Karen Rosenberg reviews the work of professional flip-book-maker Ruth Hayes.
These days the flip book is generally considered kiddie fare, if it is considered at all. What’s a flip book? Well, the Germans call it Daumenkino, thumb cinema, because it’s a form of animation: a series of sequential images on a bound stack of paper seems to move when you riffle the pages fast enough with your thumb. Its origins are obscure, but it was patented in 1868 and became popular at the end of the nineteenth century when various parlour toys with strange names like “zoetrope” and “phenakistascope”, based on the persistence of vision, were in fashion among adults as well as children. (When a rapid succession of still pictures passes before our eyes, our brain retains each image longer than it is actually seen. This creates the illusion that movement is perceived -hence the term “persistence of vision.
In this century, flip books have been used for instructional purposes -demonstrating how to play chords on a piano, how to improve your baseball strokes and soccer kicks and how do put on a condom. (Proud Pete, published by Population Dynamics in Seattle and apparently no longer in print, stars a penis with a smiling head who rolls a condom over himself, with visible effort.) I’ve seen flip books used on a commercially-produced birthday card and for advertising purposes. (Under advertising, I include a flip book with photos of Hitler delivering a speech I saw in a Berlin antique shop.) But, mostly, they’re a form of entertainment. Maybe you have come across the cheap paper prints of Disney sequences that are sold in flip book form at children’s museums. See what I mean about kiddie fare?
Alongside these flip books with few if any artistic pretension is the more recent genre of flip books by artists. That shouldn’t be surprising. After all, modern artists have often played with low genres in high art. Vaudeville and the circus entered theatre and painting at the end of the last century; advertising and pop romances were obviously Warhol’s number. The list could go on and on. Enterprising and ambitious avant-gardists are always on the look-out for forms that are considered trivial and unworthy, so they can shock audiences by using them in Significant Cultural Artefact. While safe artists concern themselves with already-canonised trash, risk-takers are often rewarded with controversy and even negative publicity is a form of fame.
Flip book artists have received a modest amount of recognition in avant-garde circles. Their works are sold at stores (like Printed Matter on Wooster St. in lower Manhattan) which specialise in artists’ books and at major animation festivals. But precious few critics of film or art in academia and journalism have devoted their time to the flip book. One thing I like about animators is that they haven’t let this lack of critical attention stop them from collecting each other’s flip books and from developing the genre. Since the 1950s, when Robert Breer started drawing abstract shapes on plastic or index-cards and making them move, artists have used flip books to create metamorphoses or perspective shifts. The 1980s saw a movement towards flip books with ideas, if not explicit messages. The Real Comet Press in Seattle, a small publisher, put out George Griffin’s Urban Renewal (1989), a critique of yuppies and the gentrification they engender, and Ken Brown’s Adam and Evolution (1989), a sombre look at the Garden in the nuclear age. Transformations – that favourite device of flip book animators is put to political effect in works like these. Part of their punch lies in the contrast between the big social issue and the ostensibly trivial form.
Since the 1970s, women like Joanna Priestly, Kathy Rose and Lisa Crafts have produced flip books, sometimes for sale, sometimes as studies for their animated films. And it’s a woman, Ruth Hayes, who with twelve titles in print has become the foremost in the USA and perhaps in the world. Considering the fact that women often find it hard to get taken seriously, it still takes guts for women artists to expend their energy on a genre like the flip book that also doesn’t get taken seriously. Artists (and others) who are insecure about their status in the social hierarchy are more likely to be reluctant to admit an attraction to lower-class kitsch, for fear or being considered lower class or kitschy. I consider it a mark of American women’s recent successes that they dare to deviate from the kosher career choices. It requires a kind of class confidence to delve into the world of childishness or déclassé junk.