Interview with dance-trained screen artist Becky Edmunds for Filmwaves.
Hybrids: Becky Edmunds
In windswept late November, near the Brighton sea-front, I met with dance-trained screen artist Becky Edmunds to talk about her recent output; improvisation and videography and her highly distinctive camera practice.
Chirstinn Whyte – I wanted to ask about your relationship to the landscapes in your work, particularly the recent residencies in Argentina and Swedish Lapland.
Becky Edmunds – I was invited to go to Argentina to do some kind of research and I needed to tell the Arts Council what I’d do. There were two things I was interested in. Firstly I was completely addicted to close-up and I wanted to see if going to a different environment that wasn’t the very small town world of south-east England would change my physiological approach to how I made work. If I put my body in a big space would something change: could I find my way to a wide shot, and to the body in wide shot? But also this question of what kind of movement language can I find that might sit within a landscape like that. When I got to Argentina, and went into these huge landscapes, I really found that I had no desire to place dance in there at all. I was interested in putting a body in there, and I’m very interested in how the body can somehow animate a landscape, so the Argentina work was really about finding ways of the body being in the landscape. Maybe walking, maybe just doing whatever it is it was doing, and me as a filmmaker behaving in a certain way in relation to what that body was doing.
c.w. – Your work also seems to me to be very concerned about getting beyond artifice, to deal with what’s really in front of you.
b.e. – Well I used to have a live practice of making dances for theatres, or making live art for theatre spaces and I began to have a real problem with invention, and I was really turned off by having to invent things. I like other peoples’ inventions, but I don’t like my own, and I struggle with it a lot, which is how I came into a documentary practice because that allowed me to deal with composition by just using what was around me. So really the landscape-based works, they kind of hover around documentary, I think. I never ask a dancer – or rarely ask a dancer – to do anything. So of the works that came out in Argentina, there’s a piece called El Fuego, which is a documentary really. It’s watching a gaucho – an Argentinian cowboy – move in a landscape of fire that he actually created, as a controlled burning of land. It’s just really documenting the movement of that man, and then recomposing that movement as dance: composed movement as choreography.
c.w. Again it seems to me that that your work is very much concerned with essentials.
b.e. – Yes, I think so, and I think I do like things to be fairly uncluttered, so that whatever is there can be seen fairy clearly and without too much bells and whistles around it. Light:Heat:Motion was shot on a salt field in Argentina. It was salt for as far as you could see – miles and miles and miles of it, under a very blue sky, and a very very hot sun. The person who’s moving in that video – a dancer called Paula Zacharias – had walked out into this landscape, and was moving. I hadn’t particularly asked her to move, it was very windy and she just felt like moving, and I was very interested as the heat haze through the camera was totally different to the heat haze through my own vision. I went into a little choreography of ‘how far away from Paula to I have to be – how far do I have to zoom in and how far out of focus do I have to be so that that effect of heat will completely change her movement’. So I asked her to continue whatever it was she was doing, but by forcing the camera to respond to that movement in a certain way, what I was seeing through the camera became very different from what I was seeing with my eye. I found that incredibly exciting because something about my desire for composition was completely satisfied, but it was absolutely nothing to do with what I was doing. I’d managed to find a place where the camera could do all the work and could completely surprise me.
c.w. – That also leads in to your use of improvisational scores.
b.e. – I suppose that came in by studying with and talking to a dance artist called Lisa Nelson, who works with improvisation and has developed a strategy for making performance called the tuning score, which actually developed from her work in video. It uses the basic controls you have in an edit suite applied to a live situation, where she will shape a performance through calling things like repeat or replace. Through observing the performers shaping or tuning the images they’re making as they go, you’re very much made aware of their desires for composition. She introduced me to in-camera editing using some of these ideas and I’ve kind of picked that up and run with it. All the time that I’m composing something or shaping something in the camera, I’m just defining for myself what it its that I’m doing, and what it is that I’m doing in relation to the last shot I made, so, am I repeating something, am I replacing something, am I enlarging something or reducing something. It kind of takes me away from any kind of worry about meaning of what I’m shooting and helps me identify what it is compositionally. Then things like meaning can be there if anybody wants it but its not necessarily there for me.
c.w. – In Skate it seems to allow for concentration on the movement quality of the camera itself.
