In Search of A Past
Author: Jeremy Bubb
Format: Video installation
Duration: 13′ 15″
Published: May 2021
My mother Dorothy was diagnosed with dementia, in 2015 she passed away from the disease. In response, I produced an art piece to celebrate her life using creative practice to explore the effects of loss to continue a ‘deep conversation and insightful dialogue’ (Eisner 2008: 7), and its effects.
In Search of a Past (ISOAP) was produced in response to a brief that included, ‘…a metaphor for an interior world, with implications of death, loss or transcendence’. Psychotherapist, Andrew Belfour, a dementia expert, wrote, ‘loss is not ‘over’ – in death even, not a definitive full-stop; the presence of the person who is lost continues with you, in the interior of your living being, and in your experience of the world’ (2020: 118); and, on making art for the public domain, artist Bill Viola commented, ‘in the end what’s important for me is that experiences then gets shared. The sharing is essential: it imparts life to the work’ (1995: 280). Loss and sharing experience of dementia were two key factors.
In Search of a Past is a three-panel moving image artwork originally produced for a group public art exhibition called Space Shift, exhibited at the APT Gallery London 2018. The artwork is a part of a body of research investigating approaches to multi-image screen stories and builds on previous works: Angels with Folded Arms (2005), Writ in Water (2009), Palimpsest (x4) (2016), several published articles, and conference papers.
– Can an ethical representation be made of an individual for public consumption who is suffering from dementia, and unable to consent to the use of her image at the time of filming?
– How can semi-fictionalized autoethnography aid storytelling to continue a memory of an individual through the use of a moving image artwork, how does it function within a public exposition?
– How does the context of the gallery contribute to the process of sharing a moving image installation that uses discreet screen space, slow cinema influences, and a discursive approach to knowledge?
Batty and Kerrigan describe this type of research as, ‘a site for systematically gathering reflections on the process of doing/making, in order to contribute knowledge to the practice of doing/making (practice-led research, practice-as-research)’ (2018: 7).
In Search of a Past contributes to the field of practice as research by:
– The development of strategies for employing moving image to foster reflective contemplation through visual means, and democratize knowledge;
– The advancement of knowledge and understanding through insight into the effects of dementia via an interdisciplinary approach, using semi-fictionalized autoethnography to create a narrative structure;
– Adopting a process of re-imaging archival photographs to address the concerns of visual representation and ethical issues;
– Providing a case study in using lateral editing and influences of slow cinema, over three separate panels to manipulate time and space to create an exposition and celebration of the achievements of a working-class woman, to recognize the different stages of her life, and the challenges of old age and dementia.
The methods used are cross-disciplinary and include slow cinema, fine art practice, photography, practice as research, and art research.
ISOAP was designed for gallery audiences prepared for viewing unconventional, subtle forms of narrative in the moving image, and open to contemplation and reflection. The artwork creates an interplay between ‘illusion and disillusion’, facilitating an examination of material photographic qualities and content. While the installations I produce are the main work and designed to function in the gallery, they should also exist as stand-alone films, often needing minor adjustments to compensate for on-screen or online viewing.
This work draws on the art of Bill Viola, Catherine’s Room (2001), The Dreamers (2013), Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) (2014), and particularly the use of the three panels in the Nantes Triptych (1992) and John Akomfrah’s Unfinished Conversation (2012), which uses ‘connections between narratives’ (Akomfrah 2013). Viola said, ‘Concerning my use of the classical triptych, the triple image is an ancient form. I am interested in it as a reference to the European Christian tradition (of art)’ (1995: 244). ISOAP uses three-screens to establish distinct time frames: ‘early past’, ‘contemporary’, and ‘late past’, and make connections between them. This is different from my previous exploration of the moving image triptych, Writ in Water (Bubb 2009), which uses cause and effect to portray a conventional dramatic narrative. This is reminiscent of Abel Gance’s approach in Napoleon (1927). According to Richard Abel, ‘In the “Bal des Victimes,” for instance, Gance relies basically on the “classical” style of editing that creates a spatial-temporal continuity to ensure a clear chain of character action’ (1982). ISOAP foregrounds image over narrative, and therefore different concerns are at play in creating meaning, with very little actual film editing required and more of a reliance on the understanding of art installation and ensuring synchronicity of three screens during exhibition. I already had experience in this when making Palimpsest (2016), another art installation film, in both cases, slow cinema techniques were preferred in order to establish a dialectical contemplative mood, allowing audiences to read across screens to form connections and thoughts in a democratic and discursive manner. The installation at APT Gallery, was presented on three separate 50” monitors, hung side by side, three centimetres apart, the film version is on Vimeo.
