By Edwin Rostron
The films of Johan Rijpma are carefully constructed works of art, depicting processes of creation and destruction through frequently dazzling and breathtaking animation sequences. These wondrous experiments often utilise everyday physical objects such as sticky tape, pieces of paper, dinner plates or balloons. Johan’s films express a real sense of curiosity and a fascination with the limits of our perception, and how animation might extend those limits. They have a formal beauty and a playfulness which makes them accessible to a wide audience, but under their surface there are many fascinating ideas and questions about the physical world, time, space and gravity. These thoughts can then open up to all manner of more abstract conjectures and imaginings. Like his classic film Extrapolate, you start of with something very simple like a human hand drawing a line and before too long you find you have arrived in a completely unexpected and mind-expanding destination.
Johan Rijpma is a visual artist based in Utrecht, The Netherlands. He studied Image and Media Technology at the Utrecht School of Arts and was the Animation Artist in Residence at JAPIC, Tokyo in 2016. His work has received multiple awards and has been screened and exhibited widely around the world.
Extrapolate (2016) by Johan Rijpma
EoF: On your website, the earliest works – Groeien (Grow), Wachtmelodie and Tegels (Tiles) – are all from 2009 – when I think you were aged 25? Can you describe your artistic journey to up to that point and how those three films came about? Had you been working in animation or other kinds of moving image before that?
JR: Tegels was one of the first animations I’ve done after finishing my graphic design education. During the first two and a half years studying I was a bit disappointed by how uninspiring most of the curriculum was. This all changed however when I had to do an internship at an advertising company that turned out to be going out of business. Eventually there was only one designer (Marcel Imthorn) and myself in the office. Since there were no new clients or assignments coming in we could just use the office and all the equipment to do whatever we wanted. This situation made me excited again about the whole process of creating things. We created posters, illustrations, music, animation and we would do VJ-performances together on the weekend mixing second hand VHS tapes that we wouldn’t watch until the actual live performance and combining it with live cutout/line animation.
Tegels (2009) by Johan Rijpma
After my internship I realized I wanted to stick to this playful and experimental approach and forget about trying to meet the expectations of teachers and clients. (It turned out that most teachers appreciated this new approach, and I realized I had been limiting myself the first years by my own expectations of what was expected of me). In my graduation year I started to come up with more strategic approaches to generate unpredictable and exciting results without making it feel too random and arbitrary.
Tegels was one of the first animations that I did with the conscious intention of not expressing myself but letting the material (the tiles) express itself. I started by just mindlessly taking pictures of the tiles on the sidewalk because I noticed they would often break in an interesting and similar way. Then I became curious what kind of movements would come out of it if I would put them on a timeline. Gradually this picture collection would expand and include other phenomena that would appear on the tiles like gum, moss, weeds etc.
Groeien (Grow) (2009) by Johan Rijpma
After the first experiments I came to the conclusion that I was not really letting the materials express themselves. But rather that I’m expressing my own intention of wanting those materials to express themselves. It was more of an attempt to get out of my own way. Using rules to go beyond the arbitrary and perhaps predictable and obvious creative choices. I then started to see my experiments more as a calculated but playful interaction with my direct surroundings.
Tape Generations (2011) by Johan Rijpma
EoF: Tape Generations investigates gravity using everyday materials (very well chosen ones!) in a very playful and beautifully composed way. It opens up the mind to think about gravity in relation to time, space and geometry. How did the ideas of the film begin – were you firstly interested in the physical possibilities of the sticky tape or was it more the overall concept and theme that you started with?
JR: The idea for this film came mainly from serendipity. Before I started working on Tape Generations I really enjoyed reading and daydreaming about topics like (space)time, unpredictability and free will.
One evening I was organizing my notes and drawings, by cutting them out and taping them into my notebook. It was my habit to have a roll of tape hanging on the edge of my desk while doing this (to save myself the trouble of having to use my thumbnail to find the beginning of the tape each time). That evening I didn’t bother to tidy up after collaging and went straight to bed. The next morning I discovered that, while I was sleeping, the tape had unwound itself almost all the way to the floor. At that moment it felt like I discovered the secret life of these tape rolls. I started doing a lot of experiments with the tape and I found out that they not only had a secret life, but that they all had their own speed of unwinding, their own character if you will (even when they were all brand new).
The uniqueness of each seemingly identical tape roll became the most fascinating thing at that point. With this in mind I decided I wanted to use grids and symmetry to express these individual properties of the tape rolls by generating unpredictable formations. These formations in turn seem to have their own individual properties based on their initial starting positions.
As a side note, one of my side experiments from this project (unique chocolate sprinkles) magically reappeared on the internet recently as a corona meme.
Refreshment (2014) by Johan Rijpma
EoF: Your 2014 film Refreshment shows a cycle of growth, mutation and change that has the sense of an endless, eternal process. It brought to my mind fractals, chaos theory and the idea of endless worlds within worlds, (as well as the film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames). Your films often connect with ideas of perception, the physical world as we know and don’t know it, and recurring systems and patterns.
For me there are also deep connections with sacred and psychedelic art or visual motifs. The tone of your films is quite playful, cool and understated but I wonder if there is an interest in the psychedelic and / or the spiritual driving these investigations?
JR: In my mind each project is an analogy for my perspective on the relationship between myself and my surroundings. I’m often focusing on my own presumed control versus the unpredictability of the external world. My hands versus the objects or materials.
The techniques vary from one project to another but so far this investigation of my own position has been central. In this regard I can see an overlap with the more rigorous scientific and even spiritual practices that also have my interest. But I try to put my own work in perspective by emphasizing the playfulness in the animations and thereby making the work perhaps a bit more self aware.
There is however something almost meditative about repetitive and rule based manual processes. Watching water evaporate or repeatedly tearing up a piece of paper into 2048 pieces and puzzling it back together. It’s not just about studying and visualizing concepts like fractals or chaos theory but more about contemplating them. Not thinking and analyzing but just being with the idea, and trying to experience it in a kinesthetic, simplified and personal way. The question of what one’s position is in a process is best answered by this direct experience itself and I think this is what I’m trying to capture.
I also recognize that the repetitive and hypnotic properties of my animations can be reminiscent of psychedelic art, but these qualities are mainly a product of my approach.
I think the first person creative experience might be the real connection with the psychedelic. Physically interacting with ideas as objects in a repetitive way can really blend the experience of the internal and external world. Working with video, stop motion, timelapse are all great ways to make ideas tactile, and playing with them as an extension of the imagination (and experiencing the imagination as an extension of the physical). I expect this is something many independent animators can relate to on some level.
Most of the experiments I’ve done revolve around the act of breaking something and putting it back together. When I look back at my recordings during the edit, I often notice how the recorded process seems to resemble the act of perception. Namely in the sense that everything we perceive is also broken down into concepts of separate objects and then pieced back together again into a personal perspective.
Elastic Recurrence (2017) by Johan Rijpma
EoF: Your experiments seem to have concepts that are very closely connected to the processes and properties of animation. You have worked in installation, video and other mediums, do you think animation has a particular capacity to explore the ideas you have been preoccupied with?
JR: I think animation, video and timelapse all offer the opportunity to interfere with a natural process in a way that is not possible in real time. On some level you are playing with a time machine. You can freeze time, make adjustments and let the natural process respond to these adjustments. As a creator this offers new positions to be in, positions outside of time from which you can reflect on the situation and interfere.
A big advantage of animation (over installation for example) is that you can show exactly what you want to show. You can easily edit out any distracting elements and in my animations I like to use the POV angle so the viewer can join the experience and see exactly what I see, including my hands.
Another appealing thing about animation is that a process can be the final product (or at least the registration of a process). The final work can incorporate almost any step or element including the creator of the work. There is something very satisfying in compressing all the invested time, all the ideas, the subject and the object into a short digestible animation.
Descent (2014) by Johan Rijpma
EoF: Descent is mind-boggling and incredible. I’m interested in what parts of the process you choose to show and which parts you withhold from the viewer. When I watch this film I get a general understanding of the processes involved, and the overall concept, but on first viewing it is primarily a filmic experience, depicting an abstract cycle of destruction and regrowth. The concept and details of the process are present yet not everything is fully spelled out. Then if I read the film’s synopsis, and the ‘notes’ on your website, I get more information, enriching and expanding my understanding of the project and its exploration of time and space. Through the supplemental information I can see aspects of the process not shown in the film, such as the dissolving of the fragments in water and returning everything back to malleable clay, and understand how deeply certain ideas and themes run through every aspect of the work. I like going through these different stages of my understanding and experience, but I wonder if your sense of how you want the film to be tends to develop as you go on or if you have a clear idea of the film itself at the beginning?
JR: Initially I had a filmic experience in mind in which you would follow a cup falling, breaking and regrowing through different dimensions. Everytime the cup would break, the video frames capturing this moment would be translated into a new 3 dimensional shape. Even though it would take me a lot more time, I decided to keep reusing the same clay by removing all the glue and recuperating it in water after each cycle. This made me perceive the process of breaking and reconstructing in a different way, namely as the reorganization and reshaping of the material on a more fundamental level.
