Woodrow, 2007. Wood, metal, foam core, found objects, electronics, stop-motion animation, and audio, installation view.
Graeme Patterson makes multi-disciplinary sculptural installations, often with the end game of stop-motion
animation in mind. His work is rarely still, fusing robotics, video, sound, objects, and performance into immersive
environments that address dislocation, alienation, nostalgia, identity, and, recently, the fraught relationship
of humans, our artifacts (physical and cultural), and the natural world. His work is humorous, emotional, and
honest--bracing and embracing at once.
With two large installations, Woodrow and Secret Citadel, that have toured Canada, short films that have
won international awards, participation in several international residencies, and an exhibition record that includes
projects and screenings in Canada, the United States, Iceland, France, and Germany, Patterson is pushing the
limits of sculpture, rethinking what it means to work in an "expanded field."
Ray Cronin: Stop-motion animation can be quite diverse, ranging
from commercial approaches such as the Rankin/Bass Christmas
specials of the 1960s to recent feature films by directors such as Tim
Burton and Wes Anderson. What were some of your influences?
Graeme Patterson: As a kid, it was mostly from popular culture--
those Christmas specials--and when I was a teenager, Tim Burton's
animations. Also, Ray Harryhausen's work, such as Clash
of the Titans, back when animation was used as high-level special
effects. I recently re-watched Blade Runner, knowing that there
are miniatures and stop motion in it. I grew up when there were
a lot of these effects--animation was always the magic in movies.
I still watch them today and am blown away by the level of craftsmanship
and what it does to my imagination in terms of believing
and getting into a world. As a teenager, I wanted to be a professional
animator. Later on, when I was at Nova Scotia College of Art
and Design, I saw Jan Švankmajer's films and the Quay brothers'
animations, which got me re-interested in stop-motion animation,
but only after finding myself at art school and having worked in
Secret Citadel, 2013. Wood, metal, found
objects, textiles, electronics, stop-motion animation,
and audio, installation view.
RC: Woodrow (2007), your first nationally touring project, took
five years to make and was unabashedly emotional, with serious
content about families, community, and a certain melancholy
about the rootlessness that seems to be our lot these days. You
moved to rural Saskatchewan to live on your grandparents' farm
and used your grandfather's workshop as your studio. Were you
worried about wearing your heart on your sleeve like that?
GP: I think it would be harder for me to make that work now. I don't
feel the same way anymore. I was 23 when that thought process
started, and family was more central to me. It still is big, but in
a different way. Back then, there was a lot I didn't know, and I had a
lot of romantic ideas about my family history, about my grandparents'
lives especially. Part of the project was to discover that history.
In a way, the process of making that piece was about gaining
knowledge. It was an opportunity. Nobody else in my family had
as much interest in it as I did at the time--my grandparents were
in nearby care homes, and no one from the family was living on the
farm. In a way, I took advantage of my interest and the opportunity
to be in Woodrow, make the work there, and have the place inspire
the project. I think that project really had to do with me as a person, being 23 and maybe a
little innocent--about lots of things, but certainly about the art world. It wasn't as though
I thought, "People don't make work about their families."
RC: Secret Citadel (2013), your most recent touring project, is a coming-of-age story mixed
up with serious thinking about male friendships. How did the individual works in this
GP: Secret Citadel has to do with Woodrow--that's where it began. It's a kind of extension,
first family, then childhood friendships. At the time, I was living in Halifax with two good
friends, and that living arrangement
inspired the idea of a project about male
friendship. It evolved over time; and it got
darker as it developed. I wanted to think
about friendship from an adult point of
view, getting beyond how it's romanticized
as a child, and even as a teenager. Secret
Citadel ends with Player Piano Waltz, which
is the darkest, saddest piece of the bunch.
It's kind of repetitive and lonely. That project
was almost like growing up through the
work. It's mostly thinking about my life, but
also about communicating what I wanted
to say about friendship--the truths, the
fantasies, the fear.
A Suitable Den, 2016. Rear-projection, stop-motion animation, interactive software, sensors, audio, vinyl wall mural, stop-motion puppet, furniture, carpet,
Plexiglas, metal, and wood, room size: 9 x 9 x 13 ft.
RC: Your works always have a strong narrative
quality--do you think of yourself as a
GP: At times. In an abstract sense, I feel
I am. But I like to portray static moments
as narrative. In Woodrow and Secret Citadel,
there are a bunch of static moments, almost
like photographs. There are a couple of
things happening, or a couple of characters,
and they're repetitive, running over and
over and over, and people can put them
together into a broken narrative. It's storytelling,
but through another form, not in
a traditional sense. It's not scripted in that
way. I enjoy telling stories, and I like the fact
that people pull a narrative from the work.
