Monday, 6 December 2010

Recalling the Shots

Actor - David Hall & Tony Sinden, 1972
On Wednesday 8 December I will be presenting Recalling the Shots at Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle upon Tyne.  The programme is part of the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere series of exhibitions by CIRCA Contemporary Art Projects, which has so far presented shows by Stuart Pearson Wright, Henry Coombes and until Thursday 9 December Lu Chunsheng.

Recalling the Shots cuts across the received history of artists' moving image, featuring work from the past 40 years including experimental cinema classics, rarely screened artists’ films, rediscovered seminal video works, through to new and recent contemporary works.  The works in the programme move beyond appropriation and deconstruction techniques as they engage with cinema, television and digital media conventions and phenomena to consider, reconstruct and reinterpret them in new and unusual ways. Recalling the Shots includes work by Sarah Dobai, David Hall & Tony Sinden, Mark Lewis, Anne McGuire, Matthew Noel-Tod, Manuel Saiz, Erica Scourti, John Smith and Mark Wilcox.  Reproduced below is the catalogue essay and programme details.

Recalling the Shots 

A critical artists’ film and video practice inevitably exists in relation to mainstream media and there is a history of attempts to rouse or frustrate the viewer into an awareness of its supposedly pernicious forces of control, its deleterious effect upon the hapless spectator ignorant of its lack of agency and of the damage done.  In 1951 Lettrist Maurice Lemaitre provoked viewers and engineered civil chaos for a Paris screenings of his “general butchering of the cinema” (Lemaitre quoted by Christian Lebrat in the lecture Lettrism: History, Theory and Cinema, 1990) Le Film est Deja Commence? (Has the Film Already Started?); in the mid-sixties Nam June Paik famously asserted “television has been attacking us all our lives, now we can attack it back” (Gene Youngblood, ‘Nam June Paik: Cathode Karma’, Expanded Cinema, 1970); while in the seventies Peter Gidal’s polemical anti-narrative position dictated that illusionist narrative in 'dominant cinema' "places transparency and representation/illusionism at the centre of oppressive structuring in society" (Peter Gidal, ‘The Anti-Narrative’, Screen, 1978), leading him to make films intended to alienate the viewer into being keenly aware of the fact of their watching a film.

This brief chronology of discontent brings us to a point where, post Modernism, artists started using more sophisticated approaches to the conventions of television and cinema.  By the 1970s televisual pop had already begun to eat itself, with a self-reflexivity often manifested in the form of satire or comedy (look no further than Monty Python’s Flying Circus (BBC TV 1969-74) for evidence of this).  Artists were also beginning to appropriate and adapt media forms and language with a more nuanced critique of the idea of cinema and television, tactically reclaiming autonomy by rewriting the "simulacra the system distributes to each individual" (
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984).

Each work in this collection, in differing ways, shuffles and remixes the institutional codes, conventions and phenomena of cinema, TV and the media.  Each has been selected to engage with elements of those conventions, redefining their phenomenological roles.

The Actor:  Deconstruction in artists’ film and video finds an early exemplar in David Hall and Tony Sinden’s 1972 film Actor.  Inspired by Hall’s attendance at a BBC TV session for editors and directors, where examples of what not to do in shooting and cutting a scene were presented , the eponymous actor becomes locked in an aporia, a self-referential impasse.  As he unsuccessfully attempts to resolve his ostensible role in relation to and in conversation with an assumed audience, a monologue worthy of Beckett traces the actor’s absurd existential crisis, the fatal ontology of an on-screen persona.

The Director: The actor above is entirely scripted and the tactics employed to demonstrate the artificiality of the situation determined by the artists; John Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) conversely, assumes directorial control after the fact: the authority of the voice-over preempting the everyday events of a North London street to achieve the illusion of absolute control over it.  As we become aware of the reality of the situation the film is transformed into a work of humorous deconstruction of notions of authority and the construction of the illusion of reality employed by cinema.  Smith was particularly inspired by Francois Truffaut’s film Day for Night (1973) during which a megalomaniacal film director issues instructions to actors and passers-by alike.

