Rachel Baker blogs from AND Festival on the film/art debate
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Rachel Baker blogs from AND Festival on the film/art debate
Still from the Primitive installation by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Still from the Primitive installation by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Rachel Baker shares her thoughts with APEngine on a masterclass with Apichatpong Weerasethakul prompts thoughts about film and art…

Fresh from the previous night’s Jarman Award announcement at the Whitechapel Gallery, where the fraught topic of ‘cinema and art crossing over’  was the subject of some energetic ranting, I took myself and the rant to the AND Festival at FACT Liverpool, where my primary mission was to check out the Apichatpong Weerasethukal show and masterclass.

The ranting continued with Jamie King and Peter Mann, makers of Dark Fibre, decidedly a straightforward film, not art, according to Peter. But why the labelling, he puzzles, and how do you spot the difference?

They look anxious at having to think about art – that pretentious party gatecrasher with its pompous discourses and judgemental elitism. I drag them along to Apichatpong’s masterclass, thinking it might hold some clues. They fall asleep.

Apichatpong is notably an artist that crosses over with apparent ease from experimental film and visual art into feature filmmaking along with Steve McQueen, Sam Taylor Wood, Douglas Gordon, and a bunch of others, lesser known, including some of those currently feeling their way around the Film London FLAMIN Productions scheme.

He talks about the hybridity of visual art and cinema as something that is integral to his approach and refers to American experimental filmmakers such as Bruce Baillie as influences. Most of the masterclass is a showcase of his gallery shorts, installations and performance work, rather than his feature films.

Emerald,  a short film, is a portrait of a hotel that was alive with entertainment and ‘hosting’ activity during the Eighties boom in Thailand. Over shots of empty dreamlike hotel interiors, disembodied voices recall this other, distant time. The reminiscing and recounting of the past, unlocking repressed memories, stories and ghosts is a recurrent theme in Apichatpong’s work. He also reveals that TV soap operas, radio drama serials and sci-fi romanticism figure in his inspirations.

It was a real pity that there was so little Q&A time allowed for with the audience because it would have been a great excuse to continue the film/art crossover debate and ask him about the different modes of behaviour and attitudes applied to filmmaking and artmaking, in particular in relation to the making of Primitive.

J and P are still asleep. I haven’t seen their film but they’ve evidently been working relentlessly and sleeplessly to get the edit done. There’s also a fair amount of hustling and negotiating with backers, buyers and distributors, which I think is all folded into the creative process for J, who has a talent for pitching and persuading. That is an art in itself. The trailer has been pitching Dark Fibre all over the AND Festival and I’m already sold. Apichatpong’s session is a masterclass in underselling; the commentary is not so revealing but the clips are visually mesmerising and speak for themselves.

Visual artists do not tend to ‘pitch’. It’s a peculiarly industry-orientated term, used in film, TV or digital media. Cinematic filmmakers talk of propelling the narrative forward, and the act of making an industry film is itself all about propulsion, it seems. Apichatpong and his works have an intuitive, sensual and dreamy demeanour. He embraces the accidental, and there’s more meditative suspension then there is propulsion.

Ultimately the distinctions between art and film are more acute in the cultural infrastructures they inhabit, than in the language or conventions that any artistic endeavour employs, because, as Apichatpong proves, the hybridity of languages is ultimately an opportunity to discover a new language.

Currently, the film and television industries in the UK find themselves in a state of confusion – the models are having to reconfigure in response to the digital age of user-generated content and multi-platform distribution. As the discussions around technological and economic models circulate endlessly, the impoverishment of ideas and cultural, artistic content is evident, excepting The Wire, Generation Kill etc. (But hang on…they’re US imports – how can we get an HBO set up over here?)

Meanwhile the art world is rich with moving image experimentation. However, collectors aren’t quite as ready with the chequebooks as we imagine so public funding agencies and foundations are left to address the high level of demand from artists wishing to make images move, and that provision hasn’t really accommodated the art and film crossover. But its not just about having a substantial fund available its also about having the right kind of producers available.

Douglas Gordon’s Zidane was co-directed/produced by artist Phillipe Parreno who, the all-knowing George Clark reminds me, is part of French production team, Anna Sanders Films, together with Charles De Meaux, Dominique Gonzalez Foerster and Pierre Huyghe.
Charles De Meaux produced Apichatpong’s features Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady. My guess is that Anna Sanders Film producers probably know how to negotiate the film/tv industry world and the art world, with an artistic fascination for both. They are very different worlds – so it’s a producer/director-skill that might well be in demand in this hybridised climate.

Maybe it’s a French thing. In the UK we never had a Godard or a New Wave.

Apichatpong himself appears utterly unphased and untroubled by the transitions between making features and making art. But then, he is a Buddhist.

About the author: Rachel is an artist, a member of irrational.org and plays with the band Antifamily. She is Media Arts Officer at Arts Council England, London.


  1. dan dc says:

    We in England never had a New Wave? I’m not sure that’s strictly true. Let’s not forget that we’ve a rich vein of social realist drama, and while there have been noticeable peaks and troughs, one can trace a very linear line from Cathy Come Home all the way to Somers Town. I’d argue that we had two waves in fact: Led by figures including John Osborne and Terence Rattigan in the 1950s/60s and resurgence in the 1980s, with film-makers like Alan Clarke and Mike Leigh adapting convention to remain current and relevant. I suppose the anomaly would be Ken Loach – from Cathy Come Home to Sweet Sixteen. Clarke, especially, in the way he transcended television, theatre and film has been exceptionally important in ‘hybridising’ available media. The fact is that we in England (as in many countries) are bound by fortune that there is a government who deem it necessary to fund art publically. To take the example from the US (with a nod to HBO), without direct government funding, there is an onus on enterprise, extensive philanthrophy and private foundation to support the arts in a way that is more culturally cohesive, be it television, cinema, visual arts or what-not. I’m not saying that’s a better system, but it’s a system that allows a greater number of artists the opportunity to produce, though if there is no immediate or commercial success their professional careers can be put into an extended hiatus, which leads us to consider the notion of ‘multi-tasking’. I’m not sure it’s specifically a French thing, or an American thing or an English thing or whatever. But it’s a notion so ingrained to enterprise that English artists, due to the context in which they have to work and obtain support can choose not to have that ‘luxury’. Television productions, due to huge cuts in budgets over the past five years, have embedded a culture of producer/directors, though there has been a definite lack of quality television being produced in this country over that period, also not unaligned to budget cuts.

    Joey Weerasethakul is an exceptional film-maker, and I think visionary (though hit-and-miss) artist. Hybridisation between roles, between media, is – whether one likes to admit it or not – is becoming an essential quality. No artist is an island, and it is becoming the most expedient way to obtain the support needed to create the art that one wants to create. There are some wonderful examples in the world of organisations that manage to successfully navigate this territory – Anna Sanders, Joey W.’s own Kick the Machine, Maysles – but they’re exemplars, not the standard. We, in England, should be in a good position to be able navigate this better – are we too afraid as artists?


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