Whitechapel Art Gallery, 28th February 2008. Films by Mikko Canin, Lucienne Cole, Sebastian Buerkner, Louisa Fairclough, Clare Gasson, Pil and Galia Kollectiv, Gail Pickering. Curated by Bridget Crone.
To present a session on artists' film and theatricality is not to propose a trend but to offer a further set of examples of its pervasiveness. If time travel was an option then those who encountered such a connection for the first time at the Whitechapel Gallery, could follow its themes through a number of recent exhibitions, including Emily Wardill’s Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck (2007) at the ICA and Catherine Sullivan’s The Chittendens (2005), amongst other work at Tate Modern’s recent The World As Stage. They could read up on theory and context in the theatricality articles in recent issues of Artforum, Flash Art and Frieze, before arriving back at last summer’s BFI Total Warhol retrospective, where Warhol’s films in collaboration with Ronald Tavel offered a potent source for many contemporary explorations of filmic theatricality.
Curated by Bridget Crone, director of Media Art Bath, The Sensible Stage offered eight works whose concerns and range tried to stretch this theatrical preoccupation into new areas. As she wrote in her programme notes:
The Sensible Stage explores the idea of staging. Throughout the programme there is a play between the staging of the self and staging as a theatrical device. The Sensible Stage takes its title from Jacques Rancieres ‘common sensorium’, in order to explore the idea of the ‘stage of the sensible’; that is, the staging of a common ‘moment.’ Using the real and the metaphorical frames of the stage and the camera, The Sensible Stage treads the ground between the possibility and impossibility of this ‘common moment’.
Crone offered a preliminary taxonomy of her selection of work:
Some work uses these frames as a way of restaging, as a way of unearthing unexplored connections…uses re-staging as a means of tracing connections between historical moments by enacting references from a diverse plethora of references from punk, to modernist avant-garde. And for them, staging is a device used to achieve a kind of stop within the constant flow and commodification of knowledge experience in contemporary capitalism.
Other work in The Sensible Stage focuses on the act of staging in order to reveal or emphasise the way in which lighting, camera, set and setting contribute to or craft the performance itself.
Although the curator spoke briefly – to point out those artists who were in the audience - the introduction to the session was provided by Lucienne Cole whose Hi Fidelity Hi (2006) was a performance in which, wearing a dress printed with black LP’s, Cole played records and recited the words of record collectors, her turntables and shadow overlapping with a slide show of record covers. The tone was nostalgic and gentle, with just enough satire to establish a sense of distance from the views of the collectors she had interviewed, whilst remaining sympathetic rather than mocking. Regarding the evening’s theme, it suggested the connection of film and theatricality concerned an engagement with diverse styles and codes of representation that, although originating as popular culture, could be absorbed as personal memory and – remember that vinyl covered dress – onto one’s own body.
Cole also contributed She La La (2006), a 1’30” video in which a woman sings a song in a chip shop. The song is composed of lines from various sixties pop songs and gestures familiar from the performances of such songs. Whilst it was possible to respond to the piece as amusing kitsch, what was interesting in terms of theatricality was how it refused the very styles and modes of which it was notionally composed. The performer stares at the camera and at us like the performers of the songs she collages, but actually is establishing none of the same contract. Her listlessness and embarrassment are not signs of her inability to perform competently in terms of the standards and aesthetics of the pop singer, but components in the construction of some new set of meanings, where fame and public performance is a memory whose echoes become expressed in ones own voice, gesture and acts. In the video, a sign hanging on the door behind her says the chip shop is open but it is no surprise no one enters as this is a hermetic and claustrophobic understanding of the individuals relationship to popular culture.
Another very short piece - Mikko Cannini’s one minute The Life and Death of (2005) – comprised archive footage of a figure whose body language suggested he was being interviewed. But this was playing with our own perceptions and responses to particular gestures, and Cannini’s film was more about illusion, distance and loss, movingly conveyed by his Super 8 footage. Theatricality outside of context quickly becomes a mystery; and it is film that enables the situations to live long enough to become mysterious.
These two shorts were miniature, focussed studies of particular actions and gestures, in contrast to the evenings longer works that focussed on group dynamics. Inbetween, were the shifting animated planes of Sebastian Buerkner’s Realms Pin (2007) and Clare Gasson’s The Ballad of Albatross Way (2007). The opening of Gasson’s film was a wonderful meeting of film and theatre: shooting a room through what seemed to be a gap or tear in a velvet curtain but which, as the camera began to move, turned out to be the gap between a body and an arm. The subsequent six minutes followed a pan through three hundred and sixty degrees, around a room that may have been the artists’ studio but unfolded like a composite of three or four separate spaces in which recognisable art objects – a poster for Ed Ruscha, a copy of Art in Theory– took their place amidst piles of art materials, books, and unidentifiable detritus. There was also a closed accordian, possibly the same accordian as on the soundtrack, where it accompanied a spoken but highly rhythmic performance of the ballad itself.
