This essay focuses on films by the British experimental filmmakers Guy Sherwin, Malcolm Le Grice, William Raban and John Smith, who began working in the 1970s and had affiliations with the London Filmmakers’ Co-operative (LFMC). Their contemporary practices continue to engage with debates centred on issues concerning materiality, alternative structures to narrative, light, time and duration. A key theme in these filmmakers’ recent films and videos is their revisiting of earlier works – hence the subtitle of this essay ‘Then and Now’ – which begs a number of questions. What are these figures each doing, and doing differently, in their re-engagement with earlier working methods and aesthetic concerns? What exactly is at stake when filmmakers revisit aspects of their work from an earlier period? Can historical lines of enquiry be drawn, revealing technological, aesthetic or political changes affecting the works? And what is at stake when filmmakers’ embrace new technologies in a transition from film to video?
The films discussed here include a number from Sherwin’s ‘Short Film Series’ (1975-2014) and two of his abstract films, Cycles (1972) and Rem-Jet Loops (2015, made with Lynn Loo); Le Grice’s Matrix (1973) and its later incarnations Matrix 73-06 (2006) and Marking Time (2015); Raban’s River Yar (1971-72), South Foreland (2007), Angles of Incidence (1973) and About Now MMX (2010); and Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) and The Man Phoning Mum (2012). A number of questions were posed to the filmmakers, with the initial intention being to incorporate responses within this essay. The responses were, however, generously detailed and insightful and it therefore seemed invaluable to include them as appendices to the discussions.
Sherwin was an early LFMC member, with his commitment to using 16mm film sustained through his continued interest in (amongst other preoccupations) light and time. His ‘Short Film Series’ (1975 – 2014), spanning almost four decades, takes the simple format of a 100 foot roll of black-and-white 16mm film, and more often than not focuses on the single subject of the title, with filming akin to a beautifully composed photograph, revealing subtle changes in light, movement, tonal range or focus. The subject of Portrait with Parents (1975) is echoed in the more recent Guy and Kai (2013). Both are portraits of the title’s subjects, although the former is a wider shot including Sherwin’s parents, who are standing either side of an oval mirror, above a mantelpiece, showing the filmmaker’s reflection (as he films with a hand-cranked camera). Guy and Kai is more tightly framed, with father and son’s heads and shoulders filling the frame, calling to mind Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964-66) and Peter Gidal’s Heads (1969). In Sherwin’s Yi Wei (2011) the close-up of an eye draws on his distinctly similar, earlier films Eye (1978) and Blink (1977). And in Mei (2010) Sherwin has recorded, in close-up, the features of his very young daughter Mei, echoing an earlier film of his first daughter Maya (1978).
A number of Sherwin’s 1970s films focused on windows include Window (1976) and Barn (1978), a subject he has revisited in the later Window/Light (2013). All three films have a fixed point of view, namely the camera looking out of a window. Barn shows a view across a field (of wheat or corn perhaps) with the barn doors on either side framing the scene that includes trees and passing clouds. Throughout the film flashes of light illuminate the pastoral scene making sharp contrasts within the monochrome image. Window opens with a black screen (instead of a white one, as most of the films from the series do) and slowly progresses – by adding more light – to reveal a large window divided into sections, with handles also evident. The view outside the window shows domestic buildings on the road opposite and the film ends when it flares out into white light. The recent Window/Light (2013) includes the image, gradually increased in exposure, of a high window looking out onto a breeze-blown tree in leaf. The superimposed image of a light-bulb also appears intermittently, at times flaring out the scene with its light. The light-bulb’s detailed filament is sometimes revealed, which is perhaps a nod to the demise of the light bulb as we have known it since its invention, having been replaced by new energy saving ‘long life’ bulbs.
