by Michael Pattison
Film images made through photochemistry bear the marks of their production. The visual likeness, of a photograph to the thing photographed, is indexical. An impulse to photograph is also, we might say, an impulse to index. Even digitally, however, there are ways in which the cinema indexes: by exploring variants of a type, for instance, or by distilling a more general understanding of something into the descriptive, the parsed, the abridged.
As its title suggests, Derek Taylor’s Scenes from the Periphery concerns itself with the spatial qualities of narrative, taking meaning from the grid-like abstractions of an aerial survey that points to histories of human settlement: arrow-straight roads, field boundaries, markers of cultivated territory. In Elizabeth Junor, Ashanti Harris expertly maps another kind of settlement, recounting the life of the Guyana-born daughter of a Scottish carpenter and timber estate shareholder from the Black Isle – deploying voiceover, superimposition, frames within frames and onscreen text to highlight the modes of narration by which a life is catalogued.
In Kitchen Beets, Bea Haut presents – with punchily sequential rhythm – an itemised domestic space, placing before her 16mm camera a succession of utensils that speak to the tactility of the artist’s own analogue practice. Similarly, Charlotte Clermont’s where i don’t meet you presents a series of moving-image tableaus – interspersed with poetic intertitles evoking a breakdown in communication – that takes as much meaning from the hand-processed Super8 textures of the images themselves as it does its ongoing tension between the abstract and the specific.
Onyeka Igwe’s No Archive Can Restore You, by contrast, surveys the rustic, decaying interiors of the former Nigerian Film Unit building in Lago, viscerally evoking a history full of contingency – including colonial propaganda, institutional neglect, architectural rot – and reimagining the lost sounds that abandoned film cans may contain. In Gutai, Wenhua Shi returns to the locations of his childhood in Wuhan and, with the encyclopaedic intensity of a collector, catalogues their textural qualities, the way they look at certain times of day, on 16mm film using in-camera edits; named after the Japanese Gutai movement (in Chinese ‘gu tai’ translates to ‘body tool’), Shi’s collected images speak to the bodily and immediate, a way of navigating, knowing and remembering place.
Twenty-six plants are indexed in Dawn George’s Anthology for Fruits and Vegetables – twice over: firstly, by their onscreen presentation, and secondly by the fact that the film stock itself was developed in each fruit or vegetable’s essence. Just as no two plants are the same, each of George’s 26 sequences has its own look, feel, character.
In Obatala Film, Sebastian Wiedemann refracts a ritual unfolding in Ife-Ife, home of the Yoruba people, by means of light, rhythm and movement – committing to Super8 film a kind of directory of fleeting energies that is not merely a document of an event, but a continuation and permutation of it.
Finally, Juliana Capes and Ruth Barrie’s Be Different Today explores the relationship between text and image – signifier and signified, thing and descriptor – through a moving-image document of seven sunrises and visual description prompted by same. What may conceptually suggest a duplication of intentions, however – show, and tell – also begins to point to something deeper: the connection between the elemental and the personal, a cosmic event and the word-thoughts it prompts, the way in which language is governed.
SCENES FROM THE PERIPHERY
Derek Taylor – 2’50 – USA
Ashanti Harris – 4’32 – UK
Bea Haut – 1’00 – UK
WHERE I DON’T MEET YOU
Charlotte Clermont – 4’16 – Canada
NO ARCHIVE CAN RESTORE YOU
Onyeka Igwe – 5’53 – UK
Wenhua Shi – 6’00 – China
ANTHOLOGY FOR FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Dawn George – 14’52 – Canada
Sebastian Wiedemann – 7’00 – Brazil
BE DIFFERENT TODAY
Juliana Capes, Ruth Barrie – 4’40 – UK
Derek Taylor, Scenes from the Periphery
We tend to think of scenes as relating to narrative, and of a word like periphery as a spatial term. This pieces together a narrative of space. What was your impulse behind it?