There's never one true narrative to any of the works, though; they're
intended to have the ability to be a different story for every viewer.
RC: Animation is a very physical art form; you need to move each
object thousands of times to build a moving image. There is an element
of performance, which you make manifest by including yourself
sometimes. In Secret Citadel, the costumes that you made and
wore were included in the exhibition. Sculpture, performance, animation,
photography: Do you make any distinctions?
GP: Genres don't really matter to me. That's not saying that anything
is right or wrong; I'm a maximalist at heart--I like to throw
as much at my projects as I can usually, mostly because I enjoy the
process of layering and adding. I take some things away, but I
always like to try new stuff. Learning new things, or trying something
a little different in every project, excites me, excites the project
and the work. I do a lot of thinking through the process, so
when I'm doing something new it's even more enjoyable.
RC: Your recent installation in Toronto, A Suitable Den (2016), featured
an animated raccoon that slowly destroys an office. This was
your most aggressive work to date. What was the thinking behind it?
GP: That work was based purely on opportunity and the environment--
an office on the 68th floor of a bank tower turned into
a gallery project space. The 68th floor is for the banking elite in
Toronto. I considered who is up there, I considered the building, and
I came up with the idea of a raccoon in an office dating from the
mid-'70s when the building was constructed, referencing the time
when raccoons really started becoming a problem in Toronto--
an urban pest. The narrative asks, "What would happen if a raccoon
got up here and was locked in?" Essentially you walk into the room,
crossing a floor with sensors, and there's a nine-by-nine-foot, rearprojection
screen displaying a stop-motion animated raccoon that
functions through a computer program. It's not a video; it's essentially
like a video game. The raccoon "knows" where you are and
might follow you around. It can pick up some words, but it also has
its own random things. It'll know where you are, but it might
decide to go over in the corner and sleep, scratch the wall or furniture,
or defecate. I wanted to create more of a random sense in my
work. Video has a beginning and an end, even the video within the
sculpture has a beginning and an end, so everything cycles. It's
always the same; whereas this may be static, but every day is different,
every experience is different. I don't know what the raccoon
is going to be doing next.
Infinity Pool, 2017. Cast resin,
found objects, plastic, textiles, wood, metal,
plumbing, and electronics, 25 x 70 x 50 ft.
RC: That leads me back to Woodrow, which includes The House, a
model of the family homestead portrayed as an infested ruin. Why
the interest in animals encroaching on human space?
GP: Animals are part of our lives, always. Living in Woodrow was
the first time that I had been confronted with pests as facts of rural
life--having to shoot gophers, having to kill mice, having to rid
myself of these nuisances. It was a seed of something that came
again later. I'm intrigued by our reaction to these animals, which
are always around us.
RC: Which brings us to Infinity Pool (2017), which you mounted
in Gatineau, Quebec. With its animatronic birds fouling a
group of backyard pools, this work is both funny and caustic. What
prompted you to address this particularly suburban subject?
GP: Infinity Pool was inspired by the space. It used to be a foundry,
and there were birds living in it. No one cared when it was a
foundry; but when it was turned into an indoor soccer facility, they
closed off all the windows, which makes it really hot in the summer,
so the birds couldn't get in and defecate on the field. That got me
thinking. I had already worked on a couple of projects featuring starlings,
which had been an interest of mine, and I decided to put
starlings up in the rafters. Originally, I thought of them shitting on
the grass. But even though it would only
be water, I realized that I really couldn't do
that, so I decided to add the pools. People
always complain about having to clean birdshit
out of their pools. It is a first-world
problem, and I find it funny--we're trying
to mimic nature, trying to have a lake in our
backyard, and we get angry when animals
want to be part of it. I was playing with an
indoor/outdoor idea. Black-tinted water was
pumped through the birds on to the miniature
landscapes and pools below, rendering
them useless. They looked like toxic waste
So, it's a kind of reversal of something we
do to the natural world. It has a political
edge to it, I guess, much like A Suitable Den,
but with humor, and some irony. My intention
is to evoke different things in people,
whether those things be negative or positive.
There's no video in this work because
I see the water as the animated component.
It's the unpredictable thing, the thing that
evolves over time. It creates splashes, it
moves the surface of the pools, it evaporates,
it leaves stains--none of which I have
any control over. That I find interesting. It's
a new way of animating.