Minimalist Principles

An Exchange With William Raban

Federico Windhausen

How can the process of film-making be productively shaped by self-imposed constraints? By what means can film performance bring to light key material, technological, and contextual dimensions of the cinema? How might the sociopolitical histories of specific locales be explored within alternative cinematic structures?

These are questions of special import for William Raban‘s film-making practice, which has been ongoing since 1970. That they are also questions being posed within contemporary cultures of the moving image is merely one indicator of the continued relevance of his work. Both the diversity and focus of Raban’s cinema was most recently made apparent during the seventh edition of the (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico in A Coruña, Spain, where the filmmaker presented a master class and a screening of early and recent films. At that festival, I initiated a conversation that we subsequently expanded over email.

Still from Time and the Wave, 2013, William Raban

“I felt that structural film had become a dead end”

Federico Windhausen: I’d like to begin with your early interests and concerns. You have explained that your transition into film-making was preceded by paintings that involved what you have called “lifting traces,” the creation of visible, physical impressions that constitute a “physical documentation of specific changes occurring within landscape situations.” A key feature of this work seems to have been the coming into contact of various natural and fabricated elements – oil paint, paper and ocean waves in the Wave Prints series and a tree trunk, organic dyes, canvas, and local atmospheric and climatological conditions for the Tree Prints. That work in painting had, in your view, certain affinities with time exposures in photography, and soon afterward you began to explore time-lapse cinematography. This narrative of development is quite clear, I think. My question is about the possible roots of another important dimension of your work, namely its procedural approach to the film-making process. In an early film such as Basement Window (1970), for example, you elected to make factors beyond your control – the appearance of pedestrians outside the window at which the camera was pointed and the duration of each person’s passing presence – determine when you would activate the shutter. This was followed by films in which certain film-making decisions were linked to weather events and natural cycles. At the time, were there conceptual, philosophical or ideological concerns that informed the incorporation of constraints imposed upon the process of making a given film? Why was it important that those self-imposed, determinative factors be tied to aleatory events or natural cycles?

William Raban: From reading John Cage, I was led to The Transformation of Nature in Art (1934) by Ananda Coomaraswamy, in which there is the lovely statement that art imitates nature not through mere appearance but in her manner of operation. Thomas Aquinas makes the same point in his writings. This got me to think about new ways of understanding naturalism. I had been influenced by the French Impressionists, Monet in particular, and their idea of taking painting out of the studio and into the open air. Coomaraswamy made me think that there was a new way to understand naturalism: letting the forces of nature do the mark making. Hence the Wave and Tree Print series. That is the simple bit.

So when I made 2′ 45″ (1972) I was thinking of course about Cage’s 4′ 33″ and that both works could be seen in terms of a new naturalism where the work’s duration was the governing principle.

I think that covers the question alluding to quasi-philosophical influences. But how are those ideas put into practice? I loved this dual-edged-sword idea of naturalism – the mimetic approach of French painters to naturalism and the later Cagean interpretation. And there is something running through all the early films to do with the aleatory processes or systems-based approach. Why make the marks myself when ‘nature’ is there to do it for me? So you can see this at work in films like River Yar (1971-72) or Broadwalk (1972), the former with its obvious connections to Monet and Broadwalk with its more obvious systems art approach, especially in its relation to the construction of the soundtrack. But also with the expanded cinema works as well.

I have mentioned 2′ 45″ and its relation to Cage’s 4′ 33″ but I think of films like the three-screen Diagonal (1973) that has been referred to as abstract – which I refute since the image I was filming was the projector gate and the projector shutter, which so far as I am concerned are not abstract at all but very real. And that film then was developed into the dual-screen Surface Tension (1976) and later five-screen Wave Formations (1977). Wave Formations is one of the ‘purest’ films I have made – no camera involved at all but made entirely in the film printer.

And after that of course I felt that structural film had become a dead end. From the early ’80s onwards my work deals more specifically with different kinds of content, though never without stretching at the leash of a structural film restraint.

Still from William Raban's About Now MMX, 2011
Still from William Raban’s About Now MMX, 2011

Windhausen: Since you mention it, can you explain how the soundtrack to Broadwalk was constructed? You touched on this at the (S8) festival screening, and as far as I know the details of your process have not yet been elaborated upon in print.

