Following on from the screening of Richard Whitby’s film, The Beating of Vast Wings!, at Assembly 1 back in April, we took the opportunity to ask Richard some questions about his work and processes. His responses are accompanied here by a short clip.
In On The Natural History of Destruction, W. G. Sebald starts by stating that the destruction of German cities in WW2 ‘seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness [and] has been largely obliterated from the retrospective understanding of those affected.’ In The Beating of Vast Wings! you show a bomb hovering over a demolition site. Was the destruction of destruction something you were interested in when making the video?
Well, that bomb dropping is accompanied by a kind of glass-klinking sound effect, like it’s dropping on a glass screen, and destroying the image with the blast. It ushers in the next part of the film – as if the force of it adds a sort of momentum to the film. The bomb is a cartoon of destruction, which ‘drops’ on an image which is both one of destruction (of an existing building) and a signifier of construction; renewal. That site actually was being turned into a schools sports ground – what more positive image of renewal could you have, especially in 2012?
The bomb appears from above, but of course many construction sites in East London unearth buried bombs (including the one featured in the film, incidentally). The bomb appears later in the film too, spinning and hovering in a housing estate. The video is cyclical in this respect – I wanted to suggest the cyclical and insatiable nature of ‘renewal’. Those diggers will go on somewhere else, of course.
I think that the forgetting of destruction that is an essential aspect of ‘regeneration’ is very interesting. Regeneration, in its neoliberal form of consumerism and privatisation, is presented as if inevitable, and straightforwardly ‘good’ – ‘new’ equals ‘good’ and ‘economic benefit’ is the same as ‘public good’. In cartoon language, the bomb’s exploding is also inevitable, if often delayed…
From the wartime diary of Max Frisch: ‘A hilly landscape of bricks, human beings buried beneath it, the stars above; the last moving things are the rats. Went to hear Iphigénie in the evening.’
And a memory of the German author and director Alexander Kluge (the night before a raid on Darmstadt): ‘…listened on the radio to some songs from the sensuous Rococo world of Strauss’s magical music’.
These two quotations — both cited by Sebald — seem to resonate with the assemblage of materials in The Beating of Vast Wings! Do you think they describe a kind of violent montage, one in which the origin of violence is difficult to decipher and its direction difficult to follow? In a sense it becomes unclear from whence the violence issues forth: the physical destruction, or the aesthetic ‘response’, for want of a better word. To leap a little: was the editing of The Beating Vast Wings! a destructive process, or a creative one?
Yes – perhaps Kluge is referring to the other Strauss, Johann? I went to Sarajevo recently, and stories there of artistic and cultural life doggedly continuing during the siege of the early nineties has a very different connotation – none of the ‘Rococo’ sweetness of escapism that those quotes summon in my mind.
I feel like editing is often described as a process in which one has to be brutal in order to get the best result – ‘Cut your favourite shot’ etc. I think my process is perhaps more akin to building a house of cards, or balancing too many books on a desk; rather than chiselling away at a piece of stone to reveal the sculpture it always held within it.
The film is very much concerned with violence – of urban renewal, war and also filmmaking as a kind of violence to those recorded in it. The film has lots of unexpected results within it for me. One way of engineering that was to make people improvise, like the guy playing the American soldier. He didn’t know the story he is telling until minutes before the shoot; he is partly making it up. Also, the singer is having to do his best without accompaniment, and without a proper warm up – he is giving a pretty broken performance (and I think you can hear the strain on his voice). Things like the little sketches that describe Strauss’s fate at the end of the war – these were things I did that were never intended to ‘make the cut’ so to speak – similarly a lot of the computer animation is extremely ad-hoc.
In London, I feel like an agent of this violent change in the city – I live as a white middle class artist in East London, so in a sense, I am one of the black birds in the sky, as are both of the performers in the video. I feel like the singer especially looks hipster enough to appear in a poster for a new housing development. Richard Strauss is quite a provocative figure here, as he was famously implicated with the Nazis (although not a party member) and wrote several pieces of music for them.
