Melanie Keen on Free to Air
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Melanie Keen on Free to Air
Erika Tan, Exercises in Phonological Stretching from PIDGIN: interrupted transmission, 2001

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We talked to curator Melanie Keen about her film programmes for the Free to Air project.

Where does the title for the programme – Freedoms of Speech – come from?

It’s one of four freedoms that Roosevelt spoke about – of speech, of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. They underpin Free to Air, a four year commissioning programme run by Film and Video Umbrella.

For the first year it’s Freedom of Expression. Sleep Talk, Sleep Walk - an installation by Suki Chan – is the main commission and alongside that they wanted a complementary programme of artists’ films.

The criteria were quite strict – there absolutely had to be ten artists. And they all had to live in London. And clearly all the works had to be single screen.
One of the things I found was that a lot of the artists I was interested had moved on to doing multi-screen, large scale installation work. So with some of the more established artists I had to look at earlier works, and then there are younger artists and recent graduates.

Programming a screening according to the number of artists is absurd.

It was difficult to say the least. That was the criteria through…given to them by the London Boroughs. The funding criteria had to be ten artists.

No more, no less?

No more, no less. Those were the exact questions that I asked!

They had to reach a certain number of Boroughs. There are screenings are in five different Boroughs and the Suki Chan piece is shown in two.

I think having to be limited like that was challenging – and in some respects allowed me to be more creative in that I didn’t just have a plethora of artists to think of in looking at the themes. I really had to spend time exploring the work, looking at different aspects of it which perhaps hadn’t been explored before,  and drawing out themes and ideas which sit in the works but might go unrecognised. And it’s through the kind of constellation of different works that the theme came together.

So did you take the broader Freedoms of Speech theme and think of it in different ways?

Yes. Initially I was looking at Suki’s proposal, and whether the film programme could relate to that. Then I thought, the whole thing about freedom of expression is so rooted in artists’ work anyway that it seemed a little too vague and broad to look at it in that way. So I began to think about expression as emoting, as a vehicle I suppose. It came through looking at the work, and I suppose I kind of knew, that there was a relationship with a freedom of expression, sexual expression, and the freedom to express views around class, gender and race.

But I thought that they were overlaboured themes, and I wanted to take a fresh sort of perspective, particularly on some of the older works.

Was there one particular work that you started with?

Yes there was. There were two key works actually. Isaac Julien’s Territories  and Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance.Watching Isaac’s work, this idea of the voice really came to me – of how the voiceover, the narrative, can be used as a structural component to the work. It wasn’t just a straightforward narrative voice over; it was very clearly using iterative speech patterns, and using music as an underlying of that iteration.

It made me think about how the voice is represented in these works. What’s being done with the voice? How is it being manipulated? How significant is the voice in this? Because there are films which have dialogue for the purpose of telling a story, for example. But I felt that the kind of dialogue in some of these works, and particularly in Isaac’s work, was much more of a structural layer.

There’s another work by Mona Hatoum – So Much I Want to Say – that’s explicitly about not being able to express oneself

That was another element that came out in the films. And there’s silent work  as well – the piece of work by Nina Mangalanayagan. The inability to speak and the inability to be understood and to understand. So along with it being a kind of structural thing, it was also embedded thematically within the work.

You’ve programmed older works alongside much more recent works. Is there a sense that the way in which artists tackle those themes has changed? Isaac’s work has changed radically..

In terms of younger artists, I think they’re coming to that vocabulary with a similar language and they’re having to find their own way with that.  Particularly in Nina’s piece – the kind of the experiential nature of it doesn’t shift, you know. People say that there have been huge changes in ideas around cultural difference and race in the last 40 years, but actually, on a fundamental and personal level you realise that those sorts of issues haven’t shifted so greatly. I’m struggling with my words here..alienation isn’t the word I’m looking for…but it will have to do for now.

You mention race – but race and ethnicity and blackness are things that the Free to Air rubric seems to be careful to avoid.

I avoided it because I think it can put work in a very particular type of pigeonhole, so that it can’t be understood within any other context. And actually, the work is sophisticated and complex – it presents itself in other ways.  And I think the programme is allowing it to do that.

It’s always been important for me as a curator to let the work speak. And that any context in which the work is placed is one which is an enabling one and one which opens up definitions in reading, rather than closes and narrows them down.

The idea that only black artists can make work about identity – you might want to destroy that. It’s just not the case.

But also that black artists should only make work about identity. The works in the programme – it’s not the only thing that those works are about, or explore.

Absolutely – and that’s why I was very explicit in my description of the works and the overarching theme – to not to talk just about identity. It would be disingenuous of me to say that there are works in there which aren’t looking at identity – they are keying into the trajectory of a particular type of cultural experience.

And for those ideas of freedom and expression, perhaps class is a player there as well.

Always. Class is much more of a signifier of difference and separation than race is – although I don’t know if that relates particularly to this programme.

Figures of Speech, Melanie’s programme of  films by Mona Hatoum, Isaac Julien, Erika Tan, Keith Piper and others is showing at PM Gallery & House, London, at 7:30pm on Thursday 15 October 2009. Tickets are free. To book contact PM Gallery & House, 0208 567 1227,

Thursday, October 15, 2009 | Tagged with , , , ,

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