This article was written prior to a talk Peter Strickland gave at the ICA as part of the BAFTA masterclass series.
by Seth Pimlott
There are many arresting scenes in Peter Strickland’s lovingly made Berberian Sound Studio, but there is one that delivers a psychic and almost physical blow. Although it’s a film apparently concerned with the ingenuity of sound engineers and foley artists tasked with the production of sound effects back in analogue time, this rupture suggests something else is going on. We initially follow Gilderoy, a British sound engineer cast in the rough mold of a diffident radio workshop boffin from his arrival at an Italian film studio where he has been hired to soundtrack the absurdly named, sexploitation gore-fest Equestrian Vortex. Strickland sets up a carefully handled narrative that posits Gilderoy as a spectator of this kind of hammy, rumbustious Roman world, poked and bullied around by the director, Santini and his imposing assistant. We have the growing sense that Santini has a sleazy second agenda; to entrap the assorted cast of beautiful women, vocal artists, and Gilderoy in his own sadistic little game. A central scene drastically undermines our belief in the fiction that has previously been established and it is the weirdness of the film, initiated halfway through and sustained until the end that I want to talk about. Both this central scene and the final episode have a very unnerving, disorientating affect, one that derives its force from surrealist poetics.
One of the first scenes introduces us to the central character Gilderoy and the work that he will be undertaking. He arrives at the film studio, where Gilderoy is introduced to the director’s assistant who shows a rough cut of the film that he will work on. We watch them as they watch the film. This cuts to the title sequence of Santini’s, ‘The Equestrian Vortex’, the only part of the movie we’re allowed to see. The sequence, masterfully produced by the graphic designer Julian house (who was also responsible for all the other design work throughout the film and its promotion, http://andyhague.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/julian-house.html)) gives a sense of the movie that we’re never shown. A Giallo shocker, psychedelic lashings of scarlet blood and human tissue dribble down fracturing silhouettes of the fictional cast while the credits role. We presume the film has started and we cut back to a shot of a perturbed Gilderoy and the assistant watching what must be a blood-bath, ‘Is that entirely necessary…What is he doing to her… and it doesn’t seem to be about horses?’ Gilderoy then grudgingly accepts a slice of watermelon from a beardy studio-hand, introducing us to the material that Gilderoy will work with – namely soggy fruit and veg.
Berberian Sound Studio is, among other things, a meditation on the lost art of physical sound making. Gruesome scenes find their sonic equivalent through Gilderoy’s ingenious use of groceries. The whip of a blanket followed by smashing a marrow on the floor becomes the sound of the defenestration of a witch, a cabbage vigorously dunked in a tub soundtrack a brutal murder in a vat of boiling water, the sizzle of oil on a frying pan simulates the sexual assault of an amorous Goblin using a red hot poker. Gilderoy is also shown to be in complete control of his art – a power cut at the studio prompts him to display a delicate inventiveness: a light bulb rolled over a toast rack becomes a UFO.
In one of the many references to the wizardry of tape and the machines used to manipulate it, Gilderoy loops the actress Sylvia’s voice into a hauntingly beautiful soundscape using a delicious bit of equipment called a Watkins Copycat. There is a real love of the matter and mystery of these perfectly designed bits of kit, and the camera often interrupts the film to linger on a deeply satisfying circular mixing knob, or spool of tape (infact, there is a circular repetition throughout – gong, spool of tape, frying pan, eyeball.) There is a formal visual game going on that has its apotheosis in the final scene, but there is also a pleasure taken in these things in and of themselves. The film celebrates the wonders of sound production, and a different analogue method of old school movie making. However the disjoint between material, sound and image, fits into another theme that Berberian Sound Studio confronts – the basic deceit of filmmaking.
The first half of the film suggests continuity of space and time, but only through inviting the audience to make a series of assumptions without evidence. The story plays out in three different spaces – the studio, the corridors connected to it and Gilderoys’ flat (where he takes home his work). There seems to be a logic but we’re never carried with a character from one space to the next. Rather, certain objects provide the link as we segue from one scene to the next: a spider in Gilderoy’s bedroom cuts to a spider a crawling over an organ in the studio, an open cabinet door in the in the studio cuts to an open wardrobe in Gilderoy’s bedroom. These transitions hint at a more radical transgression of space and time that marks the switch from character motored thriller to a more abstract engagement with the nature of film that occurs later on.
