Sitdown is an Alchemy Film & Arts series of artist interviews, published to complement its exhibitions, residencies, and other events. You can find all other Sitdown entries here.
Jason Moyes is an experimental film and installation artist living and working in the Scottish Borders. His work challenges traditional notions of sublime beauty in landscape by focusing on its unloved corners. His work has been shown in the UK, North America, Europe and Asia. He is a founding member of the Moving Image Makers Collective, which emerged from a series of community filmmaking workshops run by Alchemy Film & Arts in 2014.
A programme of Jason’s films is part of the eleventh edition of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, available on demand, 29 April – 3 May.
Listen to a conversation between artist in focus Jason Moyes and Alchemy programmer Marius Hrdy.
Marius Hrdy (MH): Hello everyone, and welcome to the eleventh Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. I’m Marius Hrdy and I’m part of the curation team here at Alchemy. We have filmmaker Jason Moyes with us today, a local artist whose work we are celebrating at this year’s festival in a retrospective programme called Attention Red. Welcome Jason.
Jason Moyes (JM): Hi, nice to see you today.
MH: Jason Moyes is a founding member of the Moving Image Makers Collective, an active and independent group of artists based in the Scottish Borders that emerged from a programme of community filmmaking workshops that Alchemy delivered in 2014. Jason Moyes’ film and video work fixates on various environmental and infrastructural features, and maps them often to ideas of morality, Scottishness and the colour red. Living in Denholm five miles outside Hawick in the Scottish Borders, Moyes returns repeatedly to themes like the architectures of energy, masts, pylons and radios and how these define our engagement with nature and outer space, as well as the human intervention of it. Made between 2014 and 2021, the films in this programme, presented here, interrogate such themes through documentary, home movies, and found footage, in addition to stop motion animation and computer generated manipulations of the image.
Now, Jason, that I have been talking about fixations, I would like to start off with a little selection of a few that I find recur often in your films. Obviously, we named the programme Attention Red for a reason. So red features literally sometimes in titles of your films like Red Lights and a Solstice Moon, in Red Cap, and then also in the image itself, like in blinking objects, like an antenna, like red lights, or you dying the image in red, like in Film the Forest No 4 or From Scotland with Love, for example. And also, we were talking earlier in one of the songs of your band Vacuum Spasm Babies, ‘Red Dots’. So could you tell us a little bit about red as a fixation in your work?
JM: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. So the place that I’m based, in Denholm near Hawick that you mentioned, if I look out of one window, I see the television masts that was featured in Red Lights and a Solstice Moon. And of course, at night when I walk out to the front step I see the red of those lights. If I look out another window, I look out into the forest that I’ve spent a lot of time in and where I’ve made, you know, four films now with Film the Forest No 4 being the latest. So there’s… the red is evident and the forest red is evident in those red lights. And it’s also a really emotive colour. So when you think of red, you think of, you know, anger and violence and danger, and fire. But you also think of sort of passion and love. And then in terms of works like Energy Sent Along Wires, we think of the colour of blood, and the way that energy flows through our veins. So it’s, it’s an emotive colour. And it is not one that I always plan to use and work. I think instinctively I go for that colour. If I was an artist using paint, there would be, you know, tubes of red paint on mass order, just to keep the supply going. But it’s just a colour that I enjoy exploring, and thinking about how that makes me feel as an artist to use that colour, and how an audience member is going to relate to that colour when they see it.
MH: So would you say then red is kind of expressing that energy of your work.
JM: Yeah, I think so. So if you look at Film the Forest No 4, you know, red’s in there, at certain times of year the forest is full of the colour reds, but other times it won’t so, you know, the idea of applying that red energy… and in particular, in that film, it’s a colour of devotion to the forest as well. So it’s a very energetic colour. And again, a colour that I see surrounding me and of course, as an artist, you’re always informed and influenced by the things that you see in your daily life.
MH: Yeah, now also in Red Cap, for example, where red is basically the blood that folk tale of that murderous dwarf basically who needs to kill travellers to get the blood of them to always keep his cap red. So it also has something, yeah like an energy, but also destructive energy.
