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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. Beginnings LR: all of your films are a kind of journey through your research aren’t they? SJ: 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 1
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. GE: 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 synchronised 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 synch 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. Perceptual Technology GE: And it occurred to me the other day, the first piece we made together, was a multi-projection piece, of panoramic views of Berlin, Paris and London,
from the Fernsturm, the Eiffel Tower and Canary Wharf Tower (Passagen, 1993). And we were interested in the panorama as a part of the pre-history of cinema, and I realised that another kind of strand that has run through everything we’ve done together has been an interest in technology – film or cinema certainly and its relation to technology. LR: Perceptual technology? GE: The panorama as a precursor to the spectacle of cinema. And whilst we’ve worked with video for the most part I realised that the move into film is prompted as much as anything by an interest in the technology of film or filmmaking. Because Proposal for an Unmade Film was based around the conceit of the film material being found footage, it could be viewed as if it’s something dug out of an archive, preparatory work for a film that was never finished. So one of the reasons for shooting on 16mm, and importantly, for shooting the film on a clockwork camera, using a simple set of prime lenses and so on, was to play into that idea, that this footage could have been made at some point anywhere in the last fifty years. LR: So in a sense you’ve telescoped yourself back in time to place yourself through those technological mechanisms into that space? GE: And as someone has said, jokingly, we started working with quite complex video and electronics and sequencing and so on and have been gradually working backwards, until we are now working with a single clockwork camera. And our current approach is something, I think, to do with image making technology and, we hope, not just a fetish for film. LR: And speaking about fetishism, do you think that the distinctive quality of the reproductions in the books and magazines that interest you, as well as your use of 16mm film, is to do with their associations to a particular earlier time period? GE: Well at the risk of stretching a point, this is actually something we explicitly referenced in that first work we made together, Passagen (1993), through an interest in technologies that are either redundant, or obsolete or are on the verge of it. And the possibility that they afford the space to think about the past from... via the promise of technology to deliver a future that was never delivered… where this almost anachronistic technology becomes the means to rethink the present in relation to the past. So, there’s something about the possibility of the simple mechanical camera that somehow provides a different sort of space in which to work, because it’s somewhat out of step. SJ: There’s also something about the restrictions of using 16mm and a clockwork camera we have found really productive– when we shot Proposal for an Unmade Film in Lanzarote, we used just three types of shot and we were then working to a regime where you were either shooting for a full wind of about 28 seconds, or a half wind, and so on. And out of that comes a sort of rhythm that determines the way that you think about the shot, and then how you start to put the final film together. That has a very strong relationship to the process of shooting. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier – looking at the world through the viewfinder, but then recognising that it is also about time. We can only look through the viewfinder for twenty eight seconds - the length of time of the wind of our clockwork Bolex. LR: This form of filmmaking does demand a rigour doesn’t it? SJ: In Proposal for an Unmade Film we were marking out the shots in very simple, elementary ways. For instance, marking out seven second quadrants
on the tripod head using tape so that, when Graham was making the pan and I was following it with a stop watch, we were hitting the marks at the right time to get these very smooth single wind pans – and you know that at fourteen seconds you should be half way through the pan and so on. So you have this quite rigid, and in some ways quite limited repertoire of shots, but then you start to work within that. GE: In video the costs of a high shooting ratio are easily managed, and shooting can be relatively indiscriminate. So, although we very rarely work with a storyboard that has been prepared long in advance of arriving at the location, we are very selective and our shooting ratio is quite tight. So if you really misjudge an exposure or the light really lets you down, then you don’t have a shot. So for us this kind of constraint or condition or discipline: the twenty eight second wind, the limited type of shots, is a really valuable and productive structuring principle LR: What it gives you is a framework, but within that framework it allows for improvisation. It demands that of you really. GE: I think that's what the filmmaking process meant for us. And, it’s certainly the case that the diversity of material that we’re moving between in current projects such as Machine on Black Ground, is historically all over the place: SJ: We knew that the National Archive had at least two films that were about Coventry Cathedral – Dudley Shaw Ashton’s BFI Experimental film fund film made in 1958, and The John Laing Film Unit film made in 1962, both films are titled ‘Coventry Cathedral’. Then the third piece that we use footage from is Tony Palmers BBC2 Outside broadcast live recording of Tangerine Dream performing at Coventry Cathedral in 1975. SJ: The material in the BFI archive was really fantastic, the Dudley Shaw Ashton for example is a genuinely odd film. LR: So let me just get this right. There is the film by Dudley Shaw Ashton, which is of the model… GE: Before the Cathedral was built. LR: .which is amazing, because it really, it messes with your mind in terms of scale, which is what you are doing. And the other one is a more conventional documentary. SJ: It’s very beautiful. GE: And it was made by the John Laing film unit, so it’s an industrial documentary in a way, all of the people who worked on it are unaccredited (except the director Kossar Tufery). It was no doubt shot over the duration of the entire construction and it’s like an enormous thank you to everyone involved. And its 16mm, we think Kodak reversal, so it has this very particular colour. The Shaw Ashton, oddly, is 35mm, and is a short form film. SJ: Produced by the BFI Experimental Film Fund. GE: So we’re sort of staging a collision between quite disparate historical subject matter, but converging it all through a simple material process, which, if not a kind of equivalence, is at least a kind of ... LR: ...simultaneity... GE: ...yes, it’s possible to entertain the idea that these diverse source materials have relationships to one another, and that their contrasting dissimilarities can be overlooked in the interests of seeing where those convergences can be, not in any concrete sense but just by using a number of alibis or stories that we tell ourselves; stories that structure the way we look at
things or sort through our found material. LR: I think that’s right, because by working with the medium of film you are alluding to ideas of cinematic fiction aren’t you? And film allows you to introduce all sorts of temporal and spatial ambiguities visually: like the deceptive sense of scale that you appreciated in that shot of the model of the Cathedral in the film by Dudley Shaw Ashton, which looks like a real building.
Machine on Black Ground
LR: How did the idea for Machine on Black Ground begin? GE: I think it may be something like this...we were in Berlin, shooting Motion Path. I think we were on our way to Chemnitz to shoot the Erich Mendelssohn building there and then back to Berlin to shoot his Metal Workers Union Building, and we visited the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (KWMC). This was the church built around the time of Coventry Cathedral and consecrated on the same day. The Kaiser Wilhelm was destroyed by the RAF, Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by the Luftwaffe SJ: And they both have parts of the old bombed churches left next to the new building. GE: And materials from the previous buildings were incorporated into the fabric of the new. LR: So there was a deliberate sense of reciprocity or a détente between the two? GE: Coventry and the Berlin Church are part of network of reconciliation centres, one of the chapels at Coventry is called ‘The Chapel of Unity’ and they host events with congregations from other churches including Berlin and elsewhere. SJ: Somewhere down the line we also started looking at a stained glass window technique known as betonglas walls or dalles vere, in which wall sized screens of stained glass chunks are set in concrete grids. And the architect Egon Eierman’s Berlin cathedral is a wonderful example of the visual effect that betonglas technology produces, we immediately thought we were submerged or underwater when we went into the cathedral for the first time. GE: But we went to the KWMC entirely out of a general interest. SJ: …to see the betonglas… And at some point we began to think about the betonglas cell and the film frame. LR: But where did you first come across betonglas, was that through your research into Mendelssohn? SJ: It might have been actually because we bought lots of books on post-war, European civic architecture and as we started looking through these things betonglas just kept coming up, particularly in French and German churches, and we just started to get interested in very simple formal things about these cells. And then I think we went into the KWMC just to see what it might look like and as I said before, when you stand in front of a betonglas wall, it feels like you are immersed in something. And in Eierman’s cathedral it seemed that we were somehow submerged in some kind of liquid world – in fact, it felt to us that we were looking out through the windows of a capsule or a submersible. And I think you’re right, I think that was the moment when we thought, ‘OK, we’ll film this’. LR: And then how did that connect to the cathedral at Coventry? 5
