Short essay on four films by Vicky Smith for a forthcoming DVD.
The four films on this disc exhibit continuities, in single screen format, with a preceding phase of work, undertaken for a PhD project, which began with rotoscoping figures by scratching into clear celluloid, to which body fluids and physical matter were added in subsequent films, to performances in which an inked bicycle tyre is ridden along a filmstrip, which is then projected.
The performativity of these precedents is abundantly present in much of the work here, from the precise handicraft of Small Things Moving in Unison (2019) to the exuberant physicality of Noisy Licking Dribbling and Spitting (2014). In the latter a regularly pulsing, livid red splat, filled with bubbles, envelopes the screen, gradually increasing in pace. We hear background radio noises and optical sound generated by the image, and as the pace increases to a climax there is a piercing frequency burst, generated by a printed section of optical soundtrack that then appears briefly in the picture area. At this point the pace slows for a while, yellow and orange fields displacing the saturated red of the first half of the film. Finally, the image breaks up into continuous snaking forms over a field of speckles and the sound grows in volume and intensity.
Noisy Licking measures out its pace in tongue-sized stretches, and, in its use of body parts to generate the image complements the earlier 33 frames per foot (2013), in which the artist inked her bare foot and imprinted it onto the film strip. Both films may be seen as rude counter-blasts to the altogether softer and more garishly colourful work of Jennifer West, who often works with cosmetics, such as lipstick kissed onto the film in Rainbow Party (2008). The use of contingent bodily measures; tongue, foot (Smith’s foot measure 33 frames of 16mm, against the 40 frames of the imperial, 12 inch measure) interspersed with blank pauses, calls to mind Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1965), in which rhythm is determined by the length of the various materials used until the end, where images are spaced momentarily along the film, like punctuation marks.
In Small Things Moving in Unison, the simple, classical, but technically exacting method of scratching black film to create white marks is given a vibrant, virtuoso treatment. The film begins with a field of dancing dots that seem to grow and diminish in size individually, as well as coalescing into different compound shapes relative to the framing edges; rectangular blocks reform into narrow, horizontal spirals, thence into discrete balls, sometimes with hexagonal patterning. Two distinct kinetic processes are evident; the movement of the dots relative to each other, and the sections between frames of image that are left black in order to create an overall on-off rhythmic pattern. Frequently, the centre of the screen is empty, defined by a border of dots which regularly spread out until they hit the limits of the frame, at which moment a sharp, straight line appears, a gestalt formed by the eye-brain as it seizes on a regular, familiar shape. This happens frequently, establishing a play on shapes contained by the frame, and shapes that spread beyond it, but in the latter moments the framing edges become part of the image, holding it in, so that we don’t have a sense of off-screen in the usual way when something moves out of frame.
Both Noisy Licking and Small Things are impressive in the way scale, kinesis, pace and rhythm are controlled and developed. Towards the end of Small Things the white dots become larger and resemble tears in the film, as if actually ripped out of the film strip instead of scratched into it. The implied sounds of Noisy Licking are deployed literally in Small Things, through Shirley Pegna’s soundtrack, which consists of busy, wordless vocalising; whispers, tongue-clicks and taps, sucking, moaning and mutterings, which grow to a crescendo as the white dots give way to the torn shapes, as if the shapes are caused by the sonic activity. Just as the soundtrack of Noisy Listening is briefly disturbed by the burst of synthetic tone, so in Small Things a knot of fine hair appears momentarily within / behind one of the larger holes, breaking the heterogeneity of means. One wonders how it got there. At the same time the holes are colour-fringed, suggesting the film was made from a strip of exposed colour film, and not black and white as the film has appeared hitherto.
Primal is in some respects a pared down companion to Small Things, beginning as it does with single, feint scratched shapes that flash up, interspersed with black pauses. The shapes grow larger and appear to have been bleached to produce gradations of desaturated colour. Dense nets of scribbled lines appear, as if cancelling the shapes, which themselves threaten to burst and escape the confines of the frame. Where Small Things is delicate and dancing, Primal is closer to Noisy Licking in mood. The film is considerably enhanced by Shirley Pegna’s complex, music track, a combination of concrète and instrumental sounds which, in its very scratchy, insistent quality, avoids falling into the trap of mood-creation. Both film and sound have room to breathe, so that one doesn’t feel one’s attention is divided, as it so often is.
Not (A)Part nods to Mothlight but also to Mothfight (1985), a much less well known film by Vanda Carter, a fellow filmmaker of Smith’s at the London Filmmakers’ Co-op. However, whereas Mothlight’s material lies flat on the film plane, the images constituting Not a Part are three-dimensional, photograms of ‘53 dead bees found on walks in southwest Britain’, as is stated in the text that appears near its beginning. This clear reference to the disastrous decline in the bee population, and indeed the insect population generally, is addressed in the shapes of dead bees, which are shown in negative, reanimated by their movement through the projector. The film serves as a kind of quasi-scientific study, a gathering of data, but put to different ends. In terms of themes and ideas this film differs from the others yet is of course connected in its being a camera-less animation.
This long-established way of working has a rich history, which Smith has added to and enriched further with these four films, which range from the exquisite, finely wrought movements of Small Things Moving in Unison to the grimy, abject slapstick of Noisy Licking Dribbling and Spitting.