Steven Eastwood
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Steven Eastwood
Steven Eastwood

Steven Eastwood

APEngine spoke to filmmaker Steven Eastwood during his Jerwood Visual Arts Laboratory in August 2009. You can see an extract of the resultant film here in our Showcase.

How did you start making film work?

I started using Super 8 when I was a kid. I asked for a really crappy Eumig.  It looked like an old water flask from cowboy films and it had a little projector set with it – a very kind of Woolworths job. I was 11 and I used to shoot little of documentaries of holidays and things and splice it on the Super 8. Although video was just about breaking through, I learnt to shoot and cut on film as a kid.

I’d always been somebody that did art, from a very young age, so I was always focused on going to art school but having shot – having used moving image – by the time I actually came to be an art student I was already thinking of myself as a filmmaker.

Did you carry on filmmaking when you studied art?

I was offered a place at Westminster – this was very early 90′s – a kind of production oriented into the industry course. And I had a choice between that and doing English with Fine Art at Exeter, which was quite a rare combination. I decided that I’d sooner be a filmmaker in an art school than an artist in a film school.

Those two parallel practices of film and art – that’s very much a part of your interest and your work.

It is. I’d painted, I used oils and I drew. But in terms of moving image I came at it from quite an underground perspective quite early on. On Foundation I fell in with other filmmakers that were organising film nights and I liked that DIY aspect of being able to write, produce, get your friends to perform, all the way through to exhibition, that process. So I wasn’t necessarily thinking of moving image as an artist at that point.

What sort of films were you looking at?

The usual kind of suspects really. Lynch, Kubrick. I had an uncle that was into cinema and he took me to see Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice when I was 15 or 16. I didn’t have much knowledge of artist moving image or avant-garde cinema because I didn’t have the exposure to it where I was.

But at the same time as you were watching these films you were undertaking what you’d call an artist’s practice?

Yeah – I had the kind of bog standard fine art training that I really value, which was to think about concept and process. So I had the sensibilities of a narrative filmmaker but I had a notebook based, studio based context for that work. And at University they said, “You can’t really shoot film here, we don’t have the resources.” So I would hire my kit from London and I’d usually shoot with friends in London even though I was a student in Exeter. Or I’d use the old film co-ops – there was one in Exeter and they used to hire out 16mm cameras. It’s all gone now. So I would hire equipment but use the art college as a kind of thinking space really.

You shot on 16mm then but it’s not as though you’re adhered to that as an orthodoxy, because, if you didn’t embrace video, you at least drew it into your practice didn’t you? You were making narrative work that was also about materials.

My degree show film was a 74 minute feature that was shot on 16mm, Super 8 and two different video formats, and edited on three machine SVHS. And I wrote my thesis on Slacker by Richard Linklater, and went over to EAI in New York and at work by people like Beth B, Shelly Silver, Tony Oursler and Jem Cohen.

So the lyrical sort of low budget experimental stuff – like On Our Own, by Tony Oursler and Joe Gibbons, which is character based narrative but very much a video artists’ approach.

There’s that tradition with American artists who are unafraid to use narratives.

I liked all the kind of No Wave New York underground like Nick Zedd – stuff that’s kind of stupid in a way. And even like Warhol – he doesn’t really care about narrative at all but he still works within the trope in certain films, using the ‘Star’… But just to cap on this, I’ve always been terrible at story telling so I think my experiments with narrative have maybe not been as successful as they might have been.

I’ve never really known how to tell a story well and I think it’s important to know how to tell a story before you start pulling a story apart, you know!

Have you got to that point now?

I’m actually telling a story in my current film and realising how extraordinarily difficult it is to have a story that pays off at all the right points. In the past I’d always thought the story telling was kind of cheap – I always saw stories as something you could cut up. And I like cut ups and I like the idea that there’s a story in there but you haven’t been given the necessary information.

I wanted to ask you about collaboration because your filmmaking is often collaborative and you’re part of the OMSK collective which has collaboration at its core. Is that something you carry through to everything you do? A sense of that.