SJ: Well, because of the reconciliation connection and because they were consecrated on the same day. LR: So in a sense you literally followed the journey of that link back. GE: In a way, although that historical connection - which is important and interesting - was never what we were making the film about. We were making a film there because it was a place in which certain images could be produced. What actually reinforced the link was the Meeting House at Sussex University, which was also by Basil Spence (as is Coventry Cathedral). Sussex University was designed by him and certainly the University campus at that time could, and can be seen, as a kind of idealised community. So, in certain ways at Sussex you could spend your three years studying there, entirely happily, after a fashion I guess, without ever stepping outside the campus. LR: It was also one of the most radical universities in the 60s, lots of the student demonstrations came from there and many of the new courses in Humanities began there. GE: Sussex and University of East Anglia, another complete campus. SJ: They’re often referred to as the ‘utopianist’ campuses. GE: So to find the design of the Meeting House, which is very similar in plan to the KWMC: being gridded, of coloured glass, as well as being an interdenominational meeting place where they hold services across the religious spectrum, that sort of made the relationship stronger, because it was one that seemed to come out, not just this historical connection, but also out of the form of the space. Added to which, in our lifetime, Coventry has been controversial, it was a talking point and a destination. SJ: It was at this moment that the idea of the low-level modernist pilgrimage emerged. When we were at KWMC we started talking about going to Coventry with our parents. We realised that we had both been on, I guess, a version of a pilgrimage with our parents to see Coventry Cathedral. And then other people who we’ve met have also mentioned visiting Coventry, if you are of a certain generation of course. LR: So in a sense you’re talking about Coventry Cathedral as having a personal resonance for you, but that a lot of that resonance is to do with a post-war utopia, which you are exploring in terms of where we are now? SJ: I guess so, but also that they are really strange, quite wonderful spaces. I’ve spoken to a couple of people who mention that Coventry is second rate architecture, but I don’t think that at all. And generally, these modernist Cathedrals have a really odd sense of separation from the outside world, whether it be the cities of Coventry or Berlin, or the open spaces of Sussex University, and this is because of the peculiar character of the stained glass. And one of the things that we got really interested in was the idea of looking out from within these spaces, through these blocks of coloured glass which seemed to suggest that you were some kind of capsule and you could be floating through space or underwater, and it produces this sense of everything outside being visible but strangely distant. In most traditional churches you do not get a sense of the outside, but in the new church architecture of the 50s and 60s you can get a glimpse of the outside world, but as if through a prism or a gel. So we began shooting directly through the stained glass at the Meeting House with the glass entirely filling the frame. When we filmed the students through the red or yellow glass walking about outside they seemed
to be floating or weightless. SJ: And when we added Colleen’s (Cécile Schott) music, which is constructed from adapted music boxes, it seemed to us that the students were somehow little bubbles, or worlds, moving about out there in whatever it was that you were floating through in this capsule. So there was something about the way you were on the inside of something looking out, but looking at something that you couldn’t quite understand. LR: Its also interesting - returning to what you were saying earlier Graham about whether film can effect architecture rather than the other way round. I wonder if the films that were around then were any inspiration to these utopian architects? There were so many science fiction films at the time. Perhaps they were playing off each other in some way? SJ: Science fiction for us has always been a really strong influence. The problem is that at the moment there are so many people interested in science fiction, that it’s become something of a default position. LR: But I think that science fiction of that period does reflect those utopian notions. GE: In a way, and maybe to anticipate another question that we touched on earlier: ‘what’s interesting about churches’? In the current project we are working on we have found interesting relationships between Italian museum display and interior design of the post-war period, these are places that offered the opportunity for certain kinds of architects to make a significant statement. So, although ecclesiastical post-war architecture would seem to be an unlikely place for modernist innovation, if you think about it in terms of architecture and function, the function of a church is actually largely based around spectacle, rather than around operation, or purpose. LR: You’re