There are many ways to crack the animated image. Inspired by the immortal lives of cartoons and fables, Matt Copson caricatures it. His recent work consists of shapeshifting laser sculptures set to an electroacoustic thrum and the distorted, static monologue of a child’s voice. He has his own rules governing the warping of animated figures as wispy lines assemble, shift into character, become animated, and take on a life of their own. It is as though the anthropomorphized cast test their capacity for relentless shapeshifting in real time. Somehow, despite total transformation, his characters remain intact. They bend back to shape. Like the signature molt and melt of the cartoon body, their substance is irreducible. I spoke with Copson about animation’s capacity for unfamiliarity, the physicality of lasers, and the master-puppet relationship inherent to animation.
ES: The fox motif is an archetype that you continue to animate and reanimate. What is the potential for unfamiliarity in this successive use?
MC: There is unfamiliarity found in repetition—like when you say a word too many times, and it becomes nonsense, or when you repeatedly listen to a song. Things shift through banality and profundity. I like the extremity of the same thing; there isn’t much to hide behind.
ES: I’m curious about the therianthropic themes in your work. I’ve been thinking about the use in contemporary art of shapeshifting animals to elicit a visceral, emotional response in the viewer independent from narrative or representation. You work with animal archetypes from a folkloric perspective. What’s your relationship to the affective traits of their organic counterparts?
MC: It’s hard to say. I think humans are really bad at viewing other species outside the lens of their own subjectivity, and most of our responses are guided by narrative and representation. My animals are aware of themselves as embodiments of human ideas by playing into them and railing against them, but inevitably both options feel like imprisonment. In my show Down Boy at Reena Spaulings, the fox is more of a hybrid conflation of fox, boy, dog, and bone, taking on whatever traits suit him at whatever time. Just like in nature where an animal adapts to its surroundings, so does this figure to its context—be it confrontationally masturbating while looking at the viewer or naively growling at its own feral image.
ES: I had a strong reaction to that piece, considering the recent uptick I’ve noticed in moving-image work featuring soliloquizing beast-human hybrids.
MC: I’m happy to hear it was strong.
ES: I like that your work toggles between sovereign image and technique on display, between stage and prop. There are moments when the image totally disassembles, as in Yelurple (2018), revealing the hand of the puppeteer. Do you intentionally break the illusion of their subjectivity to shift the viewer back to your reality?
MC: Well, I’ve always thought of animation as being the pinnacle of auteur theory—total creation, total artifice. I enjoy the simple master-puppet relationship inherent in the animator and the animated, whereby the fox becomes a conflicted extension of myself to do battle with in both the monologues and its very form. I never approach things from a place of conceptual deconstruction, but I certainly want to viscerally place the viewer in the present.
ES: Do you find that this work-as-extension-of-self approach is why artists are held morally accountable for the characters depicted in their work?
MC: Yes, particularly within art and particularly right now when people are grasping at culture to provide political answers in the face of apparent doom. But of course it’s not always as simple as a character being a stand-in. And certainly the question isn’t whether a character is good, but whether it is a good character. Any art that operates on simple moral lines or accepted opinion is worthless. I want art to hold irreconcilable multitudes.
ES: Morality aside, Blorange (2018) depicts a sequence of a gull “flying” in blank space while being pierced by a digital axis, which you’ve left intentionally visible. How do you broker the relationship between the character and the site of its production?
MC: It’s being roasted on a spit: an effigy, forever in a state of torture. I like the link you make, though. That rotation is similar to the 360-degree spinning that we’re used to seeing with rendered 3-D animations—existing in a void, describing the full complexity of the model. The laser renders the wall a new dimensional zone, so that when the bird flies away into the distance the effect is that the wall is no longer this flat surface.
ES: I’m reminded that animation deals in perceptual constructions, and I’m struck by the specific codes of realism you choose to deploy (or to subvert)!
MC: I don’t even know what realism would define right now. I certainly think what I make is real.
ES: What about the relationship with the viewer’s gaze? Do you imagine the viewer more as a voyeur, or is it a two-directional gaze? Do the effigies stare back?
MC: I would hope they stare back, but not in any interactive sense. I find interactivity a really dehumanizing experience within art. I want them to confrontationally stare back as beings to be dealt with or portals to enter.
ES: Are you comfortable with them existing as spectacle?
MC: Of course. It’s an art gallery full of props lit by spotlights. Contemporary art often thrives on the lo-fi and pseudo-Povera as more authentic, even as political; but that is just stupid. It’s equally as manipulative. My installations of the laser works in particular are pretty minimal. For Down Boy I knew I wanted just two works with the foxes relegated to the back corner of an otherwise empty gallery—on the naughty step. This is not to say that these gestures are any more authentic. They just felt necessary, and spectacle as an end point is ultimately boring.
ES: The press release for your show Sob Story (in Paris in 2016) is designed like a comic strip, playing on the narrativization of cel animation. How are you thinking through temporality in your installations? Is it similar to principles of animation where there is no illusion of naturally unfolding time?
MC: In my animations I am definitely interested in the illusion of naturally unfolding time, which is key to animation. It’s alive! But, sure, everything I make is on a seamless loop with no real beginning or end. I certainly struggle with making singular images. The world doesn’t need any more images. Yet, similarly, presenting transitional, ambiguous forms feels feeble, certainly when aping the form of cinema or TV. That’s why I started working with laser animation: it is a physical, material thing—more akin to sculpture than video. The light is bright, almost too bright. They appear to glitter; they float on the wall as if in a void.
ES: Sob Story also dealt with effigies, but instead via meticulously hand-painted animation. I want to follow its advice—“don’t read too deeply into my sob story”—but am nonetheless tempted to ask: How does the second-person address sit in relation to the newer laser animations, which only talk to themselves? Is this an evolution toward abstraction, or narcissism?
MC: Hopefully, both.
ES: What’s next for these characters?
MC: Well, the gig economy is brutal, but they’ll survive by whatever means they’re given.