5. Light Glyphs: John Adams
In his 1985 film, Intellectual Properties, John Adams created a work that is at once intimately redolent of its time and eerily prescient to a range of contemporary experiences: of politics and the virtual; advertising and the personal; escalations of capitalism and the value of art beyond, before and because of economic value; time and the desire for narrative as seduced by the media and its narratives of desire: and, of course, that time-honoured and lesser-known artistic pilgrimage of Newcastle to Boston…the transatlantic journey. Originally presented as a 6-monitor installation and later edited as a single one hour film, Intellectual Properties, jostles between 16mm footage and video-editing. It uses looped repetition to re-contextualise and manipulate reoccurring motifs, encouraging (or teasing) a sense of possible (and pluralised) narrative and itching between vocabularies of noir, surveillance, travelogue, documentary and advertising.
Throughout all of this, Adams maintains glances of wry humour and witty awareness that make the film accessible, and then, reflexively apprehensive of what and how such ‘accessibility’ is enabled: invoking a constant and anxious parallel in media strategies of pathos, narrative and association. In perhaps one of the most memorable sections, the visual seemingly disappears altogether leaving a black screen and white text – playing with voiceover and its tensions with text (and textual inconsistency) to compel and question rhythms of attention. It is an attention that is acutely bound and poised with turns of the comic as, in this case, the voiceover’s vignette seasons its dark account of an attempted overdose in McDonalds with throwaway puns: “one of his hang-ups was telephones”.
Combining an acute and characterful manipulation of language and sound, alongside film and video manipulation, Adams’ work has been screened widely and abroad since 1982. His work is held in major collections, including: Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Art Gallery of New South Wales; BBC and National Gallery of Ontario. Intellectual Properties has been revisited recently, screening in Tyneside Cinema’s Gallery (24th May – 18th June, 2017), offering a chance to engage again with this rewarding, playful and worryingly relevant marker in British experimental film.
Could you say a bit about your involvement in the Newcastle-based art collective ‘The Basement Group’? Beyond the programmed events (of which there were apparently over 230!) did the group have a presiding aesthetic or share a particular artistic approach and did this extend to political/social objectives?
There’s a lot of history between then and now.
I studied fine art at Newcastle Polytechnic between 1976 and 1979. It was an extraordinary time to be a student there. Many of the lecturers were visionary and forward looking, inviting a swathe of visiting practitioners from a number of disciplines. It so happened also that my year group was very strong. I recall that there were 9 firsts in that cohort on graduation, something that had not happened before. Some of those students working in performance and video art were encouraged by lecturers Roger Wilson and Stuart Marshall, to set up an exhibition space, following the demise of the Ayton Basement*. And so the Basement Group formed. We presented a wide range of work by students, emerging and established artists.
Generally speaking, much of that work was ephemeral, questioning the notion of art as commodity and the values of broadcast television at the time. The Basement Group evolved into Projects UK and subsequently Locus Plus, which still operates today as an internationally respected commissioning agency. Throughout, the organisation has been led by Jon Bewley, who appears in Intellectual Properties as the commentator on copyright. My own involvement over the years has been largely peripheral, serving on the board of trustees.
*A comprehensive essay by Richard Grayson, outlining the history and development of the organisation can be viewed here:http://www.richardgrayson.co.uk/texts/TWNHWYEssay.html
History of Locus Plus: http://www.locusplus.org.uk/information/history
Essay on the emergance of video art in the UK by Stuart Marshall: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/video_installation_in_britain(1).html
Throughout your films (I’m thinking here specifically of Sensible Shoes, 1983, Intellectual Properties, 1985, and Goldfish Memoirs, 1993) there is a reflexive preoccupation with film and/or video (probably a significant distinction) as a way to draw attention to how mercurial the same image(s) can be…always contingent, shifting in relation to sound, voice, text and context. Yet, rather than this being a structuralist tool interrogating the medium or a deconstruction of film-as-material, your repeated or re-visited rhythms of footage seem more engaged with just how vulnerable the viewer is to narrative and its suggestion. In Intellectual Properties we encounter the term ‘Mediaocracy’ and each chapter of the work is followed by the advertising quip “We’ll be back after these messages…” To what extent do you feel that the film’s anxiety around media representation, and the contexts of image manipulation, was specific to its time of making, in the 80s…and how, for you, has it changed and escalated?
