An interview with Richard Tuohy and Marcia Jane from Artist Film Workshop

My sister, Maggie Scott, interviewed Richard and Marcia as research for her report on the most recent Artist Film Workshop, at Bouverie Studios in March. The report will be available on Screen Machine shortly.

An interview with Richard Tuohy and Marcia Jane from Artist Film Workshop

By Maggie Scott

Maggie Scott: Why is it important to you to salvage the practice of using the film technologies you do in this age of hyper en masse digital film craziness?

Richard Tuohy: Well that is a key question for what AFW are about. In some respects we are motivated by ‘salvaging’ – there are still games to be played with film – still ideas to be discovered and played out. Film still offers new insights into the world and itself. That much is a salvaging, or at least a continuation of the film art tradition. But what film is changes too. Now, film is a much more hands-on thing. As film equipment is dropping in value, it is now more than ever able to fall into the hands of artists to play with. We can now get our hands on gear that a little while ago was way too expensive and only the domain of the film industry. This is new, and has changed what working with film means. In part, the internet is a factor in this change too, as it has made it easy to get your hands on equipment. A very important factor for AFW is that while digital is everywhere and anyone can shoot and edit on their own computer, film requires a bit more effort. People often need help to use film, to learn how it is possible to work with film. That is a core mission of AFW. We want to make it possible for artists to work with film. And we want to create a context where work made on film is prioritised, such that it makes sense to work on film.

Marcia: I tried my first video art making while I was studying multimedia in 2003. I used what was available to me as a student, and at that time it was very definitely digital video. Had I studied at an earlier time I would have been handed a Bolex camera and would have explored film first. But using what I had, I began to delve into the textural possibilities of shooting on DV, and I know from this that every shooting medium has its own textural qualities that are ripe for exploration. So I don’t subscribe some popular positions on film, for example that it automatically looks better than video. Materiality is an interesting aspect of film, but immateriality is also an interesting aspect of video.

As a digital video maker who has recently begun to work with film projects, I see it as an opportunity to work with images and time in a very different way. I generally do ‘direct film’ and this is because of my ongoing interest in drawing and collage. Film offers a drawing surface. After the drawing is done the film strip is run through a projector. The mechanism of claws and shutter perform a mechanical division of the drawn images, sequencing them and converting them to moving image. I’m still figuring out how this works but I think there are ways to do this that will be interesting. I also make video recordings of my films that I project at home, and these images are making their way, via a series of optical and digital procedures, into my video installations.

Is this activity really salvage? You do have to salvage gear that is often on its way to being thrown out, quite literally it could be in a dumpster. And film requires you to have a series of devices in order to make a work, from tanks, chemistry and racks to splicers, winders and projectors. This is a very different way of thinking from using software to make work; you need some knowledge and access to a different set of (mechanical) resources, and that knowledge and gear base is shrinking.

Film as a nostalgic activity does not appeal to me at all. In so far as time travels in any direction, it’s forward, not back! I see film’s potential now (in 2011) for multi-practice artists. I’m talking about artists who make sound, movement, visual, spatial or moving image works, making hybrids of these as they wish. Film becomes another strand, another mode of expression in this mix. These type of artists are the ones who will bring interesting thought to the medium of artists’ film.

Maggie Scott: I got the impression at the March screening that the AFW is not a fan of narration in experimental film. How far do you actually take this idea of anti-narration?

Marcia Jane: For me personally as an artist: I deliberately work outside narrative. There is a tremendous amount of narrative produced in the world. We make it ourselves everyday; films from the most banal and commercial to the most artful are dependent on it. On another side, we have conceptual activities that incorporate moving image in their production or documentation and we see these in galleries on a regular basis. My work, and that of many in the experimental film (and video) area, reside in a third place; where images themselves are the subject matter, and the organization of these images in time is the primary concern. This type of thinking can be clearly observed in the history of painting; I’m thinking of Malevich’s black squares for example.

