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Surface Tensions
Katy Greaves on Ian Breakwell for Blueprint magazine, March 2002

Music is playing, couples are dancing, the light is slowly fading. But how much does it take to shatter this tranquil scene? Katy Greaves finds out what particularly draws Ian Breakwell, an artist at home in many genres, to film

As we sit, drinking tea in the comfortably cluttered kitchen of Ian Breakwell's Stoke Newington home, he says it's a good job I didn't come the day before. "I was crabby, irritated, short-tempered and distracted," he says, smiling gently and rolling a cigarette so calmly and methodically. I find that hard to believe. However, this isn't just some capricious mood swing of an artist. The showing of Breakwell's latest art installation at the de la Warr pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, had been threatened by the bane of every artist's life: technical and financial problems. Three weeks of agonising uncertainty had been resolved only, that morning.

The work is called The Other Side and will run until the end of April. It is an audiovisual presentation featuring elderly couples dancing a slow and stately waltz around the balcony of the pavilion to the tune of Schubert's Nocturne as the evening light fades. The camera pans slowly across the hypnotic scene, and as the lulling music builds up to a dramatic crescendo it is the only hint of anything behind the tranquil, faded nostalgia.

The film is projected on to both sides of a free-standing, white-painted wall in a blacked-out gallery. The installation shows four-minute filmed sequences of the pavilion balcony - first with, then without, dancers; when one side shows dancers, the other is empty. the idea is that viewers will move around the wall to see what's happening on the other side. At the end of the 13-minute projection, the trance is abruptly broken by the sound of glass shattering. A disconcerting darkness accompanied by the sinister rumble of thunder and screaming of sea gulls follows, demonstrating just how fragile an idyll this is. At least, that's the potted version. Breakwell's explanation is a much fuller and more revealing insight.

The work is the culmination of his Year of the Artist residency at the De la Warr Pavilion. It's been a busy year for the award-winning multimedia artist represented by the Anthony Reynolds Gallery. Besides the residency, his new film, Variety, commissioned by the British Film Institute, premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival last ear and his latest diaries, Derby Days, was launched at the same time at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

For the past 30 years, Breakwell has supported himself as a painter, photographer, film-maker, writer, digital artist - the works. You get the impression that he'd try his hand at anything. Composing or singing, however, is not one of them. "I love music," he says, "but I'm not musical. I was never going to be the next Beatle." Which is ironic, because he used to he mistaken for one in the Sixties. People used to chase him down the Tube, even though they could never work out which band member he was.

Years later, the situation was reversed and he was spat at in the street because people thought he was Charles Manson. These days he looks more like a black- and-white movie villain - all steely-grey goatee, gaunt cheek bones and heavy brows atop a compressed, wiry frame.

While he's done a bit of performance art in his time, acting has never appealed. he's not keen on thespians, rarely watches TV and tends to use real people in his films. For the multiphonic video- projection work Auditorium with composer Ron Geesin in 1993, he took 62 volunteers and rehearsed them individually over three months. "They gave an amazing performance," says Breakwell. "If you treat people properly, with respect, they can tap resources and give you something more."

He is at pains to point out that his mastery of so many genres is not an end in itself. "I use whatever means are necessary to say what I want to say," he explains. "1 follow ideas and decide how best to convey them." This is how he got into digital technology. It wasn't that he was interested in computers, merely that they could facilitate collage and montages that would take years to do by hand.

The seeds were sown in art college when he chose to do a split course: painting and print making. "It established fior me that there is both a mechanical way, and a hand-made way." he says. Art college hack in the Sixties was a very disciplined, academic training, and there was a subsequent reaction against it, with students encouraged to do their own thing. While Breakwell defends the freedom, he worries that things have gone too far, and students are coming out of college, blustering and brash on the surface but insecure underneath.

Despite the restrictions of a very "taught" course, Breakwell feels privileged to have been at art college in those seminal years of the Sixties. "the whole fashion, art, design, music thing was starting to happen," he says. "And most of it came from the art colleges." It was also the first time it was recognised that people of Breakwell's background, essentially working class, could be creative. Before that, most artists were privileged and had private means. For Breakwell, the decision to go to art college was a major move. At the time, everyone from his locale either went to work in the lace factories in Iongeaton or built railway carriages in Derby. Breakwell's father was a machinist who, when the bottom dropped out of the lace industry was made redundant. he was unemployed for 14 years. "I grew up with that and its effects - it corrodes and eats away at the foundations of a family" says Breakwell.

Breakwell says he identifies with David Hockney who says in his book Hockney on Hockney: "Art college was the ticket out." It's not that he hated Longeaton any more than Hockney hated Bradford, nor that he wanted to turn his back on his roots, merely that he wanted to go beyond them. Breakwell went to art college in Derby and, while his contemporaries who went to college in London got off to more of a firing start, he seems to have lasted the course better than many. "Perhaps it's just that by the time I actually got to London, I brought something different as a person and artist," he reasons.

The fascination with film was brought about by something of an epiphany when he was still in college. "I'd gone to the corner cinema and up on screen came the title, The Seventh Seal, subtitled A Film by Ingmar Bergman." Breakwell missed the first 10 minutes because he was stunned by the realisation that "this person had made a film like Francis Bacon made a painting, and Franz Kafka made a book". Before that, films had always been defined by their description as a Western or a thriller, or who was in it. A couple of ears later, a friend who was a technician at the BBC found a dustbin full of old and faded but unused film reel and they made a "cute, daft" film about the streets of London.

I wondered whether the romance of that faded first film informed mood and faded look of The Other Side. "You're probably right," Breakwell says, although the content conies from more recent observations. When he was invited to take up the residency at the De La Warr pavilion, he was drawn not so much by the modernist building, which he acknowledges is beautiful and unique, but the town itself: He refers to it as Costa Geriatrica because 60 per cent of Bexhill's population is over 65. "It's a very conservative, old-fashioned, gentrified place," he says, "but a ghost town after 6pm." Apparently, there are three Stannah stairlift shops in town and only three pubs.

Breakwell spent a lot of time in Bexhill during the residency and used to watch the afternoon tea dances on the terrace outside the pavilion. "You'd get this guy on the keyboards playing cheesy listening music while old people sat around and watched," he says. Then every now and again a tune would strike a chord and the old people would unfold themselves out of their deckchairs with great difficult, then start to move. There was this whole atmosphere with the setting sun, calm sea, cheesy music and old people gracefully dancing. It was almost kitsch, but at the same time there was something quite magical and touching about it."

Another time, he was wandering on the promenade one summer's evening and found himself surrounded by a gang of youths. They were throwing pebbles on the beach, then started throwing them at him, then bigger stones, then rocks. Breakwell found himself trapped and in a potentially dangerous situation. he only escaped by "behaving eccentrically" enough to confuse them for long enough to scarper.

The thing was, I knew it was nothing to do with me," he says. "They were just disaffected kids who were bored and feeling destructive. If I hadn't happened along they would probably have just chucked rocks at buildings." It was this other side to the nostalgic net-curtain surface of the town that he wanted to convey in his installation.

The technical side of things has finally come together, but Breakwell won't know if the Other Side "works" until the projectors and surround-sound are installed and people are circulating in around the space. "It's nerve-wracking," he says, but having been drawn in and bewitched by the film, I have a sneaking suspicion he has little to worry about.

Katy Greaves
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