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Damon Locks on New Projects Involving Animation, Prison Art and the Music of Sun Ra

A still from Freedom/Time

Damon Locks is a visual artist and musician based out of Chicago. Throughout his career he has consistently found exciting and original ways in which to incorporate both visual and audio elements into his work, to collaborate, and to find a range of communities and venues within which to work. In two recent projects, New Moons for the Experimental Sound Studio and Freedom/Time, Locks uses animation to address unheard music from the Sun Ra archive and to work with inmates at Stateville Correctional Center, respectively. I sat down with Locks to talk about both projects.

Filmmaker: I want to talk first about your work with the Sun Ra archive and then how it led into the work you decided to do with the incarcerated artists.

Locks: The Experimental Sound Studio has an archive of all this unheard Sun Ra material, and they were asking people to artistically respond to it. I was asked to respond to the archive as a visual artist. Writer/artist Terri Kapsalis was also asked to respond, and she asked if I would be interested in collaborating on something. and we decided that we were going to do some kind of recording. In doing so I asked my musical partner in crime, Wayne Montana, to participate as well and then as we began developing this long sound piece. I had the idea that maybe someone would be crazy enough to want to animate the whole piece so I contacted Rob Shaw, who I had met and vibed with but never worked with. I sent him this project – I think at the time it was like 17 minutes long, and I said, “Hey, there’s not a lot of money in this – would you be interested in animating the whole thing?” And he was like, “Yeah.” And he basically nailed it. It became this really wonderful project that all the people involved with were super happy with, so I wanted to work with Rob again because his vision and my vision complimented each other and he’s got a great eye.

Filmmaker: And this was the first time that you had worked with an animator?

Locks: Yes.

Filmmaker: Okay, so can you tell me about the origins of Freedom/Time?

Locks: I do my own work and a bunch of design work, and over the years of doing design work I decided that I would start to focus more on work that I found was important to me or socially engaged, things that I felt strongly about. This led me to working with the Center for Urban Pedagogy in New York on a project called The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The woman who runs The Center For Urban Pedagogy, Christine Gaspar, introduced me to Heather Radke from The Jane Addams Hull House Museum.

The Hull House had an exhibit that centered around domestic work called “Unfinished Business: 21st Century Home Economics.” Christine thought that it would be good if Heather and I met. This lead to Heather asking me if I’d be interested in participating in the next exhibition that she was curating. Her idea was for me to be an artist in residence as a part of the Prisons and Neighborhood Arts Project, which is run by Sarah Ross – so over a semester I would orchestrate a project with some of the themes of the exhibit. I agreed to do that. I wanted to work with animation again.

Filmmaker: What made you settle on animation, since you aren’t an animator?

Locks: I’m not an animator, yeah. There were a lot of limitations on what kind of materials you could use in Stateville, in Joliette, which is a maximum security prison. So, given the limitations, I was like: how do I make the most dynamic, exciting project that I can think of with limited materials? I called up Rob Shaw, who I had enjoyed working with on the New Moons project. “I think I want to do an animation project, would you be interested in working with me? How can I make this happen?” And he said, “pencil and tracing paper.” So we came up with the parameters of using pencil, tracing paper, and each artist doing a hundred frames of drawing. So, I pitched that to Heather and Sarah and they were both super excited about it, so the only hurdles I had to face then were that I had never taught, I had never animated, and I had never been in a maximum security prison! (laughs).

Filmmaker: Little tiny hurdles. Okay, so those are your challenges – can you talk about your first experience of going into the prison and meeting the students, and then talk about how you learned to teach something that you yourself were figuring out how to do?

Locks: I had visited once the semester before just so I could see what was happening. I did an artist talk, and I told them what the project was going to be, so that was helpful. I was able to break the ice with them. Working with this population there was the challenge of stepping into a prison. There’s an intimidation factor — the whole prison system is intimidating. There’s an unknown factor. And then for me: “How do I teach?” was the most important thing to figure out. How do I get my message across? How do I interact, you know? Like I’m not the dude that’s going to write my name on the chalkboard and underline it and be like, “Hi, my name is Mister Locks.” I think the most crucial part was to form relationships with the incarcerated artists so that they could come out with some really strong work.

Filmmaker: So what was the actual process? You’re asking them each to do 100 frames – can you explain the actual animation process?

Locks: “Unfinished Business: The Right To Play” was the name of the exhibit. It was about labor, time, and play – these were the ideas behind the exhibit. I knew that they had done a project the semester before that had to do with timelines and how they spend their days, but I decided that I would have them write about freedom, time, and play. I had them write about their feelings about those things. We worked together, and I read the pieces, and I thought, well, how can we articulate this paragraph? How can we transpose that into a 100-frame animation piece? What would that look like?

For example one person who had been in for a really long time thought that time was fear of death, the people that passed while he was in prison, and the idea of him getting older in prison. What would that look like as a hundred frame vignette? He was like, “Okay, well, I could draw a person in a city, and he gets older and ends up in a graveyard.” And I was like, “Let’s do that.” So, working with each of the incarcerated artists with their vignettes and trying to figure out what the arc of the story line was. My job basically was also to make sure it made sense for 100 frames. I thought that animation was a fantastic way of exploring the idea of time because you have to spend a lot of time doing a hundred frames, and it only comes out to be ten seconds. It seems like you have a lot of space to work with, and originally several of the guys had these detailed storylines that they wanted to express, because if you have a hundred frames it seems like you could express it, but you can’t really do that much in ten seconds.

So as well as trying to help people with the demands of articulating their story, I also had to help them parcel out the movements of the images. I had to say, “If frame one is going to be here, and frame 100 is going to be here, what’s going to happen on frame 25, frame 50, frame 75?”

That actually kind of came naturally to me. I could easily see, “Oh, that’s moving too fast, you need to put more frames between this activity and this activity.”

Filmmaker: How many students were participating?

Locks: It ended up being eleven.

Filmmaker: And so then you have 11 100-frame pieces and you take them to Rob?

Locks: I had mailed them to Rob because he’s in Portland. He digitized all the images by photographing them, and then I also chose to take the excerpts from their writings that began the pieces. We wrote about freedom, time and play, but no one really chose play as a storyline to work with so it became freedom and time. Yeah – I picked excerpts from their writing to precede each of their vignettes to give context.

Filmmaker: And you composed music.

Locks: Yeah. I wrote the music for it. I thought the kalimba would be a good instrument to use because it is metal bars. So, I sent that to Rob.

Freedom/Time from Rob Shaw on Vimeo.

Filmmaker: So, some of these students had never done any kind of drawing before?

Locks: The artists applied to be in this class. It’s an art class, so everyone came with some interest in art. The class ranged from people that were really good to people that didn’t have a lot of experience drawing. Animation is perfect because if you can draw a stick figure you can do animation. Some of the people were apprehensive because of their skills, but I let them know that it’s the intention that they are putting behind their story which is really going to propel the animation. And I found that to be true.

Filmmaker: The pieces are truly amazing and – do you want to talk about some of them – what they thought up?

Locks: I found people’s different approaches fascinating. I enjoyed one where time is picked up by a trash company and they process and recycle time and make bars out of time, and then the bars end up being the bars of the prison. I thought that was super heavy, and on top of that, that one had a lot of storytelling and movement within ten seconds — different camera angles and everything. That was pretty fascinating, and that artist was one of the guys who had been most insecure about his drawing talents. But his piece came out fantastic. It’s kind of a poignant piece that begins with hands in chains. The chains are broken and from the first-person perspective, the protagonist runs across a field and then flies into the sky, escaping into outer space only to encounter aliens who put him back into chains. I was fascinated by how organized he was in laying out his whole project – he had it all laid out, he was drawing the hands, the perspective of the horizon coming – the way people engaged in the process was fascinating.

Filmmaker: I love that one. Actually, I love all of them.

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