Richard Tuohy: First off, ‘anti-narration’ comes across a bit too strong. ‘Narration’ and ‘narrative film’ might well be considered two different things, or at least ‘narrative film’ might be a sub-set of ‘films with some aspect of narrative to them’. There can be a narrative aspect to experimental film. So the thing is, we don’t want to get swamped by narrative films.

Why? Well experimental film is its own tradition, and it is much smaller than narrative filmmaking. There is a lot of space for narrative film work. We aim to be a space dedicated to the other tradition. Any such space is always in danger of being swallowed up by the big boys of narrative film. Narrative film is fine in its self – I have no problem with it. However reading a narrative is quite different from reading an experimental film. Of course, 99% of independent narrative films are made on digital these days. Indeed, many more independent narrative films are made now than ever before because of the ubiquitous digital technology. It used to be much harder to make a narrative when there was only film. It took real money. In those days, there was more experimental film (which is virtually always ‘independent’) because the different production values make it much more possible to do for little money. But now the tables are turned. Virtually anyone interested in film can bang out a little narrative using digital, so that is where they focus their interest in cinema.

The experimental tradition is under pressure in this regard. Not that there isn’t a lot of experimental work going on with digital. A group such as ours could certainly exist that only screened digital experimental work. The difficulty they would face if they wanted to be an ‘open’ group with open screenings, however, is being swamped by narrative work, not to mention music videos. There would be a way to manage that, but I think it would be a constant struggle for such a group. They would probably have to revert to the traditional model of curation or else otherwise vet people for joining the group. Personally I am a strong advocate of openness so I like the fact that by being film only we don’t have that problem. So it is best to think of what we are doing as not so much a political ‘anti-narrative’ thing, or even an anti narrative film thing. Rather we are simply a gauge specific thing – any film gauge – and these days that means experimental work.

Maggie: What do you think the audience gets out of watching an abstracted, experimental work without a formal narrative?

Marcia: Artists are not always able to consider the audience in the production of works. Some of the works we are discussing here are made as a kind of research. Others form part of a body of expression that is simply disgorged and not always conscious in its intent (I’m thinking Dirk de Bruyn’s 16mm films for example).

Richard: Same as one might get out of looking at a (non-narrative) painting or listening to (non-programmatic) music. Each work is different, however, and is approached and read on its own terms. Just as with learning to watch narrative cinema, it takes time to develop an eye for experimental film. It takes a while to get a sense for what is going on in a particular work – just what the work is. The work might be more poetic in nature, or it could be more about form, it could be about exploring a texture, or a mood, or a tone. Myself, I prefer work of a more ‘materialist’ tradition – that is, a work that engages with the physical properties of the medium. It’s like trying to find out what the absolute limits of the material are. All this stuff is a bit harder to articulate than analysing the theme of a narrative.

Maggie: Is it a challenge for a film artist to make a beautiful work paring back the narrative elements of filmmaking?

Richard: Not really. Indeed, I would say it is much harder to make a beautiful narrative film. Abstraction has an inherent tendency to be beautiful, and abstraction is a key possibility of experimental film. Sometimes I wonder if mere beautiful abstraction is itself an all too seductive temptation for the experimental film artist.

Marcia: Narrative filmmaking is a set of language and codes which an artist can borrow if they wish. But equally, filmmaking can be connected with artistic traditions including photography, painting, performance and sculpture, depending how the maker approaches it.

 Maggie: Do you feel that the less editing, the more physical manipulation of film, the better?

Marcia: This is a personal question that only the artist who makes the work can answer. To me, a one-shot work (for example Guy Sherwin’s Short Film Series’) can be as interesting as a work that is the result of intensive process.

Maggie: Pete Spence said something about hating one of his films and feeling the need to destroy it with Napi San – maybe I’m reading too much into that, but I’m wondering if you have any theories or thoughts about this idea of destruction of the film and traditional filmmaking process to create something new?

