Architecture on Film: John Smith's London

Tues 24 September 2013, 7pm

  • Blight. Courtesy of John Smith and LUX, London
  • Hackney Marshes. Courtesy of John Smith and LUX, London
  • Black Tower. Courtesy of John Smith and LUX, London
  • Lost Sound. Courtesy of John Smith and LUX, London

As part of the Barbican's season Urban Wandering: Film and the London Landscape (19 September - 2 October), and in partnership with LUX, we present a portrait of London through the eyes of artist, filmmaker and avant-garde hero John Smith, compiling five of his short films which use the capital as subject, material and ally; The Girl Chewing Gum, Hackney Marshes - November 4th 1977, The Black Tower, Blight and Lost Sound. 

Humour, documentary and formal ingenuity combine in a body of work that invites new readings of the city, the quotidian and film itself.

We are delighted that John Smith will be joining us for the screening in person, to introduce his work and participate in a Q&A with Ian Christie.

Ian Christie is a celebrated film historian, curator, and Anniversary Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, University of London. Ian recently contributed a key text to a 2013 monograph on the work of John Smith, and has long been engaged in ongoing research on the history of London on screen. Ian will be writing a specially commissioned essay to accompany the Architecture on Film screening. 

Total programme running time: 93 minutes + Q&A

The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) 12 minutes, b/w, sound, 16mm.
"In The Girl Chewing Gum an authoritative voice-over pre-empts the events occurring in the image, seeming to order not only the people, cars and moving objects within the screen but also the actual camera movements operated on the street in view... This 'Big Brother' is not only looking at you but ordering you about as the viewer's identification shifts from the people in the street to the camera eye overlooking the scene. The resultant voyeurism takes on an uncanny aspect as the blandness of the scene (shot in black and white on a grey day in Hackney) contrasts with the near 'magical' control identified with the voice." Michael Maziere, John Smith's Films: Reading the Visible

Hackney Marshes - November 4th 1977 (1977) 15 mins, colour, silent, 16mm.
An improvisation recorded over the course of one day, starting at dawn and finishing after dusk. The film was edited in camera and shot from one camera position in the middle of one of the 112 football pitches that cover Hackney Marsh, a location chosen because of the similarities between the surrounding buildings and objects (identical blocks of flats, goalposts etc.). By cutting between precisely matched framings of similar objects, illusions of movement were produced, disrupting representational readings of the landscape. Unforeseen events occurring in the vicinity were also recorded, determining to some extent the subsequent filming. Through selection of shots and changes in cutting pace and speed of camera movement, the film fluctuates between record and abstraction. 

The Black Tower (1985-7) 24 mins, colour, sound, 16mm.
"In The Black Tower we enter the world of a man haunted by a tower which, he believes, is following him around London. While the character of the central protagonist is indicated only by a narrative voice-over which takes us from unease to breakdown to mysterious death, the images, meticulously controlled and articulated, deliver a series of colour coded puzzles, jokes and puns which pull the viewer into a mind-teasing engagement. Smith’s assurance and skill as a filmmaker undercuts the notion of the avant-garde as dry, unprofessional and dull and in The Black Tower we have an example of a film which plays with the emotions as well as the language of film." Nik Houghton, Independent Media. 

Blight (1994-96) 14 mins, colour, sound, 16mm.
Blight was made in collaboration with the composer Jocelyn Pook. It revolves around the building of the M11 Link Road in East London, which provoked a long and bitter campaign by local residents to protect their homes from demolition. The images in the film record some of the changes which occurred in the area over a two-year period, from the demolition of houses through to the start of motorway building work. The soundtrack incorporates natural sounds associated with these events together with speech fragments taken from recorded conversations with local people. 

Lost Sound (collaboration with Graeme Miller 1998-2001) 28 mins, colour, sound, video.
Lost Sound documents fragments of discarded audio tape found on the streets of a small area of East London, combining the sound retrieved from each piece of tape with images of the place where it was found. The work explores the potential of chance, creating portraits of particular places by building formal, narrative and musical connections between images and sounds linked by the random discovery of the tape samples. 


