By Yomi Braester
In this essay I hope to provoke scholars of animation into considering the role of time, both cinematic time and historical time. Like other genres of the moving image, animation often has at its core the disappearance of the image — an anticipated, even planned obsolescence. I examine here works exhibited as lightshows on the Hong Kong’s International Commerce Centre (ICC) façade between 2014–2016; these animations point explicitly toward the moment when the medium degrades and even vanishes.
Film relies on the ephemerality of perception, as images succeed each other, 24 times per second or even faster. The transition from one frame to the next is what allows for animation — designing one frame at a time, and animating the image by showing the frames in sequence. In this sense, animation is bound to the scale of the frame. However, we may also think at other magnitudes. At the size of an entire work, what matters is the speed with which the film hurtles toward its inevitable end — and possibly toward an afterlife in remediated and redistributed forms. In blown-up displays, in which the single pixel is visible to the viewer, the image expires also at the resolution of the pixel, many times within each frame. More than we have acknowledged, animation works pay attention to the possibilities opened up by calibrating these proportions up and down.
To give a sense of how animation may convey the ephemerality of the medium, I turn to Fly High — Time Flies. This 6-minute-and-40-second-long work was designed by Laurent Mignonneau and Christa Sommerer, and exhibited over the ICC Tower in 2016. The artists describe the piece as follows:
Our times are characterized by transience, impermanence and change. The computer-generated sequence Fly High — Time Flies is composed of a swarm of artificial flies. They slowly appear, propagate and gradually invade the whole ICC Tower, before flying away again. Short swarming sequences and text messages with various plays on words around the terms fly, flies, may, sky, high, times, and life will appear. These messages remind us of the ephemeral moment. Just like a mayfly, they symbolize time passing by.
Fly High — Time Flies matches content with form. The artwork conveys the passing of time by using the unique specifications of the ICC façade — a monochrome display with a very low resolution. From top to bottom, there are only 140 lines of LEDs, positioned roughly 4 meters apart. Each pixel is an LED screen a few inches wide. The full display is equivalent to 359×783 pixels. Fly High — Time Flies represents each fly by one or two pixels, resulting in an animation that borders on a nonfigurative display. The resolution becomes even lower — encompassing the whole façade — when the flies swarm in and out, at times lighting almost the entire building, or alternatively leaving it darkened against the night sky. Fly High — Time Flies brings to the surface the medium — the digital pixel and the building façade — reducing the animation to light and dark, existence and disappearance (see the video below).
Another game of shadows is found in City Paths 城市軌跡, by Chung Ka Hei, Pan Shihang, and Dorothy Ka Chung Wong (2016). City Paths effectively creates the illusion that the ICC Tower is pulsating and gyrating. Urban screens have often aimed at this effect of “liquid architecture,” which Nanna Verhoeff describes as an “almost literal blending of material and virtual spaces.” The creators of City Paths state that the geometric lines and flows reflect the pulsating energy of Hong Kong. The animation alludes to the fleeting nature of urban life by relying on a trompe-l’œil that suggests the disappearance of both architecture and medium.
These two quick examples demonstrate how animation may foreground the material conditions of their existence and at the same time point out their precarity. Paola Voci claims that recent animation returns to the early Chinese conception of film as “electric shadows,” engag[ing] with the digital medium but reclaim[ing] the same de-technologized human dexterity, tangible materiality.” In other words, animation preserves a proximity to its material means of production. For Voci, animation is therefore a more tactile, embodied form of cinema. However, Fly High — Time Flies and City Paths show that animation can also signal a radical departure from concrete space and time. The cinematic screen — even if it’s one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world — can melt into the air, and with it the cinematic image.
The figures of vanishing, obsolescence, and death in cinema have been foregrounded by the transition to digital and “new” media. Laura Mulvey has noted in Death 24 Times a Second that with the advent of video in the late 1970s, and even more so with digital technology, the viewing experience often relies on watching frozen and repeated images. Mulvey writes:
As the new stillness is enhanced by the weight that the cinema’s past has acquired with the passing time, its significance goes beyond the image itself towards the problem of time, its passing, and how it is represented or preserved. At a time when new technologies seem to hurry ideas and their representations at full tilt towards the future, to stop and to reflect on the cinema and its history also offers the opportunity to think about how time might be understood within wider, contested, patterns of history and mythology.
Mulvey does not give thought to animation; in fact, she defines all cinema as “the mechanical animation of the inanimate.” And yet, Mulvey’s comments are especially relevant for animation. She suggests that the expiration of the single frame also translates into the obsolescence of the image as a historical index and a sign of the history of the cinematic medium. Focusing on the frame as the basic cinematic building brick portends the death of the image, in the material and media-historical senses.
