SEEN: Liverpool Film Night
Every now and then, the city of Liverpool, England, is an inspiring place to be. Slightly rusty around the edges and still bearing some signs of economic stagnation and dereliction but recognizable all the same as the epic Port of Empire it once was.
Walking the city streets, some still showing war damage through the quick-fix reconstruction of the 60s, it’s difficult to imagine the effort that would be required to regenerate the city back to what it once was: a "Centre of creativity." The character of the city is now being "culturized," and art, which you imagine should retain some modicum of independence from these institutional outlets, is being used in the process. Liverpool still owes any fame in its possession to the history of its arts culture, and this may be the problem. It takes only a day in the city in search of this diverse "arts" scene to discover that this is exactly where it is: the past. Tired of accusations about living in the past, Liverpool has chosen to focus on the future.
The Biennial, for instance, is an adrenaline boost to the bloodstream of the city, one dose given every two years. It has become the UK’s largest visual art event. Becoming more innovative each time, it mirrors the regeneration and new confidence of the city. The Biennial (on in September) gets under the skin of the city’s character in so many ways. It examines, explores and expresses all the weird and wonderful things that make Liverpool so unique.
In 2003, Liverpool got lucky and acquired two things with the potential to make the city culturally dynamic: the award for European capital of culture for 2008, and FACT–an innovative new exhibition space and cinema complex. Both things have the potential to bring great benefits to artists and creative people within the city. So it’s clear "art" is playing the lead role in Liverpool’s economic emergence; A Tate Modern slipped into the docklands, a Biennial and the European Capital of Culture to come in 2008. The advertisements for 2008 are everywhere, suggesting that the city is seriously committing itself to the event and its possibilities. It’s clear that one of the reasons Liverpool received the award was the notable presence of FACT.
The FACT (Foundation for Arts and Creative Technology) centre is Liverpool’s first purpose-built cultural project in over 60 years, and the largest UK-based arts centre offering such focus on the art of digital media. The organization is now leading in the commissioning and presentation of film, video and new media art forms. A mecca to emerging underground (and not so underground) artists, the organization not only provides space for contemporary exhibitions of film, video and new media art, but also has three cinema screens showing art-house and independent films. FACT was actually founded in 1988 and has been commissioning the work of more than 100 digital media artists, including international heavyweights Barbara Kruger and Tony Oursler. Since opening its centre in Liverpool nearly three years ago, the gallery space has featured the work of Candice Breitz and, more recently, a Vito Acconci retrospective.
FACT (like the Tate gallery) has yet to show any focus on the work of local artists, choosing to largely ignore the work of local artists in favor of a more international "established" clientele. What doesn’t make sense is, we celebrate Liverpool’s great cultural facility and prowess–our poets painters and musicians are supposedly unrivalled–yet at the same time the city has already begun to establish a trend to import its art culture, rather than using the diverse local possibilities to their full potential. Recently, noticing this trend, FACT launched "SEEN"–a regular series of ongoing events that celebrate experimental film or "the outer limits of cinema." Liverpool film nights take place as part of this event, operating as a platform for local artists and filmmakers to showcase their work in moving image.
The most notable work at the event in October’s film night was that of Shelagh Fenner, an English video artist whose work is based loosely on issues relating to memory, social interaction and the formation of social norms. Her work Sustain is intended as a mood-altering, meditative piece. It features the artist continually inhaling what you presume is smoke. As the piece progresses, this "smoke" takes on an almost sculptural quality. It gradually begins to move from an unseen point above the figure, towards the head and mouth. There are no sudden changes, no moments of expression but, in the subtlest way, the self-regulating functions of emotion are already taking place. The sound (the artist’s manipulated voice) repeats the word "sustain" over and over. Her voice, morphed beyond recognition, establishes its role in the piece, allowing the viewer to become fully affected. The work now suggests a dissolution or fragmentation of the conscious self.
It is the interaction that (indirectly) transforms this minimal, almost discreet aesthetic into a reactionary statement. The image of the anonymous face works as a catalyst that evokes a range of ideas, from anxiety and iconoclasm to cleansing and archaic ritual. This is intrinsically a piece of video art that acts as a blank canvas. In her work, Fenner is questioning the visual and (perhaps more importantly) the non-visual. As the viewer, you bring your own baggage to the work, and not only is this okay with her, but it’s the very point of her work.
Cindy Sherman once said that through her work she was "trying to make other people recognize something in themselves" rather than herself. Similar could be said of Fenner’s work. The last thing the work intends to be is autobiographical, concentrating on the viewer instead. On certain levels, she is defiantly calling into question our accepted notions of daily life and activity. She makes up stories without beginnings or endings, leaving the narrative to the imagination of the viewer. But how does she reconcile this apparent contradiction? The answer is she doesn’t–but it’s the unanswered questions that make the work so visually magnetic.
By stylistically rejecting the camera’s tendency to capture accidental and instant effects, she intentionally adopts the calculated constructions used in the media: technical effects are delicately used to dramatize subject matter. This is all used to create an intense spotlight over that which previously remained in the dark. As viewers, we are thus invited to share a level of intimacy that has been accorded the artist by her subject. Mirror Mum (2005), for example was conceived from the artist’s own recollections of watching her mother apply her makeup. As a child, Fenner felt captivated by observing this ritual. The work looks at one aspect of self-representation, while touching on the sentimental, personal and emotional possibilities of communication. This level of intimacy is her personal visual style, and even though we realize that on some level her work is subtly composed, we are still left with a sense of emotional authenticity.
Also showing was Sam Meech’s Duck Luck. This short adventure piece possesses an ironic humour; however the subtext seems to be commenting on something more socially pertinent. Set in a derelict furniture warehouse, the 10-minute film follows the story of "Duck Luck," a toy duck who roams the warehouse causing trouble amongst the discarded furniture and general junk. Meech’s work is very much concerned with its own environment and the current societal (lack of) concern. Exploiting his local resources, he has become inspired by his own surroundings. Featuring a soundtrack of idiosyncratic music made in Liverpool, and filmed at the Furniture Warehouse on the Dock Road, Duck Luck is a distorted time capsule of a city in transition, as "seen through the eyes of a duck on a bike."
The conceptual flaws and visual analogies of the other videos featured allow them to become forgettable. The rest of the evening did feel like a formidable blur of non-art, non-film, and non-substance. If I didn’t already realize it, I can now conclusively state that a greater budget does not equal greater work. Submissions to the event appear to cover the entire spectrum of film, and maybe I just have to accept those moments of dire acting and quasi-ironic slasher horror as part of this arena.
However, whatever their own personal genre, to be a part of such an event gives the filmmakers a chance to exhibit their work in a completely different context. The opportunity for a video artist to see their work in a cinema scale offers both the viewer and the artist a completely different reading of the work. This could be an intriguing intersection of filmmaking issues–the distinction between the film of art and the film of cinema. By offering both a gallery and cinema space, FACT welcomes the blurring between both spheres.