The Remake: Actor and The Girl Chewing Gum demonstrate classic deconstruction techniques as post-structuralism would have it in the sense that they are texts that have dismantled themselves.  Now considered as a classic text of Video Art deconstruction in its own right, Calling the Shots by Mark Wilcox (1984) is also an appropriationist deconstruction of a previously extant text: Douglas Sirk’s classic Hollywood melodrama Imitation of Life (1959), itself a remake of a 1934 film.  Wilcox’s fragmented ‘remake’ is complete with extracts from the original film, revealing the conditions of its own construction in the TV studio, the mutability of the actors, roles and script, as well as the then state of video art technology in the form of the repeat edit.

Post Postmodernism moving image across mainstream media arrives in many ways as already deconstructed and artists do not so much evince this as to create new formal relationships, resonances and formulations, through remaking and remodelling.

The Fading Star: In I Am Crazy And You're Not Wrong (1997), Anne McGuire plays the television singer past her prime with virtuoso just-reigned-in hysteria.  Like a suspended slow motion train wreck that never quite happens, the video echoes a voyeuristic cultural fascination with tragic fame.  But playing to whom?  Is there, was there ever, an audience?

The Extra: As the title suggests Mark Lewis’s The Pitch (1998), indeed takes the form of a pitch to camera, but who is his viewer, and to whom is he pitching?  The role of the extra, the apparent passer-by in the cinema that so intrigued John Smith, is revisited as Lewis calls for more attention to be paid to its role and existence in the feature film.  The camera pulls back revealing Lewis, a one-time extra himself, surrounded by his subject, as he uses industrial cinema techniques to reflect upon the conditions of industrial filmmaking.

Sound and Music: sync and non-sync.  Two pieces approach these phenomena from different directions and to quite different ends.  In Manuel Saiz’s Specialized Technicians Required: Being Luis Porcar (2005) the relationship of the voice-over artist to the star actor is neatly inverted.  How much of the persona of John Malkovich is the actor known by that name, and how much is actually the voice by which he is known to millions of his viewers?  Atomic by Matthew Noel-Tod is a simulacrum of the music video by Blondie that begs the question of what happens to the vehicle for a song when the sound to image relationship is reversed through replacement.  Apocalyptic imagery becomes dramatised, heightened and remobilised by association.

Landscape as location: Going back to ‘nature’.  One might occasionally hear it said of a spectacularly cinematographed mise en scène, particularly of the Western genre, that the landscape is considered as being central, as though a character.  In Sarah Dobai’s Nettlecombe (2007) the landscape is ‘performed’ as non-human elements such as the strength and direction of the wind, the movement of the trees and bushes are all choreographed.  Set as it is in a landscape garden, an artificial wilderness, the film critiques the artificiality of landscape representation, nature as essential and undetermined is a cinematic illusion.

Landscape as information: In the Information Age moving image media proliferates in many forms across every available device and platform as material and information as content and generic taxonomy become indistinguishable.  In Erica Scourti’s new work Woman Nature Alone (2010), rather than being a physical construction as in Nettlecombe, ‘nature’ is a generic keyword (and one that could stand in for ‘landscape’) for the setting or location of human activity.  It would seem that shots and gestures are now collected in databases, metadata has replaced creative invention and interpretation, in the world of stock images and footage content is described by keywords and organised with tags.  Scourti’s tactical cunning revivifies the database by reclaiming the anonymity of categorisation as a series of short self-portraits that writes the individual into the industrial.


Actor David Hall and Tony Sinden (UK, 1972, 11:00, original 16mm)
An (intentionally unmistakable) actor holds a conversation on a telephone, only his voice is heard throughout.  His scripted monologue attempts to draw the audience across the time barrier between the time when the film was shot and when it is seen, gradually revealing that the conversation is a hypothetical (impossible) one with the audience themselves.  Unconventional juxtapositions are applied in the editing to support this and ultimately to pose questions about the accepted notions of temporal and spatial continuity.
- Perspectives on British Avant-Garde Film catalogue, Hayward Gallery, 1977

