In recent years, artists in the UK have increasingly turned to narrative cinema and mainstream TV, a shift that has coincided with a renewed interest in the video and new-media practices of the 1970s and ’80s. How does this relate to issues of funding, ideology, duration and display? A round-table discussion with artists Ed Atkins, Melanie Gilligan, Anja Kirschner and Ben Rivers
Dan Kidner is a curator and critic based in London, UK, where he is director of City Projects, a visual art commissioning agency.
Ed Atkins lives and works in London. This year he had a solo show at Cabinet Gallery, London, and is shortlisted for The Jarman Award 2011. His ‘Art Now’ solo presentation at Tate Britain, London, opens on 8 October, and he has produced a new work for Frieze Film, which will be shown on Channel 4 this month. In November, as part of Performa 11 in New York, USA, he will collaborate on an exhibition with Haroon Mirza and James Richards.
Melanie Gilligan is a Canadian-born artist and writer who is currently based between London and New York. She plays in the band Petit Mal and has contributed to magazines including Texte zur Kunst and Artforum. Her recent exhibitions include solo shows at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, Germany; the Chisenhale Gallery, London; The Banff Centre, Canada (all 2010); and InterAccess, Toronto, Canada, and Galleria Franco Soffiantino, Turin, Italy (both 2011).
Anja Kirschner is a London-based artist filmmaker who works in collaboration with David Panos. Their exhibition, ‘Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances’, is at Hollybush Gardens, London, until 16 October; they have a show at castillo/corrales, Paris, France, until 5 November; and they have been nominated for The Jarman Award 2011. Their film, The Empty Plan (2010), is included in British Art Show 7, at the Plymouth Arts Centre, UK, until 4 December. In autumn 2012 they will have a solo show at Secession, Vienna, Austria.
Ben Rivers lives and works in London. He has had recent solo shows at Matt’s Gallery, London; Hayward Project Space, London; and was this year’s winner of the Baloise Art Prize, with the film Sack Barrow (2011), at Art 42 Basel. His new feature-length film, Two Years at Sea (2011), premiered at the 68th Venice Film Festival in September. Next year he will have a solo show at Hepworth Wakefield, UK.
Dan Kidner In the last few years, particularly in the UK, we’ve seen a move away from film installation or moving-image practices that concern themselves with context and site, towards what appears to be a more unreconstructed appreciation of narrative cinema. We’ve also seen a revived interest in the video and new-media art of the 1970s and ’80s. At the same time, there have been various critical-theoretical attempts to understand the relation of recent artists’ film and video to what is often called ‘industrialized cinema’, and alongside this a more politicized, revisionist discourse has attempted to revive or re-examine the left-political film movements of the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s.
Each of your practices is orientated in some way towards existing or past familiar forms. Anja, the narrative works you’ve made with David Panos are related – at least formally – to the works of Peter Watkins and some of the so-called Left Bank filmmakers of the nouvelle vague. For example, your last film, The Empty Plan , owed something to the fractured narratives of the films Alain Resnais made in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Ben, your recent films have also had echoes of the Left Bank filmmakers: Slow Action , for example, recalls the work of Chris Marker, but your work is also indebted to the Direct Cinema and Free Cinema movement, and British filmmakers such as Patrick Keiller and Andrew Kötting, who share with you an interest in the British countryside. Melanie, your recent episodic productions address the format of US television series, such as Lost, True Blood and The Wire, and you can also see echoes of satirical British comedies and spoof documentaries such as The Office and The Thick of It. Ed, your work seems to re-function certain audio and visual devices familiar from structural film, with its flickers, fragments, flashing images, jolting cuts, audio glitches and snatches of field recordings. But these formerly analogue techniques are filtered through digital technologies. To start with, it would be interesting for each of you to talk about how your practices are orientated towards or away from cinema, television or structural film and new media.
Anja Kirschner In the four films that David and I have made together, there has been a gradual progression through different genres and forms. Polly II: Plan for a Revolution in Docklands  was a kind of sci-fi soap opera mash-up, Trail of the Spider  referenced spaghetti westerns and B-movies, while The Last Days of Jack Sheppard  was a theatrical costume drama in which we also deployed sculptural elements. Our latest film, The Empty Plan, shifts between documentary, historical actualization and melodrama. Although each film has lifted some formal elements from mainstream TV or cinema, what we’ve really been interested in are ‘bastard’ genres – colliding quite different levels of material to produce uncertainty about what the suitable context, audience or medium might be for our work. We’ve always been interested in wrong-footing what might be expected from an artist’s film, partially in response to the very real contemporary difficulty in maintaining distinctions between art and popular forms, but also as way to gesture beyond the current limits of each.
