A Better Mao's Trap

A Better Mao's Trap

2003-09-12
Little Red Book of Adobe LiveMotion: A Radical Guide to Flash Animation
Derek Pell
No Starch Press, 2001. 200pp

Infiltrate, animate, dominate. Lisette Gonzales reviews Derek Pell’s Little Red Book of Adobe LiveMotion.

In 1966, Chairman Mao called for a revolution, demanded one, in fact, that would rid China of its bourgeois habits and customs, its history and customary ways of thinking. Mao’s party made him sole author, as it were, of the propriety and legality of text and image, a process that led to the destruction of ancient buildings, art objects, and temples, not to mention loss of life. The revolution was supposed to criticize imperialism, regenerate the revolutionary spirit and purge “bourgeois” elements in the government. Mao made of the Revolution a kind of spectacular performance, at once scripture, drama, and revolutionary exhortation; all of China became a stage on which its people pronounced the great economic success that never came to be. Out of the Cultural Revolution grew the phenomenon of massive Mao badge production, those visual texts that provided the masses with correct political knowledge - correct being complete and utter devotion to Mao. The badges were fundamental in that they had the ability to both mark those who `believed,’ and spread the image of this ubiquitous, indefatigably brutal man. And with that began The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s revolution is parodied and lambasted in Derek Pell’s outrageous Little Red Book of Adobe LiveMotion: A Radical Guide to Flash Animation, a reference guide for LiveMotion, Adobe’s version of animation software. Operating both as an instruction manual and send up of Mao Zedong’s famous collection of sayings, Pell’s Little Red Book stirs the revolutionary ghost of Mao Zedong from the tomb of memory as an act of wit and parody that informs the entire text, a scheme sufficiently lunatic to appeal to the nonconformist character of animators and Web designers. The book begins with an image of Mao followed by the quotation, “You move me,” initially addressed to The People’s Liberation Army. Both the image of the man and the text attributed to him gain meaning that is modified within the context of Adobe’s animation software, the purpose of which is to manipulate text and software in the spirit of revolutionary technology. Pell asks his army of animators to infiltrate, animate, and dominate the Web, knowing that in this software lies a potential for both revolutionary and economic success that escaped the original Cultural Revolution.

Before getting into a discussion of the theoretical and parodic elements of this book, it seems to me necessary to investigate the book’s primary objective of providing practical reference for the novice user of Adobe LiveMotion. Pell’s easy to navigate guide includes information on how to sketch out designs for Web pages, how to integrate the use of Photoshop and Dreamweaver with LiveMotion (a critically useful skill for this type of software), how to employ toolbox, vectors, palettes, and LiveMotion objects (which Pell refers to as “Capitalist Tools”), how to use readymade shapes, styles, and textures in Adobe’s Library, how to add and mix audio files and, of course, how to animate words and texts. Pell begins by describing how Adobe LiveMotion is superior to Macromedia Flash. While Flash uses a frame-based Timeline, LiveMotion uses video graphics logic in which you can layer objects equally and, consequently, manipulate each object separately. Separate handling creates an environment in which two or more animations, running on separate timelines, run simultaneously. In other words, LiveMotion allows for an animation within an animation. (However one problem with Flash that Pell identifies is that it reads each frame as one object and hence, can only manipulate one object per frame.)

Other useful topics covered in this manual include the “White Bones Demons” and the “Proletarian Preloaders.” The “White Bones Demons,” a reference to Jiang Qing, Mao’s fourth wife, act as a sidebar warning label on the program’s traps and pitfalls. The chapter on preloaders goes into great detail explaining preloaders - a nested animation that runs while your main animation downloads - in ways that are both efficient and interesting. The examples of animation, many of which are provided in glossy color pictures, allows the animator to see clear examples of what she is capable of producing with this program. Although some of the links provided in this book, including the titular www.littleredbooks.com, are no longer active, those that are active are neatly categorized into such subjects as Flash sites, image sites, and Lit and Art E-Zines. The book concludes with a bibliography that covers not only books on animation and website design, but also Chinese politics, Maoism, and absurdist literature.

Throughout this instruction, Pell makes countless references to, as well as provides countless images of Chairman Mao. Pell explains himself in his introduction to Little Red Book:

But you may ask, is it proper, that is, correct Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought to publish a computer book filled with satire, puns, and visual mischief? Of course it is - especially when the goal is to revolutionize the computer book industry by defeating all big fat feudalist manuals and replacing them with svelte, absurdist guides bent on Web domination. And as the Web continues to evolve and revolutionize our lives, I think it’s fitting that I resurrect the obese ghost of Mao Zedong to spur us on to bolder experiments, so that we may create great and glorious images and engaging, immersive, interactive animations for the Web. Web Workers of the World, Unite!

