Annlee: Sign of the Times

By Nobel, Philip | Artforum International, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Annlee: Sign of the Times


Nobel, Philip, Artforum International


In 1999, Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno purchased the rights to a manga drawing from a Japanese firm and called on a dozen artist friends to realize works based on that cartoon character, whom they named Annlee. The fruits of their communal effort were brought together for the first time in "No Ghost Just a Shell," a traveling exhibition that began its international tour at the Kunsthalle Zurich last year. Philip Nobel considers the venture, currently on view at both the Institute of Visual Culture, in Cambridge, England, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

I met Annlee one day last August, in the Fifty-seventh Street gallery of Marian Goodman, who represents Pierre Huyghe, one of the men who until recently might have been referred to as Ann's co-owners but who have been reduced, through their own legal sleight of hand, to being just two among her many employers (handlers? puppeteers?). I was a little nervous. I had heard so much about Ann: how she had been created in the strangeness of Japan by a kind of manga talent agency, how she was condemned to death by commerce, given life by art, and was now facing some unknowable third state--release.

I knew before seeing her that she would be a simple girl, not much more than a pair of wide anime eyes--that quintessence of the Japanese weakness for cute--shot through as they always are with Starburst novas. Like most of us, she was conceived as an extra. The anonymous draftsman at that Tokyo house, dashing her off in a spare moment between heroes, had given Ann loads of Japanese schoolgirl charm--kawaii!--but no survival skills; she had none of the hit points that might see her through the inevitable trials she would face in a typical, violent cartoon. She could summon no demons and wield no lasers. So her days were numbered by design to a scarce page count or a few dwindling moments on the screen, cut short by early oblivion. It would be Bambi Meets Godzilla.

The details of Ann's liberation offer a charming plunge into the French semiotic imagination. That nation, from whom the Japanese adopted the name of their culture-conquering anime, had come, in the persons of Huyghe and his frequent collaborator Philippe Parreno, to take a bit of the magic medium back. In 1999, the two bought Ann from Kworks, a Japanese clearinghouse for animated characters. They saw her in a mail-order catalogue--she was known then, like a radio or a blender, only by some inscrutable proprietary code--and paid forty-six thousand yen (roughly $432) for her image and the exclusive rights to use it. They named her (Annlee, AnnLee, Ann Lee; in a Parreno animation, Anywhere Out of the World, 2000, she states she doesn't care which), and they intended to set her free--not by giving her autonomy, like the Web-roaming cyberstar in William Gibson's 1996 novel Idoru (we're not there yet), but by filling Ann, the empty sign, with significance. Then they would pull the plug.

Oh, Ann: Yours is a story of frying pans and fires.

The artists translated her static image into a computer model, redrew her slightly, and made her the open-source, freeware starlet of a time-limited, collaborative enterprise: No Ghost Just a Shell, un film d'imaginaire, 1999-2002. (The physical home for the Annlee project is a production facility in Paris, coordinated by the fortuitously named artist Anna-Lena Vaney.) "No Ghost" is, of course, an unveiled reference to the classic 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell. It's 2029: Major Motoko Kusanagi is a typically hypersensualized cyborg reconstruction retaining only half her original human brain (in train-spotting otaku circles, her age is said to be thirty-something, though her robot body replicates a twenty-year-old). She faces off against Project 2501, aka the Puppet Master, a secret, government-spawned Web crawler. When that batch of bad code generates its own sentience and tries to escape the Net by merging with Major Motoko (the genie needs a bottle), she suffers a very human crisis that casts into doub t her place on the man/machine spectrum. …

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