Kinetic Concepts

by Barnaby Dicker, January 2016.

“In the animations we find readily comprehensible styles and modalities giving shape, context and movement to different scientific issues relating to the body.”

Animation is fundamentally linked to science. Consider Plateau’s Phenakistiscope and Stampfer’s Stroboscopic Discs: proto-cinematographic devices developed almost simultaneously, at the end of 1832, rooted in scientific enquiry.

From the outset (long before ‘live action’ cinematography), these devices and their progeny depicted animated moving images both figurative and abstract. In 1865, Purkyně – another scientist and designer of his own proto-cinematographic device, the Kinesiscope – wrote that in the future, by means of the moving image:

“in physics it will become possible to present all kinds of wave motions occurring in liquids, sound and light, or show how the most complex machines move; in physiology, the movement of the heart, circulation of the blood, neural currents, muscular action; in biology, the movements of all manner of animals on the ground and in the air, the most diverse interplay of colours, changes in the human physiognomy, gestures, the growing process in plants and other organic bodies, all-round representations of physicality that are impossible to bring out on a flat surface.”[i]

Purkyně clearly signposts the instructional, synthetic, diagrammatic potential of the moving image; that by animating scientific data we can understand certain structures and processes more productively.

Since such nineteenth century future forecasts, new possibilities have arisen through the development of film ‘language’ and technology. The works that comprise Silent Signal reflect this ongoing endeavour.

Here, I would like to sketch out the proposition that the Silent Signal animations may be profitably thought about in relation to notions of ‘conceptual metaphor’ and ‘image schemas’.


“When you start to study the brain and body scientifically, you inevitably wind up using metaphors.” George Lakoff[ii]

A view is emerging that what have been called ‘conceptual metaphors’ and ‘image schemas’ underpin the way we make sense of everything we experience: the world around us, other people, even ourselves. Furthermore, the theory goes, these metaphors and schemas are directly derived from our embodied experiences and perceptions.[iii] Conceptual metaphors involve ‘conceptual mapping’ of one thing onto another (“the film was illuminating”) that are “themselves motivated by image schemas which are pre-linguistic schemas concerning space, time, movement, control, and other core elements of embodied human experience.”[iv] Image schemas are said to be simple, complex or dynamic; they can involve sequences and lead us to recognise different forms of animacy.[v] I mention these points not to insist on a fundamental link with animation; rather to suggest a degree of compatibility, that (thinking back to Purkyně) would raise questions about what the moving image can offer in terms of such understanding.

Approaching the Silent Signal animations from this perspective, we can recognise a process of conceptual mapping (among others) in which scientific knowledge and discourse (the target domain) has been interpreted, worked out, understood through artistic knowledge and discourse (the source domain). This is not the same as ‘merely illustrating’ a given scientific idea; it is not that literal. Rather, we should recognise that the aim of such ‘artistic’ play with conceptual, and especially visual, metaphors – in this case, those established through the complex audio-visual fabric of an animated film – is not to stabilise or fix a scientific understanding, but to open it up, make it strange, raise questions, spark personal response, without – and this is the challenge – any loss of meaning or link with a given theme or concept.

In the Silent Signal animations we find readily comprehensible (contemporary) styles and modalities giving shape, context and movement to different scientific issues relating to the body: the clean shapes and rhythms of digital graphics marking and blurring boundaries between forms; the promise of interactivity and networked or automated communication ensuring authority, security, support; calming or ominous sounds drifting by which speak to our hopes and fears for our bodies in our current scientific age. Questions about the visual and verbal metaphors used in science are also raised directly, asking: how these metaphors support and advance scientific research and, ultimately, aid public understanding; how they change; exactly what they relate to or could be related to. I see one conceptual metaphor prevailing: heterogeneity. The form – the fabric – of these works suggest a view of the body, the science that serves it and the ways we understand both, all consisting of many different elements that jostle beside one another; a patchwork of knowledge, speculation, subjective experiences, and metaphors.

If conceptual metaphors originate with(in) the body, using them to understand that same body surely generates a valuable feedback loop of unlimited possibilities.

Barnaby Dicker is a lecturer, researcher, artist-filmmaker and curator. His research revolves around conceptual and material innovations in and through graphic technologies and arts, including cinematography and photography, with particular emphasis on avant-guard practices. This has led to work on topics such as proto-cinematography, paleoart, comic strips, graphic reproduction technologies, experimental film and animation. He is the editor of a special issue of Art in Translation (8:1, March 2016) on ‘cinematographic art.’ He is a visiting lecturer in Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art, London, and at the University of South Wales, Cardiff.


[i] Purkyně’s remark is taken from an 1865 encyclopaedia entry that has been translated in a special issue of Art in Translation (8.1, March 2016) on cinematographic art that I have edited. The translation is by David Short.

[ii] John Brockman. “Philosophy In The Flesh: A Talk With George Lakoff [3.8.99].”

[iii] The prominent figures to develop these ideas are George Lakoff, Mark Johnson and Mark Turner. See: George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), Mark Turner, The Literary Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). For perspectives on conceptual metaphor and image schemas specifically in relation to the visual arts see: Wiesława Limont, “Conceptual metaphor in visual art,” in Carlo M. Fossaluzza and Ian Verstegen, eds., Ragionamenti percettivi. Saggi in onore di Alberto Argenton (Milan: Mimesis, 2014); Mark Turner, ed., The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). For a discussion directly linking these ideas with animation see: Charles Forceville and Marloes Jeulink. “The flesh and blood of embodied understanding: The source-path-goal schema in animation film.” Pragmatics & Cognition (19.1, 2011).

[iv] Limont, “Conceptual metaphor in visual art,” p.77.

[v] Turner, The Literary Mind, pp.16-22.