After a question from a friend about whether I listen to podcasts, I decided this week to search a few out. My go-to topic, of course, was art. So far I have discovered The Art Newspaper (U.K. based) and Artsy (U.S.) which both do weekly offerings averaging around 30 minutes focused on a particular, and often newsworthy, topic. I don’t suppose I’ll be interested every week but the end of 2017/start of 2018 has seemed a good time to tune in for their looking-back and looking-ahead round ups. They include the kind of discussion of the art market and the art world that I find incredibly dull to read about but which is pretty engaging in a more candid, conversational style.
In a more creative vein, Raw Material from SFMOMA partners with different “podcaster-in-residences” to explore modern and contemporary art through the lens of topics such as ‘The Body’ and ‘Bewilderment.’ This seems a great way to discover new artists and explore ideas pertinent to contemporary art.
These are the podcasts that I’ve found so far that I think deal best with the listening medium. They are focused, succinct and don’t leave me wishing too much that I was near a computer to look up pictures of what they’re talking about.
It’s a long time since I’ve written anything here. I’d largely put that down to starting a teaching job at Leeds Arts University whereby most of my critical thinking energies over the last 2 years when not used in producing artworks have been spent planning seminars. Coming to the end of year 2 I am starting to get the hang of the role (at least a little!) So I am hoping to reprieve the blog as a space to mull, to begin to form new thoughts and review things made or seen.
As a first step (to take stock and get back in the writing swing of things) I’ve updated my website so it includes a page of articles and reviews I have written over the years. Some are quite old but I have done a few bits slightly more recently – including articles about Lucy Beech and Chris Paul Daniels written last year when I was a participant in a CVAN critical writing programme, and an article on public art commissioned by Corridor8. Watch this space to see if I succeed in my intention to get other sketchy fragments of writing out of my notebook and onto this page.
One of my favourite films at Leeds International Film Festival this year (and an audience favourite overall too) was ‘In The Crosswind’ (or ‘Risttuules’ in Estonian). The film is like an epic history painting, composed – apart from a brief opening scene – entirely of a series of tableaux vivants. Characters stand motionless whilst the camera weaves between them; their poses and expressions fleshing out the story of each scene. The film is set in 1941 when Stalin’s regime separated Baltic families, with men sent to prision and women and children to forced labour camps. A narrative voiceover reads letters written by a woman, Erna, to her husband when she and her daughter are deported from their home in Estonia to Siberia. On watching the film I presumed the letters were real, archive documents written and kept by the women as a kind of diaristic record and a gesture of communicating with her husband even though they were probably never sent. Research since has indicated that around 60% of the content came from letters written by a relative of the director. The remaining 40% of content was sourced from archives. Thus the woman Erna is based on a real woman but is also in part a composite character, combining details of several people’s stories.
The film is harrowing, its power comes from the sadness of the personal story it relates (one story representing the fate of thousands at this time). It also comes from the film’s artistic language and the interplay between the verbal voiceover and the visual scenes. The films’ posed scenes and its bleak landscape, all filmed in black and white, are beautiful. Scenes range from tableaux of small groups to those featuring hundreds of protagonists. I particularly recall an early scene at the railway station, where Estonian families are being forced onto a train, crammed in with their belongings. Numerous faces and poses fill this epic image. Later in a Siberian forest, swathed in snow, the vertical black lines of the trees and contrasting white provide a harsh but weirdly intimate location for a sad personal event. On the soundtrack, the letters are restrained and incredibly sad as Erna attempts to put a positive slant on her situation, yet the images we see tell us otherwise. Interaction between voice and image is well paced. Camera movement generally alternates with verbal voiceover, so the letters accompany still scenes and then the camera explores the scene further to reveal more details or nuances. Added to this is a subtle but evocative musical soundtrack of low drones, orchestral swoops, choral singing and character sounds such as whispers.
The film is directed by Martti Helde. I wanted to find out more about how the film was made and what he’s done before. It turns out he’s a first time director which I think is pretty amazing for a film of this ambition. I find it hard to imagine how the more complex scenes in the film were produced and I guess that this type of film may only have become possible with recent equipment and computer software. I found the above ‘making of’ video which gives some details of how original footage was combined with 3d mapping and post-production digital editing.
