A Conversation with James Kerr AKA Scorpion Dagger
By Kevin Titzer
James Kerr is a busy man.
In addition to keeping up with his very funny and prolific blog Scorpion Dagger, James has collaborated on flip book machines, created News Toons for Vice and is now dipping his toe into augmented reality. He may have a few more things in the wings, but he’s not telling yet. I caught up with the Montreal based artist to talk about the world of Gif’s, creativity, and his new Kickstarter venture: Scorpion Dagger - Augmented art book by James Kerr
So James are your from Montreal originally?
Yup. Born and raised.
I’ve always felt Montreal was a very interesting place and I always enjoy spending time there.
It has a unique blend of Anglophone and Francophone influences and history. The Winter is usually pretty intense. Has this influenced you and your work?
It’s hard to say, because I haven’t really lived anywhere else for too long, but one thing that I love about Montreal is that you don’t need to bust your ass working 2 full-time jobs to barely eke by. It’s not a money driven city, and for that reason it tends to create and attract a lot of artists from all over the place. Housing is cheap, there’s a great music scene, the culture is rich, and the people are generally pretty great. People tend to enjoy life a little more here than other places, and that most definitely has to do with the French culture. It all sounds really nice, but there’s also that 5 to 6 months of hell that is winter.
I started making GIFs in March (2012) after a long winter where I wasn’t working or doing much else — I was pretty much losing my mind sitting at home all day, and dying to figure out something new to do. Quite honestly, if it wasn’t for winter, I probably wouldn’t be making the GIFs. The winters here (as you know) can be pretty harsh, and people tend to hole up a hole bunch more. It’s kinda crazy how the city explodes in the summer; there’s almost too much to do.
Gif’s have been slowly evolving past dancing cats and loops of Hollywood movie clips. Lot’s of people even advocate they should be treated more as fine art as well as be presented in galleries. Do you ever think about any of that?
I get asked this all the time, and never really have a good answer. I try not to over-think anything I do artistically, and hope to let things fall where they may. Part of my original intention with what I’m doing up on Scorpion Dagger was to try and make a GIF more-or-less everyday for a year, and then see if a gallery would be interested in exhibiting them all. So, I guess I’ve always had the idea that they could be considered as fine art, but never really to the extent that opportunities are presenting themselves now.
Around the time Douglas Adams was finishing a CD-Rom project called Starship Titanic, he was asked if he had any fears about this project not being seen as art as opposed to his books.
He said “I get very worried about this idea of art. The idea of art kills creativity. That was one of the reasons I really wanted to go and do a CD-ROM: because nobody will take it seriously, and therefore you can sneak under the fence with lots of good stuff.” He goes on to say ”I think media are at their most interesting before anybody’s thought of calling them art, when people still think they’re just a load of junk.”
I really like this idea. He was playing with new technology at the time and I can see parallels with the path GIF’s have been on. When anything gets formally recognized as art, some times it also gets rigidly defined. The elements that made it exciting and innovative to begin with can run the risk of getting squeezed out of it. I wonder if Gif’s even need to be “legitimate” art right now when their possibilities are still being explored. It would be a shame to trade off all of that freedom just for a sense of respectability.
I tend to agree with that sentiment, and I think it’s mostly true. Things are way more interesting and exciting when they’re new and their potential are still being explored. I find that a lot of institutions are only interested in exhibiting and promoting safe, sale-able art. I get why, but think it would be great if they made some space to promote and explore new and innovative art. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely galleries out there doing exactly, but overall I just wish it was part of the culture. I think it was Jake Chapman who said that galleries should host shows that only one person would go to. This may seem like a weird statement, but there needs to be support for unpopular, or even ‘bad’ art — I guess that’s what the internet is for. In all seriousness, the internet is definitely helping foster and develop new ways of making and looking at art, and is also challenging the status quo, and that’s where you are now seeing a lot interesting things happening.
It seems you use a very specific art history era for your source material. Was that something that just happened organically? It really gives your Gif’s a great visual consistency and recognizable at first glance as your work.
