William English’s Ex Library, 16mm colour film, 2006.

This short essay was written in about 2008 and has been languishing unpublished ever since. I have the intention of expanding it to include a discussion of William Raban’s film MMX (2010), since both have a number of features in common, most notably the deployment of a combination of variable rate time-lapse with incremental camera movements. If anyone knows a publisher who might be interested…

William English’s Ex Library

Turner Prize 2014: Duncan Campbell’s It for Others.

 

Duncan Campbell’s 55 minute Turner Prize winning film It For Others begins with a long section consisting of static black and white shots of ‘African’ masks. A monologue describes the way the ‘western eye’ has misread these objects as artworks, appropriated them as commodities, in general violated their being in a manner that symbolizes the west’s exploitative relationship with Africa. The decontextualisation of these artifacts goes hand in hand with their transformation into commodities, their commodifiability. All this is well-known, so Campbell is merely rehearsing familiar knowledge in a work he claims is an essay film. The voice-over is certainly monotonously didactic in its mode of address, yet produces no new knowledge as one might expect of an essay film: it has the air of a scholarly essay but lacks any real scholarship. The arguments it rehearses constitute little more than a very basic overview cum primer in post-colonialism, imperialism, the ransacking of other cultures for profit, the culture of the IRA, the pricing of artworks, the unreliability of history and other topics.

On the other hand, it is stated that, for example, ‘without the influence of a number of enlightenment philosophers…Nigeria would have had a very different constitution or perhaps none at all’, without saying how or why this would come to be. Thus the monologue is on one level simplistic, but on another hopelessly cursory: lacking in explanatory detail and hence in effect mystificatory. The film is strewn with such mystifications, assertions in want of expansion and explanation, but this is unsurprising, indeed inevitable, given the range and complexity of the topics canvassed in such a short time. Campbell states his film is inspired by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s film Statues also Die (1953), which it resembles superficially in the way one or two of the masks are filmed. However, Statues speculates in detail on what these images might mean to a modern French black person, and on what we can know about what the objects might have meant in their own time and the limits to what kind of understanding we can have of them now. In other words Resnais/Marker establish a dialectical relationship with their material, which is considered in its specificity, in detail, in contrast to Campbell’s film, in which the artifacts function as place-holders, fulfilling a generic, illustrative role, by virtue of the fact that the soundtrack talks in abstractions and generalities around the objects as examples of commodified artifacts, and does not address them in their specificity. Statues, by contrast, concerns itself with issues proper to the experience of trying to understand artifacts from other cultures, and this is where it functions as an effective art-discourse. It is not that it is anti or un-scholarly, but simply it asks the viewer to ask the kind of question that anyone might ask about such things.

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The objects, presumably Nigerian -though the film doesn’t make this explicit- are filmed in isolation against a black backdrop, and lit so as to show them starkly, dramatically even, in the manner of a venerable TV cultural programme. Thus, ironically, the manner in which they are presented as images perpetuates precisely the attitudes criticised in the voice-over, which is that the de-contextualisation of artifacts renders them into mysterious and exotic commodities by wrenching them from the culture in which they had their original meaning and function, investing them thereby with exchange value. Campbell offers no auto-critique of the way in which he has represented the bronzes, such as Godard might have done, for example. Thus the authorial voice of the artist and his editorial decisions are not themselves subjected to the critique that is offered in the voice-over: the images remain unquestioned, as self-evidently sufficient, the objects as ‘timeless’ and ‘beautiful’.

In the second section, Michael Clark’s company perform a dance, shot from high overhead, also in high contrast black and white. The choreographic moves are based on theories of the commodity and are designed to illustrate them. Marx devoted several hundred pages of Capital to analyzing how commodities are formed, how they embody value in the form of materials and labour-time, how, through circulation, they accrue exchange value and how that value can fluctuate according to external forces, so how a short dance sequence can add anything to or elucidate any of this is questionable, especially as the most crucial values in a commodity are invisible, such as monetary values, which are not formal features of the commodity as such. In Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov exposed the invisible labour embodied in a commodity by literally showing workers making things, finished examples of which are then shown being consumed. Campbell’s dance sequence, by contrast, uses ‘formulae’ from Capital to generate a choreographic score, in much the same way that a star map was used to generate the musical score for John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-2), for example, but if one wants really to understand Marx’s theories of the commodity, one is better off reading Capital which is a lucid, if long, read: the dance sequence is about as much use to a student of Marxist theory as Cage’s music would be to the crew of a space ship.