The influence of photographic practices
During her illness, Dorothy was unable to give consent to the use of her image, and it was unethical to film or photograph her during the latter stages of her life, so there is no moving image of her used in this piece. Instead, I used a collection of photographs, which had been taken over several years, found in photo albums. The pictures include a range of images taken in various places, situations, and times. Bourdieu’s (1990) observation of amateur pictures concludes that family snaps ‘sacralize’ the relationship between the photographer and subject. They prioritise intimate moments captured and are more about shared experiences than considerations of formal structures such as framing and exposure. In ‘The Relational Amateur’, Karen Cross (2012) quotes Bourdieu: ‘The taking and contemplation of the family photograph presupposes the suspension of all aesthetic judgement’.
The photographs are re-authored through a process of re-imaging, formal adjustments were made to clarifying meaning and prepare images for public exhibition, the original purpose was not to create memorable images but to create images of memorable times.
All photographs were digitized with analogue qualities enhanced to recognise the technologies of amateur photography. Colours and textures were emphasised, as were ink and paper surfaces to reflect changes in the point-and-shoot market.
The approach to sound in this project is loosely based on a statement by Walter Murch, ‘Image and sound are linked together in a dance. And like some kinds of dance, they do not always have to be clasping each other around the waist: they can go off and dance on their own, in a kind of ballet. (Murch and Paine 1981). In some places, picture and audio work together in an obvious way, at other times in a more surprising way. The distant sounds of the environment indicate emptiness and isolation through large swathes of asynchronous wild track. ‘If the sound or voice is not tied up with a picture of its source, it may grow beyond the dimensions of the latter’ (Balázs 1970: 120). When filming on location an open door ushered in the faint distant sounds of suburbia, creating a quiet reflective state, which is counterbalanced with closer sounds, such as a ticking clock and a ringing phone. ‘We feel silence when we can hear the most distance sound or the slightest rustle near us. Silence is when the buzzing of a fly on the windowpane fills the whole room with sound and the ticking clock smashes time into fragments with sledgehammer blows’ (Balázs 1970: 2016).
Drawing on the work of Thomas Ruff
A social worker compared Dorothy’s mental condition to looking through a photograph album of memories, only to find blank pages. ISOAP attempts to replicate this by using scans of the reverse side of photographs, this also refers to Thomas Ruff’s work, press++ series (2017), which is a collection of media clippings from American newspapers gathered over several decades and includes the back and front of photographs. The images were scanned, showing the editor’s comments and instructions on ‘touch-ups’ and confirmation stamps. Similarly, the reverse side of my family photographs, not only carried trademarks from Agfa, Kodak, and Ilford, encoded data evidencing a technical process of the past, but also handwritten notes, dates, places, and names written by Dorothy’s hand. These marks on white paper evoke a trace, like footprints in the snow, what Macfarlane refers to as ‘foil’; ‘A creature’s foil is its track’ (Macfarlane 2012: 13). These marks evidence Dorothy’s hand, revealing a system for organizing family memories for prosperity, a key feature of the family album.
The influence of Slow Cinema
The central panel of ISOAP uses the traditions of slow cinema and draws on the work of filmmakers such as Michelangelo Frammartino, and Sergei Dvortsevoy in particular, employing a static frame as well as long takes. ISOAP creates slowness by similar methods, using images that are undisrupted by visual activity within the frame or distracting camera movements, as well as long takes. The frame defines a space and invites scrutiny of subtle images that uses slowness as a critical tool for viewing. ‘Using the time-image as one of its main construction tools, a cinema of slowness invites us to form a different relationship to the images we see, to relish them as self-contained units of time and space, and to see them unfold at a pace that allows time to take its own time. (Lim 2014: 18-19).
