Monday, March 20, 2017

Flare: Queering Love, Queering Hormones

This was a new experience for me as my first visit to Flare this year was for my own screening. Over the last year I have been busily shooting, processing and editing footage for my film Love/Sick, a reflection on my experience of solitude and illness. Saturday was its world premiere as part of the larger QLQH project. We had the first screening of the day in NFT3, which was a thrill for me as I have been attending screenings at the Southbank Centre since my student days in the 1980s. To screen there was a huge privilege.

I had a chance to check the file played well and then sat down with the other artists and some guests, including my friend B., for some herbal tea to calm the nerves. Then off we trooped just before 12 to the venue, which was pretty full. Officially, it was sold out but there were a few spare seats next to me, from some of the co-sponsors that didn't turn up. I was second up after Nina Wakeford's live performance accompanying her footage of Greenham Common via artefacts and flowers gathered from the peace garden. I was one of the people who tagged along on a field trip to the Common last year, which was very exciting, and I think there may have been a few frames I shot, but I am not sure. She had a very complicated set-up of three screens behind her mic, and one of them did not play properly, but none of us realised it at the time. There were audible chuckles as she listed the sexual orientations given by women who lived at the camps: Lesbian, Lesbian, Het, and then there orientations when they gave interviews later: Lesbian, Lesbian, Lesbian, Lesbian. Hmmm.

My film was a digital output, so much less complex in exhibition and I watched with some anxiety, trying to sense the reception in the room to what is rather a difficult watch, as there is some explicit surgery footage. My heart rate crept up as a certain moment approached and then I calmed down.

Third up was Renee Vaughan Sutherland's much lighter in tone film which is a queering of Hollywood cinema's most cherished tropes of finding one's prince. A dazzling array of processed images featured, including several views of Julia Roberts' retracting tongue from Pretty Woman. This drew laughs every time. She had also soaked the film in hormones, thus influencing the fabric of the film itself, something she discussed in the Q&A. I had been especially nervous about the Q&A which followed our three films, but felt much better when we were on the stage and the feedback I got was I managed to be articulate. I recall I spoke about embracing DIY and the imperfect, so that covers a lot of ground.

The second half of the programme featured films more concerned with science and history. First up was the collaboration of Juliet Jacques and Ker Wallwork, which features beautifully wrought sculptures and narration on the experience of working out one's gender identity and its relationship to hormones. Next up was Sam Ashby's drama-doc staging an unfilmed script by Elizabeth Montagu on blackmail and gay men, which is quite timely as this year marks 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the UK. The drama was played against items from LGBT archives, including some T-shirts I remember well from Lesbian Avengers and other activist groups. The concluding film was Jacob Love's dual screen exploration of chemsex and ADHD, an at times abstract and at times figurative depiction of cascading stimuli. I was struck by how many different paths we all took and everyone was really articulate in discussing the work. I hope there will be more screenings and opportunities to discuss the project, which I found fascinating to work on.

Then it was time to celebrate, which took most of the day.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Wide Open Space

It's been awhile, even longer than I intended as Google doesn't seem to want to let me log into my account! But anyway... so many films and other cultural things to share.

Most recently, I watched Certain Women, written and directed by Kelly Reichardt, which prompted me to ponder the slowness of cinema. These days I find myself becoming quite impatient with slow-burning films. I was unimpressed with Moonlight, in part because it moved so glacially, though I had other problems with it, most notably in the characterisations.

But, with Certain Women, I could accept the aesthetic. Reichardt is known for her attention to the minutiae of characters' existence, and in Certain Women, we find this multiplied by three, as there are three distinct plotlines involving characters played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone, living in the wide open spaces of Montana. I felt the Williams plotline was the weakest and added nothing to the film. But, the first and third worked for me, and even if I got a bit restless watching Gladstone's Rancher repeatedly feeding her horses, trailed by a yippy dog, the repeated actions made sense: here is a creature of routine who has little human contact. When she meets Kristen Stewart's law student-tutor, her routine is disrupted and she can dream of other modes of being. When this doesn't quite happen, the sadness is possible.

Dern's branch of the story features some jet-black comedy as her lawyer attempts to help a client going off the rails, even to the extent that she is sent into a building where he is holding a security guard hostage. Their exchanges are bitterly humourous.

So, here we have rather desperate human beings attempting to connect with one another, with fractious results. Reichardt's view of humanity may be bleak but it is also beautiful.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

End of Year (Finally)

Pfft. What to say about 2016? So many traumatic events and deaths. But for me also some exciting creative projects. At the start of the year I promised to let my imagination wander where my corporeal being could not. And that proved to be the case. Currently recuperating, I am quietly optimistic 2017 SIMPLY MUST be much better.

In the meantime, I have been churning through the many online streaming services and can recommend overlooked films such as Blue Jay, This Is Where I Leave You, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (No, really!).

Here's hoping out of the s*&t of 2016 will grow beautiful mushrooms.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Disappearing Women

Over the last few years news reports have provided us with reminders of the dangers of being an investigative journalist, as the cases of Anna Politkovskaya, Marie Colvin and Veronica Guerin attest--all women who were neutralised when their reporting proved too dangerous to the powers-that-be. Many, many other women's names are less well known than these high-profile examples, as the list at the end of the short film, Blue Pen, shows. It went too quickly for me to write them down, but the litany of women with mostly Asian names who died doing their duty shows how deadly a profession journalism can be for women.

An experimental short highlighting the less well known journalist Dorothy Lawrence who "disappeared" after World War I, Blue Pen uses a split screen and voiceover to quote Lawrence, as well as sceptical male figures who were not so keen on her going to the front. Where she went and what she did is not really explained. Nor is her "disappearance", except we know that she ended up in an asylum in her later years. It's a curious piece, part educational film, part installation in waiting. I imagine the staginess is down to it being adapted from a theatrical piece. I found it oddly detached from its subject, although an actress portrays her onscreen at times. I wonder if a documentary on the subject might have had more emotional power. But, if those names at the end become better known, it will be a good thing.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016


I was very excited earlier in the year to learn of the Punk.London commemoration of the birth of punk. I haven't been to many of the exhibits, but have found them of varying quality. Still, there's time to revise that opinion. And of course there's the whole question as to whether punk should be commercialised in this way.

So far, I've been to the rather skimpy British Library exhibit which appears to really want to be a celebration of Sex Pistols and The Clash, while grudgingly acknowledging there were other bands. Viv Albertine's guerrilla intervention is much appreciated.

Albertine also turned up a couple of weeks ago on Mary Anne Hobbs's show, offering her views on failure, which I found quite interesting. It's not something one often hears acknowledged, much less celebrated and I didn't recall that as a theme in her memoirs, but apparently it was. Something of a punk philosopher is Viv Albertine. 

I was pleasantly surprised to discover my own borough is getting in on the act, with Punk Waltham Forest featuring exhibits and talks coming up this month, including a visit by Gina Birch to the local library. The revelation that Birch and Helen McCookerybook are making a film about women in punk was the highpoint of the BL exhibit. Can't wait for that to see the light of day.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Finding Dory

Yesterday evening I found myself in the extremely plush Picturehouse Central with my friend L. watching the Disney Pixar release Finding Dory. I had never seen the film that spawned this sequel. Nor have I ever to my knowledge seen a Pixar film. They seemed aimed at kids and I wasn't too interested. But, Finding Dory had good reviews and I was in the mood for some undemanding laughs. And it starred Ellen De Generes as the central character, a blue tang fish, thus ticking a Bechdel-Wallace test box. So.... in I went.

It wasn't too hard to pick up on the plot, though I needed the steer the film provides that it picks up one year after Finding Nemo, with Nemo's dad Marlin proving to be Dory's guide/father figure. Dory's most interesting characteristic, aside from her very disturbing bulging eyes, is her short term memory loss, which provides the film's chief complication. How can she search for her missing parents when she can't remember more than a few seconds back? It is unusual for mainstream films to foreground any kind of disability and this one handles it pretty well. The parents, seen in flashback, try to reassure Dory and also take steps to make it easier to find them, which proves useful. Despite their worried expressions and glances, they clearly want her to make the most of herself. And Marlin losing his temper with her is also easy to understand, though he tries to make amends.

