Interview with Anna Lucas
Anna Lucas created Things that had stories rubbed out for Whitstable Biennale 2010. She has exhibited widely, with recent screenings and exhibitions at Latitude Festival; Outpost Open, Norwich; Tate Modern; Olsen; Leeds Picture House; Solo shows include FACT, Liverpool; Chisenhale Gallery, London; Spike Island, Bristol; Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne. She screened Uncommon in a pony box by pedal power on Powerstock Common, Dorset in June 2012, and presented work in The Tanks, Tate Modern, October 2012 alongside No-w-here and Catalog. Anna Lucas’ work is distributed by LUX.
Rebecca Bloomfield: Have you always worked in film and video art?
Anna Lucas: I started working with edited-in-camera Super 8 films whilst studying Sculpture at Sheffield Hallam University in the early 90s. At that time you could get a camera and projector very cheaply and make a three-minute film for around £12. Initially I was documenting live events and installations I was making, and then I began making more specific film-based works. I liked the immediacy, temporality and portability of film. When I graduated I started using film more often as I no longer had a studio space and instant audience. I could make the film anywhere and send it for screenings or organise very small events. It worked with the socially engaged aspect of my practice at the time.
I also used a U-matic video camera at college, and did some editing on the very old and clunky U-matic edit suite, which gave me a different sense of editing and technology at an early stage. I have since worked with both video and film consistently.
RB: Many of your works expand on studies of social networks and group dynamics in response to the various locations of your filming, how do you initially decide on your subject, narrative and its location?
AL: I have been lucky to be commissioned to respond to some really interesting sites and situations. These have often taken me to places and encounters I could not have imagined for myself, so the decision about what to film often comes out of these. I do have themes, or things I know might be looking for, but I also stay open and receptive to what is around me. I use what I call ‘calculated chance’. I will start by using the camera to look harder and more precisely. I hunt for things that excite or intrigue me enough to take a photo, or recording, and then work from that to connect to the next thing. It’s quite an intuitive process. The narrative, if there is one, comes from this looking, re-looking and the next connection that is made. Once I have a few leads, I start considering what else I might need to extend or refine the work. It’s from a confluence of my interests and what the place and people there seem to represent.
RB: Your early films (Trevety, Flyover, Just a moment, Adrift) explored how the moment of filming fictionalises reality and the way in which people’s behaviour and interaction with a location is inevitably altered by the presence of the camera. Do you always make the people you are filming aware of the camera? If so, why?
AL: I’m almost always filming people I have had a conversation with and have an interest in, as well as sharing my intentions for the film. Even if the interaction has been quite minimal and spontaneous, I am present, with a tripod, camera, headphones etc. looking very much like a filmmaker. There is no hiding the presence of the camera! Of course the impact of this depends on the situation, and the personalities involved. I am interested in how people may change their stance, behaviour etc. as a result of my presence with the camera.
Having said that, there is a strange sense in which, after a while, the camera and I become invisible to the subjects and they become more absorbed in what they are doing. That is the moment I am usually waiting for.
In those earlier works there was a sense of a constructed moment to some degree, but also the people in the works were free to respond to the framework in their own way. We often generated the material together, or from their experiences. In Trevety the performers were invited to a house in France for a week, knowing that the interactions with each other and the landscape would become the film. That was expressly part of the invitation, and it was made in a similar way to a devised performance. The performers informed the action through discussion with me. They were mostly artists, and interested in the process. With Flyover, an event was organised so most participants were invited to come and be in the film, but they determined the movement and interaction. After a rehearsal, we slightly choreographed the timing for the shoot. That piece was shot in three takes and hardly edited at all. In that instance it was the live choreographing that took the place of editing.
I really like working with the live moment and trying to be as efficient as possible with the footage I am gathering.
RB: Your more recent 16mm films and videos often observe amateur experts and technicians – people who have a vernacular knowledge frequently related to the natural world, folklore or to pedagogical institutions (Kaff Mariam, Una de Gato, and Little White Feather and the Hunter). Where did your interest in the natural world first come from?
AL: I honestly can’t define that. I did grow up in a rural village, and spent holidays in the countryside. So although I now live in a very urban environment in London, I identify with and enjoy observing the ‘natural’ world. I also think I am trying to get at something primal, survivalist, and in which there is a directness of human interaction with the natural world. I am interested in how much or little we need to control our environments and for what purpose.
