John Akomfrah is one of the UK’s premier filmmakers and has been since Handsworth Songs, the documentary he directed as part of Black Audio Film Collective, won the John Grierson Award in 1987. It says something about British Cinema that much of his subsequent work has been for TV and that in the last few years he has become internationally known as a visual artist whose work is exhibited in galleries rather than cinemas. I managed to catch Vertigo Sea at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester just before its four-month run ended.
Vertigo Sea was first seen at the Venice Biennale in 2015. It’s a three screen video installation lasting just over 48 minutes. At the Whitworth it was screened in a large exhibition space, suitably dark (but far too warm on a summer’s day) but with only three benches some distance from the screens. The large screens were placed almost next to each other in a straight line (i.e. not like the curved screens of cinerama). The ‘project’ was part-funded by the Arts Council and other agencies and ‘managed’ on tour by the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol and the Lisson Gallery in London and New York. Here’s the Arnolfini ‘trailer’ that gives a glimpse of how the installation appears in the gallery:
Black Audio Film Collective and its successor from 1998, Smoking Dogs Films, has been consistent in a focus on migration and memory and on an excavation of Black history and culture and in particular colonial and post-colonial narratives and representations. Smoking Dogs Films’ website introduces Vertigo Sea like this:
A meditation on the aquatic sublime, Vertigo Sea brings together a collection of oblique tales and histories that speak to the multiple significances of the ocean and mankind’s often troubling relationship with it. Touching upon migration, the history of slavery and colonisation, war and conflict and current ecological concerns it is a narrative on man and nature, on beauty, violence and on the precariousness of life.
The installation runs continuously and I arrived about two-thirds through the presentation. I then watched it all the way through so I ‘experienced’ it for around an hour. I would have liked to have watched it again but I don’t find galleries easy places in which to watch films. This is the big disadvantage of installations – if you have to travel 40 miles to visit them and there is no DVD to watch later. The three screens are utilised creatively, so although it appears that the same or similar material is showing on each screen, the viewer can’t be sure that there isn’t anything unique on a screen not being watched. What to do? Should you quickly scan all three screens, trying to keep all three in your field of vision – or focus on just one screen and watch the whole presentation three times, focusing on a different screen each time? Montage becomes a different concept with three screens and sometimes it feels as if the screens are bleeding into each other – while at other times the visual juxtaposition of one screen to its neighbour is striking.
The mixture of source material for Vertigo Sea is in line with John Akomfrah’s previous work. He is the great user and manipulator of archive material and here there are newsreel images and some beautiful footage from wildlife filming as well as some original images which echo aspects of The Nine Muses (2010). In that earlier film, lone figures stood in the snowy landscapes of Alaska. In Vertigo Sea, a range of figures, some historical, stand in landscapes of mountains and the sea in Skye, the Faroes and Norway. There are other elements including three archive photographs of Black males – a boy, a younger man, an old man. The black and white images with creases and scratches might be from the 19th century and I found them difficult to place. I also found them striking as just that morning I’d read a news report suggesting that new archaeological finds proved that the migration of people from Africa to Australia had taken place much earlier than previously thought – perhaps 60,000 years ago.
The starting point to the films is migration. In interviews Akomfrah has said that the initial idea came from a survival story about a Nigerian migrant who was thrown from a people smugglers’ boat but survived by clinging on to netting. The horror of ditching human ‘cargo’ in this way is then taken up with reference to the infamous treatment of slaves during the Atlantic trade – the Zong incident which became the subject of a court action in the UK in which the legal status of slaves was disputed. This case was featured in Amma Asante’s film Belle (UK 2013). In turn, this is then linked to the ‘disappeared’ in Latin America – the men and women (‘political prisoners’) flown over the sea and then ejected from the aircraft. This was exposed in Patricio Guzmán’s film The Pearl Button (Chile-France-Spain-Switz 2015). Akomfrah provided me with a new link to the use of similar techniques by the French against FLN prisoners in Algeria in the 1950s. Why ‘Vertigo’? Is it the sense of plunging into the sea from a great height? The central connection in the film is between the jettisoned human cargo and the practice of whaling with its cruelty towards marine mammals – a link which is underlined by footage of carcases on the sea bed being devoured by scavengers and the bodies of slaves washed up on shore. There is a strong sense of an ecological discourse in this film. One of the most shocking archive sequences for me was the hunting of polar bears in the Arctic in which a bear is shot and skinned – and the carcase is just left on the ice. Inuit hunters would use most of that carcase and a rather different form of (white) migration in the 20th century disrupted the balance of people and wildlife in the region.
The sharp contrast between the beautiful images of natural landscapes and seascapes and the horror of slavery and whaling is stark and easily understood on a visceral level. In addition to images of migrations (and the loss of life), Akomfrah also forces us to think about the pollution of the sea by nuclear testing. Less easily accessible is the use of the stationary figures in landscapes and the arrangements of incongruous objects – clocks, bicycles, prams. Again, as in The Nine Muses, these images are complemented by readings – in this case from Melville (Moby Dick), Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation) and Virginia Woolf. Reading some of the reviews of Vertigo Sea, I realise that I missed some of the symbols in these sequences and I certainly didn’t make all the connections. I think another two or three viewings would be needed. The three films do also have soundtracks of music, sound effects and the readings mentioned above, plus the commentaries on the archive newsreel footage. I think that sometimes there are competing soundtracks on the three films, but again I wasn’t always sure which sounds went with which images. I think I remember the sounds of whales.