The central scene finally breaks the narrative flow – what had previously felt uneasy becomes drastically confusing. Gilderoy is asleep in his bedroom, where he is woken up by someone ringing at the doorbell. He asks who it is, picks up a knife and moves towards the door, attempting to open it there is a struggle. Someone on the other side is preventing him from forcing it open. He finally manages to shunt the door open and stumble through, but rather than moving outside Gilderoy steps into the deserted studio. The film’s straightforward spatial logic is overturned. A film projector turns on, and we watch Gilderoy watch himself in the scene that we have just observed: he sees himself rise from his bed, grab the knife, call out and then move towards the door. As Gilderoy’s image tries to turn the doorknob, the studio door that he has just walked through rattles. Gilderoy rushes over to prevent the projected image of himself breaking in; the terror is of having to deal with this animated double. The film then cuts to an accomplished, abstract scratch film with layered shots of Gilroy’s image gradually falling apart, before the film emulsion itself disintegrates. The rest of the film develops from this moment of fracture.
This scene feels unnerving for more than just its illogicality. What is perturbing is not just the way it undermines everything that we’re moved to believe in the film, but the way it provokes the effect of, ‘watching oneself watch oneself’. I was reminded of it a few days later when I came cross this photograph by the Belgian surrealist Paul Nouge. Titled ‘The Birth of an Object’, it is one from a series made in 1931 called, Les Subversion Des Images. Nouge’s caption for this photo reads:
A group of people watching something particularly attractive and precisely located. An ordinary wall is substituted for what they look at.
This image seemed to resonate with the central scene in Berberian Sound Studio. Partly there is a humour to the photo, and Berberian Sound studio, for a film that is ultimately reflective and serious, makes you laugh a lot. The birth of an object implies a portentous seriousness that it then undercuts, but nevertheless it is in the joke that you grasp Nouge’s argument.
Nouge was a badge-wearing signatory of Andre Breton’s second Surrealist Manifesto in 1929. For surrealists, photography made the straightforward plastic expression of what we see redundant; therefore the sole domain of art became pure mental representation. However, if they agreed about the ambition to make manifest the process and content of internal perception, they disagreed about the methods that might reveal these phenomena.
For Breton and the artists and writers around him, ‘pure psychic automatism’ held the key. They hoped to evade conscious censorship in order to liberate un-doctored, unconscious desires, The primary technique was the acceleration of the speed of writing which was believed to elicit a flow of mysteriously linked images ‘In the absence of control by reason’. They were interested in the ‘honest’ writing produced by naive, marginalised authors like the mentally ill or children. They thought it was possible to discover the product of the unmediated psyche: it was already out there in places no one had bothered to look, and all it required was a novel – and rhetorically abusive – mode of expression.
By contrast, Nouge (a chemical engineer by profession) represented a different, almost scientific and logical strand of surrealism. For him the escape towards a new artistic reality was attainable in the presence of the, ‘control of reason’. His work was influenced by the work of the poet Paul Valery and linguistic theorist Jean Paulhan who both argued that there was a profound disconnect between thought and language, and that therefore the automatic methods of the French surrealists were bound to fail. If Breton believed that automatic writing could dismantle or bypass the arbitrary rhetoric or rules of language, Paulhan argued that this was pointless – by using any language at all you were already snared: once bound within language, you couldn’t trick any superior veracity or authenticity out of it. In his essay “Young Lady with Mirrors,” Paulhan comes to the paradoxical conclusion that the more we attempt to fix language, the more elusive it becomes: “A man can no more grasp his mind intact than he can directly see the nape of his neck or throat. There are, however, mirrors for seeing the back and front of the neck. But there are none for the mind.”
From this point of view the poem or work of art could never be the pure expression or thought of the artist because it was the result of a collaboration between artist and audience that relied on a system of communication that existed beyond both. Consequently the only way of creating critical new expression was to embrace the rules and rhetoric of languages. For Paulhan, ‘The honest poem is the poem that acknowledges its dishonesty’, one that is self reflexive about the rules of poetic construction, confronting the poet and reader with the sensation of, ‘watching oneself watch oneself.’ Although for these writers there was an unbridgeable gap between the word and the world, poetry could make manifest a kind of parallel structure, a shared set of rules between the two. They were distinct systems whose constituent parts remained immanent to their own individual spheres; however the internal relations of one could be understood in relation to the internal relations of the other.
