The following is an email conversation/dialogue between Alia Syed and Noski Deville. They first met as practitioners at the London Film-Makers Co-Op in the mid-eighties. Alia is about to embark on her new production- Eating Grass on which Noski is the cinematographer- continuing a working relationship that has developed over a number of years including Alia Syed's previous The Watershed and Spoken Diary.
Noski Deville- Our common history comes from an experimental cinema background, but I am also very interested in the shift to the gallery space, not only in my own practice as an artist /filmmaker, but also those artists that I work with as a cinematographer, works that are specifically made for this space, and this space only, but also the construction, reconstruction, and reworking for different sites including Cinema, TV and the Gallery, like the work of Elisa-Lisa Ahtila, Isaac Julien, Stan Douglas, to name but a few. So I am especially interested in your touring show with iniVA, which represented works originated on film for the cinema space reworked and or re-sited in very different gallery spaces around the UK. Could you please tell me a little about your experience and working approach to this?
Alia Syed- I think the first thing to remember about the gallery space is that in a way it's not definable in that every space is completely different. So I am not sure that I would make a work specifically for the gallery - I suppose commissioning work for a particular space where all the technical specifics are known would be different. The only film that I re-edited specifically for the tour was Spoken Diary. I did this with the knowledge that it was going to be exhibited alongside The Watershed and Swan. I saw these three films coming together as a new piece, I knew that they were similar thematically and formally. The tour is called, "jigar" which means friend or lover, its literal translation from Urdu is 'liver.' The films all explore issues around love and desire, they are all very visceral. I saw the issue of sound as the main problem in presenting my work in the gallery. There was a lot of voice-over in Spoken Diary, so I edited a lot of it out because I think I was subconsciously aware that the aural elements within The Watershed and Spoken Diary overlapped. I think the three films now work together in a new way.
ND- There are a couple of major issues in this that I've been thinking about. The gallery space is not unlike the cinema space in that it is not fully definable. The curator/space in the gallery and the programmer/ venue/event in the cinema come into play. Our works have flourished and waned at the hands of good or bad programming. The translation of work into the gallery space involves a formal consideration, which is clearly impacted upon in the different gallery spaces and in relation to the different works shown. So would you say this develops in parallel to promote a recontextualization of the work/s content? Because as you rightly, say, the works vie against each other and thus become a new whole.
Also, fragmentation of the work can take place to this end. I really loved how in the show at The New Walsall Art Gallery Swan was shown as a film loop in the central room. I thought this worked really well. Placed as it was between the two works/rooms: the triple screen version of Spoken Diary and the original version of The Watershed, and the sound spill from each, it gave me a new experience of this work.
AS- Yes, I found the overlap in sound very interesting in Walsall. The works were intentionally placed this way to subdue but still allow the desired level of sound seepage. When I came to do the same show in Leigh at the Turnpike Gallery it turned out quite differently. It's one big space with a blackout. Ideal for projection but a bit worrying for sound but in the end, I was however very pleased with the show, the curator Kerry Moogan was very patient. Swan was again, presented as a 16mm loop and as the first film, you saw when you entered the space. The Watershed and Spoken Diary were installed close together. The positioning of the works created a shape that was triangular, you could see/experience all three films together. I thought the sound worked better in this space simply because you were more aware of how the two tracks overlapped.
ND- So, your relationship with iniVA and with various curators at the galleries is clearly an important one. In the cinema space, there is often less dialogue with a programmer. In the gallery space, in some ways there is potentially more control over the reading of one's own works in relation to each other and to other artist's works, developing other dialogues and meanings. This is a dynamic which as a practitioner is both stimulating and challenging.
AS- Yes, I think that it really is important remembering the role of the cinema programmer in comparison to the curator and venue. Contextualization is a major consideration in the exhibition. I would also like to say a little about working with inIVA. I think that it is important as an organization that they have a strong remit in the same way as the LFMC had. Ideas that are probably very similar to the ones our generation had at the Co-Op, to do with creating access to, and promoting types of work that exist outside of mainstream dominant ideology. I feel very at home there because I see my work existing within a political arena - I work best and am challenged in such an environment.
And yes, I actually think that Swan is many stringers shown as a continuous 16mm loop. Although I am happy with the overlap of sound between Spoken Diary and Watershed. I have never been happy with the quality of The Watershed as a video production; it loses too much, but I think the way all three films work against each other balances things out. The viewer becomes more involved in creating their own experience. The fragmentation encourages the formation of an independent narrative.
ND- Yes, technically projection is an issue still- it was great to see Fatima's Letter projected as the film at Gimple Fils in Davies Street the other day. This is an important consideration for us to mention - the origination of film- the significance of materiality. As a cinematographer, it clearly is an important issue. For me, certain/ some works clearly are best "told", for want of a better world, using film as the originating material, and ideally presented on film because of the visual aesthetic. The emotive content and the physical presence are realized through an understanding of form and materiality. Like the new piece Eating Grass, where light is an essential figure, character if you like, to the telling and would not and could not be fully realized working on digital video. This is not denying that some works are better realized digitally where this is the correct aesthetic for the work, and or where its immediacy serves the inherent form/content relationship.
AS- I often have a very different way of beginning my films. I only seem to give you pictures verbally. I am also aware that communicating ideas is difficult, especially when they are in a process of formation. This film feels quite different, as both you and Tanya (Syed-producer) seem to be thinking and expanding the ideas. How do you interpret what I said? When although we share a lot of common ground we also have a lot of differences.
ND- Yes, I guess - I work very instinctively and intuitively, picking up on the nuances rather than the definitives. Asking questions that probe and push but also offer potential. Listening and working with the spaces in-between which are about a dialogue- an inflection - it's about a working relationship that isn't didactic. It's also about helping to give visual form to a process that at the moment is part textual. This is fundamental to the role of a cinematographer. In some ways, I could be seen as a partly first viewer in the process of realization. It's an exploration in the interpretation of someone's emotive landscape.
AS- Yes, I think it's interesting how you translate people's ideas visually. It's difficult, there is a lot of negotiation with people, technology, lights, and weather; you name it, it all has to be negotiated, and actually, sometimes you don't really know what is going to emerge! There are so many things that make up the whole, which is what I love about filmmaking- the unexpected. To end, our favorite quote:
In true travel, what matters are the magical accidents,
the discoveries, the inexplicable wonders, and the
wasted time. The superstition that we only see or only
film one single film is transformed within each of us to
this: from film to film we are in pursuit of a secret film,
hidden because its desire is not see.... without such a
secret film there is no cinematographic emotion. (Raul Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema)