I suppose I’ve been looking for an outlet by which to express some of my intellectual frustrations for a while now. There is so little useful oxygen left around Brexit, BLM, COVID, Transgender rights etc, such reduced bandwith, that a person can feel encouraged to ‘do nothing’ with the excess of energy these issues incite. More nuanced conversations can sort of ‘die in the mouth’ as you realise you don’t have the inclination or the wherewithal to achieve something more discursive. Anyway, it’s hardly the stuff of small talk. I certainly didn’t think one of Joseph Cornell’s strange and evocative boxes would be the route towards dispersing this build-up of lactic acid, but I was drawn immediately to the black ‘rift’ in Cornell’s piece. I wanted to know what it was, or what it meant, and how the ‘unknowability’ of the ultimate meaning of something is a powerful and unsettling thing. I thought about those Rorschach tests, where you’re invited to look at ink-blots and project your own associations upon them, re-configuring them as meaningful as they relate to your own lived experience. I was reminded too of the famous Nietzsche quote that goes ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you’.
At the centre of this short story – at the heart of the titular rift – is a disagreement between two characters in regards to the responsibility of knowledge; for one of the characters, the responsibility of knowledge is to fix things; for the second character, the responsibility of knowledge is to unfix things. They both have their reasons.
Museums are one of the principle sites of this pause/push conflict in regards to truth-making. Objects and artefacts are contextualised for us in accordance with the sensitivities and sensibilities of those individuals given the authority to make curatorial decisions. Those decisions are being made within certain intellectual, cultural and historical frameworks, which are themselves the product of other intellectual, cultural and historical frameworks. Much of this scaffolding is often so habitual it is invisible and reproduced unwittingly, that is until some change of view or significant event makes it suddenly visible and available to scrutiny and discussion. These moments are deeply uncomfortable and are always felt personally by someone.
Knowledge gives rise to ‘facts’ – facts produce reality. Reality produces habits and habits reproduce knowledge; to unfix knowledge is to unfix habits, and the unfixing of habits is not some dry intellectual pursuit, but always an emotional confrontation between individuals. Someone is always hurt or hurting. Someone is always afraid. Someone is always angry. We are living through such a time of fear and anger. We are living with rifts.
After the long, slow, sleepy life-cycles of the Kick-About#8’s cicadas, I felt we needed a bit of clatter, percussion and forward velocity in the mix. I knew just the thing, unleashing John Adams fast machine and setting it rocketing off into the bloggosphere. You can see the full range of work Adams’ music inspired here – everything from adorable little witches riding steampunk brooms to strange abandoned industrial sites in Berlin.
It was to Ethan to whom I turned again to meet the challenge of the KickAbout#9, who took Adams’ Short Ride and converted it into a spectrogram – a visual transcript of the whole piece assembled out of its assorted frequencies.
Short Ride In A Fast Machine as a spectrogram.
I knew I didn’t want to fiddle too much with the resulting spectrogram, otherwise what was the point of producing it? That said, my over-riding feeling in response to the spectrogram itself was in direct opposition to my emotional experience of the music originating it. If anything, the spectogram has a distinctly calming effect. (Indeed, in his comment on the Kick-About, fellow blogger João-Maria suggested the spectrogram reminded him of the moonlit Seine, and now I cannot see it otherwise!). This changed when I divided the spectrogram into quarters. All at once I felt I was looking at POV shots of someone plummeting past Fritz Lang-inspired skyscrapers or views from great glass elevators speeding up and down. To be honest, once my brain had connected these images with the POV of falling people (a very short ride!), they in no way felt representative of Adams’ music, the energy and aliveness of it, and perhaps this can only be expected if you take something as dimensional as music and flatten it into a monochrome 2D strip!
Then how to restore the colour and light-fantastic into this clever/fascinating/boring strip of data? And what is that tickle of association in my brain, triggered again and again by the horizontalism of the spectrogram, by its flaring rectangles and bright little squares? Oh yeah…
Maybe this is where it all comes from – that compulsion to pull light and image out of music? One day soon I’ll finally do it, commit to discussing my love affair with this film, but until then let me just come right out and say Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) burned a bloody big marvellous hole in my head when I first saw it as a nipper. Those final rhapsodic scenes – with the mothership, the singing lights, and that rainbow-coloured graphic equaliser-thing – woke me up to image and music – and to fast machines powered by music too. So, with a nod and a wink at Spielberg’s science-fiction classic, I tried a couple of colourised versions of the Short Ride spectrogram to go some way to linking the image back to the idea of music, momentum and technology.
