Perfectly Clear: Interview with Jessica Wilson
Jessica Wilson and Arieh Frosh discuss Perfectly Clear, a computer generated animation by Jessica that is playing 24/7 in Soho Photography Quarter from 6th November 2023 until 28th January 2024. Focusing on how the artist relates to processes and software in animation, they discuss intention and legibility across our screen-based interactions.
Let’s start by talking about how you made Perfectly Clear.
Perfectly Clear is a computer-generated animation. We see a hand from outside of a window. and throughout the 23 minutes, the hand tries to make the window clean by erasing grime, dust and residue.
The 3D model of the hand was made in an unconventional way. I work alone, so I often have to come up with roundabout solutions and techniques. Initially I tried to scan my own hand by crouching under the table and scanning it from above, but this didn’t work as my hand was shaking. So instead, I made a cast of my hand and then scanned the unmoving cast by taking hundreds of photos of it with my iPhone (photogrammetry). Then I used all those photos to make textures that were painted on afterwards using digital painting tools like Mari or Substance Painter.
The hand is animated using very rudimentary motion capture, which I did in my apartment. The motion capture is retargeted in a traditional process onto the scanned hand mesh. But what I've done differently, which I think makes the animation look particularly weird, is that I'm using a physics engine to animate the hand. I modelled the bones and fat underneath the skin mesh. There are points in the animation where you can see wrinkles in the hand because that's actually being simulated in the software.
It seems like there are a few different physics engines being used in the animation, for example there is also the moisture of the cleaning sprays that are distributed throughout, and the way that the liquid moves across the window glass.
Yes, there are so many particle simulations. I'm not a conventionally trained animator, so I've always used simulation as a primary tool for animation. There's sometimes a misconception that when you make animation that you are a kind of puppeteer. Whereas in reality, there are a lot of things that are happening because of certain conditions that I put into the software, and a lot of stuff is chance. I think this loss of control is important for an artist, not only because there are just too many decisions to make, but also because it can easily become uninteresting when the work is so overconstructed, or perfected.
It's interesting, because it's very carefully modelled chance as well.
One idea I wanted to talk to you about was that of ‘noise’, thinking about how the movement of particle simulations relates to the movement of noise, but also how the window in Perfectly Clear is obscured by sprays, liquid, noise, and how we often think of noise being an obscuring thing. Then in the animation, there are these moments of clarity where the noise is wiped away. Previously you have described how the hand is continually cleaning and aiming for clarity, but also simultaneously being obscured and obscuring itself.
Even coming from photography, there seems to always be this struggle with fidelity and resolution, or at least for me, as someone who cares about technical processes. Even when I was very young making photos, I would want to have the most fidelity in scanning them, with the best scanner I could get, with a certain dpi. There’s a comparison with CG in how long it takes to render a frame with some noise in it versus a sharp, clear image. There's always some sort of struggle, I think, when making these seemingly faithful or "realistic" images.
At the same time, something that feels important about the hand is that it’s working to make this surface clear to the point that you can see the reflection of the landscape outside the window, and also into the interior of the room. It is working against itself. There's something pathetic about it, in a way. This also relates to a desire for legibility in the processes that I use; a desire for a general public to read computer generated images differently.
I'm interested in how digital technology positions photos as data, where the discourse around indexicality shifts from what is captured to what is parsed in the metadata of the resulting file. I understand how computers use images in CGI by generating maps from quantities (for example, a greyscale 0-255) embedded in pixels. The maps determine whether this is going to be a bumpy surface, or this is going to be a glossy surface. One of the tricks that helped me make Perfectly Clear was that I could connect the movement of certain points on the hand mesh to those black and white bitmaps, and essentially make them black, which would be more transparent or glossy or however I determined it. There is something in that process that feels – metaphorically, but also materially – meaningful.
You’ve touched on one of the things that I found most striking when I first saw the film, which relied on an awareness of how involved the processes are in CG animation, in every stage through to rendering: that the film itself is a kind of durational film. Which doesn't normally happen. It's totally at odds with how we are able to use 3D software as an individual practitioners. What made you approach the film differently to how individual artists generally use the medium?
I knew that I wanted to make a film that was about a simple gesture, and I didn't want to make a narrative film or an essay film. I was inspired by the task-based performance videos of Bruce Nauman, or Joan Jonas, or Bas Jan Ader, where there's just a repetitive bodily movement yet also something strangely moving. I wanted to figure out how to do that with CGI, because, of course, the hand is like an avatar for the artist (me). At the same time, it's also just a file, and a symbol for different indexical processes and automated processes, perhaps. One of the things that I feel strongly about is using CGI a bit differently – even in my character-based work I want there to be an atmosphere and to have a haptic or somatic relationship to the images. I am not looking to remake things that are quite easily recognisable in, for example, Hollywood visual effects, which I would say are explosions, destruction. You know, I don't want to make tsunamis. I want to use those tools to subvert the process of looking at CGI. In art, CGI is often a tool for a poem or an essay. The time the work takes is part of that decision to try to do something a bit differently, or to turn the material back on itself and to pay attention to these ambient qualities.
