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.