The complications of imaginary filmmaking: Jamie Shovlin’s ROUGH CUT

How do you remake a film that never existed?

In 1973, Orson Welles gave the world F FOR FAKE; a strange amalgam of a film, one that intertwined fakery with real life but did so with upfront honesty. His blatant proclamations told the audience that the movie would lie to them, trick them, and occasionally reveal the truth. It’s a marvel to experience this masterful deconstruction of film where the unraveling of reality actually feels really…real. Forty years later, UK artist Jamie Shovlin’s continues Welles’ breakdown of narrative and influential imagery in cinematic form with his debut film ROUGH CUT. But while Welles provides a his disclaimer upfront, Shovlin’s magic relies on a back-story that has been a part of an art project for the past few years. What does that mean? Well, ROUGH CUT is a documentary about the re-making a film, HIKER MEAT, that never actually happened. And despite what you will see in ROUGH CUT, HIKER MEAT will never exist. Confused? You won’t be…

The basic premise is this: HIKER MEAT is an imaginary film by a fake Italian director named Jesus Rinzoli that artist Jamie Shovlin, writer Mike Hart (name is an anagram for Hiker Meat), and musician Euan Rodger created in order to give scoring credit to another fake project, the band Lustfaust. ROUGH CUT is the culmination of these projects, a documentary that shows how Shovlin and his crew re-constructed scenes from infamous horror films in order to “make” the new version of HIKER MEAT. As the titles, trailer and imagery suggest, Shovlin culls from horror and exploitation genre history to reconstruct films that are easily recognizable to any horror fan: EVIL DEAD, OPERA, TORSO and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET III (amongst many others).

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Referenced and re-made as closely to the original as possible, using the English countryside as the stand-in landscape for mainly American films, Shovlin creates a metaphoric and literal combination of horror clichés. These individual scenes taken from different films share in specific genre tropes (for instance, there is the prominent fixture of the ‘Final Girl’) but they are, at their core, different stories. By showing the construction of attempting to recreate these scenes and suggesting that they will be cohesively pieced together, ROUGH CUT is more of a revelation of the mystery and magic of cinema rather than a simple montage. So while ROUGH CUT focuses on the attempt to remake parts of HIKER MEAT, HIKER MEAT is only a construct. The narrative lies in the making.

Existing only in trailer form, posters, artwork, and installation piece, HIKER MEAT is fascinating precisely because while it is present in the world, it’s not really there. As Shovlin says, “HIKER MEAT is effectively the false hand that allows ROUGH CUT to exist.” You’ll see glimpses of its potential life in ROUGH CUT, but the desire to see the outcome misses the point. Instead, we should revel in the mystery and take away what’s at the heart of the film: the joy, tribulations, complications, hilarity, and insanity that come with the territory of making a movie. The fact that they’re making something that’ll never exist in a traditional image form is what makes the film uniquely fantastic. That’s the touchstone of reality in ROUGH CUT.

This originally appeared on Fangoria in June 2014.

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Josh Azzarella at Moving Image Art Fair London 2013

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Josh Azzarella is screening his Untitled #160 (Balcome) at the Moving Image Art Fair 2013 London edition this month. Read what I recently wrote about the piece below and, if you’re in London, be sure to not miss it. 

…Appropriately, this exhibition coincides with the presentation of a new video work by Josh Azzarella, Untitled #160 (Balcombe), in which he has reconstructed F.W. Murnau’s seminal silent film Nosferatu (1922) by eliminating all (un)human figures. Architecture looms more prominently than before, doors mysteriously function on their own, the gloomy atmosphere spreads more ominously, blank spaces replace title cards. Here, through this mining of culture and our collective reference to it, Azzarella establishes a precise example of what a rendering of a “world without us” or an empty distance can look like. Our relation to the memory of what was there (Meena and Jonathan Harker, Renfield, the Vampire) is entirely dependent upon a successful reading of the new and very different environment. It’s a reconfiguration of a continuously self-reflexive undying narrative of the vampire, specifically the transformative character of Dracula, repeated and recycled and transformed in its literary and cinematic forms. Untitled #160 (Balcombe) constructs a new language of absence through its ghostly presence. Through that we are able to position ourselves in a very strange, yet familiar, landscape; one that does not include us.

