William Fowler
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William Fowler
William Fowler

William Fowler

William Fowler is Curator for Artists’ Moving Image at the British Film Institute’s National Archive.

When did you start working at the BFI National Archive and what were you doing before that?

It was June 2005, so I’ve been there nearly four years. I trained as a film archivist at the University of East Anglia and I had just worked at LUX,writing a website giving advice to artists on how to look after their work at home. So there’s a slight irony that I moved from advising artists what to do at home, to working for BFI, encouraging artists to let the BFI look after their master material.

Was there an artists’ collection before you joined?

There was, but mine was a new post, so there wasn’t anyone specific looking after it.  The different sections of the archive tended to have someone with a particular interest in an area. So there had been people actively soliciting artists’ work for the Archive in the past and then at other times, artists were approaching the archive and it would just come in. It was recognised as part of a remit but there wasn’t a dedicated person.

The BFI Production Board had produced a lot of experimental films. Roger Whitney, who was head of non-fiction in the 80s, used to go the London Film Makers Co-op, and there was an acquisition budget at that point. He was very interested in the area, and he knew some of the filmmakers and was bringing material in.

The BFI had been funding artists’ work since the very early 60’s at least, so I guess that work was in the Archive, and are there things like Humphrey Jennings’ films?

It depends how you define the area really. I think you have to go right back to things associated with the Film Society in the 20s, so Adrian Brunel and Ivor Montagu, and people who are in the orbit of the sort of more Avant-Garde film making circles, international Avant-Garde works – like Viking Eggeling, but also Len Lye, and the GPO Film Unit. If you’re going to talk about the history of experimental film in Britain, then these things are part of it.

But in time they bleed out into these other sort of areas as well, so there’s a lot of that work and it’s in a slightly separate part of the Archive, but the distribution wing of the BFI has quite a lot of experimental work. European work, for example, which isn’t necessarily represented at LUX.

You can’t hope to collect everything, so what decisions do you make… and how?

It’s a hard area to define and to be really clear about, but it’s really a case of there being different criteria. Whether it’s an artist whose work is recognised as being particularly strong and influential, or maybe other work that’s had some kind of public profile, but which isn’t necessarily recognised as being particularly high in value by other artists or by the institution at large. And things connected to the history of the BFI. But it is a hard thing to define.

Has it changed? Now, with the idea of archives as not being simply places where you preserve something, but being places where you get work shown… a different idea of the curator?

It’s a mixture really. It is a sort of new thinking about the archives, so that it’s not just a passive receptacle, and there should be platforms for making the work available and generating discussion around it.  But at the same time you could argue there’s something quite unusual or unfashionable about my role, because I’m a curator of a collection, rather than just being an out in the world curator – there are physical items held in the collection.

But certainly a strong guiding principle is to get material back out into the world. Jeff Keen, for example. He’s a really, historically, important filmmaker, and with such an enormous body of work and it was all solely lying with him. That needed to be addressed – to talk to him about that and whether that was a concern of his.

But then also, a push so that people would be able to access those films.

How, how did you set about that?

There were some films in the archive. The BFI produced four films of his in the late 60s. The BFI produced a lot of experimental work in the 60s and his are some of the ones that have had a real longevity. I got in touch with him a few years ago, just enquiring about what he was doing with his masters, and were there negatives and things and I kept in touch. And then the fact that he was getting older – he’s in his eighties – and wanting to really sort something and talk about his. And there was other interest across the institution, people got really excited and made a commitment – to put out a DVD box set and as part of that, we would do film restorations as well.

We made new preservation material and new prints for – though not everything because there’s about 70 films. And there’s an international touring programme.

I’d watched pretty much all his films with him and sort of talked about his life and his work, and things about the material. Personally, I’m very interested in the historical detail – what happened and whose camera it was, and this kind of thing, which is probably why I’m an archivist! That’s not something that a lot of curators actually appear to be that interested in, that detail and reality of work and people.

In the broader film world, there are lots of people who are interested in that and then there are a lot of writers and commentators who are more focused on contextualisation and interpretation, but I don’t know if those pluarity of approaches are present in artists’ film and video, because it’s the sort of nerdy side of things.

Well, nerdy maybe, but with Jeff Keen especially, there’s a contemporary relevance to that work and to that kind of practice. Artists exploring that kind of bohemian thing..like Spartacus Chetwynd?

Completely. We did these shows at the BFI Southbank and I was curious to see who would come. Initially I was a bit frustrated that there weren’t people I knew, who knew the work from years ago – that they hadn’t turned out to celebrate Jeff. But the screenings did really well and it was predominantly young people – people who weren’t connected to the sector so directly and that was really exciting. People really got into it – I was out on Old Street late one night, and a young girl came up to me and said ‘Oh you’re the Jeff Keen guy’ and got really excited and then said ‘I’ll see you next week at the next screening’.

People are interested and bringing different things to the work. I totally agree his work does make a lot of connections with things now.

One of the things with Jeff, that must be a common challenge with artists’ work, is that while there were some of his films in the Archive, there’s all this other work that he has. You must have to have, if not negotiations, then conversations with artists about what your intentions are. You’re giving the work a particular status.

Each artist brings slightly different issues to bear, or different things crop up. One thing that is a bit of a concern is that people will leave their master materials with a Lab, which makes sense because they can just phone up and say ‘Oh can you make me another print?’ But then that film doesn’t get shown for a while, or you don’t make a new print, then literally the decades go by and you forget it’s there. And a real issue is that the labs are closing down.

A lot of material can come to BFI automatically during this process, but not everything.  It depends on how quickly things happen and the conscientious state of the lab. Only a couple of years ago the original A and B rolls for Malcolm Le Grice’s Emily (Third Party Speculation) came to the BFI.