Ben Rivers A really important part of my build-up to making films was running a space – Brighton Cinematheque [1996–2006] – with some friends. We showed a huge variety of work, which moved from avant-garde filmmaking to artists’ films, to complete trash: populist, or unpopular populist. I’m a true cineaste; the work of cinema, across the board, is really important to me. Making Slow Action allowed me to finally release some of the ’70s science fiction things that I’d been feasting on for 20 years; sometimes when you make a piece of work, it’s a way of getting things out of the closet. While some of my work does hark back to British documentary traditions – from Humphrey Jennings through to the Free Cinema movement – that is only a small part of my influences. Third Cinema was also something that we really felt strongly about at Cinematheque, as it mirrored our idea that this space wasn’t specific to a certain kind of cinema – it was a kind of place to crossover all of cinema’s many guises.
Ed Atkins While structural film is very important to me, there are key elements in my work that are crucially digital, in that it concerns the mediation of cinema and TV – this is about new media as a mediation of prior categories rather than as a third category. The model of making everything with one camera and a laptop is central to this; unlike structural film, my work can’t be exposing the mechanisms of its making because I don’t know the mechanisms. I don’t know how to programme this software or how to decrypt these acres of binary. But, while the media is incorporeal, things like high-definition, 3D and surround-sound are – for me at least – all concerned with the privileging of material and surface. These preoccupations are often embodied by the subject matter of my videos. In Death Mask II  and III , for example, cadavers are figured as both abjectly physical and spiritual.
Melanie Gilligan For me it’s not about making reference to already existing forms, but finding a form that’s appropriate to the kind of communication that I want to make. I intend my work to give an ongoing commentary on the political events of our times, but through fictions and quasi-fantasies, as if the TV news were being relayed as a drama-satire-horror-play. For example, my film Crisis in the Credit System  is a drama about the financial crisis, while Self-Capital  and Popular Unrest  both focus on how the subsequent austerity measures and biopolitical lock-down would change the political landscape. In these, and some earlier performances, I intended for the work to have a shelf life and to expire once the political moment had passed. Television has a very different set of boundaries now: it’s not for the living room; people often watch it online, and that’s increasingly the case with film. My work is made for that online audience. I guess I share the ethos of some very early video practices that picked up television as a way of commandeering a medium that’s in the public realm but that is owned by corporate interests. Making my own low-budget television programmes is an attempt to challenge the cultural monopoly of how world events are told.
DK Black boxes and monitors in galleries are now ubiquitous. They’re used not only to present contemporary works of film and video but also to present historical works, and often films that weren’t specifically made with this mode of presentation in mind. I’m thinking in particular of the presence of the work by people like Chantal Akerman, Yvonne Rainer, Harun Farocki and so on in art galleries – what you could call the exhibition of avant-garde or experimental cinema. It’s into this context that all of you are presenting your work, and you’re all making films that now exceed 30 minutes, and that are, it seems, getting longer and longer. These works call for higher levels of attention, and require the viewer to be present from beginning to end, which is a new development for films screened in a gallery context. It would be interesting to talk about the tension that arises between the length of the works and the modes of attention required to view them, and the gallery visitors who – certainly in the ’90s and through to the 2000s – may not have expected to spend more than five minutes per film as they moved from one black box to the next.
MG One of the main ways I show my work is online, where the mode of attention is probably a bit distracted – not to mention that it’s anytime and on demand, which I like. I made my first film, Crisis in the Credit System, to be shown only on the Internet because I was focusing on reaching a broad audience. While my videos were initially episodic so that they could be distributed and shown online, soon after I also began to show them in exhibitions, where I’ve started spatially separating the episodes. With Popular Unrest, for example, the installation has five different booth-like areas, each containing one of the episodes on a plasma screen, and to watch the work you move around the space, wearing infra-red headphones that work for all the monitors. It’s more than 60 minutes long, but you can watch in parts and even stretch it over several visits. And, of course, the gallery-goer could also continue watching at home.
DK Is the fact that the episodes are shorter than the typical length of a TV programme a critical element of your work? In as much as they condense what would be an hour-long episode into a ten-minute segment?
MG One of the reasons I’ve been drawn to TV is its ability to develop a narrative over many sittings, the way a novel can develop characters and a plot, which requires more than just ten-minute episodes. Though I’m not trying to replicate TV’s hour-long shows, I am currently working on a programme with much longer episodes, which I’m also planning to put online. Up until now I’ve been making my own websites, but more recently I’ve been trying to figure out a better context for putting things online.
BR If the artist actually builds a specific website – that isn’t Vimeo or any of the other existing platforms – then that’s an interesting way forward. While I watch a lot of work on UbuWeb and from Cinemageddon, this online approach isn’t really for me at the moment; I’m still quite tied to the immersive spectatorship of the cinema. If I’m showing in a gallery then I want to try to encourage the audience to sit down from beginning to end. There are different ways of doing that: timed screenings or having a start button – which I guess is the most interactive I get! In terms of length, my films have just naturally got longer. It’s partly to do with my own growing confidence, but I wonder if it’s also to do with money: most of the films I used to make I paid for myself; now I get funding, it makes it easier to make meatier work. Sometimes I was frustrated by brevity – it’s the difference between a song and an album. We were talking about the influence of moving-image work, but of course it’s not just that: music, novels and short stories all feed in.
DK Ed, at first glance your work doesn’t appear to be the kind of thing that you have to watch from beginning to end, but your films have very strong narratives. I’m not sure if they’re constructed from beginning to end, but they have a ‘built’ feel – a sense that the film has been assembled chronologically.
EA A lot of the graft with my films is in accumulating stock which, because I’m using digital technology, is potentially endless. Part of what I’m interested in is creating a stock – in the way that Getty Images creates it, through a keyword search, or through arbitrary or free-associative methods – and then simultaneously editing the sounds and images I’ve amassed. In terms of audience attention, I often have a kind of didactic filmmaking in mind: the kind of television that would feed into this might be something like a Sesame Street-type educational programme, where the ‘lesson’ is delivered using phonics and synaesthetic techniques; it might also be in the duration, the length of a lesson. Through this, the video both teaches you its own peculiar grammar and how to decipher it. If it works, then the duration isn’t really a problem if you’re showing a film in a gallery: the captive aspect is perhaps more to do with a mode of address than the physical space itself.
DK Aside from the more standardized modes of display, is there an ideal format of presentation, which perhaps isn’t actually available to you at the moment?
EA I quite enjoy the discomfort or irresolution of a gallery becoming a cinema – of it sitting on the cusp of one thing or the other. For me, this in between space is the more interesting one. A perpetual problem is trying to find places that have all the right equipment to show films in full HD, with loud, defined sound. But, in a way, that fits quite nicely with the method: it’s a transitional technology I’m using, so the mode of presentation can potentially also be transitional. It moves towards something unknown while looking back at that analogue inheritance and those conventions of cinema and the gallery space.
AK I’ve really enjoyed using the gallery space to relate the films to other material, like showing The Last Days of Jack Sheppard [at the Chisenhale Gallery, London, in 2009] in the remnants of the set it was shot in. David and I have also increasingly worked with archives and collections, showing historical records and art works alongside the films when possible, highlighting a certain tension between the ‘empirical’ artefacts and the speculative histories that we’ve constructed in the films. That said, all it takes for a successful screening is a video projector and a group of people coming together out of shared interest. Some of the screenings we’ve most enjoyed have taken place outside of an art context, hosted by discussion groups in temporary spaces or in a more political milieu. We’ve also encouraged people to put our films up online, so there’s a proliferation of our work in a number of different contexts.
DK Would this ideal space of presentation be like Ed’s ideal space, which is a good place to sit with a very good screen and quality sound?
AK No, it could be in any form. You can never predict what’s ‘ideal’ – someone watching it on their laptop in bed could be ideal. For David and I, one of the great things about making video today is that you can no longer control its dissemination.
MG It’s harder to make screening-specific work now, which is simply due to there being fewer public funding options. Because of economic pressures, places that used to do so don’t exist as much. Galleries are now the places that can support this work, but this is changing the aim and the dissemination of these works profoundly.
DK Those economic pressures are, in part, what have drawn people like Farocki and others to the gallery space. It’s a pragmatic thing – that’s where the commissions are coming from. Ben, Anja’s wanting lots of people to see the work in whatever form or format it came to them would seem to run contrary to way you present your work. The medium of film still seems very important to you. I can’t imagine that you would be very comfortable with your work being shown on DVD or being dispersed as an MPEG?
BR I have shown digitally, though I preferred not to until more recently now that digital projection has got so much better. While I agree with Anja in terms of ‘anyone who’ll take it’, for me that doesn’t necessarily mean any way of showing it. I’m less interested in numbers of viewers: my film Slow Action is online in four parts but I’m not really interested in hits. I like the idea of specific screenings where you have some sense of community and feedback. For example, I’ve done a number of tours, on my own and with an American artist called Ben Russell, around Australia, New Zealand and the US, and we’re talking about doing one in China. In each town we found different spaces – galleries, universities, community centres, underground cinemas – where we would just set up a projector. The exciting thing about this is that you get an immediate conversation after showing the work.