Time enables the viewer to read the image in a particular way, allowing ideas and reflections to form, and create abstraction, leading an audience to question what they think they see or know. As Shklovsky (1917) argues, ‘The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception, because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged’ (cited in Buwert 2016). The process of looking and defamiliarization is also used by Frammartino in Le Quattro Volte, where metaphysical elements become centre stage and people are of secondary importance. Corrieri wrote, ‘One at a time, human, animal, vegetal and mineral matter each become the main subject, the “actor” or actant in a performance of relational mattering’ (Corrieri 2019). The long take creates emphasis of material elements and natural matter, such as light, shadow, and shape, describing the way it exists in the world. This is combined with simple cutting and an evocative soundtrack to sustain time to reflect on physical space and abandonment. This technique is well suited to the gallery, where individuals are free to roam, pause, and take their time in considering visual artworks. Semi-fictionalized autoethnography is used to structure a narrative, this is dependent on part truth and part fabrication: ‘A restructuring of events occurring within one or more ethnographic investigations into a single narrative’ (Humphreys and Watson 2009).
ISOAP was originally exhibited at Space Shift, APT Gallery London 2018.
– ISOAP screened at the Vienna Art Week, November 2020. DEMEDARTS is a conference focused on dementia and art, followed by Q&A;
– This research appears in a research paper submitted to The Journal of Arts Research called, ‘The Missing Page: Place as Palimpsest and ‘Foil’’;
– This work appears in a conference paper presented at the MeCCSA Annual Conference 2019 called: ‘Representing the Unrepresentable’.
On future work: Shared stories that occurred during the exhibition have become the basis of new work.
On local community: APT Gallery has been a feature of Deptford since 1995, its regular activities, talks, and exhibitions are well regarded among the local people and the wider artists’ community in London. APT’s activities contribute to the local economy, financially, culturally, and socially, the opening night saw a well-attended event by those from the local cultural industries, the local business community, plus academics, writers, and members of the public from further afield. The four areas of impact of note are:
– Economic: Use of local retailers and suppliers to support the event;
– Cultural and social: A public art exhibition and panel discussion chaired by art critic, Richard Dyer, editor of Third Text magazine;
– Educational: Educational event for MA Curatorial Studies students, UAL;
– Social Media: Exhibition featured on LondonNet, Art Rabbit, MutualArt. London Eventful, UALResearchonline.arts.uk, NewExhibitions.com. APT.com, as well as Facebook and Twitter.
Abel, R. (1982) ‘Charge and Counter-Charge: Coherence and Incoherence in Gance’s Napoléon‘ in Film Quarterly, 35: 3, pp. 2–14. Available at: https://doi-org.ezproxy.uwe.ac.uk/10.2307/1211922 [Accessed 15 April 20201]
Akomfrah, J. ( 2013) John Akomfrah on the Unfinished Conversation, New Art Exchange. Available at: https://vimeo.com/65409141 [Accessed 20 March 2021].
Balázs, B. (1970) Theory of the Film: character and growth of a new art. New York: Dover Publications, p.210, p.120.
Batty, C. and Kerrigan, S. (2018) Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry. Springer International Publications. Pp7.
Belfour, A. (2020) in The Fragile Thread of Connection: living as a couple with dementia, published in Psychodynamic Approaches to the Experience of Dementia: Perspectives from Observation, Theory, and Practice. Oxon: Routledge, pp 118.
Bourdieu, P. (1990) Photography: a Middlebrow Art, trans. Sean Whiteside, Cambridge, p. 90. Available at: http://eitherand.org/reconsidering-amateur-photography/relational-amateur/. [Accessed 20 March 2021].Buwart, P. (2016) ‘Defamiliarisation, Brecht and Criticality in Graphic Design’ in Modes of Criticism 2 – Critique of Method, 19 May. Available at: http://modesofcriticism.org/defamiliarisation-and-criticality/. [Accessed 18 March 2021].
Corrieri, A. (2019) ‘There as Here: Living ecologies of film in Le Quattro Volte’, the Journal of Performing Arts, 24: 6, pp. 22-28. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13528165.2019.1686579?scroll=top&needAccess=true. [Accessed 15 March 2021].
