How 3D films, bas-reliefs, and Betty Boop can turn into performance art

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New York based-artist Lucy Raven's lecture performance "Low Relief." The lecture first materialized in 2013 and picks up on the artist’s travels in India and the bas-relief sculptures she saw there. Photo from LUCY RAVEN/OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Lucy Raven loves a good pun. In her lecture performance at the Bellas Artes Outpost, the New York-based artist speaks of two kinds of relief: the proliferation of American bas-reliefs that emerged from the Great Depression, and the economic relief that Roosevelt’s administration provided to artists through numerous government-funded art commissions in the mid-1930s. 

The Roosevelt-initiated Works Progress Administration projects of the time were instrumental in the figurative (that is, as opposed to abstract) telling of an American story of art and industry, says Raven. The audience is shown examples of this Americana as seen in the Los Angeles Times building and the LA Stock Exchange Library.

She then shows a snapshot of the diorama of November 1935, depicting Manuel Quezon being inaugurated as president of the new Commonwealth. She points out the characteristically American style of bas-relief on the podium in the scene, and the whole carving itself. In the audience, senior director of the Ayala Museum Mariles Gustilo lets out a hearty cry. She’s clearly the most acquainted with the dioramas among us.

Photo-6.jpg Lucy Raven recently had a solo show at the Serpentine Gallery in London and is preparing a similar lecture performance for the Guggenheim in New York this summer. Photo by JL JAVIER

RP31-2.jpg "RP31," 2012 by Lucy Raven for her show "Edge of Tomorrow" at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Photo courtesy of LUCY RAVEN

That the artist’s introduction would make a jab at humor so urgently was perhaps more strategic than altruistic. After all, fundamental to the relatively fledgling genre of the lecture performance is the audience. Like in a classroom setting, the teacher risks non-engagement with any signs of aloofness. With the acoustics of the small library at the Bellas Artes Outpost, Raven’s voice acquires a soothing timbre, much like a charismatic novelist’s on a reading tour.

Raven’s recently-concluded first solo exhibition in the UK at the Serpentine Galleries prominently features her 2014 animated film “Curtains,” which shows transiently 3D photographs that can be viewed with anaglyph glasses. This theme, an investigation into what is perhaps better described as the less glamorous facet of image making, is a recurring interest of Raven’s. “The Deccan Trap” of 2015, a four-minute animation, is described by the artist as a “sci-fi fable,” about the bas-relief carvings of rock-cut ancient Hindu temples in the Madhya Pradesh state of central India, and the Indian post-production studios where Hollywood outsources 2D-to-3D conversion.

Photo-4.jpg In her lecture performance, artist Lucy Raven references the work of Max Fleischer, the creator of Betty Boop, shown here in a slide with Bimbo as they seek refuge in a haunted cave. Photo by JL JAVIER

Tales1.jpg The site-specific installation "Tales of Love and Fear" (2015) is Raven's approximation of a cinema built for a single film which contains a single, stereoscopic image. Photo courtesy of LUCY RAVEN  

The lecture “Low Relief,” which first materialized in 2013, picks up on the artist’s travels in India and the bas-relief sculptures she saw there. “Only the people on the streets match the density of the reliefs,” she says in the lecture. She links this with the bas-relief of the Americas, like those in downtown Los Angeles, and the young history of stereoscopic 3D films. She discovers a surprising bulk of present day practice in places like Tata Elxsi, a visual effects studio in the outskirts of Mumbai, and presumably only one of many.

The Indian reliefs captivate Raven. She says that James Cameron’s “Avatar” is a riff on the story of the Hindu deity Vishnu —“After all, the Na’vi were blue.” Moreover, the artist is enthralled by the paradoxical landscape of ancient petroglyphs and call center agencies. She notices that the reliefs “didn’t follow the linear traditions of the West.” This leads her to believe that the “incredibly repetitive” work of 3D conversion is ultimately subjective, “manual and artisanal” and “absurdly labor-intensive,” and is informed by a “culturally-inflected sense of spatial depth.” When later asked how much of this is, in fact, true, considering the plain remoteness of the realities of the artisans of India and the Hollywood monster, the artist balks at the mystery.

Raven proceeds with a quasi-instructive survey on the history of rotoscoping. For starters, she references the work of pioneering animator Max Fleischer, creator of Betty Boop and Popeye. In “Minnie the Moocher,” Betty Boop and Bimbo seek refuge in a haunted cave. A bipedal walrus sings the infectious Cab Calloway anthem.  “She was a red-hot hoochie-coocher / she was the roughest, toughest frail / but Minnie had a heart as big as a whale,” croons the walrus. He is joined by a white tabby and her quadruplets. Dinner is served out of a feeding bottle. Raven contrasts Fleischer with Disney. She lauds Fleischer’s constantly morphing forms, vis-à-vis Disney’s grounded characters that are captive to gravity. The artist’s bias toward Fleischer’s surreal poetics is salient here.

Photo-1.jpg "Low Relief" links the sculptures Raven saw in India with the bas-relief of the Americas, like those in downtown Los Angeles, and the young history of stereoscopic 3D films. Photo by JL JAVIER

Curtains2.jpg From Raven's 2014 anaglyph video installation "Curtains." Photo courtesy of LUCY RAVEN  

The audience continues to be schooled on the complex processes of 3D conversion, from depth mapping, where artists grapple with a virtual space structured as wireframed polygons, to the creation of the synthetic second eye, the most mind-boggling to Raven. She touches on these not to instruct per se, but to illustrate. For instance, her video documentation of a computer screen showing a technician’s work on a 16-second sequence in the 2012 3D film “To the Arctic” is self-reflexively boring. And that’s precisely the point. 

Lastly, Raven shows “Master Hands,” the 1936 film about Chevrolet manufacturing. The beginning of the film portrays the foundry workers in an inimitable embossed style. “It gives the workers a heroic aura, same as the bas-reliefs that had gone up the country,” says Raven. The session ends with a minute-long clip of “Master Hands” in 3D, commissioned by the artist. It’s a shame, though, that we didn’t have 3D glasses. No matter. Raven’s lecture performance, distinct from her looping video installations, exceeds impression and morphs into insight. There is a line from a Daniel Webster poem that may be apt, and it also happens to be a part of the 360-degree marquee in the Los Angeles Times lobby: “There is no dimming, no effacement here.”

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Bellas Artes Outpost is located at Karrivin Plaza, 2316 Chino Roces Ave, Makati.