I have over the past few weeks been doing just that - looking back at the catalogue of work we have made for the RSA Animate series to get a sense of the here and now. I have even watched some of the films all the way through, and even though I don't normally review my old work, it is very pleasing to be able to see how my thinking and technique as an artist has developed.
The main thing that fills me with pride about the series is that we managed to create a whole new medium. Whiteboard animation is now a 'thing' that exists in the world, and it is being used widely as a distinct form of communication and a powerful presentation tool. I think that its appeal is its immediacy. It is a democratising tool. It can be used to explain and explore anything. I think this is a reason why so many people, groups and companies are now using the medium. Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, ‘the medium is the message’ in his essay, 'Understanding Media', but I have come to understand this phrase more pointedly since actually creating a new form of media.
The RSA Animates are very much part of my life. Each individual film is an animated example of my thought process writ large – literally! I have always considered them to be active investigations between myself, as an artist, and the content at hand (pardon the pun). They are not wholly objective, as I can't help but infuse the content with my own style, experiences and understanding of the world.
As time ticks on, I can see how some of my cultural reference points are starting to look a little anachronistic. The work that I do is peppered with cultural overspill from my life. My humour is now more and more tinged with creaky 'Dad jokes' and more often than not whenever I crack one of these jokes a huge virtual tumbleweed bounces through the room, carried on a breeze of echoing silence.
In my younger, pre-fatherhood days, I had a lot more time to ‘flâner’ and take in what was going on in the world. The comedian Stewart Lee brilliantly weaves this notion into his Carpet Remnant World tour.
"If you'd seen me a couple of years ago, here, when I was good, I would have already talked about Franz Kafka and ancient history and all, like, amazing stuff that has happened to me, but I don't talk about anything anymore. I don't have any interests or experiences. In the last eighteen months for example I have seen two films. I've seen Archipelago, which is an art film about middle class people on a disappointing holiday...and I've seen a seventy minute cartoon called 'Scooby-Doo and the Zombie Jungle Island" a hundred and eighty times!"
Recently 'Normcore' became the height of fashion. This is when all the cool kids dressed like middle-aged suburbanites. I say recently but 2014 is decades ago in 'trendy' time. Sadly for me, I don't think the fashion world's brief slide into mediocrity extended far enough into 'average' to truly envelop my personal style. I catch myself sometimes, when I am putting the bins out wearing loud socks and Birkenstocks, or disposing of a cracked loo seat at the dump, or other activities that could be worthy of a 'middle aged shout-out' on Shaun Keaveny's 6 Music breakfast show (even this reference point reeks of middle aged-dom) and I realise that I still think like it's the 1990’s. I remember groaning when my parents used to hark on about the 60's and how brilliant 'Muffin the Mule' was and what-not, and I see now what I have become.
I suppose what I am trying to investigate is my own sense of relevance. To my mind, the RSA Animate series, is about exploring the issues that are relevant to all of us, globally and as humans. As images created on a whiteboard, they were by nature originally transient communications. The black ink carried the message, it was subsequently broadcast and then wiped from the surface of the world with a cloth. This was how things worked in my analogue world. I was comfortable with that. It was of the 'right here and right now'. A moment in time. It was relevant...then!
What I didn't consider was the digital residue and how some of these drawings would have lives of their own and be recorded forever in the internet's digital neurons. The ideas encased within each film can be seen nostalgically. I think for most of us, we get to a certain age and want to feel relevant again and we collectively reminisce about those times when we felt we were actually relevant. On television recently there was a glut of list shows like 'The Top 100 Toys of All Time', or 'The World's Greatest Sweets of the 1970’s'. Remember them, eh? But now we are all remembering the 1990’s! The trouble is that I feel like I am still living in the 1990’s! What do you mean, 'remember them?' - of course I remember them - they were only last week!
In 2015 Cognitive ran a social media campaign about the General Election. We asked people what they would do if they were Prime Minister for a day. I drew pictures of some of the best interactions and tweeted them. Through a connection with the digital marketing company who were managing the campaign, the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood tweeted us a message and I translated it in the only way I know how.
She didn't want us to use it because she thought it was 'irrelevant and retro'. I think this illustrates the point I am trying to make and it also raises other questions. To me, I thought I was being relevant. I was using my understanding of a 'personality' and something I believed them to be commonly known for to reflect on something current - in this case the 2015 General Election and the behaviour of our politicians. But I failed to connect the dots and realise that Vivienne Westwood is, apart from largely being responsible for bringing punk and new wave fashions into the mainstream, also an active political campaigner. Perhaps 'relevance' is in the eye of the beholder?
Sometimes I feel I have a responsibility to the information I am animating, and this is where I am presently having an internal dialogue. Just how relevant can these things really be, especially if they come through such a personal filter? Part of the answer is in the translation of the content and part of it is also in the source content itself. These things obviously have a shelf life, but some things have staying power and can become 'classics' of a particular genre. I am not the one to be the judge of that. Time will tell.
Italian playwright Dario Fo says, ' an artistic expression that does not speak for its own time has no relevance' and this could be a handy lifebuoy to cling on to. But there is something else that holds me afloat on the sea of ever-shifting relevance and it is returning to what Marshall McLuhan said – the medium is the message! Whatever elements I decide to use to try and translate each individual story, I can be grateful that the cognitive style of whiteboard animations is the thing that holds the upmost relevance. The simplicity of watching somebody draw pictures whilst a voice tells a story. What's not relevant and ultimately timeless about that?