«Only the hand…» installation


Video installation by Pierre Hébert

Distributed by Vidéographe

A celebration of the multiplicity of languages and of the possibility of “translation”.

The installation

To this date, the installation was shown once, in the Norman McLaren exhibition hall of the Cinémathèque québécoise in Montreal, from December 3 to 21 2009. It consisted in the simultaneous projection of twelve versions, in twelve different languages, of the “Only the hand…” performance which is a live animation performance where I animate the sentence Only the hand that erases can write the true thing (more details follow about this). The languages were: English, French, Italian, Dutch, Yiddish, Portuguese, Lakota, Paiute, Romanesco, Romagnolo, Ojibway and Innu. There were four screens side by side on three walls of the space. The different versions were placed from left to right in chronological order so that beyond the multiplicity of languages it did give evidence to an evolution in time in the way of approaching the animation of the words and to a geographical circulation in order to do each performance in countries were the language was spoken. The date, location and language were identified under each of the screens. The installation repeated itself every 35 minutes and it played with a music track by Stefan Smulovitz.

I was very happy with the way the installation was put up at la Cinémathèque québécoise in a single quite large space (approx 12 meters wide, 24 meters long and 6 meters high) but I can see that the spatial distribution of the different screens, the number of screens (there can be more than twelve, or less but there should be at least six of them for it to be meaningful), and the choice of languages will vary as the project develops and depending on the configuration of the spaces were it will be shown. This is all to be evaluated in every specific situation.

It would be quite natural, I think, to accompany the installation with the presentation of a performance in a new language spoken locally, which would then be included in the language mix of the installation. There are other possibilities of performances (like a Living Cinema performance with my colleague Bob Ostertag – http://pierrehebert.com/index.php/2008/07/07/53-living-cinema-special-forces) if it is wished. There is also the possibility of presenting a program of my films as a complement to the installation.

Technical requirements.

I imbedded two images on each DVD, so to have twelve versions of the performance on the walls, only six video projectors were needed (two projectors projecting on each of the walls) and six DVD players. The DVD players needed to be synchronized in some way. To be more precise, every time the installation starts a new cycle (more or less every 36 minutes), the six DVD players must start simultaneously. It does not need to be synchronized while it runs – over a 36 minutes period, the discrepancies between the different players cannot be a problem. But if the little differences accumulate over a full day of playing, then it would become problematic. Some rigs are needed to suspend the video projectors from the ceiling. Appropriate cabling is needed depending where the projectors and the DVD readers are located. The brightness of the different projectors should be the same, but the adjustment between the different images is just moderately critical since all the sources were created in sometimes very different conditions, and those differences are part of the concept of the piece. In Montreal, we used 3000 lumens projectors, but the space was large and so were the projecting surfaces.

There are other technical options than the synchronized DVD players used in Montreal. I am currently assessing the possibility of playing the tracks from solid state media players using SD memory cards, which would give better images (including HD format if the appropriate projectors are available) and which would make the whole set-up more reliable. If this is confirmed as a valid solution, I would considerer acquiring all the necessary players so that the venue would have to only supply the video projectors.

Actual screens are not needed; it is better to project on a white wall. The size and the height of the images depend on the configuration of the space. The adjacent images must be precisely fitted so that their adjacent sides touch each other. A stereo sound system is needed to play the music track, which is read, from one of the DVD’s. The space must remain dark with just a little light in the central area so that the visitors find their way when the images become totally black.

See the video of the installation and the videos of the performances, visit the gallery of stills.


History of the project: the “Only the hand…” performance.

