Experimenta - 59th BFI London Film Festival

Various venues, London, UK

Jerome Evans, Park Lanes, 2015, film still

Jerome Evans, Park Lanes, 2015, film still

Cinema has become an attractive home for artists’ film and video in recent years, a fact partly explained by the sheer convenience of raked auditoria, comfortable seating and top-notch projection technologies for watching works from start to finish. This year’s Experimenta, the strand of the London Film Festival devoted to artists’ moving image, testified to this provisional shift from gallery space to cinema auditorium. It included ambitious feature-length artists’ films by the likes of Tacita Dean, Omer Fast and Ben Rivers, alongside programmes of shorter works by visual artists and filmmakers rooted in traditions of avant-garde and experimental film. There was no overarching theme but, rather, varied reflections on the afterlives of cinema in terms of digital and analogue technologies, memory and pleasure. One of the most extraordinary feature-length works here was William English’s Heated Gloves (all titles 2015), a portrait of Captain Maurice Seddon, a bachelor, heir to a lost fortune, aficionado of raw garlic and inventor of a range of electronically-heated clothing. Seddon was English’s close friend from the early 1980s until his death in 2014, and as a subject he is never shown merely as a kook or freak. The bulk of the film comprises TV footage of Seddon demonstrating his heated garments (low voltage electrified wires sewn into gloves, leggings, jogging tops) to reporters from Australia, Germany, Japan and Sweden, and from his appearances on the David Letterman and Johnny Carson shows. Bookending this is English’s own meditative 8mm, 16mm and video footage – recorded over a period of 20 years at the inventor’s ramshackle home – resulting in a work that reflects on time’s passing, technological redundancy and alternative ways of living.

Omer Fast struggled to make the transition from video installation to cinema with his first feature-length film, Remainder, an adaption of Tom McCarthy’s eponymous 2005 novel about a man’s quest to reconstruct memories after a mysterious accident and an equally unexplained multimillion-pound compensation payment. Fast adds a superfluous romantic plot and a circular ending to the novel, giving it the unfortunate air of a ‘clever’ Hollywood movie (by Christopher Nolan, say). Ben Rivers’s The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers is set in Morocco and also borrows from a literary source, a short story by Paul Bowles in which an explorer is captured and tortured by sadistic natives. River’s film is gorgeously shot, but is ambiguous about its source’s neo-colonial fears. Tacita Dean’s poised and assured Event For a Stage records a series of performances for the 2014 Sydney Biennial in which an actor plays himself, dolling out apparently personal memories and criticisms of Dean’s script. Most monumental of all is Kevin Jerome Everson’s mesmeric Park Lanes, an eight-hour recording of the working day of a factory in Ohio that produces equipment for bowling alleys. I managed two hours but could quite happily have stayed for longer.

Borrowed, found and pilfered footage remains a useful resource for artists investigating memory, desire and history. Miranda Pennell’s The Host quarries a personal story from the records of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (which would later become BP), where the artist’s father worked. Also using archival footage, but in a pop-cultural register, is Mark Leckey’s lovable Dream English Kid, a self-portrait from the 1970s to the millennium told through a mix of plundered video footage, doctored clips of ‘Carry On’ films, sleek CGI effects and a soundtrack sampling pop, electronic and dance music classics. Moyra Davey’s Notes on Blue and Charlotte Prodger’s Stoneymollan Trail likewise explore an intertextual sense of identity composed from disparate recycled audio-visual material. An van Dienderen’s Lili reflected more analytically on the political implications of film’s materiality, examining Kodak’s system of colour balancing to Caucasian skin to the exclusion of other hues, races and cultures. More celebratory, Austrian celluloid maestro Peter Tscherkassky’s The Exquisite Corpus transformed scenes from black-and-white nudist, sexploitation and porn flicks into a hallucinatory and funny tribute to cinematic desire.

Charlotte Prodger, Stoneymollan Trail, 2015, film still

Charlotte Prodger, Stoneymollan Trail, 2015, film still

Also included in the programme were two archival screenings that suggested important additions to a transnational understanding of artists’ moving image. German-Argentinian artist Marie Louise Alemann’s films are formally innovative recordings of to-camera performance works. They are deliberately slow and confrontational, but they nevertheless stick in the mind as pieces of subtle, encoded resistance to the oppressive dictatorship of 1970s and ’80s Argentina. New Zealander Joanna Margaret Paul’s films were made in relative artistic isolation from avant-garde film discourse in the mid-1970s, but are rooted in an acute feminist politics that focuses on concerns of shared female social spaces and everyday domestic situations. Neither artist did much to promote their films and it is largely thanks to the work of researchers that these pieces have been brought to visibility. The issue of how art and cinema continue to converge or splinter remains to be seen. Artist’s moving image and art house cinema certainly share certain ways of thinking, usually offering a different sense of pace, duration and narrative to more mainstream offerings. Indeed, the Experimenta programme might easily have accommodated other works shown elsewhere in the London Film Festival – including, for example, Miguel Gomes’ exploration of documentary storytelling in Arabian Nights, Alexander Sokurov’s examination of museum culture in Francofonia, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ongoing reflections of memory and nationhood in Cemetery of Splendour. What is increasingly apparent is that, for now at least, a wide range of artists are taking cinema seriously, finding in it productive exhibition opportunities and cultural resonances.

Issue 176

First published in Issue 176

Jan – Feb 2016

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