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Ann Course - Profile

By Edwin Carels

1. The Eyes

At first sight, the artwork of Ann Course provides the opponents of contemporary art with all the easy arguments.

Both her drawing skills and animation technique appear far from sophisticated. Her films look crude, simple and always very much the same. Ann Course makes her film works with the most modest means: drawing with a pencil or a pen on A4-paper, shooting with a simple video camera and often editing, rather than really animating. When things do move, it's usually in short cycles. Her filmPrince (1999) actually consists of just one such repeated movement, the very rudimentary whisking of a dog's tail. This approach is a strategy, rather than a system. Ann Course does not operate by a carefully composed set of rules. She is happy to corrupt the coherency of any film or sequence with an image that disrupts the chain of black lines on white paper. This can be a photograph, a collage; even a glimpse of computer animated movement, like the sudden choreography of autumn leaves in Untitled (2004).

Criteria like' original', 'daring', 'innovative' or 'revelatory' do not really apply to this artist's agenda. Authentic, provocative, archetypal and unconditional are already more appropriate terms. The first thing that hits the eye is the pure or downright brutal honesty that emanates from these simple, but very strong configurations. Superficially, the powerful, bold contours she uses to put her figures down on paper resemble the doodles of a bored schoolboy, who vents his boredom and frustrations in an exercise book or on a school desk. Explicit sexual fantasies, mutilation scenes, grotesque faces, ridiculous transformations and the occasional line or two of cryptic text. And sometimes an abstract figure appears from nowhere. The drawings are apparently made without a purpose in mind, certainly not to please, more as an outlet for Ann Course's own feelings of uneasiness and restlessness. And yet something doesn't quite add up. The drawings transcend their explicit brutality. They express compassion just as much as they conjure up violence.

2. The Mouth

Anyone who has witnessed Ann Course introducing her own work, knows she has little sentences to add to the images. The few words that are featured in the films themselves, are already pretty straightforward : Mother, Father, Fuck, Shit, War, You must Die...

When pressed, she writes very short phrases to accompany the film in a catalogue or on a website. Most of these strap lines or synopses reach the audience like hand-grenades without a safety pin, waiting to explode in the mind of the viewer/reader: 'People who have best friends are idiots' (Me, 1999). 'Mother is a human being but sometimes it doesn't seem like it' (Mother, 2000). 'Instructions on how to take advantage of the poverty stricken by prostitution' (Black Magic, 2002). Sometimes these grim comments on the human condition are pointed towards the creator herself : 'The artist is a buffoon on its way to an unsure place' (The Artist, 2000). 'A child is shaken to death, the artist is destroyed' (Rotting Artist, 2002) In the cruel universe of Ann Course, innocence is irrevocably lost and the artist incapable of formulating any remedy for this condition. There are no strong individuals, no speaking parts, just emblem-like figures, anthropomorphic icons of depravity and despair. Disney is said to have created his Mickey Mouse out of three circles, something like two dimes and a dollar coin. Although she draws a much more angular, expressionist world, Ann Course also favours all kinds of holes, openings, orifices in her depiction of human existence : 'Holes are executed, weeping and ejaculating as people play games and die around them.'(Waiting for Waste, 2000) In her cosmology, life is but a sad cycle of lust and anger, blossom and decay, consumption and pollution. Apart from the hyper-clich├ęd butterfly in Waiting for Waste, none of her deformed, amputated or amoeba-like characters ever really transform themselves or undergo a positive metamorphosis. They live their fate, then rot.

3. The Nose

The specific potential of animated drawings, to suggest a constant flow of tranformation, remains unexploited by Ann Course. Nor does she obviously care much for a dialogue with the tradition of animation.

Firstly, Course is not an animator by definition. She is an artist who exhibits drawings, sculptures and objects made from such diverse materials as cardboard, wood or neon light. And videotape. The work of Ann Course is like an accumulation of notes in an emotional diary. The predominantly white spaces in her drawings function like a highly selective mirror that only reflects the most intimate urges and inner reactions of the artist. No space for a reflection on the past, or on the history of her own medium.

If any comparison with a historical predecessor would need to be imposed, then the best figure to refer to could be the European pioneer of drawn animation : Emile Cohl. He too was an artist who didn't like to limit himself to one medium or technique. In fact he is reputed to have expressed himself through caricature, photography, poetry, cycling, duels and practical jokes. More important than his sometimes-peculiar means of expression, was his attitude. Emile Cohl was associated first with the Hydropahtes, and then the Incoherents, two absurdist movements in Paris, prior to the Dadaists. When he discovered that Gaumont had unrightfully used one of his drawings for a film poster, he took on the challenge of creating his own trickfilms. He did it from scratch, with no budget. Nevertheless, his first work, Fantasmagorie (1908) remains one of the most inspired and uninhibited creations in the history of the animated film. The drawings are like stick figures, nearly as simple as those typical of a young child. But no matter how rudimentary the graphic style, the film is extremely rich in imagination, as there is a continuous flow of changing shapes, changing identities. Emile Cohl claimed the biggest freedom of expression, and - to his own commercial downfall - insisted on a completely independent method of production.

Although there is a big contrast between the feverish flow of transformations in the early films of Emile Cohl and the rigid, almost brutal accumulation of still drawings by Ann Course, both oeuvres are a demonstration of the same anarchic freedom of expression. Norman McClaren once defined animation as the art of the interval. It is not what happens within the frame which matters, but what is triggered in the mind of the viewer. Whilst this explains the optical illusion of movement and metamorphosis, the cumulative effect of strong impressions is even more important. The relentless adding up of crude, yet crucial symptoms of the human condition does not result in a logical conclusion or even narrative closure. Yet, the impact of such a wildly suggestive series of images is at the same time confronting and liberating, confusing and exciting. Even more than live action film; animation is the art of association, not only between the scenes or shots, but also between every consecutive frame. Only animation can make a singular nose turn into a credible character, like Alexander Alexeieff with his pinscreen-film The Nose. In their very peculiar way, the dissected body parts and free floating objects in Ann Course's universe are no less poignant and graphic.