Raban: I made a recording of my footsteps walking. Using two Revox tape recorders, I then recorded the original loop of my footsteps onto track 1 of the other recorder. I re-synchronised the tracks and recorded the same sound onto track 2. With the 2 tracks combined, this produced a phasing effect due to the very slight misalignment between the two tracks. I then made this new track into a loop and repeated the recording onto two-track over again. Predictably this created a further layering of phasing. I ended up with a series of about 20 tracks with progressively more phasing with each one. I used these to structure the soundtrack for the film. At the start, the film has no phasing, and then progressively the phasing becomes more and more extreme, to the point where my footsteps become an almost blurred, percussive sound. At the point of daybreak, after the long night sequence, I reversed the order of phasing so that gradually the phasing disappears back to the original loop of footsteps. (I wonder whether that is clear. It is easy for me to understand because I made the film but perhaps it is very difficult for anyone else to follow.)

It is interesting perhaps that what I was doing here was close to some of the systems music of the ’70s though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I was simply looking for a formal treatment of the sound that could be seen as analogous to the way the picture was working through the process of re-photography:

re-photography    :           re-recording

When I digitized the film earlier this year I no longer had the original 16mm ‘mag’ track to use as the sound master. Instead, I had to master the sound from the 16mm optical track from an old print. This means that the sound has lost some of the crispness of the original.

I remember that at the time all I wanted to achieve from the re-filming process was to stretch the original time-lapse sequence to make each frame last longer. I was surprised by the artefacts that crept into the process and which make the film much more ‘expressionist’ than I had intended.

Windhausen: At the time, did you see your pursuits in film as continuous with or significantly different from any of the contemporaneous work of the Systems Group artists?

Raban: I think it has to be appreciated that these ideas were somehow ‘in the air’ in the early ’70s. It is remarkable, for instance, that structural films were being made from the late ’60s onwards in various parts of Europe: in London at LFMC; in Vienna, mainly by Valie Export and Peter Weibel; in Poland, at the Workshop of the Film Form in Lodz; and with the Heins in Koln. To begin with at least, works of a similar kind were being made in different parts of Europe by people who had no knowledge that similar experiments were going on elsewhere.

I wasn’t much aware of the systems music being made at the time – Brian Eno, Steve Reich and so on. So it was more a question of these currents being around at the time, and they were having their impact in all the arts but especially in music and film – in film because of its frame-by-frame structuring of time.

Structural film and systems art seem to be very much connected with the emergence of minimalism in the 1960s. It was very much about reducing the artistic medium to its elemental basics. LFMC filmmakers were engaged in a cinema zero, re-imagining a history as if it hadn’t made the right-turn into narrative but had taken instead a sharp left into an exploration of the materiality of the film medium itself, of the elemental basics: projected light, celluloid and the photographic emulsion. This was the high point and hub of structural film and expanded cinema in London during the early 1970s.

Windhausen: If reading Coomaraswamy encouraged you to allow natural forces to “do the mark making,” it is interesting to note that you devised a matrix of constraints and freedoms for each film. In other words, nature did only some of the mark making. You provided the frame, in more than one sense, for the elements of nature that impacted the finished film – you set the terms for the roles they played in the work. Might your approach be accurately characterized as one that manages to “contain” the natural and the aleatory within your constructions, while simultaneously yielding full control of certain aspects of the work to those events? Is this consistent with how you viewed your practice in the 1970s?

Raban: I think that is fair and largely correct. 2’ 45” is a good example. I wanted to see if it was possible to make a work that was nothing more, nothing less than bringing the time of filming and time of projection into the present moment of the audiences’ experience. The audience watching the work unfold over several days not only are they complicit in the making of the work but they become an intrinsic part of the film’s content. But of course, in planning the production I had to make a number of formal decisions such as how to frame the camera in relation to the aspect ratio of the screen; where to place the microphone and where I should stand in front of the screen when making the announcements at the beginning of each iteration. The length of the work was determined by the 100 foot roll of 16mm film loaded into the camera at each iteration:

100’ = 2’ 45” @ 24 frames per second

Windhausen: That reminds me of another pair of complementary constructions related to time: In the case of the film you made with Chris Welsby, River Yar, you both worked with the standard division of a day into 1440 minutes (24 hours) and shot one frame for each of those minutes, totalling 1440 frames at day’s end.

Would you say that your interest in – and representation of – the relationship between human constructs and natural phenomena has changed since the 1970s?

Raban: It has changed in the obvious sense of the shift in interest from rural landscapes to townscapes which I date to circa 1973. Though I made Breath in 1974 which is a landscape film shot on Dartmoor. Then in 1977 I made the five-screen Wave Formations which is made entirely in the film printer and doesn’t involve a camera at all. Nevertheless the rhythms produced by the counterpoint between screens evoke a very strong impression of a seascape. With all the London films including Thames Film (1986) I am always looking for signs of nature encroaching upon the city and this is perhaps most evident in About Now MMX (2010).

