Modern art doesn’t need to be scary

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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.

Familial History (Sculpture, Film and Horror): a Q&A with Darren Banks

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Darren Banks explores familial and technological histories through the integration of a filmic and sculptural language. Incorporating all the things we love here at The Girl Who Knew Too Much – cinema, horror, science fiction, darkness – Banks’ installations, videos, and drawings cull from an interest to seek out the possibility of what imagery can contain and produce. I’ve done interviews with Banks before and have worked with him on projects such as The Palace Collection, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, Empty Distances, and his recent Palace ProjectsOur latest discussion stems from his recent work stemming from his relative (horror actor, sculpture) Churton Fairman/Mike Raven. 

Untitled_NVprojectsCC: Your previous works have concentrated on reading film through a sculptural language whereas the Evermore installation focuses more on sculpture being presented in cinema. I’m thinking of both the references to Churton Fairman/Mike Raven’s horror film history and the animation of his sculptures through manipulated film techniques. Can you discuss your interest in the image of the sculptural object in this project?

DB: My intention was to explore the relationship between Churton Fairman’s work as a horror film actor and sculptor, within the context of my own practice.  So this new body of work started with a formal idea to apply cinematic editing techniques to a series of short films of sculptures by Fairman. The original footage was shot in the 1990s, and shows the wooden carvings slowly revolving in black space. The plan was to use editing techniques commonly found in horror film as a set of rules that would change the character of each sculpture. I started experimenting with a dolly zoom (Jaws, 1975), jump cut (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1962), double exposure (Vampyr, 1932).

However, once I began making the work, I started to think not only about the way editing could affect the object, but also how elements from Churton’s past life could effect or haunt his sculptures.

I used Aftereffects to create more elaborate work: Radio Vibrations is a sculpture that’s physically affected by radio waves/sound/music; the sculptural vignette Talkie depicts two figures in conversation taking on the roles of Churton and his interviewer discussing the history of pirate radio; Beta Blob is a metamorphosis into itself referencing the transformation of Fredric March in Dr. Jeckyl / Mr. Hyde (1931), or Landis’s werewolf. 

For me, probably the most effective and poignant sculptures were the simplest, such as Pirouette a two-sided spinning sculpture that I sped up until both sides merged into each other. Through this very simple technique a new image/object is created, where Churton’s and my sculptures both exist at the same time, each with their own individual meaning, simultaneously moving and static. In Match-cut two seemingly unconnected images flicker from one to the other creating an uncanny optical illusion of a looping whole. 

By simplifying the effects I could start to understand how movement affects an object, and how movement enables you to perceive a three dimensional object within space. The loop, spin and repetition are all integral to understanding the form of an object. Essentially movement gives the illusion that a 2D image is a 3D object, and this is how film can become sculpture. I think it’s helped me to get closer to my intention to try and make sculpture out of film.

DiscipleofdeathCC: There’s a displacement of the original sculptural image in this work. I’m particularly interested in how implementing movement onto static images evokes an uncanny image, one that makes an inanimate “dead” object come alive. This, of course, implies a strong connection to the horror genre. Can you comment on this and on your/Raven’s relationship to horror film?

As a sculptor I have always been interested in this idea, essentially my move into filmmaking was an extension of the need to create movement within the inanimate object. This is the point where I come back to my early film Interiors (2005); I’ve always be fascinated by how horror films can create an emotional charge by their use of lighting, sound, camera work and architecture, giving objects life through atmosphere and tension. For me the way that horror film layers these effects is very sculptural – where a slow tracking shot moves around architecture, mapping the space to create suspense.

I recently went to see Dario Argento at the BFI where he used a scene from Tenebre (see clip) which, for me, is the prefect example of this layering of effect.

Churton Fairman AKA Mike Raven was always Dracula, never Frankenstein, so I’m not sure what he would have thought about bringing inanimate objects back to life; although I’m told back in the day he did have a signed Aleister Crowley book so maybe he would have liked my tin pot alchemy! There are even rumors of Churton practicing the black arts but I think that was just hearsay (or part of a PR campaign when he was trying to make it as a British horror film actor). On a side note I was very impressed to find out that one of Mike’s favourite films was the Witch Finder General. It’s a brilliant film and I’m also big fan of Michael Reeves, a very talented director whose early death cut short his promising career.

