I recently met with the artists Graham Ellard and Stephen Johnstone to discuss their film Machine on Black Ground. But, whilst the intention was to focus on this new work, our interview seemed to mirror the discursive nature of the working processes behind all their film projects. Thus, we slipped from the subject of the film in question towards the multiple cultural histories which went into its genesis, and those of earlier works, such as Proposal, for an Unmade Film (2007) and Motion Path (2006).
Proposal, for an Unmade Film and Machine on Black Ground both explore Ellard and Johnstone’s interest in the spaces of utopian post-war architecture. In the case of the former, their subject is the architect Cesar Manrique’s modernist vision for his native Lanzarote, whilst their more recent film focuses on the post-war landmark of British modernist architecture, Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral.
These specific architectural spaces act as the starting point from which a web of complex associations, and unexpected connections, are drawn, many taken from cinema, design and literature. Ellard and Johnstone’s films also elicit an ambiguous and disorientating interplay between our perceptions of the past and present. In Machine on Black Ground, for example, their own 16mm footage mingles with that of earlier documentaries on Coventry Cathedral so that it is difficult to distinguish between their own film material and that of Dudley Ashton Shaw or the John Laing Film Unit.
And are we watching a lost documentary they have rediscovered on Manrique’s architecture in Proposal, for an Unmade Film? Or is the film shot by Ellard and Johnstone themselves, who have contrived the film’s patina and bleached colour to evoke this sense of an earlier epoch? It might be argued, that Ellard and Johnstone’s films exist in a specifically cinematic time, which suggestively blurs and brings these past/present distinctions into question, imparting a vivid sense of clarity to these historically resonant spaces.
At times in this interview the reader may feel as if they have joined a conversation in mid flow, as they encounter our discussions on subjects as apparently contradictory as science fiction and museum design. However, the lateral flow of this interview feels like the most fitting way to gain insight into a collaborative filmmaking practice where the films are the point at which a rich web of associations, enthusiasms and enquiry meet.
Part 1: Beginnings
Lucy Reynolds: All of your films are a kind of journey through your research aren’t they?
Stephen Johnstone: But I would want to add that the films are also a journey out of the research as well. We tend to collect things as part of the research – we buy a lot of old books and magazines – and use images mainly but also stories, anecdotes, and myths. We also do a kind of research where we tell ourselves stories and these stories go some way towards guiding how we look through the viewfinder.
But then when we get the material back from the lab something else takes over, which is to do with the way you might be able to suggest movement or development without narrative, by moving from one image to another via something visual or a movement in the image itself.
Graham Ellard: This is something we thought about very deliberately when we made the last piece prior to the first 16mm project, which was called Motion Path. This piece was exhibited as a synchronized twelve screen video installation.
LR: When did you do that?
SJ: Three years ago? It was shown at the De La Warr Pavilion in 2006.
LR: So it was shown in a modernist space.
SJ: Yes, and it was shot in four of Erich Mendelssohn’s buildings: the De La Warr, The Metal Workers Union Building in Berlin, the Schocken Department Store in Chemists, which now derelict, and the B’Nai Amoona Synagogue in St. Louis.
LR: Can I go back to a really fundamental question then? Firstly, when did you start working together and secondly have you always found that you have been working around these ideas to do with modernist architecture?
GE: We started working together in 1993.
SJ: And no. There you go.
GE: No we haven’t always, but… earlier on we were making quite large-scale multi-projector multi-screen installations. I suppose the most elaborate was Wall of Death (1999) which was a massive circular screen built like a funfair wall of death about ten metres across, and in the middle were two projectors that rotated and projected two images at 180 degrees to one another around this circular space or cyclorama.
The sound moved around the space in sync with the images, and all of the footage was appropriated car chase sequences. We used French Connection 1 and 2, The Driver, and Vanishing Point. But we re-edited the films so that the two components – the cops and the criminals – are separated and projected on opposite sides of the circular ‘wall’, tracking around the space one after the other. And it isn’t clear who is chasing who.
LR: So have you always used other people’s footage?
SJ: Well, no we haven’t. Motion Path was all our own footage and so was Proposal, for an Unmade Film. Wall of Death and Machine on Black Ground use found footage. What interested us in Wall of Death was the idea of a spectator being in the work. Literally. As if you were caught between the two different types of protagonists in these films, the chasers and the chased.
When you were in the space, in order follow the action, you had to continually move and look back and forth, and the separated sound was circling around you as well. We did a number of pieces around that time in which you were both immersed and were aware of being immersed at the same time.
Click here to read the interview in full through Scribd.SJ GE Interview LR
Lucy Reynolds is a lecturer, artist and film curator. Her area of research focuses on expanded cinema and British avant-garde film of the 1970s. She teaches the history and theory of cinema and artists’ moving image at the University of Westminster, Goldsmiths College and and the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol in association with Picture This. She presents talks on artists’ film and video at arts venues across the UK, including the CCA, Glasgow and the Serpentine Gallery, London and her recent articles appear in Afterall and Millenium Film Journal.