Tate Britain recently celebrated 50 years of the London Film-makers’ Cooperative with a screening of six films and a display of archive material. I was struck by their manifesto which defined film “as language, as poem, as instrument of passion and logic” but against “the gimmick, the kitsh, the chi-chi, the B-feature worship”. This gives a flavour of some artists’ aversion to the dominant pop art movement at the time. Although the exhibition closed some time ago, many of the most significant films are viewable online.
This off-the-wall ground-breaking film was the best thing in this exhibition. It is based on the conceit of passers by in a Hackney street apparently responding to instructions of a mildly hectoring but encouraging film director. “Come on look at me…good” . The commentary takes a more surreal turn as a zoom to a clock face is accompanied by the director calling out “Now the clock to move to jerkily towards me”. Like all his work this wryly amusing take also offers deeper insights – in this case into the illusory nature of film.
Multiple recycled and distorted versions of a short sequence of activity around a border post using red and green filters of different strengths to give the migrants and guards a dream-like aura and to emphasise the blood-chlorophyll /stop-go/ death-life binary oppositional symbolic load. Visually captivating and politically relevant as much of our current crisis is about the unconscious fear that boundaries generate- a fundamental concept so brilliantly illuminated through the the seminal ethnographic work Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas.
This startling “optical sound” experience is an experimental abstract 16mm film work that predates the Vasulka’s similar video-generated Machine Vision but has the same visceral impact. Letraset and letratone is directly applied to the celluloid and then fed through filters to produce the final version. The sound track is generated by the film itself and this is uncannily like the drone of WW2 bombers. You feel the phalanx of planes, the cascading of bombs and the snapping of the Dresden firestorm. As Tacita Dean would say “Bring back celluloid as there is something more authentic about it than digital film.”
The four films in this show at Kate McGarry Gallery in Shoreditch were among the best I have seen in the last year. Funny and moving, executed with a fierce intelligence and exquisite visual style, it set me scurrying to find what else he had produced. The Black Tower and The Girl Chewing Gum were equally riveting and are available as part of a comprehensive 3 DVD overview of his works released in 2011.
The one that had a most personal impact was White Hole (2014). This looped monochrome animation is a journey from the darkness of a tunnel to the light at its exit. The blinding whiteness as we emerge fills the screen but we spot a pinprick in the distance that enlarges as we move forwards eventually forming the tunnel entrance and so on ad infinitum. This visual trick on its own might be a metaphor for the “big bang” and its theoretical reversal the “big squeeze” where the universe become compressed again to a point of its original singularity before the cycle begins again. But his commentary takes us in a very different direction.
We hear Smith’s reflections on the lack of consumer visual culture in pre-glasnost Communist bloc countries following a visit to Poland in 1980. He notices how shopping becomes humanised as without a window display you have to enter the shop to find out what they sell. I had similar reflections following a trip to Moscow in the same year. The monolithic state imposed an austere uniformity on consumption. The smudgy green neon signs in identical style above the shopfronts indicated the type of foodstuffs sold there – “Meat” or “Bread”. The absence of the technicolour diversity of western consumerism was uncanny but somehow relaxing. Yet the people Smith met were yearning for Thatcher-style consumerist freedom.
Smith’s film captures this dichotomy perfectly. When the political and the visual converge as tellingly as this, something bigger than both is generated. It is no longer a question of East vs West, capitalism vs communism or consumerist choice vs monopoly conformity. We enter the realms of a deeper wisdom touching on the impossibility of resolution or equilibrium. “There is no light at the end of the tunnel- only another tunnel” as Smith’s Polish friends remark. I was reminded of this type of circularity in political evolution when I walked round the Olympic Park in 2012. Corporate sponsors had a monopoly within the Park ensuring that only their brand was on offer. Beer meant Heineken, burgers meant McDonald’s. The ultimate success of capitalism mimics communism. Corporate monopoly had replaced state monopoly.