Pell begins by explaining the `revolutionary’ capabilities of Adobe LiveMotion. Because Adobe LiveMotion allows a user to delete designs, Pell refers to this as purging “anti-Maoists design ideas.” The system itself is revolutionary, in that it brings motion graphics to the codeless masses and destroys those systems that do not allow coding by “the people,” allowing for the potential to revolutionize animation. Pell describes the program as inciting a revolution among animators:

Word of the new weapon spread like wildfire through cyberspace, igniting the imagination of rebel artists and designers around the globe, inciting downtrodden geeks and weary workers to rise up and cheer the New People’s Interface (NPI). A better Mao’s trap had arrived, and the ranks of the People’s Army swelled. The beta was quickly branded a `Flash-killer’ by the People.

Pell uses the image of Mao throughout his instruction to invoke the practice of image manipulation employed throughout the Cultural Revolution. The myth of Mao Zedong was circulated through the use of Mao badges, those (re)imagined images deployed and distributed by the Chairman. Mao badges were `pre-web design’ images whose ubiquity resulted in the worldwide dissemination of Mao’s image and proved instrumental in sustaining Mao’s power by acting as agents of indoctrination. Like the Mao badges themselves, Pell insists on taking the recognizable image of Mao Zedong and completely reinterpreting it. Pell produces, alters, and invokes the symbols, myths, and values of the Cultural Revolution, resignifying these patchworks of symbols and producing new meanings for them in absurd contexts.

Pell’s use of the image of Mao does not seem solely absurdist (although certain images of Mao, including ones in which he is used to peddle deodorant, Uncle Ben’s Rice, and Red Lobster are clearly so) and arbitrary here but, rather, seems driven by the identity he is trying to construct for his audience. Pell is asking his audience to take collective action; he is telling us to forge an alliance of revolt against corporate culture using LiveMotion as a tool (the fact that this software is itself a product of corporate culture is one Pell seems to ignore). Pell’s readers are supposed to oppose corporate culture and their identities are supposed to be partially defined by this political struggle (a clear victim of Pell’s assault is the Microsoft Corporation; “Defeat Microsoft now!” states a character in one of his animations).

The manipulation of images, for which the program is used, is itself symbolic of the fluidity of image, myth, and identity that Pell sees as the state of the World Wide Web:

The Web is the Cultural Revolution run amok. Or, if clichés are your cup tea, it’s the Wild West. Anarchic, turbulent, a vast sea of spam, spies, hoaxes, viruses, porn cults, hacker claques, glittering litter…It’s a cosmic supermarket tabloid gone berserk.

Language also becomes part of Pell’s project of manipulation as he instructs “Liberation Animators” to animate words and take the static nature out of text, making the destruction of the signifier also part of the artistic project:

We’ve created a couple of animations that have effectively subverted text by transforming just object opacity and position, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg - imagine the possibilities with stretching, skewing, rotating, and deforming type.

Pell defines himself as an artist coming to this project, “not as a technocrat or geek.” He is a neo-luddite and a subversive, one whose sensibility is shaped by absurdists and avant-garde literatis. This book provides tools for the rebel in a language that the rebel can understand and enjoy by appropriating the technocratic nightmare in order to claim corporate tools for the artist, not the capitalist or the programmer. Pell goes on to state, “I began my life as an artist working with papers, scissors, and spray adhesive. Being self-uneducated, my medium of choice was collage” (63). Pell is asking artists to take up these new media technologies in order to disperse their art and their anti-establishment beliefs.

Hackers and programmers are described as bourgeois because of their specialized knowledge and they are defined by Pell to be anti-art, while “Web workers” (read: animators) are described as lowly in opposition to programmers who produce software. When Pell asks that his readers use a minimal amount of code, he adds as an afterthought, “Hey, I didn’t mean to scare you back by using the word code. I’m not now, nor have I ever been a code junkie” (183). Adobe LiveMotion is opposed to Macromedia Flash, in that Flash becomes a prime example of a tool that is unworkable by the masses of artists, of one that gets caught up in the hands of “code-snorting geeks” and has a “big, steep bourgeois learning curve.”

Because the possibility of popular struggle relies on the production of a communal identity, Pell’s Little Red Book acts as a call to a community of resistance, a community whose denizens share an identity of outlaw socialist and insurrectional artist fighting against the constraints of capitalism and the specialized knowledge of the programmer. He transforms the animation software into a site where battles over identity and Web control are fought. Pell tries to construct a project that can unify animators under a collective will of political struggle, fashioning an identity for his audience that is at once politically subversive and technologically savvy in which the animator is identified as the excluded, the oppressed, the underground. Of course Pell’s own project is doomed to exist under the same constraints as the anarchic Web, in which his own anti-establishment, Maoist animation Army will always remain only partially and contradictorily loyal.

Although the revolutionary potential of this software is real, Pell identifies the Web as being more hospitable to trained programming professionals and proprietary corporations than to animators, artists, and writers. Before an aesthetic and cultural revolution on the Web can occur, the “codeless masses” must be provided with the tools to transfer authority from the programmers and software industries to the artists. As the production of art is the animator’s source of collective energy, the animator requires software specifically designed to be both technically savvy and user friendly. For Pell, LiveMotion acts as a tool without which The Animator’s Revolution would be a manifestly futile expedition. LiveMotion, in other words, leaves animators armed for the fray.