Although known for her chimerical animations, Los Angeles-based artist Erica Cho began her creative career in a completely different medium. “I studied printmaking and oil painting as an undergraduate at Penn State,” explains the soft-spoken Cho, who finished her Bachelor’s degree in 1997. “After I graduated I ran into people doing experimental video shorts in New York, and I was fascinated. My printmaking and oil painting had always been very narrative and I’ve always done comics, so animation seemed like a natural next step.”
Seeking formal training that would not lead her down the traditional filmmaking path, Cho decided to earn an MFA at the University of California at Irvine, where she says she appreciated the rigor of the critical discourse, but ultimately bemoaned the lack of proper equipment and attention to animation. “I had room to experiment on my own, and I got a lot of great feedback in terms of my research, reading, and agenda,” she explains. “But I eventually decided that I had to empower myself—so I read a lot about animation and studied the work of the Brothers Quay and Czech animators such as Jan Svankmajer.”
These particular influences are certainly apparent in Cho’s work, which shares with her predecessors an incisive political edge, sense of humor, and droll surrealism. Kimberly Bahp Makes Sushi For Two (1998), for example, is a short stop-motion animation that deals with ideas of stereotyping and cultural sabotage, while her latest project supported by Creative Capital, Our Cosmos, Our Chaos (2002), examines Korean history and political empowerment through the character of In, who lives in present-day Koreatown in Los Angeles, but is immersed in a phantasmagoric swirl of history, mysticism, memory, and dreams.
With Our Cosmos, Our Chaos, Cho employs figures that she created by making her own armatures. “Some are made with wire constructions and some are hacked up old dolls,” she explains. She then shoots these dolls against backdrops using a digital video camera and a stop-motion application called Framethief, capturing images directly onto Macintosh hard drive. The still frames are then converted into Quicktime movies. Cho says that she’s experimented with film using a Super 8 camera, but disliked the results. “It wasn’t working for me aesthetically,” she says. “It looked a lot like Gumby. With digital video, I can capture more detail and color.”
The result of Cho’s hybrid mix of old-fashioned animation techniques and the shimmering luster of digital video results in an entirely compelling look, one that perfectly underscores the timeless nature of her story in Our Cosmos, Our Chaos, which looks at issues of resistance against the backdrop of Korean history. Cho also used watercolor, documentary footage, paper cut-out animation, and archival photographs in this 26-minute film. Reflecting on her choice to continue using stop-motion animation in an era devoted to computers, Cho notes, “I believe your aesthetic reflects your politics, and there is no coincidence that stop motion thrives in places not dominated by a huge film industry. I think my attraction to this form is due in part to the fact that it doesn’t represent money and it’s the antithesis of technology. Technology is a very seductive power to some people, and while I use it, I don’t privilege it.”
Reflecting on her new project’s attention to Korea, issues of identity, and forms of subversion and resistance, Cho notes that Our Cosmos, Our Chaos has particular urgency. “In some ways, it is related to the recent events with 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan—because my piece deals with war and suffering, I see it as fully relevant in how to use the experience of suffering to empower people right now.”
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