Martha Colburn’s stop-motion animated films are often not easy to watch. Frenetic, short and full of violence, they are the product of a laborious technique that combines found imagery with the artist’s own colorful, painted and drawn cut-paper figures and landscapes, set to propulsive soundtracks. Her newest work, the 11-minute commission Dolls vs. Dictators (2010), is on view through Apr. 10 at the Museum of the Moving Image, in Queens, N.Y.
In it, Colburn pits figurines from the museum’s collection of film-related artifacts, including Pee Wee Herman and Star Wars’ C-3PO, against autocrats ranging from Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov of Turkmenistan to Kim Jong Il of North Korea. This relentless mortal combat approximates a child’s funny but gruesome vision of U.S. foreign policy.
American history and identity come under scrutiny in films such as Myth Labs (2008), which shows the first Europeans to arrive in America guided by a bug-eyed Jesus and bearing methamphetamine in their Bibles. The nation’s founding myths, in Colburn’s view, are as volatile as the contents of the rural “meth labs” she depicts. Wars are the subject of such works as Destiny Manifesto (2006) and Triumph of the Wild (2009), whose titles pun, respectively, on Manifest Destiny and on Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.
Born in 1971 in Gettysburg, Pa., Colburn earned a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1994, and now lives and works in New York and Amsterdam. Her films and music videos are regularly included in festivals around the world. She has been featured in numerous group and solo exhibitions internationally and is represented by James Cohan Gallery, New York. She has screenings Apr. 14 at Ponrepo, the theater of the National Film Archive, Prague; May 19 at MAXXI in Rome; and June 4 at Anthology Film Archive in New York. She will be featured on PBS’s “Art21” in June. We met at her Queens home/studio in a former bar that she told me was once “a Mafia speakeasy called Exile.”
BRIAN BOUCHER It’s exciting to see your animation stand. It’s so simple—just several panes of glass on a small table—but you use it to make such rich films.
MARTHA COLBURN In the old days, they would have 20 layers. But I have three or four, because that’s what I can manage. They’re just glass from the auto shop, not special photographic glass. The panes are each 5 inches apart, and with that you can create movement and depth by moving figures and backgrounds around on the planes relative to each other. I call it a two-and-a-half-D world. It simulates 3D, but every layer is 2D. And then there can be a surprise: when there’s a crucial moment, I can throw in something actually three-dimensional.
BB Your latest film, Dolls vs. Dictators, has a bit of an educational component, which is appropriate since, as you mentioned to me, it’s on view in a museum attended by a lot of kids. Each of the dictators introduces himself in some way, or wears a name tag.
MC I’m not into being some kind of teacher. But I knew that even adults would not know who all of these people are. While I was making that piece, a lot of people pointed out that dictatorships aren’t just the dictator—dictators are propped up by countries like ours. I found a few pictures of Obama and his wife smiling next to a dictator I had picked out—and then you read about him boiling people. In some of these scenes, I did to the leaders what they are known for doing to their people. Probably only those from that country will get it. But I think of it as my little prayer that maybe that’s what will come to these dictators. And I’d like to think I could kill 10 dictators from my bedroom.
BB What are you working on right now?
MC [pointing out photos] These are all pictures of missing persons in Mexico—all related to the drug wars there. I’m thinking of calling the film something like “The Ghost Cartel,” because people are dying at such an astronomical rate that a cartel of all the dead or missing would soon outnumber the living—the cartels already outnumber the government officials. We better be ready to be neighbors with a country ruled by drug cartels.
BB What is your process like?
MC Well, on this multi-planed glass, sometimes I have landscapes that are 15 feet long, and sometimes the film will be one 35-foot landscape that then tracks behind the action taking place on the glass. I’m exploring landscapes, but all confined. That causes the films to have a kind of crackling energy, because the world I’m creating is struggling to be created within these confines. It’s a very closed system, and when I read about wars, they are also their own closed systems. To work in such a limited way requires a lot of strategy. Strategic thinking in the moment.