With the story unfinished the camera began a second rotation, before encountering the body once more, slightly shifted to the right and with curls of red hair now visible at the top of its otherwise black body shape. When the story ends the figure leaves the room and the camera lingers on the open doorway. The film treads a delicate path between construction and naturalness, theatricality and the everyday, separating them into separate realms of sound and image and making the connection between layers understated, resonant and humorous. The Ballad of Albatross Way was a joyfully intelligent film.
This sense of theatricality as a layering of creative modes was harder to maintain when the films got longer and more complex. Pit and Galia Kollectiv’s Better Future, Wolf-Shaped (2008) documented a strange cult amidst Celtic sites in Cornwall, enacting rituals in costumes and tools built from normal kitchen appliances. A second half featured four figures in monk’s habits enacting a dance to an electro disco noise soundtrack, their movements orchestrated around a grid drawn in white lines amidst the otherwise black space. I often found myself thinking the film's absurdity should have made it a lot funnier than it was, but this unfunniness seemed intentional, because the film deliberately layered its component elements in ways that created conflicting messages. The absurdity of rituals with plastic spatulas, for example, was prevented from being funny by a visual attention to landscape and a soundtrack that seemed to be reinforcing the sense of a serious and sympathetic profile of a new age cult.
Louisa Fairclough’s Bring in Daylight (2008) extended the realm of theatrical in the direction of the rural and the documentary with a portrait of Taunton Cattle Market. The film opened wonderfully with a sense of stage making – bales of hay being spread over the market's central arena, evoking a mysterious sense of circus that was almost an imagistic drum roll for the stories and images of the market and its workers that followed. Viewed through the frame of theatricality, Bring in Daylight seemed to be enacting more conventional notions of theatre to do with social ritual, community, and public space. It had a quiet faith in the importance and realism of the society it depicted, in contrast to, say, Gail Pickering’s Hungary! And other Economies (2006) in which theatricality manifested through the artists’ own restless and antagonistic layering and juxtaposition.
In Pickering’s film – a 15 minute extract was shown here – a group of French porn actors travel to the former Marquis de Sade’s chateau in Luberon, which is now owned by Pierre Chardin, performing extracts from Peter Weiss’ 1963 play Marat/Sade. Pickering’s own description of the film – in an interview with Vanessa Descalux in Untitled 44 – elucidates the extent and variety of the layering that can characterise the filmic theatrical:
The work developed out of an interest in site, which initiated a playful set of lateral associations. What became crucial was ‘scripting’ which was formed out of the entire set-up: the site and its relationship to de Sade, his use of it to stage his own plays for the travelling Parisian elite; Cardin and his contemporary relationship to the site; as well as, crucially, the porn actors and how they individually and collectively responded to both their placement on site and task (the performance being something akin to a historical pageant, where an historical site is reduced to spectacle). What was of interest to me was how these cultural, political, and economic positions became embedded and reacted to – or against – each other to produce a new set of relations. This is reiterated in the title where “Hungary” refers to both a reinvention of the site proposed by the film and also to the destination of one of the actors who was going to move to Budapest after filming, to try his luck in the European centre for the hard core porn industry. (5-6)
Reminiscent of the dynamics of a Warhol film such as Lonesome Cowboy, Pickering’s performers fumbled with their unlearnt scripts, expressing their own boredom and frustration by recreating the performance styles and actions of porn movies. Edited into a double screen projection the extracts here had a curious tone that combined a high level of formal control with strong resemblance to the more chaotic and surreal of Jean Rouch’s provocational anthropological films in West Africa.
Like all of the other films in Crone's selection, Hungary! And other Economies offered powerful evidence of the theatrical as a working strategy for contemporary artists. At its simplest, such a connection seemed to be about an exploration of the staged nature of events in which often the favoured methodology is to layer many different events and styles together. This invariably creates a need for “actors” of some kind, connecting such work to relational or participatory aesthetics. The Sensible Stage made no assumption about the kind of relationship that might unfold, including work whose participants were variously paid and unpaid, individual and anonymous, valued and exploited.