While these films show a personal engagement with earlier work, it is particularly in Sherwin’s re-invigoration of the earlier abstract work, such as Cycles (1972-77) from the ‘Optical Sound Film’ series, that some interesting new departures can be found in Rem-Jet Loops (2015) for example. The original is a 16mm single screen film in which Sherwin produced sound and image by working directly onto the filmstrip with paper dots stuck on, or holes punched into, the filmstrip. Sherwin here explored equivalences between sound and the ‘persistence of vision’, identifying differences between units of time in film (24 frames per second) and sound (e.g. 72 beats per second), thereby creating a dialogue between visual and aural perception. During projection, as the frequency of dots on the filmstrip increase, they eventually become a pulsating ball of light. Together with the sound “the film highlights the different sensitivities in our visual and aural senses”. 1
While Cycles is a piece for standard film projection, the more recent Rem-Jet Loops (2015), a collaboration with Lynn Loo, is performed with three projectors. In a recent article Sherwin has discussed the path that he has taken in his re-engagement with Cycles, which was invigorated by his interest in expanded cinema with live projection, and his partnership with Loo. Cycles gave rise to Cycles #3 (1972/2003) which uses two 16mm projectors running identical prints, superimposed and out of phase by about a minute. For Sherwin Cycles #3 , “gave rise to fascinating and unpredictable pulsing of image and sound” which was extended by “making subtle shifts of size, volume, focus and timbre during projection”, making it “possible to modulate spatial and rhythmic fluctuations as a strong component of the work”. 2
These possibilities are extended in Rem-Jet Loops, which involves three projectors, optical sound, an equaliser, contact microphones and an intermittently used radio, with Loo and Sherwin operating projectors and sound mix simultaneously. Its handmade film loops include imagery and optical sound produced by an equivalent physical action, with numerous possibilities opened up to modulate sound and image through the use of wide lenses, contact and light sensitive microphones and projector movement within the space. Additional attention is given to the overall quality of sound, with Sherwin suggesting that “perhaps in this work we have come closest to the condition of improvised music with its high degree of flexibility and immediacy in performance – qualities that are hard to achieve with film.” 3
Interestingly, Malcolm Le Grice has also drawn comparison with music in his re-engagement with earlier works, noting that jazz musicians might produce a ‘new’ performance for an earlier composition but one which ‘closely retains the “original” composition’. This is not too surprising however, as music has influenced his work conceptually and is also evident in the soundtrack of seminal early films like Little Dog for Roger (1967) and Berlin Horse (1970).
Le Grice started filmmaking in the 1960s and was instrumental in the establishment of the workshop at the LFMC. Alongside the structural/materialist filmmaker Peter Gidal, his theoretical writings and filmmaking were influential in shaping understandings of formalist filmmaking which was prevalent at the LFMC in the 1960s and ’70s. Although Le Grice made distinctive and seminal works in film, he also embraced video and digital (computer-generated) technologies early on, with his interests in ‘the politics of perception’, viewer engagement, film form and materiality informing both his filmmaking and theoretical writings.
Le Grice’s film Matrix (1973) has some resonance with Sherwin’s abstract films and their modernist overtones. References to colour field painters like Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still are evident in Matrix, with the work consisting of six looped films of optically printed solid colour blocks. Each film consists of two colour blocks divided horizontally by a black line with the quiet stillness of a colour field painting subverted through movement, and a soundtrack produced on a Zinovief ‘Putney’ analogue synthesizer. The films are projected simultaneously with six projectors, eliciting a dynamism absent in stationary 2D paintings. Le Grice also moves the projectors around mid-performance, ensuring an active space of projection. Each screening of Matrix is distinctive due to the live-action projection, rendering the colour fields as an active exploration of colour, space, light and film apparatus, making each event a singular, unrepeatable work. While the performance of the piece is improvised, a consistently similar pattern evolves as the six projectors are moved, firstly with the screens overlapping and superimposed, then moving outwards to form six complete screens in two rows of three. Improvisation with diverse patterns continues as the image is progressively de-focused and the screens eventually return to the centre. Matrix evolves with a sense of dynamism, materialising as it does through the expanded projection event.
