I keep coming back to this idea that my undergraduate education set up a stack of dominoes and grad school is knocking them down. It’s been a cascade of idea-changing, filling in blank spots and introductions to new ideas that challenge what I’ve learned so far.

The professors I had in undergrad visual media theory classes set up discourse that had us all question the motivation and impact of our image making – this is good but it can have a great impact on the more sensitive of us. I saw the work produced by my classmates become more fluffy, present less content and little or no research (not always true, it depended on the medium). I graduated in a class of artists who made paintings of kittens in space, gif parties, sculptures of neatly arranged found objects. Few of my classmates made works that were true transmissions of ideas which challenged theory or politics or ideologies, or worked to shape cultural narrative. I will not be talking about the work of substance, but of the environment that set us up to make work without substance.

I’m confident that our professors would like to see challenging work come from their students, but it seemed that the lessons distributed to us countered it at every turn. Sarah Sentilles, PhD, is a professor of critical theory and media studies, whom I hold dear for presenting thought provoking readings and pushy ideas of pictures and their purpose to her classes. Her work is deeply concerned with trauma and suffering and in many of her lectures she would present work that in some ways perpetuated the trauma and suffering presented with the image. Postcards of lynching; anthropological, ethnographic and medical images; catalogs, images of slaves and prisoners alongside sexualized advertising images, showing us similarities in objectification between these modes and motives of image making. By presenting images in this way she invited us to review our own image making practices, and to hold ourselves accountable for the images we make and present.

It was in her classroom where I was invited to review my own image making modes. I was a photographer, mostly portrait, but also formal studies of form color and light. My portraits were not standard fare. I had created a curious self portrait studio in which the subject and I would work very closely together to create the image; the hook is that I gave the sitter ultimate control of when the shutter release was actuated. This setting created a very intimate experience and wonderfully open images. These were not #selfies but the kind of formal portrait you’d send your grandmother.

I was (and am) a fan of what I began to see as “academic photography.” I hadn’t really unpacked that idea, and I’m not sure that I have yet, but I knew it to be photos of things or ideas that lacked people. Now I understand, or at least I think I understand, what made them “academic photographs” and what made them appealing to my sensibilities. These images didn’t as a rule lack people, but lacked objectification. People weren’t reduced to parts, weren’t leveraged to portray a product, were not showing off their bling. They did have less and less stuff in them. It seemed a little weird that the images I was drawn to were of ceilings, shadows, cords, color. For example, William Eggleston’s C-Print of a red ceiling, with the central figure of a bare bulb light fixture with extension cords octopussing tendrils radiating from it: Big Star used this image as their album art for Radio City. The image is of nothing; it’s a contemplation of color and line, staring at the ceiling. I think the following will be in part a critique of these lessons and reconciliation with them so that I may finally move on from them.

An idea that I had growing up, I, me, Kathrin Jean Gallaher didn’t have the power to change anything directly, through activism or rebellion, through politics or art – that I literally had a net zero effect on the world. This had two effects, one that gave me total permission to have zero fucks about they way I look, tattoos and kooky hair, dressing weird, what difference does it make? The other was that it established silence as a way of being. This may have been bad parenting, this may have been the times, it may be that I am female, this may have been the political atmosphere I came up in, it may have been that when there was something to demonstrate against or for, our system of government ignored. For example, Anti-war demonstrations against Desert Storm Dessert Shield were completely ineffectual, despite massive demonstrations around the world. It was made absolutely clear that public opinion made no difference whatsoever, the world over.

This whole, having zero effect on the way of the world, sets an interesting tone for a generation of people, who may be silenced into inaction or outraged to make statements that get absolutely nowhere. If we come up in a world where public opinion doesn’t mean anything, are our ideas not made illegitimate, invalid and pointless? Why bother? We end up making work for ourselves. So what?

That was 25 years ago anyway. My fellow students were not even born yet, how does this political atmosphere affect them? It does in that they grew up powerless. When they’re sitting in a visual studies critical theory class looking at bad pictures, they learn that the only thing they can do is not participate. Guilted into not making images that hurt, portray suffering, trauma, because they hurt. So what do we do instead? Make fluff? Paintings of cats in space? Make work that reflects our internal world instead of our external world?

A generation of people congratulated for showing up. A generation silenced by the grim reality that their voice falls upon deaf ears. A generation made culpable in the objectification and sexualization of absolutely everything. At the same time they’re a generation silenced by the very education system that is supposed to empower them to make images of substance.

As a student paralyzed by theory, how could I possibly keep making images without knowing what I was up to? Instead of the fleeting, passing, clickity of digital photography and the willy-nilly possibilities of making images which may hurt, my own portrait practice is an example of making digital photographic process mimic the slow days of plate photography. The idea that my images might hurt someone’s feelings somehow really bothered me. If my position in the world is one lacking any kind of significant consequence, what difference is it to me if people are hurt by the content of my work, since no one is looking? However the idea that my images could harm or perpetuate harm was problematic. By harm here I mean commodification or sexualized objectification. Do my nude form studies perpetuate sexualized images of women? Do the sales of my color studies of dancers in saturated light make me a player in selling images of women? Does the making of these images make me a voyeur? Do these images make you a voyeur?

By switching to animation, I opted out of the conversation about photography and image making. I miss photography. I miss the relationships I had with models and subjects. I miss the activity that kept my mind nimble between camera settings, framing and wit. I’m never without a camera; my cellphone has a better image resolution than my two DSLR cameras combined. Cellphonography may keep itself firmly rooted in snapshot and home video territory, regardless of its power to democratize and empower image making. By drawing challenging images I got to play a bit of a shell game, in that I made the challenging images appealing to look at, or non representational altogether, making the story and sound design the real stars of the show. Even so, my audience is pitifully small, this work is still inconsequential. Whether it is or not, I am still compelled and impassioned to make work, and that work is less and less directly visual and more indirectly imaginative.