DK In the last five years there does seem to have been an identifiable shift towards a new kind of professionalism in artists’ film in London, and in the UK in general. Artists here are increasingly using large crews, working with producers, employing Directors of Photography, and so on. I’m thinking here of all of your practices, as well as the work of Duncan Campbell, Emily Wardill and many others.
EA LUX’s Associate Artists Programme has been running for about that same period of time, so there’s maybe a good parallel to draw there; I’m taking part in it now, and Anja did before, alongside lots of other very good moving-image artists. My experience at art college in London was that moving-image or time-based media was the awkward or irresolute thing to do. On my BA at Central Saint Martins it was called ‘4D’ – something that maybe alludes to its awkwardness. If you were interested in politics or critical theory, but felt resistant towards painting or sculpture, then you would probably study moving image. Also, of course, in terms of recent economic developments, it’s very cheap to make and show videos, to download them and copy them and screen them.
MG A few things allow for the current situation in London, one of them being a very obvious, material fact: funding. I remember when Anja was making Polly II: she wanted to make a fictional film and could actually find the resources to do it. This is a somewhat exceptional situation and one that is also changing, in that funding isn’t going to be so readily available in the future.
AK Polly II was my second film after coming out of college, and at the time long-form narrative didn’t exist in most of the artists’ films that I was seeing. I remember thinking, ‘Where is this going to be shown?’ I was looking at Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames , some of the works of Derek Jarman and Peter Watkins – at that point I felt like they were behind me but not around me. A huge shift has occurred since then. But from a funding perspective this doesn’t necessarily mean taking risks producing more interesting work. Rather, there seems to be a trend to try and ‘professionalize’ artists according to the industry’s terms, as we have seen with films like Steve McQueen’s Hunger .
DK Certainly artists like McQueen and Sam Taylor-Wood making feature films would appear to be very different to what you are all doing.
AK Yes, but these high-profile crossovers seem to have created a funding culture and prevailing expectation that artist–filmmakers are all ultimately destined towards ‘art-house’ or even mainstream cinema, which is a trajectory many of us would reject.
BR Right. The way that we were encouraged to develop the long-form projects for Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network [FLAMIN] was in the context of this idea of professionalism and traditional cinema, which of course doesn’t work for many film and video artists. This is why I chose to show the Filipino director Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare  as part of the FLAMIN presentation at the Whitechapel Gallery last year, because Tahimik stood steadfastly counter to the dominant studio system of his country.
MG It’s very important to remember that the backdrop to this conversation is that the film industry is crumbling. No one would question that all sorts of music today are changing because of the changes in the music industry, but they would question that artists’ work has changed because of a total transformation of the film and television industries. The structure of mainstream moving-image culture is completely in flux, and I think this makes it possible to imagine new kinds of forms and intersections between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture today.
EA At the other end of things, where funding doesn’t happen at all, there are diverse facilities now potentially available to us – included in that might be borrowed equipment or pirated software. I’d categorize the things I use as part of a ‘prosumer’ technology: a MacBook, a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Logic Studio – these are all prosumer products that are for the creation of neither professional studio films nor family albums, but for something else. I’ve not really received funding, but that isn’t to say that I operate outside of an economy – I’m completely entrenched in it, perhaps more than most – but I want to say that a lot of my friends are making films with solely their own money.
DK When McQueen and Taylor-Wood talk about their feature films, they talk about wearing a different hat from their ‘artist hat’. This is interesting in relation to your work, Anja, because someone might see your films and place them in the same bracket as Hunger. Although McQueen probably wouldn’t, because he sees the feature film as distinct from an ‘artist’s film’: he recognizes all the compromises that he has to make when he’s working as a film director as necessary to produce something that is 90 minutes long and tells a story.
MG Well, I guess you can choose to comply with the idea that in the film industry you have to make a lot of commercial or ideological concessions in order to function or you could try to oppose that and see if it works. Mainstream film is being suffocated by its own boring conventions more than ever today, mainly because there is so much anxiety about delivering profits. For people like Anja and I, who are trying to usurp industry techniques or narrative cinema as a framework but who don’t have the demands for conventionality that come with movie-industry budgets, there’s no reason why we wouldn’t still see through all of our concerns as artists.
