Stuart Croft
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Stuart Croft
Stuart Croft, The Stag without a Heart. Image courtesy of the artist.

Stuart Croft, The Stag Without a Heart (2009). Image courtesy of the artist.

APEngine talks to Stuart Croft about how, as an artist, he makes films that explore the language of cinema – for the art gallery context… touching on Hitchcock and Hammer along the way.

How and when did you start making film work? Did you train in filmmaking?

I went to art school. I was a painter for quite a long time, for about a decade. I did my BA in painting, had a studio practice, and then quite suddenly started making video, around the time I started my MA at Chelsea. I can see now that this happens quite often, now that I’m teaching. I see people who’ve got onto an MA and they’re given that extra confidence to try something that they always thought they might do but didn’t quite before…

Did you just happen to pick up a camera one day?

I bought two VCRs – it was the 90s – plugged them in, and messed around with found footage. I would do lots of TV cut ups and bits of movies on VHS. I would re-film the screen on Hi8 video and I would then make these very fast-moving frame by frame re-edits.

And that’s how you edited video in the 90s – you copy edited – because there wasn’t digital editing.

It was tape to tape. Non-linear was coming in by then but it was out of reach. And I had no idea that I would move into video – I had never thought that I would make anything that used technology. I was interested in painting because of its lack of technology. I was very, very interested in painting, but I realised that I probably wasn’t going to actually make an interesting painting. It was quite hard to stop. But I was very excited and kind of turned on by the directness of video.

You show your work in gallery spaces but the subject of your work is emphatically narrative, cinema. Your films almost always involve the telling of stories, but in a sense they’re not fiction or even narrative kind of films are they?

They’re definitely and deliberately not short films and although I dabbled with a kind of naïve structural practice, I moved fairly quickly into using narrative as an idea and as a subject and as content. I never wanted to make short films and I feel uncomfortable with the short film as a form for various reasons. Partly because it’s too often used as a stepping stone by fiction filmmakers who want to make features and also because I think it’s a very difficult format to successfully use – the 10 minute short.

But I’ve always been interested in making narrative work and seeing what happens if you place that in a gallery space.

I was thinking of people like Candice Breitz and Mark Dean who appropriate the material of cinema. But with you it’s a different engagement in that you’re using what might be called tropes. You make work that has the appearance of cinema, would you be comfortable with that?

Absolutely. I’d be very pleased if you were to come away from seeing a film of mine in a gallery thinking about that. Not for the sake of it, but because in the films I make you’re given certain expectations of cinema that are denied and thwarted – essentially the characters are entrapped in a particular scenario and the viewer is not given access to the ‘next’ scene. But on a practical level it’s also quite difficult to make work that looks like cinema on a restricted budget.

Stuart Croft, The Stag Without a Heart (2009). Image courtesy of the artist.

Stuart Croft, The Stag Without a Heart (2009). Image courtesy of the artist.

How do you manage that then? You work with professional crew?

I fundraise. I just shot a £20,000 piece of work with a research grant for a 12 minute work on 35mm with a crew of around 20. And we’re trying to make it look as Hollywood as possible, so that 12 minute sequence should really cost upwards of £300,000. But we’re shooting it on £20,000, so you come away feeling like you’ve just taken some very bad acid because the pressure is unbelievable. It means you have to shoot in a very, very short space of time. And I think nowhere is the relationship between time and money more evident than in fiction filmmaking.

The idea that what you’re making isn’t cinema but it’s about cinema. I’m thinking of how you actually deny people a story. You don’t just deny them the next scene. You can be rapt by what the narrator in your film is saying. And yet if you think about it, the whole thing falls apart and it’s as if there’s nothing there. So in The Death Waltz, there’s a ghost story but you’ve distilled things, and pushed things – the stories are very long – in cinema terms.

Yes, they’re longer than scenes in the cinema. So in that way they are distanced from cinema.

So it seems to me that you’re pushing things until an idea of cinema becomes very fragile.

I like the description; it’s not a description I’ve really come across. So yes, the work is about both the fragility and power of cinema.

