exploring art and writing

Third Year/Degree Show Practical Analysis.

In Fine Arts on May 13, 2010 at 7:41 am

Still from 'Miriam' 2010

Recently I went back over some footage that I had filmed in Osnabrueck, Germany, when myself and fellow student Lucy Thompson went to take part in the annual media arts festival there. The footage was of Lucy packing to leave the night before our departure and my focus was for the duration of filming on her face and hands. This is the first instance of me documenting a person in a way that directly associates with my method of filming now; honing in and focusing on certain aspects of people’s physical demeanour’s in order to try and extract something more internal, as if attempting to analyse their state of mind. It was ironic then that I paid no attention to the footage once returned to the UK, and only when watching it in retrospect could I laugh at us in our hostel room as I pressed record and hummed the song Getting To Know You to myself. I swear that I didn’t even know this when I named my December assessment statement ‘Getting To Know You’; it’s almost as if my mind was trying to offer me clues from whatever subconscious depths I possess, most of them in vain until at least six months later.

My artwork has always been about the other person. Gillian Wearing phrased it so well when she said, “I thought what I had to say was pretty limited and I could learn from listening to and observing other people” (in Corrin, 1997), as I so often like to quote. However, it is also said that no matter what you portray in an artwork it will also say something about the artist as well, as I suppose is inevitable with most tasks that we commit on this earth; but I’ll return to that in a moment. For now it might make sense to quickly refer to my artistic inclination prior to university, especially since the themes within my work have been far more consistent than I initially suspected.

The focal point of my painting and drawing practice revolved around the human portrait, in particular the faces of those that sat for me. I also had a fascination for hands and skin, as well as the physical, muscular line that a human could be seen to form when closely observed. I used to draw the school jazz band and my friend when she practiced her saxophone during otherwise non-eventful lunch breaks; it is amusing now to think that a video I produced of the very same friend years later geared my work in the direction that now constitutes the majority of my Recital project. My dissertations during this time were based around the concept of ‘truth’ when regarding the human form and how it’s portrayal by certain artists revealed massive and yet simultaneously intricate, emotional intimacies; Lucian Freud, John Singer Sargent and Egon Schiele were my main points of reference. My own painting, however, I found extremely unfulfilling and I was permanently considering my artwork with carelessness and frustration .

Video was the medium that allowed me to evade this attitude of pointlessness towards my artwork, a value that prior to my artistic discovery of the moving image was beginning to contribute to my overtly existential view of art as unnecessarily self-indulgent. It’s probably worth mentioning that I still consider this somewhat of a fact; the only difference now is my own enjoyment (and therefore my own self-indulgence) of this. No wonder, then, that I only feel the drive to observe and document others around me in the world; in this way I can attempt to convince myself that the indulgence is less prominent and it’s purpose more substantial. Whether I succeed in this is up to the audience.

My observations of people through the camera began with my need to make my experiences with them more permanent. What is recorded through the camera and projected onto a screen may just be a simulation, but it is a physical representation of a memory that we can hold onto for as long as the medium lasts. A tempting offer in comparison to the vague fuzz that is human memory. My anxieties that for various reasons have manifested themselves since childhood relate strongly to loss and instability, and as a result of this I have claimed Cardiff as my only home and my relationships here form what to me is a strong family unit. This was the driving force behind my videos Nintendo Night and Manipulation as well as, I later came to see, Emily. How this previously (somewhat subconscious) approach developed towards my latest film Miriam I will go on to discuss in more detail later. Firstly I must address certain obstacles that have surprised me along the way.