4. The Ears

Fantasy goes rampant, and yet the more one becomes acquainted to the abstracted universe of Ann Course, the more certain images and motifs become familiar.

Her world is predominantly a private, even domestic one. The artist likes to reduce everyday life to its most banal and yet essential key moments; sex, conception, birth, food, waste and death. The clearest indication of any locus in her work is the family tomb, which recurs in more than one film. This uninhibited recycling of earlier drawings indicates certain mottoes or obsessions which haunt Course's work, but also provide it with a certain consistency. The films are conceived like an emotional diary, with sometimes recurring characters, the most obvious being the artist's parents and then her partner Paul Clark, who is also important as the credited co-author on some of the films. Not that the viewer needs any specific or biographical information to understand what is going on. Far from realistic, the images do carry a strong connection to the real world because they are triggered by it, and because the situations Course evokes should be recognisable enough to anyone who keeps an open view on the world. The nuclear family, and the most common manifestations of British society provide the context for Course's angry analyses.

Halfway his career, the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer proclaimed that the western society would perish with a song on the lips. Ever since, the militant surrealist has refrained from using any superfluous music in his films. With one exception, Ann Course searches for particular, existing soundtracks to accompany each film. From the smooth, early disco of Moments and WhatNots to the classic bombast of Beethoven, her choice varies wildly. This extreme diversity already contains it's own dialectic, and in combination with the imagery, it is clear that, instead of soothing things over, the music only helps to accentuate the social concerns that motivate the images. One of the most clear cut examples of this is the sound of Big Ben on her one minute film The News, commissioned by for the Rotterdam Filmfestival. War, disease, poverty: Ann Course's private annotations are anything but escapist. Although her films usually don't last any longer than a short pop-song, and some of them actually are based on popular genre music, they are the opposite of music videos. As an exception to this rule, the images in Black Magic could be understood as a somewhat more direct illustration of the song text. But is also one of her most striking selections of music and certainly one of her most socially alert observations. As the lyrics go: " Poor people are poor people and they don't understand. A man's got to make whatever he wants and take it with his own hands. Poor people stay poor people and they never get to see, someone's got to win in the human race and if it isn't you then it has to be me."

5. The Anus

Except for a 'Get Out!' at the end of Shitbelt (2000), Ann Course is not really addressing her audience. She does not create her work with the purpose of direct communication and so there are no caricatures or specific cartoon-situations in her stream of images.

If there is any dialogue with a recognisable context, than it is with the art world. As mentioned, two of her films already deal directly with the status of the artist in their titles. In other films, the artist also appears to be the main character of the film. Explicit references to well known artworks are rather rare. In Waiting for Waste there is a curious animation of a Mondrian painting, but just as familiar are the many pipes and tubes with fluids oozing out of them. Shit, vomit, semen, blood : although made up of only a few simple pencil lines, this vitalistic universe seems related to the transgressive world of, for instance, the artist Paul McCarthy. Anal regression, uninhibited celebration of the so-called lower bodily functions, the beauty here is usually pretty convulsive.

Which doesn't mean that schock value is all that Course is after. Obviously incorporating nazi-emblems and hanging parents on the gallows, dropping a baby from a carriage or suggesting an abortion is flirting with taboos. But usually a shock is the result of a surprise effect. In the work of Ann Course, there are no real such highlights or dramatic climaxes. Her indecent iconography comes in a steady stream of equivalent images, like hieroglyphs. More than a cunning, intellectual play with Freudian categories, her work is an intuitive summoning up of archetypal motifs and situations. One might say the drawings attest to a sort of manic passion, the kind we associate first and foremost with 'art brut' artists. Often the scenes she evokes are oppressive and primitive, devoid of all civilized norms, psychotic. On the other hand, these sketches are far from vague symbols, they are extremely topical. The same violent iconography of absurd alienation and pornographic brutality, of groping hands, hungry eyes and lost faces is also omnipresent in everyday life via the porn-industry, reality television and rampant advertising. Course's work does not add to this kind of visual assault. If anything, it is an attempt to control or somehow exorcise the daily onslaught.

5. The Vagina

In psychology the 'primal scene' serves not as a romantic picture, but as a moment of raw, sudden existential awareness, a revealing look at its own origin.

With Ann Course we do not discover either the easy cult of innocence regained or a primitive purity, the qualities the modernists all too often ascribe to 'art brut' and so-called primitive cultures. Her work is, on the contrary, about a distinct loss of innocence, an invitation to direct confrontation with our darkest motives. Her drawings function like signposts to propel us into the maze of our own repressed consciousness. Course's simple drawings, primitive technique and primary subject matter effectively remind us never to lose sight of our roots, the origins of our fears and desires and the bare structures of our daily existence. She describes her very first film, 'Ann(I)Mated (1993) thus : 'The opening image depicts mother and child with mother's bulbous, undulating vagina protruding from beneath her dress. Baby's pram runs away but sadly returns to where it came from.' The work of Ann Course directs our attention back to l'origine du monde both in an art historical, as in a psychological sense.

Edwin Carels is a filmprogrammer for the International Filmfestival of Rotterdam and works as a freelance curator of film-related art shows. He is also a writer and teaches film at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten - St. Lucas Brussels.

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