I’ll be really interested to see what Martti Helde does next. ‘In The Crosswind’ has a very specific visual language which is appropriate to the story it tells. Helde explains that the choice to use stills came from a very specific quote he came across in one of the letters, which read: ‘I feel like time has stopped here in Siberia. That my body is in Siberia, but my soul is still in my homeland.’ For me the format works because as a viewer you identify with the main protagonist whose voice is also on the soundtrack, yet the sheer number of others in the shots conveys the mass of people who suffered the same fate and their static poses suggest the lack of agency or control they had over their own lives at this time. It evokes how the individual always lives their lives against the backdrop of a history largely outwith their control. Some of the film’s power may be that I have seen nothing quite like this before. One precedent is Chris Marker’s film La jetée (1962); another film which I love but which is not as complex or epic as this. I hope Helde will go on to push the language of film in other interesting ways in subsequent projects.
Yesterday I visited Coventry for ‘Future day’ as part of the City Arcadia project. City Arcadia is an art project/series of commissions responding to the past, present and imagined future of Coventry. Future day was a meet up and getting to know the city event, for artists (including me) who have made ‘propositions’ to be part of the project.
It was fab to meet Laura Elliot and Michael Mayhew – who run the project – plus some of the other artists who have put in proposals. The structure of the day made a nice change from familiar commissioning processes where you make a proposal and then get either a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether it can go ahead. City Arcadia would like, in theory, to work with all the artists they invited to the day. So, funding and practicalities permitting, I hope that I will be able to go back there soon to work on a project with them. I’ll post more about my idea if it does go ahead. In the meantime here’s a few snaps that I took of Coventry, it was enjoyable to explore the city.
To continue an intermittent series of blog posts about artworks I love, I want to talk about The Cloud Collector by Lisa Stansbie. It occurred to me that my first two posts are both about artworks that are very verbal. The Black Tower and Let Me Take You There both have spoken monologue soundtracks that are core to their structure and how they convey meaning. Yet both films depend on a visual image or motif as a central element (a photo of a field in Rooney’s work, the recurrent black tower in Smith’s). To diverge briefly, this also makes me recall another film – Rules of the Road, by Su Friedrich – which tells a story of a relationship break up by way of recurrent sightings of of a brown oldsmobile car. I loved this work too, but alas have only seen it once in the distant past and so I probably can’t write about it in a coherent way.
For now, I want to talk about Stansbie’s work. ‘The Cloud Collector’ is similar to the above in its use of a simple visual image track, combined with a monologue voice over. But the weighting between word and image is shifted slightly. The soundtrack is structured around titles for the top 10 best selling novels of the 1950s. Elusive titles, such as ‘The Adventurer’ and ‘Across the river and into the trees,’ have been used as the basis to write a short narrative about a character called ‘The Cardinal.’ At first it seems that the images – a series aeroplane jet streams in a blue sky – act primarily as a holding mechanism, keeping the viewer’s attention as they listen to the winding narrative. But as I listen I realise that these photos have an impact on how I make sense of the story.
I love the work firstly because of its nice turns of phrase. The ‘poetry’ of the book titles seeps into the manner of the narratives telling. For example the video begins: ‘Delivering the news to those who still required it in paper form, he rode his rusted BMX along Joy Street each morning.’ I found myself enamoured by the language, the tone of the voice on the soundtrack and its pacing. I had to watch the video through a few times to work out what the Cardinal’s story actually is. The Cardinal, we are told, is a collector. He looks up at the sky and he has a camera. The soundtrack, the work’s title and the images collude to suggest a tale of a man who photographs jet streams. The project begins with a list of titles and a challenge for the artist to build these into a story. It ends with a densely packed video piece where word and image playfully combine.
I don’t know why Stansbie chose to use 50s novel titles in the production of this piece. The video is one of a series of pieces in which she used lists of words as the basis for writing stories. Other instances have included the names of racehorses and Airfix aeroplane kit names. My interpretation would be that it’s perhaps something to do with the nature of information in our contemporary internet-drenched world (and as I type this I am dimly recalling another work exhibited alongside the Cloud Collector that I think was to do with the associative nature of hyperlinks). Certainly there’s something appealing to me about an artwork that takes a series of words and uses it to generate something new. It produces one story out of a series of endless possible stories and then shapes this into something quite formally tight, neat and satisfying.
Lists, collections and artworks are all ways to delimit and to organise the mass of stuff that we encounter in the world.