No, but I will say that I’ve always been the kind of filmmaker that prefers to bring in a team and I like that aspect of film making. So I don’t always shoot my films, and even on the smallest films I’ll tend to have other people around that I can use as a sounding board or bring in their skills. And other times – I made a series of films that were all shot and edited within 48 hours. And those were all just me, with a camera and laptop editing.

I think those are good for kind of very fresh, quick gesture filmmaking. But for any longer projects I’m not the kind of artist filmmaker that’s like the lone artist that does everything. I think that yields certain kinds of results because of the intimacy you have with your subject or whatever you’re looking at. But I don’t work that way. I like to work in a crew. And I don’t think that means being drawn into the industry side of things. Anyway, I am probably halfway between those camps – I have a production company and I distribute some of the films that I’ve made myself. So – collaboration is very important and I think that filmmaking is for me a very social activity rather than an introspective one.

I couldn’t be one of those structural filmmakers that spends six months scratching and bleaching film. I’m much more about engaging with other people.

And collaboration is very important for me because for every good idea I have, I have quite a few bad ones. And I’m not always able to see that – and I think that’s true of other people. I’ve collaborated with other people where just in that dialogue you get to the heart – to the kernel of what you’re doing.

You teach, you create, you programme, you’re an artist, is it the same you that’s doing all those separate things?

Probably for the most part. Inevitably when you’re a teacher you take on the role of somebody that has experience and you’re not a novice. And I think sometimes that’s to the detriment of your practice – which is why the Lab has been so good because I felt free to sort of make mistakes.

Well, the Lab is where we are now, where you’re ‘in residence’ – in the Jerwood Visual Arts at Jerwood Space in South London. You’ve got another week to go, how long have you been here?

About four weeks.

And what’s the curatorial idea?

Sarah Williams, the curator, has this slot every year in August. And she uses it to try to bring some new discourses to what we understand as the gallery’s role or function for the artist. Last year it was called An Experiment in Collaboration and it was about artists collaborating with non-artists, scientists or historians. This year it’s about putting forward the process of production as visible to the gallery, to the person attending the gallery. Essentially, three artists have been given a gallery each as our studio. I think we’d all thought that it might inevitably seem quite theatrical but it hasn’t felt that way. I’ve really just used this as my studio.

It feels more like a studio than a set but everything is there; there’s a camera, there are monitors, a projector. There’s a very nice blackboard,

Yes. It’s difficult to know whether how much of this is artifice or affected.

I remember the blackboard was here at the opening. At the beginning did you know where you were going?

No, there was some anxiety before we entered the project. Because none of the three artists felt that they could do too much pre-planning because that would sort of interrupt the self-contained world of the project. But equally having a show at the Jerwood Space felt significant and I didn’t want to fuck it up. I had all these ideas and then I thought, I’ve got to just dismiss them. So I came in with just some very loose research lines, really that was it. I was going to build on the last four or five films I’ve made, which have all been about bringing some of my ideas and film language to bear on a real situation or real events that are actually taking place.

I made a film in Lithuania a few years ago, set in a high school that’s an art school, led by a very imaginative academic that’s using it as place for experimentation. So we made this fictitious film about the school. using the real people in the school. And then I’ve just made the Bosnian film.

Is this a kind of documentary approach?

Well I never really think that I make documentaries. I like what happens when you bring artifice to real events and when you feel completely free to use re-enactment, performance. I think that in essence I’m sort of referring to ethnographics. Any kind of moving image document is by its very nature odd, and we ought to embrace that. So I’ve thought of using a camera to approach real people through the framework of a performance.

Is that what you’ve called working with slippy slidey narrative?

Where did that come from!?

It’s on your website.

That’s terrible. See I should have had a collaborator working on my website.

You talk about the influence, and working through, theory in your work. But the work operates, certainly for me, on a much more immediate level as well. There’s texture, colours, editing. It seems to me the work is considered and constructed with an aesthetic respect as well as theoretical respect. You’ve worked with cinematographer Nick Gordon Smith – you do that because you wanted something to look a certain way.

