exploring art and writing

‘Getting to Know You’… And so on…

In Fine Arts on November 18, 2009 at 4:02 pm

The artist Gillian Wearing believes that “even the camera cannot capture ‘truth’…the person behind the camera is always framing and interpreting what is being said, a process that continues while he or she is editing the film” (1997). This to me is an undeniable statement, but one that has encouraged me to attempt to seek out this truth that Wearing speaks of; it may seem unattainable but there is nothing to stop a person from searching as hard as they can for it. I am concerned, therefore, with documenting people and their idiosyncrasies through obtrusive intimacy, and I manipulate the footage I gather in a way that emphasizes this. Like the sudden and enlightening beauty of the facial close-ups in John Cassavetes Faces, I hone in on and visually segregate physical aspects of people in order to not only create a different perception of expression, movement and habit but to gain insight into their state of mind at the time; basically, I am attempting to get to know people a little better.

The foremost influence that I recognize as instigating these ideas, albeit without me realizing, was one particular scene in Andrey Tarkovsky’s Russian epic Stalker. The stalker, the writer and the scientist are worming their way into The Zone and to finish their journey they must commandeer a mine-cart; so ensues a short, seemingly continuous shot of this fragment of their journey. Tarkovsky uses the characters faces and their relation to one another to express the tension emanating from the three men and their environment in a way that I found enlightening; there is no rush, no exaggeration or effects; I never knew that so much could be expressed using the back of a head or a side profile. My first piece, A to B, was an attempt at using these visual methods to express a journey in this way, granted not to convey tension but to observe the moods and reactions that my subjects experienced during filming. My records of observation began with this film. Here also I first truly recognized not just the importance of sound in a work but the importance of its absence and manipulation; both directors and artists (often the boundary between the two is completely indistinct) must consider how they mean to construct their piece holistically. One result of this is that as the project has progressed I have embarked on a sometimes very frustrating exploration of sound qualities and standards, which I am still pursuing to this day.

Throughout this project I have gradually become interested in how people react – or perhaps ‘perform’ is a better word – when you direct them, gently of course; usually I have no intention of requiring people to act, as I am not interested in falsities but in response; despite this, in the case of my piece Manipulation I was interested in playing with peoples perceptions regarding the speech heard and the person seen on-screen. It was with this video that I toyed with these ideas of direction, absence and manipulation, in this case using repetition (in both the structure of the video and by playing it on a continuous loop). In the afore-mentioned scene in Stalker the sound of the mine-cart is binding the other electronic, synthetic sounds together, and so when its noise dulls and fades we gain an unsettling atmospheric presence that makes the near silence that follows even more emphatic. I used a build up of sounds in order to try and create the same effect – to reinforce eventual silence. The sounds I used are replicas of the ones in my head, recreated using what to me seemed to be unlikely means; I experienced Tacita Dean’s piece Foley Artists in The Russian Linesman exhibition earlier this year, and through this gained a fascination for the production and deception that sounds are capable of generating; the internal roaring that I am often confronted with is here externally reproduced using a digitally manipulated hand-dryer, a gas hob and heating pipes, sonic parallels inspired by David Lynch’s obscure film Eraserhead and the tyranny of its constant, invasive audio.

I’m talking about this video at length because of its difference in approach from my other pieces. By asking a friend to memorize and recite a personally meaningful passage of writing and then dubbing my voice over her image repeatedly was significant for many reasons; firstly, I felt that what was read needed to be said out loud, for my own sake (and in this way Manipulation was an indulgence); I have hang-ups about being scrutinized on camera myself, a factor which I may have to consider more carefully in the future. Gillian Wearing avoided accusations of exploitation by herself becoming an uninhibited participant (pieces such as Dancing in Peckham spring to mind). By using someone else as an outlet for my own issues is conforming, I believe, to the expectations of those who know me and my behavior. The second reason: by my repetition of the written passage and the usurping of the language through external sounds I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to enforce meaning into the words or render them eventually meaningless; placing my own voice and words in another persons mouth was in a way me challenging both approaches. Looking back I think it ended up being the former; as I was making the film I was constantly referencing a particular scene from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, where we hear the nurse recount Elizabet’s recent circumstances, only to hear the monologue repeated as our view is shifted from the first character to the second. The repetition reinforces the situation being described and the view we are given of each woman’s face further reinforces the meaning it holds to each of them. The repetition of speech in Manipulation had a similar impact for me, but this is almost irrelevant; I made the piece and composed the written passage. If the audience leaned towards either attitude – repetition enforcing meaning or sound rendering words meaningless – I would see it as a success.

The most compact and, I believe, the most successful video I have produced during this project is Nintendo Night, a piece partly the result of my boredom on a late Sunday evening, as well as the brilliant compliance of my housemates and of my repeated watching of Patrice Le Conte’s Le Batteur du Bolero. When I say ‘successful’ I don’t mean accomplished or popular; I mean it as an indication that I am getting slightly closer to the things I am attempting to portray, to the things that I want to say in my work. It was the first time that I fully apprehended the importance of my subjects also being my intimate acquaintances and embraced this familiarity in order to construct a piece both in content and meaning. The footage itself was mammoth in comparison to the seven minutes presented in the final film, making the editing a satisfying challenge; the audio still leaves a lot to be desired, but for want of a better phrase: you live and learn. To this day I am still battling with audio.

Wearing’s work has grown in poignancy for me since the beginning of my project. In July I saw Confessions at the Rodin Museum in Paris. Consisting of two videos called Secrets and Lies and Trauma, she asked people to confess their thoughts and emotions regarding certain events from their past whilst disguising themselves with crude plastic masks. Unlike Wearing I am not asking people to confess, but like she says in her interview with Carl Freedman (1997): “I thought what I had to say was pretty limited and I could learn from listening to and observing other people”. On the night I filmed the footage for Nintendo Night I asked my housemates to recite things from heart, partly because of a previous days disastrous filming (the short film Cathays Train was the product of this as well). I asked my friends to recite because I had begun to look into the ideas of directing with more consideration, which I have talked about above. Tarkovsky wrote in his book Sculpting in Time that “it is [the directors] duty to reveal every iota of the truth he has seen” (1987:188), a concept I find interesting in relation to the deliberate creation of some sort of fiction, which is ultimately what all directors – even directors of documentary – do, hence the Wearing quote in the first paragraph of this essay. So by asking my friends to recite I was preventing some ‘natural’ behaviour, but my intention was to draw out some personal truths of theirs through their choice and recounting of certain memories. It is from these ideas that The Recital stems from.

The Recital was a challenge for me in many ways. As I said regarding Nintendo Night, it was important for this piece that I film people who I am already acquainted with; initially the video was going to be called Getting to Know You, a phrase chosen for its clichéd familiarity as well as its irony; this is an irony that is personal to me because I already know these people, some not so well but some very well. The irony is a subtle one however; Getting to Know You actually makes a lot of sense because you can never know someone enough to prevent you from learning a little more about them, and this seems to be the result of the project as a whole. Hence the name of this statement being ‘Getting to Know You’ – when I observe my own work this seems to be what is happening; I am seeing, hearing and therefore learning more about the people I am surrounded by. Technically the film has many points that need improvement. I was adamant that I had to film people in their own environments, their rooms or lounges or studio spaces, but this presented problems regarding lighting, placing the cameras for the desired composition, as well as audio (yet again sound is the main issue). I am choosing to accept these issues rather as lessons for future videos, and despite them all I am pleased that I recorded my subjects in this way – often their surroundings prompted thoughts which I think helped them relax during the recording, although I don’t believe this retracted from the obtrusion of being filmed and directed closely in their own homes. It was this mix of familiarity and slight discomfort – and their resulting responses – that intrigued me.

As for the ‘truth’ that Tarkovsky speaks of: in relation to the subjects in all of my videos I have strived to keep things honest, without manipulating their actions or words in a way that would directly alter their meaning. However, to again quote Wearing, this time in reference to her video Drunk: “It was more a case in this instance of choosing the moments that make the whole coherent. This in a way can feel like painting – choosing the right brushstrokes to make a form”. I have often viewed my video practice as not dissimilar to that of a painting practice; a painting, after all, is an object that is the product of specific direction. All that I really have left to say is that I am still learning, not only about the people in my life but about what it takes to make a video as a piece of art. My observation and scrutiny of those around me isn’t going to end here; it is still ongoing as my constantly renewed curiosity is repeatedly tempted and satisfied. Things to consider for the future are expansions of this; strangers, getting to know people I don’t know at all, using the camera as a communicative tool between myself and others, or perhaps even just with myself. For now, however, I am contemplating not just what to proceed with but what I have gained from the work that has already been done, and what it tells me about myself and my practice as well as those who are featured within it.

Bibliography:

‘Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the cinema’, Andrey Tarkovsky, 1987, Alfred a Knopf Publishers

‘Gillian Wearing’, Lisa G. Cornin, 2000, Serpentine Gallery

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  1. […] us a different viewpoint, one of each woman. I wrote about this in slightly more detail in my extended artist statement. The repetitive aspect of this scene is echoed in my videos Manipulation […]

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