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Mark Webber
FILM IST. a girl & a gun, Gustav Deutsch

Showing the festival: Gustav Deutsch's FILM IST. a girl & a gun

APEngine talks to Mark Webber about his programming for the London Film Festival.

How – why – did you start programming?

As a teenager I was obsessed with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground and reading books about The Factory and getting a little glimpse into that world, the New York underground. That’s my way in.

I desperately tried to see the films that were not easily available at the time. Definitely the Warhol films were not available. I can never remember whether the first thing I saw was Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle or a double bill of Ken Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures at the Scala. And I was sort of sold on the basis of that screening – as a 17 year old kid.

But it was several years later that you began to pursue that professionally, as it were.

I’m not sure it’s a profession, it’s an enthusiasm.
The first thing I did was a club night at the ICA called Little Stabs at Happiness, which started in October 1997 and ran once a month for three years. Then I did a large film season for the Barbican and LUX Centre called Underground America in 1998. It was a survey of American avant-garde film from the ‘50s to the ‘70s.

You’re not just a fan … you do a lot of research don’t you – and talk especially to the an older generation of film makers. Would you describe yourself as primarily a programmer or curator or historian or what?

I think you were right when you said fan, it’s really just because I’m interested and I want other people to appreciate the films. One of the reasons I started was because I was hungry to see films and no one else was showing them.

Something I think you’ve achieved – maybe not you alone – is to have transformed the approach to presenting what used to be called ‘difficult work’. You’ve built a community and you create ‘events’. Is that what you meant by the appropriate context?  Because it’s not just about making the appropriate context for the work, it’s making an appropriate context for an audience as well, isn’t it?

Well, when I first became interested I would go to screenings and there’d be me, often the organiser – thought not always – and perhaps three or four other people and it was just so appallingly depressing. I just knew that the work deserved better so I tried to find ways to make it more approachable for people.

And you don’t need to do that so much anymore – you’ve conditioned your audience so, so well. Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange they will sit through everything!

Yes, in a way my job is done here. I don’t do much programming at the moment – there’s so much more going on now  that I don’t really need to. I don’t need to bang my head against the wall anymore.

But it always needs sustaining doesn’t it? And there’s always other stuff to show.
How long have you been programming at the London Film Festival?

I organised some performances by Ken Jacobs in 2000, and slowly the situation became more formalised. For the past five or six years we’ve had this curated weekend of screenings.

And it’s a weekend within the Experimenta programme isn’t it?  It’s not the whole Experimenta programme.

It’s not, no.  Experimenta is a broad church.

How would you describe the weekend?  Would you use the words ‘avant’ and ‘garde’?

I have done in the past but the more observant viewers may have noticed that particular phrase was phased out last year. I used to colloquially call it the ‘avant-garde weekend’ and now I don’t. I used to use the phrase ‘in the tradition of the avant-garde’ which is somewhat a misnomer, but by saying that, people could get some kind of handle on the kind of work it might be.

But even Experimenta, and your weekend within it, aren’t pretending to be a kind of survey of this year’s artists’ experimental film are they?

Aren’t they? There are certain restrictions, such as a requirement for UK premieres – which I think it’s a completely obsolete concept – but outside of that, we try to present something like a survey.

Well, within Experimenta there seem to be some quite straightforward films, while people like Shirin Neshat, Kutlug Ataman and Andrew Kötting are outside the Experimenta strand.

I never know what’s in the festival programme until I get the brochure, apart from what I do. So I’m also struggling with the idea that there are these other artists making feature films – and what that means in relation to the people that I show within this concentrated weekend.

It seems a little surprising that there aren’t those curatorial discussions going on within the Festival. I guess it’s hard to deliver a Festival and have space for that as well.

They give me total freedom really to do what I want, which is great, but sometimes I’m not sure how it fits in with everything else. In the beginning, I did fight for this aspect of the programme to have a separate identity, and the Festival resisted. It may be they were right in the end.

That approach gets you an audience, doesn’t it? Because your audience knows where to go, and when to go there. There is this weekend and there is this grouping of work, a particular kind of work.

But what always surprises me is that it’s not very predictable as to who actually comes. I don’t see the faces that I might expect to see at an avant-garde screening. That is a great thing – the Festival effect of bringing in a different audience.

I’ve definitely thought there were people who are from other parts the Festival as it were.

I think that’s good, and it’s not like they leave after ten minutes when they realise they’re in the wrong film. They seem to cope with what’s being put in front of them. I hope they come to other films throughout the year, that this is not just their one attempt.

Hollis Frampton looks like a highlight of the programme.

It’s the one thing that everybody’s talking to me about, and I’m not too sure why because it’s old stuff. These seven films that make up Hapax Legomena were conceived by Frampton to be a single combined film, or parts of the same film. It’s rare that we would get a chance to see them all together, and since the films have recently been preserved,  we can show them in new prints. That will be a nice change from the ropey copies we’re used to looking at.

We can read the books that tell us what films are classics and where they’re important, but it’s good now and then to actually face up to films and make up our own minds. So this is London’s opportunity to make up its own mind about Hollis Frampton.

And a highlight, for me anyway, would be Gustav Deutsch.  That’s quite an easy sell isn’t it – to people who haven’t encountered avant-garde film before?

You would think so … because it’s about sex.

I was thinking of archive and cinema as much as sex!

Deutsch often works with what you might call ‘found footage’, but it’s not really ‘found’ because he works very hard to discover it in various archives. This film is basically about the creation of the earth and the battle of the sexes, told entirely through images from, maybe, the first four decades of cinema, including material from the Imperial War Museum and the Kinsey Institute.

And the rest of the programme – is it a good year for the avant-garde?

It’s not a bad year, though for various reasons I have fewer screenings than previously. There’s still quite a few things to discover.
I’m a big fan of Mara Mattuschka,  and I’ve shown most of her recent work. I’m not at all interested in dance on film, dance on camera, but she’s been working with the Liquid Loft troupe in Vienna, who are quite, I guess, ‘avant-garde’ in dance terms.

Mara’s made four films with them, and the latest is Burning Palace, which also approaches an adult theme. The performers are pretty amazing in the way that they contort themselves, and Mara brings something extra special in the way that she films and edits their performances.

And what’s the state of the British avant-garde?

I don’t know if there’s an avant-garde as such, though there are people working in that tradition. I don’t know what to call it anymore, in the past few years the field has become wide open. There are still a lot of people working with film and video in interesting ways. I don’t think we need to worry over that too much do we?

I think people working in that tradition are making sense in other contexts or to other contexts now as well. Karen Mirza and Brad Butler are in your programme, and they work within a broader art context too.

They do, and they also have a gallery exhibition open at the moment. You can think of the architecture of the cinema as traditional, and maybe this is boring for those that are attracted by the bright lights of the art world, but the cinema is still the best place to watch a film that has a beginning, a middle and an end.  

Artists moving image is everywhere at the moment, but it’s still not very often shown in a theatre, and for me that’s one of the most important things about this part of the festival.

Catch Mark Webber’s Artists’ Film and Video programme at the London Film Festival on 24-25 October.


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