Cross, K. (2012), ‘The Relational Amateur’ in Reconsidering Photography in Either/And. 12 December. Available at: http://eitherand.org.
Eisner, E. (2008) ‘Art and Knowledge’ in Knowles, G. & A. Cole, Handbook Of The Arts In Qualitative Research: perspectives, methodologies, examples, and issues, London: Sage, pp. 3-12.
Humphreys, M. & Watson, T. (2009) Ethnographic Practices: From Writing-up Ethnographic Research’ to ‘Writing Ethnography’ in Ybema, S. et al. (eds), Organizational Ethnography: Studying the Complexities of Everyday Life, London: Sage, pp. 40-55.
Lim, S.H. (2014) Tsai Ming-Liang and a Cinema of Slowness. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
Macfarlane, R. (2012) The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. London: Penguin.
Nagib, L. (2016) ‘The Politics of Slowness and the Traps of Modernity’ in Slow Cinema, edited by De Luca, T. and N. Barradas Jorge. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. , 25-46. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1g09wrj.9. [Accessed 15 March 2021]
Ruff, T. (2017), Press++, New Works exhibited at Sprüth Magers Gallery, 7 July-26 August, Berlin. Available at: https://spruethmagers.com/exhibitions/thomas-ruff-new-works-berlin/ [Accessed 15 April 2021].
Shklovsky, V. (1917) ‘Art as Technique‘ in Lemon, T. & Reis, M. (eds and trans) (1965) Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 3–24.
Viola, B. (1995) Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House – Writings 1973-1994, edited by Violette, R. Thames and Hudson in association with Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, pp. 244 & 280.
Angels with Folded Arms (Jeremy Bubb, 2005, UK)
Bread Day (Sergei Dvortsovey, 1998, Russia)
Catherine’s Room (Bill Viola, 1992 US)
Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, 2010, Italy)
Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) (Bill Viola, 1992, US)
Nantes Triptych (Bill Viola, 1992 US)
Napoleon (Abel Gance, 1927, France)
Palimpsest (Jeremy Bubb, 2016, UK)
The Dreamers (Bill Viola, 1992 US)
Unfinished Conversation (John Akomfrah, 2012 UK)
Writ in Water (Jeremy Bubb, 2009, UK). Available at: https://screenworks.org.uk/archive/volume-3/writ-in-water
Jeremy Bubb is an independent filmmaker, artist, and senior lecturer in drama and documentary direction at Roehampton University London, and chair of NAHEMI. His current body of work synthesizes traditional film language with multi-screen storytelling techniques and focuses on narratives of the everyday. He has directed TV commercials, produced films in Denmark, Poland, and the UK, for S4C, C4, and ITV. His work has been screened in film festivals in the UK, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Helsinki, Austria, and Portugal. His four-part film installation Palimpsest funded by the Arts Council England, toured nationally as a part of Changing the Landscape, throughput 2016-17. In Search of A Past (2018), featured in the Space Shift show at the APT Gallery London. Jeremy, has published in The Journal of Media Practice, The Journal of Screenwriting, The Journal of Arts Research, The National Archives website, Screenworks, and spoken at several national and international conferences. He is a graduate of the Polish National Film School in Łódź, The Northern Film School UK, and Cardiff School of Art and Design.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement (these should be outlined in detail in the review).
In Search of a Past’s originality and novelty stems from the engaging rendering of the artist’s intimate portrayal of his mother’s mortality and her dementia. There is a fulsome investigation here in how working with archival material is managed when there is no possible objectivity or distancing for the artist. The photographs utlised in the work are not seen in their entirety. We get less of a sense of their archival nature, with glimpses or stray clues alluding to the context of the image, a sombrero hat or distant view. This is not a fault with the work – but a tension that lies in how we are looking through the eyes of Bubb negotiating our understanding of his mother’s life and illness.
