Humor and the Abject

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Birgit Rathsmann's Animated "Primitive Games" is Anxious, Absurd, and Uproarious

(L-R) White Shape (Mary Houlihan), Blue Shape (Lorelei Ramirez), and Red Shape (Becket Bowes) in Birgit Rathsmann's Primitive Games

On Monday night, I attended a screening of artist Birgit Rathsmann's new animated project, Primitive Games, at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture's space on West 22nd in Manhattan. Rathsmann is somebody with a foot planted firmly in both the art and comedy realms, which was evident in the makeup of the audience which included gallerists, fellow video artists, and several Brooklyn-based comedians. Primitive Games is a twenty-minute animation piece that tells the story of White Shape, Blue Shape and Red Shape, who are abstract, sentient digital forms living on the desktop interface of a work computer belonging to Patricia, their animator. Everything they know, they have learned from the internet. They don't have have physical bodies and are therefore obsessed with everything about the physical world. Patricia, who doesn't know that they exist, only appears in the piece as a chat box, but they are deeply devoted to her. 

Voiced by artist/comedians Mary Houlihan (White Shape) and Lorelei Ramirez (Blue Shape), as well as artist Becket Bowes (Red Shape), they're a charming trio with a consistently funny rapport. White and Red want desperately to try out a "smile" that White has acquired--a physical attribute that they're generally lacking--on the red carpet of an upcoming event where actor Jessica Alba (voiced by actor Hollis Witherspoon) is rumored to be attending. If White and Red can get a selfie with Alba, they believe, it'll gain them massive popularity and cement their existence IRL. Blue, on the other hand, is very nervous about leaving the desktop for the physical realm; it may mean losing the security of their link to Patricia. 

Rathsmann created all of the environments that the shapes inhabit--desktop backgrounds, information superhighway tunnels, the paparrazi-swamped red carpet event--using an experimental collaging of multiple drawing styles that she then animated together. Scanned watercolor drawings on paper exist alongside digital frame-by-frame animations. Both Ramirez and Houlihan contributed drawings to the piece in their own styles, resulting in a wildly expressive environment that offers bonus link between the voices and imagery for audience members familiar with their respective practices.

Comedian, musician, and artist Tim Platt makes an appearance in a live action element. His right hand, topped with a pair of ludicrously cartoonish eyeballs as to resemble a hermit crab, offers a pseudo-philosophical treatise on solitude to the solemn Blue after White and Red have departed in search of viral fame. Comedian Ana Fabrega voices the suspicious, potentially-antagonistic Trojan Horse Agent. And in several hilarious nods to the tropes of Arrested Development, journalist and longtime NPR host Rick Karr appears as Ron Howard, the omniscient narrator. Both Fabrega's and Karr's bits give the surreal narrative some classical grounding, and Karr also lent his services as a story editor. The infectious soundtrack includes contributions from Houlihan, as well as comedian and musician Steven DeSiena. With Houlihan, Ramirez, Platt, and Bowes credited as co-writers on the piece, Rathsmann's fleshed out a world from ones and zeros where--despite their being absolute simulations by design--the characters and environments feel familiar, real. 

Over email, Rathsmann, an artist originally from Germany who is based in New York, told me, "Sigmar Polke, Rosemarie Trockel, Martin Kippenberger, Herbert Achternbusch, Wim Wenders, Ulrike Oettinger, Uli Seidl, Herzog, and Fassbinder are my art parents. They taught me to set out in the world and find the absurd--not as a gesture of nihilism, but as a source of life."

In Red, White, and Blue, absurdity is the lens through which anxiety and mirth can mix. Watching the piece on the sixteenth anniversary of September 11th, I couldn't help but think about them as three parts of one wonky American body. We are a paranoid, often nonsensical, but frequently hilarious people. Having lived here for some time now, Rathsmann has clearly picked up on that. Americans are obsessed with their supposed exceptionalism, a strange nationalist ethos that claims to somehow simultaneously embrace individual liberty. We long to fulfill our deserved destiny and become more than just a single abstract shape amongst many--despite the knowledge that this will never work out for the vast majority of us. Americans deliriously search for that source of life in late capitalism, almost comically eschewing a philosophy of nihilism even as we watch the country collapsing in real time. All artists do this, too. LOL. 

In the coming months, keep an eye out for future screenings of Primitive Games. I'll be following Rathsmann's career closely, as she's somebody who is actively trying to re-contextualize comedy within conversations about fine art. And the comedians that she's working with--Ramirez, Platt, Fabrega, Houlihan, DeSiena--are themselves pushing extremely hard to challenge what comedy is, and what it looks like, in 2017. Art could stand to get a better sense of humor, and comedy could stand to get a little more abstract and cerebral. Everyone involved in Primitive Games seems committed to making sure that those things do indeed happen. 

To learn more about Birgit Rathmsann, please visit her website