The ICC lightshows drive home the connection between the digital apparatus and the passing of time. As I have noted, the content of these animations cannot be separated from the medium — that is, the façade of ICC, a 118-storey, 484-meter-tall building in West Kowloon. The entire building serves as a giant screen, with Hong Kong as an open-air theater for the spectacle. ICC’s height and location near the waterfront make it visible around town and across the bay. ICC is not only Hong Kong’s most prominent piece of architecture, but also the city government’s flagship platform for urban art, as part of branding the city.
Soon after its completion in 2010, a collaboration was established in 2012 between the City University of Hong Kong, ICC, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, and in 2016 also with the International Symposium on Electronic Art. The resulting Open Sky Project was helmed by Maurice Benayoun, a CUHK professor and renowned new media artist. The so-called Open Sky Gallery exhibited short works designed for the ICC façade in three annual rounds, between 2014 and 2016. Fly High — Time Flies and City Paths were part of the third Open Sky Project, showing between May 20 and July 4, 2016.
The Open Sky Project was carefully curated so as to integrate animation design and Hong Kong’s environment. The requirements for submissions stated that the design should convey texture and depth on the monochromatic display, and that the artists should consider “the rhythm of the movement across the screen [since] static images or text aren’t as suitable due to the low display resolution.” The project encompassed dozens of works, based on all possible techniques — from hand-drawn animation, to computer graphics, and to photographed videos. In addition to the aforementioned Fly High — Time Flies and City Paths, notable works included animations that address directly the idea of temporal crisis. For example, Dance with Time by Zhao Qian and Charlotte Greenblatt, which took part in the 2014 Open Sky Project, depicted an acrobat dangling off a giant clock-balloon. The artists explained: “Time is eternal, and therefore the speed of time is relative. The rhythm of urban people’s life accelerates the speed, flies as fleeting. This is especially true in metropolis like Hong Kong, and even the clouds are in the rapid flow.” Whereas Fly High — Time Flies, designed by European artists, simply draws attention to the resonance between the architecture and the animation, Dance with Time refers more specifically to Hong Kong.
The most prominent works addressing the passing of time followed in the footsteps of the Open Sky Project, but were not part of it. First, Art Basel Hong Kong, an annual for-profit art fair, commissioned Cao’s 5-minute-long Same Old, Brand New, which showed on March 13–17, 2015. Cao Fei integrates into her work the primitive animations of the early arcade and video games Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Tetris. In a forthcoming essay in The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Digital Media, I place the ICC animations and Cao Fei’s work in particular in the context of digital urbanism. I note how replicating landmark harbingers of interactive animation offers a media-archeological glossary on the interconnected evolution of the built environment and digital images. Cao Fei deploys the change in size of video games such as Pac-man from an arcade game, to a smartphone app, and to a building-size lightshow, to comment on how the city acts as a mediating interface (see the video below).
Cao Fei foregrounds the trope of the video game by beginning and ending her animation with messages — first “ARE YOU READY?” and last “GAME OVER. TO BE CONTINUED.” The “game over” moment is a unique feature of video games, marking the temporal limits of the game and at the same time offering the opportunity for a reset. The messages included in Same Old, Brand New designate the limited time during which the ICC building is under the spell of digital mediation, after which both architecture and animation are going to disappear into the dark night.
The “game over” trope is of particular relevance to Hong Kong’s spacetime. Ackbar Abbas has famously argued that Hong Kong has developed a “culture of disappearance” since 1984, due to its impending change of status and submission to PRC control. In response, citizens produced what Helen Grace calls “spectral monumentality,” ephemeral memorials to life in Hong Kong in photographs and videos uploaded online. Grace notes that the low-resolution look of those YouTube clips (limited by the technology of the 2010s) made each video become a quotation or remediation of some purported record. The artworks on the ICC façade may be understood as another form of Hong Kong ephemera: displays limited to a few minutes, exhibited only a few nights before the building went black. The only traces left behind are the recordings still available on YouTube and Vimeo. The contrast between the monumental scale of ICC and the temporary nature of the lightshow is an apt metaphor for Hong Kong’s precarity.
In 2016, a year after Cao Fei’s animation showed on ICC, Art Basel commissioned another work, Tatsuo Miyajima’s Time Waterfall. The animation consists of digits, shaped like a seven-segment LED clock display, cascading down the façade. Each digit transforms in a countdown from nine to one (see the video below). Miyajima explains: “These numbers symbolize the lives of people… This cycle of life and death continues… Time Waterfall exists to allow us to think about the fact that we are living now. Hong Kong is an energetic city where life overflows. This is why the piece is being shown here.” Miyajima links the countdown to a Buddhist message about the ephemerality of life, but it is hard to ignore the geopolitical significance of the countdown in the context of Hong Kong. Any display of time ticking toward zeroing the clock may resonate with the Hong Kong Clock that was placed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1986 — a giant digital display that showed a countdown toward Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. Similarly, the ICC façade may establish a public temporality and a common historical reference.