It was definitely an organic shift. At first, I was using images from my portfolio, and mixing them with stuff I would grab from places like the Library of Congress or wherever, but I was never really totally satisfied with what I was doing. I was literally spending hours doing image searches to find stuff to collage out for a GIF, and kept coming across these early renaissance paintings. The more I started to use them, the more I fell in love with them and thought how great they were to get these little ideas I had floating around in head out. I’d like to think that I’m still open to moving on to some other style, but I’m still really in love with these paintings.
I think it’s really impressive how well your able to blend this era of art history so well with all of the pop culture references and imagery you also use. I would imagine it’s very challenging finding that balance. Is it something you even think about during the process or am I just really over thinking this whole thing?
Haha, I don’t really think about it too too much. I mean, I’m definitely trying to play out certain critiques that I have, and there is actually a fair amount of thought that goes into some of them. But, one thing I’ve always said to myself is to keep it honest, and make whatever I feel like, even if at times it’s not so serious and kinda dumb. I try to post everything I make,even if I don’t really like it. The part of the process that is the most important to me is that it shouldn’t matter whether I always love the art that I make, it’s just important that I make it. There are a ton GIFs up on my site that I would love to take down and do over, but I won’t because it’s part of that process that I like to share with people.
When did you start making Gif’s? Is it correct you started them as a challenge for yourself?
I started making GIFs in March 2012, and one of reasons why I started making them, aside from teaching myself how to animate, was that I really wanted to get a project going that would challenge me to make something everyday. I can get pretty lazy if I don’t have a deadline, so the idea of having to make something everyday really spoke to me. At first I was worried that I’d get real sick of it real fast, but the opposite actually happened — I really feel in love with making them and craved doing it.
Your work pops up on Vice from time to time. How did you get involved with them? They seem like they’d been very interesting people to work with.
I have a few friends that work there, but I’m pretty sure it was my friend Nina that forced them to commission me to do some work. There’s a lot of great stuff coming out of there these days, and I’m pretty excited whenever they ask me to do something. Have you seen that issue they put out a while ago on the Sudan? It’s pretty epic.
Montreal has movie production and gaming companies based there. Have you ever thought about dipping your toe into either of those industries?
It would be so much fun to work on a game. I’ve spoke about it with a few people in the past, but my problem is that I can’t really come up with a good concept. Well, actually, the problem is not coming up with a concept, but more the fact that I can’t stick to one. I think my mind works great when it’s in brainstorming mode, but actually bearing down and working on something for a while is quite different. That’s one thing I really love with the GIFs — everyday it’s a brand new idea that I get to explore. I get asked about if ever I’d make a movie or something, but I can’t really see myself being able to concentrate long enough to get past the first 5 minutes. Funny thing is, I actually grabbed a self-help type book the other day to help me with this.
It seems like Gif’s are currently in a grey area where people are trying to figure out how to fit them into a more traditional mode of displaying art. Which may have more to do with also trying to monetize them.
To me, a more organic way to publicly present Gif’s might be found in some form of video installation or even projection mapping. How do you see things developing and is presenting your work outside of a computer something you’ve been exploring? I know you collaborated with a company making flip book machines. It would be interesting seeing a whole room of those. A bit like an old penny arcade.
I’ve been exploring a lot of different things, but nothing has really stuck. I absolutely love the Giphoscope (flip book machines) http://www.giphoscope.com/, and would love for someone to help me get a show together where we fill the room with them. Those guys are all about the GIF, and have done tons to support it.
I’m also working on some Augmented Reality projects. One that I’m really exited about is a book of my art I’m hoping to make with Anteism. It presents itself much like a traditional art book, but with the help of an app, you can trigger the pages to come alive on your device. We have a Kickstarter up right now and hope that people check it out.
To support James Kerr’s newest project, please visit the Scorpion Dagger Kickstarter page:
Swing by www.scorpiondagger.com for his very funny Gif’s.
And if that’s not enough for you, here are two great long form videos:
MOZF Music fest promo:
Vice News Toons: