Interview by Katya Yakubov
Fluidly moving between video and film, British artist Sam Spreckley experiments with the ‘surface’ of his subjects to illicit the viewer to look (and hear) deeper. Creating unique soundscapes apart from the image, and then layering these tracks onto visual studies, such as close-ups of insects, skin and oil, the artist augments our experience of the ordinary, and heightens his subjects’ presence, often bringing them to life more clearly than they appear in physical reality. With his new film, Surface II, screening at this year’s Video Art and Experimental Film Festival, these themes are explored again, this time by a unique performative process in which celluloid is burned by the same projector that is simultaneously screening these results.It is interesting that you work with celluloid, destroying actual film in Surface II, when your focus of study in Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (Dundee, Scotland) was science and electronic imaging. Can you talk about the kind of work you did with electronic imaging, how it led to your working with celluloid? Why the destruction of celluloid, what is the interest there?
Electronic Imaging was basically the title of a Master of Science degree, but with a focus on the arts. The course was based on any sort of arts practice where digital technologies would be employed to create a body of work; in my case it was digital video arts. I guess the work I was doing in electronic imaging led me almost directly to working more with celluloid film, strange as this sounds.
Still from Spreckley’s Surface II.
It was a combination of already having an interest in 8mm, especially the manipulation aspect of it and also an interest in ‘surface’ in general. I was busy working with a digital multi-channel installation based around the human form, inside and out! I found that with celluloid I could start to expand the textural element of the work. Unlike digital tapes and files, with celluloid I could physically interact and almost add myself to the work, in a literal sense. Not only could I record my own body but I could also incorporate hair, blood and sweat directly onto the celluloid, to create a moving image work that I simply couldn’t do with digital methods.
So the interest in in the “surface,” in this first case by way of the body, was a theme that was there from the beginning?
Yes, in a sense. Working with the ‘body’ project a lot of my focus was exploring the human form so I would be experimenting a lot with the idea and notions of a surface which I could manipulate, explore texturally. Its interesting because I feel like 8mm is much more attached to us physically, starting with the simple act of touching the image with our fingers. I think all these thoughts and experiments with celluloid really directed me more towards working on projects like Surface II. With this film, the act of destroying celluloid was a sort of intuitive progression. I became interested in creating symbolic visual effects of things associated with the human condition, viruses for instance. I found that the visual look of decaying and destroying celluloid could give me this; it was a kind of abstract metaphorical moving image. Even though working with 8mm was a very much an analog process, the end outcome was digital, an interesting concept in itself.
Still from Spreckley’s short film, Untitled 4.
Yes, you mention that you studied ‘time-based art,’ rather than specifying film or video. Can you elaborate on how you see the two mediums of film and video working together as ‘time-based art’?
I had been introduced to working with ‘video’ when I was around 15, 16 through a friend’s family VHS camcorder. We would just goof around with it, recording whatever we were up to at the time. I didn’t realize it then, but I think the act of recording and capturing life stuck with me from that point on. The next step was many years later when I discovered an 8mm camera and began to shoot film. I began to shoot everyday moments, cars in the street, people in the city and I also did a lot of work with time-lapse thanks to the camera’s single frame shooting dial. A few years later a friend pointed me towards a uni-degree course called Time-Based Art. Before this point I don’t think there was much scope to study video arts and filmmaking at art school, in Scotland anyway. I liked the term ‘time-based art’ even if I still struggle to understand how exactly it relates to only working with video. When I began to study I was still using 8mm but found that there was an emphasis on only creating digital work. HD was really starting to kick off at that point too.
As part of my studies I would really become interested in the different ways of creating moving image artworks and found that there was an interesting symbiosis between analog and digital methodologies. Rather than simply believing that digital cameras would spell the end for celluloid, I actually found that thanks to digital equipment, working with celluloid became much more accessible. This is certainly the case when working with films such as Surface II. Thanks to digital, I can document very clearly the specific way in which I work with 8mm. The relationship between film and video is in a new interesting place for me; there is lots still to discover. I also don’t like to restrict the way I work and believe it depends on my initial project idea. I often jump between many ways of working which I enjoy very much, giving me much more freedom to create.
