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transmediale 2015: Vicki Bennett and Citation City

Since 1988 transmediale has been one of Europe’s premiere events for showcasing transmedia and technology for art and narrative and nonfiction storytelling. Director Kristoffer Gansing (who spoke with Filmmaker last year) and his team continue to assemble cutting-edge films, installations, performances, workshops, and other events, turning the House of World Cultures in Berlin into a hub for all things new media. It runs this week from January 28 through February 1, and I spoke with a number of artists who are presenting video-based pieces at the festival.

British artist Vicki Bennett has been working under the name People Like Us since 1991. Her practice, though broad-ranging, primarily centers around collage of found footage and sounds; her work has shown at venues like the Tate Modern and Barbican and is all archived via her website. Her piece for transmediale, called Citation City, is arguably the newest incarnation of the city symphony film: using found footage from pre-existing films set in London, Bennett has created a video-based performance piece that maps out the city using every source from Bedknobs and Broomsticks to James Bond; you can watch the trailer and learn more about it here. The result is a sweeping panorama of London, but a London as represented through cinema — not the real city at all, but one that exists in the collective imagination of moviegoers throughout the decades.

Bennett’s specific inspiration wasn’t early filmmakers like Walter Ruttman or Dziga Vertov, but the philosopher Walter Benjamin. Though probably best-known to filmmakers for his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin’s most arguably monumental work was his unfinished Arcades Project (or Passagenwerk), a voluminous collage of printed material about the covered arcades of pre-war Paris. This work, which was assembled and published posthumously, created a portrait of Paris unlike any that could have been written by a single author. When Bennett came across this work a few years ago she saw its resonance with her own found-footage work and wanted to create something like it for her own city.


Filmmaker: Can you talk a bit about your background and how People Like Us came into being?

Bennett: The name People Like Us came about in 1990 when I was experimenting with audio and video and paper collage. I wanted a name so that I had something to put on flyers and spines of cassette tapes. I came up with a name that to me was good for sampling (because it is part of many overheard sentences), and also because it is always part of a feeling of strong expression of identity and belonging, although belonging to what exactly is non-specific.

Filmmaker: So at this point you’ve worked with archival footage, found footage, and video collage for years. What makes that mode of art practice so appealing to you?

Bennett: I’ve been working with collage since I left school in the mid-1980s, and it wasn’t a conscious choice, it was the case of using materials and technology that was readily available, and that was the record player, radio tuner, double cassette deck and mixer, magazines, scalpel and spray mount. The copy-and-paste aspect is built into cassette recording, and indeed I’ve been recording onto cassette since the 1970s, so I think for someone my age it is natural to be home taping and home editing. It is a DIY approach, not dependent upon wealth or special environments. The first paper collages I made were using National Geographic and tourist books/brochures.  The first audio I made was a result of running blank tapes in the kitchen and recording local BBC radio shows and then recording new stories with the spoken word that I had collected. The appeal is the accessibility to as much as you want. This method is ingrained in me, that this is a folk art in the age of mechanical reproduction: it is not a specialist art form, or rather it shouldn’t be. Even in the age of the computer I am still working with tools and methods that cost me very little money, and the only thing that costs me is my time in relation to needing to make a living, which I just about manage. I’d also like to add that working in analog (i.e. pre-2000 for many) is often seen as a romantic thing to younger people, but I have always wanted to work digitally in order to control juxtapositions better. People often say that there are too many choices these days, but I say the limitation should be self-imposed.

Filmmaker: I’d like to talk about Citation City, but to do that we need to back up to Walter Benjamin. If you’d already been making found-footage pieces, how did The Arcades Project affect you? How did it lead to this film about London?

Bennett: I thought it would be good to make my Arcades Project about London because it’s where I live. The funny thing, as I’ve often found, was Walter Benjamin came to me; I didn’t go searching. While walking through an old shopping arcade in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne with Kenneth Goldsmith a few years ago (he is also creating an “Arcades Project”, a book called Capital – about NYC, to be published this year) he told me about this very large book of selected found text and images that covered many aspects of Paris, that were edited together as a work-in-progress collage. When I bought the book I was delighted to see that Benjamin and I shared a lot of work methods in terms of collation and editing. I have always made exhaustive analog (written) and digital lists of content which describe a recorded media type (for instance movie description or audio dialogue) and then cut all of the descriptions up, placing hundreds of descriptions in front of me all at once, to try and ascertain the bigger picture in a way where memory alone would fail. I’m interested in the stories and threads that run through collected material. Much like with The Seven Basic Plots or The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I like to see what stories we like to hear and tell and where the links in the thread lie, what they may be, and what would happen if they all met. I trust in the interconnectedness of people, their experiences and ideas, that we are telling these same stories over and over… and it’s wonderful and magical to find out what happens when you collect lots of subject matter and collate into genre, place, subject matter, location and so on. With selected found footage you are working with the context of what already happened as well as making new combinations happen.

Filmmaker: That’s a lot of prep, setting it up like some kind of postmodern–or computer-aided–city symphony. What was the production process like?

Bennett: Long! It took a year, I am almost at the end of it now. Which isn’t long compared to how long Walter Benjamin worked on his. My year has been of 12-hour days though, first by searching for fictional feature films based or shot in London. I did this through search engines, forums, as well as my own and friend’s memories. I collected more than 300 films. While searching, which took a few months, I started watching and making edits of content that I thought might be significant — going by things like location, what was going on, who was acting, certain styles of filming or atmosphere. It was guesswork to start with but I was meticulous so I hoped not to miss anything. Of course, this is all based upon personal taste — this isn’t a chance pperation, although it does involve some sense of chance.

Meanwhile I searched movie sites for locations of different films, which helped categorise what might be reoccurring in terms of location, as well as making an archive of this information for its own sake. I don’t know what that is for yet, except I will share it in the documentation.

After around five months I had many folders with edited video segments. and I typed into a text file with descriptions of what was going on in each edit/clip. Then I printed this file on paper and cut each section out and placed them all over the floor as hundreds of slips of paper.  hen I grouped these together by similarity and overlaps, much like the game of exquisite corpse — making lots of vertical curtains of paper, taping all the subjects/content similarities together. It’s all a bit longwinded and might even be unnecessary, but to me it’s important to know I’ve really got it covered, that I’ve tried hard. And even then I know I haven’t got it covered — with this project, the deeper I look, the more I find. It is hard to do this project justice without working on it for another year or more! But I can’t. For non-romantic very down to earth boring reasons.

Once I have done this I make lots of different movies sequences in Adobe Premiere, all with different subject matter, and I import the clips that I discovered from the paper stage to have things in common. At this stage I start working with the audio compositions, where I make similar searches, but this time around for music/songs that are about certain themes, places, subject matter. I use Pro Tools to then start to make audio compositions which, from constant cross checking, I eventually can introduce into the video timeline.

Filmmaker: I want to come back to the audio, but did you notice any themes to the footage — more Big Ben than Deptford, for instance?

Bennett: Here are the reoccurring themes. I’ve bunched them with neighbors the best I can but the threads have threads of their own and the plots diverge, and it’s rather a self-defeating task (as is the entire project in terms of completing it!) — much of the subject matter strays into many reoccurring areas. But that is just how it is.

* Albert Hall & Memorial

* Apocalypse, Floods, Natural Disaster, Plague, Alien Invasion

* Big Ben, Parliament, Time

* Broadcasting, Morse Code, Radio, BBC, Newspapers & Propaganda

* Big Brother, Brainwashing, Hypnosis, Insanity

* Ceremony, Tradition, Ritual, Magic

* Horror, The Occult / Unknown, Satanism, Vampirism

* Imprisonment & Evacuation

* Photography, Voyeurism, Fashion, Art Gallery & Museum

* Pollution, Fog, Smog, Smoke, Heavy industry, Docklands, Noise, Wasteland, Rubbish

* Power Stations (Battersea & Lots Road), Illumination, Power Cut / Surge, Rooftops & Chimneys

* Public Houses, Drinking, Prostitution, Crime & Gangsters, Poverty, Jack the Ripper, East End, St Paul’s

* River Thames, Bridges, Thames Embankment

* Royalty, Grenadier Guards, Tower of London, The Mall

* Shadows & Silhouettes, Mirrors, Being Pursued

* Spying, Conspiracy & Intrigue, Detectives & Secret Agents, MI5/6, (New) Scotland Yard

* Supermarkets, Arcades & Malls, Mass Production & Duplication, Consumerism

* Surveillance, Tapping, Recording Technology & Storage (Domestic & Governmental)

* Tourist Icons: Telephone Boxes, Letter boxes, Routemaster Buses

* Trafalgar Square, Public Space, Pigeons, Nelson’s Column

* Travel, Heathrow (London) Airport, Immigration

* Underground, Subterrain

* War, Cold, 1st & 2nd, Terrorism, Murder

I didn’t check until afterwards, but when I looked at Walter Benjamin’s list of “convolutes” they were quite similar in places. I hoped this would be the case, but I didn’t consciously try and influence that outcome.

Filmmaker: That’s quite the impressive list, and I suspect it only hints at all the paths the material could have gone. In laying this all out thematically did you notice how individual motifs or locations were used differently over time? Were those patterns teased out as you assembled it or were they obvious in the initial phases?

Bennett: Some of the more famous motifs were obvious and expected, but the undercurrents were not.  I didn’t know for instance that one of the most common themes would be that of surveillance, which includes spying and cold war, tapping and recording. Many of the stories are very contemporary, even when based more than 60 years or so ago in many cases. I suspected that the apocalypse would be a big theme, because unlike The Arcades Projects my feature film selections are stories rather than news reports and so on, and people love a good film about total annihilation. The apocalypse looms with war, alien invasion, demons, pollution, flooding and natural disaster as well as the sun burning us all dry. The underground is also a massive theme — both the transport system but also the subterrain. And London is a great location for horror films and gangster movies. Locations for all of the above have changed drastically in recent decades because of the changes in land use. The more obvious tourist landmarks inevitably have to be destroyed. Big Ben has not a chance in hell for instance. Post-war London is full of bomb sites around Embankment/St Paul’s as well as inner-city London,resulting in far more wasteland. There is also far more heavy industry, especially near the river: power stations and factories, warehouses that these days are expensive apartments or simply not there. The underworld operates from these places, and many a car chase ends on an abandoned lot or in the shadow of a smoke-blackened warehouse. I know I have missed a great deal and not even touched upon some subjects as well as methods of editing, which is as inspiring as it is frustrating, but this does at least go to show that I’ve chosen an interesting subject.

Filmmaker: Let’s go back to the soundtrack. My first impression of the Mary Poppins footage in the trailer was the juxtaposition of new audio over the famous rooftop “Step in Time” sequence. Can you talk in a little more detail about your process with audio?

Bennett: My aim has always been to create a magical world where different characters, like puppets, interact with or act with each other in a way that the constraints of real circumstances would never allow. I have always made audio collage compositions (releasing maybe 20 albums, I have lost count, since 1991) as well as hundreds of radio shows for WFMU, and so it made sense to me that since the outcome of this project was a performance presentation rather than a static film where I was not present that I would create a musical soundtrack, rather than one of a lot of dialogue. It doesn’t feel transformative enough to be collaging from film soundtracks, so instead I am using the approach of sourcing from published musical subject matter where content covers some of the convolutes that I have found. It doesn’t have to be music from/in London, and doesn’t have to be singers or musicians from London, in the same way that the actors in the films may not be from London, they inhabit the space as much as a singer does. It’s about the roles that people play within the films and music that makes it relevant. So I collected lots of themed music and started to collage it, following the different video timelines that I have collected on the certain subject matter. It’s difficult because both film and music want to take up 100 per cent of your attention, and then it’s too dense, so you have to make it a bit like walking — left foot is visual, right foot is audio…

Filmmaker: Which makes sense. You’ve shown at transmediale before. How does Citation City fit into an event like this?

Bennett: I’ve always collected huge amounts of information, and catalogued and stored into archives. To me it is extremely important to go through this rather than have someone else do it (which some artists do), since to me the most important thing about being an artist is the process. The product is an inevitability, based upon all sorts of common-sense things as well as gaining the funding to spend the year doing it! transmediale understand the essential nature of the process in regard to research, that is is important to share how we accumulate information… that we keep that transparent, make it available, that we share not only what we do but how we came to do it.

Filmmaker: Lastly, I think a lot of filmmakers interested in collage work or using found footage would be interested to hear how do you deal with copyright issues in your films.

Bennett: I see nothing wrong with working with preexisting material. Like I said before, this is folk art in the age of mechanical reproduction. It is not new, people have been sampling for over 100 years. The “C” word is irrelevant and negative. When I do lectures in colleges the “C” word is always the first question in Q&As to the point that before the Q&As I now ban people from asking. It serves no purpose other than to introduce fear, which shuts down creativity. And for what?  When it comes to “the idea” people have always been sampling/collaging. This is to be celebrated, it shows we are talking to one another, that we are interconnected, regardless of even meeting or experiencing anything about one another.

Any artists who think they exclusively own their idea to the point that no one else can go near that territory are misguided and somewhat egotistical and they ought to be ashamed of themselves. We don’t own any thought, we just utilise it as a gift, and we pass it on in the exact same way we received it, like the air we breathe. We go through our lives and artistic processes ethically, or we do it unethically — that is everyone’s choice. My rule is do what you do, be thoughtful, be transformative and engaging, make yourself and hopefully other people happy, and don’t be mean.

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