exploring art and writing

Rhiannon.

In Fine Arts, Music, Performance, Video on April 27, 2010 at 8:57 pm

I’ve just finished editing my latest video Rhiannon, the result of a day working with the singer Rhiannon Llewellyn from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

In this video I have dropped some of the more complex themes that are present in previous works such as Emily and Molly; the context of ‘my home’ and the connotations attached to this have been replaced with the more formal environment of the educational/artistic institution. This simplification seems to be working well; so far my experience of Rhiannon as a video is precise and more focused because of this change in approach. Whilst Molly and Emily were imperative to my development as a video artist and editor – Emily in particular – the connotations resulting from the placement of them into my own homes was a context that was beginning to weigh me down. In Rhiannon I focus on one thing alone and that is Rhiannon herself; her voice, her face, her body, and occasionally her surrounding environment whilst it contains the presence that she brings to it.

In relation to her video Drunk the artist Gillian Wearing stated in an interview with Carl Freedman that:

“it was more a case…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”,

a quote that resonates for me with strengthened relevance to my work. Really what I am doing is painting a portrait; I just happen to be painting it on Final Cut.

So before I dissect the events that form the video Rhiannon, perhaps a quick rundown of my prerogatives regarding the piece would be appropriate; I say ‘quick’ because if I think too much about it I will end up with nothing to write.

1 – Pre-performance ritual; allowing an audience to see what is usually excluded from a typical theatrical/musical performance.

2 – This procures intimacy to an extent that would be unattainable from the depiction of the performance alone. Rather than seeing a person merely performing someone else’s composition you are seeing them become it and how they embody it.

3 – Multiple viewpoints and repetition will, I hope, increase this depiction of emotional and physical involvement further; it allows the audience to focus on parts of a performer that they otherwise would not get to see or would not focus on. The inspiration for this repetition technique is, of course, still from the ‘monologue’ scene between Elizabet and the nurse in Bergman’s Persona.

4 – Blacking out the screen, as I did in Emily, is intended to manipulate the audience into not only focusing all of their attention on her voice alone but also to synchronize their breath with hers; the intention is to allow the audience to observe sound and the strangeness of the human voice as well as to gain some level of empathy with the effort this takes. I want people to feel her voice; how else are we – those without similar talent – supposed to experience this amazing feat of human skill?

I need to quote the statement that I wrote for the degree show catalogue to really state my motives that drive the piece:

“I try to find not just the obvious approach, just focusing on seeing the surface. I’m trying to illuminate beyond that.” Gillian Wearing, 1997.

My work is primarily concerned with the human face and the idiosyncratic nature of its expressions. To observe and document this I look for two things: the intimate event and the picnoleptic who allows me to intrude upon it.

For the sake of this blog and for the specificity of this project, however, I need to make my statement particularly relevant to this project and the themes of the isolated performer (symbolized by a cappella performances) and of pre-performance ritual. A good place to begin would probably be why I think filming a musician can be classed as an intimate event and why I believe that pre-performance rituals are emphatic in enlightening the audience’s perception of a piece of music as well as of the performer. In addition to this, a third question that is no doubt worth answering is why I chose music, or rather musical performers, in the first place.

In answer to the first question I can only claim that filming a musician who is performing a cappella can be nothing but intimate, even if the performer is a stranger. It has a lot to do with the type of relationship that can be built through the lens of a camera; ironically this ‘digital’ intimacy is gained through the disguising of yourself as a human. Whilst the red light is flashing you become an eye rather than a whole human being, and this can be very useful if the person you are documenting is a performer. They are generally more used to such an experience and the majority of performers, I would assume for obvious reasons, would like it. What makes the event intimate, however, is the exclusion of all other performers and accompaniment. To repeat my point above, this allows an audience to hone in on the subject being depicted. This technique was used well in Jayne Parker’s Reunion, where she filmed dancers Lynn Seymour and Donald Macleary. Whilst there is the inclusion of music in her film, the fact that the dancers are performing with no-one else (with the exception of the cameraman) and in an empty theatre promote the intimacy that the event encapsulates despite the uncanny emptiness of their surroundings.

Still from Jayne Parker's 'Reunion', 1997

As for pre-performance ritual being important in allowing audiences to gain a greater understanding of the performer and their performances – that’s my aim. Whether or not I achieve it is another matter. It may also be worth clarifying here that by ‘pre-performance ritual’ I mean the habits of the performer and their methods of preparing for a performance; with musicians this seems to encapsulate both the little physical idiosyncrasies in people that I have always found so fascinating, as well as the more musically-trained specific ones that only appear unusual to those who are not familiar with the habit. As for emotional idiosyncrasies, I think that lies in their involvement with the piece, and so to a great extent the ‘success’ of my videos rely heavily upon this as well.

And now the big question, the ‘why I chose musicians and singers’ question. Without meaning to appear as though I’m avoiding answering, one of my previous blogs entitled Questioning My Practice revealed a few hidden truths for me, all the more so because I made the following statements without thinking:

“We’ve discussed how surely it’s more beneficial for a person to take exactly what they want from an artwork whether they have any context provided or not. And music is the ultimate art form that lets you do that, which is why people attach themselves to certain songs…Music, I find it so pure that people can make this thing, it’s something that I admire so much that people can create sounds and it can affect other people in this way, which is something I can’t do. But to record someone doing it is almost like the next best thing. And I like the idea that people can watch these videos and because it’s of musicians they can do what they do with music and take exactly what they want from it.”

and: “I think filming, in a way, is my attempt at making my experiences with these people more permanent.” Music has always been an extremely cathartic force in my life and the associations I plant into certain songs remain potent to this day. The voice is the ultimate instrument because nothing external is needed; it always has been (and still is) a major source of disappointment to me that I do not possess this skill, therefore I have always sought those with it. Video is my way of fastening this securely into a particular format in order to prevent my memory from fading. I am aware, of course, of the irony of this; the video itself is nothing but a digital memory, a simulation that reflects an event from the past. It is no less permanent than the image I recall in my own brain. Despite this, however, it is experienced differently and exists with more clarity, at least in a literal physical sense. In other words, it’s better than nothing.

The quotes above sum the third question up far better than I’m capable of expressing via formal writing. I’ve battled for a long time with myself over whether this really justifies the indulgence of the content and context of my work, but it has gradually dawned on me that if you choose to embark upon art as a full-time vocation then almost anything you do in your work is an indulgence. I’m choosing to accept my documentation of musical performances as no different to the making of a print or a painting and the concepts that also feed them. The art bubble has to burst soon after all, so I may as well embrace it while I still can.

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