Featured image: Still from Me and Mrs Sloan (Susan Sloan (2007). Motion-captured animation of artist’s mother.
Susan Sloan’s exhibition of motion captured portraits on The Wall at The Photographers Gallery raises issues in terms of data object relations and computer animation – or ‘animatography’.
In critiquing the work by Susan Sloan, currently on show on The Wall, what emerges is the artist’s concern with the essential qualities of the data space that she is utilising. What has become apparent is the distinct new medium of animatography, as used in virtual reality art works like Sloan’s, as well as in the more ubiquitous moving image; a language which is not composed uniquely by the author/animator, but also by the apparatuses of computing and software development which are then engaged with by artists and other individuals, “they [photographs] are produced, reproduced, and distributed by apparatuses, and technicians design these apparatuses. Technicians are people who apply scientific statements to the environment.”  In this way, a piece of proprietary software like SoftImage, can be seen as an apparatus much like a camera or an easel.
In answer to the Photographers Gallery’s questioning of the impact the digital is having, I would argue that the critical and theoretical discussion of computer animation use in virtual art works should focus on the creative exploration of data object relations. I am also suggesting that the term animatography be applied when talking about the medium of computer animation, and the following discussion focuses on the development of an awareness of how this language is utilised in art in virtual space.
The medium of animatography can be explored as an essentially synthetic medium which extends the languages of animation into one of data object descriptions; the use of data to describe virtual objects, and the complexity of these descriptions. Sloan’s work very much explores the nature of applying data to ‘objects’ or rather, as it means in psychoanalytic terms, subjects. The work is composed of complex object descriptions, comprising 3-D modelling techniques as well as motion capture data.
First it is necessary to look at data object relations in terms of psychoanalytic theory, then its applicability to animatography. Susan Sloan’s work, highly explorative of this as it is, is looked at to further elucidate the relationship between data, psychoanalytic theory and animatography.
To understand this approach it is first necessary to outline a theory of object relations as explored by Peter Fuller in relation to art works. Fuller applied D.W.Winnicott’s major psychoanalytic concept of the ‘potential space’  and found that he could relate this theory to his study of aesthetics, and it has informed the development of a theory of animatography, which is based on our relationship with ‘data objects’, in aesthetic and cultural terms.
Winnicottís theory describes a baby’s gradual development and awareness of herself as a ‘separate autonomous human being’  in relation to, at first, her mother. While up until that point she has felt at one with her mother, several months after birth, at a key moment, this recognition of autonomy starts to occur. Fuller writes, “This process of discovery seems to be a vital period of human growth. During it, the baby, necessarily posits the idea of a ëpotential space.”  He quotes Winnicott’s definition of potential space as: “the hypothetical area that exists (but cannot exist) between the baby and the object (mother or part of mother) during the phase of the repudiation of the object as not me, that is at the end of being merged in with the object.” Fuller then points out that “Much in Winnicott’s view, depended on this ‘potential space’ between the subjective object and the object objectively perceived, between me-extensions and the not-me.” 
Potential space, Fuller explains, is important to creativity and to understanding aesthetic experience. The ‘location of cultural experience’ is derived from the ‘potential space’ where ” – if he has sufficient trust in his environment – the individual can explore the interplay between himself and the world, not as mere fantasy, but as cultural products which can be seen and enjoyed by others.” 
Similarly the cultural products of computer animation and therefore the aesthetics of animatography can be seen to derive from a relationship to the potential space, as transitional objects of meaning and value generated through a type of work and/or play. For Winnicott, “play is the paradigm of cultural activity”  and “cultural activities are those in which the experiences of the potential space are still operative.”  If we take Winnicott’s and Fuller’s theories, the potential space exists for artists, animators and a participating audience in which a play of separation; where a perception of what is me and what is ‘not-me’, takes place. There is no essential difference here between traditional media and animatography, apart from the specific differences of the nature of data itself, and therefore how we relate to data object descriptions.
