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Annabel Nicolson

By Felicity Sparrow

1. Prologue

The Art of Light and Shadow

North London 1973, a Victorian dairy, a former industrial space designed to be cold, now housing artists' studios. Up a worn stone staircase to the third floor, a door gives onto a dimly-lit hall, the cinema space of the London Film-Makers' Co-op.

The audience is gathered, standing and sitting to the sides and behind a woman seated at a small table bearing a Singer sewing machine. In front are two screens, one at an angle; behind is a film projector. Light glints off a long strip of film which is strung in a loop from the ceiling, descending to the sewing-machine table and back to the projector. House lights dim and the show starts.

From one side a second projector starts running, throwing a silhouette onto the angled screen: a life-size shadowgraph of the woman as she begins to operate the sewing machine. As the first projector starts an image appears in front: the black and white picture is of the same woman operating the sewing machine.

The room is full of noise: the steady whirring of the projectors, the clacking and clicking of the filmstrip as it passes over pulleys and through the projector, the hum of the sewing machine as the woman turns the handle, intent on her sewing… she's sewing the filmstrip! Carefully she manoeuvres the loop of film so that it passes beneath the machine's needle before passing back to the projector. There's no thread but the perforation of the film's surface soon becomes evident, as tears and holes of leaking light begin to appear in the onscreen image. This continues; the film getting more and more damaged as it continues its perilous journey, sometimes spilling, gathering dust and scratches, slithering along the floor, spectators picking it up and passing it along. Intermittently the image blurs as the film clatters and slips in the gate until it snaps altogether.

In the lull, while the projectionist mends the break, one can discern the voices of two audience-members as they read occasionally throughout the performance from separate instruction manuals: 'how to thread a sewing machine' and 'how to thread a film projector'.

Once repaired the film starts again, but the pauses become more frequent as the brittle filmstrip deteriorates, needing further splices. The screen image becomes all-but-obliterated by light, unlike the real-time moving shadowgraph which remains constant. The performance ends with the film's destruction, when the projectionist announces that it can no longer pass through the projector. The house-lights come on.

2. Reel Time...

Reel Time, described above, is perhaps the most celebrated of Annabel Nicolson's film performances. Unlike many performance artists of the 70s, whose actions were often created or re-staged for the camera, Nicolson was fiercely resistant to having her work documented.

The work remained 'live', unknowable unless you were there. The few photographs that exist of Reel Time are iconic, evoking rather than depicting the dynamism of the lived experience, and as such have often been used to illustrate the vibrancy of experimental film in the 70s. The piece is both conceptual and essentially filmic, highlighting the concerns of contemporary Structuralist filmmakers - the physical nature of the film medium and its means of visibility via the light emitted from projection sources. With its finite yet unpredictable duration and its actively engaged audience, it was Expanded Cinema at its most exemplary. However few commentators have considered its proto-feminist aspect: bringing together the domestic sphere of sewing and the public space of performance. The Singer sewing machine (invented some 45 years before the Lumières' Cinematograph) is both a familiar household object and potent symbol of women's hidden labour in the home and in sweatshops; by contrast the film projector, traditionally hidden above and behind cinema spectators in a closed-off box and operated by male projectionists, symbolises a vast male-dominated entertainment industry. That these two differently gendered machines could be thus linked was at the time revelatory, anticipating future ground-breaking work by feminist art practitioners.

Nicolson, who was one of very few women working in the Film Co-op during its early years (it did not employ female technical staff until the late 70s), was often daunted by the vagaries of the Co-op's film equipment: "The sewing-machine piece came about almost by accident... the idea came almost unbidden. The sewing machine was just part of my environment, on the table in my studio... it was something that I liked, something I knew how to use, and there were endless frustrations with film and with equipment and things not turning out how I hoped... and the idea of putting the film through the sewing machine was... it stopped it being so intimidating... by bringing the film together with the sewing machine it made it something I could deal with."

