Takeshi Murata’s Automated Animations

Laura U. Marks

Storytelling depends on distinction: an event must give way to another in time, and figures must be distinguished from background. In other words, edges and ends are fundamental to narrative. Takeshi Murata’s animations from 2006 and 2007 take narrative movies and melt them into fields in which both time and space thicken, bubble and merge, and nothing ever stops. Events become environments. Hallucinatory and philosophical, Murata’s works disrupt our habits of perceiving as they evoke a world in which cause and effect can never have done with one another.

Murata’s technique is similar to morphing, in which one image is transformed into another by mapping points on the first onto points on the second and calculating the locations of intermediate points for a given number of frames. But unlike most morphing, Murata’s transformations don’t end in a new figure but keep on going. Also, the point of departure is not one shape, but everything in the frame that has an edge. Imaging software is indiscriminate this way: if something has edges and moves, it’s a figure – the basis of military software for identifying moving targets. By working digitally, Murata is able to automate animation, setting up parameters for a reaction that plays out in time. (Since making these works he has taken up a less computer-driven technique.) Relationships between figures are replaced by relationships between frames.

Murata uses this effect to various results: his technique produces space-time as a flexible substance that is sometimes muscular, sometimes liquid, sometimes mental. His Untitled (Silver) (2006) sets a scene from a B-horror movie to squelchy, chirpy sounds. We can identify a figure, maybe a woman, seated, maybe at a mirror, then walking. The motion is relatively slow, and so the morphing effect creates a liquid space, in which figures and objects melt together. As in a bas-relief, the figure stands out slightly from the ground, and it differentiates by continually peeling itself away from the background. It is a sympathetic environment, where everything responds to everything else: I am reminded of the scene in Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête in which human-armed candelabra slowly rotate to follow Beauty as she moves along the hall. But this interconnection between things, this undifferentiation, is of course menacing too. Vertical edges transform into trembling cliffs that seem to close in on the being passing through them. A feeling of perversion escalates as human and inanimate forms merge together, melting into a metallic substance from which, in turn, new forms emerge.

Untitled (Silver) raises the question of figure and ground fundamental to perceptual psychology and art history. My own act of looking becomes slightly frantic, as though suffocating in the melting visual substance: I am seeking an outline, a figure, something to identify with. But interestingly, in this video what distinguishes human(like) forms is not our figurativeness but our rhythm.

The simple software trick Murata employs so skillfully helps us to imagine a world in which causality never ends, as though all our actions continued to be manifest, suturing us to space and time with elastic webs. Such a world can be thought of mystically, suggesting we are entirely interconnected with other things and the past actions of us and other beings, organic or not have an effect on our present situation. It can also be thought of philosophically, following Bergson, for events in these videos are not discrete but “blocs of space-time.” Why does Bergson emphasize in several writings that if he puts a lump of sugar in a glass of water, he must wait (“willy-nilly,” in the English translations) for the sugar to melt? It is to emphasize that the glass, the water, and the sugar are part of a whole that exists in time. If he stirs it with a spoon, Bergson adds, the spoon will become part of the whole.

And similarly when Rambo fights, his opponent becomes part of him. Murata’s Untitled (Pink Dot) (2007) begins with a strobing pink dot on a blue field. Then the dot takes its place in the movie Rambo, or more precisely, on the surface of a single frame from Rambo. It is a violent and acrobatic fight scene. As the scene continues, to electronic drones and arpeggios, the dot ripples, breaks up, and finally gets thoroughly entangled in the movie’s shifting forms. As the dot goes, so goes Rambo: as he rolls, runs, and swings his movements make tracks in the image, until his body becomes pure surge. Murata’s use of the dot helps us understand his technique, which seems to be about marking points on a frame and then tracking their movements in subsequent frames –again, morphing without morphology. The two men almost liquefy, and then rise again, as though from mud, to fight again, taking form. In turn their movements create volumes in space, building virtual rooms. The space becomes thick with past acts.

Of course action movies would be better called reaction movies: Deleuze is quite clear on this in his critique of the action-image. Rare are there acts that are not reactive. We love action movies because the heroes’ efforts of will and physicality sometimes manage to transcend reaction and become pure act. What is philosophically compelling about Murata’s treatment of the action movie here is that the entire space of the movie becomes a reactive space, imprisoning its characters in past events. So when Murata’s Rambo, half-liquid, sutured to the entire space of the frame, splattered with pink, rises again and manages to take shape for a moment, it is a pure creative act. In his automated animations, Takeshi shows the enormity of the struggle to carve free spaces out of tired old images and, more, to carve free acts despite the webs that entangle us.