Anyone who works in film and video, is naturally interested in the nature and properties of the media. In the case of the latter particularly, evolution of the form has essentially followed technological development. My contemporaries were largely exploring the properties and limits of the existing technologies, as was I. However, for me that wasn't enough. We are all engaged by stories - telling them, listening to them and sharing them. So I was looking for different ways to tell stories using approaches which were not conventional and certainly not mainstream. It occurred to me that the interpretation of moving images might be influenced and contextualised by the accompanying soundtrack and that by applying this concept in a number of ways, there was an opportunity to create multi-layered narratives.
Arguably, it is the task of the filmmaker to manipulate the feelings and thoughts of the audience and as an editor, I would always ask myself, ‘What is the viewer thinking now?’ Encouraging the viewer to modify those thoughts and interpretations, to reflect on and change that thinking during the course of the film, was an interesting notion for me. And that approach applies to the three works that you mention, to a degree. Structurally, to achieve that in Intellectual Properties, was a rather complex post-production process - and in fact was pushing the available technology to its limits. So I was definitely concerned with the properties of the medium in that sense.
Regarding the manipulation of the media, I was very interested in that. Immediately before working on Intellectual Properties, I was editing for Trade Films, (one of Channel Four regional workshops at the time) cutting videos supporting the union movement during the miners’ strike. The strike was lost in an avalanche of mainstream media propaganda and I was very aware of that. Moving to the USA to make the film, I was looking at the way mainstream media was being employed there. In the more or less the same way of course but overwhelmingly to sell products. It seemed inescapable - and in the land of plenty there was certainly lots of things to buy.
Looking out from the centre of capitalism, I was also thinking a lot about the future. My own, as a struggling artist and more generally the way the world was shaping up. It seemed to me unlikely that I could make a living in this way as the odds were stacked against the creator, for the most part. Hence the theme of copyright and intellectual property. From this viewpoint, it seemed that the world would be governed by business and therefore by privately owned media. I coined the term ‘mediaocracy’ to frame this and it seems, that is the way things have turned out. So in answer to your question, media rules - but interestingly it is social media which we have happily allowed to invade our private lives. Without coercion we seem willing and able to let the world know everything about us. So Orwell was a little wide of the mark I suppose. He couldn’t have guessed that 1984 would be the year that Mark Zuckerberg was born. When this bright spark conceived Facebook at Harvard, he probably was thinking more about getting laid than becoming Big Brother. But that’s the way it has turned out.
Watching Intellectual Properties now in 2017 (as it is currently screening at Tyneside Cinema, 24th May – 18th June) has a lot of disarmingly uncanny points of resonance for a contemporary audience: you have a gun-toting celebrity (John Wayne) reincarnated to run for presidency as a hologram; a vignette about banks collapsing and public funding of the arts; a company that delivers awkward or distressing phone calls on behalf of people, introducing corporate service into personal interaction; and surveillance, detachment and acting become the default states of a paranoid existence. There is also a sense in which the music and footage seem to play into current nostalgic obsessions with past versions of the future, the synth-squelch sci-fi of yesterday’s tomorrow…consequently Intellectual Properties seems to speak simultaneously to much of today’s concerns and to equally evoke film and media’s current turn to the 70s/80s in their varying and often sickly venerations of the retro. Since making the film have you been tempted to return to its increasingly prescient and threatening ideas for other projects?
The preoccupation with a vague retro past in music and film is a rather depressing notion. As if the ideas bag is somehow empty. It would be rather exciting to see a revolution in either medium and I think that it is long overdue. On the other hand, there is plenty of game-changing going on in the fields of science and technology. We are on the edge of something that will give many of us a bumpy ride. In self driven cars that we won’t own probably. Developments in artificial intelligence and robotics will have a major impact on society in the next 30 years and we can see already that social media is shaping politics and the cultural climate. Encouragingly, it appears too that for the young at least, the days of tabloid newspapers moulding public opinion are over.
So there is plenty to think about and speculate on. Witness the young couple on the sofa. She is wondering where the relationship is going and says to him, ‘Don’t you think that it’s time we had a discussion about the future?’ He says, ‘What, you mean about flying cars and all that?’