Three screenshots from Things that stories rubbed out, Whitstable Biennale 2010. Courtesy of Anna Lucas
RB: Would you say that your work provides a comment on the processes of filmmaking and the materiality of film itself?
AL: Yes, I am interested in the way in which the object of the film or video and the method of its making are revealed within the work, alongside the subject matter. Maybe this relates to the presence of the camera as well. We cannot remove the fact that there is a lens, frame, microphone, and a material process that have all contributed to the work, however objectively observational it appears to be. I am not a ‘fly on the wall’, and the processes of making the work inform it as much as the subjects. Obviously current ethnographic methodologies are questioning the ‘truthfulness’ of a completely objective approach. As a filmmaker I know that my decision-making from the outset informs what the viewer will see.
There is a balance to be struck, and a tension that I am drawn to between the subject and materiality of the medium, and how these things sit alongside one another, or disrupt one another. In film, there are obvious material elements that inform the final work a lot, reminding us of time – end of roll, light-leaks and flickers, chemical processing, the scratches and dust of history, and so on. I enjoy the relationship these visible textures have with the organic and variable subjects within the work. I am interested in the constraints and uncertainty of the process with film.
With digital media the material is different. I am still working on how to bring more uncertainty into the digital shoot, especially in relation to light.
RB: Your films engage with themes of everyday life, how would you say your method of filming reflects this?
AL: “Shooting. Put oneself into a state of intense ignorance, and curiosity, and yet see things in advance.” Robert Bresson in Notes on the Cinematographer [i]
[i] Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, translated by Jonathan Griffin, Urizen Books, New York, 1977. ISBN-13: 978-0916354299
RB: What stylistic decisions do you encounter prior to filming?
AL: Often the decisions I make prior to shooting are very practical ones. There are aesthetic decisions of course, in choosing the camera, stock, format etc. I usually shoot alone, and compromise production values for proximity and intimacy with the subjects. So I need to be able to carry my own kit. Shooting on 16mm film is becoming very difficult and less economically viable as 100-foot rolls are harder to find and the processing facilities reduced. Carrying stock is heavy, changing reels every 3 minutes is time consuming, and winding the Bolex camera every 15 seconds is awkward and noisy. I do not shoot sync sound so I also have to manage a separate sound set up. I need to know I have a certain amount of control over the situation to shoot 16mm, in terms of light, negotiation with the subject, time etc. The result is often much less footage to edit with, which adds a certain rigour and efficiency to the process. There is also an aesthetic appeal to the 16mm footage, which is very seductive, even if it comes with all sorts of ‘baggage’ in terms of art and film contextual reference.
Shooting video also has its issues. I do not have a single obvious camera to work with any more. The look of the work will also have its references. I need to be sure in both cases, that these are either relevant to the work, or neutral. With film, you can let the action happen – it brings out the subtleties and elevates the ordinariness of everyday life. With video you need to make it happen – you need bold subjects, better light, more impressive environments, because the medium itself is much blander and flatter.
RB: Which was your favourite piece to work on, and why?
AL: I have enjoyed making a lot of the work for different reasons, but Kaff Mariam was a life changer. It was a new methodology, to use a plant called Rose of Jericho, as the protagonist for the film and, and to try and find it growing in its natural environment in the Middle East. I went to Jericho in Palestine and started asking people where to find it. I had my video camera and a tripod and filmed everything I could. The encounters were overwhelmingly positive and generous, and took me across several very politically charged borders – Palestine and the occupied territories, and into northern Egypt. The plant has many religious and healing connections, but also functioned as a politically neutral subject. The landscape was incredible and after sleeping outdoors by a campfire, I spent the last filming day with Selma, an old Bedouin goatherd, trying and failing to find the plant growing in the Sinai desert. We could not communicate verbally, but I felt we had an extraordinary day in each other’s company. If the film hadn’t worked out, I knew I would still always carry that day as significant in my life. In some ways the project tapped into a childhood desire to be a photographer for National Geographic!
I made Kaff Mariam, and Una de Gato, its partner piece filmed in Peru, with funding from Film London, for a solo show at Fact in Liverpool, in a very tight timeframe. The combination of great subjects, sufficient funds and a very intense and un-fragmented process also contributed fundamentally to the sense of achievement and pleasure beyond the shoot itself.