Nouge went one step further. Language and the arbitrary signs that aided communication were more than just an intermediary between two interlocutors, they existed in their own right, having their own, almost organic, life in the world beyond the will of author and audience. This ‘reality’ that subsumed both the rules of language and the operation of thought might be revealed when the rules that govern the medium were embraced, but then pushed to the limit of reason where they would collapse. Nouge was not interested in art as a means of expressing human experience, but rather he turns to a more scientific approach where you systematically manipulate signs to the point where momentarily the otherwise unbridgeable gap between word and ‘the real’ is breached. At this moment, which he labels ‘terror’, the conventional structures of the language system you’re working with (text, photography, film) are turned inside out. The idea is that you simultaneously recognise the manipulations involved in language, yet glimpse a reality that supersedes them. Proceeding in logical steps as far as logic will permit, for Nouge it becomes possible to perceive, ‘a ‘visual phenomenon which we believe exists beyond ourselves; a thought, an emotion which we perceive as existing within us.’ This is what is attempted in Les Subversions des Images, and seems directly relevant to the film.
The Birth of an Object’s oddness derives in part from its straightforward adoption of the conventions of photography. As with the rest of the series, Nouge stresses the normality of the photo being taken; he is working within the taken-for-granted’s that delineate the way we expect a photo to be approached, the camera as automatic machine recording ‘fact’ without ‘fantasy’. In addition he is playing with the mores of petit – bourgeois, domestic existence. Everything appears in front of the camera as normal, a suburban interior, where the actors are absorbed by their activity. Like any old photograph, we are witness to something apparently quotidian and boring- it could be a photograph of an after dinner event, a slightly deranged evening with the new neighbours.
There is nothing to see here apart from one very strange thing. The object the group stare at is missing. But it is the complexity of its absence that is jarring. Nouge has removed the object from its context and replaced it by a wall. Rather than a simple omission defined in terms of absence or presence, our attention is focused on an absence that resists easy symbolisation – that can’t be defined in opposition to its positive, present, other. The words of the symbolist painter Odilon Redon could be used to describe Nouge’s method and ambition: putting ‘The logic of the visible at the service of the invisible.’ It is through the logical, systematic twist and push of an idea of absence that the photo has its effect. It is this that produces for the spectator an unusual, slightly ridiculous shock. Nouge brings you up short against you’re expectations, and in doing so attempts to affect a reality that is inconceivable, in his words, ‘Inventing a universe and not describing it.’
The photo alerts you to the mediums dishonesty, testing our faith in pictures. You’re brain scrambles to find meaning that’s not there. But the Birth of an Object also establishes a loop. We look at a photograph of a group of people staring at something that isn’t there, which reminds us that we are in a similar position. The internal relations of the photograph correspond to the relations set up between the spectator and the photograph. The indefinable absence within image alerts us to the indefinable absence of the image –its dishonesty – where the caption describes both the reality we inspect within the photograph, and the experience of viewing it, as unresolvable. The same kind of self-reflexive loop is established in Berberian Sound Studio.
However, in the film this process is far more troubling because the flow of moving images induces a far greater power of identification and involvement than that of photography or literature. Strickland takes advantage of this passive acceptance, lulling you into a set of expectations derived from the rhetoric of conventional filmic narrative, space and time only in order to upset them. Gilderoy’s movement from apartment to studio is the first of these transgressions. A pre-existing, natural space and time is not being imitated, rather what we witness is merely the space of an encounter unique to film. The concern here is with the matter of film at the expense of reality – what you can capture and create with film and only film. Gilderoy then turns to watch himself in the scene that has just played out in his apartment. If in Nouge’s photograph the group stare at a static object that is radically not there, in the film Gilderoy identifies with the illusion of his own character constructed from a flicker of light – cinema.
It is not just representation that is being challenged, but the psychological and emotional process of our identification with a fiction in film. Rather than use identification to involve us in a representation, Strickland (by no means the first to walk off this plank) exposes its mechanics to our scrutiny. It is a move from the usual goal of inspiring belief in a fiction ‘behind’ the image, to one that focuses our attention on the properties of the image itself – the projected illusion of a presence that is radically absent. There is no opposition or difference between the film image and what it expresses. In a way it’s a bit monstrous, it entices you into a film world that you think you understand – before showing you that it’s a film world that works according to its own rules, and that it exists in its own separate domain beyond our habitual conceptual parameters. It induces a queasy existential state that is quite exciting and curious, that your own involvement with the film as shown to you in the film can only collapse, leaving a kind of mystery in its wake. That this central scene then cuts to a startling scratch film of physically manipulated footage underscores a preoccupation with a reality that film alone can produce.
