The animated chic of radical cats: The Pinky Show ascending
by Michael Lithgow, Art Threat
For those haven’t had the pleasure, let me introduce Pinky: the cutest radical kitty journalist west of the Appalachia’s. Indeed, you have to experience the Pinky Show to appreciate its subversive charm. Imagine a children’s cartoon with dialogue vetted by your favourite political theorists, with a sense of humour, and enough cheekiness... well, enough cheekiness to maybe make a change.
The Pinky Show is the animated political project of two creators from California who, for the purposes of this article, asked to be referred to by their animated character names: Pinky and Bunny. It is an online endeavor that offers up documentary cartoons on a host of political issues.
The show is narrated by Pinky, said animated kitty journalist, and the style is simple, compelling and interminably cute. The analysis is astute and rendered in a way suitable for young and old alike. For anyone interested in education, it is a veritable feast of audiovisual materials aimed at challenging many of the one-sided dominant social and political myths and ideologies circulating in North American public culture.
They see their work as part of the larger project of ending of American imperialism. Says ‘Pinky’: “Probably our biggest long term goal, fantasy, whatever is the dissolution of U.S. Empire. So we try to choose topics that all together will help people think about the moral arguments that would be necessary to achieving that kind of political objective.” A Herculean task, it might seem, for a little cartoon cat. But through their online distribution efforts, the Pinky Show is attracting an ever growing audience around the world.
A quick glance through their archive gives a sense of the political territory this creative group has staked out for itself: Hawaii’s illegal appropriation by the United States; the dangers to imagination and intelligence posed by public education; the role of world’s fairs in the colonization of the global south; the American occupation of Iraq; a kitty treatise on class, power and agency; creepy children’s toys; GMO’s; new forms of apartheid; illegal immigration. There isn’t much they shy away from.
“Sometimes the connection [between shows] is obvious,” explained ‘Pinky’. “For example we have episodes about how the U.S. seized Hawaii, or about the illegality of the Iraq War under international law, things like that. Other times we talk about really basic things like “Be kind to animals”. Or, hey, we need to do a critique of schooling. To us all of these kinds of topics are related because we cannot move towards a better society without being ethically and analytically grounded.”
The animation is deceptively simple. One of my favourite episodes – not least because when I watched it I was battling an ant infestation in my home – is the appeal by ant #14C from Pinky’s ant farm. The ant escapes the farm, mounts a podium, and reads an appeal and manifesto about why ants are worthy of life. There is an economy of style that works. It’s what the creators call “space to think”.
“We like something that looks simple is because we want to make something that allows people space to think. Sometimes when things are very beautiful or visually complex it’s easy to get lost in that. It’s similar to why the pace and rhythm of our videos are pretty slow, at least in comparison to more entertaining things out there. We want a quiet, focused format.”
‘Bunny’ explained that the paired down style was also due in part to funding constraints. “We don’t have enough money, time, technique or desire to make something fancy. An elaborate production process means it’d take us even longer to produce new episodes, and we’re trying to cover more material, not less.” More resources, says ‘Pinky’, would allow them to introduce more sophistication to their animation.
The creative duo behind the Pinky Show say they started the project mostly for themselves. They wanted a way to turn studying and learning into a full-time project because, says ‘Pinky’, “doing it just some of the time didn’t seem like it’d be enough to truly, deeply look into things.”
‘Bunny’ concurs. “I remember when we first started talking about creating The Pinky Show, it was in terms of an educational t.v. show with puppets. The idea was [for a show] intended for adults who were, say, finished with school but somehow stuck in their learning, feeling like they weren’t really learning anything new anymore. And I don’t mean learning about Julia Roberts on the Gossip Channel or whatever. We are more concerned with how U.S. society is organized in a way that’s hurtful to millions or billions of people and the whole planet in general.”
Their project links pedagogy with activism and a desire to bring into wider circulation discussions about legitimation, hegemony, power structures, and settler colonialism. Many of their productions address complicated emotional and intellectual terrain. Another of my favourites – Scary School Nightmare – combines Pinky animation with words from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society. It is haunting rendering of Illich’s critique of public education.