Reel Time's place in Nicolson's oeuvre is interesting in that it echoes the tactile nature of earlier productions like Slides, which includes sequences of sewn film, and later performances using light from various sources and an intense engagement with the physical space. The involvement of the audience, reading or otherwise participating, is also a hallmark of all Nicolson's live-action work, whether film-projection events or site-specific performances. Programming films for the Co-op Cinema (a post she held several times), encouraging artists from various disciplines as well as new filmmakers to present work, writing, publishing Readings, a magazine devoted to ephemeral time-based work, collaborating with musicians and working with women artists were to follow. Nicolson was also a founder member of Circles, an influential feminist distribution organisation, established in 1979 to promote women's film, video and performance. Female subjectivity, hinted at in Reel Time, became the focus of Women and Creativity (tape recordings, first presented at the 1978 Hayward Annual) in which various (unidentified) artists talk about their ways of working - audience members were encouraged to participate with reflections of their own experiences. The tension between public and personal space, between introspection and action, were further developed, often collaboratively with other women, like the Menstrual Hut in Concerning Ourselves (1981) which literally created a private meditative space within a public art gallery. Finally, there are resonances with the activity of sewing in later solo performances: In the Dream I Was Wearing Something Red (1981-82), in which words in red thread are literally sewn and enmeshed within the fabric of fine white cloth; and exhibited work: Works in Cloth (1986) and Of the Cloth (1988) in which the inscribed fabric is used as a metaphor for exploring the experience of being female.

3. Single-screen films

Like many of her contemporaries Nicolson came to film from painting.

The move towards abstraction in her paintings and chance encounters at Edinburgh College of Art with the direct-on-film work of Norman McLaren and Len Lye led her to pursue her own experiments, although it wasn't until her return to London and the Arts Lab that she made her first film, a short hand-painted and scratched loop, Abstract No. 1, presented at an open screening there in 1969. The involvement with the Film Co-op, then very much part of the Arts Lab, where Nicolson was organising gallery shows of mixed-media events and 'happenings', and access to modest 16mm equipment through a post-graduate course at St Martins, provided the catalyst for a number of short films made between 1970 and 1976. After Abstract No. 1 and Anju (1970, occasionally shown double-screen), a delicate, textured portrait of a young Indian woman, came the three films which encapsulate Nicolson' s tactile and intuitive method of working: Shapes (1970), Slides (1971) and Frames (1971-72).

Slides was assembled from precious fragments of earlier 16mm and 8mm films and 35mm slides of her paintings, which were cut into thin strips and taped together to form one long strip This was hand held in the Co-op's contact printer and moved up and down during printing. The images are mostly abstract, with vibrant colour flares, sewn and hand-painted sequences, a woman's face and other recognisable snippets interacting with framelines, sprocket holes and edge lettering moving in and out of the picture frame. The film's dynamism lies between the stillness of the original images and the on-screen movement, orchestrated by manipulating the speed and duration of the filmstrip against the printer light. This was undertaken whilst watching through the printer's viewer. "Slides came about very naturally… a clear development from my painting, something that I felt comfortable with that I could hold it in my hand. I could respond to the material, it was in my hands rather than in a camera." Watching the film we share the filmmaker's fascination with this transformative process. "It was an exploration of the things I liked about film, the light, colour, intensity; a chance to look at it all in depth."

Shapes, made before Slides, is also about re-examining and re-working filmed material. The original was shot on the roof of St Martins and in Nicolson's studio, where strips of coloured paper and gels were suspended from the ceiling creating a dense environment through which she wandered with a hand-held camera, often recording the installation in extreme close-up. The colours, shapes and rhythms of the original elements were developed by re-filming off the screen, deploying varying projector speeds, superimpositions and in-camera editing to create a richly-textured abstract vision. "I liked what you could do with re-filming because it gave you a chance to be more fluid… and then I got interested in the dust and the dirt and got quite swept away by that, by these little particles."

Frames, made after Slides, uses 8mm footage shot in Italy which underwent a process of deterioration through its use in an extended performance (over a whole weekend) during a Filmaktion presentation at Gallery House. Improvising with this material, images were directed around the room via a hand-held condenser lens to bounce off different surfaces. Like the filmstrip in Reel Time, this 'mishandling' meant it got very torn and scratched. This became the 'raw' material that was put through the Co-op contact printer to produce a 16mm film - a similar technique to Slides but with a different history.

