Grainy Realism: Abstract Animated Films by Vicky Smith

DVD Review by Edwin Rostron

Still from Noisy, Licking, Dribbling and Spitting (2014) by Vicky Smith

Grainy Realism is a lovingly packaged DVD of work by experimental filmmaker Vicky Smith, recently released by TBC Editions and accompanied by two excellent essays from Nicky Hamlyn and David Curtis. Vicky has been working with experimental animation for 25 years, making films with a raw visceral power and a primal sense of magic and revelation. Grainy Realism showcases four of Vicky’s most recent films, made between 2014 and 2019.

Vicky has frequently utilised her own body as an integral part of her filmmaking process. The first of the works on the DVD, Noisy, Licking, Dribbling and Spitting (2014) is made ‘with the mouth alone’, her stained tongue applying solid globules and splats of moist red substances to the 16mm film strip. The vivid marks made by this intimate process appear to us as solid, bubbling masses repeatedly passing over a bright white background, building in speed and energy over two visceral, physical climaxes. These licked marks also infiltrate the audio track to create a perfectly matched soundtrack of muffled grindings, rumbles and scratches that further evoke a feeling of great proximity and physical contact. The film is both of the inside(s) and the outside; of the tiny and the giant, and somehow at once both liberating and oppressive. 

The disc’s second film, Primal (2016) is a continuation of Vicky’s interest in physical interaction (or interference) with the film strip, made through rubbing and scraping unprocessed fogged negative to release light in small scratched areas. The film is perfectly titled, its flickering marks bringing to mind fire in a cave, scratches on a wall, torchlit rituals, a lightning storm in the dead of night, and as it reaches its climax, a whirling vortex. Accompanied by Shirley Pegna’s extraordinary soundtrack created by rubbing materials against the microphone, the film communicates something beyond the physical. The tiny, human marks on the surface of Vicky’s film strips become monumental and abstract on the screen, transformed through a thoughtful and perceptive use of animation processes to release some kind of ancient, vital energy. 

Small Things Moving in Unison (2018) by Vicky Smith

Vicky’s most recent works have turned from the human body to look outward, to other forms and species, but nonetheless they remain rooted in a direct engagement with the film strip. Small Things Moving in Unison (2018) presents dancing, swarming clusters of dots of light in a pitch black void. These dots are made from scratching into the film, but to markedly different effect than Primal’s expressive frenzy. Forming and reforming into a choreography of order and chaos, at times they resemble a murmuration of birds or a cloud of insects; collections of beings who, at times, appear to become one. The film is accompanied by another terrific soundtrack from Shirley Pegna, whose wordless vocal clicks and groans match the visual display perfectly. In its optical effect of changing spaces – sometimes masses of white objects, sometimes moving areas of black void shapes – it makes an interesting counterpoint to another great work of experimental animation, Larry Cuba’s Two Space (1979), the two films contrasting starkly in the quality of movement and life force that their respective points of light possess.

Still from Not (A) Part (2019) by Vicky Smith

The disc’s final work Not (A) Part (2019), hones in dramatically on the theme of insect life that was suggested in the scratched white marks of Small Things Moving in Unison. Consisting largely of photograms of dead bees, it is as if we have moved much, much closer into those white marks and now see their furry edges, delicate wing textures and jointed limbs. But these are inanimate body parts, no longer capable of swarming or dancing, and are interrupted by stark text on screen explaining their origins; place names and dead bee numbers.

The film is part field study, part abstract animation, but (not least thanks to the wonderful score) the whole thing is imbued with an unsettling sense of tension bordering on panic, which the film clearly relates to the decimation of our bee populations. Not (A) Part has a specificity of subject matter and emotional tone that separates it from the other three films on the disc, whilst also continuing to develop many of their shared formal concerns. The use of photograms perfectly matches the film’s more pointed, deliberate approach. These are the literal bees we see, no allusions or evocations. Then as the film develops, so the formal concerns of her previous films are brought more to the fore. A sequence of wings recalls the splatters at the end of Noisy, Licking, Dribbling and Spitting. Bee parts start to closely recall holes in the film, and we briefly move into more abstracted fields of texture and colour before the film itself finally dies.

Somehow Not (A) Part is quite unlike Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), the film it most obviously recalls, both in its tone and approach. It is a more bracing, more emotional and more unsettling work than Brakhage’s, and perhaps has a greater affinity with Vanda Carter’s Mothfight (1985). Not (A) Part takes Vicky’s practice into a thrilling direction, incorporating a directness of subject matter to match her direct engagement with the 16mm filmmaking process. For me Vicky Smith is one of the most exciting contemporary artists working in the UK today, and this DVD is an excellent summation of her recent work.

Grainy Realism is available from TBC Editions’ Bandcamp page here and also from the LUX shop here