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British Filmmaker Sarah Turner discusses how the process of filmmaking may be much closer to writing than meets the eye.

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.

Ecology. Dir. Sarah Turner 2007. Film still.

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.

Ecology. Dir. Sarah Turner. 2007. Film still.

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.

Ecology. Dir. Sarah Turner. 2007. Film still.

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.


Some thoughts on documenting performance art

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.

ICA Student Forum Blog Re-Launch

Everything May 2011 @ ICA

Hello Everyone,

As the ICA is embarking on a new season of exhibition and will be revealing its brand new architectural face lift 🙂 we are exhited to announce that the Student Forum is planning to give you the best of the best in updates, interviews, and reports on what is going at the Institute, its multitude of events, screenings, lectures, and, of course, exhibitions LIVE on this blog! We are also happy to share some of our thoughts and ideas for the past, present and upcoming EVERYTHING programmes of live art, screenings and DJs and Karaoke that have become a regular feature at the ICA Bar on bi-weekly basis!

We would also like to formally announce a launch of a completely new event based around the notion of low-tech, experience oriented practice that would explore the work of artists who attempt to address performance, dance, film, and other media in unconventional ways that resist static documentation and object production and are rather oriented on individual experience within a community, be it museum or a larger sphere, and on a unique basis. We will be offering one-off interactive workshops and discussions with artists, performance participants, philosophers, writers, thinkers, and other students just like you in order to expand the staid pedagogic structure into a fluid conversational and collaborative atmosphere.

Please check back often and feel free to drop us a line of feedback, thoughts, rants, and anything you might like to see happening at the ICA – in virtual space and beyond!

Much love,

Student Forum Team

For updates on the latest ICA event photos and to see if your lovely face partaking in culture NOW, please visit  our Flickr stream:
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