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


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:

Jonas Mekas – In Focus – The Artist’s Studio