JM: Yeah, I think so. And Red Cap is, you know, it’s a really early film for me. But it’s again, it’s actually made at a castle, a small castle that I can see from where I live up on the hill. And there’s a really nice connection to Alchemy as well, the castle that was shot, it is called Fatlips Castle. And it was the scene of a film walk maybe two years ago where we walked up to the castle, and we projected the Stan Brakhage film The Text of Light. So it was really nice to have, you know, had that film made and shown at Alchemy, and then to have a visit with other filmmakers and artists from across the globe walk up to that, that castle. It was a really special day and, you know, I have felt a strong connection to that location still.
MH: Yeah, as you were saying, you, you’re inspired, of course, by your surroundings, and you were talking about the electricity pole outside. That brings me to my next, kind of, I would call it fixation that pops up frequently, is electricity. It also goes alongside kind of energies, like we see in Energy Sent Along Wires, in Red Lights also, we see pylons, masts and and also frequent kind of radios. So could you talk about electricity as an inspiration in your work and also as a feature?
JM: Yeah, it’s interesting. And I’ve been asking myself the same question about the obsession with, with pylons in particular. And at the moment, I’m doing research for a new work that will focus quite heavily on pylons, and based loosely on a quote from a J.G. Ballard’s short story, and so hopefully, by, by researching this new work and making it and hopefully exhibiting, exhibiting it, that will help you know, bring myself to some conclusion as to why I find those structures so fascinating in the landscape. I mean, I think they are beautiful to look at, I think they represent, you know, connectedness in terms of the way that electricity is delivered from one place to the other, or in the case of Energy Sent Along Wires, you know, how the energy in the blood is circulated around the body.
There’s also something eerie about it, I think, you know, a television mast with six red lights that you see at night is for me, it’s a thing of beauty, but it also is you know, a beacon of some kind and similarly, in Red Lights and a Solstice Moon you know, we will look at the energy of these particular places and again with Codename India: 1967. You know we’re talking about how, you know, how energy is contained within the walls of a bunker, and how we interact with that as humans. So it’s right across my work and I hope that I can, through my own research, come to my own conclusions as to why I find pylons and electricity so exciting to work with. Some might say it’s a dangerous obsession, but it’s one that I’m quite glad to indulge in for now.
MH: I think… interesting. Yeah. I mean, because in your work, but also in your, in your written work, you’re saying a lot about the beauty of fringes of a landscape or things that, or places or constructions that are not… or structures I mean, that are maybe not generally seen as beautiful. That’s a major draw that you’re interested in. So maybe that kind of connects with these pylons and masts?
JM: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, perhaps. I mean, there’s nothing that excites me more than finding, you know, a manmade structure immersed in nature. Because it doesn’t belong there. There’s always a story there. And that’s the kind of thing that people would automatically reject as having any kind of aesthetic significance. But I often think the opposite and often end up pointing a camera at it at some point.
MH: Speaking of a camera, actually now going into your… the process of your work. So I think your films… well it expresses pretty well when you just start watching them that they have something very do-it-yourself to them. So you’re obviously your own camera man. And you do your own voiceover in some of your films and even appear in your film in This Way For Fun, for example, where you’re putting up a sign in the forest. How important is it for you doing it all yourself. And also maybe the second question and revealing sometimes the very process of your art making in your work.
JM: I think the the idea of doing things yourself is really important for me. So it goes back to, in my much younger days, I was involved with fanzines, and embracing that kind of punk and DIY culture. Similarly, with the music that I make with my bands, we’ve never relied on a record label, we’ve never relied on studio time, you know, we’ve always been able to, you know, make our own opportunities. And similarly to the Moving Image Makers Collective as well. We’re all really fortunate in that at any given time, one or two of us that have always got work showing at another festival, but we do like to generate our own opportunities and not rely on anyone else for opportunities to make work and share our work. So I’m at my happiest when I have a new project to research and think about and contemplate.
And then in the case of, of the films made in the forest, spend time in the forest, just me and my very small camera, a little small audio recorder, and just going out to film when I can. And actually one of the influences in that way of working. I can’t remember which year it was at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, but the American filmmaker, Leighton Pierce, came and spoke at the symposium. And he spoke about, you know, when you find the urge to work, you must work and it doesn’t really matter that much what you do. And of course, a lot of the work that he makes, these beautiful films are shot on, you know, the balcony outside his house, so it’s very domestic. So I think that’s probably why I’ve spent so much time in the forest, which is, you know, five minutes’ walk from where I live. If there’s a window of opportunity, and you feel the need to work, you can grab a camera, put on some boots and, and head out there and see what there is to see on that particular day. So yeah, a big believer in that DIY approach. But, of course, that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with people. And that’s another strength of the Moving Image Makers Collective.
