The Revising History Symposium at Hardwick Gallery provided a fascinating opportunity to experience three recent film works and to participate in the discussion of these works between the artists and their invited speakers. As the title suggests, the films were connected in their emphasis on the historical – on going back in time and on rethinking narratives.
Kathleen Herbert’s film ‘A History of the Receding Horizon’ explored the history of the Kielder reservoir in Northumberland, interweaving images with the words of local people, environmental historians and an astronomer from the observatory overlooking the landscape. In conversation with Ele Carpenter, Herbert described how the flooding of a valley to create the reservoir had impacted on the shared consciousness of people from that area:
‘When asking locals, very few people thought there was anything of interest in the area – there was no history there – that’s why they built this reservoir. In fact the historian was saying that it is an area of huge history and very relevant history… but nobody could really remember the history. It was almost as if the building and the flooding of the valley had erased everyone’s memory.’
There is a certain poetry to this film. The sheer weight and silence of the water and its blanket erasure of history are poignant. By taking us inside the dam, through huge concrete corridors lined with marooned boats, Herbert emphasizes this sense of absence.
Richard Billingham’s film ‘Ray’ is a more intimate, biographical work, based on his experiences of living with his father in the 1990s and the photographs he took then. Using carefully chosen actors, the film conjures up a lost time and place through the reconstruction of memories. Billingham explained how staying true to his memories, rather than how he knew things to be, was fundamental in capturing the thoughts and emotions in Ray’s life at that time. He also described how in the making, the film found its own form; the evocative evening sunsets, for example, being serendipitous. Kieran Cashell asked whether the film is ultimately about trying to understand Ray:
‘Yes it is – or getting close to understanding, although you can only get so close. And in that trying to get close, I like to think it’s a bit of a tribute or a monument. I mean so many people – they have lives and interesting situations but they never get revealed or exposed. It is about the story, shared – even if it is the story of a static situation.’
Thus the film performs an act of reclamation, rescuing the solitary and unchanging world of Ray from the erosion of time. Billingham solidifies this action by describing how the film is intended to loop continuously, stretching out minutes into the years that Ray spent living like this.
In contrast, Anna Bunting-Branch’s short film W.I.T.C.H (“Women Inspired To Commit Herstory” and other tales..) arises from her academic enquiry into Feminist world building, through the lens of activist groups of the 1960s and 70s. Using painted components and a paired-down animation style, Bunting-Branch employs feminist science fiction as a way of imagining alternative worlds. For example, her animation incorporates the passage of women from an oppressive, patriarchal city into a new feminist world (as described in The Wanderground by Sally Miller Gearhart 1979).
The film intentionally cites only women authors. In conversation with Naomi Pearce, she described how citation can be used both to legitimize or disregard certain works:
‘I’m interested in the idea of how works become visible, become canonical, become histories I suppose and so that’s been a part of my practice for a very long time. But more recently in relation to the work with feminist science fiction, it’s been important to me in an academic environment… because it’s also about a kind of appropriate material for academic practice. Feminist science fiction operates in this quite interesting non-place in a way. There is a lot of work on it, but in terms of the mainstream academy… it isn’t treated seriously.’
Part of Bunting-Branch’s project then is to address the omission of these feminist works from sanctioned academia. Bunting-Branch emphasizes critique as well as affirmation. For example, she employs ‘fandom’ as a methodology in her work, drawing on the way in which fans can contribute to but also transform their subject.
By bringing together these three films, the symposium raised fundamental questions about who decides what counts as history and why some narratives are erased or relegated to a ‘non-place’. The use of film to reclaim and transform marginalized histories was particularly thought provoking. The rejection of a sequential narrative was also discussed as a way of enabling viewers to interpret creative work in their own ways. Indeed, Bunting-Branch drew the seminar to a close by referencing the work of Luce Irigaray and her assertion that the poetic is fundamentally relational – that it allows open-endedness and thus maintains future possibilities.