Up to the central scene Gilderoy appears to be the ‘victim’ of the film – but after it he becomes a cog in its machine. The action takes place in a much more confounding cinematic world than that posited initially, and is overdubbed in Italian with English subtitles. There is a residual narrative thread, for instance there is some relationship between Gilderoy’s life at home, a letter he receives from his mother that details the grisly end to a nesting family of chaffinches in his shed, and the dodgy goings on in the studio, but it feels ancillary to the real work being done.
The final episodes seem to show Gilroy now, apparently in ‘control’ of what we see and hear. We find ourselves in his apartment when he then turns a reel-to-reel tape machine off. With it, the diegetic sound also switches off, and the film goes quiet. Although there has been a constant play between the images we see and Gilderoy’s innovative sound making, this is another way of alerting us to the kind of blatant manipulation that is going on. If this Gilderoy had originally been resistant to Santini’s claustrophobic film world before the central rupture, afterwards he has apparently become the film’s accomplice.
Next we see Gilderoy asleep, while a recently hired vocal artist creeps up to his bed and attacks him. It is not clear which of them comes out on top in the struggle. Then we segue to what is apparently the very first scene of the film again: Santini’s assistant introducing Gilderoy to the film that he will work on – The Equestrian Vortex. The shots are the same, the dialogue is the same, and Gilderoy repeats himself, ‘It doesn’t seem to be about horses.’ We can see them, but for the first time we can also see what they’re watching – the rough cut of The Equestrian Vortex – a privilege we haven’t been afforded before. The scene within the scene shows the struggle between Gilderoy and the actress at his apartment play out again, before the image of Gilderoy stabs her manically. The last moments of this scenario replicate the structure of the central scene, but map it back onto the first, rather innocent, opening of the film. Facing the screen Gilderoy repeats his naïve ‘what’s he doing to her?’ Gilderoy balks at the heinous murder being committed, but fails to recognise himself as the murderer. Identification has now exhausted itself completely, the actor on screen is reduced to his own effigy, and his effigy has stolen his mind. It produces further loop, implying the possibility that our sense of ‘self’ may have been kidnapped by a set of images and dispositions we construct, then blindly, and habitually act out.
In the final scene Gilderoy is subsumed by a dot of projected white light that gradually engulfs him, by extension his incipient psychology, and then the entire screen. The projection of light is ominous and inexplicable – not symbolic. Any remaining trust in the previous reality of space and time and character is overwhelmed by a mysterious and all engulfing shape that first arises out of and finally takes over the narrative world posited at the start of the film.
Both Nouge and Strickland are playing a surrealist, rhetorical game; their impact in part the result of folding the conventions of the respective mediums they work with back onto themselves. This process is crucial to the impact of the central and final scenes in Berberian Sound Studio. What is revealed is the startling capacity of film image, not to imitate, but to create and capture an alternative reality, disrupting our passive acceptance and identification with a hallucinatory play of light. The ‘terror’ one feels is not simply the sensation of exposure to something extreme, it has been produced at the point where rhetorical manipulation of the commonplace conventions of film language becomes its’ opposite. At this point there is a mystery, it resists interpretation. Berberian Sound Studio, in a true surrealist way, does not leave you where you were but picks you up and leaves you ‘elsewhere’.
Jane Scarth from the Student Forum spoke to Anne Massey, art historian and co-curator of the current Fox Reading Room display The Independent Group: Parallel of Art and Life, about the fraught and dramatic history of the ICA archive, what makes the Independent Group radical, and the challenges of re-contextualisation.
When asked if she could describe her relationship with the ICA archive, Anne Massey laughs and tells me “It’s the longest one I’ve had in all my life!” Her extensive research career as an art historian began in the late 1970s, doing a PhD at Newcastle Polytechnic on the Independent Group. Anne stepped through the doors of ICA for the first time in 1980, coming to consult the archive with a strong desire to get her hands on primary sources.
