22 March 2018

Ways of Seeing: Laurie Rowan fills FACT's architectural space with a troop of exploring characters


22 March 2018


It’s Nice That has teamed up with Canvas to make a triptych of films which peer inside the walls of three of Britain’s best-loved cultural institutions to turn all your expectations about art galleries upside down. 

Canvas is on a mission to get young people interested in art. Using YouTube as a springboard and rallying support through Facebook and Twitter, Canvas produces and curates video content which promotes artists, exhibitions, events and performances all over the UK.

It’s Nice That harnessed the talents of three rising creative talents — Robert Wallace who is also known as Parallel Teeth, Laurie Rowan and Rose Pilkington — and paired them with Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, FACT in Liverpool and Turner Contemporary, Margate. Over the coming weeks, we will be talking to each of the three filmmakers to find out exactly what went on behind the scenes at the three institutions.

FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool not only hosts a year-round diverse programme of exhibitions, but is a multifaceted creative hub to stop by each day. The space boasts three galleries, four cinema screens, a multimedia suite and a cafe with a lounge area. Each of these counterparts which make up FACT is housed in a towering piece of architecture, designed by the firm Austin-Smith: Lord.

It was the varied purpose of FACT as an architectural space which initially caught the attention of animator Laurie Rowan, visiting the gallery to scope an idea for his film. “I realised that the real focal point of FACT was the building,” he tells It’s Nice That. “It’s an amazing building with light leading in really tall places. Looking at the building upside down you could see these concrete structures like ramps almost, and I thought ok, this could be a really good playground for characters.”

Characters of all shapes and sizes have formed the foundations of Laurie’s practice and won him a following. The animator has worked in the discipline for the past 11 years, largely within television and game animation. However, it was a visit to character design conference Pictoplasma last year which grew a yearning in Laurie to develop his own individual practice, a style that evoked him as person rather than just the brief he was answering to. Setting himself the challenge of posting an animation to Instagram every Saturday allowed the animator to carve a character of his very own. Blobby, humorous and likeable, the sweet animated creatures have since filled his feed, a style he describes as “just kind of colourful, fun, wobbly and satisfying”.

Watching the way visitors interacted with FACT’s space, “the focus became the architecture,” inspiring Laurie to fill it with his growing band of animated characters. “It was all about looking at how people use the space,” he explains of his initial idea. “Obviously it’s a place for exhibiting work, but the most prominent thing I saw was that it was just a place to be during the day, loads of people just hang out, and a large part of the building is dominated by the cinema. It just kind of felt like using the most of the architecture was the best place to start, forming an exploration of the space from entry to exit. Kind of like a day in the life, I guess.”

The most immediate architectural aspect of the FACT building is the sheer size of it. “One side is entirely open and you can see from the ground floor right up to this apex where the walls sort of curve in,” Laurie describes. In his decision to make this the focus, Laurie needed to animate a way that explored it thoroughly, and it was “this sort of triangular structure with these big concrete sweeping curves in it that formed the idea of the totem pole,” which becomes the cornerstone of his film. “I thought it would be a really nice thing to occupy the space. You can see the building in multiple layers and I thought it would be nice to see a character that represents that,” he says.

With a plan settled upon, Laurie explains that the “idea took over from scale,” and the animator’s narrative quickly developed. The film begins with the welcoming doors of FACT opening, letting in a bubblegum-like creature who moves across the concrete floor aided by its flailing elongated arms. “I thought it would be really fun to have this tiny little pea — we’re calling it a pea, it’s not intended to be a pea but that’s what it’s become — rolling through the door before turning really massive. Everything then explodes, before it leads your eye around the whole building, finishing by reducing down to this tiny thing, which then leaves.”

This short synopsis of the film doesn’t give justice to the immense amount of detail Laurie has crafted into FACT’s architectural space. The pea, for instance, is, as described, tiny, but features a facial expression that evokes mood and personality, even in the characteristic raise of its nose. As it grows into the totem pole Laurie’s animation skill is evident. A swaying skirt forms its bottom part, playing host to blinking characters, some sporting giant arms which wobble like a Mexican wave. Atop this taller characters take shape, some with long legs or twisted and sphere shaped heads, each developed from a process Laurie describes as: “Drawing, drawing and drawing until something hits me.”

While this attribute animates attention towards the shape of FACT’s building, it’s the characters that flow free from the totem pole to the sound of a foghorn who display the varied activities which take place across the building. Circular sphere characters begin to bounce across the floor, forming their own beings. Some are pairs of legs who clamber up walls, others are giant pink swimming fish who glide across the cafe, or squeezable blobs who nestle themselves between wall gaps. Each of the characters featured is designed in a unique colour palette Laurie leans towards because “our house is full of wool, my wife is a weaver, so I’m surrounded by all these lovely colours all the time”.

The creatures alternative movements are also a noticeable detail within Laurie’s film, interacting with one another and the space. This is intentional says Laurie, achieved by an operation “I sometimes find is like improvising in slow motion,” he explains. “Improvising over the course of two weeks and acting very slowly because you get into the heads of the character, a lot of things emerge when they’re actually moving their eyes. One occasional tic will move onto another, then its personality gets defined.”

As the film concludes with the sound of the foghorn calling back Laurie’s creatures, the viewer gets to explore FACT’s space once again. Placing his characters into real life, rather than just the animated world Laurie has built, is additionally one of his favourite aspects of the project. “That was a new thing really, I’ve never based my characters around architecture before so they were kind of built to accompany certain aspects of the building, or to occupy certain spacing, that was nice. It gave a bit of a framework to explore in.”

Describing the whole process as a “mild chaos, if you can even get a mild chaos,” Laurie’s description also acts as an apt interpretation of the film itself. Like FACT, Laurie’s animated film and characters grow and grow, surveying and snooping round a new space, just like visitors to a gallery do.

Canvas is an Arts Council-funded initiative bringing together arts organisations across England with a set of wide-ranging objectives: making arts content more discoverable and engaging; increasing the number of people engaging with the arts; increasing the volume and quality of creative media; and supporting the skills and digital capacity of the arts sector.

Canvas consists of two interrelated projects: the Canvas channel and the Canvas network. The Canvas channel publishes, curates and promotes video across YouTube, Facebook and Twitter with the aim of inspiring 18-35 year olds to explore the world of art. The Canvas network helps arts organisations develop their online video strategy and output through advice, support, training and collaborative projects.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.

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