I was talking to Sarah Pucill, who brought a lot of material to the archive, and a big part of it was her figuring out where things were and following up leads. Some people may be storing things at home, and being incredibly diligent about keeping track of what they have and where things are.  But then, by the same token, there’s having material, but being diligent about its deterioration too and making sure it’s in the best environment it can be in.

And it’s not just celluloid is it, because video is less stable…

After 10 years things can start falling apart, the glue that links the magnetic particles to the tape changes and all the particles fall off – that’s what drop out is. It doesn’t take very long for that to happen.

And if you watch most artists’ video, from the 70s and 80s, nearly everything has drop out, even if it’s shot on relatively high format.

So what’s the broad collecting strategy? Are you looking at individuals or are you looking at areas of activity?

It’s individual focused really, and ideally having some platform to build on, doing something to make work accessible. Often artists don’t want to donate prints, they only want to donate their master material, and that makes it quite limited as to what you can do. But they retain all their rights to the material.

The French film archivist, Henri Langlois, pioneered the idea of film as something that you collect. That if you’re interested in a filmmaker, you should collect everything. Don’t just collect the good bits. With artists’ work, I think that’s different to what a gallery might do.

I tend to think you wouldn’t slavishly make sure you’ve got absolutely everything, but generally speaking, if the material was available, then you would take, I would take it in, as a matter of filling a certain duty really.

With other parts of the BFI, are you feeding in from your artists’ perspective, into other projects?

It depends on how you define things again. I’m very interested in the links between artists’ film and broader film culture. It has its own history, but I’m wary of keeping it completely separate to wider film history. I’m interested in how film can be subversive and how it relates to the mainstream and sort of penetrate the mainstream. I think that’s easier for the film world than it is in the art world. I’m setting up lots of oppositions with the art world here, but so often it’s a sensibility of looking at artist’s film and thinking how I may include it in discussion about some other films that aren’t necessarily art as film.

I programme a series called The Flipside once a month at BFI Southbank and we show material from the archive, but that’s predominantly strange, cult, unknown feature films, which are housed in the archive and because they aren’t part of any formal cannon, haven’t really had very many outings, so it’s nice to show these things. And sometimes there’s an opportunity there to show some experimental work around those kind of films.

I think it’s really important – because that’s the way the world is – we’re not secluded.

Jumping back to your very first question, I worked at LUX before I did the film archiving course and I curated, with Ben Cook, a programme called Visionary Landscapes, which drew on a mixture of feature film and experimental film. And when I was working on the Keep Moving Images website, I was doing some programming at The Horse Hospital and showing quite a mixture of stuff, mainly short films, but quite a  wide variety – drawing on a lot of experimental stuff, but other things as well. I wasn’t being explicit about it, but I was trying to collapse the distinction between the different areas. I don’t really do that at the BFI, because I’ve got a specific responsibility, to the artist and experimental film and it deserves to have its own platform. I don’t want to kind of relegate it and say it’s the same as all this other stuff, but there is an element of a curator approach in there.

Artists’ film and video includes installation and multi-screen work – how do you deal with that stuff?

Well this is a complex and evolving area, but the Archive does have multi-screen work and some installation work, or things that have installation elements. But beyond quite simple multi-screen work, like two screen, three screen, the Archive has to deal and address its technical parameters and the possibilities of what it can do – it can’t really be grappling with installation work essentially, because there isn’t that necessary infrastructure to make sure that those other elements are going to be preserved, or to have that level of engagement and discussions about how those installations are experienced in the future. At this point, there aren’t structures in place to support that kind of activity and it opens up lots of questions – the relationship between  the cinema and gallery and so on…

And there are other institutions involved in the questions …

This is another thing that’s changing in the world of the film archive. In the past, national archives would collect almost in isolation, across all fields and the principle being that if you’ve got one print of a film, then you’ve got to hold on to that, because if you show it, it gets knackered, and you’ve got serious preservation elements to consider.

But now there’s a recognition that other people are collecting films as well. This doesn’t happen so often, but say with a feature film, we might know that Universal have the negs for this film and it’s housed there. So why shouldn’t we show our print. We can be confident that this film is being looked after, and it’s the responsibility of the archive to get things out, to be responsible about what it cares for, but to make it available. It’s the same thing with collecting – there are other institutions who are collecting, and are much better set up to do so.  So Tate or other galleries are far better set up to collect and care for installations or work that should be seen outside normal cinematic presentation.

And there are different preservation issues aren’t there, because generally with cinema, you’re dealing with a much less complicated thing and often…

Working with artists throws up its own particular issues, but there is a broadly accepted cinematic model, which the archive over all is set up to cater for.

Where are those conversations are happening?

There’s the Legacy and Learning Group with representatives from different institutions – Tate, LUX etc – who are collecting and showing artists’ work in the UK. The issues of responsibility and connections between different collections is very much a part of our discussions. Arts Council England is leading the project.

Any other thoughts?

Just thinking about the differences between artists and cinema, and the relationship in the archive, there’s something like The Nightcleaners Part 1, by the Berwick Street Collective. It was founded by Marc Karlin,   who founded  Vertigo magazine and James Scott, and they worked with Humphrey Trevelyan, Mary Kelly and others. The way that film is shot – it’s deconstructed… there’s the slate sometimes included in the shot, there are sections of black between scenes and you know the ‘metadata’ – the information we collate around a work – really has to indicate that these things are part of the film, because someone who is archiving the work, looking at it on a bench, may think oh this is just rushes.

And I think that’s another example of a work I think that has real contemporary relevance. It’s historically interesting, but also from the point of view of artists working in collectives, and it’s political work with a social context…

And a community based art practice – and there’s a lot more of that these days.


  1. Marcos says:

    Great interview! A fantastic insight.into his work…

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