Friday, 4 February 2011


I wrote an essay recently for APEngine, about artist film and documentary, and their intersection. You can link to it here, where it's been paired with a piece by Michael Avatar about working with Steve Jackman on a film about the choreographer Jeremy James. There's also a link to the trailer for Waste Land, Lucy Walker's film about the artist Vik Muniz's work with the garbage pickers of Rio, which was my absolute favourite among the films I watched while helping write the catalogue for the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. I've also appended my essay below, for archive, but please do check the site out. APEngine is having funding problems in the current climate, and deserves support...


Putting strict boundaries on a notion of artists’ film and documentary would be both impossible and self-defeating, but the obvious common ground that might define such a genre is linked to process. Later in this piece, Michael Atavar describes his use of ‘process work’ with filmmaker Steve Jackman, which both illustrates and demonstrates the point. There is a natural impulse toward the documentary to follow the process of artistic creation, yet there is an equally natural imperative born of film’s ability to, ‘unearth inner material’.

‘Form is never more than an extension of content,’ said the poet Robert Creeley, and artist film dealing with artists naturally embraces the materials of film narrative. Issac Julien mixed home movies, interview, ‘behind the scenes’ film footage and a Tilda Swinton essay into a portrait of Derek Jarman. Process forms the intrinsic link between art and film. We apply the concept literally to the visual arts, where we believe we ‘see’ work being created (think of Hans Naumath photographing Jackson Pollock painting on glass), and we understand instinctively that moving pictures are all about their own process, put together frame by frame. In Chris Landreth’s Ryan this means appropriating the tools of animation to approach the animator’s life and work.

Ryan reflects the way documentary film has traditionally chased process while trying to discover what makes things the way they are. I think of filmmaker Mary Lance’s Agnes Martin: With My Back To The World whose very structure, as well as its composition both reflects and illuminates Martin’s work, or Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, where the documenting of Vik Muniz’ project among the catadores of Rio De Janiero’s garbage dumps becomes part of the completed work itself.

Think back to the Tate Britain’s 2003 exhibition, A Century Of Artists’ Film In Britain, curated by David Curtis, whose broad boundaries included Duncan Grant and Gilbert and George, Kenneth Anger and Steve McQueen, and early shorts by Sally Potter and Peter Greenaway. It’s a world of crossover; Andy Warhol static films grew into the crucial spin to the elements of artistic process when he filmed Larry Rivers in Sleep; Warhol’s progress from art film to exploitation feature-films provided the model for Sam Taylor-Wood’s career. Yet when actor Ed Harris directed Pollock, a mainstream bio-pic, for all its reliance on the story elements required of feature-film drama, he not only recapitulated Naumath, but made the crucial link between the process of creation shared by artist and the actor.

Our world of Einstein and quantum physics is one where nothing is certain, where everything changes, and where the act of looking at, measuring, documenting an object is assumed to force a change on that object. In the bigger sense, all art is now documentary, and in an immediate sense, the borders between fiction and documentary grow ever more flexible. In Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, that border is assaulted as actors mime the voices of ‘real’ people from Andrea Dunbar’s documentary, and Dunbar’s plays are restaged on the estate where she grew up and one of her daughters still lives a life filled with tragedy and pain. Some critics found the mix less powerful than a straightforward doc about Lorraine Dunbar might have been, yet Barnard moved directly at the crucial question of what process informed Dunbar’s creativity. Explaining Ryan, Chris Landreth quoted Anais Nin, and defined that crucial distinction which informs the new meeting ground of artist film and documentary: ‘we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are’.