The Girl Chewing Gum John Smith (UK, 1976, 12:00, original 16mm)
In The Girl Chewing Gum an authoritative voice-over pre-empts the events occurring in the image, seeming to order not only the people, cars and moving objects within the screen but also the actual camera movements operated on the street in view. In relinquishing the more subtle use of voice-over in television documentary, the film draws attention to the control and directional function of that practice: imposing, judging, creating an imaginary scene from a visual trace.
- Michael Maziere, ‘John Smith's Films: Reading the Visible’, Undercut 10/11, 1983

The Pitch Mark Lewis (UK, 1998, 4:00, video)
Mark Lewis has made a series of films that isolate particular elements of mainstream and avant-garde cinema, which he identifies as cinema's real inventions.  In the work shown here he delivers a pitch about his desire to make a big-budget film devoted exclusively to film extras, usually seen only as the human backdrop against which the central stars perform.

Woman Nature Alone Erica Scourti (UK, 2010, 10:00, video)
Woman Nature Alone shows a series of micro-performances enacted in response to captions and taglines of imagery taken of stock video and photography sites that corresponded to the keywords ‘woman’, ‘nature’ and ‘alone’. Each of the videos was uploaded to YouTube on daily basis, only 2 seconds snippets of which appear in the final film.  This version fashions the range of activities into a loose narrative, covering various emotional states, times of day and weather conditions of a woman alone in nature.

Nettlecombe Sarah Dobai (UK, 2007, 7:00, original 16mm)
This fixed-frame work depicts a landscaped garden whose stillness is broken by the wind that plays across it. As the work itself reveals, the wind in Nettlecombe is achieved thorough an orchestrated performance of wind machines and ropes in which the trees and bushes in the garden are animated like puppets within a constructed set.

Specialized Technicians Required: Being Luis Porcar Manuel Saiz (Spain, 2005, 1:00, video)
Luis Porcar, a well known Spanish dubbing actor, speaks for one minute about his work when dubbing the voice of the American actor John Malkovich. The video is presented dubbed into English by John Malkovich himself, thus closing the conceptual loop of the work with his collaboration.

Atomic Matthew Noel-Tod (UK, 2003, 5:00, video)
Atomic is a shot-for-shot remake of the 1980 music promo video for the pop song by Blondie.  Recreated with a Debbie Harry look-a-like, the video replicates the imagined post-apocalyptic setting of the original video with the kitsch, vamp costumes and lo-fi, homemade stage set. The soundtrack of the original song, is replaced with a contemporary score for FW Murnau's silent vampire film Nosferatu (1922).

I Am Crazy And You're Not Wrong Anne McGuire (USA, 1997, 11:00, video)
A wonderful witty work about nostalgia and desperation.  Ann McGuire portrays a Kennedy-era singer performing in a space where theatre meets television. McGuire's Garlandesque gestures provide both a sense of tragedy and humour. I am Crazy and You're Not Wrong weaves narrative, performance, memory and history into a ironic and haunting work of unique proportions.

Calling the Shots Mark Wilcox (UK, 1984, 11:00, video)
Calling the Shots remakes a technicolor sequence from a 1950s Hollywood movie – not once but three times.  It progressively exposes the artifice and mechanics of production; behind the painted set plus poised actors, lie cameras, lights and technicians.  Reconstruction becomes deconstruction.  Simultaneously questions of the representation of women are raised and the power politics of gender are explored.
- Mark Wilcox, Subverting Television, Film and Video Umbrella, 1984.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Land Gauge

Recently I found this version of my video Land GaugeLand Gauge has appeared in various forms and contexts. It first appeared in January 2007 as Direct Language 4.0 on my original Direct Language videoblog.  That version used the sound as recorded with the image although the whole thing is slowed down. In 2008 I made a version for One Minute Volume 2 where it is accompanied by 60/60 a sound piece made when I was at art college in 1981, which was also on the Snatch 3 compilation.  For this version I sped the original 60/60 up so that it would fit within the 60 second parameter of the project.  Later that year it was in the Transcentric show, where it was projected on a small raised platform screen on the floor so that one looked down onto it, replicating the original point of view, as a silent 4 minute loop.  This version was made while preparing the video for Transcentric and compiles several parts of the original sequence, into a kind of extended mix as a continuous 10 minute video, it too is silent. 

