Paul Glabicki is a multi-media artist represented by the Kim Foster Gallery in Manhattan. His work has been shown at the Whitney Biennial, the Venice Biennial, MoMA, the National Gallery of Art, the Tate Modern, Cannes, and the New York Film Festival, among other prestigious venues. His work plays with the ‘delicate thresholds between abstract and figurative form’ and he has used animation as a way of ‘constructing or reconstructing perceptual experience in time’. His work often seems to deal with the inevitable creation and use of language or symbols as signifiers, while also pointing to the limits of these signifiers in the exploration of our inner reality of emotions, motives and cognitive processes.

I once wrote: 'Glabicki seems to point out that all of our symbols derive from the outer world and are insufficient for us to explore the inner world. Ultimately, after a painstaking commitment to semiotics, we are invited to leave it for something better.' Was I on the right track here?

You are absolutely correct. I always loved Laurie Anderson’s song (based on a quote by William S. Burroughs), “Language is a virus from outer space.” No matter how many signs, symbols, words, numbers, colors, objects are used to create a statement, there is always a danger of (or, in my case, a desire for) ambiguity, and alternate readings and interpretations. I always remember the noble effort of Carl Sagan and others to enclose a golden phonograph record and set of diagrammatic plaques on the 1977 Voyager Spacecraft mission. Each plaque tried to depict specific data about humanity and life on earth – most famously there was an image of a nude male and female, with the male holding up his arm with a welcoming wave. It immediately became clear, and controversial - that this image and gesture could be wildly misinterpreted by some alien civilization. Even this most humanly articulate desire to communicate through sight, sound, and symbol became a landmark of the futility of escaping the limits of language and our human constructs of communication and organization. DJ Spooky recently did a witty installation and performance based on this classic case of ambiguity. Ironically, it’s this very ambiguity and sense of disorientation that makes art compelling. In my case, it’s not so much a search for something better, but something transporting, playful, or that embraces the sense or nonsense of it all.

In recent email to me you wrote: "...sorting out 40 years of stored work (finding out what to do with so much work in so many mediums) was an interesting time to get a new perspective on the arc of my career." What did you discover?

It was interesting to discover so many threads and connections to current work, as well as dialogues/contrasts/overlays between concurrent activity in different media (film animation, photography, painting, drawing, digital media, installation art) in various decades from the 1970s to present. There was an increasing immersion in process, concept, and technique in the handmade animated films from the 1970s to 1989 (increasingly complex spatial schematics and motion design, degree of detail, amount of information encoded into each drawing for each frame). The complex “motion templates” (pencil drawings of motion paths placed on the light table to guide the frame-by-frame drawing process) clearly pointed to the decade of work in evolving digital media – and actually gave me a conceptual framework to make the transition to digital spatial configurations.

Painting/works on paper created separately, but concurrently with hand-drawn animation projects, often became more abstract or more about color, or explored compositional ideas quite different from the films. Photography also provided other avenues to explore time and sequence. Travel – especially several trips to Japan – also had an impact on work produced at the time. The constant production of work in a variety of media (including installation) – while also dealing with the energy and demands of full-time teaching at a university was something I didn’t think about until I began to clear out my studio space upon retirement.

The 1990s was a decade of rapid evolution of digital media and software. I began an interaction with simple pixel-by-pixel drawings, limited to 30 to 100 colors, floppy discs, and 1 or 2 MB of RAM/memory (AMIGA 2000 computer). I began work in digital immediately after completing my final hand drawn 16mm, Under the Sea (1989), with the goal of producing images and animation impossible to create by hand. The arc of my digital work produced from 1990 to 2001 paralleled the rapid development of the medium as well as the rapid access to more and more sophisticated hardware and software to artists (as with film animation, my digital interaction was self-taught).

The process and techniques of my hand drawn films really prepared me for this new medium. By 1991-92, I was creating animation cycle pieces (each cycle stored on the memory capacity of an individual disc, with data/detail composed and edited to fit the disc capacity), transferring multiple cycles to videocassette for exhibition. By the mid-1990s, I was creating far more elaborate spaces using modeling software – with still images used to create 3D projected dioramas for installations. By 1999 – 2001, I was fully engaged in digital animation and the sound of complex modeled spaces presented on video – Red Fence (1999), Full Moon (2001). All of the software and hardware rapidly became obsolete, with much of the actual digital work (except for work transferred to videocassettes) no longer accessible.

In 2001, I was confronted with issues of preservation – not just the previous decade of digital investigation, but of the 16mm film materials dating back to the 1970s. Ironically, all of the work on canvas or paper looked as fresh and pristine as ever. Also in 2001, feeling somewhat drained by the expense of maintaining digital media and constant grant writing, I decided to focus again on handmade images – at first as a sort of sabbatical from animation. The drawing series/projects from 2001 to the present were liberating, but clearly reflected the experiences, methods, concepts, processes and techniques of all that came before. Still, it was daunting to figure out what to do with hundreds of floppy discs and other obsolete digital hardware and software. Much was destroyed.

Your work was recently included in a retrospective of experimental animation at the Tate in London. I got the feeling that the air got sucked out of the experimental film movement in the 90s. How 'alive' are experimental films these days - are we stuck to just retrospectives? Can somebody write about the rise and fall of experimental films or is this genre still alive and kicking?

I think the retrospectives and looking into the past is important. Film and the changing domain of media art have a relatively short history, and its fragility and impermanence can be alarming. Viewing habits, presentation, and access to films have rapidly changed. The audience’s knowledge of and relationship to “cinema” varies widely. This is especially true of experimental film, which inherently appeals to or reaches a much smaller, selective audience.

I know first hand the dilemma of addressing the preservation and access to my own work – encompassing Super-8mm and 16mm film, reel-to reel video, chemical-based and digital photography, VHS cassettes and S-VHS Video, floppy discs, and never ending changes in formats and storage. I came to accept the ephemeral nature of media art, and the irony that paper, pencil, brush and canvas have offered much more permanence and stability. Still, it’s not all gloom and doom. Experimental film is alive and well in new manifestations. I was privileged to serve as a juror for the 2011 Punto Y Raya Festival, a wonderful international festival focused on point, line and abstract expression in a variety of media (though primarily all levels of digital media). The beauty and range of activity, experimentation, technique, and imagery was astounding! I never met the other jurors. I viewed the works on CDs, and communicated and conferred online.

It was strange to experience a “festival” alone, yet feeling an undeniable connection and participation with an audience scattered all over the world. The experience was truly inspiring and refreshing. To be honest, it was the first time in 20 years that I thought about or considered experimental animation and film. I thought my eccentric decades in 16mm film were pretty much forgotten, and that I moved on to a different mode of expression. It’s been gratifying to become aware that those films have been remembered, and even important to new artists. In 2013, FACT, Liverpool, UK, and ZKM Karlsruhe, Germany, mounted a monumental exhibition expanding over 100 years of cinema and digital media titled: TYPEMOTION: Type as Image in Motion. I was surprised and gratified to be included.

Most recently, as you pointed out, curator Herb Shellenberger organized INDEPENDENT FRAMES: American Experimental Animation of the 1970s – 1980s at the Tate Modern, UK. It was exciting to see that era celebrated, and perhaps inspire a new generation of innovators who may or may never have seen those films. My exhibitions at Kim Foster Gallery have brought new audiences and reconnection with the experimental film community. This kind of activity looking back, looking now, looking forward is promising and confirms that experimental discourse is alive and well. After a lull in the 1990s, virtual reality is getting interesting again. Some of the energy and invention of the CD-Rom era (again, Laurie Anderson, and her “Puppet Motel”) is morphing into new notions of interactive experience.

Read also the Part One