- In the presence of John Smith
“This is hardcore cinema.”
“A film about haircuts, clothes and image/sound relationships.”
“This four-minute film explores our response to stereotypes – aural, visual and ideological. Smith signals these stereotypes to the viewer through a chiefly associational system, which deftly manipulates the path of our expectations. The structure is stunningly simple and deceptively subtle. We are taken on a journey from one concrete stereotype to its diametric opposite, as images transform and juxtapose to, ultimately, invert our interpretation of what we see and hear.”
“John Smith’s films, videos and installations are the work of a master craftsman and a maestro of deception. As such, they offer multiple access points – thematic, formalist – whilst being irrefutably entertaining. Form and content are intrinsically bound together, puzzles to play with, to partially solve, as we are instructed not only in ways of seeing, but in an understanding of film predicated on demystifying its oft-masked means of construction.”
“London artist John Smith uses light-hearted humour to explore theoretical concerns – Gargantuan, for instance, is both pleasantly silly and acutely conscious of how imagery depends entirely on its framing. A voice-over intones the words ‘huge’ and ‘strapping’ as a lizard almost fills the screen, then ‘medium’ as the camera zooms out, then ‘tiny’, and finally ‘minute’, a pun on the film’s running time.”
“A wonderfully witty example of how to conduct pillow talk with a small amphibian.”
“To master the one minute time-span requires considerable discipline and few pieces if any had been shaped as genuine miniatures, most having the appearance of being extracts from larger works. The notable exception was John Smith’s Gargantuan which was not only the right length for the idea but actually incorporated a triple pun on the word ‘minute’.”
“To download Gargantuan and watch it on a good-sized computer monitor actually intensifies the ironies that Smith identifies. Enlarge the media player’s window until it is as big as possible, and play the movie. The first image of the newt, though larger in absolute terms than all earthly newts, will not be truly gargantuan, at least not in the Rabelaisian sense of that word. Considered in comparison with the scale in which it is presented in subsequent framings of the film, the newt is only relatively gargantuan. Indeed, this is part of the joke: not only is the scale of the newt determined by the rotation of the barrel of the zoom lens, but by the relative size of the screen or monitor on which it is shown. When I hook up my computer to a video projector, so that I may project Gargantuan on my classroom’s screen, the newt does approach Rabelaisian gargantuanness … but, then, not really: all that has occurred is a secondary level of magnification, in which the pixels that comprise the image are enlarged by the optics of the projector. The only absolute is the size of the newt relative to the size of the frame, a figure that may be expressed as a percentage, and that is subject to great variability.
The shifting of the scales of the newt, in fact, occurs largely in our minds. Ultimately, the argument that Smith makes in Gargantuan is that all viewers are burdened with a great many vital and fundamental – albeit unacknowledged – assumptions about the ways in which scale affects our perception of, understanding of, and responses to any and every filmed image. Remarkably, he makes this sophisticated point in a modest, clever, one-shot, (one-)minute film that consists of no more than a zoom-out of an amphibian. Thus does the message of Smith’s film echo its form: the minutest of things so often inspire the most gargantuan ideas.”
Ethan de Seife4
“The major part of this week’s show is by a young film-maker who is something of a ‘new face’. Though he has shown a film in a group programme at the Co-op before, and one of his films, Associations, was recently seen on BBC2’s ‘First Picture Show’, this is the first chance to look at a number of his films in one go. His work is extremely interesting, accomplished, and has a surprising variety. As well as Associations which weaves a complex game of word-image puns with entertaining wit, he will show William and the Cows, one of the most surreal films I have ever seen; Leading Light, a rather fine short film about sunlight, artificial light, and exposure levels; and Subjective Tick-Tocks, about measured time, rhythm, and camera movement. The programme will have the first screening of his newest film, The Girl Chewing Gum, which promises to be as good viewing as the rest ... A lively show full of ideas.”