Although the ICC lightshows repeatedly referred to Hong Kong’s identity, they kept away from politically sensitive issues. After all, the Open Sky Project and Art Basel enjoyed corporate and government sponsorship. As soon as an animation did introduce the historical implications of the passing of time, the ICC lightshow was curtailed, and the Open Sky project terminated.
In May–June 2016, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council organized “Human Vibrations,” the fifth iteration of its Large-Scale Public Media Art Exhibition. One of the works was Our 60-Second Friendship Begins Now, later renamed Countdown Machine (Sampson Wong and Jason Lam), designed for the ICC façade (see the video clip below). Nine minutes long, Countdown Machine builds up a repetitive structure. It starts with a tribute to a Hong Kong cinematic milestone and ends with a twist that drives home the political meaning of keeping time. The title refers to a pick-up line in Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild 阿飛正傳, of 1990. In this famous scene, played by Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung, a man (Yuddy) convinces a woman (So Lai-chun) to look at a watch together for a minute, after which he declares that they have now been friends for that long. The ICC lightshow quotes the film, in Chinese and English: “Our 60-second friendship begins now. I will remember this minute. You can’t change this fact.” Wong Kar-wai’s films often refer to the creation of memories for future reference, a theme that Ackbar Abbas has linked to the Hong Kong’s “culture of disappearance.” The 2016 animation Countdown Machine builds on this trope to comment on both politics and mediality.
As in Wong Kar-wai’s films, the mention of time running out in Hong Kong is inevitably both an existentialist and a political statement. The lines from Days of Being Wild are repeated multiple times, interspersed with 1-minute animated countdowns. The last minute of Countdown Machine shows enigmatic numbers, which the artists later explained as indicating the seconds left until July 1, 2047, when the “one country, two systems” structure would give way to Hong Kong’s dissolution into the PRC. As an implied mourning of Hong Kong’s disappearance into memory, Countdown Machine became the focus of controversy, which brought to an end the Open Sky Project. In this case, the anticipated expiration of the image coincided with literally taking the image off ICC.
I started this essay by asking, to what media resolution is animation tied? The frame, the pixel, or the entire video? Equally important, however, is the distinction between medial time and historical time — and the understanding that this distinction is bound to fail. I have left open the question, is animation especially equipped to address the link between medial time and historical time? The discourse on animation has taken different directions: there is a strong tendency to discuss animation as the craft of the single frame, thereby pushing aside historical time; there is wide recognition that animation can easily break the barriers of reality and present fantastic temporalities; animators and scholars also identify cultural and national characteristics of Chinese animation. The current essay is intended as an exhortation to put these approaches together and further explore the relation between animation and the death of the image.
 “Fly High Time Flies,” <http://www.interface.ufg.ac.at/christa-laurent/WORKS/artworks/FlyHigh-TimeFlies/FlyHighTimeFlies.html>, accessed May 23, 2023.
 Nanna Verhoeff, Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), 24.
 Paola Voci, “Electric Shadows Reloaded: The Post-digital Animateur, Shadow Play and Handmade Cinema,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 11, no. 3 (2017): 192–209.
 Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006), 22–23.
 Ibid., 11.
 <https://benayoun.com/opensky/open-sky-campus/open-sky-campus-detail.html>, accessed May 23, 2023.
 <https://benayoun.com/opensky/open-sky-campus/open-sky-campus-artworks/happy-hour/2014selectedworks.html>, accessed May 23, 2023.
 Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
 Helen Grace, “Monuments and the Face of Time: Distortions of Scale and Asynchrony in Postcolonial Hong Kong,” Postcolonial Studies 10, no. 4 (2007): 467–483.
 Lisa Park and Maurice Benayoun, “A Cautionary Tale of Urban Media Art: Media-Bait, Planned Censorship and its Repercussions,” Leonardo 53, no. 2 (January 2018): 135–144.
Yomi Braester is Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA, as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Beijing Film Academy. He is also the co-editor of Journal of Chinese Cinemas. Among his books are Witness Against History: Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth-Century China (2003) and Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Contract (2010), which won the Joseph Levenson Book Prize. Among his current book projects is Cinephilia Besieged: Viewing Communities and the Ethics of the Image in the People’s Republic of China, which is supported by a Guggenheim fellowship.