Nancy Andrews is an animator of wonderful films that explore perception and consciousness through bird-woman cyborgs, space monkeys, and spiders with faces that are equally inspired by the physiology of insects, the intersection of nature and technology, and her own brush with death. She just premiered a new short film at REDCAT at a screening of two of her latest animations, “Behind the Eyes Are the Ears” and “On a Phantom Limb.” She speaks now from the coast of Maine about her early days making earrings out of photos of slabs of beef, what she learned from floating between life and death, and why she wants to be friends with a crow. This interview by Lainna Fader.
“On a Phantom Limb” brings us into your near-death experience during surgery, with black paper ripped away to reveal the words, “I thought I’d died” scrawled under. I read something online about your brush with what-lies-beyond, and I was wondering what you felt when you “thought you’d died.” Were you scared?
It was like a great party. I felt incredibly drunk without any of the bad side effects, I was floating around the room looking into people’s faces and I felt connected to everyone.
But you weren’t afraid when you thought you were dead?
No, I felt great. It was a great party, and I felt totally drunk. The overall experience was horrible, but that particular feeling was fantastic. I had to use my imagination to understand what it is. I have to either base it on—’I’ve heard that sound before, it is this.’ Or ‘I haven’t heard that sound before,’ and then you try to work out what it is. At some point you start adding in what you already know with what you don’t know and a lot of things we just ignore because we know already what it is. Whenever you’re in a less certain situation, you have to participate in reading your environment.
Do you believe that during those moments when the difference between life and death are at their most arbitrary, there’s a vision of truth unavailable elsewhere?
I think life and death are always arbitrary. We think we control such things, or someone controls such things, but I don’t know, it might all me dumb luck or no luck.
What do you know about reality that the rest of us don’t, having little or no experience floating between life and death?
Reality, I think, is less stable than we like to believe. Not only is it incredibly subjective—we might agree on certain things but we probably see most things differently, through our own lens of experience and sensory focuses, but also after hallucinating a lot and believing those hallucinations to be true, I realize there is almost no way to prove the reality of any moment … how do we know that we are not dreaming? Or in a hallucination right now?
You’ve said “Monkeys and Lumps” is about our relationship to the unknown. What is your relationship to the unknowable? How does it make you feel to not be able to know something?
I think it would be incredibly boring to think you knew everything. And it’s one of those—I’m interested in science and what we can learn from it but I’m also very suspicious of that as a steady diet and not recognizing that there are other ways of knowing and not know. I guess I love mystery—life without mystery is boring. I don’t want or need to know everything about the unknown but I like to think about what we don’t know, and all the assumptions. We live in a society where you can Google almost anything and therefore we can know everything. But the fact is there’s an awful lot we don’t know. We know very little bit about what’s in the ocean, for example.
Why are people more interested in looking to outer space as an alternate place to live instead of looking into the sea?
It’s a sense of adventure, I guess, that people wanna go somewhere where they think can hold promise, whether it’s going to California in the westward movement or exploring the arctic regions or the Europeans exploring Africa when they didn’t know what was there. I think we tend to think of the ocean as known but I don’t think it is known and I just think people think of space as maybe somewhere they could live in a comfortable way. I don’t think people think of living underwater as being very comfortable.
Where would you rather live?
I love where I live right now.
Hey! If you had to choose between going into space or going into the ocean.
Oh my god. It’s a nightmare, I think. I’m kind of exploring it a little in this new comic book I’m working on. The moon, I guess. The moon—that’s the current subject for me.
What made you begin to make films?
I became interested in Super 8 when I was a kid. My father would document family events—holidays, birthdays. I saw movies when I was 11 and 12 years old—Charlie Chaplin on PBS—and my 5th grade teacher in Thousand Oaks, Mr. Grossman, was a huge influence. He brought films and theater into the classroom as part of our studies and as a treat. Mr. Grossman was friends with Larry from the Three Stooges and I think he was also friends with the Marx Bros. At that time these gentlemen were getting quite old. We made Larry hand-puppets with paper-maché heads, and my teacher brought Larry to class. Larry was in a wheelchair. I have a picture of us together. We also watched cartoons. In college I was a photo major. This was in the original punk and new wave eras of the late 1970s. I went for a junior year in England in a pretty conservative school in the post-Ansel Adams era when beautiful pictures of the moors were considered the only way for fine art photography. I was taking pictures of sides of beef hanging at the market and making earrings from the photos that I cut out. I also made a jump suit with clear pockets for pictures related to plastic surgery. My teachers were not so impressed. For my senior project I did a series of pictures that I took before and after my open heart surgery. Again, teachers not so impressed—except for Ann Fessler, who was very supportive and a big influence at the time.
What films inspire you?
There are so many films that inspire me. My favorite era is probably the 1930s. People were just figuring out the genre thing and transitioning from silent to sound and from theater and vaudeville to film—there are so many fun, funny, great films in that decade. Also, I love Georges Melies, Alfred Hitchcock, Agnes Varda, John Waters, Yuri Norstein, Jan Svankmajer, Looney Tunes Cartoons, and Fleischer Bros. animations, and film noir.
What are you interested in outside of the art world?
Books, things I observe in nature, neurology, mysteries of psychic phenomenon, history, outer space, new technologies that interface with humans. I love music, so many artists—Stevie Wonder, Sergio Mendez and Brasil ‘66, Janelle Monae, Staple Singers, Al Green, Herb Alpert, soul music/gospel, Michel Legrand, Jackson 5, the Carpenters, Linda Smith, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Adelle, Gnarles Barkley, Carl Stalling, Nino Rota, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, John Cage, Pierre Henry.
A computer just beat two champions at jeopardy. What do you think or hope will happen when computers gain the power of creative thought?
I’m not convinced that that’s ever going to happen. I don’t think computers will ever really be able to be artists and have a mind to be creative. I think people would like to think that, but I don’t see that ever happen. Computers can do all kinds of things, but gaining the power of creative thought? I’m not so convinced.
What was your most memorable encounter with a spider like?
My brother collected a huge tarantula on a picnic when we lived in California. He brought it home in a tupperware container and released it in the backyard, I was terrified to go in the backyard—for weeks I thought it was out there waiting for me.
What is your attraction to birds? What’s your favorite bird and why?
Birds became an important image to me after the ICU. I saw them as a go-between of earth and heaven and perhaps life and death. The crow has long been a symbol of death, and birds had spiritual significance in Egyptian art, and in Christian art they often carry banners that direct us to other worlds and to heaven. We have a group of crows near our house, and I am interested in animals that live close with humans, animals that we barely take note of because they are just there, but I would love to have a crow as a friend, but it hasn’t happened yet.
SEE “THE BIRDWOMAN AND HER DREAMS: ANIMATED WORKS BY NANCY ANDREWS” PROGRAM AT REDCAT ON TUES., MARCH 8. NANCY ANDREWS’ “ON A PHANTOM LIMB” AND THE IMA PLUME TRILOGY IS AVAILABLE ON DVD AT NANCYANDREWS.NET. VISIT NANCY ANDREWS AT NANCYANDREWS.NET.