Slowing the image making process even further, animation is entirely deliberate; a three-minute film can be as few as 2700 drawn frames of varying complexity. A five-minute film I produced recently was 10,000 drawings and could easily have been more complex and visually rich. One cannot ignore the deliberateness of animation. Out of a pure economy of time and utter laziness some of my films are light on art and entirely driven by narrative voice-over and sound design.

I came to Duke University and the Experimental and Documentary Arts Master of Fine Arts program to beef up my documentary skill set, learn some things about research method and field work and stay within the realm of animation. While not explicitly an animation program, there is a 16mm film animation class to take and lots of other opportunities to continue using animation as a form of expression.

My animated work has been pretty but relies on the writing. I thought that by coming to Duke I would progress in my studies so that I could make the kind of pointy-stabby work I want to make with credibility and credentials to back up what I’m doing, without the work being disempowered and deflated for being docu-fiction or creative non-fiction and therefore lacking merit as truth – and without sacrificing art making for a journalism or cultural anthropology degree.

While studying at Duke, the critical feedback I’ve been receiving responds to the power of my own voice in my films. I’ve been told time and again by visiting artists I’ve met with, professors and my cohort in critiques that my writing, narration and my voice invite viewers-listeners in—I make the work feel like it’s my personal story, whether it is or not. And I suppose I make the stories mine by ingesting my research before I can write my scripts. With the readings I do I have an opportunity to embody the character because I already know so much of who she is.

As it is I use my voice merely as a matter of pure convenience; I’m usually available when I need a voice actor to narrate one of my films and I conveniently need very little direction. I’m great to work with! With such great feedback on my narration I looked for classes to boost my practice, give me new tools and approaches to working, and that would make me finish projects that need writing development, narration and voice-over work. I looked to screen writing classes, theater classes and the Short Audio Documentary class with Professor John Biewen at the Center for Documentary Studies. Freed from the drawing process, I can work much faster than I’m used to, I can develop ideas and actually complete complex work in what feels like record time. Completely liberating!

While participating in the Short Audio Documentary class, I’ve produced my longest animation yet, longer than all of my other films combined; the film is dependent on voice-over as its driving factor. For the first time I made the voice-over first and then built the soundtrack and score before even beginning the animation work. The resulting film, Timelapse Chr0nodex (2015) is research and process based, well written and performed (if I do say so myself), and ridiculously long 14:34 minutes. The animation itself is very limited, the movement is that of hours ticking away on a clock, the image of which is redoubled and redoubled again and again mathematically by the powers of 2 each time, 24 times. The visual is built up and patterned to be deliberately monotonous so that the viewer could get lost in the looking without feeling there was too much to see or take in; viewers could relax into the looking without concern that blinking would cause them to miss something. In this the film is reliant on the narration, which is a hypnotic induction for activating creativity. The narration has an unwavering metronomic tempo and pace. I would not have been able to achieve the desired effect without the software and editing I learned in the Short Audio Doc class with John Biewen.

While Timelapse Chr0nodex maintains itself as a film, in that it would not function without its visual components, two other pieces produced for the class were created purely as audio pieces. In Questions (2015), an interview piece that discusses particular complexities of changes within a marital relationship, the audio is wrapped in a simple computer generated animation and title sequence for the sole purpose of presentation in a particular theater for a particular audience, but as a non-visual film it works. The visual material is enough to establish the set and setting I wanted with exacting specificity, making the audio-documentary an installation piece, rather than a visual artwork, radio piece, or podcast. Taking this a step further, another piece I made that is a pure audio only short doc is about found photos in which I only so much as describe an image with just enough information to be evocative.
“My favorite picture from the hundred or so slides is of a small girl, she’s maybe 2 years old, it’s Christmas, you can see a tinsled branch tip in the frame, she’s wearing a pink dress, white tights a wee white cardigan sweater. Her mom is bent over her, securing her little black patent leather shoes to her feet. There are no faces in the frame, just blond baby hair and mom’s coiff. This image is not of me, but it could be.”
From this brief description you can gather that I’m female, white, blond and Christian. The photo could be of any era since the invention of color slide photography between the 1940s to the present and it could have been taken anywhere in the world. I find it very interesting that merely describing an image can open a world of a million versions of this picture. I’m letting a description do the work. As a visual artist discovering audio documentary as a way to work, I must question, how much visual material do I actually need to achieve my work? Does audio documentary let me further off the hook when it comes to avoiding producing images that might hurt someone? If I’m producing radio pieces or podcasts, I’m almost completely out of the picture making business altogether! Now, without lifting a camera or stylus, I can simply help you imagine the images I want you to see. Before I started art school as a photographer I was a dancer. Here I am, a few layers removed from my original intention as a visual artist wondering if I need images to make my artwork at all.

This development makes for an interesting opportunity. I don’t feel like I will give up visual work, but I wonder if my time will be better spent honing a different craft. Here I'm learning that the power of my work is not so much the visual (though it helps), but is my speaking voice. I was told growing up to be seen and not heard, my opinions and ideas having been silenced. So many times I've been called stupid (I hate the word stupid, it's my only trigger word, fast track to Rage-Kathi is calling me stupid), I've been shushed and told I think too much, told that nobody cares what I think and told what I think doesn't matter. But here, with capital A-Art, where I've got an audience captivated in the visual work, they're also listening. And it turns out what I'm saying is the best part! This is a total liberation!

Will I abandon image making? No. I’m now more inclined to picking up my camera again than ever before. Will I stop making moving images? No. I’m more inclined than ever to make more animated work with more attention to the writing and narration than ever before. Will I make work devoid of image entirely? Yes.


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