In Production: Esther Johnson, Blue Firth, Alexander Stevenson

Three artists previewed three film works in The Space on Wednesday night as part of an ongoing series of events under the In Production title, curated by Beth Bramich. Previous sessions have screened and offered a platform for discussions of works by Ian Nesbitt and Catherine Hunter and Alun Armstrong, while last night’s presentation featured new moving image pieces ranging from the polished documentary of Esther Johnson’s Analogue Kingdom, a portrait of Gerald Wells, the elderly founder and curator of the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum in Dulwich, to works in progress by Blue Firth and Alexander Stevenson, whose pieces took quite different approaches to the question of documenting live performances on film.

Esther Johnson’s Analogue Kingdom made up the middle section of the programme, and it was clearly the most finished of the three works, a broadcast-quality portrait of an eccentric but deeply likeable character whose obsession with valve radio technology, 78rpm gramophones and all the other cutting edge technologies of the 1930s  had led to an obsessive immersion in the materials that had preoccupied him from earliest boyhood. Gerald Wells – whose home now doubles as a private museum – leads us through a house where every room, passageway and outbuilding is crammed with immaculate teak radio sets, displays of glass valves, wind-up acoustic gramophones: one room even contains a fully reconstructed 1930s radio shop of a kind Wells insisted would once have been found in multiple numbers on any British high street, but now seems as exotic in its own way as a rainforest.

Two things made Analogue Kingdom rather more than a merely quirky portrait of its eccentric subject, the most obvious being Wells’ own engaging narration of the film. His enthusiasm and awe as he demonstrates (say) the sole surviving example of a Lumiere gramophone with a frilled paper diaphragm in place of a metal horn, or a 1930s TV unit that once belonged to John Paul Getty, is conveyed with a striking immediacy, and when he explains youthful run-ins with the law, and time spent in remand homes, he is as plausible as he is unsentimental about the details (in allowing her subject a sympathetic platform, and creating a palpable connection between subject and audience through  film, Johnson’s approach reminded me of Jeanie Finlay’s).

Without any noticeable mediation (itself proof of Johnson’s skill as a director) Wells hints at his own deeper story, all the while moving around his museum as a frail man, preserving technology that continues to offer pleasure, and still functions, despite having been declared obsolete by the world beyond his museum’s four walls. It’s touching, tinged with nostalgia (the cinematography seems to caress the objects we see, as though bathing everything in the golden light bestowed by Wells’ own vision) but there’s also a tougher subtext here about mortality; an implicit acceptance that today’s cutting edge, multi-million dollar mass technologies will themselves, one day, be the preserve of men like Gerald Wells, pushed into the margins of whatever world they have (by then) helped to create.

Blue Firth’s Vigil took a very different approach, but in its fascination with the marginal Firth’s rough-edged montage of film, photography, oblique branding and voice-overs shared some common ground with the Esther Johnson film that followed it. If there was a sense in Johnson’s film that men like Wells keep the past alive in the present, like cultural ghosts, haunting the new with its own inevitable obsolescence, then Firth’s piece drew its material from more literal kinds of haunting, compiling a research project and subsequent performance, staged as a mix of parapsychological research, theatre and installation art, into around 8 minutes of film footage. Firth introduced the screening with comments placing it as a documentation of the Vigil events held at the Royal Academy in October 2010, but in many ways it had detached from its origins, and seemed more interested in atmospherics than making a record of its source.

There were obvious affinities with the aesthetic of Ghost Box Records, Strange Attractor magazine (with which Firth has worked on live events) and Paul Rooney’s  Thin Air project at Leeds Metropolitan University, among other things: Firth also mentions Most Haunted style TV shows and the BBC’s classic Ghostwatch, a fictional documentary broadcast on Halloween in 1992, blurring reality and generic suspense effectively enough to create panic in some viewers, and generate a deluge of complaints. Vigil as presented here seemed, if anything, too richly furnished with potential directions to sit entirely happily in the short film format: the possibilities – from sound-work using recorded voices, to faux-psychic research documentary and immersive multimedia presentations – all seemed equally likely developments from the seed we were shown. It’ll be fascinating to see how the project evolves.

The final film was Alexander Stevenson’s compilation of footage from five performances of  The Project Eigg Lectures, as presented across five nights during Sideshow2010 at Nottingham’s One Thoresby Street. The performance itself had involved seating its audience on a turning platform that then switched our viewpoint between three very different accounts of  a residency on Eigg: the original documentation had consisted of some photographs, faux-anthropological constructions and two walking tour guides aimed at visitors. In The Project Eigg Lectures, Stevenson chose to complicate these by reframing the story of his residency in three forms, first as an academic lecture (given by a different specialist each night from an identical script), then the highly embroidered narration of a traditional storyteller, and finally as a kind of dance/mime performance.

Each version represented a distinct mode of explaining the world, and the three versions together intercut the scholarly with the folkloric and mythic, each presentation discrete and separate, with the versions only interacting with each other at the very end of the performance. Stevenson’s stated intention was to explore the ways in which the mode of retelling a story changes its meaning, even when the basic facts remain fixed across all the variations. The resulting film montage conveyed the performance clearly enough, but hadn’t (as yet) begun to effect what Stevenson hoped would become a decisive transformation as further iterations were edited in, and their textures in turn complicated by new versions, changed characters and scripts, and yet more approaches to the material.

Stevenson has talked about his intentions in relation to Rashomon (both Kurosawa‘s 1950 film, and the original story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa), and The Project Eigg Lectures shares a format in which one narrative is re-told from various perspectives, each time radically changed by the shifted viewpoint and narrative style. In his various reworkings of this material, there are similar ideas about truth as an elusive (even impossible) outcome of any statement about events in the real world. There’s also an intention to fabricate a kind of perpetually unfolding oral tradition within his own body of work: at the conclusion of his discussion of the film Stevenson noted that he hoped at some point the  original would become lost and the material escape his control altogether.

The storyteller’s sections, with their bizarre quests to restore the manhood of castrated rams with elaborate horned head-dresses, their accounts of a trickster figure known as ‘the Guiser’ and their immersions in secret drinking subcultures, certainly imply both the prosaic origins of heroic tales like Cú Chulainn and The Mabinogion, while also suggesting that even the most meaningless actions in the present might (one day) find themselves retold in similarly heroic terms. It’s a long game of Chinese Whispers that Stevenson seems intent on playing, and his intention to continually mutate his footage ensures that The Project Eigg Lectures is a work that will never circulate long enough in any one form to attain the permanence that might undermine its objectives.

2 Responses to “In Production: Esther Johnson, Blue Firth, Alexander Stevenson”
  1. Could you possibly pass on a message to Blue Firth?. I can’t find an email address. I like what I saw at the RA schools show and she might like to look at my latest blog on

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