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In the third section of his film Campbell offers an animatic of containers for shampoo, ketchup, perfume, cleaning fluids and other products; plastic and glass bottles with faces on them: the human side of the commodity? Its attempt at endearing itself to its buyer? There are potentially interesting possibilities in the exploration of this phenomenon, but Campbell opts, instead, for a soundtrack of drumming. In the final sections the debate widens, from offering guidance on how artworks are valued financially according to size and materials, and some reflections on the unreliability of history, via archive footage of IRA marches, and in the example of the way in which revolutionary images –Che Guavara’s head being the most infamous- become commodified: the commodification of everything.

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Like a lot of contemporary artist filmmakers, Campbell seems not to be content with making art that is proper to its own field of enquiry, conducted in a discourse that is its own and not borrowed from other disciplines or cultural forms. It is apparently necessary to take on big non-art topics, complex theories and fields of study with their own histories, trajectories, protocols and standards of scholarship. That the artist can enter these fields –of anthropology, history, political-economy etc- and make a meaningful contribution is as presumptuous as it is pervasive, particularly in the area of artists’ film and video. At the same time the work produced is often artistically conservative: conventional and impoverished. The visual language of the various sections of Campbell’s film can be summed up in a few words; pre-colour BBC TV arts documentary, post-modern dance forms with a distant ancestry in Busby Berkeley’s abstracting camera style, 3D animatic work of found objects (a notable and superior antecedent being Paul Bush’s While Darwin Sleeps (2004) a similar film, though of insects) and the ubiquitous ‘archive footage’. In themselves these forms can be exciting, but Campbell does nothing new with them, and their efficacy is diminished by their serving as illustrations to inadequately explicated concepts, presented on a soundtrack that is itself deeply conservative; uni-vocal, authoritarian, non-discursive and non-reflexive.

 

 

 

A. L. Rees: 1949-2014.

Very sad to report that Al Rees, educator and writer on artists’/experimental film and video, died on November. 28th Al studied philosophy and politics at Lancaster University. He became interested in experimental film through visits in the 1960s to Better Books and subsequently the Arts Lab and the London Filmmakers’ Co-op. After David Hall’s retirement in 1988 (David also died recently), he ran the Time Based Media course at the newly created Kent Institute of Art and Design, Maidstone, from which numerous graduates have made careers in film and video, both as artists and commercially, and in related areas. Al was a rigorous tutor, and Crits would often last all day, running into the evening, with only a short lunch break. Students were expected to discuss and defend their work in detail. The experience was often grueling, but most came to appreciate how much they learned in the process. In 1996 Al moved to the school of Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art, to become Research Tutor there. He had put in very long hours at Maidstone and was frustrated by the lack of understanding and support among management. At the RCA he successfully supervised many MPhil and PhD projects, several in the growing area of ‘practice based’ projects, about which he had misgivings, but was always supportive of the students doing them. Al had a vast and detailed knowledge of C20 culture, embracing philosophy, politics, history, critical theory, Fine Art and music, as well as cinema history and theory, which he had taught as a visiting lecturer in a number of art schools around the country (and in which he had begun an uncompleted MA at the RCA previous to joining the staff there). The learning was worn lightly, and one would sometimes be surprised by unsuspected areas of knowledge, as when, walking down Queensgate one evening, he identified a rare Lamborghini: Al didn’t drive but it turned out he knew a lot about cars. He was very good at spotting, or rather defining, trends. One of his recent bugbears was what he called ‘cultural studies’ art: art, often film, which picks ready-made references and cultural phenomena and forms them into an undigested melange that usually fails critically to transform or examine its own constitution or status. He blamed this trend on the way cultural studies and so-called theory has replaced the teaching of art history among other things. Al published many essays and book chapters, but will be best remembered for his A History of Experimental Film and Video, which has been through two editions and many reprints since it was first published by the BFI in 1999. Its breadth and detail attest to his vast knowledge. Al was a wonderful, loyal friend, mentor and colleague: supportive, argumentative, acerbic and funny. He will be missed by the many generations of students he taught, as well as by friends, colleagues and admirers and not least Angela Allen, his partner, also a highly knowledgeable teacher and wonderful painter. Between the two of them they once effortlessly convinced me why Lucien Freud was not the great painter that most critics take him to be.

Mid 1980s Circa mid 1980s.