Orla Mc Hardy

By Edwin Rostron

The work of Orla Mc Hardy spans numerous art forms, including sculpture, collage, painting, video and animation, which are often brought together as installations. Orla’s animation works are formally striking, completely intriguing and gloriously uncompromising. Its rare and exciting to see an animator really pushing the medium forward – expanding our understanding of animation’s potential, of what it can say, and of how it can say. This is what I feel with Orla’s work, that it’s taking me into new territory, where I’m really not sure what will happen or what can happen. It is liberating and inspiring, just as Orla’s answers to my questions below are. To coincide with the online exhibition of her latest film Goodnight (at aemi.ie until January 2021), Edge of Frame is delighted to present an interview with Orla, discussing her work and its context.

Orla Mc Hardy is an artist and educator who lives and works between Donegal (IRL) and Richmond, Virginia (USA). She is currently an Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Dept. of Kinetic Imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia.  

No Common Sentence (2016-2019) by Orla Mc Hardy

EoF: Animation constitutes one element of your artistic practice, alongside installation, sculpture, collage, painting and other forms. How do you see the place of animation within your wider work, and how does your animation practice relate to your work in other media? Do you prefer to make moving image work for a gallery / exhibition context?

OMH: As 2020 closes, like a lot of people, I’m deep in the business of getting through the day to day.

My head is a bit of a jammed up spot right now, one where it’s hard to think or reflect deeply – so my answers might be a little scatter shot. Bear with me.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

I am interested in animation as a mode of thinking, as a way of slowing down and paying close attention to a given idea, question or area of interest. I also appreciate its exaggeration, zinging colours and world building, its slippy ambiguity in relation to truth. 

In terms of process – the bit by bit, frame by frame, slow incremental build – is a generative model of working across all media for me.

I see animation as a non-media specific, messy leaky container where you can bung in all these modes of working and shake it all together and it can hold it. Especially when the end result looks nothing like animation as you might normally define it.

When teaching the other week, the expression soft power came up in the course of an artist talk we were all watching. The term jumped out at me, and the students and I tried to imagine what it could mean before looking it up. This made me think of my work as a type of soft animation (soft/flabby bodies, soft truth, soft documentary)- haven’t thought this through yet –  that will be what 2021 is for. But there is something there that is making sense to me – foregrounding softness makes for less hard bounded, non-coercive and slippy forms of thinking and making.

I also teach animation – so that grounding is there too – in my working life, I watch and discuss the films of others, of my students and other animation artists. I see those manufactured frames flitting past and retain a simple pleasure and inspiration in the fact of their making.  I value the company of animators and being part of that community and in conversation with them.

There are also ways in which animation also absolutely does not relate to my work – in that it is only one possible lens through which to frame a body of work. There are times when I find the framing limiting.

In terms of exhibition for my work- its apples and oranges in a way. I love film festivals, on-line curated screenings, DIY space screenings, being part of those communities.

That being said, gallery and exhibition spaces allow for a play between site and material that I appreciate. The viewer’s body becomes more implicit in how the work is experienced. The work can be complicated by including objects, live performance, text, spatial interaction, collaborations. Inevitably, it will exist in a different conversation and set of questions, which I also value.

Part of Orla Mc Hardy’s Nitefeedz installation at RHA, Dublin in 2019 (photo by Ros Kavanagh)

EoF: Your installation Nitefeedz brought together many of these forms across two rooms. In your fascinating recent Missing Observer Studies interview you speak about the connections between Nitefeedz and your experience of pregnancy and motherhood, and your critical research into this area, “both embodied and theoretical”. As you have already spoken about this in the MOS piece (which I’d urge all readers to look at), I wonder if you might say something about the relationship of this research to your subsequent / current works?

OMH: For the body of work, Nitefeedz, I chose to find ways to take the interrupted time of new motherhood as a generative impetus, and sought to make work to re-consider a new language for animation to reflect these experiences. Now it’s nearly 2 years on. I teach full time and have 2 small children. These days I’m feeling the effects of extended, day in day out, year in year out caregiving. I’m in a constant cycling present. I’m extremely lucky to have kept my job during the pandemic, however there’s been neither much time to reflect or make new work. 

But what goes on is the game of finding ways that the day in day out routine of caregiving can be instructive in broader contexts.

This is more looking at where sculpture ends up, and what happens if it ends up in places it’s not meant to be. At a time when I wasn’t having exhibitions saying ‘well this is good enough for me’. Putting my sculpture in this hallway for four hours before people want it back again shows me that there’s a great kind of gaping hole about what and where sculpture is meant to be.’ – Phyllidia Barlow 

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, gave me permission to think about pregnancy as a valid site for critical thought and research. Pyllidia Barlow talks of sculpture as an act of material transformation and notes that with housework a similar transformation of materials takes place. In my limited circuit, this makes the endless loads of laundry more interesting. 

In some ways, having small kids is already a socially isolating experience – a lot of staying in place, lack of travel and being excluded from many social opportunities and nights out. So lockdown, while challenging no doubt, has maybe not been the shock for me as it has been for others. 

C: Maintenance is a drag: it takes all the fucking time’  – Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Maintenance Manifesto, 1969

Time emerges from Ukeles’ work as the one thing we share – the potential, that is, for a life without project, a way of being in time that is not about going anywhere, and is not about going nowhere, but is perpetually concerned with what is produced, collected, transported and buried, like the rubbish, 365 days a year. Instead of trying to get away from such a life – to transform care work, revolutionise it, outsource it, shift it elsewhere, or share it out – she dwells in and with it, showing us it is no longer dire, but productive in keeping all productive systems going. There is no other way to reveal this time but to live it, to provide what she calls ‘attentive reverence for each mote of dust.‘  – Lisa Barraitser, Enduring Time.

The pandemic has brought attention to the importance of caregiving – of what essential work really is. As we stumble into ecological collapse, I think there is a need for a modest inward turn and being home all day with a young family reinforces some of these behaviours. Listening. Being attentive to other peoples’ needs. Nimble – adaptive thinking. Play.

I’m thinking about access, about ways to activate hyper-local networks. The ways in which the failings and unsustainability of larger institutions has been exposed. How can we ‘take care’ of time in a moment when the ways we imagine & experience time are changing dramatically? Is there a subversive power of exhaustion, of performing no against the mandatory capitalist yes? What can vulnerability teach us? 

In paying close attention to what is specific to maternal time and why this time matters, I move to uncouple maternity and femininity interpreting the maternal in the broadest sense. This opens the maternal to include any act of ongoing caregiving and maintenance, of staying alongside another, whether “that is of their birth, adopted, fostered, community, surrogate or ‘other’ children.1 If we take this ‘other’ child that we are to care for as non-human, a project, an ecology, a system, how can close attention to the time of maternal care reveal possibilities about thinking and living in more-than-human-worlds?2 And how can an expanded lens of animation mirror this expanded understanding of mothering? 

Still from Goodnight (2020) by Orla Mc Hardy, on view at aemi.ie until Jan 2021

EoF: Your new work Goodnight features recurring shapes, many are ambiguous but some seem to me to refer to interior domestic space, perhaps a mirror, a lamp, a window? There are also a number of rounded shapes, some more irregular than others. Can you say something about the origin of these shapes, and their abstraction into the forms we see in the film?

OMH: You are spot on with the observation. The shapes are the pooled shadowed parts of the illustrations from the classic US children’s book, Goodnight Moon written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. As a non-American this book was new to me when I had my kids. I love this book for so many reasons, its apparent simplicity combined with surprising turns toward abstract concepts. The space in the easy, deep language and images makes us want to return and return to the pages. “goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere” is read to a near empty page, and suddenly we are plunged into cosmic time and space and momentarily freed from the contained time of the bedtime routine. 

I started making this in 2017 and finished it last Sunday. In Goodnight, the timings of the first go around are a set duration and order. The second time round the timing and order is dictated by the pace of my then 18 month daughter ‘reading’ it which I filmed and used as a reference.  Her embodied reading had her trying to repeatedly eat certain pages, skip backwards and forwards with complete disregard for the perceived order or assumed narrative of the book. The timing of her actions translated to erratic pools of animation, were to me like what Scott Bukatmann calls in The Poetics of Slumberland, “little utopias of disorder, provisional sites of temporary resistance.”

The breakages – the black spaces in between – for me speaks to the constant interruption,  exhaustion, impossibility of making work while being a mother. The animation is somewhat crude and unfinished.  But I am saying it is good enough because that is all there is left. By quietly and somewhat defiantly taking space- by inserting these quotes from Alice Notley and Luce Irigarary, the mundane, undervalued time of caregiving is validated. Lived experience as theory. 

The Birth of Colours #1 (work in progress) (2020) by Orla Mc Hardy

EoF: Your current work in progress The Birth of Colours refers to a text by Blaise Cendrars, about Leopold Survage’s drawings for an unrealised film. What drew you to Cendrars’ text and Survage’s project, and how are they informing the work?

OMH: ‘One would think oneself witnessing the very creation of the world.‘ – Blaise Cendars, The Birth of the Colours, from La Rose Rouge, July 17 1919.

I came across the text in the essential and seminal book, Experimental Animation by Russett and Starr, as an undergraduate in Ireland. I now assign readings from it to my students, and in the course of class I rediscovered this passage and it blew my mind.

Leopold Survage was the first known artist to theorise and design a work of abstract animation. He made a series of 200 drawings, which he called Coloured Rhythm which he hoped would become the basis for an abstract animated film. In 1914 the technology was not yet invented to make film in colour, so Survage was never able to realise his vision, yet his concepts played an important role in the future developments of cinema, laying the ground for abstract cinema and also the idea of a ‘pure cinema’, free from narrative, expressive or representative bias.

In 1919 the poet Blaise Cendars, wrote a lyrical essay titled The Birth of the Colours. “In words as photogenic as possible” he described what he imagined an abstract animated film would look like based on a sequence of drawings by Leopold Survage. What interests me about this short essay is its quality of imaginary potentials. Through writing, still images are brought to life as a speculative film that never was, a slippage in materialities and realities.

I recorded the primetime Irish radio newscaster, Áine Lawlor, reading this essay as if she was reading the news – that is somewhat flat but also in a voice of authority. This recording will be cut through the film providing a sort of backdrop. I am interested in the open-ended and non-predetermined possibilities of this text, as well as its colour rich visual cues. I’m imagining sections of lush, abstract graphic and vibrantly coloured sections fully animated, intercut with 3D animated ‘gardens’ made from 3D scanning a series of mini sculptures I’ve been making. This film is the companion piece to No Common Sentence, and I’ll make this in 2021.

Where is Eva Hipsey? (2016) by Orla Mc Hardy

EoF: In your recent interview at Missing Observer Studies you say: ‘Once defined by the technique or technologies used in its making,  I consider animation to be a complex set of practices, where expanded animation is that which asks questions of the medium itself.

What questions are you interested in asking through your own expanded form of animation?

OMH: Who cares? 

Who cares about care? 

How to expose where value is placed (and not placed) on different types of labour?

How can an expanded view of animation make visible the intimate relation between time and care? 

What is it about yellow?

What is the connection between lived experience and theory?

What does it mean to be productive? (Who cares?)

How can I squeeze the most time consuming medium imaginable into the tiniest available pockets of studio time?

What can a timeline hold?

Is the periphery really peripheral?

In what ways can I think of composting as a form of animation?

This is going to take ages – how can I have some fun/pleasure here?

How can animation be pushed through the sieve of language? 

How can I flatten the hierarchy of the narrative?

How am I going to explain climate change to my two very young children?

How can I invite people into the work?

The Grass is Greener (2007) by Orla Mc Hardy

EoF: Which contemporary animation artists and/or works have you responded to strongly in ways that connect with your own work?

OMH: If being inspired is to respond strongly then:

My first port of call is always reading or listening to books.

I have stacks of books on my bedside or studio table always and they have an encouraging and bolstering effect. Books that have been formative over the last few years:

Maggie Nelson The Argonauts, Lisa Barraitser’s books Maternal Encounters – the ethics of interruption and Enduring Time, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Maintenance Manifesto, Donna Haraway Staying With the Trouble, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Audre Lorde Sister Outsider, Moyra Davey Mother Reader and Long Life Cool White, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney – The Undercommons, Fanny Howe Night Philosophy, Alice Lyons Oona, Lucy Ellmann Ducks Newburyport, Anne Carson, everything by Seamus Heaney always, and I’m currently looking forward to my Christmas thriller binge – hoping to find some Tana French books on my parents’ book shelves.

My second baby was awake 6-7 times a night for a while. I’d tune into audio books in the middle of the night – so my recall of these books are linked to these most extraordinary intimate in-out-of-body-sleep-awake moments that I’ll remember forever. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack, Milkman by Anna Burns, The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, I Love Dick by Chris Krauss, Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks.

My students inspire. I’ve got amazingly resilient undergrad and grads and have been so impressed with the work and the research they have undertaken in the last year under very challenging circumstances. I can be floored by even 3 seconds from a piece that a student submits – a tone, a movement, a strange solution made by a person who has never animated before. I mentally gather these snippets as an unlikely treasure trove.

Generous and thoughtful on-line curation and performances over the last year as we all retreated to the internet have been a godsend. I’ve been inspired by how certain people and groups have really considered the invitation – the way in which people are brought into a work or shared space. I appreciate groups that are looking outside standard places for work to exist and standard ideas of perceived audiences. Being able to access these events from afar, has made me deeply reconsider ideas of access to future work. Having the sound and camera off and still listening to talks while the kids are running around-  being even tenuously connected to ideas and conversations while in the throes of the daily domestic.