I like this idea of the hybrid of digital and film, because things are never so black and white as film vs. video. So often as film students, you learn to develop and shoot film, but you get a digital transfer to edit on a computer.
Exactly! And thankfully I never have to worry about splicing! And also to work with a complex sound design is luckily much more straightforward. Again thats why I feel like the two ways of working compliment each other very much.
Where did you get the actual film we see being destroyed in Surface II?
The film I used was something I had shot traveling from the city to a rural landscape, although at times it’s impossible to tell what the image is of, really only at the beginning of the work. I liked a lot this idea of moving through, a journey, even if you can’t really tell that is the case. It’s interesting to work with single frames because the movement is frozen. Again I quite liked that because I was creating a lot of motion in a freeze frame
Still from Spreckley’s Surface II.
What was the technical process of destroying the film, shooting it and running it through the projector, and recording this result?
The process was very crude and hands-on. I had modified an 8mm projector so that I could guide the film through manually, without the sprocket holes of the film being used. This allowed me to hold on a single frame steady and long enough for the heat of the projector bulb to melt the individual frames. The heat from the projector is the only thing destroying the film. It was actually quite tricky because I had to control the amount of melting and burning, since the projector’s heat burns the film very easily and quickly. During this procedure I had an HD video camera recording the results from the projection on the wall. In a sense I see this work as an edited document of a performance. This is one of the reasons I enjoy to create work like this; the hands-on crudeness is something I miss with digital.
There is another artist screening at the festival who also works with documenting the destruction of celluloid, yet your two films are so very different, one would never think to compare them. In Pat Clark’s film, the soundtrack is a man being interviewed about his family, while the images are of film-slides being dropped into water. The circular nature of how the interview is cut up, combined with the destruction of the film slides, points to memory loss. Yet in your film, it seems that the act of destruction brings things to life. All the crackles and pops wake a person up! Can you talk about your idea that a sound can augment an image and make it much bigger?
Pat’s work is very good and I could relate a lot to its themes. It also has this notion of destruction/decay creating something new and unexpected. With a lot of my recent works I really explore the relationships between sound and image, especially so in Surface II. I became fascinated with the idea of synesthesia, where perhaps a color becomes a taste or a sound, the way that senses can become slightly skewed. For me, this idea evolved into the notion that movements can became sounds. When I was working on the film I let my imagination flow and tried to work intuitively with the sound design. I edited the visual and worked on the sound separately, almost using my first feelings as to what I imagined the movements could be like sonically. My main hope with Surface II was that people could become captivated by it, by this sensorial attack! When sound and image come together in the right way, I feel like a new immersive experience can be achieved. Perhaps people can relate to this sensory twist, as if everyone can intuitively have this understanding of synesthesia, they just don’t realize it.
Do any of the original sounds serve as inspiration or a basis for fabricating new sounds?
When I’m working with films such as Surface II, there isn’t really anything to begin with in regards to sound so it’s really like starting with a blank canvas, so to speak. Normally I always carry around with me a small sound recorder so if I hear something interesting I can quickly capture it and perhaps later down the line I might find a use for it. Other times when I have something very specific in mind for a project, I will take some items to the quietest place I can find and record. With this work it was a combination; I used a lot of sounds I had archived and also recorded a lot of new ones. The fun thing is that the soundtrack is so complex that often you can’t even hear a lot of the sounds distinctly, especially some of the more subtle sounds. There’s all sorts of sounds I wish you could hear more of. It’s a cacophony!
Was Surface I a natural progression to Surface II, and is there a direct correlation between the two projects?
Yes! The first Surface work was very much created ‘off the cuff,’ so to speak. I didn’t really think too much about it at the time; it was more or less a quick experiment, a prototype of Surface II. I had always wanted to revisit the work and really channel the idea of working with the destruction of celluloid, this time with much more attention towards sound, creating a much more dynamic and complex experience. It was also shot in standard definition and I really wanted to create a work like that but in a higher definition. I hoped that I could achieve a much more detailed work with more resolution, especially for capturing and detailing all the nuances associated with burning film. Surface II was the next step in the evolution.