Over thirty years later the earlier work was revisited for ‘Matrix 73-06’ (2006), closely based on the original concept and broadly following documentation of a 2004 screening performance. The 2006 re-engagement is a video installation, simulating the appearance of a film projection with softened screen edges including four full screen images within the single video frame. Shown on three video projectors, the total number of apparent ‘screens’ are doubled, maintaining the symmetry of the original piece in the new format. The colour has also been re-generated digitally to compensate for the lack of intensity in the telecine of the original film loops. Where the new work differs from its original is in the ‘sharpness’ of the digital version, the lack of material traces of film, and in the fact that movements are constructed rather than spontaneous. The film version always gives rise to spontaneous new iterations in the moment of its projection, whereas the digital doesn’t offer such possibilities. One could argue that this removes a certain spontaneity or ‘aliveness’ which was integral to the expanded cinema pieces, yet digital technology has allowed Le Grice to reconfigure the piece at the ‘production stage’ leading to new avenues of exploration In a recent retrospective exhibition, Le Grice presented his newest rendition of the earlier work, Marking Time (2015). Here Le Grice has extended the depth of ‘film’ space by using 3D video technology, with the colour fields (echoing the earlier film) overlapping, intersecting, receding and advancing.
William Raban, a contemporary of Le Grice’s, also worked extensively at the LFMC in the 1970s, and engaged in formal, structural and material experimentation with film, in seminal works such as 2’45” (1973) in which a film of audience members entering an auditorium was repeatedly filmed, processed and projected, with each new film including the previous event’s projection. The focus of Raban’s filmmaking since the 1970s includes preoccupations eloquently described in his recent professorial address:
In terms of using film to materialise time, I have identified two distinct strands in my work. I have described the processes that are at work in About Now MMX (2010) that make this film an example of fragmentary time with a lineage that goes back to some of the initial structural film experiments from the 1970s. Whereas, I have also explored ways of materialising time in Thames Film (1986), Island Race (1996), The Houseless Shadow (2011), Time and the Wave (2013) and most recently 72-82 (2014), that seem to be more about continuous time. Nevertheless, the obsession with materiality of time remains a singularly consistent aspect of my entire body of practice. 4
In Raban’s early exploration of time, Angles of Incidence (1973), the ‘axis of camera rotation’ and the shifting minor changes in viewpoint were explored by attaching a rope between a camera (fixed to a tripod) and a central point in a large window. In the more recent film About Now MMX Raban similarly created a cinematic map of east London from the fixed aerial viewpoint of Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower, where the camera tracked across the city using time-lapse exposures emphasizing the ‘frame-by-frameness of the film’s construction to produce a sense of fragmentary time’ that has resonances with 1970s films like Angles of Incidence’. 5
In an earlier collaboration with Chris Welsby on their seminal 1970s film River Yar (1971-72), technological, structural and procedural approaches were used to document the landscape. A tidal estuary was filmed over three weeks during the spring and autumn equinoxes, referencing the landscape tradition but also offering insights into duration, light and cinematographic recording devices. Despite certain controlled filmmaking conditions the work also allowed for incidental occurrences to enter into the work, with the two-screen film consisting of real-time footage of sunrise and sunset and time-compression sequences where the swift rush of time is evident in the changing patterns of light, nature, day and night, thereby compressing the time of the seasonal equinoxes and revealing dialogues between film content and cinematographic recording. Echoes of River Yar are evident in Raban’s more recent South Foreland (2007), a two-screen installation (projected on opposing gallery walls) that includes a 3-minute time-lapse film recorded over sixteen hours of a summer day with a soundtrack of foghorns. The time compression and landscape scenes of nature – the sea and fog intermittently rolling in and obscuring the scene – are reiterated from the earlier film, but they are also counter-posed by the addition of a smaller screen which includes images and the sound of a rotating radar scanner, exuding ominous suggestions of surveillance.
Alongside Raban’s persistent preoccupation with the materiality of time is an interest in the urban London landscape seen in 1970s films like Thames Barrier (1977) through to Thames Film (1986) and more recently in About Now MMX. In contrast to these films of Raban’s, which focus on expansive natural or urban landscapes, John Smith’s films are often rooted in a particular place or location, but centre on the details of urban life.
