The film art of going to pieces

Daniel Edwards talks with Louise Curham

Louise Curham, Untitled

Louise Curham, Untitled

My wish is to sensitise the audience to the ephemerality of the event, and I think that sense of ephemerality is really played up when you feel the thing you’re watching is about to destroy itself.
Louise Curham

This statement goes to the very heart of Louise Curham’s filmmaking practice, which straddles the avant-garde traditions of materialist experimental film and reflexive questions generally associated with new media about how an audience interfaces with technology. Curham is a Sydney-based filmmaker who works primarily with Super 8, a narrow-gauge film format that once occupied the market space now filled by domestic camcorders. Rather than using the medium in a traditional way, Curham works directly on the film itself: “I torture the film in any way I can think of: cutting it, bleaching it, scraping it, marking it and collaging it.” This creates highly abstract images of pure texture, colour and light, which take on an organic life of their own when projected on screen.

Trained in film production at the Victorian College of the Arts, Curham produced several dance films (she has been a regular collaborator with choreographer Sue Healey) and conventional narrative shorts before studying painting in the mid-90s. When she returned to filmmaking through the Super 8 medium, her interest in the graphic aspects of the image led to a new direction inspired by filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and, closer to home, Len Lye and Albie Thoms. This has led to a specific approach to screening her work. Rather than employing conventional cinemas, she has exhibited her films in a series of “improvised” screening spaces, from warehouses and galleries in Sydney to the foyer of the New Zealand Film Archive in Auckland. Curham has also played a key role in the revival of the Sydney Super 8 Group, now known as the Sydney Moving Image Coalition (SMIC).

What was it that originally attracted you to the Super 8 medium?

I wanted a format that I could use cheaply and easily so I could teach myself and learn about film from the inside. Although I had done filmmaking at VCA and made several short films, I really felt I didn’t have a handle on the medium and its possibilities. Someone gave me a Super 8 camera and I went from there.

Why Super 8 film over video?

The Super 8 image is a chemical emulsion. Even though my work is very abstract, I’m interested in actuality and riding on the coat-tails of all the loadings associated with photography and its status as a physical document—the fact that it physically exposes a moment in time. Whereas with video it’s a becoming thing; every time you play a video back it’s re-creating itself from a signal. It’s the pure materiality of the filmic image I’m interested in.

How is this interest in reflected in your work?

One of the pivotal things for me is the photographic and documentary aspect of film, because the medium is always indexed to the actual, even when I’m just marking blank film by bleaching or painting it, or scraping away the emulsion. I’m actually physically making that mark and what you see on screen is a record of that marking. It’s also interesting to watch the film degrade as I continually reuse it.

The frailty of the medium seems to play a big part in your work. You always project actual Super 8, rather than making video copies for screening purposes, which means the film often tears or sometimes even melts.

I’m very interested in the “event” of cinema. Not just what’s in the frame, but the whole event of the screening and the environment in which it is taking place, including the location, the apparatus, the screen and the audience. If you take the event as part of the signifying process, then the fact that you’re showing your work using obsolete media becomes really loaded. More specifically, Super 8 has connotations linked to its status as the once-favoured medium for home movies. So I try and create these intimate, non-structured screening environments in galleries and warehouses, where the projection technology is right there in front of the audience. And audiences are often fascinated by the curio factor created by employing this obsolete technology. It’s a way of creating intimacy with the image and the apparatus, so that the machines themselves become part of the artwork.

For me the cinematic event always has a performative aspect that we’ve largely been trained to ignore. I try to re-attune people to the reality of what they’re seeing and what is happening to them right now in the environment they’re in, thus re-sensitising them to the ephemerality not only of the medium, but of all experience. The medium’s frailty is part of that, and helps create a certain anxiety. Because there’s always a tension in film between the medium’s status as a document, and the fact that the document is always ageing and changing. So it’s about reinserting the cinematic experience itself into time, rather than trying to lend it an air of permanence. Recently at the Techno-Derby exhibition at Kudos Gallery, I set up a projector playing black spacer going over sandpaper inside a spool. The film ran so that the emulsion was scratching over the sandpaper as the film was projecting, so the film was both generated and destroyed in the moment of projection. In this way the apparatus itself, and our experience of the apparatus, becomes part of the artwork.

So how does your filmmaking fit into your work with the Sydney Moving Image Coalition?

Originally SMIC was going to be a group for filmmakers to show their work in front of a small, intimate audience. I’m really interested in having that direct contact with my audience, in the same way musicians are. My suspicion is that most filmmakers don’t feel they need that; they’re happy sending their work off to festivals and that’s enough. Consequently the screenings have become more about the event than the filmmakers. Again, we’re interested in the performance aspect, and shaping the whole screening so that it becomes a work of art in itself. Several of the nights have featured improvised live musical collaborations with multiple-screen projections of my work. Three of our 4 events this year have been at Lanfranchi’s, a warehouse space in Chippendale that also plays host to the Camera Obscura screenings of local and overseas experimental shorts. I think the improvised cinema aspect is part of the attraction for some of the audience, and there seem to be a lot of these nights springing up around town. We’re looking at some kind of collaborative work with the Camera Obscura group next year. In the meantime, we’re always looking for films to screen.

Louise Curham’s work will be exhibited at Kudos Gallery, Paddington, February 24-28, 2004. The next SMIC screening: February 3, Lanfranchi’s. http://www.innersense.com.au/mic/sydney.html

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 15

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003