First of all, can you tell us about yourself and your background as an artist?
Hello. I was born and grew up not far from Elephant and Castle so I’m very happy to be home again in south London for this residency. As for my artist-self I’ve been working for the last fifteen years with artists’ film as an artist and curator. I work mainly with the found object, particularly the still and moving image, as an act of reclamation and re-interrogation.
What made you want to apply for the Artist in Residency post?
For me the idea of being ‘in residence’ in a library is a dream come true. When I was a child a wonderful brand new public library opened in Sutton, about five minutes from my house. Its opening generated a great amount of civic pride in the borough. It was a beautifully designed building and was built on an unprecedented scale. It was so large in fact that my child self used to imagine it would be quite possible to live in it for days before anyone noticed.
Here I am now with a chance to be in residence in a library. Well, better still, an archive. Even though in real terms that means I may not be sleeping on the shelves, it still suggests a welcome that encourages a closer, more informal, more intimate engagement with materials because of the generosity of time and space it offers.
Working with archival material is not a quick process. Sometimes I sit next to researchers in the archive who through pressure of time, flick through the materials they request to try and quickly spot something, anything that will be of use to their research and the ideas they’re forming. I’m lucky enough not to have to do that. The residency enables me to take my time.
I’ve been focussing in the main on the Kubrick material which in itself vibrates with the concentration that was put into its accumulation. Kubrick required rigorous research for his films and the archive stands as testimony to this and also to his facility to look directly at histories and shades of human psychology that other people might turn away from or disavow. There’s a lot of feeling attached to archival items because of this.
It’s not easy to simply glance at what’s housed in the archive. I found myself one day, for instance, looking through a collection of postcards depicting Nazi officials that Kubrick had amassed as a form of evidence of historical detail for his unrealised project about the Holocaust. It wasn’t easy to hold and turn these cards, these survivors of history, over in my hands without feeling the weight of their meaning. The trivia of an image disseminated on a postcard, the weight of meaning of those images – it took a while to process the irony of what looking at these postcards truly meant.
The residency, the time and space it offers, is not only making me rethink Kubrick through the materials I encounter but also rethink how I conceptualise the idea of the archive. It’s a gift. It’s about being in residence, about being at home and also about the opposite, about the unheimlich, the unseating of the security of the familiar through the dimensional response only the archival object can elicit.
Tell us a little more about your project.
My project is called The End of the War. I was re-reading the diary that Derek Jarman wrote when he was making Last of England and I was caught by a section where he describes Britain as a place where, ‘you will have watched a hundred and one war films. You are never allowed to forget it, so you’ll be prepared for the next one.’ It felt timely to read this. Jarman wrote it in the time of Reagan and Thatcher’s bleak cold war agitations, a time for those old enough to remember and that seems to have returned with a vengeance in the form of Trump and Britain’s needy alliance with that administration.
It made me think about how, since the end of the Second World War, British identity had been predicated on the allied victory. It’s maybe made us lazy. We haven’t been forced as a culture to have some of the serious conversations that our near European neighbours have had about the complexity of moral and civic responsibility in the face of ideological extremism. Britain has basked in the simple-minded narrative of its own heroism. Until now.
I’m curious, as Britain now shifts position and retreats from the project of post war unity that the EU represents, to reconsider how cinema imagined this past and offers future vision. This is/was my starting point at least.
You’ve been working in the archive for a couple of months now. How have you found the experience so far? Has anything surprised you about the material you’ve looked at?
I think that I’ve been most surprised by the insight the material in the archive has given me into the creative process, particularly into the workings of the imagination. For the first few months I’ve been concentrating on Kubrick. As someone who thinks closely about the meaning of archivisation it’s hard not to be compelled by Kubrick whose own archive was so central to his creative practice. What has been inspiring about working with his archive is just how experimental Kubrick is in thought and practice, how serious and intrepid his layered processes of research and pre-production are.
But more than that, it’s the negotiation in his papers, the dialogue between self, narrative and realisation, that is moving. On one hand there’s the industrial process of making a film grinding on with letters flying backwards and forwards about details of design and how many leopards to employ or who to cast for certain roles, on the other there’s the human process of realising an art work. I don’t think I was prepared for quite what that would feel like to uncover. It’s there in small details all the time. I was most caught by Kubrick’s questions, written to himself in the drafting of his scripts for Aryan Papers, to try and make him get to grips with an approach, a form, a conceit that could truly mediate the phenomenon of the Holocaust. This rigor of thought, casually apparent in pencilled margin notes is apparent too in written interventions onto his daughter’s notes for a film she’s making about Cambridge Vetrinary school. Caught on paper, in the notes Kubrick adds to her script, is his attempt to enable, to join in and to help by making suggestion. It’s a revelation – a revelation of the fine balance that is attempted everyday in the precarious dynamic between parent and child, as the parent enables fulfilment while also permitting the child’s separation. Who knew notes like these could contain so much poignancy and truth?
Have you got any favourite items amongst the material you’ve seen so far?
I’m surprising myself by saying this because The Shining was the first horror film I ever watched at the cinema and it terrified and terrorised me on an unprecedented level. I screamed my head off for the whole length of the film. Every trick and effect worked on me. It’s taken me years to rewatch the film – which is why I’m surprised to be saying that the item I’ve most enjoyed looking at was a giant scrapbook made as a prop for The Shining.
It contains page after page of newspaper clippings about the horrors of the twentieth century from petty to systemic. I spent an afternoon reading it from cover to cover. It’s a vertiginous experience. It is an artwork in itself, revelatory of the way mediation manipulates our most basic fears and manufactures and titillates our desires. It was in fact The Shining in microcosm, and characteristically far-sighted in expressing the state we’re in now, with 24-hour news mediation and the continuous levels of excitation the tabloidising of news seems to want to elicit, and for what? For ratings? For anxiety-provocation?
The grace of a film like The Shining is that it offers catharsis through narrative resolution. The scrapbook reveals how tabloid news sensation is simply that – all about the transference of sensation, a perennial nightmare from which it is impossible to wake.
Have you found that spending time in the archive has influenced or changed the way you’re working on the project, or what you hope to achieve?
Oh yes! I went in with a broad project in mind and couldn’t be prepared for the surprises that I’ve found in the archive. Every day I spend there offers something so rich it could send me off in a whole new direction. The problem is going to be narrowing down my focus for my final piece. I’m hoping the archive won’t notice if I stow away for a few extra months.
Sarah has been writing a blog about the project; if you’re interested in reading more you can find her posts here:
Interview by Georgina Orgill
Image Credit: Georgina Orgill