My restlessness continued however, as I still waited for the clunk-click that accompanies the moment you arrive at something you’re truly convinced by. I fiddled around with the idea of ‘the machine’, taking the spectrogram and collaging it digitally to produce something with the semblance of cogs and moving parts. I started to get something interesting – something that reminded me of another film a little less celebrated than Close Encounters – At The Earth’s Core from 1976 starring Peter Cushing and Doug Mclure! I could see the barbed head of that movie’s mechanical mole machine – and that’s where I left things, because Adams’ music is very clearly not the sound of a giant drill-bit chewing through rocks!
But something about that cheesy b-movie with its drilling machine brought me to Luigi Rossolo’s 1911 futurist painting, The Revolt, with its forward thrust of heat, noise and energy; and something about The Revolt associated with the opening credits to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) – and my exhilaration in response to them as a wide-eyed child (I get goosebumps even now, so perfect is this combination of soaring score, heroic typeface and sound design!); and from Superman‘s title sequence, it was another short cognitive jump to Kubrick’s celebrated stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, this is the stuff! This is what my short ride in a fast machine needs in order to leave the ground!
The Revolt, Luigi Rossolo, 1911
Opening titles from Superman, Richard Donner, 1978
The Star Gate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968
So in the end it was actually very simple: first, you turn Adams’ Short Ride In A Fast Machine into a spectrogram, which you colourise suitably to suggest heat, light and sizzle, and then you steal from Donner and Kubrick and give the whole thing some cinematic swoosh.
A while back, some old 35mm photographs resurfaced of my secondary school’s production of the musical, Calamity Jane, in which I played the comedic role of Francis Fryer – a vaudeville act booked to perform in a spit-and-sawdust saloon bar – The Golden Garter – for a rowdy audience of cowboys. The joke, of course, is ‘Francis Fryer’ is assumed to be a female performer, an assumption resulting in an impromptu drag act and a rather risque musical number that goes, ‘I’ve got a hive full of honey for the right kind of honey bee’…
Francis Fryer’s Y chromosome comes as a shock in the 1953 film, Calamity Jane.
Francis Fryer (Dick Wesson) in drag performing on the stage of The Golden Garter, Calamity Jane (1953)
Francis Fryer performs Hive Full Of Honey, Calamity Jane (1953)
I was fourteen when I got the part of Francis Fryer. It’s 1989 and the annual school production is the highlight of the academic year. I only have very positive memories of my involvement in Calamity Jane. I remember being taught to walk in high heels by the deputy headmistress, which I enjoyed thoroughly, not because of the opportunity to click about in a woman’s shoes, but, more boringly, because I somehow valued this new informality between myself and this otherwise formidable adult. It was special-making and highly unusual, as intimate and demystifying as hearing teachers use each other’s first names with one another. I felt brought closer to the world of adults, a world I instinctively preferred over the inelegancies and bun-fights of my own age-group.
I remember very distinctly the dress rehearsal, when all the hired-in costumes arrived at the school, and I saw Francis Fryer’s saloon girl costume for the first time, an extraordinary confection of red and black satin, with a swishing fishtail at the back and only the tiniest scallop of fringed fabric hanging down at the front. Even now, I can conjure-up the prickle of mortification accompanying the moment I was given my notes by the director after the first dress rehearsal: “Philip,’ he said, ‘If you’re going to do that with your legs, you need to wear black pants.’
It’s tempting to frame this story as the moment I knew I was gay, that somehow the touch of red and black satin riveted me at once to my sexual identity; or it was those high-heel shoes, or the tights, the wig, or the ticklish slink of my red feather boa. It wasn’t like that at all. There was no such realisation or great awakening, no light-bulb moment or epiphany. The act of dressing-up as a woman didn’t feel encoded for me, or provocative, or transgressive. It was just what the character had to do in the story and that was that.
But it did make me feel special in one very obvious way: the role of Francis Fryer, and specifically his drag act, was a sure-fire way of making people laugh, and people did laugh, not least because during one performance the black sequinned garter on my left thigh became entangled with the fish tights on my right, effectively tying my legs together for the duration of my musical number. I waddled through my routine, penguin-like, while mugging furiously at the front row of the audience, mining my wardrobe malfunction for maximum laughs.
The whole point of Francis Fryer’s drag act is that it’s not very good – and I wasn’t – but that just brought the cheering and the applause. Off-stage, I was likely awkward as a foal, and always painfully self-conscious at how skinny I was, but on stage I was ‘a character actor’, a physical comedian! On stage – with those legs in those tights! – I looked ridiculous and that was power.