Untitled #160 (Balcombe) – Preview from Josh Azzarella on Vimeo.

Book Review: Horror in Architecture

HorrorI had been eagerly awaiting the publication of Singapore-based architects Joshua Comaroff & Ong Ker-Shing’s new book Horror in Architecture for months as it specifically addresses the two very things I’m currently researching: horror and architecture. The book’s introduction nails a correlation between “horror” and the sublime, an idea that I usually discard because of its cathartic and religious implications but presenting the two as being both unknowable, spectral and inexplicable but extremely palpable is quite convincing. “Horror is the truth about abstraction” is another provocative statement that also rings true when considering how horror “weirds” what is familiar. From there, their discussions of the double, disjunction, repetition, deformation, interior/exterior are certainly of interest if perhaps all too brief.

Horror in Architecture seems particularly interested in relating architecture to the monstrous, a valid correlation that loses its poignancy when the authors continuously refer to Mary Shelley’s monster as “Frankenstein” when, in fact, “Frankenstein” is the young mad doctor. Along with the green face, bolts to the neck, and flat head, it’s a pop-culture adaptational norm to call the monster “Frankenstein” but it’s still glaringly incorrect. While I would argue that Dr. Frankenstein is perhaps even more monstrous that the monster he created, it’s hard to overlook this error and to trust further concepts they put forth that I’m unfamiliar with.

Aside from other general editorial issues (wrong words, doubling of words, incorrect spacing), the book really omits the real source of architecture’s horror by offer only a cursory address of economics and capitalism in relation to buildings, culture, and society. Horror very pointedly tackles socio-political issues of its time and, with the immediacy of architecture to the population and the economic context in which houses, businesses, and skyscrapers are built, it would seem fundamental in a discussion about how architecture embraces the horrific. For instance, what could be more horrifying than neglected public housing complexes ala Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)? Politics, economics, society – these are all fundamental elements to why horror and architecture exist and, most importantly, what they represent.

What we must take-away from Architectural Horrors is an idea proposed towards the beginning: ”…all present the possibilities of deviant architecture as an opening into new worlds of form, composition, space-making, program and hierarchy.” As scholars, filmmakers, authors, and artists use horror to establish an understanding of the world around us, it therefore seems crucial to consider the relationship between our built environment and horror as a productive site of contemplation and of future possibilities.

Aida Ruilova – GONER (2010)

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Quiet, guttural, and violent, Aïda Ruilova’s Goner (2010) is an intimate and full throttle engagement with the unknown. A young woman, clothed in only a long t-shirt and underwear, is covered in blood and alone in a bedroom. Laying face down when we first see her, with gashes at her ankles, the battle between her and the room in which she’s contained plays in an endless loop. Punching, stabbing, screaming, staring; she fights the small world around her. Heightening the sense of unease and inescapable containment are the ambiguities as to whether she is really alone, who or what is assaulting her, or if the room is even hers. Camera perspectives shift from an all-seeing eye to a personal gaze that becomes our own. The perverse imagination runs wild.

tumblr_mkvtrkWKDr1ri8asco1_500From the aesthetics and narrative established in the Italian giallo to the cliche tropes in the American slasher, Aïda Ruilova embodies the cinematic history of the horror film girl in under ten minutes. Goner is a rather forceful gesture towards acknowledging all the cultural and political implications associated with the complicated role of the young woman in horror film (the ‘final girl’, the survivor, the redeemer, the victim). Her evolution of weakness to strength unfolds before us as she becomes unwittingly involved in a landscape of life and death. At once an indulgence in stereotype and a liberation from that stereotype, the horror heroine is a violent and hyperreal representation of what is means to be a woman in the world.

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And what better space to pinpoint this disjuncture between the life and death of women than in the architectural realm of the home, the bedroom? With a heart shaped bed, the girl in Goner is in a position of desire and longing but as the room distorts, the idea of pleasure becomes one of intense pain. Here the psychological discord of a woman coming undone in her own home echos the sad intensity of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) in which a beautiful woman loses her insanity when alone and trapped in her apartment. It also makes reference to the physical and sexual assaults inflicted on a young mother by and invisible and ghostly being in 1982’s The Entity. Spanning one hundred years and as many films, from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to the current The Conjuring (2013), domesticity is the psychological realm where horror and women confront each other head on. This inextricable link between horror, the home, and women is the structural support of Goner as the mystery between a young girl and a living space rages on.

