A Place for Reflection: Political, Questioning Art Film Is a Vital but Threatened Form, Writes Phil Collins
Collins, Phil, New Statesman (1996)
There was no protest about the closure of the BFI Gallery a few weeks ago. I had the distinguished but melancholy honour to be the last exhibiting artist and we dedicated a symposium held on the gallery's penultimate day to the staff losing their jobs. The gallery was the only art space in London with the specific mission of "commissioning and showcasing artists' films and videos and the moving image in its most contemporary forms". In its brief existence since 2007, it had shown the work of Michael Snow, Patrick Keiller and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, among others--that is, both film-makers working with art and artists working with experimental film and video.
Interestingly, while contemporary art is often lampooned for having no meaningful content, we have seen a movement characterised as a "documentary turn" in lens-based practices over the past 20 years. Running parallel to the systemic neglect of serious investigative impulses in print and broadcast media, critical questioning of the world we live in has relocated to galleries and museums. We can and should argue that artworks are not able to effect social change, and that is why they sit within a white cube (or a black box), unable to venture further than the smoked glass of the gallery door. But film and video are able to instigate an exchange with an audience about the status of ideas such as truth or authenticity.
This is an important intellectual tradition, advanced by film-makers such as Alexander Kluge, Harun Farocki and Peter Watkins. My peers--artists as varied as Hito Steyerl, Sharon Lockhart, Johanna Billing, Omer Fast and Duncan Campbell--all contribute to this kind of discourse in their own ways. The theorist Alfredo Cramerotti sees the increasing interest in the unstable and reflexive aspects of documentary as "aesthetic journalism".
My films largely reflect this instability of the document. The subjects they touch on range from the trauma of language and identity in Kosovo (why i don't speak Serbian (in Serbian)), to the relationship between Malaysian skinhead subculture and British colonial history (the meaning of style), to the promises and betrayals of talk shows and reality TV (the return of the real). The BFI exhibition brought together two short films: marxism today (prologue), about the education system in the German Democratic Republic and the lives of former teachers before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and use! value! …