RB: By placing yourself behind the camera, are you trying to reconstruct a primary experience for your viewers? As if we ourselves are looking through the camera lens?
AL: People talk to me a lot about the distance I create in my framing and position of the camera. When I am shooting I am just responding to an atmosphere, environment and shared moment with others.
I try to respect the personal space and integrity of the subjects of my films. I do not want to intrude in their activity or the absorption in what they are doing. I want to see them in their environment. But as I have said, my presence and the materiality of the medium also complicate a sense of a primary experience for the viewer.
Although I am very aware of the audience whilst shooting and editing, I am not thinking so much of a primary experience, as an atmosphere or suggestion of something. Perhaps it’s like a sculpture you are not allowed to touch, and do not have primary access to – but you do have a sense of how it was made, a visceral quality based on understanding the materials used and how they were manipulated into the form you are looking at.
RB: You use your camera to set up situations for events to unfold. The people you film must know they are being filmed, does this ever cause issues with achieving a true representation of your subject?
AL: What might a ‘true’ representation be? How would that be defined? I do not make claims for ‘true representation’, either with my subjects, or the work itself. The work is an interpretation of a situation to achieve a sense of something beyond that moment, not a singular truth to it. I like Werner Herzog’s approach to truth, “Facts do not constitute the truth. There is a deeper stratum.” [ii]
Lets take my film Little White Feather and the Hunter as an obvious example – people have so much invested in the story of Pocahontas as the ‘truth’, but the reality is that we have very little real evidence of what her story really was. It is hugely open to interpretation. I was interested in portraying this lack of empirical truth, the value in multiple possibilities, and the way in which those present a different thing altogether, about how we as a contemporary society deal with history, narrative and authority, through our own religious and cultural belief systems. We are all aware of the varied levels of manipulation that can go into any footage, from a ‘selfie’, to news coverage, commercials, ‘reality’ TV, right through to the iconic constructions of Hollywood movies.
[ii] Werner Herzog quote from The Minnesota Declaration, included in Eric Ames, Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog (Visible Evidence), University of Minnesota Press, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0816677641
RB: Your work knowingly invests everyday activities with a larger significance simply by recording their existence. You find beauty in the ordinary sequences of everyday life. To what extent do you edit your work?
AL: I don’t shoot with a storyboard; it’s always in response to a situation. The decisions are made in the edit, and this interpretation of the original material manifests as a work. I do not have complex strategies for editing, I’m just trying to find meaning in the material and to emphasise certain qualities that reveal themselves. The edit is often quite lengthy, even when structured around a fairly conservative premise such as a chronology of events, day to night, journey A to B, birth to death etc. My films are also quite narratively flat. I am aware of conventions such as the ‘two-thirds peak’ and I will work to that, but the peaks and troughs within the work are quite slight.
I do a lot of work with sound in the edit too and I’d say sound is really important in the work. Although I cut to image at the start, the sound texture hugely changes the pace and spatial sense of the work and is a really vital element within each piece.
RB: What are you currently working on?
AL: I am working on Art School, a portrait of the art school where I have been working for five years. When I started I was using the camera to try and understand the institution, and to be constructive for myself within an environment of facilitating other people’s creativity. The filming has taken place through the change in tuition fees, and thus to some extent in the way art can be taught. It has also spanned the shift in digital practice in the last five years. The traditional workshops for working in clay, metal, plaster, life drawing and the chemical darkroom feel as though they are also increasingly under threat.
I started shooting Art School on 16mm film using up ‘short ends’ I had been given or saved and the film stock itself is degenerating along with the institutional spaces themselves. I don’t want the piece to be a eulogy, nostalgic for the past, but I want to represent the validity of an approach to material, to looking, to studio space and uncertainty, which we are perhaps losing as a result of a more corporate economic agenda in art schools.
I am also working on a completely different piece called Whitehawk, focusing on a prehistoric land enclosure outside Brighton. I am looking at how we can suggest the ancient occupation of the landscape through reference to archaeological finds such as burials grounds, feasting sites etc. I am working on this with environmental arts group Red Earth and a mentoring group for young men called Band of Brothers. The next shoot will be filming a group of young men involved in a fire ritual and butchering a deer with Stone Age tools!
Rebecca Bloomfield is studying for an MA in Curating at University of Kent, and was an Intern at Whitstable Biennale 2014-15.