BB What about in-the-moment versus planning? Is there a process of discovery in the production or are the films pretty tightly conceived before you start?
MC There is a lot of improvisation. In reading a lot about war—because sometimes all I do is read and watch movies about war—what you’re reading about is overall strategy, and then the breakdown of the minute strategy. The miniature action and the larger thought. In my works, the whole idea is not resolved until the final scene, which brings together what I was doing. Then I understand how it came together. But until then I don’t.
BB And you don’t do any editing once you’re done shooting, right?
MC It’s all done in-camera. One of my least favorite things is computers, or dealing with my film on computers. That’s why I use this camera. There are no electrical cords to trip over.
BB What kind of camera is it?
MC This camera was made, I was told, to film war footage in Vietnam. It was a field camera. It’s a Canon Scoopic, the consumer version of a film camera. So I don’t want to hear anyone say they can’t make films, because there are consumer versions of film cameras.
BB Working with film as you do, it’s easy to imagine you as one of the last holdouts using this analog technology. Or might you be helping to keep this low-tech method alive? I mean, bands are still putting out records.
MC Yeah, but vinyl is for sale, for people to buy. Sixteen-millimeter, the format I work on, is not a consumable format. So it is already obsolete.
BB Do you use assistants? Or is it a one-woman operation?
MC It is. When I made Myth Labs, I had to have help because I wanted to do this multi-plane glass thing. And I wanted to emulate the way they did it at Disney. So I put the camera up above the collage, but the camera had to be far enough above so I could focus, so I had to climb a ladder, pirouette and look through the camera, shoot the scene and climb back down. So after 35,000 frames, I needed help. But certainly filming is fastest when I can concentrate. And I cannot concentrate when there’s a constant “wait a minute, I have a text message.” It seems like no one’s head is within their own head. And when you’re making your own films, you have to be within your own head and within the head of the camera, and not within the head of the outside world and the cell phone. The two don’t mix.
BB Myth Labs was the first piece of yours that I saw, and it was so intense it made me light-headed, especially the images of babies neglected by drug addicts—my neglected inner child, perhaps. You mention in a statement that the film has some personal roots for you.
MC As a descendent of some of America’s earliest settlers and having been raised in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, I have an awareness of the guilt-haunted, twisted history of the American soul. Myth Labs attempts to find the spiritual or metaphysical roots of the scourge of methamphetamine use in America. The disaster begins with the void in culture where the church leaves off. Meth abuse could be seen as a sort of sidetracked vision quest. The film takes place in the American frontier and wilderness. Like meth addicts in rural America, the Puritans saw the wilderness as the place of their damnation and their ultimate resurrection simultaneously. Through blending these two times in American history, I attempt to illuminate the idea that the lure of this drug for contemporary rural inhabitants is rooted in our earliest consciousness-forming experiences as settlers in a state of spiritual and physical emergency. Overly fervent faith and addiction alike can change you from mere mortal to Superman to scarecrow.
BB You injured yourself making Myth Labs, didn’t you?
MC Yeah, I ended up in a neck brace from a serious neck injury while making it. Making the art for the films, which can take maybe six months, I’m allowed to be in the real world. I can have other thoughts. I can do a pastel and make a phone call. I can have the curtains off the window. I can walk outside. But then when I’m filming, I really can’t. The studio becomes a vacuum.
BB Controlled lighting and so on . . .
MC Not controlled—dark! I almost got scurvy one year, making Triumph of the Wild. It’s a hard craft. I don’t have to worry about anyone taking over my job. It’s a sacrifice to create another world, when you’ve got the whole world, there, as it is. But you sacrifice this world to create that one . . . which lasts 11 minutes and takes 11 months. But pick a year, any year, and just try to pull out a memory from that year. I consider it a good thing that I make films because it’s giving me some record of my existence.
Currently On View Dolls vs. Dictators at the Museum of the Moving Image, Queens, N.Y., through May 15.