Anne was put in touch with Dorothy Moorland, ICA Director from 1951 to 68 and one of the biggest advocates for the Independent Group within the ICA staff in the early years: “She really helped me. She had looked after the archives and was really concerned that the history wasn’t being properly recorded or preserved or shared. The ICA’s archive was more or less accidental and it would have been thrown out if it wasn’t for Dorothy and Judy Lawson. We had a good relationship and we worked on this together throughout the 80s and 90s. We tried to get the ICA to put on an exhibition about its history but there was no interest. I carried on using the archives when they were based here at the Mall – all in grey metal office cupboards”.
In the mid 1990s, the ICA sold its archive material to the Tate who had the space and facilities to house it.
Jane Scarth: In the display there is a lot of your own archive material. How has that been generated and evolved?
Anne Massey: Just by accident! Partly it is because people know of my interest and give me things. I own a lot of original photos of the opening of Parallel of Life & Art in 1950 that no one else has got. For instance I don’t think anyone else has a copy of the installation shot that is blown up in the display.
A lot of the founding of it was from my own father. He was training to be an architect at Kings College when Richard Hamilton was teaching there, so he designed things like the arts ball invite for 1956. That is what partly sparked my interest as well. My dad came from that mind set, he was very similar to them in the way that he looked at the world.
JS: The Independent Group has been brought together with Bernadette Corporation for this season on radical collectives. In what way can the Independent Group be considered radical? Is it just an aesthetic radicalism or is it political too?
AM: They were young, working class and lower middle class people who would not normally be part of the art world. It was only because the ICA was so open and welcoming that they managed to infiltrate the place and were given some kind of space in which to operate. But it wasn’t a central space, they were on the fringe.
A lot of people have told me that they actually weren’t that friendly because they were so ambitious. They argued a lot between themselves too and it did get quite nasty. It was that burning ambition to make it that I think was beyond anything else.
It’s like you’re watching that film Top Hat, and on the one hand you’ve got a stuffy gentleman’s club in London and Fred Astaire comes in and starts tap dancing to jazz music, I think it’s like that. There is just that shock value of talking about the popular in an archaic atmosphere that I think can be quite political.
JS: Just to finish could you talk about the upcoming event Parallel of Art & Life: A Conference on the Independent Group that you are organizing and the kind of things that will be addressed?
AM: The plan is for it to be a two way process: looking at the IG’s own exhibitions and then how exhibitions now reflect the IG. I am really looking forward to the first morning, as it is PhD students or people who have just completed their PhDs. It will be great as we will get some new material and ideas. There is a younger generation coming along with their own ideas and that is fantastic, I really welcome that.
There are some excellent speakers over the two days and I am hoping there will be a bit of disagreement! It’s part of what we need to do at the ICA. I think often we’re far too polite!
Anne Massey is founding editor of the Berg journal, Interiors: Design, Architecture, Culture and Research Associate, ICA Archives. She is the leading expert on the interdisciplinary history and contemporary significance of the Independent Group. She has written several books including The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945-59 (Manchester University Press); Hollywood Beyond the Screen: Design and Material Culture (Berg); and Out of the Ivory Tower: The Independent Group and Popular Culture (Manchester University Press).
Student Forum members Amber Turner and Jane Scarth spent some time with the ICA archive to think about how this material might be relevant to the current exhibitions of radical collectives, Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years and The Independent Group: Parallel of Art and Life. Their research has developed an upcoming seminar event Radical [vs?] Institution: Revisiting Archives to form the future that will take place on Wednesday 5 June (more information to follow).
Amber chronicles the research process.
Following up our initial interest in the ICA archive we selected some boxes to be delivered to the studio in order for our research to progress. A full day working with the archive seemed daunting because of its current state (loosely organised with an un-detailed database and generally lacking in TLC). However, as we continued to trawl through what seemed like an endless array of material, much of which without name of date, we began to appreciate the ICA’s history as an environment for radical exchange and ideas. This inspired some questions, such as what constitutes a radical institution? Are the terms Radical and Institution mutually exclusive or paradoxical?
How does the process or the act of keeping an archive actually affect the term radical? Does an institution or collective stop being radical? We actually found that one of the ICAs early fundamental values was that it was not initially going to keep an archive at all. The institution was going to be based on the new and contemporary art world, which would not be interrupted by keeping a record of events. Thinking about the ICA’s upcoming exhibition – Independent Group: Parallel of Art & Life and the fact that it is based upon the IG’s activity within the ICA, got us reflecting upon the group’s importance to the institution’s history.
