We talked to Scorpion Dagger (aka James Kerr), about his new book full of his brilliant, surreal GIFs that morph classic art into irreverent gold.
Over the past two years, James Kerr—better known as Scorpion Dagger—has created hundreds of GIFs that warp Renaissance artwork into a collection of surreal, irreverent animations. From Star Trek characters entering the 15th century, to Apostles playing electric guitar, to Jesus punching a robot, Kerr may be one of the funniest GIF-makers on the web.
At nearly 1,000 images deep, though, the Montreal-based artist is taking his brilliantly bizarre reappropriations to the next level with a book to be published by Anteism, featuring over 100 color pages of his work. But, if his unique sense of humor is any indication, the physical manifestation of Scorpion Dagger will be anything but traditional—despite its classical source material.
Using Kickstarter, Kerr is raising money to develop an app that will enhance every image in the book with augmented reality—bringing the prints to life, just like on his Tumblr. "I'm hoping to include some little surprise in there, too," he told The Creators Project. This tech addition will "open it up to new venues and audiences," Kerr said. "Part of it, too, is that with AR, there's this idea that I think is pretty fun. I started scanning some of these [source] paintings out of books, repurposed them digitally, and now I'm putting them back into a book.
With the Kickstarter at approximately $10,000 of it's $54,510 goal, with 18 days left to go, The Creators Project wanted to know more about the mind of Scorpion Dagger. We reached out to the artist and talked about the start of his Renaissance art manipulation, what the original Renaissance artists would say about his GIFs, and his underlying goals about "using these old paintings to create a world where these characters leave the museum" and, well, chug beer and rock out.
The Creators Project: What was the first GIF you made as Scorpion Dagger? How has your work, style, and even humor evolved over the past two years of GIF making?
James Kerr (aka Scorpion Dagger): It all started when I was doing this little project with my [friend] where we'd pass an image back and forth, and add little elements to it as we went along. He sent me this one with a guy with a bunch of eyes wearing a balaclava, and I had zero ideas with what to do with it.
At the time, I was playing around with making these real short animated videos, so I animated the eyes and sent it back to him. He piped back that it would make way more sense as a GIF, which got me to thinking that instead of making videos that I really should be making GIFs. That's where the idea for starting the Tumblr page came about — I was looking for something new to do project wise, and the GIF making was crazy fun. The first GIFs were pretty basic, but as I learned new things animation wise, I was able to expand on the humour.
Of all the things you could remix, what attracted you to Renaissance imagery and religious iconography?
At first, I was just looking for images without copyrights on them! It was maybe a few months into Scorpion Dagger when I realized that I kept going back to the Renaissance art, and started thinking that maybe there was something to it.
Slowly, I developed this idea of using these old paintings to create a world where the characters on the canvas would leave the museum and go home to this place I created for them. It's actually a pretty natural fit for me because I'm fairly politically inclined, and the nature of these paintings lends perfectly to some of the critiques of things like religion and modernity that I'd like to explore.
How did the book come to fruition? Were you pitching the idea to a variety of places, or did Anteism come to you?
Funny thing was that I was thinking of making a small book of prints by myself, and seeing where that went. Something like two days after downloading some book making software, a friend of mine told me that Anteism wanted to meet me about potentially making a book using augmented reality. Those guys are so nice, and make such nice stuff, so the decision to go for it was easy.
I read in several of your older interviews that you had been looking for a way to extend the GIF medium into new formats, both for monetization reasons and for experience. Is an AR-enhanced book the type of extension you imagined?
I had just pitched an AR show to a museum here in Montreal, and they asked that I come back with some examples. I met with some people who work with the tech, but felt a little priced out, so part of plan with the book is that we're hoping to develop our own AR app that we can both use in the future.
For me, it's not so much about the monetization of my work, but more about opening it up to new venues and audiences. Part of it too is that with AR, there's this idea where I started scanning some of these paintings out of books, repurposed them digitally, and now I'm putting them back into a book that I think is pretty fun.
How much artwork in the book is new? Is there a lot of overlap from your Tumblr?
There will be a fair amount of new stuff that will probably never be put on the site, but it will mostly stuff be from the Tumblr. However, most of those pieces will be lengthened, expanded and cleaned up some. Tumblr used to have this old uploading system that was really frustrating because it really limited the length and size of the GIF, so a lot of the GIFs up on the site are not quite how I wanted them to look. There was a lot of editing down in past, and I'd love to now show them how I originally intended them to be.
Will all the artwork in the book be AR enhanced?
All of it. I'm hoping to enhance some little surprises in there too.
Can you explain the book a little bit more? How is it curated – are there chapters, is it split into themes/categories?
I won't be chaptered in the formal sense, but we're going to try and lay it out in a way where there might be a little bit of a dialogue or continuity between the pieces.
I've read in past interviews that your GIF-making process is fairly simple. Can you expand on that?
Now, it's all digital. On occasion, I'll scan images from art books we have laying around the house, but the cutting, pasting and animating is all in Photoshop. Usually how it goes is that I come up with an idea for a GIF, and start making the characters to go in it by cutting out things like bodies, heads, arms and legs from various paintings. Often I have to colour balance the parts so everything matches (my girlfriend comes in handy here because I'm partly colour-blind — sometimes the strangeness of mismatching body parts seeps through). Once I got them made, start making backgrounds, and other little features to go into it.
The animating process is fairly straight forward — I make them all in frame animation (on Photoshop), and in each new frame something is moved ever so slightly. It's very similar to that traditional style of cel animation. Frame one, for example, the arm is by the side, frame two it's a little higher, frame 3 a little more, etc... Each arm placement is represented by a layer that is being turned on and off as you go through each frame. If anyone wants to see it in action, there's some really good explanation videos on Youtube by people who are a lot clearer at explaining things than me.
You said you have a desktop on your computer full of tons of imagery around the web. Do you have a collection of physical cut-outs too?
I don't know if this creepy or not, but...
How do you imagine the original painters would respond to your work?
I think some of them would be into it. If you look at a Lucas Cranach the Elder painting, for example, he almost seems to be having fun with them. Almost as if he was dying to subvert the subjects depicted in his work. I like to imagine some of these painters as being a little punk rock, and that if it wasn't for the threat of being excommunicated or worse, they'd take it a whole lot further. Maybe it's just my interpretation of some of the work, but you can read a little bit of rebellion into it sometimes.
Will you continue your work as Scorpion Dagger after this book is published? Or is this the logical conclusion of the art alter ego?
Good question! I thought I'd be done after the first year, but I keep falling more-and-more in love with making the GIFs (for the most part). Who knows? I don't intend on it lasting forever, and believe in bowing out while your stay is still welcome, but maybe I'm not the best judge for that. It's so much fun right now, and I still feel as if I have things I'd like to say.
To support the Scorpion Dagger's augmented reality book, head over to the Kickstarter.
And for more of James Kerr's amazing work, visit his always-hilarious Tumblr.