MH: You were mentioning kind of also the punk attitudes that I also see very strong in your films, especially as on a formal level because for example, when we think about Red Cap, and about a folk tale and how folk tales are usually told also in the moving image, like traditional narratives and how they’re told, and you find in there a completely different way of talking about a tale that’s only present through basically non representational abstraction, which I find is a very kind of, I would say punk, very nonconformist approach to tradition.
JM: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it like that at all. And you’re right. I mean, there are some beautiful retellings of, of folk tales and folklore, especially through some of that sort of early Soviet animation. And so that’s always interesting but I hadn’t considered that in the past. But I suppose it is a counter to the traditional way of telling a story, and finding something that interests you, and looking at an alternative way of telling that tale. And I think that the same is similar in the film Sea Sisters and again that’s quite an old film, now, but exploring the ideas around sea sirens, using a mixture of found footage and new footage. So just a different way of telling that story. One that, you know, I found interesting and challenging, but also satisfying, and hopefully something that you know, then the audience would like to see and enjoy as well.
MH: It’s also, I think, also in Celluloid, for example, where you have text inserts of William Burroughs’ American Dream quotes, you know, that way he says, ‘America is not so much a nightmare as a non-dream’, where we see in the image, we see a young woman dancing a jig in a ballroom dress, you know, and then images of like some family album of a trip to New York. And so it’s a quite interesting way of also talking about one’s identity or also kind of the in-betweens of a promise. And, and the rootedness.
JM: Yeah, there was a, it was a really interesting film to make. And it’s an avenue that I’ve possibly not finished exploring. And without that William Burroughs quote I found that I was instantly fascinated by it. And you can interpret it any number of ways. And I think the, the images using celluloid is perhaps just one way. And it was really interesting to work with that archive footage. You know, I don’t know who these people are, or the sources of the of the images, if it’s home movies or otherwise, but you can’t help but build up a kind of quite an intimate relationship with these individuals, if you’re if you’re working with the, the archive footage, and, you know, transferring it into something and thinking about how you apply, you know, that that quote from William Burroughs, physically onto the film, or you know, how that relates to it.
And, you know, there was snippets in there of the Highland dancing, which I again, I used in the film From Scotland with Love. And, you know, as a Scottish person I was really interested in, you know, how, how these kind of Scottish traditions, which, in the grand scale of things, you know, Highland dancing is, is a relatively new Scottish tradition, but how it finds its way over to America and Canada. How identify it, how they identify it over there, if it’s expats. And also about, you know, if, you know, if I’m using that footage to tell another story, there was something really interesting about, you know, making that work and making it into a dance of defiance and protest. And then you’re presenting that back to the world, both in Scotland and in America as well, to see what their reaction is there.
MH: Yeah, you’re touching upon an interesting point that I also put down when I watched your films is… I was wondering, what’s the importance of recycling your own footage, or found footage that you have used before in other films, for other films, like… because you use a lot of Super 8mm, you have a very strong Super 8mm analogue film practice that you mix with digital imagery. And then you can trace also a lot of kind of recycling and rearranging footage. So yeah.
JM: Yeah, that’s a good question. And so when I think, you know, when, when I started to discover experimental film for myself, and and probably through the film festival, as well, discovered that repurposing archive film is a legitimate way to make new work. And so I think, early on, I was excited about those possibilities. And again, being a, you know, an emerging artist in my late 30s, I didn’t have a, you know, I never had a back catalogue of footage to call upon. So the fact that for Sea Sisters I could, you know, download footage and repurpose it, I found that really interesting. And that there’s also artists like Stephen Broomer, who exhibited work at Alchemy two years ago, he came over to Hawick and presented work and talked at the symposium about how he worked with archive footage and re-photographs, and then does terrible things to the fabric of the film to make new works that are actually quite beautiful. So I mean, that that’s fascinating for me as well.