For convenience I’ve referred to John Akomfrah as the ‘author’ of Vertigo Sea, but really this is a Smoking Dogs production and John would always stress his commitment to collective production. Original Black Audio founders and Smoking Dogs partners Lina Gopaul and David Lawson plus sound designer and original Black Audio member Trevor Mathison all worked on Vertigo Sea and I was intrigued to see Ashitey Akomfrah down as Production Manager. The credits reveal a number of ‘Archive Consultants’ and archive sources but it would have been good to list the sources in more detail. Was that a feature film that included the sequence of the African slaves thrown into the sea?
I found Vertigo Sea to be disturbing, shocking, beautiful and provocative – so much so that I abandoned a planned trip to the cinema afterwards, feeling that I couldn’t cope with another narrative. But I didn’t appreciate the gallery setting. The benches were uncomfortable. I would have liked a cinema seat (to support my back and help my concentration) and I would have liked to get closer to the screens so that they filled my vision, but to do so by sitting on the floor would have interrupted the view of the others in the ‘audience’. I have heard John Akomfrah argue that film, television and installation work are different forms with their own conventions and I know too that there are reasons why working on installations makes economic sense given the state of contemporary film funding for production, distribution and exhibition. But couldn’t we at least get the chance to see this work via DVD? Vertigo Sea is definitely worth seeking out if it comes to a gallery near you and there are several other Smoking Dogs installations dealing with similar issues. Interviews with John Akomfrah and with John and Lina together are posted on YouTube. They are excellent talkers and have a body of work and an evolving practice of over thirty years. Here’s John talking about the collective’s work, Vertigo Sea and “Why History Matters”.
This was an art installation that I attended with other Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House. The installation was organised and present by the Pavilion, a Leeds-based art project that seeks out new commissions from contemporary artists. One of the skills of the Pavilion is its ability to find unusual locations: in this instance a disused cinema.
The cinema was The Majestic, a city centre disused building in City Square, Leeds. The cinema opened in 1922 and closed for film screenings in 1969. It had further life as first a bingo venue and then a night-club but has been empty for eight years. As part of our visit we had a talk about the cinema by Alan Foster, Chief Projectionist at the Hyde Park Cinema, who is the technical advisor on this project. The Majestic was opened in 1922 but the developers had a rather quaint idea about a film theatre. They did not include a projection box and one of their first problems was to make space for the installation of the projection equipment. The screen was placed against the front of the building, where the main entrance is now to be found. It had an organ at the side and an orchestral pit for musicians. There have been a number of extensive conversions but some remnants of the original remain, including the impressive dome with the surrounding frieze of charioteers relatively intact.
The cinema opened with a screening of D. W. Griffith’s great melodrama, Way Down East (1920). It is nice to think of the Griffith’s favourite star Lilian Gish appearing as an early image on screen with live music accompanying her performance. The Majestic ran as a cinema to the 1950s, though its inadequate interior design did not help its success. Then in 1957 it was converted with the installation of 70mm projection for the large screen Roadshow versions of popular films. South Pacific (1958) was an early popular success. The greatest was the Roadshow version of The Sound of Music (1965) which ran for two and a half years: approximately 1800 performances. The closeness of the audience to the large 48-foot wide screen was an attraction for enthusiasts, some of who travelled across from Manchester and up north from London. However, the falling audience of the 1960s led to an end of this fare. The last film was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Alan felt this was a rather inadequate ending. However, the thought of an unkempt Eli Wallach to the sound of an Ennio Morricone score seems a poetic finale. Especially as the film is a sort of epilogue to that central cinematic genre, the western.
Alan then introduced us to the film installation. This is screened in the basement due to technical restrictions. There is an impressive if rather dark curving staircase leading down. The project has a portable 35mm projector with a temporary box and a specially erected screen. The ratio of this resembles some very early film, being about .8 or .9 to 1.
The installation is the work of Melvin Moti. An artist based in the Netherlands who has worked previously on film projects. The film, which runs for 24 minutes, is titled The Eightfold Dot. The pavilion notes describe this: “the idea of the fourth dimension pre-occupied writers, artists, theosophists and mathematicians, Mot-‘s 24-minutes silent film is a narrative – about a dot, line, square, cube and hypercube – that moves from the symmetrical atomic structure of crystals to the outer most edges of our universe. From shadows to solids..” In a nice touch the film coincides with the centenary of the invention of X-ray crystallography in a physics laboratory in Leeds.
This is an abstract work with shifting images, from frameworks to diaphanous strictures to solids. It features dissolves and multi-images. It is a fairly subjective work but with intriguing contrasts and a clear development. We saw a new 35m print, which looked good. And it was silent, apart from the distant hum of the projector and the slight scrape of the celluloid on reels.
The Pavilion has been running open afternoons on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 12 noon to 6 p.m. The final opportunities will be over the next fortnight up until December 20th. The cinema building is a really interesting site to visit and the film installation is a fascinating one-reel exploration. Moreover it offers an opportunity of tranquillity and peace as a break in the hassle and crowds of the Xmas shopping period.