still from The Tiger's Mind, by Beatrice Gibson, 2012
Beatrice Gibson’s films are composite works, collaging together sound, literature and multiple authors to explore the slippery operations of language and difficulties in representation. Born out of interests in improvisation and collective production, her films blend social modes of working with a diverse range of references, from the experimental music of Cornelius Cardew to the musicality of speech found in the operas of Robert Ashley and writings of Gertrude Stein, and typographical experiments of BS Johnson. As a result, her wholly collaborative films function as elegiac exquisite corpses, their socially engaged foundations challenging conventional notions of authorship and filmmaking.
Cornelius Cardew is a figure who particularly haunts Gibson’s work, with the artist repeatedly adapting and translating ideas of composition and performance developed by the British composer and the AMM group into her own filmmaking processes. Each film is thus somehow musically conceived, borrowing ideas from experimental music, such as noise, silence, listening, transcribing, collective playing and or collective production to ”provide the starting point for production, applying score, graphic notation, the notion of performance as author to the conception and production process”.
Gibson’s latest film The Tiger’s Mind, recently exhibited at The Showroom, London, takes Cardew’s score of the same name as a proposal for creating scenarios in which objects, rather than voices, converse with each other. Generated by a publishing project initiated by Gibson and editor and typographer Will Holder that deployed Cardew’s score as as means for producing speech, a cast of collaborators were invited to each adopt a character from the score: Alex Waterman as the Tree, Jesse Ash as the Wind, John Tilbury as the Mind, Celine Condorelli as the Tiger, Holder as Amy and Gibson as the Circle. A series of discussions ensued. The outcome is a film in which bodies and voices are substituted for individual filmic components: direction/editing, props, soundtrack, stills, foley and narrative, exemplifying the collective production at work in the film. As such, The Tiger’s Mind is a portrait of its own making, converging on screen the improvised relationships shared between Gibson and her five other co-producers through a variety of props and audio-visual effects conversing with each other.
Agatha, an earlier film shown alongside The Tiger’s Mind at The Showroom, is also closely tied to Cardew, originating from a dream recorded by the composer in 1967. Titled The Story of Agatha, the text describes a world without speech, where inhabitants interact though physical movement and touch. Gibson’s film similarly portrays a natural world imbued with feeling and sensation. Here, non-verbal communication provides a metaphor for an improvised form of production that exceeds language, a “utopian place beyond words”.
Amy Budd: Cardew’s original score, The Tiger’s Mind, has a striking cyclical feel to it, where language describes a chain reaction of events, as “The tiger fights the mind that loves the circle that traps the tiger”. How did you respond to the circular structure of The Tiger’s Mind, initially as score for music?
Beatrice Gibson: I always understood the circular feel of Cardew’s score to be related to the idea that it’s a portrait of itself. The score is based on AMM – a radical free improv group that Cardew was a member of. He wrote it as a provocation really, as of course improvisation isn’t scored. So the score The Tiger’s Mindcan be read as a portrait of the musicians, or rather of the relationships between them as they played. Eddie Prevost, (one of the original and current members of AMM) has always called the kind of music that AMM make a meta music, in that it it is music that is somehow about its own making. Likewise Cardew’s score is really about itself, it’s a document of an actually existing process. So, I always understood the amazing circularity of that first line to be about that, coupled with the more general idea that an experimental score is always somehow spiraling back on itself: in that, what it offers its reader is a field of interpretive possibilities. No iteration of it will ever be the same. So in a cybernetic sense it is somehow always a looping back on itself, always moving or in movement.
AB: When translating Cardew’s score into the film The Tiger’s Mind, were you concerned with reflecting this circular structure of Cardew’s original score of abstract sequences and events, or rather following your own narrative, to create something more linear and coherent for the audience?
BG: In terms of my own filming or the narrative structure of my film, those two ideas are certainly there or reflected or embedded in its narrative structure. Like Cardew’s original score the film is very much a self reflexive, if fictional, portrait of its own making. In addition, in narrative terms, it’s coherent but it remains very open to interpretation, and intentionally so. What happens in the film can be read differently by different viewers. What happens is also not entirely clear, again intentionally so. There’s an interpretive ambiguity built into it. This has to do with the idea of imagination, or with the idea of the active viewer player, or spectator. Cardew’s scores, experimental scores, they were trying to propose different kinds of active listeners and performers. The interpretive ambiguity is about that. Leaving things open so performers might imagine their own directions, listeners or readers their own stories or worlds.