So no, I didn’t feel switched-on sexually in my saloon girl dress, but I did feel powerful. I had audiences eating out of my hand, knowing one bit of silliness with knock-knees and a feather boa would bring down the house. When you entertain people, when you clown for them, they reward you with affection. I felt liked. I felt popular. It was wonderful really, stealing the show from all those much better-looking boys. I knew I wasn’t leading man material, but I was the funny one.
But when I look at these photographs of that same time, my feelings are more complicated and it’s this I sought to capture in my unexpectedly personal response to the most recent Kick-About prompt.
When I look at the juvenile forms of the cicada, I experience instinctive distaste and also fascination. I feel similarly about these images of my own larval self. I experience some distaste at my physical appearance back then in the way we all recoil a bit – unremarkably – when we see images of our younger selves. This isn’t an admission of body dysmorphia or deep self-loathing, but only the truth of things. More uniquely perhaps, I experience distaste because of what I know awaits the boy in the photographs, and how the reappearance of these images returns me to a period of my life I have no wish to revisit.
This isn’t quite true actually; when I look at these photographs I do want to revisit this exact place and time – to warn, to mentor, to coach, and to save – but I know I can’t. Ultimately, that is what I find so unwelcome about these images; my powerlessness to intervene.
He doesn’t know it yet, but the boy in the dress in the photograph is going to be bullied by other boys. He is not going to tell anyone about it, because that is what boys do. He doesn’t know it yet, but the boy in the dress in the photograph is very likely embarrassing the other men of his family. Perhaps they can see something getting started in him – some adult-form coalescing – an anomaly. It’s surely what his bullies are seeing too. Funnily enough, the boy in the dress in the photograph doesn’t seem to be able to see this same thing as keenly. The boy thinks he’s popular with everyone. He is the centre of attention suddenly because he is making people laugh. Turns out, people are laughing at him a bit too, but not because he’s funny haha, but because he’s odd, peculiar, different, not cool, not hard, not savvy, not a success at being a fourteen year old boy.
Oh dear! The boy in the dress in the photograph doesn’t even realise, in dressing up as a woman and appearing to enjoy it, he’s upsetting and disappointing people. Some might even say a fourteen year old boy who chooses to put on a saloon girl’s dress, who learns to walk in high heels, is asking for a certain kind of trouble.
But you see, the bullies, and all the other disappointed men, are right about him – their suspicions will be realised. The boy in the dress in the photograph, who may as well be neutered for all the interest he is showing in matters of sex and sexual relationships, will, in time, emerge from his chrysalis – or rather his closet. We are looking at the nymph of an adult gay man in this photo, but everything about this individual’s gestation will be slow, and his final form not butterfly-like or in any sense spectacular. No, rather like the cicada itself, he will have to settle for ‘interesting’ over ‘beautiful’.
The boy in the dress in the photograph will soon learn to cocoon himself. He will grow a little more inward and ever more watchful. He will separate himself off from some of the men who find him disappointing by creating a shell and moving inside it for as long as it takes to feel ready enough to leave it again. The boy will do other things to keep himself safe, and not all of them will be kind or generous or brave or entirely honest.
So it is I came to the creative decision to use these happy/unhappy photographs as the raw material from which to fashion a collection of pupa, collaging with them digitally, using the same limited number of Photoshop manoeuvres last wheeled out in my Metropolis images. The decision to present the resulting images as faux zoological plates came from an idea I had about just how old these photographs feel to me – like relics, or fossils, museum pieces certainly – but also to communicate something of my scrutiny for this subject; the way distaste can give way to curiosity, and curiosity to an acceptance of the form things take on their way to being other things, and the time it takes, and also, I suppose, to marvel at the instinct to survive, and in the end, to do more than this.
The nice thing about participating in the fortnightly Kick-About is the gentle pressure it applies to respond in new ways to new prompts. When Gary Thorne proposed ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ for the Kick-About #3 prompt, I experienced that initial moment of creative freefall, known less poetically as ‘having no ideas’ – or rather feeling no immediate connection to the words or the images they evoked.
I remember very well the sort of helpless flapping around of students when first confronted with a new brief and how their anxiety would frustrate me, arguing how the state of ‘not knowing’ is what adventure feels like – but here I was, flapping a bit myself! In an instance of ‘physician heal theyself’, I did a bit of research (okay, I googled Gary’s prompt) and quickly understood ‘Dance of the Happy Shades’ was in fact the title of a collection of short stories by Alice Munro. A few clicks later, and I was reading one of Munro’s stories, and it’s as I’ve already said in the kick-about preamble: Inspiration came from Alice Munro’s Walker Brothers Cowboy, the very first story in Munro’s Dance Of The Happy Shades. In it, a little girl and her brother are too hot and listless in the back of their father’s car. They play I Spy to pass the time:
“We play I Spy, but it is hard to find many colours. Grey for the barns and sheds and toilets and houses, brown for the yard and fields, black or brown for the dogs. The rusting cars show rainbow patches, in which I strain to pick out purple or green; likewise I peer at doors for shreds of peeling paint, maroon or yellow.”
