Love in the Data Age: animation as a bridge to self-expression and freedom, interview with Maggie Brennan

By Belén Nieto

Many of us spend a large part of the day in front of a screen, cell phones, tablets, electronic books, computers … whether for work or relaxation, technology was instituted in our most direct link with information, and even more since that we are going through pandemic times!; That link of Wi-Fi, pixels and streaming was almost bizarrely transformed into our tangible reality as well as an escape from the outside: isolated but connected, secluded but traveling to other worlds.

From a similar interaction between digital and “reality”, the feeling that was the spark of creation of the debut film of Maggie Brennan as a creator, animator, ilustrator and musician, OUR BED IS GREEN:

“I did set out to create that emotional contrast but it actually developed before the pandemic started. I was motivated more by my own self-created lockdown. I worked a remote job while in school so I already spent a lot of time by myself. By the time I was deeper into making “Our Bed Is Green,” I was sleeping on an air mattress in my very barren, white-walled studio and spending so much time alone at a computer. As a result, even tiny trips out of my studio felt like full sensory overload: every social interaction felt surreal, ads felt more absurd than usual, and I kept hyper-fixating on different images and sounds. I kept thinking about how nice it’d be to have some time to travel once I was done and then the pandemic hit, ha. So, all of that really did inform the visuals and sounds of the main spaces of the film (the city streets, the interior of Realm, and the forest)”

The young short film is also a product of the symbiosis of two universes, music and comics:

“(…) I’m mainly an animator but I also draw comics and make music. I actually made the decision to learn animation because I found myself going back and forth between comics and music—I realized animation was a good way to marry the two.“Our Bed Is Green” was my thesis film for my MFA in animation. It was definitely the longest and most involved production. Before it, I made a few different (much shorter) animated shorts (2D and stop motion) as well as some AR/VR and 3D projects that all incorporated sound”

On this voyage of self discovery, animation is a creative bridge to bring life to a semi-futuristic story, set in a noisy and bubbling metropolis, which gradually quiets and flows with the pulse from a secret story:

“I have often made work that involves new or near future technologies because I sort of feel like every possible story has already been told in terms of basic “themes” — speculative fiction or sci-fi is a fun way to interrogate otherwise heavily explored ideas like love, repression, isolation, etc. On a personal level, I am a fairly aggressively Online person and I spend a lot of time thinking about the psychology of someone like me who perhaps uses the internet to hide from or make sense of life offline. I personally express and explore a lot of aspects of my identity online that are difficult for me to deal with in “real” life (I put “real” in quotes because obviously digital spaces are real… you get what I mean!). Fantasy existed before the internet, of course, but you were somewhat limited by your own memory and thoughts. The internet is a never-ending blackhole that becomes more and more loaded with personal information and reflections of billions of people’s lives. How does that change our relationship to ourselves and the people we know? Cecily’s story is as old as time but her access to so much data is not

Within the frenetic rythm of social networks and hyperconnection, Cecily seeks to find an escape to the face the frustration and social silencing imposed on the regarding of her expression of inner feeling:

“I was motivated to show Cecily navigating a queer attraction via VR for a few different reasons. First, the emotional stakes need to be raised in short film because the audience has less time to develop interest in and empathy for the characters and their situations. There are emotional risks to creating a virtual simulation of a person. There are more risks if you love that person. There are far more risks when that love is very unlikely to be reciprocated. Second, I think a lot of people underestimate how much aggressive homophobia still exists. Whether this hatred is motivated by religion, politics, or something else, it’s still there and many LGBTQ+ people deal with feelings of shame, fear, and isolation as a result. In the world of the film, Cecily is definitely one of those people

The release of the protagonist in the short film can only be possible into the hidden and private, some possibilities that are forbidden for her in the “real” world but not in the technological environment of Realm, a virtual simulation company that returns her dreams into a tangible projection, green, nature and music will be the staging of her true desire, Addie:

