The Artist’s Cut
On 12th October Northern Film & Media & Channel 4 previewed the first fruits of the Artist’s Cut initiative (see Part 1 of this article) – two new shorts by contemporary visual artists Matt Stokes and Cecilia Stenbom, entitled Two Thieves and How to Choose respectively – at the Arts TV Forum at the Baltic Centre in Gateshead. This was a discussion and networking event for independent production companies and television professionals working in the area of arts television, which featured a case-study on the Artist’s Cut (see here for a recent article in the Guardian on the event and prospects for art on TV).
Although it is ostensibly a short narrative-based feature about two teenagers, Stokes’ Two Thieves is also an artist’s film inspired by another artist who lived and worked in the Newcastle area in the 19th century – it was inspired by the miniature vignettes of the engraver Thomas Bewick. The short was produced by Newcastle indie (specialising in ‘outsider’ cinema) Pinball Films, whose award-winning film brilliantlove (directed by Pinball’s Ashley Horner) was funded by Northern Film & Media. The film was showcased as part of the wonderful New British Cinema Quarterly (NBCQ) project. The idea of NBCQ is to take the most distinctive and original British feature films from the festival circuit, exhibit them at either the London or Edinburgh Film Festivals and at the UK’s flagship independent cinemas, and (in 2010, at least) release them annually on DVD in the form of the NBCQ ‘annual’, in conjunction with Little White Lies. The 2010 edition contains brilliantlove, 1234, No Greater Love, and the critically acclaimed black comedy Skeletons.
Cecilia Stenbom’s How to Choose was produced by Third Films (another indie based in Newcastle). We’re delighted that Third’s Samm Haillay is going to participate in our conference plenary debate about support from broadcasters for regional film production (alongside Roxy Bramley of Northern Film & Media and the freelance script consultant Kate Leys), and that we are able to show How to Choose. Samm will discuss his involvement in the Artist’s Cut, including leading workshops on the film industry (covering everything from finance to distribution).
Samm had previously produced the critically acclaimed Better Things (2008), which was directed by Duane Hopkins and backed by Film4. As a result of the film’s aesthetics, Hopkins is considered to be (alongside Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay) a key contemporary proponent of a poetic, rather than didactic, approach to British social realism.
More recently Haillay co-produced Self Made (2010) – the directorial debut of Turner Prize winning artist Gillian Wearing. Self Made was shot in the North East and received £80k investment from Northern Film and Media.
This remarkable film records a theatre project that Wearing initiated with a Method Acting teacher, Sam Rumbelow. Wearing placed an advert in a newspaper asking:
“Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character…”
The project charted the resulting catharsis of the small group of non-professionals who responded and entered into a ten-day Method workshop. Ostensibly a documentary, the film also contains five short dramatic films within the main film, each starring one of the five participants and each a reflection on their lives. One woman, Leanne, who has a difficult relationship with her father, plays Cordelia in an extract from King Lear. Another, Lesley, explores her difficulty with relationships by playing a 1940s woman who reacts coldly when asked out by a man.
Looking at the production backgrounds of Pinball and Third Films, it is clear that the Artist’s Cut is both a means of developing new talent and of developing and strengthening pre-existing creative relationships between organizations, in terms of a regional cultural industry. While this initiative should be lauded, it is worth posting a question about how to analyse where the balance of power lies in such projects. For example, Steve McIntyre has argued that in many schemes that operate between television and publicly funded film and video agencies, “the balance of advantage certainly seems to be with the broadcaster, with the schemes acting in large part as talent spotting operations…” [i] It is also worth asking whether the kinds of demotic, grassroots methods of collaboration redolent of the Basement Group and Amber, as discussed in the previous blog, are occurring in the regions, and whether this kind of ‘under the radar’ activity is receiving any real support from broadcasters.
Artists’ Film & Video: The Channel 4 Factor
In an article on the film for Time Out, Dave Calhoun noted that the core themes of Wearing’s Self Made - the way we perceive ourselves; the way we project those perceptions to others – have been preoccupations within Wearing’s work for many years. He described Self Made as “a bridge between cinema and the live and conceptual sides of [Wearing's] art”, and therefore “more an extension of her art than a journey into completely new territory, in the manner of, say, Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy or Steve McQueen’s Hunger“, which was a proposition that Wearing emphatically agreed with.
Of course the involvement of artists in film and video is nothing new, even in terms of full-length narrative feature films. Throughout the 1980s the enlightened policies of Channel 4′s founding Chief Executive (Jeremy Isaacs), and founding Commissioning Editors for Independent Film and Video (Alan Fountain) and Fiction (David Rose), as well as vital support from the British Film Institute (BFI), helped to bring films like The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), The Gold Diggers (1983) and Last of England (1987) by artists and avant-garde filmmakers such as Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter and Derek Jarman to both the small and big screen(s).
Although it was initially slow to catch up with the work of video artists, from the mid-1980s Channel 4 broke new ground by offering new opportunities for avant-garde work to receive wide exposure, showing films and videos by Stuart Marshall, Tina Keane, Susan Hiller, Clio Barnard and Cerith Wyn Evans, in series such as Video, Timecode, Ghosts in the Machine, Dazzling Image and Midnight Underground. Video artists had initially reacted against television “with its suspect promulgation of conservative values and its ceaseless production of a reassuring and illusory representative of the social, political and cultural world it purported to be a window upon” (to quote Stuart Marshall).[i] But Channel 4 came to radically alter artists’ oppositional attitude towards broadcast television, and began a process of polarisation between the reception contexts of broadcast television and the gallery space.[ii]
Many video artists shared Stuart Marshall’s conviction that television was a “medium that needs to be deconstructed, while video art was a critical medium that should use television in order to undermine its own normative habits” (see this fascinating article by Colin Perry on ‘Experimental TV’s Long Revolution’).