Some key examples:

Super Blues Color Lux Bath by muthi reed and Angela Davis Johnson, co-shapers of hollerin’ space did a live on-line performance, a remote meditation in sound and video which I still think of. I was moved by the generous language in the initial email invite, the agency we were given as viewers to come and go, the chat window becoming part of the performance, the artists reading list so we could keep learning about some of the inspirations of the work after the work was over, and the beauty of the event itself. 

Sky Hopinka made all his work available online during the pandemic. His debut feature film, maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, screened live over the internet as part of a film festival that migrated on-line.

CCA Derry – Londonderry – and their reading group booksvscigarettes, again migrated online. I signed up on a whim and found myself the only participant along with the facilitator, a reading room for two. And yet we muddled through and it was great. And why shouldn’t this type of idiosyncratic outreach continue post-pandemic? 

People/ groups who deftly migrated their work/curation to the on-line platform:

  • A friend let me know about this at the last minute. So in what was late at night for me, I was suddenly sitting up in bed from the north west of Ireland, watching Oakland Summer School’s Fred Moten & Stefano Harney: A Conversation, and unexpectedly finding myself in a break out room with very thoughtful people located all around the world. 
  • The Law is a White Dog, Artist Sarah Browne’s curation of Tulca Arts Festival Ireland
  • Artist and curator Julie Grosche with the collective Like A Little Disaster re-configuring of their group exhibition, The eye can see things the arm cannot reach, to the on-line platform in a really magical and thoughtful way.
  • Missing Observer Studies, curated with such care.

Visual artists who got me excited the last while – Phyllidia Barlow, Rosmarie Trockel, Thea Djordjadze, Michael Rakowitz, Charlotte Prodger, Elizabeth Price, Tracie Morris, Mierle Ukeles Laderman, Tony Cokes, Chantal Ackerman, Sable Elyse Smith. My kids – their anarchic and free play with materials without regard for the consequences.

Pre- lockdown: Amber Essieva’s curation of the exhibition, Great Force at the ICA, Richmond, VA brought together amazing works in one potent space. I was particularly enriched by the supporting events she programmed alongside the exhibition, which included all types of performances, talks, as well as large and small facilitated conversations. They were generative, fun, hard, thought provoking and genuinely community forming. I learned a lot from this programming.

I place enormous value on my direct community as a source of inspiration- conversation with my friends who are artists themselves. I listen to them carefully and wait to see what they will make, think and suggest next. The Thursday night meet-up studio crew: Molly Fair, Andrea Kohashi, Pete Baldes, Roseanne Johnson. Along with Molly McFadden, Corin Hewitt, Alice Lyons, Julie Grosche, Micah Weber and Rebecca Gates have been my core the last few years. 

Screen based animation:

Robert Breer – always, always Robert Breer. 

I retain a simple joy in Yuri Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog, and play it to my students every year. I appreciate the space in the narrative – the strange pace, the extraordinary craftsmanship. Similarly, the virtuosity of Caroline Leaf’s The Street still blows me away. How did she nail that timing?

Brian Smee – I like his work a lot, it’s rich and playful and smart.

Current conversations and work playing around with documentary and animation.

I depend on the curation and community created by Lilli Carré and Alexander Stewart’s Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation, and will frequently google names from their past screenings to get re-invigorated and inspired. Similarly, this blog, animate projects, aemi, lux weekly newsletter, the Ecstatic Truth people – are resources that I am deeply dependent on, and regularly will check out the links/suggestions posted in these spaces.

I recently discovered the Krytek (The Mole), animations from the 1960-70s, the Czech children’s animation by Zdeněk Miler and I am in love with them big-time. Particularly the longer 23-28 minute episodes, for example The Mole in the City. They flow and cycle through at their own logic and pace,  just keep going and going – and the colours and the joy! I’ve never really had a desire to work on an animation series in a studio set up – but this is one I’d travel back in time for to try and get hired.

Also been grateful to Netflix for a space to escape into, switch my head off, and have a new appreciation for the episodic series structure.

Still from Goodnight (2020) by Orla Mc Hardy, on view at aemi.ie until Jan 2021

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Goodnight is online at aemi until Feb 9th 2021, with an introductory text by Fanny Howe

Read the Missing Observer Studies feature on Orla’s work here

Visit Orla’s website here

©2020 Edwin Rostron