b.e. – Yes, some time ago I’d worked with a performer called Fiona Wright and she proposed that we make documentation of a piece of work before the piece had been made, which was a lot of fun because it meant that I didn’t have to worry in filming it about representing the work. She was moving in a dance studio, and I was very interested in how I could move it in relation to the movement she was doing. I was in a studio with a shiny floor and I put the camera down and span it. I kind of liked what it did – pushing it with my foot – I liked the energy of the image that it created, so when I was working up in the Arctic we were on a bit of sea that had frozen, and it’s an amazing place. They carved paths out across the frozen sea, and they kind of become park areas. People ski on there, or they take their dogs for walks, so it’s a really interesting space that’s kind of full of movement – and it’s always quite extraordinary movement, because either they’re on some sort of tool that will allow them to travel across that surface really easily or they’re in a pair of shoes and trying to walk a dog – so peoples’ bodies are already very interesting there. I wrapped the camera up in bubble wrap and kind of began pushing it along the ice to see what that would do.That was nice because my eyes weren’t on the image, I was just in relation to a tool that was wrapped in a certain way that allowed it to behave in a certain way and then looked at it later. But yes, it gives a certain movement quality, and I suppose I got very interested in what is it that I’m choreographing when I’m choreographing. Am I choreographing a body in a frame, or am I choreographing the space around the body, or am I choreographing the camera itself? So those were the questions I was asking in Sweden and that piece is very much about a notion of choreographing the camera but not in a way where I decide anything in advance. It’s about pushing it and seeing where it will land.
c.w. – That seems to be a pathway that’s come from your dance background, and from improvisation.
b.e. – I trained in a very very formal sense, learning formal body patterns that are either named as ballet or Cunningham, very set patterns of movement which when I was that age I really really enjoyed but I got bored with quite quickly. I was never a big improviser in dance, which I think is why I had to stop, But I came to improvisation almost from a theoretical basis of just talking to people. In particular talking to Scott Smith, who is an artist I now live with and have lived with for ten years but he had very interesting questions around ‘what is choreography’ and ‘what is improvisation’ and that they are both composition, and therefore both within the same family, and that there aren’t clear lines of ‘this is improvised’ and ‘this is choreographed’, that it’s a much more muddy area, much more grey area. That sort of greyness and undefinedness really interested me, so I began to use it as a sort of behaviour through video making and through an inability to be able to define what it is that I’m doing till I’ve done it and can look at it and recognise it.
c.w. -Obviously you’ve built up a working partnership with Scott Smith, in sound and music, over some time, and as you are both dance-trained and I just wonder how much that impacts because it seems to be so unusual to have two dance-trained artists working on a piece from different angles.
b.e. – We have a shared language, I think, of dance, and a shared interest in a period of time and certain artists in dance. People like Cunningham, who used chance procedures, is a proposition that interests both of us, and dancers who were working at the Judson Church in the 60s and 70s in New York, who were proposing pedestrian movement as dance. So we have shared interests in those artists and those questions in dance that I think we then just apply to the different areas that we’ve moved into, which I think is of value. I think it is interesting when people from one artform move to another artform with the questions of the original artform and begin to apply it. We just kind of fell into the working together, really. We sit in the same room and I can hand him a data file and he can respond to it and then give it back to me and I can respond to that, so it just feels like there was no planning to work together. He’s the person that I talk to the most about the work. He’s the person who always sees the work first, and gives me feedback on the work, so it makes sense that he’s involved in it, and in Sweden he was in there as my performer if I needed one, as well. We share a lot just through ten years now of shared conversations, so I don’t have to explain a lot to Scott.
c.w. – You’ve had quite a lot of years now working as a videographer, of going into spaces and responding to what you see and making a document out of it and I wondered how much influence that body of experience has had.
b.e. – I think that experience has been incredibly valuable. I made loads of videos of everything from community projects to stuff that was going on in theatres to recording peoples’ making processes, and it just gave me a huge amount of practice with composing a frame, and composing movement in a frame. There’s something actually I read recently, by Stan Brakhage, who talks about film and dance, and he talks about practicing every conceivable body movement with his camera, not in order to formalise it, but just to know the weight of the camera and the possibilities of it. I feel like for the last ten years that’s what I’ve been doing, that at least half my working life when I’m not editing is being with my body with a camera: getting to know a camera really well, getting to know it so I can make decisions quickly, so that I can respond quickly and so that I can be relatively confident to do that just through practice and through a physical practice. It is a physical practice, and that physicality very much includes the eyes and the behaviour of the eyes, and practice in looking and being able to recognise something…I think a lot of my work doesn’t fit into dance at all but it is absolutely about choreography.
c.w. – I know you’ve been working recently with multi-screen installation.
b.e. – Yes, Stones and Bones, which was a collaboration with a dance artist called Gill Clarke, and again Scott Smith doing sound, put four screens together with images moving with some kind of tension between the screens. At the moment I’m making a work with dance artist Fiona Wright, which will be held by the audience on iPod screens – at the moment iPod screens in Swan Vesta matchboxes, because they just fit perfectly which is very delightful – but that will be a live performance for about five people who will be holding video material and will have choices. In single screen work people don’t have many choices, and I’m interested in people having choices when they watch a live event. Maybe in their peripheral vision they can have a video or sound event, or whether they’re looking at one video event that’s held in their hands, knowing that other people who are sitting next to them also have video events that might relate to the live body in front of them. I think in a single screen work people feel they have to see everything, and once you come away into maybe more than one screen, or where screens are placed in relationship to the eyes of the audience, then people maybe don’t have to worry about seeing everything.