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Scott Barley: Creating in the Digital Era

INTERVIEW with the experimental filmmaker Scott Barley – MILAN KROULÍK –

The work of the Welsh experimental filmmaker Scott Barley (b. 1992) can be characterized by its obsession with the night and a sense for the cosmic. Watching one of his films is to be immersed into a world of landscapes, plants and animals shrouded in a deep, dark night or cold fog. The presence of the medium used, be it film or digital, is very much part of the images. Here, landscapes are not the grounds on which people live. Rather they are cosmic, they appear as a living force and not as the dead object of modern European cosmology. The images, which only rarely feature anything reminding the viewer of humans presence, are painterly. They are materialist images, that is images where the materiality of the media involved do not disappear behind a seemingly transparent motion image. And that Scott Barley uses different camera technology and different representational strategies in every film, serves only to underline the non-representationality of his work.

In another interview, the filmmaker said the following about his filmmaking practice: “[My new film] was shot over the course of 4 separate days throughout 2015 and 2016; one day in the Brecon Beacons of Wales, and 3 days of traveling around West Scotland, with around 16 months of post-production in between. It seems ridiculous, seeing that in print, but that’s how it goes. I have traveled with others on occasion, but I always work alone, apart from some university projects, where having a crew was mandatory, i.e. Shadows (2015), Ille Lacrimas (2014). I am not against working with others, but as my work becomes more personal, I have found that my own process which I have developed does not easily permit communication and collaboration with others, as I don’t always know myself why I choose to do something a certain way. As I said before, I always go with my feeling, and trust that. I traveled with a friend and colleague whilst shooting some of Sleep Has Her House, but I worked completely alone. Every part of the process, whether that is concept, shooting, editing, or sound-design is performed by me alone.”1

He was voted one of the top 25 upcoming artists in England and Wales in 2012.2  His new and first feature-length film Sleep Has Her House had its world premiere in January 2017 and can be accessed on tao films until the end of March.

I first encountered your work through Vimeo3 and it appears as if online viewing is something you work with consciously in your creative process. For example, you recommend watching your 2015 short film Hunter “in complete darkness, with headphones.” Could you say something about the role the internet plays in your filmmaking practice and aesthetics?

The internet is an interesting place. I like how I can democratise my work, make it available for free… how I am able to reach such a wide diversity of people, and in some cases, create a dialogue with these people from around the world. If it wasn’t for the internet, we would not be having this interview. I have often said that once I finish a film, and I put it out there in the world, it is no longer mine. It is yours… anybody’s. And I think that the internet nourishes that; this ongoing dialogue, this continuation. But as far as my own aesthetics and interests in how my own work should be contextualised, the internet is not perfect. There are many problems. The internet succeeds on the foundation that it is predominantly a place for instant gratification, but from another vantage point, this very foundation condemns it to its own failure as a platform. The internet has been shaped to satisfy our needs, often in a swift, superficial, “dopamine rush” manner. When the internet is utilised in tandem with the moving image, with art, with patience, with time, with work that challenges us, the failings of the internet and the way we have come to utilise it (and of course, how it is coded for us to utilise) are lamentably apparent. The internet is a world built upon instant gratification and distraction.

My work is all about immersion. It is antonymic in that way to how the internet predominantly operates. The potential for networking with others however, of creating an ongoing dialogue between my work and the people who experience it is huge, and exciting, and is something I am really pursuing right now. But I am still very much a person who believes in the power, the intensity, and resonance of the auditorium; the cinema space, and the immersion that it uniquely offers. So in that sense, I feel like I don’t fully belong in either place fully; not the internet, not the cinema. And I don’t believe this will change any time soon. But one can look at this and perhaps regard this ‘problem’ as not the real problem at all. Instead, the true problem is behind all of this, and that problem is us. It simply reveals the inherent, reductive trappings of the way we, as human beings have been rendered to think – desiring to compartmentalise, to label, to categorise, to create borders, which are inane, reductive, and pointless when we are talking about complex matters. There is little use to discuss the problems between the internet and the cinema dialectically, because it leads us down a path of false truths, and empty confirmations. There is perhaps more truth to be found in understanding the tension that holds disparate elements together, in this case, the internet, and the cinema. Both are necessary, and both are true, and in the end, there is only the indeterminable whole and the tension within.

I know for certain that my films work best as a large screen projection, in complete darkness, with good sound equipment – not a computer, and I wish everybody had the opportunity to see the films as they were truly intended. But I don’t have full control over that, and I think it would be bad, ultimately, if I did have control over these things. My interests do not lie in pecuniary matters, and I do not wish to deny anyone from being able to see my work. So I’m in a sort of twilight world between the old (the cinema, the dark, immersive auditorium) and the new (internet, distribution channels etc.) in that sense. I embrace the internet, knowing full well that it is not perfect. I make films because I feel I need to. I genuinely feel a need. And so regardless of whether the distributive aspect is perfect, or not, I will continue to make films, with money, or no money. As long as I feel I have something to say, I will continue making films.

Your short films can be viewed online for free on Vimeo and your first full-length film is also available to view online for a small fee on tao films. Do you think that the possibility of relatively easy global accessibility of cinematic art plays an important role for experimental filmmakers such as yourself?

Absolutely. It is very strange. I have lived in the UK all of my life, but I have had little to no success with my films here, at home. The nations that have embraced my work the most are Brazil, Italy, USA, India, Argentina, and more recently, Germany, and Spain. That is all through the internet, and people sharing my work with others. I think that the internet has a cardinal role to play in bringing down the walls of economic elitism and socio-political censorship that prevent a lot of people from accessing the arts, information, truth. An artist needs to be paid, but also, an artist’s work needs to be available to all those who wish to seek it.

Your output is very eclectic. Every film I saw is different from the others, and you also write poems and paint. Is there anything particular you enjoy about experimenting – be it with different media, different cameras or different techniques?

I like feeling lost, and being in uncharted territory with my praxis. I don’t preconceive my films often. I don’t work with preconceived images. I experiment and build upon things, and see what works. I want the act of making to be a journey for me. I want to be surprised and scared sometimes. When I work, I try to occupy a place where I can doubt things; a precarious place where I feel on the precipice of failure. I want to feel the sensation that the work is its own entity, that it is alive, and seemingly a step ahead of myself. The journey is for me. Once the film is finished, it is not mine anymore. It is for everybody else. That is how I feel. Sometimes, it takes a long time for me to really begin to understand what it is that I have made, what it is that I am trying to express. But my intuition seems to know best. I never think too much. I just focus on my feelings. Also, each medium has its own unique powers of expression. As a consequence, I do shift between mediums such as writing or painting, and different ways of seeing (and hearing) within my filmmaking. Perhaps you could say that a certain idea, or a feeling can be better communicated through film than painting, or writing… or vice versa. They are just different modes of expression. I love making music too. Sound is incredibly important to me. I love all of it. I want to always feel that the work is two steps ahead of me.

I read somewhere that you used to be very obsessed with language, when you were small, but now your films are generally silent when it comes to spoken words and use only ambient sounds. How come?

I am still obsessed with language, and I adore reading and writing so much – and it’s that very reason why I don’t like to use it in my films. They’re different mediums. I see language as sacred. And I see images… the world as sacred. But we are facing a time where language is increasingly becoming an objectifier, an itemiser, an explainer of what we see before our eyes. When we use language to describe, or explain an image, we are in a sense, objectifying it, and in turn, we are killing it. We kill its mysteries and silent beauty through our inane objectification. Let’s just bask in the sonorous silence of the sunset, of the moon, the stars, the lake, in the presence of the horses, the deer, the owls, in the mountains, and the forest. Let’s not, through folly, attempt to claim the Unknown as known to us. Let us leave the unknowable to be what it is: unknowable. Beauty lies in the things that are not fully known to us. I would rather look upon the world with silent wonder and awe, rather than savage it with all the words in the world, that in this context are meaningless and hideous. Words conjure images. If the image already exists, there is nothing to be conjured. Instead, we are only using words to conquer the image. And I am not interested in conquering anything.