I think this idea of scenes relating to narrative is quite appropriate when thinking about my film. We all tell stories about where we are from, and I have always struggled with this. The film is essentially about memory and a longing for place. Growing up I really never had a sense of place or a place where I am from. I moved 10 times before I was 25 years old, so trying to establish a sense of provenance was difficult.
When people ask me where I’m from, I don’t know how to really answer this question. Am I from the state Illinois, my birthplace? Florida, where I spent my formative years? Or Connecticut, where I have resided for the last 13 years? While flying into Chicago’s O’Hare airport to visit my father about a year and a half ago, with the geometric patterns of the landscape of rural Illinois coming into clear view, I thought that it was beautiful to see these patterns and interconnections of the landscape and really felt a sense of belonging to this region. As for the word ‘periphery’, this has something to do with the process of making the film. The film was edited in-camera on Super8 film, with some minor adjustments in post.
The verticality here, the grid-like movement – it chimes with the qualities of a film strip… Could you say something about how you made it on Super8?
It was a particularly tedious process as I photographed the areas of Central Illinois using Google Earth, two to four frames at a time, which created this ‘dance’ of lines and geographic elements. The film took about 6 hours to shoot in one evening. I’m really dedicated to investigating the film frame, and with the over-scan of the film I’m looking at the edge of the frame, and also thinking about not having this sense of place as being on the periphery, to a certain extent.
Bea Haut, Kitchen Beets
On the rhythmic pun of the film’s title: could you say something about the punchiness of the film, the structural factors that governed its rhythm?
This film really began with a structural concept and the content then fell into place. The initial problem in question is a technical detail in the optical soundtrack. In 16mm film the image and the sound are separated by 28 frames, and this difference determines the rhythm, the edit and the foley in Kitchen Beets.
As an itemisation of things – the presentation of one utensil, followed by another – this film might be viewed as a kind of eccentric autobiography, an index of who the owner of these items might be at any given moment. And then there’s the question of tactility, the handling and handheldness of these objects and the significance of that in relation to a space like the kitchen…
The use of household objects arose from a combination of finding a strategy I could test quickly at home and an unthought image arising from washing dishes and clearing up. The hand as repetitive action is a physical response to the structured rhythm, and perhaps could be a version of Richard Serra’s Hands Catching Lead. The effect of everything disappearing, like a Georges Méliès magic trick, was unintentional but was a delight to me as it became a darkly humorous wish fulfilment – endless tidying up turned into a magical disposal of stuff and things.
In letting the unconscious and unintentional play feedback with the structural and conceptual. I experience a kind of ‘jouissance’ as suggested by Hélène Cixous in The Newly Born Woman: ‘If my desire is possible, it means the system is already letting something else through.’
Charlotte Clermont, where i don’t meet you
There’s a tension here between what feels like, for want of better terms, an unauthored, impersonal presentation – an index – of objects on the one hand, and then this subjectivity that comes through on the intertitles on the other hand. Could you say a bit about this dynamic?
Oh, that’s funny! To me, those objects are personal because I chose them carefully and they all have a symbolic, sometimes from a memory or an anecdote. The objects belong to my imagination. I imagined the sequences, drew them down. I think they’ve become what I call my ‘visual friends’. In fact, I use those objects in other films. But this one is the first where I was using them. It depicts our first adventure together.
I always write fragments of words, loose poetry, and I feel it’s the glue that helps making sense with the images. Without text, I’m clueless. Writing is a part of me I can’t disconnect from in the image process. We can see it as if it’s a voiceover, a voice that comes from the parallel world. For example, the materiality of the image is enhancing my subjects, my themes. I think the role of text is the same. So it is always a film of three layers, let’s say four layers if we add the music. I definitely don’t believe those objects are anonymous, but I agree the way they are presented may make them appear as anonymous, probably because of the neutral background. Maybe unconsciously, I’ve included personal text so it will contextualise the objects in a sphere of intimacy in order to build my own world. But I always, always do that.
Through the second-person address of its intertitles, the film comes to depict, or suggest, an assertion of rights. It feels wittily empowering. How significant is the Gigliola Cinquetti song choice here?
