Single Take – videos by John Smith

John Smith is one of the most widely screened British artist film-makers, and as one-time drinking buddy, artist Cornelia Parker noted, “Most of John’s films have been shot within a few hundred yards of his front door, or inside his house.” In fact the house itself became the centre of one of Smith’s most poignant films Home Suite – a video love poem to his home of 12 years.

John Smith Home Suite
John Smith – Home Suite

“Home Suite is a close-up journey through a domestic landscape and a journey through memory.  Playing upon ambiguity and the unseen, the tape uses physical details of the space to trigger fragmented verbal descriptions of associated memories.”
John Smith

Composed of three thirty minute single take video monologues, ‘Home Suite’ presents us with an intimate anatomy of Smith’s home in Colville Road, Leytonstone, East London, prior to its demolition to make way for the M11 Link Road. The first two parts of the film examine in detail the toilet then the bathroom, comically describing the life of each room, unpacking its history, zooming in on a crack in the toilet bowl, panning across an eccentric Artex job on the walls. The house seems to be coming apart from the inside out, slowly giving up the ghost, merging with the landscape as Smith shows us where the Russian Vine has forced its way through the window frame in the kitchen and has snaked its way across to the gas pipes.

In the final third we emerge from the respectful silence of the condemned house and step out into the street where the mass ranks of police move in with bulldozers to evict the die-hards camped out in Claremont Road. Smith passes by with his video camera, shaken by the scenes he has witnessed, before crossing the road to walk around the corner to his new flat in a nearby street, where all is calm and as Smith notes, where you’d probably never realise what upheaval was happening over the road.

Smith had built an international reputation as a structuralist film-maker shooting his previous films on celluloid. ‘Home Suite’ was one of his first video works and in the commentary you hear him getting to grips with this new technology.

John Smith Hotel Diaries
John Smith – Hotel Diaries

“Worried and confused, I picked up my video camera and attempted to talk about what was going on inside my head. I had no idea at the time that this spontaneous recording was the start of a project that would occupy me for the next six years.”

John Smith

He used the Home Suite formula again in Hotel Diaries – a series of single take video monologues shot between 2001-2007 in hotel rooms around the world as Smith toured festivals with his films. The videos chronicle a personal reaction to the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel-Palestine. Smith’s trademark wit evident throughout, the banal setting of a hotel room evoking the everyday locales of earlier films (home, a pub toilet, street corners etc.). The camera often dwelling on a detail in the hotel room, a black television screen, ceiling tiles, the unmade bed, an image on the wall, as Smith unravels his improvised voice-over.

Hotel Diaries are either screened as individual single screen works, as a whole series, or as a multi-monitor installation as at Smith’s retrospective solo show at the Royal College of Art (2010).

“I’ve got myself into trouble at film festivals when I’ve won prizes for those films, particularly in Cork when I won the main prize for Museum Piece. I had to make a speech, and I said that it gave me particular pleasure to get a prize for this film because I’m a great believer in economy, and this film cost €7, or the price of one DV tape. And afterwards I had so many really angry young filmmakers coming up to me, saying “I borrowed £10,000 to make my film, and yours is a load of shit!”

Sight and Sound interview

Hotel Diaries excerpt

Watch Home Suite on Vimeo via Lux

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Paradox Bullets

Paradox Bullets directed by Van Neistat
Narrated by Werner Herzog
Story and Screenplay by Tom Sachs and Van Neistat
Art Director Tom Sachs
Starring Ed Ruscha (also credited as Location Scout)

Do the easy thing first
Do the hard thing first
Patience is a virtue
Patience is a curse
Never Freak out
The Virtues of a Freakout
Irrational Thoughts Must Be Followed Absolutely and Logically (adapted from ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’ by Sol Lewitt)

Paradox Bullets - Van Neistat, Tom Sachs
Paradox Bullets – Van Neistat, Tom Sachs

According to an article in Wallpaper the film is associated with a new design of trainers artist Tom Sachs created for Nike called ‘Nike Mars Yard Overshoe’ (not the ones Ed Ruscha is wearing in the film). Although it’s interesting to note that Nike are not mentioned in the 5 minutes of end credits. The project appears to be a confluence of two of Sachs’ long standing interests – space and consumer culture, and continues his collaboration with filmmaker Van Neistat.