Could you talk through some of your points of influence for the film? Were there any British filmmakers at the time that interested you – or more literary/textual points of reference?
There are plenty of British filmmakers and artists that I admire but I can’t say that they influenced me directly. The work of Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker stood out for me as a student and Michael Snow’s Wavelength seemed to be a rather important film also. Probably writers have a greater impact on my thinking; Kurt Vonnegut and Haruki Murakami come to mind. The latter being one of the great living writers I think. The Magus by John Fowles was in mind whilst I was making Intellectual Properties. Bob Dylan’s words and music have been in my head since I was 13, so there is no doubt that my output has been slanted by his way of looking at the world.
The film uses footage from both Newcastle and Boston (I like the idea of a sign that might read: North Shields – twinned with Harvard!), returning often to the outsider figure journeying…could you talk a bit about your experiences filming in America? Did you get a sense of any particular art communities while you were over there, or discover anything in particular that has fed into your creative practice?
Intellectual Properties was made possible by a grant from Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities. A condition of the grant was that the work should be produced there. It was my first visit to the US and I was very fortunate to be offered accommodation with a talented and connected artist, Jane Gillooly. Jane introduced me to the wider community of artists and musicians in Boston and Cambridge. I was grateful to be welcomed by that mutually supportive group, many of whom contributed to the film and a few years later to a second more ambitious project, Jamaica Plain. I was treated very kindly as a guest there and subsequently drove across the country twice, generally finding a particular generosity of spirit in American people. However, I also became very aware of my own Englishness, something that I had never thought about before. I think that cultural difference informed Intellectual Properties and later work also.
In the section entitled ‘Medioacracy’, a voiceover relates the scenario of a therapist and her patient, a writer, and within this narrative the voiceover then follows a second narrative in which through meandering attention the writer recalls an attempted overdose in a McDonald’s toilet (on a literal seat of capitalism). It is perhaps the film’s most immediate and compelling section, despite there being no images – only white text on black. The style of prose feels consciously American, in an almost hard-boiled meets anecdotal/beat manner…were there any particular writers or scenarios you were drawing from here?
Well, I had read Kerouac, Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Vonnegut and so on before then, so subconsciously any of those might have influenced the style. Elmore Leonard too perhaps. Who knows? We all pick up stuff as we go along and it lodges there in some part of the brain. But consciously no. Reagan was president then, graduating from acting to politics with ease. I was thinking about that, wondering if he was really just a performer delivering the lines written for him. It was then that I began looking into the life of John Wayne, the now deceased Hollywood actor who seemed to embody the idea of the great American hero. Eventually after all of that musing one day it all came out on the page. Others say that they don’t know where writing comes from - as if the writer was just some kind of conduit - that rings true for me and I think that is certainly true of that story.
‘Mediaocracy’ was narrated by an American (Jane Gillooly) so I was aiming for an authenticity of voice and phrasing. I asked Jane to check the script and advise me on that. For example, Percodan, the drug used in the overdose, was at the time the drug of choice for suicide attempts in the US at the time and ‘Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life’ was the corniest country and Western song title she could think of. I couldn’t though, quite bring myself to spell words like ‘colour’ in the American way.
It was a little sci-fi story really, taking a punt at a future possibility. That future hasn’t quite happened yet but It seems quite possible that one day there will be a holographic president - or a robot. We aren’t that far from it really. The word ‘Mediaocracy’ came to me as a term which might describe the state of things in that particular world. Thirty odd years later we now live in one, certainly.
There are moments of disjunction between the text and voiceover – where the heard voice will betray the seen text – can you talk a bit about this process and how it might relate to revealing the tactics of narrative – what is said and what is implied? With the overarching ‘narrative’, or organizing principle, of Intellectual Properties being copyright, does the text and voiceover offer a different angle specific to language? The writer’s problem is, as the voiceover assures us, ‘he had absolutely nothing to say’, and yet, departing from the voiceover, the text at that point reads ‘he had committed the sin of plagiarism’…
It was an experiment, something that I hadn’t seen done before. I was surprised by the psychological effect of overlaying voice with text. I was playing around with the timing and displacement of words and voice initially, then introducing mismatches between the two, silences, blank screens and so on. Stuff designed to encourage the viewer to pay attention.
