The curatorial project students created in 2018 was a splendid array of film encounters entitled Timescapes.
It’s not often that we have the chance to look.
This is a peculiar thing to say perhaps in our image-saturated culture. But it may be a function of the very abundance of moving images in our lives and their clamour for attention that we have acquired new skills – to glance, to scan, to swipe – and need to be introduced afresh to the pleasures of the look.
What a joy then, to sit in a darkened hall, watching a motionless grasshopper magnified on screen; watching and waiting for that moment of movement, for the leap. Stillness, concentration, expectation; these emotions amplified by being part of an audience – all of them rapt and suspended in that watchful moment.
The film of the grasshopper and the revelation of its hypnotic power forms part of the recently rediscovered archive of film-maker Eric Lucey. Lucey was a technician working within the University of Edinburgh who recognised the power of film to observe and to capture the natural world. He persuaded his colleagues to enable him to establish an early and innovative film unit, producing over the years a huge body of material recording animal behaviour and the natural world.
Lucey’s archive is currently being catalogued within the University of Edinburgh Library’s Centre for Special Collections. Archivist Rachel Hosker generously offered access to this emergent archive to MSc Film, Exhibition and Curation. Fascinated by what they found, the students recognised these were works capable of reaching beyond their original specialist scientific purpose. Spending time within the archive enabled these emergent curators to generate a project which put these works back into circulation, and into conversation with a range of other films, genres, artists and audiences.
The project which emerged from this introduction was Timescapes. Timescapes created a series of events built around the moving image with a shared endeavour to explore the ways that film, the archive and exhibition can stretch out and open up our experience of time.
As with all the best ideas, the notion of Timescapes is simultaneously complex and simple. The confluence of ideas expressed across its programming, communication and execution formed a powerful, suggestive and dynamic set of relationships for its spectators. The elegance of this conception – and the ways in which it set in motion a series of encounters, contemplations and surprises – speaks of curatorial thinking operating at an extremely sophisticated level.
Across the three events – Looking for Lucey; Timelapse Masterclass; Nenette and our perceptions of time – this sophistication of conception was matched by a sustained excellence of programming, execution and delivery.
Two of the events, the Timelapse Masterclass and the screening of Nenette followed by discussion on our perceptions of time, formed part of the programme of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Representing a new collaborative partner for MSc FEC, this partnership enabled students to gain an understanding of working with a large, successful and established organisation. It also offered the opportunity to think creatively about working with the moving image for a festival whose primary identity and audiences are not focussed around film. The two events MSc FEC created responded imaginatively to these challenges.
The Timelapse Masterclass showcased the work of film-maker Walid Salhab whose pioneering ‘hyperlapse’ films of the public artwork The Kelpies in construction have been seen across the world. The focus on contemporary production and on Scottish based film-making formed a nice dialogue with the archive research on Eric Lucey. The discussion masterclass was professionally chaired by documentary maker Amanda Rogers. Conversation and audience questions flowed; the presence of a full and highly expert set of participants in the room testament to the project’s ability to identify, reach and appeal to an ideal audience.
Nenette and our perceptions of time explored in some ways a more conventional model of exhibition, following the screening of the little-seen documentary on an orangutan in a Paris zoo by extraordinary film-maker Nicolas Filibert, with a chaired discussion by invited guests – documentary maker Emma Davie, and anthropologist Richard Baxstrom. The liveliness, insights and sense of questioning discovery set in play over the extended Q and A period showed just how productive and engaging these traditional models can be, when they are used well. The guests were fascinating respondents, and the collisions between their differing ways of seeing the world and their approaches to the film – Davie returning to it anew after a period and astonished again by its craft, its framing and its manipulations of time; Baxstrom experiencing the film for the first time with the audience and provoked into profound questions on the nature of the human and the non-human – were wholly absorbing. As with Walid Salhab earlier, masterly chairing kept the conversation flowing; the touch light and engaging even when probing philosophical notions of time and identity; and the tone inclusive and inviting.
Looking for Lucey enabled the students a looser canvas, within which to be more experimental in their programming and in their curation. And they grasped that opportunity with brio. What they produced was quite extraordinary. It explored the possibilities of expanded exhibition with a confidence and lack of restraint grounded in the quite remarkable levels of thinking and planning which underlaid the complex whole. Looking for Lucey produced not just an experiment in curation; not only an exploration of the potential of the archive; not simply an opportunity for reflective practice – all of which on their own form hugely valuable elements of learning – but it produced a new and provocative experience for everyone in the room. These experiences will, as is the way with collective spectatorship, differ for each person in the audience; they wax and wane in intensity; they enable audiences to respond positively and critically to different parts of the programme. Nevertheless – and this is an unusual and special achievement – the programme, in all its diversity and in all its elements, was able to create moments of total shared enrapture which that expectant grasshopper encapsulated.
The evening-long programme mixed film, drawn from silent era street footage to contemporary animation, brilliant performers of live music and spoken word to great effect. It was introduced with a warmth and welcome that was exemplified across the staging of the evening; the students’ comments and contextualisation also serving to communicate their passion for the work and the sense of exploration which transmitted themselves so effectively across every aspect of design and execution.
The choice of venue in Assembly Roxy worked beautifully, as did the careful dressing and lighting of the space. More than one person commented that it was ‘like a wedding’ to enter: responding not only to the flowers and table seating but to the sense of honouring that was at the heart of the programme’s celebration of Lucey’s work, the sense of excited expectation that preceded it, and the invitation to the attendees that they understand themselves as both witnesses and participants. The use of the science notebooks on each table and the encouragement to the audience to respond to the experiment in progress was one of many lovely touches.
As well as attracting a large and lively younger audience there were a number of individuals with strong connections either to Lucey or to film or archive work – some invited, some appearing from curiosity. To form an address able to speak across these different parties is no small matter. Again the curation’s apparently effortless moves across science and art; the old and the new; the biographical and the historical; the personal and the professional; were all in play. The reactions from specialist attendees with professional interests in the fields of festival culture, archives and exhibition, and public communications were not only uniformly positive but conscious of the difficulty of the task at hand, and the creativity and labour that had been brought to bear in making the evening possible. The contents from the notebooks produced an excellent range of responses; and a very fruitful addition to the considered reflective work the event afforded its curators.
This proved to be an extraordinarily successful project. This is a success that goes well beyond the apparently flawless delivery of three complicated events, and their transmission of different kinds of cinema to large, varied and appreciative audiences. Rather it represents a triumph of imagining: of being able to see different things in film, different possibilities waiting to leap into action; different ways of seeing held in suspended animation waiting for a moment where curators work to create a space where, for once, we can pause and look and see.
The list below covers some of the earlier curatorial projects undertaken by Film, Exhibition and Curation students to investigate research questions around exhibition and curation.
‘Short Stop’ — an unconventional projection of experimental short films.
Film poetry screenings and workshops event in Edinburgh arts centre