July 16, 2012 Artists’ Film Club at the ICA
by Ann Jones
I like the idea of the Artists’ Film Club at the ICA – a monthly(ish) screening of film/video works held in the ICA theatre – but somehow I never get round to going until last week, with a remit to check it out for MostlyFilm. Once I was there, I pretty quickly remembered why I don’t usually bother with things like this, though I was sort of won round by the end. The programme for Sound and Vision was made up of works by artists who contributed to SOUNDWORKS, an exhibition of sound works currently accessible through the ICA’s website, and was billed as taking ‘the relationship between sound and moving image as a starting point to consider sound as a performative gesture in the delivery of narrative and historical discourse’. Um, okay. Well, as it happens I am interested in sound both as an element of film/video art and as a medium in its own right, so, pretentious briefing notes aside, surely this would be interesting?
The programme started well. The opening piece, Bonnie Camplin’s Heygate for Life (2012) made, I assume, on the Elephant and Castle’s Heygate Estate, which is in the process of being demolished (also the setting for Marcus Coates’s recent film Vision Quest – a Ritual for Elephant and Castle, shown in an empty shop unit at the shopping centre there recently; the last few soon to be displaced residents must be getting heartily sick of artists with cameras). Camplin’s work was a genuinely affecting picture of a dystopian space, empty and broken, and it benefited hugely from being projected and having a captive, start-to-finish audience. And, crucially in this context, the sound worked every bit as well as the visuals. While this is a work that I think would hold my attention if I came across it while wandering round a gallery, in a space where the image was my visual focus (people wandering in and out of dark spaces in galleries is always distracting) and with the sound loud enough for its relentlessness to really work its way under the skin. I found this work kind of mesmerising from the start. It worked for me for all sorts of reasons, mainly related to the changes of pace in the imagery – there’s a sense of urgency as we rush through this broken-down place, but we pause from time to time to contemplate the emptiness – and the weirdness and unpredictability of the sound. And the image of the spinning roundabout in the deserted children’s playground at the end of the piece is one that I think will stay with me a long time.
So far, so good. Roughly five minutes in and things were going well. The relationship between sound and image was firmly in my mind and, though a bit of respite from the noise was admittedly a somewhat attractive idea, I wanted more. What I got was Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s What a pity you’re an architect, Monsieur. You’d make a sensational partner (After Josephine Baker) (2011). In all honesty, I hadn’t really read the list of titles properly before the lights went down so the joy of unpicking that was saved for later; what I got was a silent film of a dancer, in fact the artist, her body painted black, dancing in a studio otherwise occupied by sculpture. The title is apparently what Josephine Baker said to Le Corbusier when he dressed up as her in order to seduce her on a cruise ship, which makes me like Josephine Baker that bit more but doesn’t really improve my relationship with the work – which is strained at best. We’re meant to be thinking about sound as a performative gesture here, not about the artist as performer in a silent space. At the time though, I didn’t mind this piece too much. It was after all good to have a break from the intensity of the sound of the Bonnie Camplin piece and, yes, I found the work a bit dull but it was soon over and we could move on.
But as it turned out – and yes, had I taken a better look at that title list before we were plunged into darkness I’d have been better prepared – this same work was used to punctuate the programme and to draw it to a close, so in fact I watched Lili Reynaud-Dewar dance naked but for black body paint not once but three times. Which, frankly, was at least twice more than was either necessary or reasonable. As it turned out, of eight films listed on the programme, three were this work. It’s here I start to think, not for the first time, about the nature of artists’ film and how it sits both in the gallery space and the cinema. The nature of an event like Artists’ Film Club is that you can’t wander off for a minute or two when you don’t find a piece of work engaging. You either sit it out in the hope of better to come or you leave.
The works here – surprisingly not all particularly interesting in terms of sound – are, with the possible exception of Reynaud-Dewar’s film, works that benefit from being watched from beginning to end, so there’s a logic to their inclusion in a screening such as this. But curating a programme of artists’ film to be shown as a showreel isn’t easy and, for the viewer, there are real advantages both to being able to decide how long to stay with a piece and to being able to take one’s own time about when to see the next work. And unlike a lot of narrative film, it’s rare for artists’ film to significantly benefit from the shared experience of being part of an audience. But then the gallery space too isn’t without its problems. It’s not unusual, as I said earlier, to find oneself distracted by the comings and goings of audience members, the need to be vigilant enough to be first to spot a newly vacant seat and, in my case at least, the constant wondering about whether I’ll still get round the whole show before it closes if I watch the videos.