If we add to this theory of ‘potential space’ with feminist psychoanalytic theory, which, in contrast to a generally masculine approach sees positivity in closer connectedness: “Chodorow herself suggests that care and socialisation of girls by women produces attributes which could (and should) be regarded positively; a personality founded on relations and connection, with flexible rather than rigid boundaries, and with a comparatively secure sense of the non-hierarchical nature of gender difference.”  We can see Sloan’s work as a carefully constructed interplay between artist and subject. Also, what does it mean to be described by data, which has automation at its heart, and yet requires a lot of skill to achieve this level of detail?
In virtual environments, the avatar is a key aspect for enabling a realisation of the ‘world’ to take place through human-computer interaction. In the works currently on show, Sloan looks intensely at the animated portrait, which inevitably relates to the condition of the avatar, while raising questions of perception to do with notions of reality and authenticity. Portrayed through animatography, the data object of the portrait model is related to as a me-extension, as well as sometimes being felt to be not-me, but a representative of the self, in terms of the freedom of self portrayal in this genre. In this sense, Sloan’s work suggests avatars ‘which really look like you’, through which the complex psychological reaction of what is me and not-me can be apprehended.
As such animatography could be said to have a physicality, in terms of the data it is composed of. Projecting the imagination into a notional space, the artist can at the same time make that space pragmatic in symbolic terms. A fantasy, and yet a data driven reality. This paradox between perceiving the physicality of data and the perception of the animatographic illusion as simply a fantasy lies at the heart of this relationship.
Susan Sloan’s Me and Mrs Sloan (2007), explores data object relations in the form of a motion captured portrait of her mother synthesized with motion captured movement by herself. It is a work about the potential space itself. In this instance, the artist has modelled the head and upper torso of her mother, in 3-D animation software, and then animated the head and shoulders, based on subtle motion captured material of herself. In this way, the data object is her mother combined with herself in terms of the motion captured material. It is Sloan’s work, and therefore the dialogue with what is ‘not-me’ is a fascinating one. The motion captured material is also ‘not-my-mother’, and instead it is a record of Sloan’s slight movements. In terms of locating ‘cultural experience’ (Fuller, 1980) this is a study of whether and how the potential space exists, when working with animatography. What is isolated or exposed, is that we relate to the ‘data object’ in the form of Sloan’s mother, as if the essence of potentiality in the relationship is somehow captured, in a way that explores what it means to relate to data that is ‘all-there-is’. This helps to establish that there is a cultural experience in the work, by the subject of the work itself.
The work explores synthesis in data terms, the portrait model with the motion captured movement used to animate it. In this sense identity is blurred artificially, and a synthetic effect is created, yielding a potential space in animatographic terms. In this work a synthetic identity, in this case between mother and daughter, becomes possible, which is like an advanced form of the avatar in multi-user platforms.
The concept of ‘potential space’ can be used to understand the nature and significance of data object relations in animatography, the me-extensions and the not-me, through programming a computer or manipulating a computer program to make animation is what this work points to in technical terms.
Animation is principally iconic, which means that there is more me-ness in its structure and execution than the traditional film image, which is partly composed of the indexical. It can be argued that the engagement animatographers have with the portrayal of data object relations is precisely what identifies the need for animatography as a separate discipline, one which can culturally embody the unavoidable relationship we now all have with data objects in a more ubiquitous sense.
Data object relations in terms of Sloan’s work, has been considered in relation to psychoanalytic theory and its applicability to animatography. Through analysing a preoccupation with object relations, and specifically ‘the potential space’ as found in Winnicott’s theory, evidence of the potential space is found to exist as subject matter within Susan Sloan’s work. This is potentially an important aspect in critiquing art which explores subtle synthesis as an aspect of data object relations.
Dr Stephen Bell and Susan Sloan at the NCCA (National Centre for Computer Animation) in Bournemouth, United Kingdom
An interview with Katrina Sluis, Digital Curator at the Photographers’ Gallery By Marc Garrett