Ilam Park, Ashbourne DE6 2AZ

Luke Fowler, Ilam Actual (version), 2023

Interview with David Toop

Part of a commission by Arts&Heritage, National Trust’s Ilam Park and YHA Ilam Hall in the Peak District.

This is the second of three features on artists commissioned by Arts&Heritage as part of their artist-led research programme, Meeting Point. Arts&Heritage is a national agency that forges connections between artists, communities, historic sites and museums. Its Meeting Point programme explores the tangible and intangible heritage of museums and collections through collaborations between artists, participants and heritage partners.

The A&H Meeting Point Commissions for 2023 partnered The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) with Liz Gre, National Trust and Youth Hostel Association (YHA) with Luke Fowler, and Museum X – a project creating Britain’s first museum celebrating Black British history, art and culture - with Vanley Burke and Gary Stewart.

In this second feature, artist and filmmaker Luke Fowler is interviewed by musician, author and curator David Toop. Fowler discusses his first response to the site - YHA’s Ilam Hall set within National Trust’s Ilam Park - and his subsequent collaboration with a group of young people and with sound artist Lee Patterson and 16mm filmmaker Alex Hetherington.

David Toop: Tell me about this project.

Luke Fowler: Well it came about through an invitation from Arts&Heritage who work with artists in different heritage venues. They’re trying to place things outside of museums so they’re also working with non-arts venues. They asked me if I wanted to make a proposal for a project at Ilam Hall, which is in Derbyshire. Ilam Hall is a Youth Hostel Association (YHA) youth hostel. The YHA runs the hall and National Trust runs the grounds. They pretty much gave me carte blanche to respond to what I wanted. I’d been thinking about film history and early cinema and I got a book about the language of cinema. I’m very much an auteur but I’m also an amateur when it comes to film and music. I’m an autodidact. I’ve never had training. I never went to film school or did sound design or improvisation classes or anything like that. I always just found my own way to these things and you get to a point where you think, maybe it would be interesting to learn scales [laughs] to do some ear training.

So, in film I started thinking, what are some of the stock shots that people use? What are the established shots and shot language? I started thinking about how people traditionally film for editing, so they’ll film coverage and they’ll have certain things that are conventional ways of filming. I thought if I learned those conventions I could deconstruct them. So, I started right at the start in terms of looking at Lumière [the Lumière brothers, pioneers of late nineteenth century cinema] and early cinema and actually that’s as far as I got [laughs]. It was such an epiphany and a revelation. Actually, there’s a correlation between what I’m doing in avant-garde film and the experimental films I’m interested in and Lumière, maybe also Méliès [George Méliès, noted for special effects in early cinema] and his trick films. Structural film and things like that are very much related to early cinema. It’s the art of looking. Generally, they’re short films, like 40, 45 seconds, actuality in the loosest sense, because some of them are documents of things happening in front of the camera, like people arriving at a train station or people leaving a factory but then there’s the start of simplistic narrative or tableaus. They’re all single shots, with the camera locked off with no editing. Sometimes there’s editing in camera where you have a kind of discontinuity or even a dream-like scenario.

DT: How did this method come into play for the participants?

LF: Well, there’s also this Brechtian aspect of it, winking to the camera, winking to the audience, making a relation to the audience and breaking down the fourth wall. I thought maybe I can get these kids at the youth hostel to make some sort of early films, using analogue filmmaking, and there’s no sound of course, which I think is perfect. With the Bolex I use – the 16 millimetre film camera – it doesn’t record sound anyway so sound is always a construct, always something that was added later. It’s an artifice. So, I thought, why don’t we do these films with 16mm specialist filmmaker Alex Hetherington and I’ll get sound artist Lee Patterson to do some listening exercises and recording with them. Initially I thought I would do what I do, which is then put the two things together but then I thought that’s maybe a step too far. The point of the whole thing to me is to make the participants rethink what cinema is and rethinking the tools of filmmaking.

Technology has gotten so advanced. What we’ve lost in that is we’ve lost sight of looking and seeing, in the same way with music we’ve lost sight of sonority. Scelsi, [Giacinto Scelsi, Italian composer, died 1988] he talked about making compositions with single notes. But I think he was getting back to this idea – let’s not make music in a baroque sense, or counterpoint, serialism, or even expressive – let’s just listen to the notes, make a sound and hear what that sounds like and enjoy the richness of the sonority. I think artists’ film and experimental film has a place because they’re like poetry. It’s offering an alternative to commercial models. It’s slowing things down. It’s like John Cage, listening to the world outside. Looking at a film of the wind blowing through the trees and being happy to see.

DT: How did the Youth Hostel participants respond?

LF: One of the things that became clear as the project rolled out is that it was going to be difficult. I wanted people that hadn’t experienced the countryside previously. I wanted people that were urban children that hadn’t had an opportunity through access or disadvantage to come to the countryside and be. Because that’s the original premise of the Youth Hostel and the donation of this grand mansion. It would be a place where local kids could come and experience the countryside for the first time. So, I thought, let’s take that literally and actually have, not backpackers or walkers, but actually have teenagers coming to the countryside and making films.

DT: How did you find the participants?

LF:I left it up to the Youth Hostel Association. They have companies and organisations they work with all the time and they suggested a group that they already knew of. Lee had a lot of apprehensions as to how he was going to get teenagers to sit still and listen.

DT: Were there elements of it that were successful?

LF: Yes. What we noticed was that we had to let them do it on their terms. You couldn’t say to them, what do you want to film in nature, what interests you? That’s way too big an ask. So, we had to say, I’m going to set the camera up here. This is the frame, what do you want to do in front of the frame for forty seconds? Then they would dance or do gymnastics. They would jump and run.

DT: TikTok on analogue film.

LF: Yes, TikTok. A couple of them did say, we want to film this flower or film this river.

DT: What do you think they took from it?

LF: Lee was very good with them. He said to them, I’m interested in recording sounds in nature but I’m interested in recording weird sounds of nature. I like to record things like insects on a stem of grass and then he would play them a recording of an insect made with a contact microphone and to me, it sounded incredible, so I have no idea what they thought. For me it’s a thing of wonder and amazement but also something you’ve never heard before. There was another thing he did that I thought was bound to work. He got them to listen with microphones to unwrapping sweets and that freaked a lot of them out. I don’t know if it was alienating. I’d like to think they came away seeing there was an alternative to TikTok, and YouTube and Marvel. I’d like to think that but, who knows? With these things you’re giving people tools, you’re giving them ways of thinking that are completely foreign to them and you hope it might make an impression on one or two people. That’s all you can hope for. And it might not be that day; it might be in ten years’ time.

A ‘making of’ film by Pascal Vossen is available to watch here.

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