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Reading the Light
Sue K. on a film screening which featured old and new works by Guy Sherwin. First published in Filmwaves, 2002

Amongst the furore of the London Film Festival, visits by renowned film artists Michael Snow and Peter Kubelka, and the collapse of the Lux, a small yet well curated experimental film programme stood out. Screened every Tuesday night at the 291 Gallery, the programme Light Reading is the concept of film artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. Both Mirza and Butler established the programme to fill what they felt was a void within the experimental / avant-garde film and video scene in London. With Light Reading, they created an environment which encouraged artists and viewers alike to become actively discursive within an intimate yet public arena.

The third screening in the programme series presented works by Guy Sherwin, Nicky Hamlyn and a collaborative piece by Mirza and Butler. Each of the pieces selected for this screening explore film space by working with the specific peculiarities of either the camera mechanism or editing techniques, or by introducing social constructs of space within film.

Sherwin and Hamlyn have both been using film in their practice since the 1970s. The third Light Reading screening showed works of theirs that crosses the expanse of time since then to now. Two short three minute films that belong to Sherwin's Short Film Series, Cycles and Tree Reflection, were shown. An ongoing work that began in the mid 1970s, Short Film Series encompasses a collection of three minute films. The ability of both Cycles and Tree Reflection to fascinate the viewer persists even though both productions are nearly thirty years old. The poignancy of Cycles remains with each viewing. This film reflects the passing of time in its image, the shadow of a figure crossing the frame in an arch direction around a bicycle's tyre. The tyre does not move, it remains constant in the middle of the frame. The tyre becomes a measure against which time is constructed, it is the 'yardstick'.

In contrast to this earlier work of Sherwin's is the more recent film Under the Freeway. Filmed in San Francisco in 1995, what becomes evident when viewing the work is the structure in which the activities of the local people are filmed.This was achieved by Sherwin by filming consecutive shots of an adjacent space at a ninety-degree angle to the previous shot.The structure creates what seams to be a seamless diary in three-dimensional form. Accompanying the screen image is a sound that, by being placed out of sync with the visuals, adds a poetic illusion to the 'rough and ready' environment of life under a San Franciscan freeway. An ontological link is maintained between the sound and image of the work by the audio being recorded at about the same time in the same location. However, because this link is not entirely literal to the image in Under the Freeway, it denies any possibility of a complacent attitude to the role and function of audio in film.

The approach to sound and image in Under the Freeway was further explored by Sherwin in his 1998 film Filterbeds. Filmed with a telescopic lens, this film highlights the craftsmanship that Sherwin confidently executes. An intense exploration of the visual is achieved with the use of the mechanisms of the camera. The abandoned site of the Middlesex filter beds with its animals and overgrown plant life is the subject of the film. Within it, Sherwin makes a parallel between the act of seeing and the inquisitiveness of the camera lens. By adjusting the focus while zooming in or out, an array of texture that contrasts black and white and all of the variations between is produced.

Alongside the visuals of the film, and in contradiction to Sherwin's belief that sound "detracts from the image", the audio also takes 'centre stage'. For example when a plane appears in the sky its sound is not given in-sync with its image but at a counter point to it. As a result, the sound exists independent of the image, and neither is subordinate to the other. While the majority of his films are made without any audio, Sherwin clearly demonstrates with both Filterbeds and Under the Freeway his apt ability to incorporate this aspect of the film medium within his work. With these works Sherwin achieves what he set out to do, to document the shifting parallels between image and sound.

The structural space of film found in Sherwin's work is also found in the work of Nicky Hamlyn. Hamlyn also explores the nature of space with the use of a stationary camera, yet the majority of the spaces filmed by him offer a different intimacy, this results, from the close confines of the spaces chosen. Space as an intimate subject is consistent throughout the majority of Hamlyn's work. This can be seen in an early piece of his, Silver Street (1975), which was screened for the Light Readingprogramme. The subject for the visuals of the work was the front room of Hamlyn's apartment which sat above a junk shop in Reading. The work produced during Hamlyn's student days, makes an inquisitive film journey into the internal and external environment of the room.

The intimacy of the confined space of a room was revisited by Hamlyn in his 1999 work Not Resting. The work, shot in a bedroom, has an added restriction of being recorded from the bed only. What is most striking is the starkness of the whiteness of the interior of the room. The uniformity of the white walls and bed linen provide a basis for the understanding of form through light and shadow. This sets the scene for the subject of the film, space. The series of stationary camera views adds to the dialogue introducing a contrasting two-dimensional space. Memory becomes the interloper with which an understanding of the three-dimensional space is constructed.

Hamlyn's fascination with the effect made by filming stark white surfaces overlaps to one of his most recent works Penumbra (2002). By using a lens-extension tube an extreme close up that documents the effect of lighting changes on the relatively flat surface of bathroom tiles is achieved. An illusionist image of space that appears in the form of what seems to be a low relief construct is given. This is reminiscent of the effects gained when paint is 'dolloped' onto the surface of the celluloid material in a hand painted film work. Penumbra is poetic in its approach to the nondescript subject of grout and tiles.

In relation to Sherwin and Hamlyn, relative newcomers to experimental film Karen Mirza and Brad Butler present a different approach to film space in their work Non Places (1999). Mirza and Butler used a combination of text and image to create a dialogue between the documentation of memory and image and the constructs of fiction. By juxtaposing narrative text that describes real experiences with the image documentation made by the camera, Mirza and Butler create a situation that encourages the construction of a fictitious space. The intermittent relationships between text and image provide the foundations with which a narrative is made. In the first scene, this occurs when a shot of an empty street of tall buildings is accompanied by a text of first person narrative. The text informs that a fight between two people has been witnessed. Because image and text occur simultaneously upon the screen, a link between the event and the viewed space is made. This causes a belief that the event related through the text actually occurred upon the streets within the image. Yet, it is not what happened. The scene eventually changes to another that depicts the underpass entrance to an underground station, leaving the narrative of the former scene incomplete. The blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction is further enhanced by the relative absence of human activity within the screen image. With this absence, it becomes difficult to position narrative space entirely within the frame, and increasingly compensation for this will be made within the role played by the viewer. The links between image and text become the links between fact and fiction created by the audience.

These works by Sherwin, Hamlyn, and Karen Mirza and Brad Butler may not attract a broad spectrum of general public, but while many flocked to the mainstream film work on show for the London Film Festival it was reassuring, that events such as Light Reading gathered many interested viewers. This programme and many others like it offer an alternative viewing to that seen in most festivals' calendar. The works presented in these programmes challenge both filmmakers and viewers in a way that is not seen in films common to television and cinema screenings.

Sue K
Filmwaves
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