – so it’s a combination of planning things out, and chance.
‘Ambulence’ by Greatest Hits (2010) Video by Alice Cohen
EoF: Does your musical background have any effect on your approach to making animation work?
AC: My musical background probably affects my animation work in terms of timing and flow…music and animation both deal with rhythm, movement and time, so they’re completely connected…for the music video work I do, it makes total sense that I spent a lot of time in bands myself…the feeling of song structure – intro, verse, chorus, etc – editing on the beat, pacing etc, is something I’m tuned into habitually, so it helps construct the video. And if I’m creating a soundtrack to my own video work, I see it as a crucial part of the whole piece – the soundtrack is as important as the visuals, and helps to color and complete the whole piece.
Excerpt from the video ‘Mirror Moves for Private Eyes’ (2010) by Alice Cohen
EoF: Has there always been a visual side to your creative practice? Were you always making art work throughout your musical career? Do you feel more of a musician than a visual artist or are they two parts of the same thing?
AC: There’s always been the visual side to my creativity – when I played in bands, there were always the flyers for shows, art work for the record covers, designing t-shirts, etc… it’s always just been there – the visual and the musical, and I think they really are two parts of the same thing – I mean they’re both just different forms of expression that tap into different parts of your brain. I was raised in a family with musician parents, and I definitely spent more years working at being a “professional” musician… music is a very deep thing in my soul, but the music business can be challenging and frustrating, so in a way the visual art side of myself has always felt more freeing and fun, since I got deeper into it later in life, and didn’t really set out to do it as a career.
‘Alpha Beta’ by MAYa (2014) Video by Alice Cohen
EoF: There is a dreamy, spaced out (for want of a better term) feel to your music and to some of your animations, which I think partly comes from the imagery (in the films) and the types of sounds (in the music) – but perhaps it also comes partly from the structure or form, in that there is a sense of things drifting and dissolving, and feeling timeless in the sense of being outside time somehow. I wondered if this was something you work to create or if it happens naturally? My feeling is that this kind of atmosphere maybe has some connection to a free and improvisational approach to process, and I wondered if that makes any sense to you? Do you use any kind of improvisational approach when making music?
AC: I definitely feel the most free and open when improvising. I’m a fan of structure in music, but have also spent time in improv bands, and love both. My animations are definitely improvisational too, though I try to make things cohesive. The dreamy feeling you mention is really important to me, and sort of a key to my creating… if I can tap into that dreamy feeling, even if just through one image, and the mystery it evokes, it sort of unlocks a “door” and allows entry into a visual (or musical) realm that just flows. I really think there are trance states we can get into while doing creative work – whether visual or musical… and it is related to dreams and metaphysical states… it’s almost like these spaces or realms exist and we tap into them, but we’re also creating them as we are imagining them, and then they become real, but they’re on a higher or finer or more subtle plane. There’s an ethereal feeling that can arise… also, not thinking too much, but just “playing” and seeing what looks good. But that’s always been my approach to writing music/making art. Trial and error, not thinking too much - I like to daydream and visualize a lot, to get in the “zone”. There’s also an alchemical thing that happens when you reuse an old image from another era, and bring it to life in a new context - so there’s a lot of playing around with time and different eras, like time travel.
‘Same Old Same Old’ by Coasting (2011) Video by Alice Cohen
EoF: Do you approach your non-music video animation work in a different way to the music videos? What kind of process do you employ in those works? Are you working on any non-music video animation/film projects at the moment?
AC: The non-music video work I do is the most important work for me (though I really enjoy the music video work too, and try to make it as artful as I can) - but often it’s hard to find enough time for it. I get caught up in making music video work, and a major goal right now is to focus more on the other non-music video work. I have so many ideas for new work, some of which I’ve started but they’re not completed. I did show some new animation I’ve been working on, on New Years Eve of this past year, at an all night dance party - very cosmic imagery with Mexican statues shot through crystal prisms, and Victorian people with watercolor auras. I do have a lot of imagery and ideas collected for upcoming projects. I plan to make some videos that relate to the new record album I’ve been finishing up. It’s a concept album, that takes place in a particular space – a historical building – so I will be using imagery which relates to that, and creates a space which relates to inner consciousness, as well as the building, which is sort of a symbol. With music videos, I’m basically making a “product” or commercial for a band, although I try to make it “art” in the process. For my own films, I really want to communicate something more personal, and make this inner concept visible, and the goal is to present more of a vision, and hopefully bring the viewer someplace, on an inner level.
Animation for a multimedia performance by Christine Shields and Sheila Bosco for Streetopia at the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco (2012) by Alice Cohen
EoF: What kind of film/art/music inspires you, or do you see your work relating to?
AC: I’ve always been very inspired by metaphysical, occult, and cosmic books, film and artists…I love Harry Smith, and Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington and Marjorie Cameron. I like to listen to celestial new age, experimental, and music by friends of mine when I’m animating. Right now I’m enjoying listening to a three album compilation of New Age music from 1950-1990 called “I am the Center”. It’s great to animate to. And I’m fortunate to have a close group of creative friends to bounce ideas off of and be inspired by. The area where magical and metaphysical concepts intersect with art is really important to me, as well as the immediate artistic community I interact with.
‘Heaven and Earth Magic’ by Harry Smith (1957-62)
EoF: How do you feel about the music video as a context for your animation? What would be the ‘ideal’ context for your work? – gallery / cinema / internet or other…?
AC: I would like to return to the gallery/screening context, for my work. The visibility the internet provides through the music video work has been great - a lot of people see and can find your work there. But I like the experiential quality of a gallery or screening. A few years ago I had a month-long art show in a gallery based around a video I made (“Mirror Moves for Private Eyes”). I constructed a “movie theater” in the gallery, with big pillows to lounge on, and had collages and installation relating to the video, throughout the gallery. That was the ideal setting for me to be able to create this entire world inside this gallery…and I am gearing up to do another show like that not sure when, but the wheels are turning.
Alice Cohen shows how she makes stop-motion animations – from The Fader (2012)