The way I think about the Cardew score or the way the film relates to it, is indirectly really, which is to say Cardew’s score isn’t simply used as a series of commands to be implemented or a set of instructions to be carried out in the normal sense of how one might deploy a conventional score. It’s used more as a kind of representational model. In this sense, the film has a thematic concern with self-reflexivity and narrative concern with a kind of circular interpretive looping. For me, it’s asking how can these kinds of musical representational ideas, ideas around self reflexivity and circularity, can be translated to the medium of film, to the visual. That said, it’s also hopefully coherent and readable to an audience in a somewhat linear sense despite its circling itself! Ultimately Cardew was deeply concerned with readability and with accessibility, with a question of audience, or of art for whom? I am interested in that too. I want my films to be poetic or enigmatic but in an inclusive way. I’m not interested in puzzling viewers to the point of excluding them.
AB: Both The Tiger’s Mind and Agatha result from processes of collective production, involving collaboration and improvisation between small groups of artists, a social microcosm. You’ve described this in The Tiger’s Mind book as ‘working in the context of your own community’. How did you bring the particular cast of collaborators involved in both films together, and then initiate or manage the collective working process?
BG: The Tiger’s Mind is a more formal or rigorous investigation of a collective production or working process with that process as its subject, while Agathais a maybe a much looser take on the same.
Agatha came out of wanting to break out of always embarking on these – scale wise – quiet epic productions: involving commissioners and producers, larger budgets, longer time frames and so on. With Agatha the intention was to make something for much less money, in a less precious way, with friends somehow built into it. In many ways it’s more radical than The Tiger’s Mind in that it’s really playing with a different, less conventional production or rather actual shooting model. I invited seven close friends to come away with me to Wales for a week during which time we’d make the film, but really all that was to include, was doing the things we might do anyway, as a community of friends, in a rural setting. So in filming Agatha, there was no crew, or script but rather just a series of improvised situations outlined in advance and based around an idea of communal activity. It was a pretty utopian take on being together in a wordless way, lets say: building a fire, making a meal, going for a walk. In other ways Agathais less radical than The Tiger’s Mind. The issue of authorship for example is not at its centre, it’s not thrown up or questioned in the same manner as it is in The Tiger’s Mind. Authorship isn’t really the explicit subject or concern of Agatha and certain hierarchies are left unquestioned.
The Tiger’s Mind is a more formal investigation of an improvised working process. It’s the pre-production process that is improvised over time and not the filming itself. Funnily enough the filming of The Tiger’s Mind ended up being much more conventional, in that it’s planned, scripted and storyboarded in advance. In addition none of the films collaborators were actually present on the set, except Celine to oversee the handling of her sculptures series additional and document it in situ. In The Tiger’s Mind collective improvisation took place prior to the moment of actually shooting or filming. I suppose the difference is that The Tiger’s Mind is more a representation of an improvised process in fictional form, rather than something improvised in the moment of its own making.
So the two films share thematic concerns but they resonate differently. Both deal with ways of speaking that go beyond words for example. In the case of The Tiger’s Mind, this manifests in the production of objects that are in dialogue with each other: the films props, its soundtrack, its foley, its special effects. The Tiger’s Minddeals with practitioners in production over time, it explores production as an improvised form of exchange and then dramatises that quite conventionally, really. A script is produced, or rather a narrative imagined by a director, and a crew employed to execute a series of pre-organised images.
AB: Each artist involved in the pre-production process of The Tiger’s Mind took on a specific role, or character from Cardew’s original score. Could you explain how you implemented your role as ‘Circle’, which you later interpreted as being the editor and director of the film?
BG: In Cardew’s original score there are six characters – the tiger, the mind, the wind, the tree, the circle, and a girl called Amy – and each character comes with a set of interpretation notes, almost like a script or a play. The Circle is an abstraction, so it’s mostly described in formal terms really. I was interested, in ‘playing’ the Circle, in trying to think about some of these properties and how they might relate to my practice or help me think through my practice, to help me think in a straight lines. Ultimately you can’t really escape the subjective can you? What I mean is: who you are, despite who you are playing… So for me the Circle became a way to think through things, ideas or roles I was engaged with already, ideas around authorship. I was interested in using the Circle to think through or clarify my position on authorship. I interpreted the Circle as a kind of framing device, the lens, the character concerned with the overall shot or the POV (Point of View).
AB: Having worked collectively and collaboratively for such a long period in the build up to filming, I wonder how you feel about the hierarchy this role suggests, or finally imposes on the work, and whether you – as editor and director – worked independently, or in liaison with your co-authors? Ultimately, did you feel the need for someone to finally take authorship, and what is the ethical impact of showing the films under one name, when it includes so many other creative influences?
