Feature Film: A book by Douglas Gordon

One of the publications I worked on while at Artangel was in relation to Douglas Gordon’s Feature Film. In this work – Douglas’s first feature-length film, produced in 1999 – the camera follows the hands, and the facial expressions of a music conductor – James Conlan – while conducting a full orchestra playing the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo by Bernard Herrmann. Therefore the length of Feature Film is determined by the length of Vertigo and its accompanying score. It was first shown on a large suspended screen in a space on Brick Lane, London, with Vertigo on a much smaller screen in the back of the space. The film on its own also did the rounds along the film festival circuit for several years. Since 1999 the work has been shown in many different configurations (I remember a screening at the Royal Festival Hall, for which a sound installation had to be brought in), and in many different settings.

The idea for the book was to come up with something that allowed the different elements of the work to be encountered in different ways – the visual, the aural and the more conceptual. I remember Douglas saying something along the lines of “I want my parents to be able to engage with the images and the sound, without actually watching the film.” In other words, the challenge was to find a way of translating these different aspects into a publication that somehow comprised all of them. These consideration also led to the title: Feature Film: A book by Douglas Gordon. 

As a result, the publication contains a selection of stills (selected in one of Soho’s many post-production studios, which was fun to do, but also highlighted the issue of using stills derived from the film in the sense of print quality – there is only so much extrapolation one can do with 72 dpi) of Feature Film, with a much smaller selection of stills from Vertigo, which together provide the basis for the actual book. The challenge in the selection process was to find visually interesting stills across the length of the film – which has whole periods of very slow panning shots, but also vigorous accelerations, with the hands and arms of Conlan moving in and out of the frame very rapidly – for which we could also find matching stills (i.e. the same moment in time) from Vertigo from various image libraries. In the pre-digital era, for most films there was only a certain amount of stills in circulation for press and publicity purposes. So without wanting to contact the current right holders for the film, our source was a range of stock image libraries across London. Looking at the reproductions now, am also aware of the fact that while Douglas was very specific in wanting to use a particular film stock that would enhance the black that was so present in the footage, while we used the digital edit version of the film to select stills, which has delivered varying hues in the flesh tones of Conlan’s face and hands. This translation back and forth between different mediums is an interesting aspect when considering documentation of  presentation and representation of the work. It was something that also played itself out in the presentation of the film: when it was screened as film, the quality of the image was entirely different from those occasions where a digital version was used.

Each spread in the book has a Feature Film still on the right, while the opposite is black– so to some extent trying to mimic the large amount of black in the film, for which a double run through the press was used, if I remember it correctly – except where there is a matching Vertigo still, where the background is white. So while the unfolding of the film narrative is mimicked – but plays itself out between the front and the back cover – the realisation of this being a book, with its own space and its own conventions, is present. In addition to the visuals, the full orchestra performance is available on a CD, which is attached literally inside the conductor’s ear in the cover. The sound and visuals are accompanied by an in-depth essay by renowned French film scholar Raymond Bellour, and an American Bernard Herrmann expert, Royal S. Brown, which are inserted in the back sleeve as an appendix, allowing the reader to look at the images unencumbered by text, while listening to the music.

The book was designed by Phil Baines, and co-published with Book Works (my first encounter and collaboration with them) and agnès b., while the film was a co-production between Artangel, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Kunstverein Cologne, in association with Gagosian Gallery and Lisson Gallery. The book in the end had two print-runs, where the difference between them resides in a colour shift in the title.

a p s and whiteblack00

I got to know Alexandra P. Spaulding, or Alex, when she did her MFA at the Glasgow School of Art, where I taught as a visiting lecturer (2003-2015), where she then also continued with her practice-based PhD. We had become close friends in her final year at the MFA, and our conversations around her work and her research naturally flowed into one of collaboration.

Working with immersive installations in which she explored the notion of the ineffable, sound was a key elements of Alex’s enquiry. Although she had worked with sound before, her composition skills evolved in the course of the series, which in the end would comprise 6 vinyl records, for which she adopted the acronym ‘a p s’ as her artist’s name.

My contribution, labelled as that of ‘producer’ (highlighting the different conventions in sound and music relative to book publishing), focused on considering the structure and flow within each individual track, and the overall structure and rhythm of each individual album. Alex often conceived the tracks in a linear fashion, and would initially present them in order of their appearance. From my perspective the albums also needed to make sense for the listener, where the construction of the narrative arc sometimes felt more productive with an entirely different order.

The records were released on a label set up especially for them, Whiteblack00, between 2008 and 2011. Alex’s website can be found here. The label is more or less dormant, although Alex has released new material since finishing the PhD for work in various exhibitions she has had.

The records are, in order of release date: this is how i want you to remember it (2008), when you take everything away, the only thing left is imperfection (2009), everything for a short time (2009), position determines perspective (2011), our velocity (2011), and slow burn (2011).

Longplayer – Jem Finer

This publication requires a bit of a preamble, as the project it relates to is seemingly simple, but has both conceptually and technically quite some complexity within it.

In short, Longplayer is a 1,000-year musical composition that runs continuously and without repetition from its start – 1 January 2000 (mid-day in Australia, but mid-day 31 December 1999 in London, when it was switched on at the same time at both locations), until its completion on 31 December 2999. Conceived by musician / composer Jem Finer, Longplayer is an attempt to make sense of such a span of time. Jem was commissioned by Artangel to do a project some time in 1994, so it took nearly 6 years to come to fruition.

Through an exploration of generative forms of music, rooted in notions of artificial life and complexity, Jem developed a system that resulted in an ever-evolving piece of music. To cut a rather long story short: six sound waves, generated by the use of differently sized Tibetan singing bowls, interfere in such a way with each other that the sound generated is never the same for the exact period of a 1,000 years.

The piece has had various listening posts (where the one in London, based in the Lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf is still running), is streaming through the web, and has also been performed in analogue form at the Roundhouse in Camden for a period of exactly 24 hours in 2009. (I wrote about that previously on another blog.)

The publication does not only give us a taster, by way of a vinyl record (the pun to include an actual LP was too much to resist for both Jem and me), but also engages with the process of development. I spent many an hour looking at and talking about Jem’s note books, from which an extensive selection of pages features in the text Jem wrote about the process of development, and the many stop-starts and turns and diversions it took to materialise. One element that I personally found great to be able to include was an extensive mind-map, which was constructed on a long roll of paper, but which for the book has been cut into page-sized samples. It also explores the connection between a work like Longplayer and its reliance on mathematical and technological sciences, and the role of change, through both Jem’s own text, and several commissioned texts. Contributions are from Kodwo Eshun, Janna Levin, Christine & Margaret Wertheim, and Michael Morris.

The texts and the mind-map are incorporated in a square book that is embedded in the gatefold sleeve, which holds a 12″ vinyl record with three 20-minute fragments of the music.

This project was finalised when I’d already left Artangel, and had moved up to Glasgow, so was published in 2003. The design was by Fraser Muggeridge, who has often referred to it as being his first ‘proper’ book design commission.