4. Multi-screen and performance work

"The part of filmmaking I especially loved was the projection time because that's when the light, the beam, the moment came together - the fact that you were projecting."

Along with discrete films which were distributed via the Co-op, Nicolson also made a number of films which were (and are) only shown as part of a live presentation. Often 'slight' in subject matter and Cagean in their minimalism, they play on film's inherent paradoxes, like Piano Film (1976, single-screen) in which Nicolson 'plays' a wrecked piano (relic from the Co-op's then home, a former piano factory), its intermittent sound of tinkling notes counterpointing the image of destroyed keys as these are lifted and rearranged on the keyboard.

A fascination with light, both projected and reflected, shadows and incidental light cast from windows and doorways, formed the basis for some extraordinary performances, often initiating from the early 70s but continuing to the present. Early shows with Filmaktion (a loose-knit group of filmmakers, including Malcolm Le Grice, Gill Eatherley, William Raban and others, who came together to present multi-screen work) often included loops, hand-held, sometimes lens-less projectors, moving about the space or beaming onto pieces of paper or objects, even onto the roof. Some of these evolved into other pieces. Images were inspired by small, often mundane things in her environment which nevertheless had resonances. Sky for the Bird on the Roof of My Mind began as a projection in Nicolson's studio - wherein a tarred-over crack in the glass roof produced the semblance of a bird, or the shadow of a bird in flight. This in turn became Jaded Vision (1973) a two- or three-screen work featuring the original 'bird' film, a 3-D paper bird suspended in front of the projector lens to cast a fluttering silhouette, and a performer - either Nicolson herself or a volunteer from the audience - spinning a microphone, its 'feedback' creating an eerie soundtrack evoking the call of a seabird. This was re-created for the Whitechapel's Live in Your Head exhibition in 2000, a 35mm photographic-film cylinder with a slot cut into it substituted for the microphone which was swung overhead by the performer, producing a keening-like whistle. From such simple images and sounds, Nicolson weaves a kind of magic, a transformation which allows for a suspension of disbelief. Precarious Vision (1973) also involves an audience member as performer, standing with their back to the screen, trying to read in sync with projected film of a short passage of text. Nicolson, operating the projector, gives clues: covering the lens and withholding the light if the reader is going too fast, or freeze-framing the image until she/he has caught up if going too slow. Shadows cast by the reader and the intoned text "at times flights of the imagination stay fixed in the mind's eye…" play on the tension between read and spoken word, between light and dark. In another dramatic use of light, Matches (1975) dispenses with projectors, deploying match-light in the hands of two volunteers in a completely darkened room. They are given copies of the same text and asked to read alternately. Continuing in snatches, each reads from the point they themselves had reached before, the duration and only means of illumination being determined by the strike of a single match, its flame briefly flickering, throwing ghostly shadows on the wall. The text itself, 'Candlepower and the Fading of Light' could have come from a magic lanternists' journal on how to read light's volume.

5. Performance

From the mid-70s film became less an integral part of Nicolson's performances, "I think I became more and more interested in the performance space, the situation and the incidental things.. it was almost as if I didn't need the film material, I could do things just with light, just with buildings."

This led to a series of epic-like performances, some of them outside, like Sweeping the Sea (1975), others in galleries and artists' or musicians' spaces, utilising ambient light, even on occasion a cauldron of fire suspended from the ceiling. "I think that the things I love about performance, or performing, are the things that make it difficult - it's that truth to the moment when you're trying to create something within a space and everything has to come together at that moment."

Nicolson's art is about the materials she uses, whether the physical materiality of canvas and the filmstrip or the immateriality of transient light and space in performance. Like a phantasmagorist she employs minimal means to conjure the marvellous, from the film-loops she manipulated so idiosyncratically in her earliest expanded-cinema pieces to the later performances using voice, recorded sounds and small precarious sources of light to create intimate scenarios which simultaneously make metaphorical reference to the 'seeing in the dark' magic of cinema and the ancient tradition of fireside storytelling.

Felicity Sparrow

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