 Programme notes by Ian Christie

Lost London

John Smith’s films have been described in many ways – as ‘structuralist’, droll, ironic, eccentric, playful, etc – but less often as London-centric. And yet, a glance at his bio-filmography confirms not only that he was born in and wholly shaped by the city, but also that a significant proportion of his films have taken London as their subject, ostensibly or ambiently. By ostensibly, I mean those that identify some area or feature of the cityscape as their locus; while ambiently, many of the other films have been made in unidentified London locations. And even when Smith has travelled more widely, as in the Hotel Diaries series (2001-07) or Flag Mountain (2010), his persona remains unmistakably that of a Londoner abroad.

I recently compared Smith to the original master of the shaggy-dog digression Lawrence Sterne, and William Hogarth would be another relevant 18th century avatar of London-centrism. So too would T. S. Eliot, whose great poem The Waste Land is rooted in the city where he had made his home, and also lends its title to one of Smith’s films (a Sternean parody set in a London pub). We may not think of Hogarth or Eliot primarily in terms of London – any more than the audiences of Smith’s films around the world need to be specifically aware of Leytonstone, Dalston or Hackney – but all of these artists share a deep, formative sense of ‘being in the city’ which pervades their work.

What Smith reveals in his London films – all located far from the historic tourist zones – is that paradoxical sense of the local that is many Londoners’ sense of their city. The junction in Dalston seen in The Girl Chewing Gum may have been chosen originally for its nondescript quality, but it is also typical of London’s default Victorian/Edwardian fabric, constantly modified by later additions, such as the modernist Odeon cinema that suddenly appeared there in 1939 (and subsequently disappeared in 1984). This corner becomes a living theatre of London street-life though the film’s narration; and through its longevity, it has also become a time-capsule – a status acknowledged by Smith’s return to the same place in The Man Phoning Mum (2012), overlaying the original film in a ghostly re-visitation. Blight is also theatrical, although in a different register, using vividly disjunctive audiovisual montage to expose the inner micro-dramas of East London terrace houses, as laid bare in the death-throes of their demolition: a true city-symphony in miniature, focused on a microcosmic district that, once again, has since disappeared. There’s also an elegiac sense of the disappearing city present in many the films.

Hackney Marshes, The Black Tower and Lost Sound illustrate another strand of Smith’s engagement with London – his passion for creating formal and narrative patterns out of found material. In these films, he discovers enigmatic and sometimes disturbing patterns amid the repetitive banality of London’s terraced streets, corner communities and recreation areas. He doesn’t need to be swamped by cultural comparisons, but it may be worth invoking the Parisian Surrealists and later Situationists, with their love of urban serendipity; or the Chestertonian fables of Borges, or even Robbe-Grillet’s sinister topographies. These may or may not have influenced Smith in the early stages of his career, when they became popular among the emerging young intelligentsia of the 1960s, but they can still help us see beyond his deceptively modest persona as an ‘English eccentric’. 

Many writers have tried to capture the varied textures of London everydayness in their own different styles: think of the span from Dickens’s Sketches by Boz to Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, with much between and since. Smith joins this endless cavalcade in a wholly distinctive way: anecdotal, whimsical, determinedly focused on the local and the personal. His terrain is the (often decaying) London terraces and parades that lie between the grand inner boroughs and the bland outer suburbs, and the lives of their shifting communities, pressured by migration and gentrification. Future generations will no doubt treasure his work as a unique distillation of the fin de siècle London zeitgeist.

John Smith is an award winning avant-garde filmmaker noted for his use of humour in exploring various themes that often play upon the film spectator's conditioned assumptions of the medium. He studied film at the Royal College of Art and since 1972 he has made over fifty film, video and installation works that have been shown in independent cinemas and art galleries around the world.           

Ian Christie is a celebrated film historian, curator, and Anniversary Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, University of London. Ian recently contributed a key text to a 2013 monograph on the work of John Smith, and has long been engaged in ongoing research on the history of London on screen.


In partnership with LUX

Programmed in association with the Barbican Film series Urban Wandering: Film and the London Landscape (19 September - 2 October)