Film in Space: Camden Arts Centre, London.
‘Film, as distinct from video, is like paint; it’s a tactile material that can be used to make powerful spatial illusions’ (Guy Sherwin, File Note #75).
In a maudlin and rather pedantic tone, I often hear myself reminding students that film is not video; they are different in nature and substance. Hold a film up to the light, run it through the fleshy gate of your fingers and you will see oblong frames of colour and form; try doing that with videotape.
In counterpoint to the flippant immediacy and temporal incision of digitally encoded video, film inserts a chemical delay between the moment an image is taken and the moment that image reappears: in the photographic darkroom we can actually watch this process taking place, we can be there when the once present reappears and light becomes substance.
For those of us familiar with the rituals of the Super 8 process, the additional delay that the international postal systems confers, adds another anxious yet delicious adjournment of presence. It takes a fortnight (an appropriately outmoded measurement of duration) for three minutes of time to arrive or rather return, wrapped in a 50ft coil of film, 8mm wide. The film is immediately laced up in the digital projector of our fingers and the nearest available light source, just to confirm, to see, that something is there.
Perhaps this is merely the nostalgia of a man of a certain age reflecting upon the technology that recorded his childhood. Or perhaps there is something essential in films relationship with light and substance, something that impinges upon our experience of not only the image we see, but also the moment and place that we experience that image in? A relationship Guy Sherwin alludes to in his introduction to the exhibition Film in Space at Camden Arts Centre: ‘Images are formed through certain processes and that affects our understanding of them’ (ibid). For me the strongest parts of this exhibition occur when the materiality of film is most apparent, when light and substance oscillate.
On entering the exhibition we are greeted with the continuous mechanical chatter of a pack of 16mm projectors, biting at the glossy tongue of film and chewing image into light and presence; the occasional film-edit introducing a momentary gulp for air. That the images which Lucy Reynolds’ films project, should concentrate on words, emphasises a distinct lack of voice, language stripped back to the noisy mastication of its production: the hard ‘tittle-tattle of the teeth’ (Stephen Connor) rather than the soft wet vocalisation of lips, tongue and larynx.
An air of the mechanical continues in the large empty space where William Raban’s Diagonal (1973) awaits projection. Here we are presented with a lifeless, lightless, projector and a wall mounted push switch. The motor memory of previous light switches that linger in my tarsals, overcome the awkwardness of the gallery situation, and I witness my hand reaching for the button, causing a temporary change in the state of an electrical circuit and plunging the gallery into a moment of measured light. The ‘kinetic melody’ of my gesture brings with it tangent memories of the dark staircases and deserted landings of Wolverhampton bedsits in the 1980’s: impoverished non-spaces where even light was rationed.
The resuscitated projectors mechanically wrench stillness back into motion. The first familiar static breath of film sound, prefacing the re-animation of images photography has stilled. The whole process of switching the film on is strangely reminiscent of those fairground automata, which suddenly awake as a coin is dropped into their slot. The origins of film are full of such spectral reference: the phantom rides of the Lumière Brothers, the staged illusions of Georges Méliès, but to find such echoes here, in an exhibition concerned with the materiality of film, is unexpected.
In Gallery 1, I discover Sherwin’s Newsprint (1972/2012), a film I have seen and shown many times. The original curl of the actual film, covered in its now yellowed newspaper, hangs on the wall next to the effigy of its own projection. In my previous single-screen viewings of this film, I have been struck by the physicality of the sound produced. The dull sonic cosh to the back of the head as the printed text rubs against the optical heads of the projector and language escapes from meaning. But here the projector is in front of me, wall mounted on a do-it-yourself shelf. A constructed armature fixes a mirror to the machines body and projects the text down onto a grey table, a speaker, skinned from its box hangs down beneath the projector. The formerly abrasive escape of language is now delicate and visually confused with the interference of a loose wire or poor connection. It is as if language were between stations, trying to break through, to return here from somewhere else. As ‘what is inaudible becomes audible’ I am reminded first of the EVP experiments of Raudive & Jürgenson and then of the poetic resistance of voices that emerge from the chauffeurs radio in Cocteau’s Orphée (1950).
The ghosts of film’s history continue with a long printed strip of landscape from Steve Farrer’s Clawless Bolex (1878-9), where the artist has removed ‘the claw and shutter from [a] cine camera to record the landscape rolling past a train window’ (Sherwin, ibid): another phantom ride through time and space, resulting in an emergent spectral landscape reminiscent of the chronophotography of Étienne-Jules Marey. In a visual echo of Sherwin’s Newsprint, the ten ‘drawings’ of Farrer’s film, 10 Drawings (1976), are mounted on the wall next to their illuminated future. The drawings are exquisite; a grid of six rectangles, each consisting of 50 strips of clear film stock laid side by side, upon which Farrer has drawn (or printed) simple geometric forms, producing astronomical linear patterns of light and dark. The drawings are deconstructed and spliced into the thin extended line of 16mm film and projected as an oblong of visible light next to their original forms. The optical sound head of the projector translates the patterns of line and light into pulses of sound. It is as if we are listening to the transmission of a signal or wavelength from some far away source, a pulsating star, a distant and active galactic nucleus: a signal we can find on our channel but which we cannot decode or receive due to lack of vertical and horizontal hold (I like to imagine that 10 Drawings was included as part of Voyagers interstellar message). Although, in both Newsprint and 10 Drawings, I am conscious that the sound I hear is a result of the image projected, there remains a ventriloquial gap between the site/sight of utterance and the sound enunciated, as if this vocal burst of electronic communication was coming from some when and somewhere else or other.
In a corner of this gallery a silent and almost apologetic table and chair invite the physical company of a solitary viewer. Upon the table, a strip of film hangs over the illuminated Perspex window of a light-box, a line of film held in tension between two metal spools. As my hand cranks the film from one side to the other, the handle of the spool I am not holding rotates in sympathy with my action, as if another invisible hand was shadowing my movement. When my hand stops, the film continues to spool…“spool”. The solitary intimacy of this situation augments the delicacy of Annabel Nicolson’s hand printed film, Slides (1971). My position mimics that of the filmmaker, as I thread the film through the small rectangular aperture of light. The ritual of this encounter is enhanced further by the attention of the gallery assistant, who, following the departure of each audience, carefully rewinds the spools to ensure that the film is held in perfect tension.
In the artist studios of the gallery, Lynn Loo presents a selection from her personal archive of Expanded (live) cinema. And here I find Sherwin’s performance of the film Paper Landscape (1975-), which seems to me an almost perfect conclusion to the exhibition. As a projector starts we see Sherwin painting into existence the white rectangle of a cinema screen. As this action progresses upwards, the hands of a much younger Sherwin begin to appear, tearing away at the bottom of a paper screen, through which a landscape becomes visible. As the process of painting and tearing conclude, Sherwin is immured behind the image of the landscape revealed. The filmic apparition of Sherwin’s younger self, steps through the torn paper screen and walks toward the camera, before turning back and walking away into distance and absence. The image trembles as the screen begins to tear again, the present Sherwin steps through the landscape of his past, bringing his body back into matter and presence. Once more I am reminded of Cocteau’s Orphée and a return to substance through the refracted portal of mirrored light.
Film in Space selected by Guy Sherwin continues at Camden Arts Centre until February.