So the initial idea gradually unfolded during the interaction with the material. It’s a bit like a horse race, sometimes the idea is in the lead, urging you to act and at other times the physical activity is ahead urging you to think.
Another interesting problem that I always have to solve is the question of how the film begins and ends. I decided the beginning should be a short visual introduction of the 2 dimensional movement of the breaking cup being translated into a 3 dimensional shape. The object being translated into a higher dimension seemed like an interesting perspective to keep in mind.
I read somewhere that there is a scientific theory called the M-Theory that suggests that reality consists of 11 dimensions. So starting with a 3 dimensional cup I would have to go through 9 cycles to break through this 11th dimension and create a new 12 dimensional object. To me this was an exciting idea, ending the animation with the construction of a final sculpture that is not allowed to exist according to this current scientific theory.
Division (2012) by Johan Rijpma
EoF: Can you describe your approach to what aspects of the process you show and don’t show?
JR: I often try to focus on the “collaborative” aspect of the creative experience. The interaction between certain objects and myself. For Descent a short visual introduction of the situation and the rules or procedures in the process was already sufficient for this. Of course it is also a matter of taste, I enjoy films and animations that trigger my mind and then offer me a space to wander around in freely.
A big part of the process that I don’t show is all my writing and drawing. Sometimes I’m tempted to include some of the notes into the work, adding written text or a voice over, but so far I always came to the conclusion that it’s better to keep them separate and offer the viewer the same mindspace that I would enjoy.
One of my new animations that I’m working on now however is going to be a kind geometrical conversation. The text would be more of a demonstration of how two conscious agents interacting satisfies the definition of one conscious agent introspecting. The text would still not spell out the idea literally but it might point at it more directly and it could open the door for further use of a voiceover in future projects.
Surprise – Orange 1 (2010) by Johan Rijpma
EoF: During my research for this interview I discovered some of your non-animated works which I had not seen before; namely the Balloon series and Invullen – both of which I loved! There is something magical and unexpected about these works, which seem to explore the idea of chance and the unpredictable within a simple situation. You have a series of experiments repeated with the same limited parameters but (unlike your animations) each also opens up to a completely unpredictable set of factors through the inclusion of other people and in the balloon films, the world outside.
Do you feel drawn to continue working in this way alongside your animations, or to bring the two approaches together? Do you feel more drawn to animation as a way of working in itself, or do you let the idea dictate the methods you employ?
JR: I titled the Balloon Series “Surprise”, it’s out in the open on my youtube account but on my website it’s a bit of an easter egg. Looking back at these balloon videos I think they capture some real spontaneous moments. My calvinistic attitude never allowed me to screen or exhibit them publicly. Sometimes I have the bad habit of not trusting the quality of things that come without a certain amount of effort.
It’s interesting that you mention the combination of these two approaches. At this moment I am particularly interested in bringing these types of video recordings (unstaged / undirected) and animation together. The interesting thing about video is that you can effortlessly share your exact point of view in high detail and resolution. In a sense you are sharing your cartesian theater with the outside world like the character John Malkovich was unconsciously doing.
Invullen (fill-in) (2010) by Yuri Keukens, Johan Rijpma and Tom Schrooten
With this in mind I’m dreaming of a new film in which I step away from deconstructing objects and instead deconstructing a very tiny fragment of my direct first person experience by combining video (POV) and animation. I imagine this as a short animated journey that functions as a mindmap that would give the viewer directions to my exact personal mental position. The map would consist of actual direct moments combined with animated associations, voice notes, visual thoughts and mental images. Through a gradual zoom-out an exploded view version of my perspective would eventually be revealed in the form of a mechanism that shapes the external world while also being shaped by it.
The mechanism would contain all the mental elements that are normally invisible for the other, thereby paradoxically creating a representation of my qualia (my non-representational mental state). Because thinking is very similar to talking to yourself, the voice-over would appear to be addressing the viewer (you) or itself in the future (as a voice note to self). This could create a personal filmic experience for the viewer but at the same time it would be different from the personal experience that has been captured on film. Making the whole attempt of trying to share this mental position both a failure and success. Playing with this paradox would emphasize the limit of subjectivity that can be described while capturing the universality of the personal without collapsing it back into a literal unity.
I’m just thinking out loud here and I still have to figure out how to do something like this but I’ve already created some of the puzzle pieces and in my estimation this idea should be no less impossible than attempting to create a 12 dimensional cup.
Primary Expansion (2012) by Johan Rijpma
©2020 Edwin Rostron