One of the most broadcast commissions which achieved this deconstruction of TV and exploration of video was actually commissioned by Tyne Tees rather than Channel 4. Broadcast during commercial breaks in 1993, Wendy Kirkup and Pat Naldi’s Search consisted of twenty ten-second sequences captured from a synchronised walk by Newcastle’s brand-new 16-camera CCTV system. This video represented a method for jolting viewers out of their complacent familiarity with contemporary media forms, linking television and CCTV with Michel Foucault’s reconception of Bentham’s panopticon.
As Juliet Jacques has observed in her perceptive and useful survey of avant-garde film work between 1985 and 1994, Kirkup and Naldi’s work typified a generation of upcoming film artists “who had concerns besides furthering the Structuralist discourse”. The boundaries between avant-garde or alternative and mainstream film practices were beginning to shift, and in some cases, erode. Complex and contradictory forces drove these shifts. By the 1980s the prevalence of theory (semiotics, Lacanian psychoanalysis) and preoccupation with Structuralism that had held sway in the British avant-garde film culture of the 1970s began to lose its appeal amongst younger filmmakers, particularly those from minority backgrounds. Throughout the 1980s there was also a gradual rapprochement between the artist, activist and community-focused factions of the independent film sector, and of the workshop movement. As Stuart Marshall observed in an article for Screen in 1985:
“For the last ten years the two major independent video communities – video artists and social action/agit-prop video workers – have been separated by major ideological differences. In Britain this gap is now beginning to close as community video workers increasingly question dominant televisual forms […] It is also becoming evident that the historical distance between independent film and video producers is beginning to close….”
As David Morley and Kevin Robins have observed, the workshops succoured real hopes and anticipations for the “deconcentration, decentralisation and democratisation of the audiovisual industries”.[iii] Despite cross-workshop solidarity and infrastructure funding, the majority of the workshops were ultimately not able to sustain themselves into the 1990s, with the drying-up of grant-aid funding from the BFI, the Regional Arts Association, and the Arts Council, and the dwindling of funds from Channel 4 (not to mention the abolition of the GLC and Metropolitan County Councils). During this period (particularly after the 1990 Broadcasting Act and the advent of the multi-channel era) the Channel was increasingly concerned with ratings, demographics, brand identity, themed scheduling, and advertising revenue. This meant that a new generation at the Channel’s Independent Film & Video Department were reluctant to foster or schedule avant-garde work (they preferred to periodically utilize and redefine the term ‘innovative’ in a rather expedient fashion).
However, in addition to directors such as Jarman, Greenaway, Potter and John Maybury, black independent filmmakers such as Isaac Julien and John Akromfah (who had been involved in the Sankofa and Black Audio Film Collective workshops, respectively) made some of their best work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which were sometimes scheduled in more prominent slots by the Channel. Along with the proliferation of digital animation and music videos, a new generation of artist and ‘experimental’ filmmakers emerged, many of whom (such as Tracy Emin) achieved a greater level of fame (or notoriety) than their predecessors, as Juliet Jacques has observed. Through various new talent schemes and democratized ‘zones’ in the schedules such as The Shooting Gallery opportunities were given to emerging filmmakers to experiment but also to demonstrate skills. Short films could then act as calling cards to open doors and perhaps even secure a foothold for future funding in the always-precarious British film industry.
Despite such opportunities at the fringes and occasional incursions into the mainstream of scheduling, Jacques believes that, for the most part, post-1980s avant-garde filmmakers have not fully engaged with the possibilities of television, seeing television broadcast of their work as peripheral rather than integral to their creation. She is likewise sceptical about whether the Channel has managed to sustain its commitment to experiment and innovation – which it is, after all, obligated to fulfil as a statutory duty under the terms of its remit:
”However much Eighties film artists complained about the schism between Channel 4′s rhetoric and practice regarding avant-garde film, television accorded them far more exposure and funding than their Nineties successors…”[iv]
[i] Steve McIntyre (1996). ‘Art and Industry: Regional Film and Video Policy in the UK’, A. Moran (Ed.), Film Policy: International, National and Regional Perspectives (London: Routledge).
[ii] Stuart Marshall (1990). ‘Video Installation in Britain – The Early Years’, Signs of the Times: A Decade of Video, Film and Slide-Tape Installations in Britain (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, p. 13.
[iii] For more on this subject, see Hannah Andrews (2011) ‘On the Grey Box: Broadcasting Experimental Film and Video on Channel 4’s The Eleventh Hour’, Visual Culture in Britain 12:2 pp. 203 – 218.
[iv] David Morley and Kevin Robins (1999), ‘Reimagined Communities? New Media, New Possibilities”, H. Mackay & T. Sullivan (Ed.), The Media Reader: Continuity and Transformation (London: Sage).
[v] Juliet Jacques (2007). ‘Transitions and Transgressions: The British Avant-Garde and Methods of Opposition 1985-1994’, Filmwaves. Available at http://julietjacques.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/transitions-and-transgressions-british.html (accessed 12/10/12).