artists & participants
With the work of John Smith (1952, U.K.) as a point of departure, Level One brought its attention toward other British personalities, sharing with John Smith the desire to underline, within the very interior of the process of creation, the context determining the reading of a piece of information or a work of art. Each of them develop a narrative dimension in their work, while also signaling the limits of such a construction. These artists, writers and filmmakers are entirely aware of their role as intermediaries of a history and aim at rendering the spectator conscious of potential manipulations. The works, films or documentaries, made in Great Britain between 1965 and 1984 and presented in this exhibition, testify to the most inventive and radical of experimentations, both in terms of their form and the profound intellectual integrity of their content.
We present three works by John Smith: Associations (1975), a seven minute, 16 mm film in which the images of magazines accompany an off-camera voice extracted from Herbert H. Clark's book ‘Word Associations and Linguistic Theory’. This film reveals the ambiguities inherent to the English language, demonstrating that there is never just one possible reading. In the 16 mm, black and white film, The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), a long street scene of a London neighborhood carries on for almost twelve minutes. Each action is described by a voice, like that of a director commanding the sequence of a film shoot. In a game of references between image and sound, John Smith guides us toward an ambiguous space-time. Using an English proverb, the 16 mm film in color Shepherd’s Delight (1980-1984), presents a humorous and absurd take on word games and linguistic misunderstandings in order to accent the ambivalence in meaning. This films also demonstrates a new stage in John Smith's work, where it becomes not just field of experimentations, but a receptacle for more intimate thought.
For almost 60 years, filmmaker Peter Watkins (1935, U.K.) has deconstructed narrative linearity, mixing fiction and reality in order to reveal the artifice of cinema. He was particularly attached to mass media critiques and to that which he called the monoform. In 1965, the BBC commissioned Peter Watkins to make a documentary on the effects of nuclear warfare. He subsequently made The War Game, where in a newscast style influenced by film documents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he filmed the onset of war between NATO and the USSR and that latter's atomic attack on Kent, with its disastrous consequences: the massacre of thousands of people, the sacrifice of civilians for the state, the struggle for survival, and a politically biased media. The actors were recruited by way of public meetings in Kent and the majority of the shooting took place in the abandoned military barracks in Douvres. Peter Watkins wanted to implicate «ordinary people» in the search for their own history, reflecting contemporary preoccupations of events that were, at the time, feared as imminently possible. The BBC showed moderate appreciation for the film and after it incited heated Parliamentary debates, the channel banned the film, using qualitative criteria as justification. Upon discovering that the ban was pressured by the British government, Peter Watkins later resigned from the BBC.
In 1972, again for the BBC, author and screenwriter John Berger (1926, U.K.) conceived Ways of Seeing, an art history audiovisual series divided in four 30 minutes chapters. His book, published later under the same title, became influential to an entire generation. John Berger presents a critique of western aesthetic thought and questions the hidden ideologies in images and in our visual culture. The first chapter of Ways of Seeing elaborates theories presented in Walter Benjamin's ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, postulating that modern age technology continually re-contextualizes works in a non-objective way. The second section retraces the female nude in the history of art, reminding us that the images at hand are almost always that of masculine idealization and not portraits of a woman. The third chapter addresses oil painting and the historic importance of the role of the commissioner. Finally the fourth program recounts the invention of photography and its place in a society of consumers. Here, John Berger invents another way of looking at images, making us aware of the time and ideology of the moment in which we look at them. Paradoxically, with John Berger's critical point of view in a mass media program, the BBC also participated in a certain kind of political engagement.
Other personalities, for example John Akomfrah (Black Audio Film Collective), a collective formed by seven people created and 1982 and disbanded in 1998, continue in this critical vain. It is precisely this intellectual and political demand combined with an artistic radicalism that this exhibition aims to present. If we were to find a French historic counterparts to this British experience, we would have to direct our research to the field of cinema. It was, in fact, while watching François Truffaut's ‘Day For Night’ that John Smith thought of the concept of The Girl Chewing Gum.
In the future, Level One will develop a continuation of this exhibition in order to follow the interrogations it presented.