 

Point and Shoot

 

“We will also film the walk on digital super 8”

Andrew Kötting from the proposal for Edith Walks

Andrew Kötting’s film Edith Walks lit up the summer film season of 2017. The Guardian declared it “One of Summer 2017’s best movies.” It was Sight and Sound’s Film of the Week. It drew praise from the Financial Times and The Observer and toured cinemas across Britain and Europe. Nearly every précis and blurb for the film mentioned the fact it had been shot using digital super 8 – some mentioned digital super 8 iPhone cameras.

Edith Walks - directed by Andrew Kötting

Kötting rose to prominence 20 years previously with his beautiful visionary travelogue Gallivant – a journey around the coast of Britain by road. One of the most striking scenes for me, was the shot of Kötting posting yellow envelopes of Super 8 film to the Kodak lab from a remote post-box in the Scottish Highlands, explaining to his daughter Eden and his grandmother Gladys that if the envelopes got lost in the post he might not have a film. There was also a scene where Kötting hung out of the camper van shooting on his Super 8 camera, he then fell and broke his ankle. This was film-making with jeopardy – shooting from the hip on Super 8. After seeing the film at the Sydney Film Festival I went straight out and bought a Canon Super 8 camera and shot my first film on a 6-week trip to India.

“That’s what informs my work. It has to be difficult. I’ve never been comfortable with the comfortable. If it’s comfortable, it’s not worth doing.”

Andrew Kötting from an interview in The Guardian

While looking for a camera to film the walks for a book I was writing, my sister told me that Andrew Kötting was using a point-and-shoot stills camera that shot good video (she became a student of Kötting’s after I gave her the Super 8 camera that came with a projector I bought to watch my India footage. I also included a copy of Gallivant on VHS for context). She said he’d even used it to shoot some of the footage for his feature film, Swandown (another brilliant visionary travelogue), that had sat alongside the principle cinematography shot on a cinema camera. I’d been stood in the camera shop looking at the camcorders and following her phone call walked out with a Canon Powershot compact digital camera. I was surprised by the quality of the footage that came out of this little pocket camera. It was perfect for making a record of my walks.

Swandown Andrew Kötting
Swandown Andrew Kötting/BFI
Swandown Andrew Kötting/BFI
Swandown Andrew Kötting/BFI

Researching an upgrade a few years later I came across a YouTube video in which Casey Neistat talked about the cameras he used. I liked the DIY aesthetic Neistat applied to his craft and how he embraced the limitations of using compact point-and-shoot cameras because of the liberating benefits of having a go-anywhere camera – the camera without a crew. He shot a number of viral hits (some funded by huge brands that would have budgeted for a crew) on the tiny Canon S120. I bought one straightaway and used it to start a new series of walking videos (since replaced in two upgrades but still at the bottom of my bag everywhere I go).

“I remember presenting a black and white super-8 film at the London Film-maker’s Co-op as part of a Sin Now-Pray Later programme that was called Anvil-Head-The-Hun and inspired by the Jesus Christ myth. It ran for 80 minutes and came on four 20 minute spools, it really tried people’s patience but prepared me for the longer format of moving image.”

Andrew Kötting from an interview in The Quietus

When I joined Andrew Kötting for a section of the yomp captured in Edith Walks, he instructed me to shoot on my Panasonic GH3 mirrorless camera as if it were a Super 8, shooting in short bursts. His iPhone also became a Super 8 camera. There was evidently a Super 8 state of mind that could cross over to digital film-making. To ignore the possibilities of shooting endless hours of footage in favour grasping the potential of small cameras that could fit in the palm of your hand to capture the essence of the moment. The poor battery life, limited clip lengths, and lack of manual control became virtues rather than hindrances. A technology intended for documenting and sharing family occasions, holidays, and vloggers going for morning coffee was being utilized to create cinema. The point-and-shoot camera was a tool for making art.

A WALK BACK TO THE LAST LONDON BY WAY OF WATLING STREET
by Andrew Kötting, 2017

“Who you walk with alters what you see….