That is something we contend with in using those programmes at all – Hollywood and gaming being the driver for their development and improvements, and where the research funding originates, and the setting for the initial digital labour. Then there’s the artist’s labour in trying to create on a smaller scale – working with, getting to know, and forming relationships with these computational processes. Then, in Perfectly Clear, there’s another layer of labour with the hand continually cleaning.
Yeah, it's true. Though I’m not totally interested in the question of my labour, because there are other times where I can make something quickly and easily and I'm also happy with it. I can get addicted to the working process, so yes, it takes a lot of time.
The film relates more to maintenance work or care, and in opposition to glass as a material in visual effects that usually shatters. The hand interacts with the glass in a careful and painstaking way, which is important to how the work is taken in. Though there’s a futility to the task: ultimately, even just by the loop of the video, the dust is accumulating again.
There's a moment in the film where there's a childish smiley face drawn on the window by the rubber glove. Through the dirt, through the wash. This is one of the moments where there's a form of communication, either with a viewer, or some potential viewer who is outside the window in the film. It seems like a moment when you're starting to look outward from the screen.
In my work, including previous work like Smile Driver, the desire for communication is related to a desire for legibility. When the hand draws the smiley face, it shows its desire for communication. There's something pathetic and sad about that smiley face, of course, but it's also the thing that I draw the most. Even just on the shower door, I feel a compulsion to draw it. There's also something about the gesture as erasure. When you're erasing your mark and making it into this symbol of happiness. And then the water makes it melt.
It's also simply thinking of the screen or the glass as a barrier or boundary, when the desire for communication is boundaryless or contagious. But relation is different when you have a boundary or barrier blocking it: it might look like it's perfectly clear, but at the same time, there are all these smudges that are interrupting your view.
I think that could also be the case for hardware – how, through the translation between different hardware, the output has an interrupted form?
Hardware, protocol, software. Everything that's embedded in a file, and encoded in a file has the ability to interrupt that seamlessness. A part of Perfectly Clear that I enjoy is when the traces of soap lead the hand. The hand is supposed to be making these traces of soap, but because the soap is a different particle simulation file that has a different frame rate, which is the result of exporting from different software, it goes in front for a second. That moment is interesting to me because it looks like the hand is making these marks, but then you realise actually, no, this soap has its own agency, and it can't control it.
I also associate the gestures of cleaning with compulsions, how cleaning in film and in mass media can be a stand in to show that someone is in a manic state or a crisis. A question for me is whether my gestures are a symptom of certain uncontainable feelings, and through the way that they get translated into a virtual space and then disseminated, if they become contagious. Contagious gestures or contagious symptoms that feel like a condition of our time.
And are to do with virality...
Definitely, yeah. Smile Driver too is about this nexus of girls who all have these certain symptoms, such as long eyebrow hair growing down below their eyes.
Obsessive cleaning can be a way of calming, and now there is also the possibility of watching the tonnes of videos of people organising and cleaning.
They’re so good. There's a game called PowerWash Simulator where you can just spray a car clean, and it just changes colours. So soothing.
Perfectly Clear does have some elements of that ASMR approach to cleaning videos. The score by Sydney Spann too gives the film a simultaneously relaxing and unnerving atmosphere. At points it seems to be foley – which has its own mainstream film history – but then also seems composed?
It's foley with post-processing, so its composed sound. Separately from scoring Perfectly Clear, Sydney’s compositions involve using tools like baby monitors, and part of their livelihood is caring for young kids. When I've seen them perform, I've also experienced a real tension between care and, as you say, this unnerving feeling. It's the other side of a calming effect, whatever the other side of the coin is, maybe it's anxiety, maybe it's discomfort. Part of what I loved about this collaboration was that they were thinking about the sound in relationship to the video, not only in the way that the viewer receives it, as I think traditional foley would, but in the process of making as well, and how it related to the process of making the images.
There is this oscillation between being faithful and not, which I think is the same thing with the images. Many people have told me that they thought that the film was just shot in camera, because they thought it was very realistic. But there's a certain moment where you realise, well, the arm has no body. This oscillation between being faithful and not is powerful in the moment where you realise ‘Oh, actually, no, no, this is totally constructed’.
Suggested Citation:Frosh, A. & Wilson, J. (2024) 'Perfectly Clear: Interview with Jessica Wilson', The Photographers’ Gallery: Unthinking Photography. Available at: https://unthinking.photography/articles/interview-with-jessica-wilson