Watch Goner here.

Blackness. The Void. Empty Distances.

Essay written for Empty Distancesthe exhibition I curated for Mark Moore Gallery in Los Angeles (June 15 – July 22, 2013)

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Out of the darkness, the void emerged and invaded modern art with Russian artist Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square in 1915. As the totalization of everything and nothing at once, this landmark painting is infinite space represented on a flat plane. A undefinable negation that is at once cinematic and static, it is not a representation of the void but the void itself. A reduction of form and content to an absolute essence, Black Square conveys a simultaneous flattening and infinite expansion of space. Just as when the screen goes dark in the cinema, representations of distance are made palpable. There is horror within this unknown space. It is an empty distance.

hm4_1_30_0_bigIt has almost become a special art to paint empty space, to make it palpable, and to develop variations upon this singular theme. Not only are there pictures upon which almost nothing is painted, not only is it an essential feature of their style to make the strongest impression with the fewest strokes and the scantiest means, but there are very many pictures especially connected with a contemplation to impress upon the observer the feeling that the void itself is depicted as a subject, it is indeed the main subject of the picture….

For Void is, like Darkness and Silence, a negation, but a negation that does away with every this and here, in order that the wholly other may become actual. – Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy: an inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational (1923)

Nearly one hundred years after Black Square and Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, the void takes on new meaning in contemporary art and film. While Empty Distances stems from art historical traditions of emptiness as subject (think Yves Klein’s La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée, Le Vide in 1958 or Michael Asher’s wall removal at Claire Copley Gallery in 1974), philosophically this exhibition is a provocation to rethink the void’s meaning by considering it in post-apocalyptic terms.

Taking 20th century theologian Rudolph Otto’s phrase “empty distance” and idea that the very act of pictorially depicting the void establishes darkness and silence as subject itself, Empty Distances positions itself at the collapse of society. The recent global financial crisis, governmental overthrows in Egypt and Libya, and the current protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square (violent repercussions of human-produced horrors) have taken us to the other side; we are living in a post-apocalypse. But within this cyclical fall and rise of society is the promise a new future or, at the very least, an imagining of a different future that is both dependent and secluded from the past. Films like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Bed Sitting Room (1969) along with artworks like those in Empty Distances are able to provide unthinkable visualizations of what a new society would look like and, in context with current international events, suggest that we may already be living in a brave new world, only we don’t realize it yet.

Similarly, Eugene Thacker challenges a horrifying consideration of the spectral and speculative “world-without-us” in his book In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1. Empty Distances takes Thacker’s provocation to task, arguing that through artistic representation we can imagine this horrifying and unthinkable realm devoid of humans (due to the cataclysmic fault of man, a world that either pre-dates man, or as a realm that exists independently of man) where the planet continues on its path of existence alone. Importantly, the attempt to reveal this void involves a spatial collapse and this is the where empty distances emerge. Through the influences of Black Metal, horror films, science fiction, scientific research, and magic realism, the artworks in Empty Distances connote a surface negative while implying infinite vastness. They provoke such diverse imaginings of a post-apocalyptic world through the depiction of the void, pulling the viewer into a speculative new world.

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Susan Hiller: “Channels” at Matt’s Gallery

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Susan Hiller’s Channels at Matt’s Gallery is an audio-visual conglomeration of near death experience (NDE) narrations told through a full-scale installation of television monitors. Whether these monitors simply house these personal stories or act as a portal through which they emerge isn’t clear. It doesn’t need to be. Bathed in the glowing light of these numerous screens, numerous voices come forth with one eventually becoming the clearest. Hours of recantations are housed here, in these screens, in this room. It’s the near-ghost in the machine.

Channels is a mixture of static, noise, and voices. Sometimes you wait a while for the static to clear and the stories to begin as if we’re all there using the televisions are our conductor to those who have experienced death. Told are tales of sensations of leaving the body, the past flashing before them, feelings of humor and regret, and, naturally, the tunnel of shining light. We also learn that there are qualifiers of what makes an NDE. They seem elastic. Significantly, these people are not dead. They are not the ghosts using white noise as a communication tool with the living. These voices are alive and they have conquered death.

Not dissimilar to Mike Nelson’s installation More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) next door, Channels deals with the unknown. Not strictly in the sense of questioning the ultimate unknowable (what happens when we die?) but in the very fundamental aspects of being: how do we hear? how do we recognize? how do we experience things? And like the film Poltergeist, these provocations occur through the mediation we are all familiar with – television (or if we want to think more broadly, media). Technology controls are interactions with each other and, as new technologies emerge, our relationships with one another evolve according to these new networks. Channels explores such a network of people with shared experiences, traumatic or peaceful, and uses the object of the television to shared these stories with us.

Hiller has made reference to dreams in previous works and the question of dreams and the way in which our mind constructs dreams while unconscious and how we process them while awake is significant here. In her book The Dream and the World Hiller writes, “If you start to think about dreaming, you may well find yourself in a vortex of philosophical paradoxes, enigmas and conundrums that liquefy any fixed notion of ‘self’ and ‘reality’.” And isn’t that what Channels produces? Is it possible that Near Death Experiences are simply an individual mind coping with the inevitability of death; a unique experience for each person with enough generalities of the human mind? Or is it more frightening to suggest that there’s something external producing these similar sensations?

The voices heard, whether alive or dead or even the real people who had a NDE, produce a series of hauntings within the space of the gallery. Here, these moments of the unknown are continuously re-lived and re-counted, processed and questions by those who hear them. Us.

Image by Peter White courtesy the artist, Timothy Taylor Gallery and Matt’s Gallery, London.

Mike Nelson: “More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac)”

The following is what I hope will be the first of many writings about the work of Mike Nelson. This particular essay stems from his recent exhibition More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac) at Matt’s Gallery in London and our conversation about architecture, horror films, and narrative implications.

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In Richard Lester’s 1969 post-apocalyptic comedy film The Bed Sitting Room, a select few find themselves living in the strange aftermath of nuclear war in London. Their natural attachment to objects (the city is littered with shoes, suitcases, millions of discarded things) and the old order of life shifts again when, suddenly, a new post-war effect takes place…they begin to turn into things themselves. A bed sitting room, an armoire, and even a bird (all with the power of human consciousness and speech) are the mutated forms of life. Although designed for the audience to laugh at the absurdity of this new existence, the film reveals there is a real horror in acknowledging the possibilities of what might happen when the world changes.

Mike Nelson’s latest installation at Matt’s Gallery, More things (To the Memory of Honore de Balzac), produces a similar provocation. Inversing the architectural structures he has become known for, Nelson has laid out a series of objects that are a series of suggestions or, as he put it, a “semblance of atmospheres.” The absence of an established “place” in which to house these things, aside from the gallery room itself, creates a sequence of open-ended narratives, connections to be made as one wanders through the room, stepping over objects, encountering mysterious forms like glancing giant skulls, trash cans grounded in cement, and long-form boards that are too low to be benches but high enough to become intrusive.

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What’s most compelling about Mike Nelson’s work is that it gives permission for this kind of immediate interaction. The passivity associated with art or film viewership cannot occur in his installations and, unless you only stand in the doorway at Matt’s Gallery, certainly can’t happen here. There is an active engagement of looking in More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) by walking over, through, and around these inexplicable objects that navigate and determine our bodily movements in this framed space. Whereas Nelson’s architectural environments provide an obvious context of our experience, the items usually contained in those places is now dispersed and fragments our associations with them. We become the last people in London who traverse the new landscape.

mikenelson-02This goes back to Nelson’s idea of a “semblance of atmospheres”, an uncontained atmosphere that suggests a narrative rather than providing a linear and literal reading. Much like in The Bed Sitting Room, there is a confusion of forms and their readings, a conflation of organic and inorganic that conveys a strange new world or, at the very least, the remnants of an old strange world. The absence of figures in the installation is outlined in pieces that imply human form; a deflated work suit complete with a hat hanging from a metal backbone and a shoe with spikes underneath (the other “foot” is a stick) lays in the corner while a similarly deflated sleeping bag holds court in the middle of the room, dirty and barren. Animal skulls dangle from re-structured chairs suggesting that, such as in the film, living creatures are now components of material form. Scalped masks lay frozen on the floor. More ominous are the wooden sticks (charred and jagged) formed into something between a grave marker and crucifix or the scarecrow-like figures with animal skin draped as a body and a tambourine.