Our interest in what an archive might mean to an establishment or organisation developed, because so far our research had proved interesting. We listened to a talk that took place at the ICA last year, Making Archives Public: Digitisation and Display, which had centred on the uses of archives and their accessibility. In particular, it was interesting to listen to what Naiya Yiakoumaki (Archive Curator, Whitechapel Gallery) discussed, because many of her experiences working with the Whitechapel archive appeared to be similar to our own at the ICA.
She noted that the Whitechapel’s archive (although it is now archived properly and continually utilised by the Whitechapel) was kept in a similar condition to the ICA’s. She found that much of their archive was accidental, emerging simply as a way for staff to make room for other files, as a means of utilising space. So, is the archive often subjective the needs of an individual, based on ideas of what they feel are necessary? Naiya’s discussion brought to light the way in which archives can be used to help stage future exhibitions and to instigate new research surrounding current programmes and artworks. It also addressed how archives trace the popularity of artists or artworks throughout an institution’s history. The key questions of interest were; what happens after an artist or curator has studied an archive or intervened? Making an incision within the archive but also the creation of a new archive by intervening within the main one. Is the archive enhanced by curatorial intervention and the re-archiving of materials?
As we delved deeper into our research we came across some interesting articles regarding the Independent Group exhibition in 1990. It was interesting to note the general unease from the press about the exhibition, some articles reflecting negatively upon it, one even considering what the IG actually contributed to the art world at that time at all. This in itself brought up some significant questions in relation to revisiting and re-contextualising exhibitions or groups such as the IG. Can the return to a past exhibition actually taint or damage it in some way?
The terms of re-contextualisation raised the question of appropriation and the way in which the ICA and other institutions choose to appropriate their own history. Interestingly enough, one article (while referring to the IG exhibition in 1990) considered whether the ICA was “cannibalising its own history”. The idea that we settled on as an overarching theme from our discussions became the relationship between Radicalism and Institutions, questioning how many institutions are or have actually revisited past radical exhibitions. Once more, some key questions have been raised: Why are these institutions re-contextualizing these radical moments in history? What happens to radicalism when it is re-contextualized? And what does this say about radicalism within art today?
Text: Amber Turner
Artists and curators Kate Mahony and Rachel Dowle (Kate Mahony TM) for one night only are excited to present LIPA! (Lock IN performance art) at the ICA bar.
From the garage to the gallery the LUPA artists: a mad mix of early career, emergent to established performance practitioners are leaving the lock-up to stage a Lock in: closing the bar doors behind them to orchestrate a one hour intervention. With props in hand the artists will enter the bar at 8:00pm, highjacking the bar to create DIY Performance art.
Its gonna get messy.
PARTICIPATING LUPA ARTISTS SO FAR:
Daniella Vaz-gen (LUPA6)
Sean Francis Burns (LUPA12)
Holly Slingsby (LUPA7)
John William Fletcher (LUPA11)
JB&The Bubbles (LUPA11)
Hans Jacob Schmidt (LUPA14)
Selina O (LUPA15)
kit Poulson (LUPA8)
kate Mahony TM (LUPA2/10)
Inspired by Bruce Nauman piece ‘Days’, Kate Mahony, Cameron Foote and Rachel Dowle turned the touring talk into a performative exploration into the notion of time and memory within the ICA gallery space. Asking the audience of the tour to become participants, they created the 101 sound piece to be added to the Soundworks archive, released on the ICA blog. After a brief explanation behind the nature of both Days and Soundworks audio pieces, copies of blank diary pages were handed out for that current week, the previous week and the following week challenging participants to recall what they did, are currently doing and what they plan to achieve in the future. This was then recorded on site to make an audio diary entry merging the lives of 6 strangers.
Julie Solovyeva, member of the ICA Student Forum, and a PhD candidate at The Courtauld Institute, interviewed filmmaker Sarah Turner, following a Culture Now talk and screening of her film Ecology on 7 September 2012.