The “Only the hand…” project started in Vancouver in February 2007 when I was invited as a visiting artist at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. At this occasion, an evening of image and music improvisation was organized and I played in duet with a Vancouver musician, Stefan Smulovitz. I choose to work from a sentence that shortly before had been brought to my attention by a French friend: Only the hand that erases can write the true thing. My friend knew very well that this sentence would interest me for many reasons: the fact that it expresses itself in the form of a paradox and also the fact that that it centers on the gesture of erasing which had become a key element of my live animation performances. He had heard about “the sentence” during a conference given by professor Carlo Ossola of Collège de France, in Paris. This sentence is sometimes attributed to the German mystic Master Eckhart but actually its origin remains obscure and contested. At any rate, this idea of associating truth and erasing has a very ancient history. Traces of it are found a bit everywhere, in the Gospels, in Dante amongst others. Beyond the austere mystical undertones of this sentence, what interested me fist and foremost in it was its precise relationship with my workflow when I do live improvised animation, alternately drawing and erasing. The animated movement cannot appear without the action of erasing. It also interested me because it relates the question of truth to very physical actions that put the body into motion (writing and erasing), and not just to the act of “saying the truth”. It seemed to me that the impossibility to attribute this sentence to any single author did authorized me to give it a meaning that suited my needs, without necessarily discarding all of the possible historical interpretation of it. I did the first performance in the English language. The following performances were in French (Seule la main qui efface peut écrire la vérité) in Toronto, Beirut, Montreal and Chicoutimi. In Beirut, I regretted not having done the necessary preparatory work to be able to do it in Arabic. Nevertheless, this planted in my mind the idea of taking advantage of all of the occasions that would permit me to do the performance in as many languages as possible. This is how it became a major project for me. Also, the fact of associating the austere theme of erasing carried by the sentence to the burgeoning abundance of virtually all the languages of mankind allowed me to add another layer of paradox and to give a less unilateral value to the whole enterprise: to advent, truth must not only face the exercise of taking away all superfluities, but also engage itself in the infinite repetition in all the idioms of mankind. So the “Only the hand…” performance became not only a celebration of the multiplicity of languages but also a celebration of the very possibility of “translation” which is a fundamental condition of the existence of “mankind”. I still had to decide what I would do with this series of performance (obviously, I did a video capture of each of them). I considered releasing them as a DVD collection, but it quickly appeared absurd. I finally came to think that the simultaneous viewing of different versions in the form of a video installation would create a vaster dynamic and visual ensemble and would make the point much more strongly and much more clearly. What makes this visually interesting is, on the one hand, the fact that all the performances were constructed around the same structure (a structure that came with the inner organization of the sentence itself and also with Stefan Smulovitz’s music which I used in every performance) and, on the second hand, the fact that they all are quite different because of the difference of languages and of the variations in timing, accentuation and visual construction. So when it was technically possible, I began to do the performances with a three screens setup (two previous versions being shown on each of the side screens, and the new one on the center). This was the beginning of the transformation of the performance into a video installation project. By December 2009, I had accumulated twelve versions in twelve different languages. As already mentioned, I performed it in English and several times in French, I did it in Italian, in May 2008, in the village of Macchiagodena, south east of Rome and at ZOCulture in Catania (Solo la mano che cancela puo scrivere la verita). On January 29 2009, I performed the Dutch (Flemish) version (Enkel de hand die uitwist kan de waarheid schrijven) at the Vooruit in Gent. On February 4 2009, I performed a Yiddish version in Paris at Théâtre de la Vieille Grille (Nor di hant vos ken oysmenk di ken shraybn dem emes). On February 6 2009, I performed it in Portuguese at the Faculdade de Belas Artes de Lisboa (FBAUL) in Lisbon (Só a mão que apaga pode dizer a verdade) and on February 14, I performed a North American native language version (the Lakota language – nape kin lece hena pajuju wowicake he okihi owa) at performance Works in Vancouver. On April 20, I performed it in the Paiute language spoken in Nevada (Emi kaahemá katoo myuk’u, key hemá nomy yow qua) at the University of California in Davis. On September 29, I did a Romanesco version (the traditionnal vernacular idiom of Rome) at the INIT Club, in Rome (solo a mano che cancella po scrive a verita), and on October 4, a Romagnolo version (the traditional idiom of Romagna) at Area Sismica in Meldola (Sol la man c’la scanzèle po scrivar la vérité). On October 30, at the Cinematheque of the Winnipeg Film Group, I did an Ojibway version (mininj eta gaa-gaasii’ang odaa-ozhibii’aan debwewang). The last language of the installation, the Innu language spoken by a First Nation living in Quebec (muku mititshi ka kashinimatshet tshi ui uitam tapueunu), was performed at La Cinémathèque Québécoise on December 4 and was readily included in the first version of the installation that was shown from December 3 to 21 in the Norman McLaren exhibition hall.


Notes about the “Only the hand…” sentence and animation cinema.

(What follows is just one section of a number of texts where I try to draw on the writings of the French critic and theoretician of animation, André Martin, to define my own approach to cinema. This series of texts which, for now, exists only in French, can be found on my web site: http://pierrehebert.com/index.php/2009/03/13/117-l-expression-instrumentale-et-la-pensee-d-andre-martin)

I believe that what interests me most in the sentence of “Only the hand…” (Only the hand that erases can write the true thing) is the fact that I could extract this title. “Only the hand…” from it, that finally has a value of its own. But I can say this only after the fact. When the conference of Professor Ottola was reported to me, what attracted me was the fact that through the paradoxical association of truth and the action of erasing, this sentence described what I do cyclically when I do live animation with dry erase felt pens (draw-erase-draw-erase etc.) and thus constituted a potential statement in regard to animation.