I get into trouble in the art world because there’s a cinematic homage in the work which comes and goes as a thing that’s allowed. It wasn’t allowed in the gallery world when I started making work like this in the 1990s. Then it became accepted. And now it’s kind of a bit disallowed again. But that’s interesting, the way things move in cycles.

Is there a difficulty there in that the art world generally finds it hard to refer outside its own often quite limited parameters of understanding?

Yes, the parameters are limited and it depends if it’s quite local. I will go without showing in London for a while, and then suddenly lots of things will happen. And I’ll show in Italy where a curator will be very excited and there’ll be an audience that’s absolutely vitriolic. Because they have a Cinema that they’re proud of, unlike the cinema that we have in the UK, which we’re not particularly proud of. It’s been interesting the last few years showing very widely in an international sense, how different audiences engage with the works.

The Italians were incredibly hostile because this guy from London was, in their eyes, critiquing their Cinema. And they were getting up and leaving. I’d like to say they were throwing vegetables at the screen but they weren’t.

Where has your work been well received!?

In New York for instance very early on, I was in a small show and it was one of those things where it just kind of mushroomed into lots of different opportunities and it was instant. That’s part of the New York attitude, they commit straight away and it’s like, “Right I want you in a show in a month and it’s in a hotel and I want you to do this.” They instantly understood the homage-critique aspect. It took longer for that to happen in London.

But New York has that kind of art underground mix-up tradition doesn’t it? There’s Warhol of course, and then people like the Wooster Group who make artworks that are narrative fictions.

It has the underground and the early cable TV tradition, but I’d say there’s less of a dogmatic hangover in the US than here. And maybe that’s why there was this instant acceptance, from doing tiny hotel shows to PS1 in the space of a year, whereas in the UK it’s less sure. It’s hesitant. When I first started making video work, which was very lo-fi, and which referred to television more than cinema, there were people here saying, “You can’t show this in a gallery because it has a narrative content.” But I liked the idea that it wasn’t allowed. It suggested that I might be finally doing something interesting if it had a badge on it saying ‘disallowed.’

Stuart Croft, The Stag Without a Heart. Image courtesy of the artist.

Stuart Croft, The Stag Without a Heart (2009). Image courtesy of the artist.

Going back to the question about fragility, there is a thwarting, there is a denial, there’s a deliberate frustration. There’s an element of entrapment and recurrence which is at the core, but out of that comes this sense of fragility – I like what you said about the kind of nothingness that comes out of narrative. And I think there’s a sense of celebration as well – it’s not a dogmatic oppositional stance, even in its appropriation of the language of cinema.

And there is no direct appropriation of the actual material – though that’s kind of where my first sketches started. And I was interested in my early days of making video in Fischli and Weiss – not their videos, those kind of quotidian vernacular home camcorder videos, but their sculptures – incredibly accurate replications of the ready made. The first video works I made were recreations of local television and corporate video, that were intended to fool the viewer, or to make the viewer think that they were watching a genuine piece of badly made corporate video.

And then I used that to move onto a new level which was about, in a sense, recreating or appropriating the language of cinema. But without lifting it directly as found material – I was always interested in making and constructing the language of fiction. And it’s always been – with a couple of exceptions – about fiction rather than documentary as a mainstream language.

But you’re appropriating stylistics as well there, both in the kind of fiction and with the visual style as well. I’m thinking specifically David Mamet and now the kind of Scottish baronial country house.

It’s Hammer.

Of course!

And a sideline here – something that’s interesting about shooting on film, and why I get a bit frustrated with those who suggest that you can shoot on HD and claim that “it’s the same.”

It absolutely isn’t the same, because if you shoot on film something really extraordinary happens, which is that it decides what to do with your work. It takes the work to a very precise point. So in the ‘Hammer’ piece, The Death Waltz, it wasn’t just the decision to shoot on film. It was the decision to shoot on Super 8, the decision to give the camera to the actors using an old camera with an old lens. Putting in new film stock, new Kodak film stock which is actually commercial 35mm motion picture product spliced into the 8mm gauge, which is fast, fine-grain, negative film.