Amid the eclecticism, there are underlying aesthetic and thematic preoccupations in your cinematic output that can be noticed easily. Among others, there is your nyctophilia, biophilia and a certain, dare I say, cosmic sense in how you work with nature. These themes, together with what I assume is low-budget film-making practice, make me think of your films as cinema for the Anthropocene. Is there such a conscious political dimension to what you do, or am I reading too much into it?

I think all works are directly, or indirectly, political. We bring so much of ourselves into our work, through making. But also, spectators read and utilise a piece of work in multifarious ways, sometimes a political one; and work lives on, and continues to grow, taking on new meanings, long after they have been “completed”. I would say that I have, since the very beginning of my filmmaking, been making an anthropocenic statement. A statement on anthropocenic, metaphysical, and existentialist issues. I remember one critic describing my work, not as a “cosmogony”, but as a “cosmo-agony”. When I read the latter, I exclaimed, ‘Yes! that is it!’ A lot of my work is a lamentation of our disconnection with nature, or our destruction of nature, our foolishness. I am, through my own films, trying to re-establish a connection. And in a way, I guess that could be interpreted as political.

You mentioned in another interview 4 that your art is strongly influenced by avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Phil Solomon, Jean-Claude Rousseau, and Nathaniel Dorsky, as well as some feature-length artists like Béla Tarr. Your references appear to generally come from the Euro-Atlantic tradition. Are there any non-Western filmmakers or artists in general whom you would explicitly count as an influence?

Absolutely. There are many. I would not compartmentalise myself to being specifically influenced by Western/Euro-Atlantic cinema. I just don’t think in these terms. If I had to think of specific non-Western filmmakers, I would say I have been influenced by Yoshishige Yoshida, Jan Němec, Wojciech Wiszniewski, Aleksei German, Akio Jissoji, Kaneto Shindô, Konstantin Lopushansky, Věra Chytilová, Artavazd Peleshyan, Xu Xin, František Vláčil, György Fehér, Veiko Õunpuu… there are many more.

Watching your films, I sometimes think of films by František Vláčil, because of his baroque sensibility towards landscapes and what I feel as a strong presence of atmospheric phenomena. And, since this is interview is conducted for a Czech film magazine, I feel impelled to ask: Are there any Czech directors or films you enjoy?

Jan Němec… he has been a huge influence on me. I adore his films with all my heart. He realised that cinema is in many ways, truly about childhood, of memories. Vláčil… I like Vláčil very much. The mood and atmosphere of his films is very haunting and evocative. I like Gustav Machatý a lot. Chytilová. I also love Juraj Herz. The Cremator is a favourite of mine.

What role did institutionalized film education (film school) play in the development of your practical skills and aesthetic sensibilities?

Very little. I have had poor experiences from universities. Too many philistines; both teachers, and students. If you are passionate, driven, and you love art, you’ll go out and and make art regardless. It is not about the equipment. It’s how you use it. This is what so few students understand. The only good thing about university was the few people I met who saw the world in a unique way. In my view, there needs to be less teaching, and instead, they need to cultivate more. The system is broken. Instead of forcing an ideology on to a student, a teacher must observe what makes each student unique, and nourish that, i.e. they observe what the student sees on their horizon, and then in turn, they make that horizon bigger. They shouldn’t stamp out their creativity. Instead, they should help them realise their full potential. Many universities don’t realise they are stamping out an individual’s creativity. Teacher is the wrong word. Cultivator describes it better.