Still from Spreckley’s short film, To A Fly.
I liked the similar studies of sound and image working together when you filmed a lot of animals, as in the short To A Fly or Untitled 4. We intuitively hear that the sounds you use for these creatures are almost mechanical in nature, like a machine’s parts moving. We hear this, but there is still such an overwhelming sense that what we are watching is an organism, not a machine. The presence of an organism, of biological life, even in the inorganic elements like the destruction of celluloid, can you speak to this idea?
Yes, the power that sound can have over an image. I like a lot to play with and explore the idea of giving an alternate sound to an object or movement. Even when making something natural, I like it to have a machine-like sound. With that juxtaposition the image is accentuated and even given a new sense. Something which is very natural or biological when given a more machine-like sound can still maintain its natural sense. More attention is focused towards the movement of the subject which at times are more mechanical, perhaps we just didn’t see it like that before. WithSurface II, I played alot with this idea. The destruction of the film becomes very organic, maybe even alive? This is interesting because the process was very mechanical in a sense.
Still from Spreckley’s short film, Oil and Water.
You fluctuate between filming animals, then moving away to subjects like the celluloid, oil and water. How do you float from subject to subject?
I work in a very intuitive way and as such, every project I work on tends to be a bit different. The idea or concept is always what dictates the project. It’s hard to describe where my ideas come from, perhaps they are simply born from exploring the world. Sometimes my work can be something very short and simple and other times they become very complex and time consuming. I like this way of creating work, it keeps things fresh and allows me to feel as though I have no boundaries to what I create. The subjects of the work are usually not so far apart, usually investigating the beauty and hidden poetry of life or working with image and sound and how they can relate to one another.
Your 10-monitor installation MSC degree show, called Being, was a series of body close-ups. What was it like working with multi-channels, especially where the crisp sound that is so much a part of your work, might naturally take a backseat to the images?
Yes, I created the work when I was at University as part of my master’s degree. I wanted to create a work which would deconstruct the human body into separate elements. I love to create single channel video works, but sometimes I have an idea that can only be realized through multi-channel work. The sound aspect of the work was a challenge because normally my works have a very complex soundscape. In this project I discovered that it wasn’t always necessary to have such a dynamic sound design, although the 10 monitors each had a unique sonic landscape and actually created quite a lot of noise! Thankfully it complimented the work; it became a sensory overload, perhaps like the body itself.
Still from Spreckley’s 10-channel MSC degree show, Being.
Do you continue having ideas of projects as installations?
Yes! I am always considering how my work could be presented. During my time making moving image works I have exhibited in many different forms, from cinema/festival screenings to monitor-based works in a gallery setting and simply experiencing work in the digital realm of the internet. I would like to continue making video works for installations. In the body project, it really lends itself to a multi-channel installation. I originally wished to create a single screen work but it really didn’t have the same impact as actually walking around the space and experiencing it that way. So depending on the project I definitely wish to keep creating installation works.
Some of my favorite of your works online are the voyeuristic, simple pieces like Bus Stop or Recovery; though not quite sound-image studies, they mostly capture the beauty of the un-choreographed, the unplanned. Yet they do reflect back on other works in that they engage you to look closer and really see, a sort of reality TV in its truest form. Do you see this body of work as standing apart from your soundscape image studies?
Still from Spreckley’s short film, Bus Stop.
I think all my works relate to one another on some level. These simpler pieces coexist with the more abstract, complex sound works in the sense that in each I wished to convey or find a poetic element, as you say, to look further into the work and think about something bigger, whether it’s the moment a memory is destroyed/celebrated or when two people at a bus stop unwittingly move at the exact same time. The simplest moments can sometimes be the most complex and this is something that I continue to enjoy exploring!
Working as a freelance editor and sound designer, Sam continues to experiment and create his own moving image works through participation in several residencies. He has exhibited internationally at experimental film festivals and gallery shows, and has most recently been selected to represent the UK at the European Young Artists Biennial in Greece. His film, Surface II, can be seen on Thursday, February 7th, at the VAEFF 2013, held at Tribeca Cinemas.