The film’s poetic and ‘slow’ takes are visually arresting. The distinct difference in the observing camera; unmoving and unaffected, juxtaposes with the intimate and personal images of his mother’s face, qualifying the works innovation and emotional verve. The film’s constructed intimacy, and the ‘semi-fictionalised’ narrative is compelling, where the slowly aging figure in the photographs flows with the absent space of the interior that could be called home. This falters when a door is deliberately left open or the blinds are seen to gently sway. The work speaks of absence; of a voice, of a physical presence and an eventual decent into dementia, so the ‘clues’ to this are not needed. I am not convinced about the use of Viola’s ideas around split screens. Bubb’s approach for me resonates with artists such as Omar Fast’s take on the multi-narrative plane of the screen, or in work of John Akomfrah. Your attention is held captive by the visual play of the multiple screens and looping narrative, where the dissonance and multiple relations draw you in and forward.
What is clear is how a notion of the ethical responsibility is fixed to the artist, the son, and made palatable due to his familiar relation. Does he consider sharing these edited snapshots of his mother's life, his versioning of it inappropriate or misleading? Is there enough transparency for the viewer to understand the decision he has made in realising the work? How could anyone else tell this story? In light of this, I would look again to the research questions where they could be more nuanced – including thinking through how a work of this nature changes the nature of the gallery experience. There is a clear impact through the work in light of the audience engagement, and the subsequent project development.
I would struggle to think of this work in light of its ethnographic properties and more an autoethnographic account where personal empathetic connections are made through Bubb’s intimate relation. The complexity of using his familial archive as a form of sense making around his mother’s life becomes a meditative narrative on mortality. The work transcends an individualised scrutiny in its abstraction, and its pathos and sense of a life lived and eventually ended is powerfully universal.
Review 2: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement (these should be outlined in detail in the review).
In Search of A Past (ISOAP) is a short film presented as a triptych giving a highly personalised account of the loss of the artist’s mother which provides moving and compelling insights into her life.
The three research questions which drove the work address the ethics of consent; the adoption of an ethnographic approach and the framing of the work in a public exhibition space. In order to address the first two questions, the artist has used a collection of photographs from the family archive to paint a picture of his mother’s life (as opposed to directly filming her). These ‘re-imaged’ stills dynamically shift in the two outer frames whilst in the central frame – a series of static video shots play through showing the empty spaces of the recently uninhabited family home. These videos draw from the aesthetics of slow cinema and invoke a palpable sense of loss, absence and grief. The three separate frames establish distinct time frames: ‘early past’, ‘contemporary time’, and ‘late past.’ The soundtrack to the piece is provided by the audio of the atmos track of the central frame. The soundscape is painted by the natural ambience of birdsong, distant traffic, a ticking clock, the ringing of an unanswered telephone.
These sounds drift through the spaces audibly giving a sense of life going on elsewhere despite the absence of visible life with the frame. There are no reflections upon the soundscape or sound design principles in the supporting statement and I think that readers will be interested to hear these. One of the central explorations of the work within the supporting statement is around the practices and aesthetics of slow cinema – this comes across as an overriding creative force behind the work – it would have been appropriate to have articulated this approach in one of the research questions. More could also be said on the juxtaposition of slow cinema aesthetics in the context of a multi-screen presentation – potentially by referring back to the artist’s previous multi-image screen stories work in more detail – to show how ISOAP builds and evolves those approaches and arguments, particularly given the earlier inclusion of ‘Writ in Water’ within the Screenworks journal.
The use of lateral editing – which I see as one of the key and original contributions to the field that this work is making – is cited as a deliberate practice within the statement, yet the artist undermines this by stating that “The screens present a dynamic juxtaposition of cinematic tropes and use an element of unpredictability through arbitrary sequencing.” This leaves the viewer with the question of whether this work has been purposefully or randomly edited. The deliberate temporally determined interplay between the three images is the more impactful approach, particularly with the emphasis of depicting the visible passage of time through the ageing process which the artist later seeks to affirm – “It also shows the dawning of middle age, old age, and the challenges of dementia.”
The bibliography is limited – it would be useful for readers if more multiscreen works were referenced.
This is a piece that was originally created for the contemplative and absorbing surroundings of a gallery space on larger scale projection screens. I would be interested to hear from the artist what they feel might be lost or gained by the viewer when watching this on a computer screen with headphones. The statement would benefit with some reflection upon how the work might be impacted by this changing context of reception.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.