It’s using beautiful pictures to put across complicated ideas. There are other films that have used lower grade media and which I’ve shot myself. But increasingly production values matter in the gallery. They used to be anathema to the gallery but now film is back with a vengeance in the gallery..


Yes, and not necessarily the material approach to celluloid film, but just the surface, quality and finish of it and equally HD. I mean even student films – it’s very difficult to get an ugly student film because of the technology.

As I mentioned before, you’ve made work about the material of film and video and I wondered what digital and HD meant for that. Is there a redundancy there then? I mean that in a nice way!

It’s interesting because the last feature that we shot, we didn’t have enough money to shoot on film, but I wanted to shoot on film so we shot it on HD. But we added a spinning ground glass attachment and prime lenses because there’s a lot of landscape in the film and we wanted to use depth of field. So we are doing the pretty regular standard industry thing of trying to take a video image as close to a celluloid image as you can get it whilst not spending all that money. So that’s kind of one answer to that. I think the main answer to that question is about performance.

And I think that there are kinds of performances you can get on video because you can film and film and film until something comes. Whereas there’s a different kind of essential aspect to performance when you know that you’ve got a 400 foot roll of film. A fixed duration of 10 minutes and 40 seconds, or you know you’ve only got so much film with you. And we noticed that on this shoot for Angel, on the project I’ve been working on here. She hadn’t realised that we were shooting film and it brought an extra pressure to bear on the event of recording that elicited something from her. And that may sound highly manipulative and I’m sure it is, and I like that. I like that people become mobilised or relaxed by the duration that you’re giving them to perform.

So what is it you’re working on?

The working title of it is The Blow to the Head and it’s because I came into this project with these very loose research lines of looking at affect. Affect as an idea that that in the instant of shock something is altered in thought. That the habitual sensory motor aspect of thought is interrupted or stopped and then the habit comes back. I was interested in injury or a blow to the head or other kinds of impact – what that does to sensible thought.

I did a walk around the area and looked for places that were pertinent to my research and I found Rooney’s Gym which is by London Bridge. I also found another boxing gym and I spoke to a curator the other day from the Tate who said they did a project with boxing not long ago. And there’s a massive history of boxing in this part of London. In fact part of the Jerwood Space before it was the Jerwood Space was a boxing gym but I had no knowledge of that. The other contact I made was with the British School of Osteopathy which is around the corner. And the practice of osteopathy is about how any kind of injury that your body has sustained can bring about all kinds of illnesses.

So birth trauma, car crashes, they can misalign your bones or affect your artery flow. But it was the gym really.

Photos courtesy of Magnus Arrevad

You’re working with women boxers?

I didn’t choose to, it really chose me. I found the gym, I said I was interested in working with injury and with fighting and actually a lot of the stuff I documented early on in the process was men sparring and fighting. And then the guy that ran the gym called me and he said, “You must come down because there’s going to be this fight between Marianne Marston and Angel McKenzie.”

Marianne was going to be observed by the board of boxing to see if she could gain a professional license. So I came down and documented it and of course was interested by it because I’d never seen boxing in the flesh before I’d been in this ring. And I’d certainly never seen female boxing. And then got to know both women and then learnt that Angel had just come out of the Big Brother house and had come into boxing because she’d had terrible injury to her knees. In fact was told she couldn’t really do any kind of like sport; both of her knee joints had been completely dislocated, the ligaments had been destroyed. And she had surgery and then started to go to the gym to try and build up her body and came into boxing that way through a gym. Whereas Marianne had been very, very seriously ill in the States and tried to build up her physical strength, and both of them came into boxing in their 30s.

So there’s this rich history that seemed to coincide with my interests and the sort of research that I had come into the project with. I decided just to follow the thread really.

Is a film going to come out of it then?