Monday, 6 September 2010

some September screenings


Inanimatismus screens at:
• Ukrainian Art Festival, Koktebel, Ukraine,
7 - 9 September;
• Future Proof, Marseille Project Gallery, France,
Saturday 18 September;
Stew Gallery, Norwich, UK,
Wednesday 29 September
These screenings are part of One Minute vol 4

The Ground, the Sky, and the Island screens at:
Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival
Hawick, Scottish Borders,
Sunday 12 September;

Direct Language screens at:
cogcollective at The BAck doOR
Melbourne, Australia
Saturday 25 September. 

Thursday, 3 June 2010

on the return of Direct Language

stuck somewhere

the word

the dissolve

refused to render

until the sequence

had been deleted

and even then

with difficulty...

...the return of Direct Language

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Chromatic City

Killing time in Melbourne yesterday I wander into Screen Worlds, The Story of Film, Television & Digital Culture at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) at Federation Square, of which is boasted: “This stunning new exhibition will change the way you think about the most pervasive and powerful cultural forms of our time.”  Leaving aside questions about what exactly ‘Digital Culture’ is, or perhaps more precisely isn’t (some factions of Australian moving image culture still seem to find it necessary to make the distinction, I suppose at least they’ve stopped using the anachronistic term ‘new media’), the exhibition is a bit of a discombobulating affair, resembling a fairground as much as an exhibition it seems to have an educational remit designed to appeal primarily to restless geeky teenagers.  I find it almost impossible to be motivated to engage with all the clever displays, the entertaining paths through the history of forms and themes of moving image are to me as alienating in their insistence as they might be engaging.

Turning a corner though, and to my surprise, I find a film by Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, The City of Cinematic Dissolution (16mm, 1998).  But not 16mm at all, a video transfer, sorry ‘digital transfer’.  The surprising thing about this is that the Cantrills have famously long been advocates for film, for film as film, not just in a materialistic sense, but also in terms of it as a medium of cinematic reproduction and exhibition.  They have always to my knowledge absolutely refused to even consider transferring their films to video preferring to screen good quality prints or in some cases the original reversal film.  This has usually been on the grounds of quality and resolution and the quality of film and colour separation as a very specifically filmic technique long practiced by the Cantrills, is the formal and structural basis of Cinematic Dissolution which  consists of images made from three black and white filmed sequences, each shot using a different colour filter.  The digital transfer at ACMI is nothing special at all, indeed it renders the original crisp lines of the film, the layers of RGB colour that recombine into an out of register fractured portrait of this ‘dissolved’ city, soupy and indistinct.  I feel mildly shocked that it had been allowed to be displayed in such a condition.  Nevertheless, there it is.  Of course in this ‘educational’ setting the display is there to demonstrate a particular aspect of film technology.  It is more importantly to my mind one of the finest ‘city’ films made, as insightful a portrait of Melbourne as Ruttmann’s was of Berlin. 

Having spent a few days wandering around Melbourne, looking at particular aspects of urban space for the Public Water project, I’ve been noticing contemporary Melbourne architecture, mostly buildings that have been erected since I lived here.  

The buildings seem predominantly to be towers, monumental grey or beige blocks with grids of windows, often with a particularly jaunty angle or ostentatious detail.  A little like the people one sees promenading around town: smart, somewhat conservatively dressed but with enough clever little details to signify them as being, oh just that little bit more interesting.  Melbourne people seem to like to check each other and everybody else out.  There’s no hiding their giving everyone in range the once over.  Like the smart clothes of the local middle classes, the architecture is ‘look at me’ architecture.  Often attached to the facade of one of these smart new building is a clever little neo Le Corbusier-lite detail in primary colours, a dash of red, a lick of yellow, a frame, a line, an angled perpendicular.  The black and white and RGB of The City of Cinematic Dissolution holds a dispassionate mirror up to this city that so earnestly wants the world to look at it.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

There’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity

Think of almost any kind of cultural endeavor and then use the word “we” to describe its creation. The communal pronoun trips easily off the tongue when talking about the world of contemporary arts and entertainment, where things are often the product of teams, workshops, studios or institutions, where collaboration and idea-swapping are the norm. But now try applying it to creative writing, especially to fiction and poetry, and it can sound absurd: “We worked for years on the character development and the voice, and when we finally nailed the subtle epiphany, we cracked open a bottle of Champagne to celebrate.”

