What do the subjects in paintings do after the museum closes? Go for a ride in a convertible, top down?
Or maybe take a much needed smoke break?
Enter James Kerr, the Canadian artist behind the Scorpion Dagger project. His work takes pieces from early Renaissance paintings and re-assembles them into GIFs and digital collages with ironic, sometimes disturbing, and always hilarious results. In Kerr’s words, “think a terrible version of Night at The Museum.” We had the chance to ask Kerr a few questions about his creative process, his augmented reality book, Do You Like Relaxing, and his new upcoming projects.
We’re fascinated with the way your GIFs take a classic and still art form, Renaissance paintings, and re-contextualize them in a mashup with modern technology and movement. Why did you decide to create art in this form? How did Scorpion Dagger start and evolve?
“When I first started making GIFs, there was no real, clear direction or style. The plan was to make one GIF per day for an entire year, and try and find a gallery show where I could project them all. That’s it. I was grabbing source images from anywhere, and letting the subject of those images dictate what I animate, as in, not having any set rules. If I saw an image of, say, a professional wrestler I would do a series of GIFs with professional wrestlers. It was a ton of fun working this way but after a few months I found that it was getting increasingly hard to get inspired. One day, I happened upon some Giotto paintings, and made some animations with them. Things kinda exploded in my brain. I kept going back to paintings from the early Renaissance after that— I became obsessed with the idea of making a world for these characters— almost as if they had lives that they go to after the museum was closed. Through this new universe I was creating for them, I discovered that I could use these paintings to explore questions and experiences I had about my life, and opened up entirely new levels of inspiration for me to carry on the project.”
How do you work? What’s your process for creating a new GIF?
“Generally speaking, most of my inspiration comes from going about my daily life. I don’t know how to describe it other than just letting my imagination go where it wants to go. For example, (and I don’t know if I’m ever going to make this) the other day on my way in to my studio I passed by this closed garage where a bunch of dudes were standing. I don’t know what about it stood out in my mind, but by the time I got to my desk, I had this whole scenario worked out where the garage would open, and Jesus would drive out in a Lamborghini Countach. Everyone who was waiting outside would start freaking out, jumping up and down, high-fiving, etc. Jesus takes off, after lighting a smoke, the door closes and it starts all over again. After typing it out, it actually sounds kinda dumb, haha. Don’t ask me what it all means, it’s just an example of where the ideas come from. Super random.
Once I decided on what I’m going to make, I would start by going through paintings, and start pulling out elements to make everything. For the most part, everything is taken from paintings. Even in the scenario above, the Countach I’d make would be collaged together (in Photoshop) from textures in the paintings.”
What’s your background? How did you get to where you are now?
“I grew up in a pretty creative environment. My parents always encouraged my brother and I to explore whatever creative ideas we may have. We were always making little videos, making comic books, drawing on MS paint (I really wish I could find those), or whatever. It was something that was always there, but there was never any pressure to pursue it. Even though I ended up studying history and political science in university, I found myself hanging around a bunch of art school kids. It just seemed like everyone in my life at that time was into making something (being in bands, painting, writing, etc.). A group of us started this art collective called the Young People’s Foundation, where we’d organize parties, throw art shows, print books, and even ran a gallery at some point. Despite all that, I never really took making art too seriously (I don’t know if I do now either). It’s just something I’ve always done. As we grew older, and people started moving away, the art collective sort of stopped, and so did that reason to be creative. I really missed it. One winter I decided it would be fun to learn how to animate, and things kinda took off from there. I fell in love with the process almost immediately.”
Have any other artists influenced your work, besides the painters whose works you use?
“Yes, and no. I mean, there’s the obvious comparison to Terry Gilliam, which wasn’t intentional, but when I think hard on it, Monty Python was definitely a huge influence on young me. I know it kind of sounds clichéd right now, but I really think my biggest influences are from growing up skateboarding and listening to punk rock. It’s not so much the finished product of the art that came out of those scenes that I’m interested in, it’s more the fact that anyone and everyone was doing it. Even now, I’m not so interested in specific technique or a general aesthetic. I’m way more interested in the why somebody would make something— The idea behind the work. That’s what excites me when it comes to art.”
What impact or message do you hope your artwork expresses?
“No idea. Perhaps it’s to maybe try and look at things a little differently? Whether it be culture, technology, your bank account, your beliefs, I think it’s important to explore new perspectives, even if they make you a little uncomfortable. Also, maybe not taking yourself too seriously? There’s that thing in all of us, that imagination, that I feel as if gets pushed down far too often. Don’t be afraid to be silly, to let go, and have fun.”
Do you have a favorite piece or a piece that you are most proud of? Which GIFs should we feature on Razor?
“Good question. I’m kinda really into the ones where I get everyone together.”
We love the notion of using a digital platform to do something that print can’t do–it’s one of our main design principles at Razor. So we’re fascinated with the digital/print boundaries that get broken down in your book. Could you tell us a bit about Do You Like Relaxing?
“Do You Like Relaxing was born out of asking around whether anyone knew anything about Augmented Reality. I had this idea for an AR project I wanted to do at the fine arts museum here in Montreal, and they seemed interested, but, obviously, had to see some examples first. This was maybe 4 years ago, when AR was slightly further off people’s radars. I had a meeting with an AR company here in town, and their prices were way out of my league, so I asked a few of my more technically inclined friends whether they knew any cheap options, or if they knew anyone who’d be interested in collaborating. My friend Tyson Parks hooked up a meeting between me and Harley Smart at Anteism, because they were talking on the other end about trying their hand at making an art book using Augmented Reality. It took me zero convincing — their catalogue was (and still is) so amazing, the quality of their books is tops and, much to my surprise, they were interested in making a book with me!
What we came up with is, what we think, the first animated GIF book ever (not that that’s a thing or anything). We took a selection of the GIFs I have posted online throughout the years, and brought them back to the physical realm, but with the added bonus of being able to view the animated versions through your device. So, it works a lot like a traditional art book where you can flip through and look at the still images, but with the app you can also watch them move around by pointing your phone at the screen.”
Do you have any new projects in the works?
“I’ve been working on this project for just over a year now with a few writers and producers from both Australia and Canada. It’s so close to being done! The working title right now is The Book of Darryl, and its kind of hard to explain (we’re still trying to figure it out). In the fewest words possible, it’s going to present more-or-less as an online book where each page is animated. I’m super pumped to get it out.”