Smith’s seminal film The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) uses humour (often lacking in 1970s formalist films) to reveal a disjunction between sound and image that is gradually made apparent to the viewer as the film unfolds. The 12-minute film, composed of two shots, centres on a busy urban intersection in East London, with cars and pedestrians passing by. Smith makes full use here (and in more recent films) of the serendipitous nature of working with the moving image, whereby the incidental or accidental unplanned actions and events are embraced to become a key part of the film. 6
The soundtrack includes the apparently synchronous noise of the busy street with road-works and a burglar alarm, with a voiceover (recorded after filming) initially appearing to be that of a film director instructing the actors’ movements. Although events initially occur as instructed, the viewer soon realises that the scenes being ‘choreographed’ are far too complex for such evidently easy cohesion, as most of the film consists of a wide shot of a busy street corner with cars, buses and pedestrians moving in and out of frame. The humour becomes evident as ‘actors’ and objects in the film seemingly obey the directed orders, which include such banal directives as ‘… and I want the clock to now move jerkily towards me…’ when the camera zooms in to focus on the clock face above a building. The viewer realises that something is clearly up as the narrator (Smith) says: ‘now, two pigeons fly across’ before two birds are seen crossing the screen in flight from left to right. Smith also intersperses his directions with ‘good’, ‘ok’ or ‘now’, adding a sense of banality, as if the actors, birds and clock are obediently following instructions. Before the close of the film, a cut to a change of scenery ‘ambiguously locates the commentator in a distant field’, thereby disclosing the ‘director’s’ possible location (although he may be lying, as suggested by a subsequent reference to the sight of a man with a helicopter in his pocket and the blackbird with the nine-foot wingspan). When watching the film the viewer fairly quickly realises that something is amiss between action and direction, but Smith recognises that this discrepancy is essentially what commercial ‘Hollywood’ cinema is based upon – the idea of narrative illusion, fantasy or make belief – as he discloses in his interview with Tom Harrad:
What I was interested in when making the film is that even once you know that these things aren’t being directed, such is the power of language that there is still a kind of magical quality to the word. Even when you know you’re being lied to, it is still very easy to imagine the scenarios being described. 7
Smith’s work is anti-illusionistic, with The Girl Chewing Gum establishing his fondness for exposing illusions through the interlacing of word-play, image and narrative construction also evident in his films Associations (1975) and Gargantuan (1992). In more recent film like Soft Work (2012) and unusual Red cardigan (2011) Smith continues with a humorous, deadpan voiceover that explains banal events unfolding on the screen with a sense of indifference. Almost forty years later Smith revisited the original location of The Girl Chewing Gum to film The Man Phoning Mum (2012), which was recorded on HD video and in parts superimposed the original film. Here the black and white pedestrians and cars from 1976 meet with their colourful contemporary counterparts in the well-trodden street, oblivious to each other’s existence. There are moments where the two films are transposed, creating an immediacy between past and present as the eye focuses intermittently on either the monochrome image or the colour one. In other parts either the earlier or later film takes central focus. The soundtrack in the later film, however, remains the same. This is indicative, I would suggest, of its central importance to Smith as it instrumentally shapes any reading of the new film, drawing a clear trajectory between past and present, old and new works.
In concluding discussions on the filmmakers’ re-engagement with their 1970s films it is useful to note the significant shifts in the moving image landscape, particularly as accessible technologies have affected the marked rise in artists’/experimental filmmaking. While this marked rise should be seen in a positive light, with experimentation including a diverse range of approaches to moving image practice, there are also concerns that the long histories of experimental film have been underappreciated. I would suggest the fact that the filmmakers discussed here have re-engaged with their earlier works serves a two-fold purpose. It provides the filmmakers (and audiences) with renewed opportunities to interrogate what is at stake regarding the works within the context of the newer digital technologies (or in the case of Sherwin’s practice a continued commitment to film). At the same time, new works that derive from older pieces also point back to antecedent histories, opening up spaces for critical and theoretical reflection on those histories. It is encouraging to see the increased recognition that earlier filmmakers are now receiving in retrospective exhibitions and publications focusing on earlier highly fertile decades, which laid the groundwork for the extensive range of moving image works proliferating and forming part of the present and future trajectories.
Filmmakers’ responses to questions posed by the author: Guy Sherwin (GS), Malcolm Le Grice (MLG), William Raban (WR).
John Smith was unable to provide responses due to time constraints, but his extensive website (John Smith Films.com) provides details which readers may wish to refer to.
Patti Gaal Holmes: Does your more recent contemporary film/video work (of the past 10-15 years) provide insights into developments within your film practice and allow for historical trajectories to be drawn from the 1970s to the present?