Windhausen: It seems that the specificity of a given site – be it the Thames or the cinematic screening space, for instance – has been a consistent concern for you. What are the functions and effects of language and history in your more essayistic films about place?

Raban: It is probably best to try and answer this question from the point of view of Thames Film. When I set out doing initial filming at the very end of 1983 it wasn’t my intention to incorporate archive material at all. In fact, with most of the London films, I am not always entirely sure what I am doing and like to start with a series of shots that ease me into the process. With Thames Film the working method was to go out and shoot film material from my boat. I wanted to capture images of London from the point of view of the river.

I decided from the beginning that I wanted the flow of the river to govern the scanning movement of the tracking shots along the banks so I drifted on the tide and made a firm decision to film only from the starboard (right hand) side of the boat. This is because the laws of navigation demand that vessels have to stay on the starboard side of the river, and this meant that filming from this side of the boat put me closest to the river bank. I also liked the fact that this gave the images a tracking direction from right to left running counter to the way we read text (from left to right). It was a conscious anti-literary trope that seemed appropriate for a visual medium such as film.

Whilst gathering the shots I discovered the Port of London Authority archive and decided at that stage to incorporate historical images from maps, engravings, photographs and old documentary films of the Thames.

Still from William Raban's Thames Film, 1986
Still from William Raban’s Thames Film, 1986

Thinking about your question in relation to Time and the Wave (2013) the idea for the film came from reading a wonderful little known essay Trading in Death by Charles Dickens. He writes about the gross extravagance of Victorian funerals and of the appalling waste of the Duke of Wellington’s state funeral in particular. I thought it would be wonderful to end the film with scenes of Margaret Thatcher’s ceremonial funeral accompanied by the Dickens’ text. I had spent the previous 15 months gathering other shots for the film at the Olympic Park in East London, the Occupy protests at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the Queen’s Jubilee pageant on the River Thames. Once Margaret Thatcher died I knew this would be the ending of the film. The Dickens essay perfectly matches the Thatcher cortège and military parade, and I love to witness the audience’s shock seeing the end credit of the essay as having been written in 1852. It is as if nothing has changed in the 150 years of elapsed time.

Windhausen: You have not abandoned systematic structures and pre-planned constraints, as your most recent film Available Light (2016) demonstrates. Can you discuss the process of making that film?

Raban: When I set out to shoot Available Light I thought the film should be 8 minutes long. I therefore timed myself reading 2 pages of the book and calculated that by filming at the time-lapse rate of 1 frame every 2 seconds, the 858 pages would last 8 minutes. I shot the film over 6 days though some days when I was going to work I only filmed for 2 hours. The ‘rule’ was simple. I set up the book under a window and only filmed in available daylight. I started reading at 07.00 when there was just sufficient light to see but not sufficient to fully expose the image on camera and continued filming until it got too dark at evening twilight to read anymore. It was February and freezing cold in my studio so I had to take regular breaks to make myself a cup of tea, have a cigarette or take a quick lunch break. At those points where I took a short break, I put a bookmark between the pages, closed the book and stopped the camera. So you can see that in the case of that film human agency impinges significantly on the pre-planned systematic structure. Also, the film ended up being 9 minutes long because I hadn’t reckoned on some passages being difficult to understand therefore taking longer to read so that is another example of human disruption to the pre-planned system.

Windhausen: How has your thinking about the significance of those techniques and devices evolved over the years? Are they understood differently by audiences now?

Raban: There has been a resurgence of interest in structural film and expanded cinema from the early ’70s that probably started with the Live in Your Head exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery (2000) and Mark Webber’s Shoot Shoot Shoot at Tate Modern (2002). The difficulty for all of us has been archiving the older work so that it can still be made available to present day audiences.

Whilst I think my work has changed substantially over the past 45 years, the films I am making now are informed by a structural film approach. It is especially evident in About Now MMX which uses grid-like camera movements to create a cinematic map of the city of London.  Perhaps it is less obvious with films like The Houseless Shadow (2011) and Time and the Wave, but nevertheless I see my methodology of using straight cuts and no special effects as linked back to minimalist principles.

When making a film now I am always asking ‘what is the simplest and most direct way to achieve the desired affect?’.

William Raban will join Sarah Turner at Tate Britain Gallery, London, on 11 July, 2016, for LUX’s Co-op Dialogues 1966-2016. A selection of works by William Raban and Sarah Turner will be screened, followed by a conversation between the artists.



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