To my knowledge Mike only starred in four horror films (Lust for a Vampire, 1971; I, Monster, 1971; Crucible of Terror, 1971; and Disciple of Death, 1972) but I really like that, there is something intimate and focused about his small cannon of horrors. The film that really stands out, and I think is relevant to your question, is Crucible of Terror, a film that I know you have already written about on you website. It’s a kind of 1970s English Bucket of Blood, where Mike plays an obsessed artist (looking for perfection) who killed a woman by casting her in bronze whilst she was still alive. Unfortunately the film seems to fade into a weird revenge ‘who done it’ movie as each of the characters start to get bumped off! – but that doesn’t matter, there are some great scenes of people being killed by art and for art, as well as the sculptor at work, a gallery private view and so on. Apart from the literal references to art and horror the film really resonated with me because of how it seems to fit into narrative of Mike’s life, in that he became an artist many years after playing the character, so the lines between fact and fiction are blurred, not made up but just part of the serendipity of life.

CC: Back to objects, similar to your previous works the monitors in Evermore and The Object Echo are a visible component to the installation. Is it important to you to reveal the relationship between technology and the image? Between what is producing the image and the image being produced?

DB: I think these two shows serve well in answering that question. For me there has always been a close connection between the image and how its displayed, and the technology usually becomes an integral part of the assemblage of the sculpture; but my recent works using projectors have made me think about the how the object/ film can exist without the cube, and within different architectural structures.

I really enjoy getting my hand on loads of old clapped out CRT monitors from Baltic39 for The Object Echo to recreate the sculpture’s storage shelving at the Fairman’s house in Cornwall. In that sense it felt more about the physicality of how the work was displayed and what the film was displayed on. The use of Cathode Ray Television monitors was very important, not just as an aesthetic choice, but to display the film in its correct format as it was originally shot for TV. In fact here is a link to Curator William Copper blogging about CRT monitors in relation to my show. 

In contrast Evermore at Workplace felt more focused on the sculpture and the effects that I placed upon them, it was good to take the films away from the TV and scale them up to look at the objects relationship to the gallery architecture. It felt like the monitors took second stage, as these small spinning objects became more like weird monumental totemic signs. There was less emphasis on Mike Raven and more on my process of making. 

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CC: Considering your interest in horror, it’s incredible that you’re related to someone associated with classic British b-movie horror films. How did you become aware that Mike Raven was a part of your family and how the documentary footage wound up in your possession? What do Raven’s and your family think about this project?

It all started with my Mum, she was working on her family tree with her second cousin; after along conversation about our extended family it turned out I was related to a radio DJ, Horror film actor and sculptor named Churton Fairman (aka Mike Raven) who died in 1997. My Mum knew about my interests in sculpture and horror and thought I’d be interested in Churton. I’d never heard of him before, but after spending a bit of time researching online, it was easy to see that he was quite a character who led a very complex and rich life: here was a guy who loved blues and RB music who left his life as a Radio DJ to become a Horror film actor (going on to work with the likes of Lee & Cushing) then leaving all that and moving to Cornwall to become a sheep farmer and sculptor. His obituary in the Independent reads like a fairytale. 

After my initial research I started to think about his life and our similar interests, but I wasn’t sure where to go with it. I started collecting his memorabilia, and from that point I’ve been a kind of fan collecting programs, records, dvds and posters from all the different parts of his life. It wasn’t till a bit later on that my Mum mentioned the documentary and that for the later part of his life he was very active carving wood and stone. It turns out that in the early 1990s with help of a friend, he made a documentary about his life as a sheep farmer and sculptor and its been sitting in a box unedited on beta tape at the family home in Cornwall for about 10 years. So I decided to visit and have a chat with my cousin, which led to her giving me the documentary to work with in anyway I saw fit, so with the help of LUX who digitized all the footage for free (thanks LUX), I was able to make a new body of work and also finish the documentary.

Mike RavenCC: What are you working on next? Do you plan to continue exploring the Mike Raven’s history in further works?