I have almost always learnt auto-didactically, or through my peers; not teachers. I do know some very talented teachers though, like Phil Solomon – an incredibly gifted filmmaker as well as professor – and I had some great teachers when I was younger, but for the most part, I haven’t had many good ones during my time at university. A lot of students and tutors saw my work as pretentious, or considered me a maverick. Until the system changes, my work will never be fully welcome in a film school. And I don’t want to be part of a system, or an industry that tries to nullify unique creative sensibility. A large part of the world that we live in is a world of selling out, of spinelessness, of denying yourself true existential nourishment; a world where courage, vision, and conviction count for nothing. I do not ever wish to be moulded into an anonymous, shapeless, soulless piece of plastic, ready to be churned out on corporate conveyor belts for the instant gratification of gormless morons. In short, the world of spinelessness, of creative censorship can get fucked.

Have you ever encountered negative feedback, by critics or people around you, to what you do?

Of course! Who doesn’t? You have to take the bad with the good. A polarised reaction is a healthy reaction. I am lucky in that the people who like my work are very passionate supporters of my work. The main reason for negativity seems to stem from an unwillingness to submit to the work itself. But I also have seen some very sad people negatively review films that I haven’t even completed or released. These people have decided to troll my work. What sad, boring lives these people must have. All I really care about is the work, and the hope that it will leave an impression on just one person. I make films out a need. I don’t do it out a desire to please others. It’s less superficial than that.

What prompted the creation of a feature-length film (SHHH)? Did its length influence the way it was made?

The idea for doing a feature-length film was an organic one. It was the right time. It was born from a desire to go deeper, darker, and narrower. I made Sleep Has Her House exactly the same way as I have made my previous, shorter works. I feel my way in the dark. I feel what feels right, and never question it, and never deviate from it. I feel, and feel alone. I love not being fully in control when making. I want the film itself to have its own autonomy as it is being made, and for it to always be a few steps ahead of me. I want it to give birth to itself.

For me, making a film is largely the same as watching one. You must not resist. Once you let go, you are no longer a captive. Just let it wash over you like an ocean. Swim with it. Drown in it. I think that my approach is more visible in Sleep Has Her House than any of my previous works, partly due to the longer running time, but also because of the stronger presence of the liminal, the mystic, and the unknown, which I feel took root with my short film, Hunter (2015), but is also there much earlier, in works like Nightwalk (2013) for example.

Can you tell me something about your upcoming projects? Do you think it could become possible to see your films at the cinema or art spaces even in the Czech Republic?

I’m working on many projects. About eight different projects right now. Another feature film is in the works, but won’t be completed for a long time. As for the less distant future, there will be lots of short films and installation-based pieces coming. Mouths in the Grass, Lustre to Void, Starless, Fugue – a film I am making with my partner, Gabrielle Meehan – and lots of other things. I am always working on multiple things at once.

As for screening my work in the Czech Republic, I would love that. But I do not have an established network in the Czech Republic. To people who want to see my work, I say, go to your local independent cinemas, your festivals, your galleries, and tell them. Something similar has started to happen in the USA with my work recently, and it’s all down to passionate spectators, who want to see my work in an auditorium setting. Of course, I do network with festivals, curators, and programmers, but that will not bring my films to everybody. There is much to do!

Any last words you could address to readers who are eager to create experimental films of their own?

Don’t think too much. Just feel. Always be curious. Always be resilient.

 

Scott Barley interviewed by Milan Kroulík.

Visit Scott Barley’s website and tao films, or watch his shorts on Vimeo.

 

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  1. CHANG, Dustin. “Interview: Scott Barley on Sleep Has Her House.” Floating world [on-line], 1. ledna 2017 [cit. 2017-02-20]. Available at: <http://www.dustinchang.com/2017/01/interview-scott-barley-on-sleep-has-her.html>. []
  2. Biography. Scott Barley [on-line]. 2017, [cit. 2017-03-20.] Available at <http://www.scottbarleyfilm.com/about.html>. []
  3. Vimeo is a video-sharing website. []
  4. CHANG, Dustin. “Interview: Scott Barley on Sleep Has Her House.” Floating world [on-line], 1. ledna 2017 [cit. 2017-02-20]. Available at: <http://www.dustinchang.com/2017/01/interview-scott-barley-on-sleep-has-her.html>. []

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