Imagine a world, and you can build it. A trite line in politics, perhaps – but in art? A stimulating starting point for creation. For more than a century, artists have turned to animation in its many forms to bring their ideas to fruition. Whether stop-motion, two- or three-dimensional, hand-drawn, computer-generated, or algorithmic, animation is storytelling unrestrained by reality. That’s what makes it such a potent tool for processing the world around us: There are no limits to what can be explored.

We’ve come a long way from the early days of animation in the early 1900s, when camera trickery and frame-by-frame sketches were the predominant tools available to artists and moviemakers. As soon as computer animation surfaced in the 1960s, artists like Harold Cohen began exploring its potential for uses beyond the commercial, giving it their own avant-garde spin. At the turn of the 21st century, technology progressed exponentially, and personal computing became more accessible to more people, including artists. Now, in 2024, these digital tools have never been more plentiful or accessible, giving artists an unprecedented ability to shape their work to meet their visions.

For this year’s Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement in Geneva (BIM’24), curated by Nora N. Khan and Andrea Bellini at the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, 15 artists from around the world were commissioned to create new works. They represent a cross section of what art made from moving images looks like today, from the subtlest of digital interventions to the most overtly stylized. Despite their different aesthetic approaches, a few trends emerge around distortion, memory, political resistance, and the blurred line between fiction and reality.

Artist Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley works with animation, sound, text, and video game development to create virtual worlds that center Black trans life, giving agency to a group of people who have historically been excluded and forgotten. By weaving together fictional back stories with lived experience, the Berlin-based Brathwaite-Shirley creates a living archive for the Black trans community – past, present, and future. For BIM’24, the artist presents a video game-like visual novel, titled ​​NO SPACE FOR REDEMPTION? (2023). As with much of the artist’s other work, it is interactive, forcing the viewer to engage as an active participant with the art. A story unfolds about the discovery of a dead body, in part a commentary on trauma porn and so-called cancel culture. At various points throughout the story, text scrolls across the screen to ask the audience what to do next, like prompts in a video game. This interactivity is very much at the core of work which seeks to make a political statement about how Black trans people deserve recognition and remembrance. With such enthralling animation, color, and sound, it’s as if Brathwaite-Shirley is saying: There’s too much at stake to simply walk by, look briefly, and move on. You must engage with us.

The duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, based in both New York and Ramallah, work at the confluence of image, sound, and text. Their work unpacks how violence, occupation, displacement, and trauma affect communities in Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world. Their ongoing, multifaceted project May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth (2020-) explores these topics in both physical and virtual spaces. Using the archive they’ve amassed over more than a decade, they tap into both performance and memory. Their BIM’24 presentation is part of that larger project, focusing here on the impossibility of living in a continuous state of mourning. Poem-like bits of text and videos of Palestinian landscapes and people pop up on screen, exposing the fine line between existence and erasure. By applying digital distortion to color and sound, Abbas and Abou-Rahme echo the feelings of living in a fractured world. How can we grieve over and over again and expect to keep living? What kind of home is a scorched earth? These are the kinds of questions the work asks of its audience. Given the current level of devastation in the region, with so much destruction and loss, Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s work is all the more urgent.

For Aziz Hazara, the geopolitics of displacement are an ongoing nexus of exploration. The multidisciplinary artist, born in Afghanistan and now based between Berlin and Kabul, has experienced ongoing war, conflict, and occupation throughout his lifetime. In previous works, such as the acclaimed Bow Echo (2019), which featured five screens each with a boy blowing a toy horn on a hilltop while battling high winds, Hazara occupied the space just beyond realism. With only a quick glance, you might mistake some of his work for cinema verité, but the choices he makes around framing, sonic landscape, and distortion bring an unsettling air to each shot. Such is the case in Nowruz (2024), Hazara’s contribution to BIM’24. (Its name comes from the festival marking the first day of spring celebrated in many cultures.) This single-channel video with sound is a film of a real human being, but it features digitally added, animation-like effects – playing with the opacity and exposure, for example, or dropping the figure into Photoshop. At the start of the film, the figure, who we understand is in exile, is stuck in a frustrating phone call in broken French. The dissonance between wanting to go home and being trapped elsewhere, especially during a holiday, is a relatable feeling for many. It takes a turn for the uncanny as we drop into the Photoshop window, where the figure is given a suit to wear with the assistance of this handy software program. The suited-up man then appears on camera, silently turning to look over his shoulder, with the audience left feeling disoriented. Such is the feeling of displacement at the heart of Hazara’s work.

Diego Marcon also elicits the uncanny. The Milan-based artist works in a range of styles and mediums, including animation, sound, film, and installation, and is always bringing together intellectual and emotional structures that muddy the boundary between what’s real and what’s not. His films range from short pieces made without cameras to large crew productions – but no matter the length or scale, Marcon produces sharp commentary on contemporary society. His musical film The Parents’ Room (2021), presented at the Biennale di Venezia in 2022, utilized digital video transferred from 35mm film with CGI animation. Its dark subject matter – murder and suicide – was brought to life by animated figures who, not unlike Cabbage Patch Kids, manage to be both cutesy and disturbing at the same time. The same is true of Marcon’s BIM’24 presentation, a new film called La Gola (2024), an ‘epistolary melodrama’, that again combines 35mm film and CGI to creepy effect in its depiction of a meal set against deteriorating health. It is this subversive confluence that makes Marcon’s work so affecting. What to make of something both immediately recognizable and intensely perverse? The tension requires sitting in discomfort – something that Marcon’s style so deftly captures.

As these artists’ work shows, animation today is complex and nuanced, but it also gets to the heart of what good art does: It makes you stop and think. There are no quick glances with moving images.

Credits and Captions

Grace Edquist is an art writer and the copy director of Vogue magazine. She lives in New York City.

Caption for the full-bleed image: Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, NO SPACE FOR REDEMPTION? (detail), 2023. Courtesy of the artist & Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève for the BIM’24.