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Though lacking an overriding or oppressive narrative, Nelson does subtly drop hints that could mark the cause of this barren landscape. As in his title reference to Balzac, there is no escaping politics and society here. Specifically, there is one sculptural object housed in the back corner that consists of a broken crate from Jaffa, Israel alongside a near-destroyed caution sign (enter at out risk) and hanging plaque with Arabic writing. There is the suggestion of a former architectural structure that seems to have been blown apart. A reference to the volatile and ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, the dispute of land territory and agricultural ownership, this near obliterated object could contain the meaning to the end we are witnessing. That there are giant skulls framing the room doesn’t dissuade this argument. This is what could remain.

Both The Bed Sitting Room and More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) connote a very powerful presence through absence and explore what exists at the liminal boundary between the two. By acknowledging the unknown and a non-reality, they depict a possible reality of a new world born from and within the destruction of the old. And isn’t this what science-fiction, horror, and art do best? Show us possibilities of an existence that we cannot begin to fathom or visualize or formulate by ourselves? Providing a visual reference to the unthinkable, the unrepresentable, my reading of Mike Nelson’s installation is just that: disparate forms coming together to imagine what remains and what is possible in an unimaginable plane of existence. More things (To the memory of Honore de Balzac) doesn’t require an architectural guide to convey the abject terror of disassociation from the familiar; the sculpture entities are alone a frightening implication that we humans are not a part of this new other world.

Images by Caryn Coleman, courtesy of Mike Nelson and Matt’s Gallery.

James Aldridge – Presence

Images from James Aldridge’s recent solo exhibition, Presence, at David Risley Gallery in Copenhagen…

In Aldridge’s work a tension between the real and fantastic is revealed and establishes a compelling psychological space. The conventions of landscape representation are abandoned in these paintings — horizons disappear and gravity and orientation fail to obey the usual rules. Yet connections between these birds, plants and other animals and the landscape remain, conjuring a strangely atmospheric result. Tension lies in the interplay between decorative and beautiful elements and the implied violence of dripping or vomited blood and nightmarish mutated mandalas.

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James Aldridge is included in an exhibition I’m curating at Mark Moore Gallery this June called Empty Distances that explores blackness and the void in contemporary art as influenced by horror.

Mike Nelson on The Coral Reef (video)

In 2010 I visited The Coral Reef. It is a non-place, a construction, a fictional other-space housed within the reality of an art museum. Non-linear, abandoned, and claustrophobic. Dirty. No other artwork has ever made my heart pound and my palms sweat.

Here is artist Mike Nelson talking about the re-installation of The Coral Reef at Tate Britain (where I saw it).

Ways of seeing: the fearful role of art in Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY

Ways of seeing: the fearful role of art in Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY

Rod Serling television post-Twilight Zone adventure, Night Gallery, is revolutionary in its usage of art (paintings, sculpture, and art-informed language) as the portal from which its frightful narrative emerges. With each introduction our curator (Serling) shows the audience an artwork that contains, reveals, and is born from the horror story we are about to witness. Here, artwork functions as a way to tell the kinds of stories deemed “unbelievable” or “unreal” – what Night Gallery proposes is that the real is elastic, subjective to our supernatural experiences, and housed within artworks.

Culling often from H.P. Lovecraft (in fact, many episodes are direct visualizations of his stories), Night Gallery shows a speculative reality that places imagined horrors into the realm of the real. Particularly in the beginning of the series, before Serling’s control over production waned, the episodes were present-day narratives in which past actions have otherworldly consequences. In this way Night Gallery is a clear extension of The Twilight Zone, its younger sister functioning as an unfolding morality play to reflect that what we do, the choices we make, matter and affect. It is a fantastical mode of expression for an popular-culture entertainment vehicle such as a television series to ground itself within visual art and to have artwork speak to its viewer. It is a statement that art has the potential for substantive power. Therefore, Night Gallery challenges a notion of how we see, not just artworks or television, but the world around us.

Night Gallery launched as a television movie on November 8, 1969 telling three tales of horror: The Cemetery, Eyes, and The Escape Route. Below I will discuss how each episode embodies the role of artworks and viewership in its depiction of social, political, and personal terrors.

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