BG: Ultimately I don’t really have a problem with hierarchy, and with the hierarchy the role of director suggests. I think at some point in a collective process, somebody has to take the reigns or rather take responsibility or else things stagnate and can’t move. There is an interesting text that we came across written by Jo Freeman, a member of the feminist movement in the 60’s, who writes about the same issue, aptly called The Tyranny of Structurelessness. In it she claims that the women’s movement stumbled over its own inability to articulate and express hierarchy. Its utopian claims for and attachment to absolutely flat egalitarianism, lets say, meant two things: one, it couldn’t move forward and two, it actually became oppressive because there was nothing to fight against. Her point being that if hierarchies that naturally and unavoidably exist aren’t declared, one can’t contest them. I think my film tries to deal honestly with these ideas. That hierarchy exists, and that it isn’t necessarily bad. Ultimately the director, the character of Circle stands up, declares herself the author and takes the reigns, rather violently so. She proposes an authored frame, which becomes the film. This is the tension that propels the piece and what makes it interesting, I think. In fact the film contains many authorships within it. Multiple authored layers constitute its final shape. And it tries to make that transparent, rather than suppress it. But the final shape, its narrative, its readability, what makes it readable, the POV is written or constructed by me. But I mean that’s just how an experimental score works though, isn’t it? The composer proposes a frame within which, or through which, others author parts. Maya Deren used to speak about the controlled accident, which is an idea I also really like. She meant it in more immediate terms of what the camera captures versus what is staged, but I think you can apply it to ideas around authorship. Designing situations that are controlled or framed, but contain within them the possibility of accidents, or the unforeseen, of other authorships you cant control. Organised chaos might be another way of looking at it.
AB: During one of the many pre-production conversations held during the workshops leading up to making The Tiger’s Mind, which were subsequently printed in the accompanying book, you express concern that “this transcript would make a terrible film, it’d be awful”. But these discussions were intended to provide the basis for the script. What were you looking for in the vocal narrative, or script for your films, and how did you arrive at the stage where you were happy with what was produced for The Tiger’s Mind?
BG: I suppose I’m looking for the enigmatic, something that catches you, some drama, even a story. Ultimately in setting up a series of conversations between the participants, and proposing to make those the score of the film we were dealing with language as a medium. For me in terms of the film, when it came to producing something filmable, that meant that the drama had to take place within language and I found the language we had produced to be just too dry, too academic. It lacked poetry. In the end, in this instance, it seemed liked talking was simply getting in the way. I think the conversations produced material that worked in print form: Will (Holder) deals beautifully with this in the book that accompanies the film, (which is also a transcription or document of the conversations and the process of making the film). But in script form, as material intended to be lifted from the page and placed on the screen, it just wasn’t working for me. Ultimately I got frustrated, I wanted to get beyond words, to follow in Cardew’s footsteps really. To communicate more like the wordless characters of Agatha or even those in The Tiger’s Mind. The score the Tiger’s Mind is also really about that, it’s an attempt to notate, the feelings between people over and above the things they say. It’s about things that can’t be put on the page. The characters do all sorts of wonderful things together, they dream, wrestle, grapple, stumble. They converse through doing. I suppose I borrowed from Cardew and proposed the same. That we stop using to words to converse and use the components of the film itself to talk to each other. The objects that make up a film: props, sounds, music, effects. This is what the film is, a conversation in the form of objects. This is the point at which I was happy with how the script for The Tiger’s Mind was developing. When the objects started to talk one another.
AB: The Tiger’s Mind book includes a wonderful quote from Roland Barthe’s The Pleasure of Text describing the corporeal possibilities of language, “the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue”. Although used in reference to The Tiger’s Mind, it seems to me to also work in relation to Agatha, and its visceral depiction of a world without speech, giving voice to voiceless things through imagery capturing the ‘fleshy’ texture of materials, of moss, hair, skin, bodies. Could you say something of the sensuous aesthetic of the film, which seems to have less of a social agenda than other works?
BG: I think Barthes is dealing with a similar idea. The bits of language or speech or conversing that can’t be notated, but maybe in a different way. Barthes is, I suppose, more specifically talking about the form of language over its meaning, but there’s a parallel. So yes, I think both films deal with this kind of theme: the things that can’t be said or that go beyond speech, whether in the sense of beyond the semantic or beyond the said. So the aesthetic of Agatha, the way it deals with moss and bodies as you say does try to communicate that, to communicate an experience of the unspeakable. The Tiger’s Mind does the same but slightly differently: again through using its own production components: props, music, special effects – as a series of objects in conversation, conversing with one another.
AB: You’ve previously described your films in terms of landscape, how certain social or political fictions tend to shape the landscapes of our shared experience, and also how voice can produce landscape. The Tigers Mind and Agatha both depict existing landscapes – in a literal sense through the Brutalist architecture and natural, rural environments – and the real and/or imaginary voices that inhabit them. But nevertheless, I think your description of landscape in relation to your films is perhaps more abstract and poetic. Could say more the way you understand landscapes here, and how this informs the collaborative processes you adopt, and the films you produce?