Richard: Well, experimental is, as I say, its own tradition. As its own tradition it has its own interests and preoccupations. One of those is a materialist preoccupation. The ‘destructive’, which might just as easily be turned around and called ‘constructive’ approach of working on the film material itself, doesn’t have to be ‘hateful’. It is more like the Underground Film tradition to define itself as against Hollywood or against conventional (ie. narrative) film practice. With experimental, it is more likely the case that the artist just isn’t interested in the modes of conventional narrative film practice. In Pete’s case, he would have felt that the footage he had there was of no interest in itself. He would have thus taken the opportunity to use that footage for some Napi San experiments – not so much as to hatefully destroy the original film, but simply to use the original film as the medium for the Napi San work.

Maggie: How important is editing to a non-narrative work? I don’t mean what people should get out of it, I just want your thoughts on the issue as someone who has been thinking about it and experiencing it for awhile.

Marcia: As an artist who works with moving image, I have fascinations with aspects of moving image-making in general, and specifically with editing theory and practice. In fact I can say editing forms the theoretical (and actual) backbone of my body of works. Continuity editing and the production of narrative are bound together. In a narrative film, even non-continuity editing (eg. the jump cut) will function as part of the continuity/narrative axis; these moments just announce themselves by their juxtaposition but they still act to produce narrative.

I consciously borrow and translate common editing practices from the ‘mainstream’ of moving image-making, but I use them to organise abstract material. I am, frankly, fascinated by the power of editing to shape the energy of a work, and so I foreground editing in my own work in continual exploration of this.

Richard: Editing? It’s just one more possible tool. Use editing or not, depending on what is at the heart of the particular film being made. Editing can create patterns in the work, or associations, or it can create rhythm which can be sustained or broken. By ‘editing’ we usually mean a physical bringing together of ‘shots’ that were ‘taken’ at different times – usually by splicing. Editing in this sense of ‘splicing’ isn’t the only way to create the kinds of things that editing brings of course. Images can be juxtaposed in other ways than splicing. Turning the camera on and off (traditionally called ‘in camera editing’) is one way, as are various printing techniques – whatever you can think of.

These days, especially in video art, there is a tendency to use very long takes, often as the sole shot of the film – as one shot films. I see a lot of single shot videos these days (though as an approach, the single shot film isn’t new to video, just more common). Video cameras are capable of long shots, that’s for sure. It is also cheaper to run a camera continuously for a long time when it’s not film. The artist can feel the expense when they pull the trigger on a whole roll of film. Also, it is not uncommon for film artists, especially those using 16mm film, to be using mechanical spring wound cameras that can only run for a maximum of about 25 seconds. That is one factor.

Editing is an important tool, much as one might say a camel hair brush is an important tool. It’s at that level, I think. There is a lot you can’t do without a camel hair brush when painting, but there is also a lot that would count as painting that had nothing to do with camel hair brushes. Some of my films have a lot of editing. I use montage to make associations, reinforce ideas, and create structure and development. But some of my films have very little editing in the sense of splicing.

Maggie: Is this experimental art practice good for the imagination?

Marcia: I see it as a type of artistic activity like any other, it has no special privileges or extra, hidden value. It’s a part of the world.

Richard: Well, any art practice is surely. I do think that filmmakers in the classic sense would benefit from being exposed to a bit more experimental film practice to help loosen their dependence on conventional modes of narrative depiction, but that is another story.

Maggie: What do you get from experimental film as a viewer? And as an artist?

Marcia: I probably get more from it as an artist than a viewer. Is it pleasant or easy to watch…? Actually it can be quite hard at times. As an artist I am stimulated by the ideas communicated in or by the works. We make art as alternate forms of communication: things that cannot be explained linguistically but that can be communicated in this case as a flow of images over time.

Richard: As a viewer I try to be open to each work on its own terms. I try to understand what the particular work is about. This could be thematic, formal, rhythmic, textural, conceptual, whatever. Some work and some don’t.


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