And I think there’s something that’s not yet fully realized in my own practice and that is that analogue film practice and, you know, I’ve dipped my toes into the water of caffenol processing, and 8mm film. I’ve got stock of expired Kodachrome 40 ready to use when the mood comes plus the chemicals to develop it. And then in the case of the beauty and sadness in the patterns of two chemical reactions. So the 8mm film there was actually film that I’d shot when I was basically a boy, back in the days when you could shoot on Super 8, and send it away to a lab, and then it would arrive back. And I was just interested in, you know, putting that together with other… recently, home developed Super 8 to see what would come of that experiment and see what would come, aesthetically, and it’s a fascinating way to work that I long to engage in further. At the minute, there’s too much clicking of a mouse to make things. Whereas I’m really looking forward to, you know, getting my hands dirty, with that Super 8 processing.
MH: That brings me to the element of play in your films. Because we were saying just before a part of the Burroughs quote is the dream is a spontaneous happening. And I feel with your films, when you see them, then you, you often feel like the result of trying out things as you go and playing with objects, like picking up every leaf of a fern frond or, or burying that sign card on a leaf to decompose. So my question would be, how important is play and curiosity in your work?
JM: Yeah, that’s yes, that’s a good question. Quite often, people say to me, your work is really eerie. Or, or it’s dark or sinister. And I suppose they’re right but there is that, that fascination with picking up an object and seeing what it looks like or, you know, for me, some of the most exciting places to film are beyond signs that say Keep Out, or Danger This Way. So, I mean, I do find it fascinating to, you know, look at the wider landscape, but then focus right in on a leaf or a piece of lichen or, or, or a feather. And with the film Film the Forest, from I think 2019 I made that. So that was a sort of stop motion piece. And it was so much fun to walk up into the forest and, and collect a whole, a whole bag of pieces of lichen or ferns or twigs, or leaves or whatever I could find. And then you know, you know, actually touch them and put them into position and you know, photograph it and move it and photograph it and move and photograph it. So I don’t think my work is known as being light hearted. But hopefully there is an element in there somewhere.
MH: Absolutely. Going back to the outdoors, I mean in a different way. It’s also what I find that wind often recurs as a motif in your attempts to capture it in cinematic ways. Like, literally in the title Wind Blows at Seven Frames Per Second – how can you film wind, something that is experienced?
JM: Yeah, how can you film wind? Yes, I’ve no idea. I mean, I know that I’ve spent hours in the forest, looking for the right kind of wind and trying to record the right kind of wind as well. With with really cheap equipment that’s not really fit for purpose. And, yeah, you’re gonna have to come back to me in six months and ask me that question. I’ll answer that. That’s one that’s gonna require some some contemplation. But how do you film wind… yeah, and we, you know, there’s that exposed landscape and one of the joys of the forest is to feel the wind and the sun in your face, and stand still to look to see how the ferns and trees around you, you know, sway with that wind, you know, that that’s only one representation. How do you capture something invisible? That’s sometimes there and sometimes not? No, it’s an excellent question, but give me six months and I’ll come back to you on that one.
MH: Oh, but you obviously, you try that with sound. But the sound level we have with this kind of the choppiness of the image in the beginning and all that, reflecting this synthesizer spooling effect that we get from DVDs when we spool forwards. That’s kind of in that film. I felt like, it’s a very interesting way of telling what you can’t actually, like, yeah, the viscerality of it, in a way. Which brings me also to sound basically, in your films… can you talk a little bit about how you pick sounds for your films and also as a strategy to basically juxtapose often or in strange traditional notions of rural landscapes that kind of ties a little bit with what we talked about in the beginning?
JM: I think I always try and think quite deeply about sound. And always as filmmakers, sometimes it’s a sort of second most important thing. I have an ongoing and long-term obsession with the band Kraftwerk. And you know, the way that they work, the way that they sound and the way that they present themselves has really influenced everything that I’ve touched over the years. And of course, these days, you know, that there are all kinds of vintage synthesizer emulators that you can get online and start to play with. And I’m fascinated with, you know, using these digital sounds to represent the way that things look and feel, in the forest. I can lose hours at a time, you know, just kind of twiddling dials and switches to see what sounds it could be made and find them the exact wrong sound that to put on a film about a forest in the landscape. So it’s a fascinating thing.