Malcolm Le Grice1
“The films of John Smith create a world from the “simple” experiences of living, breathing and being a filmmaker or artist in a particular place and time. Smith’s often humorous films produced over the last 30 years have inventively documented and probed his immediate surroundings, often not even moving much beyond the front door of his various abodes in a small area of East London (predominantly Leytonstone). Nevertheless, it would be wrong to describe Smith’s films as overly delicate, preciously insular or purely personal – assignations that the previous description might suggest – as his work sees within the minutiae of familiar surroundings a range of philosophical, aesthetic, technical and quotidian challenges and revelations that extend far beyond the realm of much other comparable cinema. [...] In film after film, Smith explores the cracks within and the tribulations of the world he confronts everyday, taking a closer look at and often transforming (verbally, associatively, just by observing from a different angle) things like a pane of glass, the discolorations of a mouldy ceiling, a hospital water-tower, the archaeology of an ancient toilet, an old shepherd’s proverb, or a work he was unhappy with some 20 odd years before. In the process, he makes us look more closely, not just at his films and the cinema generally, but our own surroundings, the everyday world that engulfs us but that we probably routinely dismiss as a suitable subject for contemplation, art and imagination.”
“Believe it or not, I was really surprised to discover that the people in the background were being directed in their actions. Even the dog was instructed to piss up a lamp-post. Until then, I had assumed that extras in street scenes were real passers-by going about their business. I was already a filmmaker and I thought to myself how naïve I had been about the ‘realism’ of fiction films. The Girl Chewing Gum came out of the shock I felt at the power of the illusion of cinema.”
“In The Girl Chewing Gum a commanding voice over appears to direct the action in a busy London street. As the instructions become more absurd and fantasised, we realise that the supposed director (not the shot) is fictional; he only describes – not prescribes – the events that take place before him. Smith embraced the ‘spectre of narrative’ (suppressed by structural film), to play word against picture and chance against order. Sharp and direct, the film anticipates the more elaborate scenarios to come; witty, many-layered, punning, but also seriously and poetically haunted by drama’s ineradicable ghost.”
“The Girl Chewing Gum offers a playful yet trenchant exploration of the role that language – and particularly voice-over – plays in the production of filmic meaning and asserts the absolute impossibility of immediacy and neutrality. But despite its anti-illusionist criticality, the film remains deeply engaged with narrative and humour, two terms not often associated with British avant-garde cinema of the 1970s. Indeed, it was Smith’s concern that the film might be taken simply as a joke that led him to conclude the work with several humourless minutes, what he has referred to as ‘thinking time’.”
Nick Bradshaw: The unedited aspects seems quite radical not only in the context of your earlier works, but also given how heavily processed TV has become.
John Smith: They’re wilfully simple. I’ve got myself into trouble at film festivals when I’ve won prizes for those films, particularly in Cork when I won the main prize for Museum Piece. I had to make a speech, and I said that it gave me particular pleasure to get a prize for this film because I’m a great believer in economy, and this film cost €7, or the price of one DV tape. And afterwards I had so many really angry young filmmakers coming up to me, saying ‘I borrowed £10,000 to make my film, and yours is a load of shit!’
John Smith in conversation with Nick Bradshaw6
- 1. Malcolm Le Grice, untitled film listing, Time Out, 5–11 March 1976, p.64.
- 2. Adrian Danks, “On the Street where You Live: The Films of John Smith”, Senses of Cinema, 2005.
- 3. John Smith, on Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine (1973), in Catherine Elwes, “Trespassing Beyond the Frame”, in Mark Cosgrove and Josephine Lanyon (eds.), John Smith: Film and Video Works, 1972–2002, Bristol 2002, pp.65–6.
- 4. A.L. Rees, A Directory of British Film & Video Artists, 1995.
- 5. Erika Balsom, “The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976 by John Smith”, Tate Research Publication, 2015.
- 6. Nick Bradshaw, “John Smith: of process and puns”, Sight and Sound, web exclusive.
“Smith’s ‘accidental horror’ film wears its constructivist tricks as a primary-coloured cloak around the barest of wireframe figures. That Smith dismisses the plot as secondary to the film itself reveals more about his artistic leanings than any supposed embracing of genre, and the fractured realism and creeping terror of the story plays out despite and because of them.