It is exact, the film is based on empowerment. The answer is deeply personal, I have no choice but to reveal the truth. While in a residency in Italy, I found a vinyl record of Gigliola Cinquetti. I didn’t know her at all, and I offered it to my lover at the time, when I came back home. We actually liked the song pretty much. When I create, I tend to use symbols to install a specific universe or atmosphere. Here, I needed to take back that gift, in a way, by smashing the sound, through storms of noises and distortions. I know it makes no sense now but, that film was supposed to be an ode to our love. That was my purest intention, to say goodbye, in a respectful manner. Materials, when you let them express themselves, they just go out of control and reveal what they want. I guess I didn’t even know myself that I didn’t need to say goodbye, but more accurately to say, ‘Fuck you, I’m taking back who I am and that’s all that matters.’
Wenhua Shi, Gutai
You’ve described the film as an examination of your hometown in China. There are textures, abstract frames, and then more figurative scenes by contrast. Could you say a little more about your structuring principles?
First of all, my hometown Wuhan finally became a household name because of this pandemic. During the two most recent summers, I was able to return to Wuhan to work on different projects and exhibitions. The film was started as an extension of my last piece, Senses of Time. The time – duration, a blink of an eye, passage of time – was the main focus when I was gathering the footage.
The structure of the film roughly follows my in-camera edits throughout the way of filming and discovering. I edited out some shots and added some to create a structure arc that echoes the beginning of the film. Some figurative scenes are the hardest parts, where it was filmed in a high-rise building. For example, there is a dark staircase where only during sundown the sun can light it. Once I found this out, I had to wait a whole day to film people walking up and down the stairs during the golden hour. The footage of a person napping at the end is so intriguing. When I walked by there every day, usually the person had fallen asleep under the construction noise. Since I shot on 16mm without recording the sound, I can take the liberty to put anything against the image.
You’ve also mentioned the film takes its title from the Japanese avant-garde group Gutai, which translates in Chinese to ‘tool-body’. To what extent did this inform what you began to capture, record, look for, find?
The Japanese Gutai movement, in favour of the performative immediacy, inspired me to take on more of an in-camera approach. I felt the limitations of pre-scripted work during the trip. I hope to create a unity – the eye as my body with the camera. Returning to my childhood place is kind of testing my muscle-memory. Do I still remember how to get around? Can I use the camera to think?
Dawn George, Anthology for Fruits and Vegetables
This is not only a serial depiction of fruits and vegetables, but a transliteration of their filmic essence. Just as no two plants are the same, no two sequences here are either. Could you talk us briefly through the development process?
Each plant in the film was hand developed in its own essence or tea. The tea was brewed by boiling down the fruit or vegetable and straining the solids from the liquid. The liquid was then mixed with vitamin C and washing soda and used as a developer at a precise temperature for a specified amount of time. The film then underwent an eco-reversal process. I used a variation of a recipe based from Ricardo Leite – where he consulted with Dr Scott Williams – that uses a combination of hydrogen peroxide – H2O2 – vinegar and water. The film is then exposed to sunlight, when possible, undergoes a second eco-developer and is traditionally fixed. Lastly, the film is left to dry outside in breeze. The results of this meticulous process not only reveal the characteristic of each plant but also the filmic qualities that each plant texturally imparts on the film stock.
The sound underscores, or hints at, a secret life of plants. Could you say something about how this sound was constructed?
I wanted each plant to have its own organic voice. I started out recording the fruits and vegetables reacting with the elements – air, earth, water, fire – but after several attempts at this with my Zoom recorder, the sounds didn’t have enough differentiation and not much personality. After a bit more experimentation, I decided to go with the human voice – my own voice – and use the phonetic sound, of the first letter of the English word of each plant. The sounds are all created by the voice box, but the texture and complexity of each sound comes from how that sounds resonates in the mouth cavity through the lips, tongue, teeth and facial muscles. During the recording process, I tapped into my training in voice and speech. The work of Jaap Blonk was also a huge inspiration for the audio component of the piece.
