Tobias Stretch: Biochemical Realism

By Gayil Nalls
Published on October 22, 2014

Still from "Unity"

GN       I felt that in "Unity" your aesthetic was illustrating a microscopic reality of the many microorganisms that make up the surface and interiors of humans. In the interview you gave to The Creator Project, you said you were "sculpting movement in a parallel time to nature." I feel as if that technique gives your film its mass life force. What are your thoughts? Was that a goal?

TS       Stop-Motion Animation and Time-Lapse photography combined allow for many unique ways of presenting time, space and the macro/micro realms. The film Microcosmos and the BBC television series Planet Earth had a profound effect on me growing up. When I first approached animation I noticed many parallels in my early experiments to their use of macro and time based photography examining the intricate details of life. Of course there have been countless time- lapse sequences which capture the growth of plant life as well as the decay of animal life and the passage of time but it occurred to me that another way to understand that life force would be to animate the idea of growth and entropy as if they were caught in a state of flux. You can see this at play through my use of writhing textures, shifting light and life-size characters within real landscapes. With animation the internal/external, macro/micro, living/inert are interchangeable. I referred to my animation as "sculpting movement in a parallel time to nature" because animation allows me to work with the property of time like a sculpture. The elements of nature such as light and weather actively sculpt the environment while I move and sculpt the Puppetures to capture a series of moments that create their own dimension of time thus enabling them to become the simulated life force that is animation.

GN       When I watched the video, it felt as if I was watching stop motion of ant or bacterial colonization. Bobbing, rolling, riling, withering, the web of existence, definitely a life cycle, you very successfully engage the audience in a corporeal experience that affects the logic of their thinking. The boundaries between the individual life and collective life become nonexistent. What do you make of this?

TS        The life-cycle is a great subject for art to illustrate; if there are levels to life and the hereafter as we see in many belief systems then I'd love to see more studies and art on this. I think one of the most remarkable things about the Universe is how much beautiful math there is in its structure but at the quantum level the normal rules of math begin to break down. We currently have a limited view of what things happening at a subatomic level look like but our imagining technologies have increased in power dramatically in recent years since the 1977 film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames which looked at the idea of scale in a unique way through the use of animation. With newer technologies we can see what was once unseen, we can know what the math looks like with our eyes for the first time. Through the art of animation I aim to utilize the life pulsing characteristics of these macro/micro worlds by scaling and transposing their qualities onto my life-size Puppeture characters and the objects and landscapes they inhabit. I see a world in flux where dynamic energy and matter dance with the rhythms of life. Breaking down the barriers of life, matter and energy whether it be the individual/collective or the macro/micro to find their beautiful commonalities and contrasts is what makes the deconstructive language of art/animation a unique and valuable way of understanding ourselves and the Universe.

GN       The visuals blend body and mind, not just in metaphorical representation, but the beauty and functioning of natural life systems. The body’s interaction with the environment is one of biochemical realism. What inspired this aesthetic choice?

TS        I like your term biochemical realism, that's a great way to describe it. The mind/ body connection is something we all deal with everyday as part of our existence but how we are tied into the fabric of natural systems that surround us is just as important to understand. Harmony between these systems is something rarely achieved but worth aspiring to in order to secure our survival as both an individual and a species. I can imagine that some day the act of communication between future beings may become a telekinetic-like process where information and ideas are beamed between the minds of beings. A super powerful enhanced mind might be capable of perceiving and altering its surroundings in fundamentally new ways. I like to think that we are at the beginning of a new era in how we connect with our world. Perhaps one day we will divest of our frail dying bodies for more perfect vessels of pure energy capable of harmonious interaction with all systems. I suppose this question about what is the definition/meaning of life has inspired my aesthetic choices the most. Through my Alchemical Animation process I hope to continue experimenting with new materials and explore new ways to animate all of these exciting ideas.

GN       How did your aesthetic evolve for you? I assume that you grew up close to nature. What was the philosophy and life view that supported and helped shape your aesthetic evolution?

TS        I grew up in rural Appalachia Northeastern Pennsylvania. For the last 15 years that I have lived in an urban environment I've had enough time away from it to develop a more nuanced understanding of what it was like to have been surrounded by nature all the time and how that affects my aesthetic decisions now. Having shot a lot of difficult sequences out in the elements and watching how the sunlight moves over the landscape through the entirety of a day is a truly moving experience. What I carry with me about nature is just how immense and powerful it is, I'm always in awe of that. Shooting for long periods I began to experience time as a strange miraculous phenomena. The challenge has become how to best harness the power of animation and nature to tell stories about life. Nature is a force that shapes us even as we shape it; it's the dance of life.

Still from "Unity"

GN       When you craft your sculptures and animate them, what does the process of moving every individual piece feel like? How do you craft a cohesive, yet fractal, mass?

TS        My early experiments with animation were born out of a need to find characters/ actors who would show up because it proved too difficult to gather a production with live actors together. But I soon realized how much the process of animation is about the animator performing through the puppet/sculpture. There is a bit of a Doppelgänger effect as the puppet becomes a double of who the animator is as a performer. Over time I have realized that there are many ways in which to approach how/why to animate something. In some instances I approach the animation as a performance through a character, in others I might imagine it as a kinetic/moving sculpture. Maybe at times it's born out of a desire to create life like Dr. Frankenstein or something haha! I'm always looking for new ways to present living matter and energy, I've rotoscope animated the body of a performer to appear as if she were covered in writhing Anemones. In a recent piece called Craco for German composer Hauschka I used a particular adhesive that allowed me to move and hold large quantities of hair and other textures frame by frame over the body of the lead character. I've developed a technique for expressive stop-motion facial animation I call Gelmation where I use a special kind of gel mixed with various textures that I manipulate frame by frame to animate emotional states of being. I've animated every kind of material you can imagine. Last Winter I spent many months out in the brutal cold getting minor frostbite from manipulating snow to make it appear as if it were alive for a piece called Unity by American Avant-Garde composer Christopher Bono. The work can be arduous but the end result is worth all the pain in order to summon living forms that echo our internal, external and extra-dimensional states.

GN       Do you have any thoughts on your work's relationship to collective behavior?

TS        I've dealt with a history of mental challenges and isolation so I think at times I've operated from a more idiosyncratic approach but I try to tackle universal human themes by examining the forces that shape us all. Perhaps one day our collective behavior will evolve to become more harmonious like a "hive mind". For now I do my best with limited resources to examine both the turmoil and triumph of life that I have been witness to as a human being.


Here is Tobias's latest creation Craco.