I’m lucky enough that at certain times of year, I do get to see a lot of experimental films and I always listen deeply to see, you know, how sound is used. And I was thinking recently about Jan Švankmajer, and the way that he records sounds and repurposes sounds, and the way that the sounds add to the overall feeling of the work. It’s a fascinating process, but I also like to kind of try and record the sound of the landscape in one way and make sure that that’s incorporated into the film, even if it’s in a very small and subtle way. But there’s nothing more satisfying than four notes of a nice synthesizer that can be added into something. I’m also quite obsessed at the minute with sort of vintage Mellotron emulators, so these Mellotrons in real life they’re powered by sort of a, lines of magnetic tape with the sounds are recorded on them. So they have a very particular sound. And I think there’s something quite appealing about, you know, that kind of vintage mono feel that they can counteract, you know, sort of really bright and vivid colours of a landscape, for example.
MH: Yeah. I mean, also on on the spoken word level in a way you use, I would say found sounds or basically maybe found sound recordings. Like, for example, what struck me is that in many of your films, there is a, there’s a Russian voice going through, I mean, in two or three of them, but I mean, like, there’s a theme. What’s your connection with the Russian language? Or especially these recordings? Where do they…?
JM: Yeah, so that’s another unhealthy obsession, possibly. And again, one that I haven’t quite worked through my system yet. So in Red Lights and a Solstice Moon and I think Codename India, anyone listening can, can Google this for a more coherent answer. But number stations were ways of communicating through the Cold War. So various superpowers would get in touch with their people on the ground in different countries by broadcasting codes over, you know, shortwave or longwave radio bands. So there are, there are people that are dedicated to collecting those sounds and making those sounds available. And so you can go in and listen and download these coded messages from, from all parts of the country.
And again, you know, there are still there are still number stations that exist in broadcast that no one will take responsibility for owning them. And of course, these days, no one has any idea of what these coded messages mean. And so, you know, I’m fascinated with that and I guess sounds are captured from the air. There is something eerie about it. So the Russian… don’t ask me to translate it, but I think, you know, it sounded sinister, it sounded you know, otherworldly, almost. And that kind of that excited me and it continues to, to excite me and I’d recommend anyone to seek out some of these messages that you can find online from these number stations in particular and sometimes it might be a list of numbers in Russian. But at one point in history, that list of numbers in Russian meant something to the person that, who was on the other end of that of that transmission. I find it fascinating…You can lose hours and hours, if not days listening to it. It’s fascinating.
MH: Yeah, but also on this level, in a way, you show a lot of that you have a very fluid temporality in your work. And that’s why I find it’s quite interesting too, that there’s very many angles, kind of looking at your films, and also with a historical lens. Which brings me actually to a question that I should ask very quickly, because we have to wrap up, is your film Film the Forest No 4 is for me in a way like a, like a forest symphony of green to red tinting, double-images resembling a 3D effect, and also digitally morphed image, image manipulations. So like in a way would you say it’s an homage to your work so far?
JM: Yes, actually, I think it probably is. So there’s one more forest project that I’ll be working on with our Moving Image Makers Collective in September this year. And I’m going to build a periscope that will allow you to see the, the soul of the forest. And so I think with Film the Forest No 4, and the project in September that’ll probably draw a line for now, underneath that, and, and that’ll allow me to kind of, like we mentioned earlier, pursue that obsession with pylons, and work out what that means to me. So very different environments. But yeah, that’s a really interesting point. And, thanks for that observation.
MH: Well, I think this is all we have time for as they say, um, Jason, do you have anything to add, any last words or comments?
JM: Well, just to say that I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to share the work and the Alchemy Film Festival has always been really special for me. I’ve been an audience member from the very start. I’ve spent years volunteering at the festival and I’ve been lucky enough over the past few years to have work exhibited at the festival. So, thank you very much for selecting the work. I love it. Thank you.
MH: Well, then thank you, Jason, for this really wonderful conversation. And I hope you all out there get the chance to watch this fantastic hour-long programme of 17 Films called Attention Red at Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. Enjoy.
Marius Hrdy is a cultural worker, film programmer and writer based in Amsterdam. He has programmed retrospectives of filmmakers Martha Colburn and Ted Fendt and recently co-curated a historical retrospective on Dutch experimental filmmaking, together with Amsterdam’s EYE institution, shown at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Anthology Film Archives. His film writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail and KINO! etc. He is a member of the cinema collective Filmhuis Cavia. He is a member of the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival programme team.