Animation, Appropriation, and Tech Kids Unlimited | Mark Dzula

A pint-sized princess summons her courage and battles Bowser (of Super Mario fame) after he sets fire to a building in her utopic hometown. A gang of ants and spiders endures the trauma and tribulations of getting a yearbook signed by classmates at school. Sonic the Hedgehog and Shadow get sucked into Commercial World, trapped by an Angry Bird until they can successfully produce their own commercial. Cars talk. Wrestlers brawl. Luigi saves My Little Pony and a friend after King Pig kidnaps them.

These are just some of the stories that students at Tech Kids Unlimited are working on this summer. This camp takes places in the computer lab of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and is designed for young artists living with autism. The severity of the condition varies from student to student, as each faces unique challenges. In the camp, we mostly encounter challenges with emotional regulation, collaboration, frustration, and communication. Significantly, a major goal of the Tech Kids Unlimited camp is to help them leverage the potential of digital tools for art making and moving communication.

The imaginary lands and scenarios mentioned above aren’t the only virtual places we visit during our week’s worth of work. Over the course of five days, students use a plethora of software to animate their sprawling visions including iStopmotion, Adobe Photoshop, iMovie, Garageband, and Microsoft Word.

The resultant digital narratives pulsate with wild energy and ingenuity. Inspiration for the stories comes from YouTube, film, videogames, and other bastions of pop culture. They also communicate more than just in-jokes and insider pop references; these stories often broach topics that are revelatory of issues of great importance to the young artists that made them. Issues of power, social anxiety at school, dating, family values, and loyalty to friends are just a few of the themes that surface in their work.

In doing this work, these young artists appropriate all kinds of content and material; they take images, characters, sound effects, and storylines, from all over. Even when they use and re-purpose all this pre-existing material, their work remains strikingly singular, laden with personal meaning and communicative to a wider audience, as well. I would like to understand their practice as artists and appropriators better. I have a feeling that the act of appropriation has significant artistic and educational implications, not only for my students, but also for all potential artists.

There are certainly social implications. At the end of the week screening, the artists laughed wildly at each other’s jokes and regaled each other with their animated stories. One clear affordance of digital media is the way it helps to amplify my young artists’ voices and help them connect with each other and wider audiences as well.

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