A whole constellation of meanings is vibrating around this connection between “erasing” and “writing the truth”. “Erasing” could refer to purifying, removing the superfluities so that only remains the essential, the truth. In a more radical way, it could mean that there is truth only when everything has been erased, that is to say that truth is the emptiness, the ground zero of all human activity, when all contraries are cancelled. It could also all be transported in the domain of potentialities, then we could understand “Only the hand that can erase, can write the true thing” which implies that truth is possible only for the hand that has the empowerment of the inverse action, and pushing even further, that truth is only a potentiality, to be able to write the truth as much as to prefer not to…(like Bartleby) – this is the one I like best. Or again, it could be understood that the effacement of all past discourses is necessary to the appearance of truth, a sort of tabula rasa, the emergence of something radically new (which is not the same thing as the mystical purification of the superfluities.

In all cases, it is a game with emptiness. This reminds me of the famous sentence of Norman McLaren describing animation (and not forgetting the meaningful erasure that most of the time is forgotten when the sentence is quoted):

  • Animation is not the art of DRAWINGS-that-move but the art of MOVEMENTS-that-are-drawn.
  • What happens between each frame is much more important than what exists on each frame.
  • Animation is therefore the art of manipulating the invisible (that) interstices that lie between frames.

As I developed it in another text (Corps, langage, technologie, Les 400 coups 2006, p. 110), the “that” that was crossed out on the manuscript note that was pinned on McLaren’s bulletin board (the French critic André Martin saw it in the 50’s and got it reproduced in the French cinema magazine Cinema 57 – number 14) shows that McLaren came very close to describe animation as “the art of manipulating the invisible that lies between frames”, literally as a game with emptiness. This is more or less what the purged sentence says but in a less radical way.

In repositioning the sentence in the context of the material proliferation of images (this is inherent to animation, the effacement is never definitive, rather a transitory and recurrent phase in a chain of actions – to draw, to erase – which allows to induct the animated flow), another layer of paradox appears that acts as a counterweight to an interpretation in terms mystical purification of superfluities. This has a similar value as the proliferation of languages that came later in the process. I don’t mean to abolish the constellation of meanings that surrounds this sentence, quite the contrary, but to avoid any unilateral interpretation and to set it in a new unexpected context where its center of gravity shifts. Consequently, the action of erasing appears as the condition of the illusory movement of animation. Through “the manipulation of the invisible”, it then occupies the fugitive position of “truth”. This, in the same time, gives a material weight to the meaning of the sentence and adds a philosophical resonance to the act of animating. At first glance, it is a description of my specific way of animation (with dry erase felt pens) but it also says something more general about animation, which is also what is at stake in my performances as well as in the installation.

It all refers to a conception and practice of animation through the constant destruction of the previous state of things versus the conception centered on the fluid preservation of the appearance of continuity. In effect, there are, historically, animation techniques that proceed effectively through erasure, elimination, partial or total destruction of the preceding phases in the succession images that makes possible the synthetic emergence of motion. It is the case, for example, with animation that uses paper cutouts, puppets, objects, paint on glass, charcoal or pastel, etc. Opposite to this constellation of destructive techniques, stands the classical technique of cartoons (cell animation) were the successive drawings keep their material existence, which is essential to the division of labor between key drawings and in-betweens and allows for a precise verification of the fluidity of motion even before shooting. Thus the feel of “danger” (to use André Martin’s expression, “the dangers of animation”) and adventure inherent to the destructive techniques is avoided.

It is remarkable that the destructive techniques were diversely used through history, first in the formative years of cinema where they were dominant, just before being brushed aside by the technical standardization brought about by the development of large industrial animation studios, then at the moment of the creative explosion of modern animation, just after World War II, as theorized by André Martin under the vocable “animation cinema” («cinema d’animation»). But, even if this bipartition of techniques is historically detectable and bears the potentiality of the radical conception of animation that lies behind the “only the hand…” sentence, we cannot conclude that the adhesion to a radical understanding of “the idea of animation” necessarily follows from the practice of this or that technique.

Often times, the adepts of destructive techniques have also invented for themselves gizmos and crutches in order to avoid the dangers of discontinuities and preserve the conditions of fluid motion, and embrace the party of the continuous. To the contrary, in an important article in Cinema 65, André Martin shows how John Hubley, mobilizing all the know how of the classical Disney animation, accepts the discontinuous radicalism of the “frame by frame” principle of animation by developing his style around the “flimsies” stage of animation (in the large animation studios, the “flimsies” stage was the first step of the process where only rough drawings on paper exist, full of imperfections, before the steps of extreme polishing that lead to the final rendering on celluloid).

In short, the “Only the hand…” sentence, by asserting the role of the hand and of erasure as a condition of truth, points toward the radicalism of “the idea of animation” when it is considered from the angle of its radically discontinuous structure. By this, it designates the rarefied and ascetic essence of animation when all superfluities are set aside, its truth – and by extension the truth of cinema.