Sarah Turner is a filmmaker who works with an incisive, yet tender, poetic touch that filters through the darkness of the cinema in an enveloping penetrating embrace. Her film Ecology (2006) screened at the ICA on Friday, September 7th. It was an early afternoon of our rare Indian Summer, when foolish wandering sunrays play games across our memory panes. The cinema filled for the matinee, some lost lazy souls wandering in at various times throughout the screening. The moment of respite, of silent surrender to the departing summer, to moments past, we sat resolutely mourning and reveling the passing moment.
Ecology is a lyrical ode to the preservation of our limited moments, to the most precious resource of all – time. Its pensive, at times discordant voices imprint themselves into the subconscious. Watching Turner’s film evokes a liminal experience. It is like shifting between realities and dreaming, materializing the fleeting material of time. At the end of it, one is most physically affected; flickering images, words, light, sound, and silence fill the body.
Is that what contemporary feminist filmmaking is about? The energy of human experience? Sarah Turner discusses the reification of social spaces, process-based filmmaking and the importance of a collective experience. A new sequence of her film Perestroika will be screened at No.w.here this Autumn.
Ecology. Dir. Sarah Turner. 2007. Film still.
One of my questions that came up during your Culture Now talk with James Mackay was regarding the cinema as a social space versus the museum as social space, or the art world as a social space. I was wondering what your thoughts are about what constitutes the difference?
You’re picking up what I was saying earlier. I guess, even now, I think it is more a democratized space. Even with the new culture of pop-ups, which are quite democratized. They rely on a very particular kind of niche networks, and then on the other spectrum of that, you have the more commodified world of the gallery and the serious money, which is very alienating. You know, I think people find the money more alienating than the ideas, oddly, because actually, some of really good art is very difficult and the ideas are not particularly digestible, metabolizable. They can take some work, but it isn’t the labor of the work, it’s actually the alienation of that space. And there is something about the cinema. Maybe it’s really simply that you are having a collective experience. It might be meaningful that you are having a collective experience in the dark, but you are certainly having a collective experience. It is the temporality of the cinema, which is absolutely fundamental – that which you cannot undo. That film is designed to be screened in any order, so those three sequences are determined by the exhibitors. If I play it from a Blu-ray or a DVD, I did one version of the film, but in the DVD version of the film, the sequences are interchangeable. And the thing about that is that we revisit the temporality of our structural understanding of narrative experience. So yes, it is a democratized space where you are having a temporally-bound collective experience. Of course, every individual is going to have a completely different experience within that experience but it is a shared moment.
But as a shared moment of experiencing various ideas that may come up in the process of watching a film, do you not find the cinema limiting? What happens after? This isn’t something that is talked about often. Is there another social space for the public to synthesize, metabolize these ideas because the cinema does not really provide this, or very rarely…
Except for the ICA Bar or the Filmmakers’ Coop, but you don’t do that in a gallery either, you do not sit down and metabolize.
I guess the cinema and galleries can only inspire the public to go and have conversations of their own. My other question is about your process and how it has evolved over the years, how your involvement with the moving has changed from the collaborative way of learning theory and history to now working by yourself or with yourself in your studio, internalizing all this? And this may perhaps have to do with how you tie your process to that of making music, or writing, because experience of a writer is very internalized. I can see that in your films. Perhaps you can tell me a bit about that.
A big part of my work if writing, and yes, it is a very, very internal process. It requires utter immersion and absorption in order to sustain what is a very precarious reality in the making of…and that’s why I think film for me is compelling, because somehow this process of mediation is somehow externalized even if that process is very removed from the internal space and then what you have is another form of writing, when you are editing, except that you are negotiating more elements. You are not just negotiating language anymore, you are negotiating time, rhythm, color, sound, or silence. It’s choreography of a number of more complex elements, as well as language, i.e. spoken language. And then the conversation starts, the elements start to speak to each other and they create their own rhythm and internal structures.. Really, editing is a lot more sculptural and it’s the process of uncovering of those elements, and just negotiating quite sculpturally those elements and their groupings around repletion and variation.
But did you mean equally the more social space from the inside? It differs from project to project, really. Perestroika, obviously, quite literally just involves me and Matthew [Walter, DP] and we went on a trip with my partner at the time and two other people. And you can see the elements of photography. We were shooting on still cameras and HD on a number of cameras as well. But all of the media was bound to that finite period of the five days, four days on the train, and four days in Siberia. And then obviously the archive from 20 years ago. And I limited all of the media I used to…it was only that diegetic media or it came from an emotional diegesis. Perestroika, I wrote in response to the experience.