For artists and curators, deciding how to show moving image works is seldom easy. The most commonly used approaches – projections in darkened spaces or on monitors on plinths – are appropriate for a lot of video work but clearly there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The recent exhibition of Gillian Wearing’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery followed an unconventional strategy that worked well for the work on show: in the lower gallery works were shown in specially constructed enclosed spaces, walking into the gallery one was met with the unfinished exteriors of the projection rooms – as though behind the scenes in a theatre – with the only art on view the video Dancing in Peckham discretely displayed on a small flat screen above head height that could easily be missed. Upstairs the confession videos – Confess all on video… (1994), Trauma (2000) and Secrets and Lies (2009) – were shown in small booths making for a more intimate relationship between audience and work. With work like Wearing’s, getting the spaces right has a real impact on the experience of seeing the work; that her Whitechapel exhibition felt so coherent was down to the installation working with rather than against the art on show.
There are two video works on show at Turner Contemporary at Margate at the moment, neither of which is actually shown in the gallery space. Lindsey Seers, who often constructs a space within a space as part of her work, has elected to exhibit in a ‘Secret location within Turner Contemporary’; to see Entangled² one must meet at the information desk – effectively this means loitering in the foyer until a member of staff armed with a sheet of stickers approaches and asks if you want to see the film – and be led out of the gallery and through the carpark to the space. Here Seers hasn’t felt the need to construct a bespoke screening space – she is using the gallery’s loading bay which effectively acts as a strange concrete theatre. Two large, inflatable white spheres – a bit like giant white beachballs – become the screen onto which the film is projected. For a work shown in a seaside town and taking as its subject ideas around double identities, and the artist’s great-great-uncle who had Heterochromia, meaning his eyes were different colours, the twin spheres clearly become more than a projection screen.
Outside the building completely, Mark Wallinger’s Sinema Amnesia occupies a shipping container overlooking the sea. Inside, the film is back-projected onto a screen that bisects the container so that one is immediately aware that the interior space is smaller than the container; in a way it’s as though the shipping container houses a camera obscura, except that the image is the right way up and looks like film. The film – The Waste Land, a reference to TS Eliot’s poem, written, in part at least, on the beach at Margate – is of the sea outside but there is a twenty-four hour delay, so we watch yesterday’s weather and yesterday’s tides.
In both of these works, the mode of display is crucial to the success of the piece. Clearly it would be possible to screen Entangled² in another way, but the experience would be a very different one. The Waste Land would make no real sense in a different context and in any case the work leaves no residue; as today’s seascape is recorded for tomorrow’s viewing, yesterday is lost.
Clearly then, the mode of display makes a difference to moving image art. So, what of the Artists’ Film Club model of, effectively, the showreel screened to a seated audience which arrives in time for the beginning and stays until the end? In the main it’s a good one in my book. It makes it possible to show an interesting range of works that might not otherwise find themselves in exhibitions. And it’s an efficient way of seeing a selection of artists’ film and thinking about the works in relation to one another. The downside is, of course, not being able to walk away from a work that doesn’t engage you, but with short running times that’s no real issue.
And what of last week’s programme in particular? Well, that’s a trickier one. In the main, I wasn’t blown away by the work but, as is the nature of these things, even the pieces I didn’t like gave me something to think about. One of the pieces that interested me most was Alejandro Cesarco’s The Two Stories (2009), in which a narrator retells his own earlier telling of a story in a empty space as the camera investigates the stillness of the room and the space beyond the window. Although this work has much in common with a short narrative film, the way the story loops in on itself turns this into an exploration of storytelling and the role of the witness.
One of the longest works was also one of the most interesting. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Language Gulf in the Shouting Valley  (2011) is, confusingly for the context, an audio work about the politics of language in Israel and Palestine particularly in relation to the Druze community. Given that this is the Artists’ Film Club and given that the stated aim of the evening is an investigation of the relationship between sound and moving image, the inclusion of an audio work of this length (close to 20 minutes) is a strange one but the piece does have the effect of focusing the mind on the nature of listening in a shared space. And given that this programme was drawn from works by artists whose audio works are included in SOUNDWORKS it seemed an appropriate inclusion. Plus, the ICA is currently showing Bruce Nauman’s Days, a surprisingly disorientating audio installation in which voices are saying the days of the week in various non-standard orders so that as one walks between the speakers – two rows of seven, each consisting of a flat white square suspended at about ear height – one catches snippets of different voices and different, strangely ordered weeks. With ideas of sound and language key to both SOUNDWORKS and Days, on balance I found the Artists’ Film Club Sound and Vision programme gave me quite a lot to think about even though, for me at least, there were definite highs and lows along the way.
Bruce Nauman: Days is at the ICA until 16 September 2012 (the ICA is closed from 23 July, reopening on 18 August)
SOUNDWORKS is accessible online or at the ICA until 16 September 2012
The next Artists’ Film Club will be screenings of Moyra Davey’s Les Goddesses (2011) on 18 and 19 August