Regarding the specific example, plagiarism remains a cardinal sin in the creative community. A breach of intellectual property. Worse of course, if you are found out. My Sweet Lord, I hope it never happens to me.
The situation of psychoanalysis reoccurs in Goldfish Memoirs (1993) in which one of the interviewees describes psychoanalysis as a damaging way to negotiate the past, the film also describes the clichés of a self-help tape and interviews a psychologist on her interest in delusions. Returning to Intellectual Properties, the therapy scene is introduced with the text: ‘She doesn’t believe in the couch | for her, analysis should be | a cinematic experience’…to what extent do you agree with this? The recurrent presence of psychoanalysis (in both Goldfish Memoirs and Intellectual Properties) is paired with the significance of memory, I was wondering, along with the use of photographs and concepts of journeying, is this a point of connection with the films of Chris Marker?
Psychoanalysis had its origins over 100 years ago but when I first visited US in 1984, the idea of voluntarily undergoing therapy seemed to be a purely American preoccupation. The possibility that a working class bloke from Yorkshire would indulge in something like that would be laughable. Of course, what happens over there eventually happens here and so it has. I’m not sure whether any practitioner uses film as a tool to explore the psyche but the if the question is that it could psychoanalysis be a cinematic experience, then I would say why not? In the story, however that was just a device to introduce John Wayne, who starred in Red River the film being shown in the session. The film incidentally was the subject of a lawsuit by Howard Hughes, against producer/ director Howard Hawks. Hughes claimed that Hawks plagiarized a scene from an earlier film The Outlaw and forced a re-edit prior to release.
As I later discovered, a fundamental of psychoanalysis is the exploration of memory, one of my abiding interests. So in Goldfish Memoirs, a film about bipolar disorder, it was natural to explore themes of memory and analysis. Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil is an exploration of memory and the human condition, so to some extent there is a connection between that and Goldfish Memoirs.
He writes interestingly about that film here:
Goldfish Memoirs can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/130437025
A recognisable trait in all of your works is the presence of humour, through dry anecdotal wit or in protracted jokes there seems to be a continual and wry comedy at play. Sometimes, through puns or comic (mis)hearing, you seem to draw parallels between jokes as constructed and artificial devices and the trappings or manipulation of narrative – could you say a bit about these elements in your work?
I am very fond of using irony, humour and jokes in my work. Specifically, jokes have a particular relevance in Intellectual Properties in that they are passed around and shared freely. Generally, they are not subject to copyright and have long been viral before the term was coined in the modern context. Many jokes are also constructed to deceive and misdirect an audience, so it seemed appropriate to include them in a film which manipulates the viewer in a similar way. Humour often has a way of encouraging us to reflect on the human condition and perhaps Intellectual Properties makes some efforts in that direction.
You recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University…I would be fascinated to know what you think of ‘Creativity’ as a taught and institutionalised discipline, given the reflective nature of your engagement with creativity in your films: appearing, as it does, in tension with the concept of a profession; in relation to commerce; politics; funding; and mental well-being. How does writing and film relate for you, as they are both clearly fundamental to your creativity?
I have to say that I enjoyed the Creative Writing course immensely. For me it reaffirmed the fact that I could derive great joy from making up stories, from sometimes managing to put down appropriate words in the right order. However, the major lesson learned during that period of study, was how very difficult it is to make a living from writing. The tutors at Newcastle are highly talented and respected authors, poets and playwrights, yet they necessarily have to teach in order to survive. Nothing wrong with that of course and in my case I had no particular ambition to become a financially successful writer.
Regarding the question of whether creativity can be taught in any particular institution, I would doubt that. However, it can be encouraged and developed in the right environment, any kind of education is a good thing as far as I am concerned. For me writing, filmmaking and ceramics - which I studied for some years - are all part of the same thing. A desire to make stuff and say something to the world.
What projects are you working on at the moment – and do they continue to move between the linguistic (and/or literary) and the cinematic?
After half a lifetime of making videos and multimedia for commercial clients perhaps it is time to return to art for art’s sake. There is a half-written novel that I have to finish and I’m trying to solve some technical/software issues in order to make a new video installation. But what I really want to do is build a straw bale house.