Dory, for me, was a somewhat difficult character. Her age is uncertain. She is meant to be somewhat grown up and is voiced by an adult, but her behaviour is extremely childlike, as she constantly wanders, asking strangers for help and dreaming wistfully of finding the parents she forgot. I guess this makes her easier for kids to relate to, but I found her helplessness grated on me over time. Of course, the mouse house wants its characers to be cute and ingratiating, but it did get to be a bit much, especially as the "finding home" storyline was laid on with increasing unsubtlety.

Thank heavens for Hank the septopus, who turns up in a marine lab to help extricate Dory from captivity. As voiced by Ed O'Neill, he is gruff and gnarled, and desperate to reach the marine centre in Cleveland for his retirement. The character is used to very clever effect, as he is able to camouflage himself in the most unlikely situations and the scene in which he and Dory take over a shipment of fish, with him at the wheel is one of the funniest things I've seen in ages.

 The sealife breakout is quite radical in its own way, as the characters resist the centre's entreaty (as voiced by Sigourney Weaver!) of "Rescue, Rehabilitate, Release" to force their own liberation. This is when the film really took off, its family values homillies expanding to encompass a whole community.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Whitstable Biennale 2016

This is a bit late, as I attended opening day last Saturday and the festival closes tomorrow. Nevertheless, it's always a pleasure to visit the lovely seaside town of Whitstable and take in its arty offerings, this year with my chum, C.

beach chairs; photo: Val Phoenix
In addition to the cultural pleasures, I was on a mission to visit Mystic Chips, celebrated as something of a touchstone by my friend, B., who couldn't make it this year, though we did attend in 2014. Her memory had converted Mr. Chips to Mystic Chips, and I promised her I would make the pilgrimage. In the end, eating chips on the beach while watching the tide go out and finding various crawly creatures in the retreating surf was a blissful interlude in the trip.

Of the works visited in one full day my highlight was Louise Martin's film, Lossy Ecology, on show at the Museum, which coincidentally was also the site for my 2014 favourite. Martin's elegant, beautifully realised work darts from one subject to another, from an acrobat to flowers on a rostrum, puzzling the viewer but making connections to her subject of embodiment, of interest to me as I am currently working on a project also combining art and science. C. and I agreed we were not clear on the connection to autism but thought it was a gorgeous film. One annoyance: not enough headphones to go around, necessary to hear the ambient soundtrack which added much to the work.

Viewing conditions proved to be something of a theme on this visit. Trish Scott's beach hut installation Medium was an audio work experienced while seated in blackout conditions, except when someone pulled back the curtain and audience members were exposed, blinking, to the outside world, while the would-be listener gaped in astonishment at being in such close proximity to the audience. Many backed out while others pushed in, disturbing the ambience of the event, which was a very clever multi-channel work with a great deal of humour not always present in contemporary art. Scott had contacted numerous mediums to ask what they thought would be her work for the festival. She had then voiced their replies, which were played out through speakers in the space, creating a delightful sound art performance. Meeting Scott later, I learned that she had intended for only three people to be in the hut at one time, to preserve the intimacy.

So, not what the artist intended. But, what did Tessa Lynch intend? We never even got into her performance of Green Belt? The door of the venue rose, the audience stood in anticipation, pushing into the Boatshed. And then we stopped, as the artist sat on the floor and spoke into an under-powered microphone, some kind of tablet in her hand. C. and I looked at each other. "What is she saying? Can you see her?" The performance was scheduled to last 75 minutes, but we left after about five, frustrated at not being able to hear or see anything. It was later suggested to me that she may have deliberately created a frustrating experience. Hmm, I though. Did I miss the point? Possibly.

On the other side of challenging was Marcia Farquhar's jamboree, Rooty Tooty, including Jem Finer on guitar and Dempsey, ex-Dolly Mixture, on vocals. The artist's theme was ice cream and she handed out free samples to various children and held up signs with lyrics, while doing some goofy dancing. Truthfully, I was not clear what the significance of ice cream was, but it was a very enjoyable performance and I became fascinated with some tiny birds flitting about and chirping loudly in the background. Sue Jones, director of the festival, suggested they might be some type of sparrow, possibly hedge sparrows. They contributed greatly to the feelgood factor the day, as did the weather, which was hazy the entire day, sea and sky merging at the horizon, which was a bit disorienting but added to the mysticism of the experience.

Whitstable Biennale continues through 12 June.