Enchanting and good-humoured (as with almost all of Smith’s films), The Black Tower tells a singular story of architectural horror and madness worthy of the ungovernable geographies of Machen, Welles, or Lovecraft, situating itself firmly in the quotidian grit of Thatcher’s Britain. Constantly pointing to its own telling, as well as the mode and method of that telling, Smith’s film questions the viewer’s own certainty even as the narrator loses theirs – at the same time challenging not only the veracity of the film but also the viewer’s complacency watching it.”
“In older films such as The Black Tower, one of the reasons for making the film was to do with what the tower looked like in certain lighting conditions. The tower in question is, or was, actually a large, metal water tank that looked a bit like a garden shed on the top of a brick column, this strange, enormous structure. The garden shed bit was painted in completely non-reflective black paint so, especially in a sunny day, you really couldn’t see any detail in the black, or where the black roof joined the black walls, or where the walls joined each other. So often the top, black part of the tower just looked like a hole cut out of the sky, an absence. It’s like the empty plinth in Trafalgar square. I was fascinated by this column supporting this black polyhedron, and when you looked at it from different angles the configuration of the sides changed, but it remained looking like a flat, black hole, of different, multi-faceted shapes – so that was the initial reason for doing it, because I was curious about the way something looked. That’s very often the impetus for making films. Other ideas come in later, but it starts with noticing something unusual.”
John Smith in conversation with Tom Harrad2
“The Black Tower expands the core of Smith’s interests: chiefly, the image as a filmic fact which is constantly questioned and often undermined by language and soundtrack. Like his earlier films, The Black Tower is concerned with description, but this time framed by a story whose undertow of melancholy balances its wit and wry humour, and which is a remarkable fiction in its own right.”
“Smith’s intention was to show how, just as the real black tower near his home could be seen from many different angles in apparently different settings – a housing estate, a prison, a churchyard – so language can construct any number of backdrops to a phenomenon, thereby altering atmosphere and interpretation. Smith applies the subjectivity of language to the objecthood of the black tower, converting it from a banal piece of industrial architecture to a cipher of paranormal potential. By simply filming the tower in all its different settings and applying a monologue over the top that mystifies this process, we are led to believe that the tower is beleaguering the protagonist, following him, or, at least, that he is deluded into believing that he is being followed. Although we know that this illusion is down to the power of editing alone, we happily half-abandon this knowledge for the thrill of the subterfuge.”
Nick Bradshaw: Of the earlier pieces in the show, The Hut and Leading Light seem to embody the two poles of your interests. There’s a documentary appreciation of the world in Leading Light, and a total mangling of it in The Hut.
John Smith: That’s true. Most of the work falls between those poles and shifts in and out of naturalism and representation on the one hand and extreme abstractions on the other. Films like The Black Tower are very much to do with the way one can move between illusionistic involvement and awareness of construction, abstraction and representation.
John Smith in conversation with Nick Bradshaw5
- 1. Thogdin Ripley, The Quietus, October 2017.
- 2. Tom Harrad, “Interview with John Smith”, The White Review, online exclusive, March 2014
- 3. A.L. Rees, “Art in Cinema,” National Film Theatre, London 1987.
- 4. Sally O’Reilly, catalogue essay for “Return of the Black Tower (after John Smith)” by Jennet Thomas, PEER Gallery, 2007.
- 5. Nick Bradshaw, “John Smith: of process and puns,” Sight and Sound, web exclusive.
“In the first few minutes of his film Blight, derelict houses appear to be dismembering themselves. Bricks rattle, mortar falls, and wooden beams are dislodged, seemingly by poltergeist activity (a feeling reinforced by a poster for the film The Exorcist, on a bedroom wall that has become newly exposed to daylight). The claw of a bulldozer is filmed, ominously caressing a chimney stack it is about to tear down. But the shot stops short, and the inevitable destruction happens in our heads, not on the screen.”
