The State of Things: Mark Cosgrove
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The State of Things: Mark Cosgrove
Mark Cosgrove, image courtesy of Watershed

Mark Cosgrove, image courtesy of Watershed

APEngine talks to Mark Cosgrove, Head of Programme at Watershed Media Centre and Creative Director of Encounters International Film Festival in Bristol, about connecting audiences with artist’s film.

Before Watershed you worked at Cornerhouse in Manchester, didn’t you?

And before that I was Plymouth Art Centre – also a cinema within an arts venue.

Three places with what used to be called ‘arthouse’ cinemas. I wondered whether that term still had currency?

I think it does – significant and meaningful currency, increasingly. My background’s always been in film exhibition, but I’ve always viewed cinema in relationship to other arts and other art forms. That’s partly down to my own background – my father’s an artist, my brother’s an artist. I’m the black sheep of the family – I just went and watched films!

But I’ve kind of always grown up in relationship to a visual arts sort of background. I’ve never really thought about it much until recently, but the venues that I’ve worked at have always screened cinema as one form in relationship to others. It’s never been exclusively about cinema.

And an upshot of that – as a consequence of those two factors in my background and work experience – I’ve always viewed film in a much wider relationship with the visual arts, rather than simply, only, as cinema.

But I don’t think audiences have always seen it that way. Audiences have changed in a way that places like Watershed have encouraged and allowed.

I think it’s a combination of that and also what people have described as the ‘digital revolution’ – the internet is largely responsible for that. People aren’t viewing things in segments anymore. They view things much more across the board or in a holistic way. For the audiences I think the world is much more complex but much more joined up.

Well, now the audience is always watching stuff…

Yes. It used to be segmented, in that you watched television – you did that. You watched cinema – you did that. You read a book – you did that.

The internet affords a connection across all of those areas. Yesterday I was talking about this to an artist, Simon Poulter, and about what Raymond Williams – God bless him – talked about, the schedule and scheduling in television. It still exists but it’s in terms of it being delivered from broadcaster to to the audience, well, it’s a much more fluid engagement across all.

And it’s the interconnectedness of things – that’s the word! – that for me, makes cinema exhibition really interesting. Because it’s in a much wider context.

The other upshot of it for me in terms of audiences is two things – audiences have become much more engaged, and much more able to get access to information. So people come to me and say “Have you heard about this?”, “Can you do this?”. Because the internet affords them a much wider sort of engagement.

The other thing is that I feel the audience wants to engage with ideas and so that cinema becomes a catalyst for ideas and discussion about things. So it’s not going to see the next Fellini or the next Bergman (though they’re both dead). I mean, it’s not about going to see this high culture offering but it’s actually about what those things means in relation to the rest of culture. And that culture is about the big issues as well – the planet, climate change etc – all of those things that artists are kind of turning their attention to as well.

But in practice, what are the implications of that for going to Watershed and sitting in a cinema watching a film?

The bottom line is people can still do that. People can still do what they did – you go to the cinema, you pay your money, you see a film. But around that there’s a much richer, more varied engagement possible. So as a venue, we’ve got programme notes in the cinema, we’ve got a café bar that people can come and sit and talk. We do events. But we also have various websites, we do podcasts, we Twitter, we do vodcasts  – we’re talking about the films and the programme and culture in general. So it’s a of much broader range of possibilities of engagement for audiences.

And is it that, where before you had an audience, you have a ‘community’ now?

I think it’s communities. One of the problems of the word audience is that it becomes a solid whole, where in fact what we’ve realised is that the audience is as complex as everything else. It is the individual and it is communities. It is different cultures, it’s different backgrounds, it’s different experiences. And of course one of the great things about cinema is that it’s a great social experience for people to come to, and then to engage with those issues should they choose.

Certainly for us the notion of one large audience out there has broken down quite fundamentally.

And is cinema itself – the films – changing?

Well that’s an interesting point. I mean we’re actually just in the process of doing a strand called Decalogue taking the noughties as the first decade of the second century of cinema, right?

Well..that’s arguable isn’t it..didn’t cinema start in 1888?!

I’m not speaking with the French on this! It’s the first full decade, right! Forget the maths!

What we’re looking at is this first decade of a new century of cinema and reflecting back on that first decade of cinema, where cinema was the innovative, radical, new medium of its day. What happened in that decade was the experimentation then cinema, in a way, settled down into different sort of languages, you could argue. Over the year we’ll look at whether there has been the kind of explorations of cinema just as in the way that there were in the first decade.

Digital is obviously one of the ways in which that’s happened. So we’re about to screen Dancing in the Dark from 2001, and Inland Empire, the David Lynch film. Kiarostami’s films are ones we’re looking at. And these could only be made with digital technology. So you can see that digital has had a real, a very real impact on cinema.

Cinema has, and is, responding to such changes in that there are new forms that are coming out. Someone like Apichatpong Weerasethakul – he’s clearly somebody who is still experimenting – there are still experimentations to be made and explored with the image and with the medium of film. And I think if you look beyond the mainstream there is a richness of images and films being made. Now, them getting into cinemas is an entirely different matter.