right. The idea of function has a particularly ambiguous quality in relation to churches. GE: So you could think of it as a process of directing, image making or staging scenes. Which is to some extent what the museum display design is about. So why churches? Because perhaps to architects in the post-war period they were valuable because they were an opportunity to avoid the prosaic and pedestrian – they functioned as stages.... SJ: the other thing is that, when we went into the KWMC, once we had made a connection between the stained glass cell and the film frame, we started to imagine that we were in an optical printer. In a really simple way we thought this is what it would be like to be trapped in an optical printer. GE: Its like Fantastic Journey when they inject a miniaturised submarine with a team of doctors into a patients blood stream though their arm, or Nicolson Baker’s description of clambering through grooves of record as if they were a valley in a landscape. LR: But the fact that you’re talking immediately about cinema is because those spaces are so inherently cinematic. I do think the shared sensory quality and experience of expectation that we have when we go and see mainstream cinema is similar to the expectations that perhaps you would experience in a church. GE: In fact we deliberately shot much of the material in Coventry and Berlin to confuse the scale of things and create illusion; stained glass walls and organ pipes are filmed to look like cities, light falling through stained glass windows to look like a constellation in space. The first thing we start with when we
begin filming is the way things look when you look at them through the camera. SJ: We should say that pretty well everything we do is driven visually. So one of the things that we immediately thought about when we saw the found material for ‘Machine on Black Ground’ was the visual connection between the blades of the helicopter as it rises from the cathedral having dropped the spire in place and the tape reels on Tangerine Dream’s reel-to-reel recorder rising through Coventry Cathedral in that fantastic bit of early video mixing by Tony Palmer. So the start and the finish of the film have these two rising, spinning forms. LR: And that solarisation, did you add that, or was that... that was there! GE: This is a strange kind of diverted technology, this is 1976 live video vision mixing transferred to 16mm, and it just looks really extraordinary. LR: But also think of this in relation to a Cathedral, the idea of visions... SJ: I think that must have occurred to Tony Palmer who shot and mixed the original BBC outside broadcast. SJ: And when we did a simple set of manoeuvres in all of these spaces – (in the Meeting House with the camera locked off on a dolly), the stained glass windows become like little frames through which you see little events. Each of the windows seems to be describing a very particular world, but of course we are really looking out onto the same space, and that’s one thing that we got really interested in. You’re looking through a series of prismatic filters. LR: So it entirely changes what you’re looking at? SJ: Then in the film we had quite a lot of optical printing done using this material. GE: So we layered a number of shots of those coloured windows. And you get this fantastic sense of one image floating across or beneath another. LR: I think that this kind of discussion begs the question ‘which came first’? GE: We’re always at pains to make sure that we make it as clear as possible that we didn’t know any of this before we began. And actually what we knew when we started was at one level, nothing more than, ‘we want to make a film here’, and at another level that there was grounds to think there was something of interest here. So without pretending that it was an utterly intuitive process, it would be just as inaccurate to say that it was an entirely premeditated one. LR: I think it’s so much about particular ideas and ideals materially embedded in the architecture somehow. So that, as you say, no matter how much you’re interested in the collision of these different ideas in unexpected ways, at a fundamental level it’s about your physical experience of these extraordinary spaces. Questions of Equivalence SJ: You mentioned a moment ago the connection drawn out visually between the stained glass cell and the film frame. Another example of this type of equivalence is the scene we use from the Dudley Shaw Ashton film of Graham Sutherland in his back garden, painting the cartoon for the tapestry that was to hang in Coventry Cathedral. This sequence was actually refilmed on a Steenbeck with the optical soundtrack in view on the Steenbeck screen. In fact, it is important to say that the film takes its title from a Graham
