Sunday 21 March 2010

Ed Ruscha Film Challenge 2009

Okay, I'll come clean, I never got to see the Damien Hirst exhibition inspite of all my best intentions. In fact this blog has laid dormant since November 2009 and it is a source of much guilt. Shouldn't be, but it is. My only excuse is that I've been extremely busy with work and other stuff. Which is, all in all, a good thing. But don't you find that it is the uplifiting, cultural excursions in life that get squeezed (plus properly catching up with your friends)? So it was a very pleasant surprise to be asked by the Southbank Centre to take part in their Ed Ruscha Film Challenge. (Slightly weirdly, days before my invite I had tweeted a picture of this exhibition poster (right) and asked my very few Twitter followers whether anyone had been to the exhibition, or knew much about Ruscha. No one replied and I never did find out whether my tweet had created a ripple in SocialMediaTwittersphere which led to my invitation but I like to think it might have. Otherwise, why tweet?).

The deal was to choose a 45 minute slot from a selection of dates provided by the gallery and make a 30 second film about any one, or combination, of 7 of Ed Ruscha's paintings. I was allowed to take some video equipment in but no lights. The winning filmmaker would win a prize of a camera and the film would be used in the promotion of the exhibition. This was a great fun invite that I couldn't turn down. I swotted up on his work (being only vaguely familiar with a few iconic pieces) and made sure I had some grasp of Ruscha's role and influence in the US 50s-60s pop art scene and off I went to the Southbank.

One of the curators re-explained the rules to the competition (she had already emailed them to me) and then firmly, but politely, showed me which paintings I could film and which I could not. "You definitely cannot film "Oof". Ed has not given permission for that one to be included." I didn't want to film "Oof" anyway. I had my sights on Oof's companion piece "Noise" (1963).

Here is my film. It didn't win. Too noisy I reckon.

The bold yellow letters on a blue canvas are utterly impenetrable. The painting baffles me and entertains me. What could I possibly bring to this pure piece of 1960's pop art skullduggerry? Well, I could certainly bring a lot of noise. So that's what I did. I also filmed the busy black and white mountainside from Ruscha's later work "Me" (1999). The texture of the mountains reminded me of the television fuzz that you used to get when programmes finished late in the evening. My friend, Jo Herlihy, kindly let me record a telephone call we had one evening where we discussed politics, Ruscha's work and other stuff. I recorded some sounds and words that caught my attention from the exhibition, in particular a quote from Hamlet that features in another Ruscha painting: "words without thoughts never to heaven go". The words stuck in my head all day. Great words. Noisy words. Ruscha, a playful artist, might have been suggesting in his use of Shakespeare that many of his word paintings like "OOF" and "NOISE" were simply "words without thoughts" with no exalted ambition. Just abstract words.

My editor friend, Ben Hooton, jumped on board and kindly edited the film, supplied the "right-back-at-you-Ruscha" idea "NOISE IS NO NOISE" and donated some of his double-bass playing. I hoped to create a small visual and audio cacophony. Ruscha's direct painting is so "unnoisy" that by filming my film on an iPhone and a consumer digital stills camera with "video capabilities" I could break the painting up into noisy pixels. As a video producer most of the time you want to light shots sufficiently so that you can eliminate artefacts and pixel noise. It was liberating to use no lights and work with very noisy images.

At one point I stepped over the low wire cordon separating me from the painting and got both my cameras to within an inch of canvas and just filmed the edges of the big yellow letters. Gallery security kept a close eye on me but let me get on with it. I am very pleased they did. What a privilege.

Here is Fiona Skinner's winning film with a great voiceover from Johnny Marr.

Some useful Ruscha links:
Ed Ruscha’s great subject by Jackie Wullschlager
Ed Ruscha: A man of his words by Tom Lubbock
Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting by Laura Cumming