The most significant hurdle (and certainly the one loaded with the greatest amount of irony) is the fact that I had (have?) a terrible relationship with feature films and television, in that generally – until I could get away with it no longer – I used to avoid them like the plague. I have an amazingly short attention span. How then have I come to be a person making a go of being a video artist? Who knows. The only way I can defend myself on the matter is that video fulfils for me everything that I found absent in painting; you can scrutinize the physicality of a person whilst at the same time digging deep into their emotional state of mind, you can draw out intimacies and idiosyncrasies in a way that is so unique and, dare I say it, true in comparison to a painting. This doesn’t mean that I am convinced of the ‘truth’ that some consider the lens to behold; like Wearing I am conscious of the verite claims of documentary and the subjectivity of the maker. After all, video is just a literal representation of a hyperreality, “substituting signs of the real for the real itself” (Baudrillard, in Poster, 2001:70); a simulation of our physical reality and a sometimes superior imitation of human memory. But despite this neither am I a reveller of Bergman, or put more bluntly of symbolism that drips from every frame of a film. Whilst I have no doubt that films such as these are capable of pertaining to whatever human truths they wish to discuss, the theatricality and poise of such an approach often leaves me stone cold.

This is not to say that I hate all films. I don’t hate film at all; I am just very specific about what I personally find worth watching. After all, movies are on the same bandwidth as art when it comes to subjectivity. Because of these issues I have to closely consider my reasons for exhibiting my video as a large-scale projection with tiered seating; the lighting will also reflect that of the theatre or cinema.

The first reason for this decision stems from my last assessment piece The Recital, a video that I now consider clumsy and unsuccessful in expressing the intimacy I had intended to convey. I exhibited it on a small television screen in a curtained off area of the space workshop, with only ten seats allowed for the audience. The limit to the scale of the space and size of the audience was originally intended to create a more intimate environment, to make the video more of a personal experience. I don’t think this worked, no doubt due to the fact that the video in my opinion was rife with flaws (discussed more in my summary on page 15). What I have come to realise since December is that despite the cinema projection being stereotypically more formal than a television screen, the sheer scale of the image being projected makes the scrutiny of the performer so intensified as to somehow imbue the experience with a higher level of intimacy. The performers face, magnified dozens of times so as to fill the screen, becomes inescapable and the viewer must examine them; if an object is at that scale in front of you, you will notice so much more of their little habits and expressions as they work through their performance. The second reason behind this method of exhibiting the video is that I am in awe of the performer and I am struck by the music that they produce; my desire is to fulfil the brilliance of it by documenting it through video and using it to encompass an entire space.

The cinema setting is not instigating a transformation of my video’s characteristics to those of a feature film. Miriam may portray a recital and I am wary of boring my audience but it is not intended as pure entertainment; rather, as Douglas Gordon says, for enjoyment: “Enjoyment is in your head but entertainment stops when the curtain closes. Enjoyment can be when you go to sleep and remember things, when you’re falling asleep and when you’re waking up, your reflection, and your memory” (in Ferguson, 1996). If my aim was to market it as entertainment I wouldn’t include the repetition of Miriam’s recital – a technique that was inspired long ago by the monologue repetition in Bergman’s Persona (so it certainly isn’t for entertainments sake) – or her warm-up on the cello which, although necessary to the performance of a recital is not imperative to the recital as an event itself; generally a solo performer does not embark on a range of warm-up exercises while the audience sits before them in anticipation.

The major question that now remains is of course what the major themes are that form the concepts behind my videos. For the sake of practicality I will here refer to my Recital Trilogy videos only, those being Emily, Rhiannon and Miriam, although more often than not there is a strong continuity running through the entirety of my work anyway. All of these and the rest of my videos have been previously discussed in more depth so here I shall offer a quick summation of what drove me to make the work. The dominant themes are:

Human expression: this term can be taken both of two ways; ‘expression’ as in a creative outlet that allows a person to express something more personally internal; or ‘expression’ as in literal facial expressions or gestures, which themselves reflect a persons state of mind. Musicians embrace and embody both of these to a dramatic extent, allowing the audience to gain insight into their involvement in the performance.