Because of its unusual narrative and visual style, the Pinky Show is exploring modes of truth-telling that are largely unavailable to traditional media. The Pinky team rejects, for instance, any notion of objectivity as a guiding principle. And yet they bring to their efforts a traditional journalistic concern for the quality of information that makes up their programming. “We are very, very careful to make sure that every single thing we put in our videos is 100% defensible. We go over pretty much each and every word we use in our videos to make sure that we can back up what we’re saying, either in terms of facts or in terms of a sound moral argument,” explained Pinky.
“We are not interested in dedicating 50% of our program time to exploring things from ‘other perspectives’. Dominant perspectives already enjoy a near-monopoly of thought in all the broadcast t.v. news shows, they dominate all other realms of popular culture, they fill the pages of history books in the classrooms. That’s neither fair or balanced. Fair would be if all the t.v. shows and all that educational media presented the public with the full spectrum of perspectives that exist out there, which of course also includes counter-hegemonic perspectives and histories. Well, that’s not happening and it’s an enormous obstacle to mobilizing support for social change. So we’re definitely coming at things from a downside-up direction and we are 100% committed to that, no apologies.”
The Pinky Show’s unique visual style also draws from the world of art, or at least its creators do. Indeed, it is an ‘artful’ kind of journalism, well suited to new media audiences whose distinctions between entertainment, art and news are increasingly blurred. “Obviously we use many conventions and strategies that we’ve stolen from the visual arts,” says Bunny. “But I don’t think that makes me identify as an artist. The way I think about it is that I’m always looking for any kind of tools to help us get our message out there.”
‘Pinky’ concurs. “Yeah, when people put us in the art category I don’t mind at all. I don’t identify as an artist in an occupational sense. But I’m fine with people putting our work in the visual arts category simply because the contemporary art scene is filled with such an enormous range of strategies and practices, and I can easily see how our work will probably have many similarities with stuff a lot of artists are doing out there. Probably the things I absorbed in terms of looking at the political dimension of artistic practices has found its way into the way we work now, but it’s not something I’m consciously trying to develop as a way to make a political statements through art.”
The Pinky Show looks ready-made for the classroom, and indeed the show has a following among teachers. “We get a lot of feedback from all kinds of educators,” says ‘Bunny’, “university professors, education departments at museums, high school teachers, home schoolers, etc. Our videos and printed stuff are also used a lot in non-classroom settings like teach-ins, reading circles, community workshops… basically a lot of grassroots-type education.”
“We’ve also received a lot of e-mails and letters from people to use The Pinky Show as the basis of a kind of self-education thing, almost like a hobby,” adds ‘Pinky’. “They watch our videos and then use our reference lists as a point of departure for their own research. I think that’s interesting. We also work directly with a small circle of educators – mostly higher education people, scattered throughout various universities, mostly in the U.S., and some old-school activists and media activists. When we need guidance or feedback we’re pretty quick to just call someone with 20 or 50 years experience with a thing and ask them for advice or information.”
There is much that the Pinky team has accomplished, but despite its popularity among teachers and growing audiences, the Pinky Show struggles to pay the bills. It is, I was told, a constant battle to keep the project afloat. “If people find our work useful,” says ‘Bunny’, “they can support our project by making a donation, fundraise for us, or buying a Pinky Show t-shirt, an art print, something like that.
“Tens of thousands of people download our videos from our website every month but hardly anybody makes a donation. We have tons of fans but hardly any supporters. We want to give away digital information for free because we think that this kind of information should be available to anyone who’s willing to think about it. Unfortunately we need money to keep these things available and also to make new stuff. We need food, shelter, and equipment in order to keep working. I hope people reading this decide to support us because we have a huge pile of really good, important projects that we want to bring to completion.”
So there it is.
Check out the Pinky Show website and if you like what you see help them out.
“We would like to make an attempt to see if human beings, U.S. people in particular, are capable at this point in history to clean up the mess they’ve created,” says Bunny. “We’re nobodies, but we have to do our little part to move things along in that direction. The Pinky Show is what we can do.”