GS: In many ways my film practice has remained the same, but circumstances have changed so dramatically that it is now a very different kind of practice. The digital era means that artists working in film rethink the medium to develop its unique qualities. In my film performances with Lynn Loo we intervene during performance, changing image-size, position, focus, overlaying images from several projectors as well as working with the projectors’ optical sounds via filters, mixer and so on. And it’s important that we perform our projectors in the same space as the audience. All this contributes to the live immediacy and physical presence of the works; such as Vowels & Consonants, Cycles #3, Washi #2 and Mobius Loops. The materiality of film was stressed in the 1970s primarily by artists working at the LFMC, but the context was so different. The emphasis at that time was on the materiality of the viewing experience in dire opposition to the seductive illusionism of mainstream cinema. Our film practice today also values that aspect of materiality but puts more emphasis on the physical, mechanical and indexical properties of film as distinct from digital’s virtuality, and absence.
WR: I think there are detectable traces of my origins in structural film evident in the recent films I have made. It is more obvious in some films than others and I would single out two examples. The first is the three-screen film installation After Duchamp (2003). I had the idea back in 1975 but it wasn’t until Karen Mirza and Brad Butler invited me to make and present the work at their Light Reading series at the 291 Gallery in London that the installation came into being. Another example is About Now MMX (2010) that creates a cinematic map of London from the aerial viewpoint of Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in east London. The use of time-lapse and the way that the camera is constantly tracking across the city below emphasizes the frame-by-frameness of the film’s construction to produce a sense of fragmentary time that is common to some of my films made in the early ‘70s such as Angles of Incidence (1973) for example. Whilst it is probably harder to connect a film like The Houseless Shadow (2011) to work from the ‘70s, there remains in all my work a minimalist approach, or economy of means, that goes back to the first films I made.
PGH: Could you say something about medium specificity and film’s analogue materiality and hands-on tangibility within the digital realm?
GS: I’ve answered that in response to the previous question, but there are also additional contexts. Lynn and I are sometimes invited to perform at sound /music /noise festivals and venues: El Nicho in Mexico City; Asso/Cable/MIRE in Nantes; Audiograft in Oxford; Cafe Oto in London. Musicians working digitally often seek material qualities in the production of sound (to give presence and evidence to live performance) and can look to film, to the materiality of the projectors’ optical sound as well as other ways that the projector machine and the filmstrip itself can make its aural presence felt, through contact mikes, photo resistors, etc.
MLG: I have recently been asked similar questions in various forms. This mainly derives from the change in production and exhibition media from film to video and then digital systems. I began working with computers in 1968 together with considering other forms of technologies. I have never seen an opposition between what is now known as the digital and the traditional technologies of cinema. My early work was very strongly focused on the physicality of the medium – filmstrip, scratches, sprockets etc. – and on the physicality of the projection – space, light beam and screen. I saw this as a form of stress on current reality for the spectator in opposition to the dominant illusionist tradition of cinema. In retrospect I see this as a strategic or symbolic stress on the condition of presence rather than some historically permanent fundamental condition of cinema. In many articles that take on the issues of the digital in media, I have argued that the digital effectively has no ‘physical’ condition as a medium – that it is not a ‘medium’ in the same way that painting, sculpture or film is a medium. At all levels, digital systems do not have any intrinsic form or permanent condition relating production to distribution or exhibition. The digital transactions themselves – electronic pulses at near the speed of light – are not available to our senses directly and how they are translated into sensory form is a matter of continually developing output and distribution technologies.
In order to deal with this loss of a seemingly permanent filmic physicality, in my practice I have replaced the notion of medium with discourse where the temporal, visual and auditory manipulations (form – sequence – change – KINEMATICS) become the symbolic reference point. I no longer talk about film but cinema in this kinematic sense (not in the sense of popular cinema institution and industry). It is true that this change has represented a difficulty in my own practice. I have been troubled by the illusionistic transparency of High Definition video but have chosen to ‘take this on’ rather than continuously re-work the ‘safer’ aesthetic of filmic materiality. Rightly or wrongly, I have incorporated some of the ‘strategies’ of presence like multi-projection offering spectator choice in construction of the experience as in FINITI (2011) for example. And strategies of image transformation (digital rather than film re-printing) as in Even a Cyclops Pays the Ferryman (1998) for example and in the 3D Where When (2015) using layering of symbolic fields again offering choices and alternative constructions to the spectator. I have also re-explored the blank or colour-field screen as in the 3D Marking Time (2015) – a reference back to projection – a starting point of cinema-zero that began for me with installations and works like Matrix .