I think that obscured origin of material, of acts and intentions is crucial to me. On one level, obviously I am at least the conduit of these things, but there are seemingly different voices and intentions there. One idea was to emphasise these unscripted, sort of risky and exposed moments as opposed to the highly ‘scripted’ narratives and lifestyle images offered by consumerist-type regeneration. That obscurity is also crucial to how regeneration and neoliberal economies work – where does the bomb drop from anyway? It all just happens, as if by itself.
I think its strange when you try to think about a city as if its authored, as if its designed – as one might do as a tourist. Whereas in reality, what you have is the remains of many, many different forces acting upon one and another, and perhaps the majority of the effects these have are circumstantial, not intentional.
‘Operation Gomorrah’ — raised by the RAF with the help of the US in the summer of 1943 — turned a biblical reference into a twentieth century weapon. In The Beating of Vast Wings! you juxtapose an East London housing estate, soon to be demolished, with German WW2 ruins, and you also of course incorporate a text with a biblical genesis. More minutely, the video juxtaposes tracking shots with immobile shots, some framing movement but others only framing further immobility. How did you approach the relationship between content and composition, and is this an opposition that stands up to the actual process of putting together a video like The Beating of Vast Wings!?
‘Operation Gomorrah’! Military branding…My title is a quote from the libretto of ‘Salome’ – King Herod has these visions of a black bird (death) approaching his house. His and his family’s destruction are, in biblical terms, going to allow the new Christian age to come about. He feels the inevitability of his own demise; he fears that John the Baptist is right. Maybe this is obvious, but the term ‘regeneration’ has a Christian origin, meaning the passage into a new and correct way of life. It is a redemptive process, and more ideological than it might often appear.
The footage was taken over about a year living in Bow, which is a long process by my standards. I think the different shooting methods obviously serve to emphasise the process of shooting, but also my hope is that they give a sense of instability to the thing as a whole. As if it is a stack (of rubble, maybe), rather than a smooth surface over which the camera and the eye travel. Traditionally, smooth camera motion accords a kind of authority, to do with obfuscating the camera itself in a way that only large Hollywood-type budgets allow. I want to include references to the perceived narrative and emotional weight of other mediums such as melodrama and opera (and in this one, the bible, of course), but to not let them sit very stably. The set gets dismantled and broken up after the show is over. Or maybe the theatre’s foyer is more satisfying than what happens on stage. I like the idea that the work might be falling apart as much as unfolding itself – eating itself, perhaps. So I suppose I hope to work without an opposition between content and composition.
Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) is fascinating in that it is an American war movie about ordinary German soldiers made by a Hollywood director with a German-Danish background (Sirk being born Hans Detlef Sierck). What led you to include it and what role did you want it to play in The Beating of Vast Wings!?
I was actually working with it in another video, but less directly – then the material seemed so close to some of the things in this one. The Sirk film is weird, I think – especially imagining it being filmed so close to the fact of the war, and in what are presumably wartime ruins in Europe. Europe plays itself. Misappropriation is a powerful tool, I think. Grappling with something, ill prepared. The Sirk film doesn’t really work for me – something gets lost between the grand sweep of it and its attempt to depict banal romance; humanity.
One reason for including it is for its melodramatic nature – a genre prone to exaggeration, as is grand opera, and as am I in my work; to a kind of overwrought-ness. Saying it’s weird is not to say its ‘bad’ because it misrepresents the war (it does, of course, as any fictionalisation must). Perhaps in terms of its genesis, and Sirk as its author, it is a fitting monument to the war as a motor driving people between Europe and America – away as exiles, and then back, as filmmakers.
In my film, the set-like models that accompany the telling of the story of Salome turn out to be based upon the foyer of a theatre, in which the singer performs part of that opera. Opera is so heavily reliant upon adaptation – for the operas themselves, and then more subtly for each new production of that text. I like opera as this super-refined, decadent and sort of inbred art form – so expensive and impractical, yet somehow still state funded.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on an epilogue for this video actually – this time using a performance of the Peggy Lee song, ‘Is That All There Is?’ to revisit some of the motifs in it. The song will be performed by a singer who is also a burlesque performer, Elsie Diamond. I’m thinking about having a severed head as a narrator. But we’ll see…