DK Since the 1960s, all avant-garde film and artists’ film and video has, in different ways, launched an attack on narrative filmmaking. For example, structural films exposed the mechanics of their own making, the essay–film used montage as a way of fracturing narrative to expose its ideological basis, and artists using film in the ’90s, such as Douglas Gordon and Pierre Huyghe, isolated cinematic moments and refunctioned certain tropes of cinematography. This idea of narrative as somehow inherently ideological seems to have disappeared in recent practice. None of your films seems to hold on to a recognizable critical model whose aim is to expose narrative as ideological.
AK The critical models that you refer to have largely been worn out or co-opted. If anything, ‘criticality’ itself has become an empty or aestheticized posture in contemporary art – shorn of any actual political position or engagement. What does it mean to expose narrative as ‘inherently ideological’, with the implied assumption that non-narrative forms aren’t? Perhaps what we’re now seeing are different attempts at dissolving or overcoming this impasse.
MG These experiments and their extended context have had an immense impact, producing a visual culture of fragmentation and disconnected parts in equal measure with narrative coherence – it’s all mixed together. There’s no denying that fragmented and disjunctive images are used in the service of power as much as the conventional narrative ones.
DK That’s true. And narrative cinema may not be inherently ideological, but I think it was more that subverting narrative, or subjecting it to scrutiny, was seen as a way of questioning certain ideologies and power structures per se. Of course, there was an earlier ‘return to narrative’ in the 1970s and ’80s – some of these films were christened ‘new talkies’ by Annette Michelson, a term that was taken up by Noël Carroll in the ’80s.
BR One of my earliest influences was George Kuchar, who – in terms of his engagement with narrative, in films like Hold Me While I’m Naked  and A Reason to Live  – was really quite separate from the other ’60s experimentalists. This helped me come to terms with the idea that you could use narrative in a way that managed to also be satirizing narrative in relation to dominant ideologies. I’m of the school that is against plot, which is ideological in its own way. My films are full of narrative, though not in the traditional cinematic sense – I believe in the idea that when you put two shots together you are creating a narrative. I just finished making a feature film, Two Years at Sea : it’s 90 minutes long and is going to show at film festivals, and then I hope, in some way, to conventional cinema-going audiences. But what I’m very interested in is a fragmented view of looking at the world; there’s no resolution to my films.
MG Whereas conventional narrative takes a series of events and, at the end, makes them all reconcile and ties them up in a bow.
AK But that’s not the way any of us would define what we’re doing.
EA I think of the fragments in my films as micro-narratives that function as a kind of bait. This is an inherited form of address: lure someone into the belief that the film will follow a standard path, and then interrupt or distort that expectation – or perhaps even completely fulfil it. I want to emphasize that the work is a construct, but that doesn’t remove the possibility of enjoyment.
DK Your work can seem like highly fragmented diary films. You don’t appear in them, but in a way you do, because they seem to be a mixed-up version of everything you’ve filmed personally. You hear what sound like snatches of family conversations and some of the imagery is the kind of thing you might find on a Super-8 reel or a videotape of a family holiday.
EA I suppose a lot of my work is diary-like in that it’s intimate, and that it presents glimpses of a personal but alien scenario. But that’s tied up with an ideology of production: if I’m filming, editing and making the soundtrack myself, then I want to allow myself to seep all over it.
DK In your most recent film, A Primer for Cadavers , you almost get this sense that, if you put it back together in the ‘right’ order, you would actually be telling the audience: I went to this place; I met this girl; I fell in love; somebody died. ea But if it were in that chronological order then you wouldn’t have the peculiar drama of movement between the fragments. What is presented as a sub-narrative would then be instantly understood, as something both intelligible and conventional.
DK Which is also a legacy of Modernist difficulty: if the meaning’s presented on a plate then the meaning’s not worth finding.
AK I’d prefer to get away from the schism that seems to have reasserted itself today between supposedly ‘emotional’ narrative naturalism and analytic or intellectual construction and disruption. One of my most emotional moments in a screening was watching Ernie Gehr’s Side/Walk/Shuttle , and I feel the same about Lis Rhodes’ Dresden Dynamo . You never know where affect is created, and we should be looking for new affective strategies.
BR I’d agree with that.
MG It’s often argued that the immersive quality of narrative cinema is one of the main things that makes it ‘ideological’, in that it prevents critical distance. But for me it’s important to make a kind of critical distance possible that isn’t separate from affective and even emotional responses. Narrative is one way to bring an audience into a space where affects and emotions can happen in conjunction with thinking through ideas. •
First published in Issue 142