Maybe that’s one reason for the flurry of attention recently about a teenage German novelist, Helene Hegemann, whose book about Berlin’s club scene was named a finalist for a prestigious literary prize to be awarded next month in Leipzig. After a blogger and fellow novelist announced that Ms. Hegemann had blended sizeable chunks of his own writing into hers, Ms. Hegemann, instead of following the plagiarism-gotcha script of contrition and retraction so familiar in recent years, announced that appropriating the passages from that book and other sources was her plan all along.

A child of a media-saturated generation, Hegemann presents herself as a writer whose birthright is the remix, the use of anything at hand she feels suits her purposes, an idea of communal creativity that certainly wasn’t shared by those from whom she borrowed. In a line that might have been stolen from Sartre (it wasn’t) she added: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
Although associated with generally well-respected artists, Kathy Acker’s most recognized novels, Blood and Guts in High School, Great Expectations and Don Quixote receive mixed critical attention. Most critics acknowledge Acker’s skilled manipulation of plagiarized texts from writers as varied as Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Marquis de Sade. Acker's final novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, is a partial adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, with allusions to The Story of O and Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty.

Spam Lit (also known as Lit Spam and Literary Spam) is defined as snippets of nonsensical verse and prose embedded in spam e-mail messages. Some of the snippets are made up, others are passages from public domain works (such as Edgar Allan Poe and The Bible), and others are conglomerations of several creative public domain works, which are often be copied from the internet. Spam lit is included in spam emails selling or purporting to sell a products such as software, male enhancement pills, and computers.

Flarf poetry can be characterized as an avant garde poetry movement of the late 20th century and the early 21st century. Its first practitioners practiced an aesthetic dedicated to the exploration of “the inappropriate” in all of its guises. Their method was to mine the Internet  with odd search terms then distill the results into often hilarious and sometimes disturbing poems, plays, and other texts.

Originality is the last remaining waste product (muda) of creative practices and remains to be eliminated within aesthetic production and/or distribution systems.  Originality traditionally destabilises group functioning (e.g. the literary canon, the factory floor, a circle of close friends) and creates avant-garde (i.e. unsellable or unthinkable) works.

Notions of plagiarism and originality are rife in our culture at the moment, but attacks on plagiarism seem wrong-sided, warranted by the idea that originality is desirable and worth preserving when blending in and being like everything else is equally to be striven for.

Originality today has become the diminished function of lessening production costs ("content scraping") i.e. there is less and less incentive today to produce original works, especially in the arts, because everyone, particularly those outside the arts, are doing so.  And this creates a considerable incentive, especially among artists, to plagiarise works by others, works that already exist and were produced by those formerly considered to be non-artists.  Or to put it more simply, as the price of originality has gone way down (everyone an artist), the price of plagiarism has skyrocketed - even if, in the end, plagiarism has costs that are nominal, illusory, and often gratuitous when stacked against the no-less illusory concept of "originality".  What after all is the true economic "cost" of plagiarising clearly unoriginal work whose value is increased, not decreased by further (uncited) circulation patterns or by syndication across networks?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Aboriginal Myths of South London

Aboriginal Myths of South London (video, 10:30, 2010) adapts world views associated with indigenous people of Oceania to an interpretation of the space and social history of places in South London. As the first manifestation of the project, this video is presented as its prelude and explores New Kent Road, a major road close to the artist’s home. This application of attitudes to the status of the dead and human relationship to the ground, becomes a materialist alternative to the concept of the genius loci and the familiar. The approach is measured and austere, employing an arrangement of animated photographs and voice texts that becomes a poetic essay.

Screens: Saturday 13 February, Urban Research at Directors Lounge, Berlin; Sunday 21 February at Olsen, Leeds.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Direct Language on DVblog

Direct Language videos featured on DVblog today.

16 January update: more videos on DVblog.

Thanks Michael!