Sutherland painting. We got rather interested in Sutherland, obviously because of the tapestry, but also because of the ambiguity in his painting – the black ground in some of his paintings could easily be deep space and the machine a kind of organic space ship. So there’s a moment in Machine on Black Ground when you can see the optical soundtrack on the Steenbeck, and then the optical soundtrack made us start to think about these vast strips of stained glass in Coventry and so just as you make the visual association at the beginning of the film between the movement of helicopter rotor blades and the reel-to-reel tape, so you have associations between the optical sound track on the Steenbeck and the strips of stained glass. LR: So what this sequence does is actually flip out from the filmic space of Coventry into the self-reflexive space of your research, and you both become other players amongst these strange glimpsed figures that occur throughout the film. So you’re as much researchers as those men pointing behind the lifted Epstein sculpture in the film. GE: And I think that’s also the purpose fulfilled by the audition sequences in Proposal for an Unmade Film, where the film, without those cut-always or inserts, would be so much closer to an architectural documentary. LR: So just to clarify, those are the scenes in which you have people speaking as if they are doing a presentation? SJ: It’s as if they’re auditioning for the part. So you have an actor playing the part of [the artist and architect] Cesar Manrique in front of a back-projection of one of his buildings. GE: And at the end of one of the scenes a production assistant comes on with a clipboard and they both look at a script or a call sheet or something. And I think that we see these sequences as the points at which you’re flipped back or thrown back from what would otherwise be like watching an architectural documentary, admittedly without a voice over, admittedly without captions without all those anchor points, but I think you could see the audition scenes as operating in a similar way to the Steenbeck sequence in Machine on Black Ground. SJ: Something else I think that happens in Proposal for an Unmade Film is that in a lot of the spaces there are people maintaining the space. They’re polishing the floor or they’re arranging a table layout or just invigilating. And one of the things that really hit us after we had filmed in Lanzarote, and we were looking at the footage, was the sense that these people were maintaining the space but you didn’t know what for. And it was as if they were maintaining a space that no longer had a function. LR: Or waiting for the master to return. GE: Or waiting for someone to return. SJ: And that’s something I think emerges in both films, you have these glimpsed figures who seem to being doing something for an unknown reason? LR: The sequences have a feeling of the eerie or the uncanny. This adds to this sense of what you were talking about earlier – of spaces that have become lost or where their purpose has become lost, or they’re out of time or out of step. GE: We actually went to great lengths to be able to film early in the morning without any tourists present, and when we looked at what we had shot, the waiters, guards and cleaners seemed to be involved in maintaining something
that is outdated, or outmoded, but in perfect condition. Almost as if the spaces have never been used. It’s fantastically poignant or even melancholic, they’re still dressed in the same uniforms that Manrique designed in the late 1970s and it feels like they have been repeating the same activities forever. SJ: What we got interested in Machine on Black Ground, I guess, is the idea that Sutherland and the other workers that feature so strongly in the John Laing documentary, are building something and you’re not quite sure what it is they’re building. So the sense is that even Tangerine Dream [a sequence in the film features footage of the band playing at Coventry Cathedral], when they’re playing those early synths and twiddling away at their tape decks, are involved in the building, but you’re not quite sure what they’re doing. However, it seems to be collective. LR: They could be setting up some kind of control system, which again you’re right that you’re… they’re all space ships that you’re building in a way aren’t they? SJ: We read something recently by Penelope Curtis for a show at the Henry Moore featuring Gerard Byrne amongst others, where she identified something she called “collective aspirational architecture”. She was referring to the new public architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, talking about the University of Leeds by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, who also designed the Barbican, and this really resonated for us. One of the things that suddenly hit us as we looked through the archive film material about Coventry in the BFI archive was the phenomenal kind of hope, pride and aspiration invested in this building – not simply in the institutional religious sense, but also something to do with renewal and looking forward – this really comes across in the John Laing documentary from 1962. This sense of collectivism comes up I think really strongly in Machine on Black Ground. GE: I agree, and that’s what’s common to possibly all of our film works (those made and those currently in production). Certainly the current ones – is that sense of a mission, or a programme or a project, and it existing both at a level at which it becomes recognised and thought of as such but also existing at another level at which it was somehow implicit. That it somehow permeated the culture. © Graham Ellard, Stephen Johnstone and Lucy Reynolds 2010
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