DB: At the moment I’m attempting to finish editing the documentary about Churton’s later life as a sculptor, which I hope to finish by early next year. I’m also working with Ele Carpenter to get one of the sculptures placed within a museum collection. It would be my homage to Churton to ensure his work is preserved for the future.

I’ve started to think about my work outside of the confines of horror and horror film, revisiting ideas about collecting and archives something which has been apparent through a number of different projects and working process’s which have involved collecting large amounts of film footage/images and objects, appropriating them into sculptural assemblages and film montage. From working with Churton’s documented life to the reassembling of museum objects for the Backwater exhibition in Northampton and of course my ongoing work with Palace Video Label.

But yes – I do see myself working with more footage from the documentary and I intend to look at different aspects of his career in more depth. I think if you bring together all the different elements of Churton’s life you start to see a contemporary figure and that is what I find most fascinating. I’d also like to revisit his horror film and present a film screening of his back catalogue, and favourite films.  

I’m currently finishing an online curated project called the Annotated Palace Poster Project where I’ve invited 15 artists to produce a poster for one the 15 films that make up the Palace Collection (a small library of horror films on the Palace video label). The posters are by the likes of, Jamie Shovlin, Michelle Hannah, John Russell, Flora Whiteley plus many more. The images will eventually sit alongside 15 short texts by artists and writers in response to the original films in a Palace Projects publication. The texts are all really different by people like Gilda Williams, Ben Fallon, Lorena Muñoz-Alonso etc. It’s been great to work with such interesting people, and the next step is to bring everything together in a publication.  

Exhibition Image Credit:
Untitled, NV projects, London
Wooden Sculpture Courtesy of Mandy Fairman
Photo Credit: Peter White

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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Night of the Living Dead: Annotated Palace Collection

I wrote about the impossibility of writing about Night of the Living Dead for the Annotated Palace Collection (project by Darren Banks):

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In 1968 two films were released that changed the landscape for cinema and ushered in the era of the post-modern horror film.

The first is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (an adaptation of Ira Levon’s novel) in which a young New York woman is betrayed by her husband and neighbors into having Satan’s child. With its colorful characters, saturated landscape, and lush style, Rosemary’s Baby is in stark contrast to the gritty black-and-white reality expressed in the wholly original second film of 1968 – George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead. Like Rosemary’s Baby, Night fundamentally questions our ability to trust other people, particularly those closest to us but its expression of the utter collapse of society (because of an unexplained phenomena that causes the dead to walk and because of the inherently violent nature of the living) and its not-so-subtle socio-political representations, makes Night of the Living Dead a devastating experience still today.

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To write something new about Night of the Living Dead is nearly as unthinkable as watching the dead rise up from the grave. This isn’t because its relevancy is relegated to the past but rather frighteningly because the issues attacked in the film are still very much apart of America’s cultural fabric. The antagonistic familial relationship as expressed between brother and sister (Barbara and Johnny: first in dealing with their dead father’s grave and then in dealing with their separation in life/death) and the nuclear family (in Night the young girl kills and eats her parents) are still familiar. Of course, Night’s famously known for its shocking representation of racism through main character Ben whose blackness is unaddressed throughout the film until the end where he is shot, killed, and burned by the redneck authorities. They may have mistaken him for a zombie but the visceral reaction to the news-footage style sequence at the film’s end – where Ben’s dead body is brutally carried by meat hooks – is a very painful visualization of America’s racism in the 1960s. Whereas then it was a representation of that turbulent time, now it’s a challenge for our generation to process these past traumas.

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Pop-culturally, Night of the Living Dead marks the birth of the modern zombie. Only a slew of “zombie” (Haitian Voodoo zombies) films existed before and although interesting correlations can be drawn between the pre-and-post Romero zombie cinema (mainly in their cultural reflections), it’s undeniable that Romero constructed the near unbreakable collective notion of the zombie narrative. Now, it’s imperative to re-think the zombie in order to establish contemporary allegories however, at the same time, it’s crucial to revisit Night of the Living Dead (and the rest in Romero’s “Dead” series) as a reminder of not only what innovative filmmaking can produce but also as a reminder of cinema’s power to painfully confront life as we know it.