BG: I’m really interested in Robert Ashley’s and Gertude Stein’s definitions of landscape which in some ways are quite similar. Bob’s definition of opera, for example, is characters in a landscape. He also proposes or presents landscape as character, an idea I find super compelling. The Brutalist setting of The Tiger’s Mind– the film takes place in a Denys Lasdun’s house and garden – mirrors, stands in or even personifies the score’s concern with self-reflexivity, Likewise in Agatha, the pastoral, or the bucolic, the rural somehow comes to personify the utopian drives inherent to improvisation in the manner of a character.
There is a second idea of landscape that I’m also interested in, which is more related to Stein perhaps, a more abstract one, as you say, which orientates around her conception of landscape as, things, objects and voices placed in relation to one another. The landscape being the thing that holds these things together, or allows them to stand in relation to one another, Cardew’s score The Tiger’s Mind very much deals with that as well The sixth character, the Mind, can be read as the landscape in many ways, that is, as the sum total of the relations of the characters. It’s also crucial that that the Mind exists, or the landscape exits as an entity, I think, because otherwise it’s all just too referential and collapses or folds back in on itself. What I’m trying to say is if the score is understood a map of society, or the film crew as a model for the social, these things have to look outwards, they can’t just be abstractions, they have to somehow be placed in landscapes.
One of the events I put on just recently at The Showroom with Mike Sperlinger was a screening of William Greaves’ Symbiopsychtaxiplasm (1968). It’s an amazing film, a kind of critique of dominant cinema conventions and a staging of resistance against authoritarianism and oppression (remember it’s shot in ‘68 in America) and has been a big influence for a while. It’s also a documentary of its own making, in a very different, perhaps more explicitly Brechtian way. Basically Greaves sets up a radically improvised situation with three cameras, one of which is filming a kind of screen test, in which two actors stage the same scene repeatedly, the second of which films the film crew filming the scene and third of which is instructed to document whatever else happens in the park, central park, the landscape in which the film is taking place or unfolding. Greaves was a Jazz lover (appropriately the film has a improvised jazz score) and he says of the film in his production notes that it should be a very special kind of chaos, again an organised chaos. Greaves plays himself, or plays a chaotic director, and increasingly appears to not know what he is doing. Eventually the film crew revolts and stages a critical discussion which they also end up filming. The discussion orientates around whether as a director, he is staging the chaos, inciting them to revolt, or whether he’s just inept. The discussion then becomes the films editorial skeleton or backbone. Anyway, at some point someone in the crew says, ‘that’s what a film is, a director’s film is his mind photographing the world’. Somehow I connect that with The Tiger’s Mind. Maybe the Mind, the landscape, the sixth character, the whole is a kind of frame, whether you conceive of that as the collective force, or the director or the tension between the two. Whether it’s an imaginary place, a story itself or the page on which the story unfolds, the landscape is maybe just a thing, the frame in which or through which things are enabled to take place, which enables the collective process or collective relations to be read linearly or coherently. The same crew member continues, ‘I think if you say you’re going to show him what’s in his mind or what ought to be in his mind, you’re taking away the director’s film from the director.’
AB: You also make an interesting analogy in The Tiger’s Mindbook, describing the many conversations held in the run up to making the film as “an improvised form of production”. But, finally, what happens after filming stops and the work is complete? Do the conversations between your co-authors involved in each film end, or do you move onto another topic or subject matter together?
BG: I suppose in terms of where those conversation begin or end, they don’t end; the films, Will’s beautiful book, they just crystallise them, formally, for a moment in time. The conversations themselves go on, they’re endless. A lifetime of chatter.
Beatrice Gibson is an artist based in London. Her latest film The Tiger’s Mind received its cinema premiere at BFI as part of the London Film Festival’s experimenta section curated by Mark Webber and is currently one of 23 films in competition at the Rotterdam International film festival. The film was commissioned by The Showroom, London, Index, The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm and CAC Bretigny.
The Tiger’s Mind is currently showing at Index, The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm until the 23rd Feb. Its final iteration, conceived as a remake, and including Gibson’s full filmography, will take place at CAC, Bretigny from March to April 2013.
The accompanying publication, The Tiger’s Mind, edited by Will Holder, is available through Sternberg Press.
Amy Budd is LUX writer in residence for October 2012, she is a writer and researcher based in Norwich. Since graduating from Goldsmiths with an MA in Contemporary Art Theory in 2009 she has been a regular contributor to the online magazine This Is Tomorrow, and has featured writing in the periodicals n.paradoxa and Kaleidoscope.