WR: From 1970 to 2010, all my films had been shot on either 16mm or 35mm film. I loved working on film for many reasons, not least because of its tactility at both camera and editing stages but also because I felt that 40 years of experience having worked with the medium gave me considerable confidence in putting up images on the screen that I wanted to show. The Houseless Shadow was my first digital production and the two subsequent films Time and the Wave (2013) and 72-82 (2014) have all been produced digitally.
I still think there is an undeniable difference between film and digital so the idea of medium-specificity remains important to me – as does the idea of the indexical signifier. A film that is produced entirely within analogue means of production will always expose to the audience evidential traces of manipulation whether in terms of dust marks and scratches or through the effects of rephotography and optical printing, the interventions that have been made cannot be easily concealed from a discerning audience. I don’t think that one can consider the indexical signifier in the same way with digital. The postproduction processes allow for so many ways in which ‘mistakes’ can be rectified or erased from filtering out dust marks and scratches to altering the picture by matte effects and so on, that I feel that the digital movie becomes as much about erasure as inscription.
PGH: Is continuing to work with film an anachronistic activity, fetishising the materiality of the medium and its apparatus of display? Or does film continue to provide new possibilities for filmmaking and audience engagement?
GS: The people who fetishise film are more likely to be viewers than filmmakers. To be an artist working in film is utterly different from working with digital video; film has qualities of tactility, immediacy and presence not possible with video. Maybe there is a parallel here with painting and the way it sought to redefine itself after the invention of photography? Sally Golding, Greg Pope, Bruce McClure, Gaelle Rouard, Metamkine, Silvi Simon and many others have found ways to work with film’s material qualities in new and exciting ways.
MLG: Fetishising would be a harsh judgment as there are artists like Guy Sherwin and Lynn Loo who continue to produce exciting and inventive works using minimal elements of film. One might equally see an insistence on digital experiment as a form of fetish – the obsession with technology is equally suspect. For myself, I continue to want to explore an artistic invention that links technology as a form of language with the construction of an aesthetic (experiential) philosophy. At this point in cinematic history the options for production and distribution/exhibition are vast and developing – the main issue remains the ‘meaning’ of the work and its ‘ethical’ relationship to the audience – as Fats Waller said – “It ain’t what you do – it’s the way that you do it”.
WR: I switched to working with digital out of necessity in 2011 because the last laboratory in London that could produce film prints closed down. It is still just about possible to get films printed in Europe but the waiting time and shipping cost make it impractical and prohibitively expensive. Some filmmakers are attached to the idea of a DIY ethic and places such as no.w.here laboratory in London still offer the opportunity for people to develop and print their own black and white films but since I stopped working at the London Filmmakers’ Co-op Laboratory in 1976, I came to increasingly rely on commercial laboratories. Personally, I think that continuing to work with the film medium has become an anachronistic activity. It is massively more expensive than digital means of production. Although the shutter in the film projector introduces a slight flicker effect that makes it intrinsically different to video projection, film projectors do not have the same light intensity that modern digital projectors surpass and I have yet to be persuaded that projected film carries the same level of tonality and detail as digital projection. Film projection is rapidly becoming a lost art now that the majority of films screened in the UK are shown digitally. Digital projection is chemically inert and static whereas with film, even a static image there is always a slight tremble to the image. If film is about the look, then digital is about the stare.
- Guy Sherwin, Optical Sound Films, (London: Lux, 2007), p. 15. ↩
- Guy Sherwin, ‘Live Cinema: Sound & Image Guy Sherwin’ OEI – On Film #69-70 (2015), p. 208. ↩
- ibid., p. 210. ↩
- William Raban, Materiality of Time, Professorial Platform, University of the Arts, London, 2015, p. 15. ↩
- See the interview response below. ↩
- Tom Harrad, ‘Interview with John Smith’ in The White Review (March 2014), http://www.thewhitereview.org/interviews/interview-with-john-smith/ ↩
- Ibid. ↩