Yes. I’m going to box with each of the women next week. I’ve never boxed in my life. I’m going to get beaten to shreds. But there is a gender aspect to it but it’s not particular to me as a male filmmaker. A lot of women don’t like female boxing. And certainly the British – there’s an old guard to the British Board of Boxing that doesn’t want to recognise it as a sport.

Well there’s just been that decision, and I was listening to the Jeremy Vine Show, in my car. And they had an etiquette expert on who was objecting to it, on etiquette grounds!

I had a camera assistant with me, a woman that works with me from time to time came down to shoot some of this. She found it very challenging and  didn’t feel that comfortable watching. Because Marianne and Angel hit each other very, very hard, they’re both very aggressive fighters. So you know, but the gender thing I think is a bit of a cul-de-sac. But I think there is an interest because they are women fighters. But it’s really much more of interest to me about their process, and this contradiction that rather than sustaining injury through boxing you come into boxing having sustained injury. I think that’s very interesting.

And even from the things you’ve got here – Marianne shadow boxing which is performance and choreography. And then you’ve got Angel performing. Singing a kind of torch song.

Angel has all this stuff going on; she’s now been put forward by Endemol and Big Brother as the British Eurovision contender for next year. And she’s recorded albums, she’s made music videos. I felt very aware of not getting drawn into that agenda but I didn’t want to fully ignore it. And I also didn’t want to get drawn into just telling the story of these women and doing interviews and having voiceovers and it all falling into that. But I thought, both of these women use song so that’s why I ended up writing this torch song that’s using personal history. That gives over a little bit of personal history but uses what Angel does anyway which is sing.

There’s something about it which is cinematic but it’s also quite difficult. If you engage with the content, it’s sort of bitter sweet. So there will be 10 two minute films, structured to mimic the 10 two minute rounds of women’s boxing. So there’s that structure – two minutes of shadow boxing from each woman, there’s punch bag work, there’s rope, then there’s the fight – several rounds of them fighting, and then there’s the song. Angel has the song as a narrative space. Marianne has the osteopathy session as a narrative space.

And then there’s another couple of rounds that are going to be optically printed which is again my kind of interest in that narrative. You know top down bottom up, like there’s a narrative but there’s also the materiality.

So I’ll show you in a minute some of the film that I’m going to optically reprint.

That’s not really going to come across in print is it!?

No it’s not! Go to the blog.

It will be installed here and it will be up for four days. But don’t forget that we’re in a lab, so I don’t think that there’s any need to resolve this material. But I think that it needs to be visible.

I think there’s often in the lab or the residency space where you’re told you don’t have to produce a work, but there’s a kind of imperative – you can’t help yourself!

No, but I do think it would be really stupid to sort of strip our spaces back and go all, you know, ‘plinth’. Because it’s a laboratory from day one to the end. It’s not laboratory for half of it and then show. And I will certainly have more work to do beyond the event on the 27th. There’s be a film.

There’s something that both of the women said to me and other people have said similar things – that it’s not until you’re hit really hard that you know if you can be a boxer. Because you might train for years and you might have professional fights, but never really be hit. And people can be hit very hard and then suddenly they know they can’t do it. But equally both of them have said it isn’t until you’re hit pretty hard in any fight that you’re at your best as a boxer. So I think that there’s something – maybe I’m romanticising but there’s…

Well it sounds like a metaphor for life.

Well, I hope that I’m not going to go down that road too far. I think the material I’m interested in is the fighting. And my working title for the show was called Turning Ugly. Because I was interested in the point where something which wasn’t a fight has become a fight and how do you know. And I suppose when conflict rises and falls because you see that shift and it sort of dips away again. I think that’s a temporal thing, there’s something about duration, about how people can enter into conflict and then pull back from it. So some of that is still in this piece.

Maybe it’s romantic or maybe some of it’s cheap, I don’t care at the moment. I would never have written a torch song if hadn’t been in this Lab. And I probably wouldn’t have followed this very immediate search line of, “Well I’m just going to go back there the next day and shoot.” Normally you’re trying to raise money but it’s this kind of immediacy of approach that’s been really good in this show.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 | Tagged with , , ,

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