The title (and also a bit of text painted onto a wall at the beginning) comes from the King James translation of “Song of Songs,” a really beautiful book in the Bible. In it, a man and a woman take turns expressing their sexual desire for one another in florid prose. There is, however, no explicit mention of God, procreation, marriage, or any religious doctrine. I grew up Catholic and probably don’t need to explain why I’d be interested in a text that seems antithetical to a lot of the Church’s teachings on sex and love (and why I’d want to use it for the title of this particular film). There is also a lot of plant imagery and depictions of the couple stealing away from the city at night to be alone among nature. This really inspired the visuals throughout the film where nature attempts to break through various “man-made” structures (weeds grow in cement cracks, a pixelated tree builds on a computer, virtual plants take over a stark white room, tree branches tangle in telephone wires, etc.). So, yes, the “green”-ness does have to do with the possibility of liberation, as you say, in the natural world. Ultimately, “Our Bed Is Green” is about cycling between repression of desire and acting on it… and whether it’s possible to find peace somewhere within or outside of that cycle

Interweaving a compelling narrative, the shortfilm captivates us sensorially at every moment, a unique and personal visual aesthetic, built up to the smallest detail, oscillating between lo-fi, dreamwave and other aesthetic movements that take us back to the 80/90/00s:

“I’ve used sort of muted, pastel colors in the majority of things I’ve made so I actually tried to have more vibrant, saturated colors (as well as darker tones) in this short to force myself to not cling to that. So, I didn’t really pick the colors for any other reason besides trying to push my own style a little further than I have in the past. But, if I’m being honest with myself, I probably fell into using those palettes at some point from spending too much time on Tumblr at the peak of the movements you mentioned, ha. I did make a lot of mood boards when I first started developing the short that had screenshots of 80s and 90s anime, cyber cafes and arcades from the early 2000s, retrofuturist clothing, brutalist building complexes, plants, stills from Dance Dance Revolution music videos, and so on. I think my main goal was to just make the world visually overstimulating a) to establish a specific mood and b) so you would want to go back and pause on individual frames”

Our bed is green proposes a new way of telling stories, one that makes its way through digital fantasy to explore the near future imagining all those places where new technologies can lead us:

I don’t think social media is a replacement for anything but it did add a new dimension to the way we live our lives. Exploring what happens in that “new dimension” is what interests me about storytelling rather than making some overarching commentary about technology or society. The original idea for the technology in “Our Bed Is Green” came from stumbling on an Instagram influencer who had a “link tree” in her bio. This directory linked to her profile on basically every single social media platform that exists, interviews, and so on. All this data coalesced in one place seemed like the perfect thing to feed something like an artificial neural network to develop a virtual facsimile of the original influencer.  AR, VR, and deep-learning girlfriend/chat bots already exist, so what if you could personalize them with the already very accessible data of real individuals and places? I’m not interested in whether that technology would be good or bad but the possibilities of it. Realm clearly advertises the deviant uses but how could the same technology be used to indulge unrequited love, explore one’s identity, escape everyday life, and so on? How would all that affect an individual user?”

The short film that is an official selection in festivals such as ShortFest, SIFF, SWSW, QUEER X, Riverrun and Out Fest among many others, will be presented at the 7th edition of the Athens Digital Art Festival (ADAF) will take place from September 20 to October 31 ONLINE and from October 13 to 17 in PHYSICAL. This year’s theme will be TACTUS which could not be better related to Cecily’s story, as it seeks to explore, question and redefine the notion of human contact and connection, from the physical to the ethereal and how technology interacts to fill this empty.

“It’s really interesting to hear people’s reactions to it! I honestly couldn’t imagine it resonating with many people for a variety of reasons so any time it does, I’m happy and shocked. Some people have felt it ends “ambiguously.” I actually think this is one of the less ambiguous endings I’ve had to a story but I like fiction that sort of “lives on” past the screen or page. Right now it’s still just playing festivals but I’ll be extra excited when it’s online. I think it’ll find its ideal audience in cyberspace

While working on other projects, Maggie does not rule out the continuity of this story or at least it seems that the concern is global (and we include ourselves) to know more about Cecily, Addie and the circle of desire:

“I wasn’t originally thinking about continuing with this exact story but a lot of people seem interested in that! I’m working on a project right now that definitely has a lot of similar elements to “Our Bed Is Green” but who knows… maybe I will rethink expanding on it”