But inspiration is rarely a linear thing. Arguably it wasn’t Alice Munro or even Gary’s prompt that first inspired me to undertake this exercise in ‘slow cinema’, rather it was the old garage door I’ve been walking past every day for years. I’ve always loved its brick and mustard scales, and the way the colours cook and crackle under the heat of the day. It was this remarkable/unremarkable garage door I saw most vividly when I read about the little girl playing I Spy in Munro’s story.
The old garage door
The other big influence is surely the lock-down itself, or rather the new quality of looking and listening we’ve all acquired over these strangely attenuated days. Torpor has restored vivacity to our otherwise over-looked surroundings as we’ve rested our eyes and our minds, our ears detecting new strata of sounds, once stifled by the percussion of the rat-race. I took the camera on our long evening walks, hunting out interesting surfaces that I might otherwise ignore, reminding myself of similar behaviours as a child when I collected the prettiest pebbles from the beach (usually only to find them much less fascinating when they’ve lost the glossing of the sea). The images that go on to feature in the film derive from beach huts and brick walls, from careworn sheds and even an old corroded cannon. What I liked about these images was how quickly they transformed themselves into seascapes or aerial photographs of far-off geographies. Perhaps this is what travel looks like when you can’t go anywhere.
With the exception of a few sound effects purloined from the BBC SFX archive, the majority of sounds in the film were recorded in an around the rather careworn seaside town I call home. Fragments of three songs feature in the work too, the first being La Pastoura als camps arranged by Joseph Canteloube, one of his Chants d’Auvergne, so chosen because this song soundtracks the longed-for moment when my husband and I will arrive again at the old house in France, bringing with it the neat line of poplar trees, the yellow roar of sunflowers, and breezes dry and warm. The second song, Carey, by Joni Mitchell, is what a Summer holiday sounds like when you’re young and time extends away from you in a haze of non-commitment, and Ella Fitzgerald’s Get Out Of Town is as languid an expression of longing as you’ll find anywhere. Elsewhere in the film, I noodle about on a guitar, which I recorded next to an open window to fold-in as much ambient noise as possible.
What began with a prompt with which I was totally unfamiliar has resulted in a piece of work that feels entirely personal and familiar. This might be expressed more simply by admitting I didn’t know what I was doing until I’d done it.
When participating Kick-About artist and animator, Emily Clarkson, offered up ‘Metropolis‘ as the second prompt, I wasn’t alone in looking forward to walking into the expressionistic world of Fritz Lang’s epic work of science-fiction. At the outset I knew I wanted to begin with the concept drawings for the film by Erich Kettelhut, and I knew I’d be seeking to produce something by following the principles of collage and layering. What I didn’t know was that I’d find this particular challenge hugely addictive and satisfying, and that I’d produce a lot of stuff on my way to choosing the image for the Kick-About with which I was most happy.
Every image in this post (and many others not in it) were all seeded by one pencil drawing and my guiding principle was a simple one; do now as I did back on my art A’level and subsequent Foundation course, which is to keep pushing a very limited series of processes and tools until something interesting happens! What I enjoyed particularly about the later stages of the process was my inability to stop the imagery coalescing into rich Art Deco pattern-making, as if the stylistic motifs of the original movie are themselves somehow irrepressible.
In my previous incarnation as a course leader, it was not unusual for our creative community of students, staff and alumni to come together in the service of some great big extra-curricular project. We’d all have our own work to do and existing deadlines to meet, but somehow the prospect of doing something together – and doing something non-mandatory – just put a welcome spring in our step. Many of the projects of which I’m most proud professionally originated from just these kinds of playful collective origins. There is nothing more exciting than bringing a bunch of creative individuals together and just seeing what happens. In my experience ‘what happens’ is always something unexpected and valuable, oak trees from acorns and all that.
With this in mind, and with Covid-19 producing strange new peaks and troughs in our respective working lives, I wanted to start something here at Red’s Kingdom by inviting a bunch of talented artists* from different disciplines to come together for a kick about in the park. Last night, the invite below was sent out and the challenge excepted!
Watch this space!
*It’s early days, but maybe the Kick About will gather a-pace? If anyone else fancies a run-around, get in touch.