Intimacy: I am aware that this is quite a broad term; I mean it to encompass the various types of relationship that develop when filming a subject or when participating as the subject. In order to begin confronting the idea of onscreen intimacy the topic of the recorded performer needs to be addressed; after all, how could a video of a recital be more intimate than watching a musician perform in person? And herein lies the paradox: the complete lack of intimacy that mass-produced DVD’s and videos are inevitably steeped in is the definitive way for making the experience of a film more personal and intimate. The clinical and repeated production of the product allows it to be experienced multiple times and in an array of places; those who would not generally get to see a music recital are therefore able to experience one, albeit a simulation. But it is also its simulative nature that emphasizes the intimacy between director and performer, performer and music, music and audience, performer and audience; because the recital of the musician has been documented through the camera lens the person controlling the construction of the video can hone in on aspects of the subject that generally may go unnoticed. By closing the focus of the lens in on Miriam’s eye or nose, for instance, I am hoping to capture an expression that reflects her concentration on the music and on her internal state of mind. Even for those who regularly experience live music such close observation may be missed simply because of the physical proximity of the audience to the musician. My aim with Miriam, as with all my Recital videos, is to examine and extend this physical closeness in order to gain intimacy on a more emotional level, be this through the facial expressions and gestures of the performer or through the music itself.

Picnolepsia: Let me begin here by warning that Paul Virilio, the French theorist who coined the term ‘picnolepsia’, is not the most adept at describing in prose what it actually is. After reading his Aesthetics of Disappearance I quickly returned to the essay in which I discovered the term, Timothy Allen Jackson’s Towards A New Media Aesthetic. Jackson explains what Virilio chose not to by using the computer game Mortal Combat as an example; those playing the game are transferred into another kind of ‘reality’ and to their immediate physical reality they become a daydreamer transfixed in another world. Their concentration is what permits this. So the picnoleptic can be found in the home, in the cinema, in the classroom; pretty much anywhere, but for me a prime example of the concept exists in the performing musician. As I know from playing an instrument myself and as many people all over the world will know, when practicing a piece of music unless already distracted it is impossible to focus on anything else. When filming, this intensity allowed me as an observer to step closer so that I was almost ‘in’ the performance rather than an object external to it.

The musical recital: As I have just stated, the musical recital is perfect for what I want to achieve in an artwork; a musician deep in practice is not only going to be more used to performing but also less aware of the camera as they recite, allowing me to hone in on them in my efforts to achieve the facial and gestural intimacy that I feel the need to portray. The universality of music is also something that I believe is approachable to any kind of audience; again, whilst I do not want Miriam or my other videos to be considered entertainment, I have no intention of making my work so impenetrable that it is only accessible to those few who possess the ability to contextually scrutinize it. The cathartic nature of music also plays an important role in my Recital videos; for me the obliteration of the ‘real’ world that playing the piano offers is an important therapy. People who take up music as their lifetime’s vocation must do so for equally (or far more) imperative needs, just as those who choose to make other forms of art do. Because of this relationship that people are capable of grasping with music I cannot see how filming a musician deep in practice could not be intimate in terms of ‘interior’ as well as ‘exterior’. And if the audience relates to both the performer as a human and the performance as a piece of music, then a further intimacy has been gained.

My choice of exhibiting Miriam for the degree show makes sense to me for many reasons: firstly, it is technically the last Recital video to have been completed during the available time on my university course, so chronologically it makes a lot of sense to exhibit this over, say, Emily. Also, because it is the last one (at least for now) it appears to be the most successful in portraying the themes I have just discussed above; through filming Emily, Molly and Rhiannon previous to Miriam I slowly deduced what it was that I needed to achieve in terms of visual imagery, sound quality and readable concepts. I needed to get closer, to zoom in on her as much as possible and again and again in order to create a video worthy of her as a performer and of the piece of music. Now all I can hope is that the audience will find the piece to be articulately expressed as an artwork.

I can end only by thanking those who have allowed me to intrude upon this intimate relationship between themselves and their art-form; for allowing me to subject them to “the relentless gaze” and the “unflinching eye” (Rees, in Parker, 2000) of the camera and consequently of the future audiences that will view the performance as a simulative event. Each video that I have made is just as much theirs as it is mine, if not more so.

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