The personalities of these plants came out through the editing process. The visuals and sound design were edited almost simultaneously. I would watch one plant and record my vocalisation to the visuals a few times and then break down the vocals into very small clips. I then began editing a few seconds of the video and then tried different audio clips out – sometimes manipulating the pitch or reverb or layering the sound until something worked. Then I’d go back to the visuals and see how that would inform the next audio component, back and forth, back and forth until one plant sequence was complete. It was like a big jigsaw puzzle looking for the right audio and visual combinations to complete a section of the puzzle. Very labour intense process but so much fun!
Through it all I was also recalling my relationship with each plant. Did I pick this plant from my garden or select it at the grocery store? What were my first impressions of the plant? What qualities did the plant have that drew me to it? What was this plant’s ‘day on set’ like? What did I feel about the plant, what might the plant feel about me? It’s a weird process, communing with vegetables. When you work intimately with these beautiful objects you develop a relationship with each one of them and that is reflected in the piece.
Sebastian Wiedemann, Obatala Film
Could you give some more context to how you came to make a film in response to Obatala, the Yoruba religion?
Like in the best moments and experiences of life, they just happen. On that occasion, I was lucky I had with me my sound recorder and Super8 camera. So I can’t say this film was a calculated, planned response to the Yoruba culture and religion. More than that it was a kind of continuation of what I like to call ‘cinematic modes of experience’. I understand the world as a cosmic cinematograph where we live experiences through and as images. And this movement where we are an image among others can happen without a camera, without filmmaking. But through filmmaking, this experience could be intensified or could continue by other means. I had no intention to make a portrait of a Yoruba ritual or practice but to make continue a vital rhythm as a spiritual force through other surfaces and bodies, like film. Something that I can say because of my link with the Orishas. I already have intimacy with these deities, with the ashe – vital force – of them.
Your film is an account of light, rhythm, movement. It is quite abstract in this sense, but it is also very culturally specific.
Here we are dealing with the unseen, the spectral, the spiritual. Forces that don’t respond to representation or even figuration. Forces that put our perception into a state of delirium, trance, and vertigo. Forces that pass through images as brushstrokes of intensity, as percussive vibrations and light sparks. The visual dimension of the image is just the start point, not the arrival point. Following the ashe – vital force – present in the world and rituals is a question of understanding how it escapes from perception. That’s why abstraction emerges in the film. The film isn’t a place where the experience stops or parks, just a surface where experience passes. The film is a cinematic mode of experience among others. A mode that has a devotion dimension, and as an offering gesture doesn’t stay in the material plane but continues. The film is born from a rhythmic intuition as vital vibration, that raises before time and continues through light, water, a temple, priests, rituals, drums, dances, sounds, film – and that now wants to continue through the body of the audience in quarantine affecting the spirit of many with the force of Obatala, the Orisha of creation and creativity. Once he created humans, and now perhaps with his force, we can reinvent humankind in a time of coronavirus.
Juliana Capes, Be Different Today
Your film makes a point of describing what we see – something that at first seems counterintuitive, even uncinematic, but which gradually highlights the slipperiness of language, the instability of images, the notion that the individual responses that constitute a collective viewing are deeply contingent upon lived experience.
I’ve learnt over the years of working as a visual describer for the visually impaired that worrying about making a description objective does a disservice to the viewer. In the same way that a painting is more than a facsimile of reality, so is description and its rendering of the subject will have elements of the personal experience of the artist.
The description itself is intimate, personal, bespoke in terms not just of language used but manner of delivery too. But the event described – and filmed – points to the universal, the elemental, something that governs the terms rather than the thing governed…
The description is sourced from over seven hours of descriptions of sunrise, delivered live to myself and recorded in the moment as I tried to build a vocabulary through. Finding myself language-blind in the glare of the oncoming sun, I looked for structure and there is comfort in a repetitive event, a shared collective reality with obvious parallels to other aspects of life and living.
I totally believe that the cusp of the personal and universal is where the important art lies and it’s an area I strive to operate in. The duality of keeping close and letting go was also in my mind throughout the process, and the shared life experiences and emotions of two artists working collaboratively.