I wanted to ask you a bit about the short form element of film as well because you run Encounters, which is such a big and hugely important event. But in the UK I think a short film is often seen simply as a calling card for people who want to make feature films. It’s not like that in the rest of the world, is it?

The UK and America do very much treat the short film as a route, a passport as it were, to feature filmmaking. So quite a lot of them are demonstrations of technique. To be able to say to people, “Look I can cope with a drama. I can cope with directing actors.” But that really is to miss the point. You know you just have to look at examples like Andrea Arnold’s work to see that what she was doing in her short films was very much about the short film, and about what she wanted to say at that period of time. And yes, it has led on to the feature films but they’re very very different.

A lot of people think that by making a ten minute short demonstrating a kind of narrative exposition means they can handle a feature. But handling a feature’s completely different. You have to develop a plot, a story, characters, all of those elements, over a 90 minute period. Even if you’re working in the experimental area, you still have to develop the idea over a period of time. And I think people tend to underestimate that.

And yes, there is also much more of valuing short film as short film elsewhere. But there is such a divide between I guess existence in short film and making a living.

The example I always use is John Smith, who’s making work and the length is determined by the work. He’s certainly not thinking, “Oh I must make a feature film.” But you could argue he has done with Hotel Diaries, but it’s not that kind of trajectory.

I wanted to ask you about John Smith as well because I know you’re a fan. And so often on panels, people say how storytelling is the crucial, fundamental thing. John’s films are often narrative he’s not telling – stories aren’t what he’s telling.

John’s films are about ideas. And actually for me the best cinema is about ideas. Not necessarily the most popular cinema – but when you deal with feature films you are dealing with economics in a much more aggressive way, and you can’t escape that fact.

But John’s films explore ideas about cinema and about looking, and about his own experience which translates into a kind of universal experience. And also cinematically, just at the level of image making, they’re so inventive and creative. But because the short film isn’t really given the currency then he doesn’t seem to kind of get into the public consciousness in a wider way.

But he is in the art world…

Well yes. And it’s interesting – that whole relationship with the art world and actually the flow into the film world from the art world is quite interesting. So Sam Taylor Wood obviously, and Gillian Wearing’s  now making a feature film.

Steve McQueen… Clio Barnard…

Yes – but the extent to which their work in cinema and feature films has the same resonance as their artwork is an interesting discussion.

Some of them work better than others. Some of the artistic visual ideas certainly translate into cinema. So the phenomenal intensity of Steve McQueen’s installations comes across in his feature Hunger. Whereas I’m less convinced by Sam Taylor Wood’s – the intensity of her artwork compared to cinema.

I think that Sam Taylor Wood’s now a ‘filmmaker’ – at least when she’s making a feature…

Well, I think it’s like that Captain Beefheart story where this great avant-garde blues man – also a painter – was told by his agent or somebody, apparently, you’re either a musician or a painter.

So you’re either a musician who paints or you’re a painter who did some music. You couldn’t be both. And it was as though he had to make a choice between being one or the other to be taken seriously. He couldn’t be both because the world was like “No, no hang on a minute are you a painter or are you a musician?”

I’m not suggesting Sam Taylor Wood’s in that same situation, but I feel as though the film that she’s made is a kind of traditional filmmakers film. Rather than it having her concerns as a visual artist. Whereas Steve McQueen’s Hunger, I feel, retains his concerns as a visual artist.

And if John Smith was to choose to do a feature film he would do it in a way that was about John Smith’s concerns as an artist.

Another story to illustrate the sort of impact in the film world of John was that when I first did his retrospective in Encounters Festival, people were saying to me “Who’s John Smith?” Because he’s hugely known and respected in the artist’s film world – and now the art world – but not recognised at all in the film world.

This was about eight years ago, and we put the films on and there were people like Dave Sproxton from Aardman and Damien O’Donnell, who had just directed East is East – they were both involved in the Festival, and on the Board. John was there and I was hustling people to go in because I wanted to make sure there was an audience. Tickets weren’t selling brilliantly, you know! And both Dave and Damien were like, “Who is this guy?”

I was sat at the back in the auditorium, and after the second film, which I think was Associations, Damien turned round and he just put his thumbs and mouthed “It’s fucking brilliant.” And after it they said “Why haven’t we heard of John Smith?” Because for those guys, who are very talented filmmakers, John’s work is so rich in ideas that they were just like “God this guy’s amazing.”

And that’s what exhibition is about.

I want to drive those communities – or constituencies or whatever – together. So it’s saying to people, “Look just because you’ve not heard of it doesn’t mean to say it’s not going to be as engaging or as stimulating” Whereas I guess the visual art world is much more open to experimentation (well, we’ll hold that one for just now). Film is viewed as a business in a much more traditional way so, you go the cinema, you pay your money, you get entertained and there’s nothing worse than paying your money and not being entertained.

It’s risk averse…

So I view my job at Watershed as being to push that risk element, and get people to engage with interesting things they may just not have heard. To take risks. And increasingly, the audiences want to do that also.

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