A film shot on an iPhone with a super 8 app documenting a walk made with Iain Sinclair from Dover to London along Watling Street, sometimes in the company of John Rogers and sometimes in the company of Anne Caron-Delion. The film was never intended, I had planned to make the walk and take a few photographs as proof BUT as is so often the case when walking with Iain one thing leads to another and in the next instance another journeywork pops out.” – Andrew Kötting

Jonas Mekas – the original vlogger

I’m not so much in the future as always in the present. The future always takes care of itself. What I do now with my video camera, it can only record what is happening now. I am celebrating reality and the essence of the moment. And that’s the greatest challenge that I have.

Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas is considered the godfather of avant-garde film. Throughout the 1950’s his writing in Film Culture magazine and The Village Voice helped foster an emerging experimental film movement that was given a home when he formed the Film-Maker’s Co-operative and Cinematheque in New York in 1962. One of his great stylistic achievements was to develop the diary film as an art form, carrying his Bolex camera everywhere he went capturing the world around him. Without Mekas and films such as Walden we wouldn’t have vloggers such as Casey Neistat and Charles Trippy.

Camera: Pierce Jackson, Kasper Bech Dyg and Jonas Mekas
Produced and edited by: Kasper Bech Dyg
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2015

Me, I just film my life

Mekas naturally transitioned from film to video sometime in the 1980’s. Even now, well into his 90’s, his camera goes everywhere with him ready to celebrate “reality and the essence of the moment.” In his 365-Day Project from 2007, Mekas made a video record of every day of the year on a Sony camcorder. A project that presages the daily vloggers who now dominate YouTube, most of whom probably unaware of the debt they owe to a 90-something Lithuanian refugee who survived the Nazi labour camps.

Jonas Mekas camera
from Jonas Mekas – In Focus – The Artist’s Studio by MOCA

I make films, therefore I live

He appears to carry over the discipline of low-budget film-making, editing ‘in camera’, telling one interviewer that, “I do almost all of my editing during the filming”. Among the scenes he captured on his ever-present camera were candid moments of Andy Warhol, not the artist as he presented himself curated to the world, but everyday episodes that eventually became the film, Scenes from the life of Andy Warhol.

nothing is happening, it is real world

from Jonas Mekas – In Focus – The Artist’s Studio by MOCA

Diaries, notes, sketches – I have to film

As subjects for his camera, Mekas doesn’t discriminate between the famous, such as Jackie Kennedy and Yoko Ono, and a flock of pigeons dancing in the Brooklyn sky – they are merely things to be filmed. A birthday party, people leaving the cinema, a walk in New York.

It’s almost as if he formed the underground cinema movement so he could become part of it. The community aspect of his film-making project, the desire to share films and ideas, is another huge influence on the world of online video makers and film-makers of today.

Just get a camera and do it

The Film-makers Co-operative was born of a desire to self-distribute films that would otherwise not be seen by an audience. Informal screenings and discussions took place in what became Mekas’ New York loft apartment. That urge to freely distribute film and video without the control of gatekeepers is what led video sharing platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube to explode. The DIY ethos that Mekas developed and promoted, an almost punk attitude to film-making long before Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer applied it to rock and roll, grab a camera and – ‘shoot, shoot, shoot’ (as the Tate restrospective of the London Film-makers’ Co-op was titled) – has had a profound influence on contemporary video culture. Among his many, richly deserved accolades and epithets, Jonas Mekas deserves to be recognised as the original vlogger.


Some further sources used for this post:

https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/jonas-mekas-interview-365-day-project-microscope-gallery-brooklyn

http://jonasmekas.com/bio.php

http://petersalisbury.com/movingimage/settingthescene/jonas-mekas/

Jonas Mekas – In Focus – The Artist’s Studio

https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/film/jonas-mekas-diaries-notes-sketches-aka-walden

http://www.anothermanmag.com/life-culture/10289/5-tips-for-filmmakers-from-the-godfather-of-underground-cinema-jonas-mekas

http://sensesofcinema.com/2007/feature-articles/jonas-mekas-interview/