With Ecology, again, it was a response to an experience, a response to an experience of a particular landscape, which is a writer’s retreat and it is ecologically responsible, solar powered from crap old solar panels. Because it is on the top of a mountain, the only water that is there comes from rain being contained, filtered and recycled. Drinking water is different, so all of the water you are using, the water you are flushing the toilets with, and the water you are washing up in is rainwater. So water becomes the precious resource – you can deplete, you have to totally respect this experience. So having had that experience there, I thought how interesting it would be to transplant a kind of suburban working class family into that landscape but the other thing is that all the work comes from an awful lot of research, so the different paradigms of research that I am thinking through at the time are there. It’s a completely process-based filmmaking, in a sense that having gone through that process of writing feature-film scripts, which is staging narratives, staging events that will be performed by actors and everything is sublimated to performance. The elements exist only within the shoot. It is antithetical to that way of working.
So the work you are doing now, is it different from what you were doing at Slade?
Well the short films I made were not dissimilar. If there was a governing aesthetic of my work it would be the space between abstraction and narration and working around affect, that has continuously been the governing aesthetic.
An excerpt from Perestroika, directed by Sarah Turner. 2009.
On May 12, 2012, the ICA held a Student Forum organized panel discussion titled “Existere & Documenting Performance Art.”
The panel, which included Jo Melvin, art historian, curator and lecturer; David Gothard, director and former artistic director of Riverside Studios; poet John James; and Rye Holmboe, PhD candidate and writer. The panelists responde in conversation to Existere – a living performance sculpture by artist collective JocJonJosch – and the issues of documenting performance art without images.
Following the talk and having given some rest to ideas that floated around that evening, we provide you with our impressions.
What is a moment? And can it potentially be captured? These questions lay at the heart of the debate that took place on May 12th, 2012 in an intimate studio space above the main gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The title of the panel discussion “Existere & Documenting Performance Art” is but a fragment of a conversation that started over a year ago. It is also just a simple and imperfect attempt to capture the question that exists beyond an hour-long epitaph on performance art, the kind of performance art that we would like to suggest has become a chapter in cultural history. Performance art and its documentation – whether video, audio, photographic, or textual – will always be just that – a signifier of a moment that has already passed.
The moment itself is a sign, in semiological context of things, of life itself. It is affirmative of life and limiting of our understanding. Yet, as Jo Melvin observed during the Existere discussion, each such moment of life, of performance, of situationism, has the potential to activate imagination, to point at the imperfections and beauty of multiplicity of narratives, faults of memory, faults and remarkable promise of our sense to tune into the world, into experience, once prompted, nudged, enabled and urged to gain autonomy.
The Existere discussion, for me, brought up a lot of questions on the navigation of individual psyche, imagination of the internal, and the power or freedom of observation. This imperfection of systematic structures seems to be what the young collective JonJocJosch have uprooted with their Existere performance which manifested itself visually last summer at Battersea TestBed 1 and remains only but a trace of memory, words, and fiction on the tip of the tongues of those present. Their performance remains but a figment of our imaginations – collective and individual, but curiously it is also a force that continues to evolve various narratives in our daily life.
The panel also drifted to discussion of music, specifically electronic music, and its distance from reliance on seeing as the primary sense of experience. The issues of live, recorded, pre-recorded, studio-recorded have all been raised just to highlight the impossibility of drawing comparison between a vastly diverse and differing range of experience – both in creating music, performing, and listening, or visualizing it. Opinions may be dissenting on which representation, quality, and presentation may be best, but the main point remains – each creative attempt is a manifestation of an act doomed to fail. It is simply about allowing these failures, falls, and imperfections to take place.
The first encounter with JocJonJosch occurred on a rare sunny summer day last year. We floated into the seats of the Tate Modern members lounge above the Thames. A friend recommended I meet them because of my keen interest in ephemeral art practices, those rare art practices that attempt to elude all material details. We chatted on end about art, clouds, dust, and visions, about moments of thunder, affect, and no return. Their individual and collective practices reflects an insatiable desire for conversation, for contact, for reaching out via process to individuals rather than the mass public, and essentially the panel discussion was an extension of that.
The audio recording of the talk is available here:
The panel was initiated by Anne Baan Hofman and Julie Solovyeva.
Text by Julie Solovyeva.