“The only distinction I would make between what I do when I play with sound and what a musician would do is that I don’t usually have a rhythmic structure for those sounds. So they’re not put into any kind of repetitive structure. That’s the only way I’d distinguish it from conventional music.”
“And finally, in developing strategies to integrate music into the soundtrack, rather than treating it as a supplement or addition, Smith’s collaboration with Pook challenges the conventional tripartite division of the soundtrack into speech, music and effects. In each of these three areas, it is perhaps the selfreflexive play with the creation of meaning that identifies Smith as an original voice in experimental film and video. However, for Smith, experimentation and reflexivity are never ends in themselves, but rather part and parcel of a critical engagement with the ways in which audiovisual media influence our understanding of the world. In investigating what is at stake in the creation and transmission of meaning through sound and image, Smith brings us back to the social sphere, reminding us that the practice of art is political and has political potential.”
Holly Rogers and Jeremy Barham3
“Dad’s Stick is a lovely tribute to Smith’s father, but it’s also a witty game of form. What seems at first to be a voluptuous abstract painting turns out to be something more mundane, but now mysterious in its accidental beauty.”
“Smith has always been fascinated by the competitive relation between language’s denoting an object and an image’s representing it. Dad’s Stick is the latest instalment in a series of works which exploit, for dramatic potential, the ambiguity between these alternative forms of signification. The film’s opening image is a multicoloured field of striated colour which appears, projected onto a gallery wall, to be a large-scale abstract colourfield painting. It is qualified by a line of superimposed text: ‘My Dad did a lot of painting’. We naturally assume that this must mean painting as art, until it becomes clear, at the end of the film, that the colour field was, in fact, a close-up of a cross-section of a paint-encrusted wooden stick that Smith’s father used over many decades to mix household paint before applying it to the walls of his house. Timeless abstraction is exposed as dense with compacted time, like the rings of a tree trunk, while art is exposed as an illusion concealing an artisanal truth. And yet, of course, Dad’s Stick is an art film, and declares itself as such. Its monochrome backgrounds reference modernist painterly abstraction, as its Helvetica captions are a stylistic convention of conceptual art. But this form of allusion is implicitly questioned by the objects in the film – a wooden stick that has become a magic chromatic wand; a cup for mixing paint that is so encrusted it resembles a sea shell. They have become emblems of the resistance of reality to being represented by the images through which Smith is nevertheless revealing them to us.”
“The unusual Red cardigan was an exhibition based around the discovery I had made of somebody trying to sell a second hand VHS tape of my films on eBay. I’d discovered through ego surfing, googling myself. The tape was going for £100, which seemed like a lot to me for a clapped out videotape! This was pretty recently, so it was already long obsolete. So I became curious about the seller, and I’d never bought anything on eBay before, but I wanted to investigate and find out as much as I could about the character of this person. I could see their name, and the town in which they lived, but their name was an online alias – ‘Serenporfor’. I wondered if it might be an anagram, for someone called Rose Pronfer, or Senor F Roper, and I started making up these characters. But the main revelation was that I realised that if someone was selling other things, then you could check out what their other items were. I found that Serenporfor was selling a diverse range of other things; cheerleader pom-poms, a green rabbit fur handbag, an unusual red cardigan, after which the show was named, a Resident Evil videogame.”
John Smith in conversation with Tom Harrad1
- 1. Tom Harrad, “Interview with John Smith,” The White Review, online exclusive, March 2014.
“The most provocative of the bunch is John Smith’s Who Are We?. Leading up to the Brexit vote, BBC’s Question Time became ever more vicious and confrontational. Who Are We? is a manipulation of one of those broadcasts, with David Dimbleby prompting ‘you, sir, up there on the far right’ repeatedly.
‘Get our identity back – vote leave!’ one audience member shouts, while another declares himself a veteran, followed by a swift manipulated cut to rapturous applause. It’s a heavily edited and remixed edition of Question Time, but by highlighting those in the audience with attitudes ranging from nationalistic to xenophobic, Smith’s short film shows the now normalised extremism within our society and our political discourse.”
- 1. Scott Wilson, Common Space magazine, April 2017.