“I will miss walking on to a photochemical film set. It has a magic to me. When the director says: 'Action', and the film is rolling, it feels like something is at stake. It feels important and intense. In a way, death is present in the rolling of that film – we live, right now – and the director says: 'Cut'. And that moment in time is captured on film, really.”
- Keanu Reeves in the book accompanying Tacita Dean’s FILM (2011)
In late 2010 British artist Tacita Dean received one of the last Turbine Hall commissions from the Tate Modern.
A massive exhibition space that towers five stories high, the Turbine Hall has been host to a series of visceral, spectacular commissions from artists like Rachel Whiteread, Olafur Eliasson, Anish Kapoor and Louise Bourgeois. It must be one of the biggest, and certainly the most daunting, spaces for which an artist can make a work.
Dean, whose works are usually small in scale and intimate in nature, is the first to admit that she's an unlikely choice for the mighty Turbine Hall. At a recent talk at ACMI, she described “lying on my bed in a paralysis of fear” in the ensuing months after agreeing to the project.
For Dean, the new commission from the Tate Modern coincided with unhappy news. The London film laboratory she used announced suddenly that it would no longer print 16mm film; it was the last professional lab still printing 16mm in the UK. “At that point I realised what my Turbine Hall project had to be about, it had to be about film.”
In order to fill the soaring Turbine Hall space, Dean decided to make a film in portrait format, by flipping wide-screen film on its side. The result, FILM, is a portrait of film in portrait format, sprocket holes and all.
Dean says she wanted to make a film that could only be made with photochemical film equipment, “I didn’t want to have any digital intervention in the picture at all.”
“The point about how FILM was made was that it was all made inside the camera. So the energy was invested in the moment of capture. I didn’t rely in any way on post production. So whatever happened in the camera is what you got.”
At the ACMI lecture, it was clear that Dean relishes the endlessly fiddly, mistake-riddled, pain-in-the-arse-ness of it all. That laborious process is, after all, what makes film film.
“I can talk at great length about the differences between what I perceive [in] making a film and making a digital work. But one of the most important ones is the reliance in the digital cinema on post production, and that the energy that used to go on in the film studio or at the moment of capture has been dissipated.” As a result, says Dean, film has become more mediated, more removed, less spontaneous and less risky.
Critics and journalists like to try and poke holes in Dean’s logic. They ask, what about the 8-track, shouldn't we mourn for it too? (Dean’s answer: sure, but the 8-track’s brief history is nothing compared with cinema’s century-defining 120 year reign). And they ask, what’s so bad about digital? (Dean’s answer: nothing, but film and digital are different and we ought to have both).
I could do the same kind of nit picking. So many of the analogue processes that Dean loves – hand tinting, masking, multiple exposures, anamorphic film – were once special effects, like CGI and 3D are now. They belong to the same tradition and history, if not material.
In the Q and A session at the end of her lecture, Dean admitted she exhibits in galleries so she can control how her films are seen, and because the audience is more responsive (“a cinema audience depends on narrative and an art audience is in contempt of it” – zing!). But surely screening in a darkened theatre with a captive crowd is an integral part of the material experience of film (after all that’s what the 1895 date marks; a public performance to paying punters).
Ultimately, FILM isn’t an intellectual response to the demise of photochemical filmmaking, it’s an emotional one. There is a palpable sense of grief that pervades Dean’s commentary (and that of the filmmakers who've contributed to the book that accompanies FILM, see Keanu Reeves’ remarks above). The tall format even looks a tad like a tombstone. In many ways FILM isn’t a portrait of film so much as an obituary.
>> Maura Edmond
>> all quotes from Tacita Dean's lecture On FILM at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, 10 October 2013