THE JOHN WAYNE CODE
This film is from an ongoing series of videos I am producing, designed to be seen and understood in relation to one another. These short narrative films are developed out of personal experiences, and research into the history of moving images/animation in America at the beginning of the 20th century. The films in this series primarily deal with the way that interpersonal and subjective traumas are informed by corrupt systems.
This project reflects my interest in appropriating the comic wildcard and 'straight' man trope, à la Bugs/Elmer. Here, the long standing tradition which derives from 19th Century American theater is recoded, recast, and disrupted. What results is a narrative which depicts a body that reads as emphatically black and queer, running up against the printed depiction of a western cinematic hero. This exchange at times appears as if an invasive alien life-form is attempting to encroach upon and consume the image, which itself functions as a stand in for the white hetero-patriarchal culture and history that the western genre served to promote. The exchange between these figures is ambivalently oppositional (the rebel slave opposing the master), pleasure seeking (the fag versus the trade), and at play (the trickster deity & their pawn).
As the animated moving-picture crashes into the printed image, so to does the representational, the type, collide with the textual reality between seemingly disparate racial and social positionalities. This film explores the polarities and points of contact between the metaphysics of representational space, and the ‘real’.
From its inception at the turn of the century, American animation invocated the norms and aesthetics of vaudeville, and particularly those found in blackface minstrelsy. The straight man/trickster trope (in this context) can be traced back to minstrel shows, where on stage, an actor wearing a blackened face and using racially coded vernacular, would play opposite an ‘interlocutor’. The Interlocutor, generally more formally dressed, would play the aristocratic ‘straight’ man, to the minstrel’s unserious tone, lacking intellect, and one who is unburdened by the mores of society. The minstrel and interlocutor relationship is based in an extreme power imbalance. The minstrel would ironically, and contradictorily be the figure who would serve as the mouthpiece for the political and social concerns of the poor white population in post-Civil War America during the middle and end of the 19th century. In cartoon animation, the minstrel/wildman retains this socially flexible position, and as well becomes a site where sexual and gender norms were transgressed. In reaching back into this tradition, my work serves to make visible in explicit detail the ambivalence at the heart of American sexualism and racism that ran on television for nearly a century, at 24 frames per second. The veil of erotic suggestiveness and racial ambiguity lifted and brought into high opaque visibility.
Elliott Jamal RobbinsDirector
Elliott Jamal RobbinsWriter
Project Type:Animation, Experimental, Short, Other
Runtime:2 minutes 45 seconds
Completion Date:March 21, 2023
Country of Origin:United States
Country of Filming:United States
Elliott Jamal Robbins (b. 1988, Oklahoma City) is an artist who’s work engages with the archive of American visual culture, through the act of queer subjunction. They use cut-outs/collage, drawing, painting, text, and recurrent filmic and artistic motifs as mediums for their personal storytelling. In using material which carries with it the aesthetic history of a white-supremest and patriarchal culture, they produce a body of work that reinscribes their specificity and completeness into a visual field that was developed with the intention of flattening its subjects into types and stereotypes, or discarding the written and visual record of their existence all together.
In 2017 Robbins received an MFA from the University of Arizona. Previously, they attended the University of Oklahoma, where they received a BFA. Since leaving school, Robbins has shown in solo and group exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Berlin, and Basil. They have received many awards and honors, both nationally and internationally. Some include the Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant, the Contemporary Forum Artist Grant, a National Sculpture Society Scholarship, FJJMA Museum Association Award, the John F. and Anna Lee Stacey Scholarship, and the Momentum OKC 2014 Artist Spotlight. As well, their work has been featured in publications such as Propublica, NYT’s T Magazine, and Time Out New York.
Elliott Jamal Robbins is currently based in Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA.
My work engages with the archive of American visual culture, through the act of subjunction. It projects a complex subjectivity into the pictures and moving-images which are disseminated through mass-media, culture, and mediate our experiences of the world around us. I use found images, collages, drawings, paintings, text (both written by myself, and appropriated), and recurrent filmic and artistic motifs as mediums for my personal storytelling. This produces a commingling of polarities; a collision between introspection, and observations of the material world around me. The results of this practice become a disjointed narrative, which rejects linear totality, and makes space for irresolution, contradiction, and the completeness of the human experience. Western culture is designed to flatten its subjects into types, scrub them, perfect them, or erase their existence all together. In doing this work, I rein-scribe my specificity into a visual field that was built with the intention of diminishing it.
I was originally brought to the work that I am doing now by a simple question. How do you visualize what it would look like to be black, and free? This is a very simple question, that only presented more questions; distinctions to be made, then ruptured, and an unending montage of points and counter points. My search led me to reconsider the ubiquitous image; the 2D picture plane as a mass-communication technology developed to perpetuate white supremacy. Animated film in particular became a site for me to explore various coalescing histories. Among them were film-as-craft, and its transition to industrialized work; labor, as dually fetishized by spectatorship, and erased, in the promotion of the novelty of the medium, and in the passive spectatorship generated by combination of a rapid succession of moving images, and light; racial, sexual, and gendered stereotyping and the continued connection between blackface minstrelsy and the development of American entertainment.
I began looking to back in my own visual lexicon, to the art, movies and cartoons that I had been surrounded with as a child. A single frame stuck in my mind’s eye, like a pin. A still from an animated film I had seen before, and forgotten. In it, I saw answers to the problems I found with depicting liberation within a visual field that seemed to be unwilling to hold my intricacy, and multiplicity. It held up a magnifying glass the screen itself, revealing it to be a framing device. A tool created and utilized to promote the values of the same white supremest hetero-patriarchal society that I felt sitting on top of me, silencing me. It made visible a frame that inscribed itself on top of the past, outlining how we exist in the present, in an attempt to shape how we will determine our futures.
‘Persistence-of-vision’ refers the optical illusion that occurs when images in a sequence are shown in rapid succession of one another, creating the illusion of life. Animation and cinema are produced from this optical trick. Author So Mayer describes fascist ideology as also being dependent on persistence-of-vision. It is a single story about a people, framed as the official account, and presented as a linear progression of events, which then becomes replicated in culture, via mimesis. The queer act of ‘folding time’ is what occurs when artists are able to recall representations of the past, and to revoke its totalizing function by ‘folding’ back in the very complexity that it is attempting to erase. I am interesting in making work which speaks to the past. In my films, the camera lens condenses all objects to a single visual plane. This allows me to reactivate material that already has a history, and imbue it with a new purpose. I am able to ‘fold’ my specificity back into the screen, making a direct passage to the archive, creating in it an ‘anarchive’.
This work stems from the need in me to affect those pictures, films, and television shows that made up the aesthetic landscape that surrounded me, and shaped how I developed a sense of being in the world. It is also an acknowledgement, that the space that would have made a younger me understand that my difference is where my beauty lies, didn’t exist. The effects of that cannot be undone. We cannot un-make the violent scrubbing of the real lives in written, cinematic, and pictorial record. We can speak on our own realities. Fascism depends on being able to reduce the humanity of its subjects, in its various forms or recording and depicting events, so as to justify violence against those deemed undesirable. Anchoring my work within the complexities of my lived experience provides me with a means to find solidarity and communion within a lineage of artistic resistance to oppression. It gives me strength, and the ability to speak my truth, to power’s silence.