All of that, but primarily the fact that it was shot on film, and a dose of the lighting, emerged as Hammer somehow. And it was never really explicitly discussed in pre-production that we would go for Hammer. It wasn’t like “we’ve got to make this look like Hammer.” When you shoot on film, it just happens.

All that makes it sound like a material sculptural practice.

No it’s not.

Well you’ve talked about the material, you’ve talked about process, you’ve talked about…

It’s a film making process.

Something mysterious that happens in the process?

One of the reasons I think it’s not a material sculptural practice is that the works never stay on film. They’re shot on film but they don’t go back to film, they go to video essentially, and I don’t want the film apparatus in the gallery, and I don’t want the entropy of the print, the gradual decline of the material over the course of an exhibition.

I’m interested in the works being seen and consumed and read as hybrids of film and video. To originate a chemical image and then to consume a hybrid of chemical and electronic pixel. Which is what the work’s partly about – how the content is vernacular and quotidian, and so I think the mode of consumption should also be vernacular and quotidian; we consume an awful lot of moving image which is a hybrid. You’ll see somebody watching a movie on their iPod which has been shot on 35mm cinemascope. The negative would have been bigger than the image that’s being consumed on the iPod. Isn’t that perverse, but interesting?

Hollywood still shoots on 35mm. And then it’s consumed in this myriad of forms.

Stuart Croft, The Stag without a Heart (2009). Image courtesy of the artist.

Stuart Croft, The Stag Without a Heart (2009). Image courtesy of the artist.

You did a series which was drawing on, you said vernacular, it’s like an American vernacular. And now you’ve made The Death Waltz and the new work which are in this other – exploring, drawing on other genres.

Well actually I’ve gone back to Hollywood with the new one – The Stag Without a Heart.

It is an American character and it’s Hitchcock in setting or Hitchcock in image. So it has that merger and hybrid of British and American in it, and in the character and the accent and the casting, with a bit of Welles in there as well. It completes a trilogy of films which begins with Drive In (which is a circular car journey/road movie), followed by The Death Waltz, which is an endless ghost story told at a dinner party.

The Stag Without a Heart is altogether more ambitious and at the same time more minimal. All three films are based around a different monologue – a single piece of apocrypha and in this third film it’s a rewritten Aesop fable, which I turned into a circular piece of text, and in the writing process I pushed the fable’s aspect of political corruption to the surface.

So it takes the essential themes of certain kinds of cinema – certain kinds of American cinema – which can be political corruption, temptation to power, deception and circularises them within this Aesopic tale…

You say circularised but the stories do have an end and a beginning. It’s that they’re held in this work where they’re forced to repeat. They’re not films that have an end or a beginning and yet… I think when you watch them – when I watch them – it dawns on you after a couple of minutes that the story has begun again, rather than it doesn’t have an end. There’s escalation.

I wouldn’t say they have an end and a beginning! I would say there are arcs and there are troughs.

I’m saying it’s another undermining of story structure.

It is. The way the music is used is an example of that. I’ll say to the composer, I want it to be as flat as possible and he’s saying, “No, no, no we’ve got to take this arc up here,” and he usually wins the argument. So you do get, because of the wholesale borrowing of a set of codes – a ‘slice’ – more than a circle. Although they are circular! They are repetitive, there is denial, there is recurrent, undoubtedly. I’m looking for a posher word than slice!

My other thought is that cinema is about resolution, it’s generally resolved for the viewer, whereas art – and I think your work especially – is not about resolution.

I prefer that thought to the discussion we were having about whether they’re really circles or not. There is, unequivocally, no resolve. And it’s about using a particular space, which happens to be the gallery space – and the conditions of the gallery space and the traditions of the gallery. And its inherent condition of circularity, of irresolution if that’s the correct word, in order to manifest entrapment and denial and recurrence.

Whose entrapment? Who’s entrapped?

I think we should stop!

All images courtesy the artist © 2009
Stills Photographer: William Martin

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