John Smith – ‘Playing with the Power of Language’

John Smith is an artist filmmaker. He began making films when he was 18, at a time when ‘people were wanting to make work which was in opposition to mainstream cinema and particularly undermine the illusionism of cinema, and were reminded in whatever way that you were watching a film.’


The Girl Chewing Gum (1976)

He simply recorded what was going on in the street and then wrote a script which added voice-over directions to the film. I appears as if the actions you see in the film are being directed by an unseen film director.

  • ‘A film like The Girl Chewing Gum is in one way fitting into the ideas of that time. But it’s also playing with the power of language to condition how we actually see images, and that has a kind of humorous outcome…although it is a very, very serious film.’
  • ‘When I am editing, in my head I’ve got two parallel things going on, one is the image and one is the sound.’
  • ‘The dynamics of the film come from that relationship between image and sound, how one can be dominant at one point and one can be dominant at another…It’s completely intuitive. It’s just to do with how it feels, those balances between different things.’

Hotel Diaries (2001-07)

He was eager to take on the possibilities of the spontaneity of using handheld video cameras. Something that had not been possible when working with film.

The six year series of videos came about by accident while in Ireland for the Cork Film Festival. Britain and the US had just started bombing Afghanistan. He switched on the TV in his hotel room to find the image had frozen

  • ‘something which was possibly just a technical glitch was actually…I was finding traumatic…in my head I was thinking just how different my reality was from the innocent people in Afghanistan who were having bombs dropped on their heads.’
  • ‘having these contradictory things going in my head, I just got my camera out and just filmed the TV screen and had this stream of consciousness.’
  • ‘I really wanted to make work that looks like anybody can do it. I thought if I can make something which looks like a home video and I just forced myself to actually not edit it at all, so I’m going to say stupid things that I’m going to regret, I’m going to mess things up, and stuff like that, this should undermine any kind of potential didacticism.’
  • ‘and the work kind of intended to be conversational on an equal level with the audience, so like a lot of my work really, those videos were saying I’m bothered about this, what do you think?’

Dad’s Stick (2012)

His father showed him a cross-section of a stick he used to paint the house with, so you could all the different layers of paint.

  • ‘I found it really poignant. In a sense I felt like there was a whole history, an important part of someone’s life, that were encapsulated in this tiny little object.’
  • ‘When I put the stick in front of a magnifying lens, it become even more poignant for me, because I realised I was looking at colour that I remembered from fifty years ago.’

In recent years, his work has become shorter.

‘I like to think that I’m sort of distilling things down, that I’m making haikus now. But it might just be that I haven’t got the energy…’


List of references

TateShots (2018) ‘John Smith – Playing With the Power of Language’ At: (Accessed on 15 October 2018)

Inspired by a master, I send a (video) postcard from a beach in County Mayo

Logbook 3, pages 219-220

Inspired by Jonas Mekas and the video postcards he occasionally posts on his website, I recently found myself discarding the complexity of the Super 35mm digital cinema camera (+ peripherals) for the simplicity of the pocket-sized iPhone. How did this happen?

Flashback. Last weekend…On a beach in County Mayo… I raised my iPhone, framed up a simple landscape shot, press record, and let it run for 60 seconds – One frame. One size. One shot. One minute.

Part in homage to Jonas Mekas, part an act of personal ‘note-taking’, I recorded a moment in time. I was so transfixed by the sheer beauty of the place, that I loosely framed the view around the rule of thirds and let the smartphone do its job, capturing the light, the colour, the movement, the line, pattern, shape and texture of the view before me. Nothing more; nothing less. There is nothing creatively or technically extraordinary about the recording. Yet, when I look back at it, I realise that what I have captured is just as valid as any other type of filmmaking.


Screening: Experimental moving image works at IMMA

‘Unlikely Correspondence’ – IMMA Screening & Talk / Irish Artist Experimental Film – Saturday 16 September 2017 / IMMA

‘In conjunction with the exhibition Vivienne Dick, 93% STARDUST at IMMA, Alice Butler, film programmer and co-curator of AEMI, presents a talk and screening of artist and experimental moving image works by contemporary Irish artists who are foregrounding new ways to work independently, redefining the limits and potentials of cinema across a range of formats. Butler’s talk will refer to and explore the history and development of artist moving image practice in Ireland.’

I thought I would jot down my thoughts around an epiphany I had recently about my direction as a moving image maker. I have been voraciously reading books and watching films by and about many experimental filmmakers and video artists (most notably Jonas Mekas, Vivienne Dick & Doug Aitken). It has been wonderful to discover so much amazing work by so many moving image practitioners from around the world, none of whom I had heard about before starting this course. Over the summer, for instance, reading through Michael Rush’s Video Art (2003) I discovered a whole world of moving image practice that was so powerful and stimulating I still can’t stop looking back at the book for another fix of art.

Last month my wife and I went to a screening and talk about contemporary Irish experimental film artists. Fractured, confused and non-the-wiser; frustrated; disappointed; in free-fall…all of the above. I just couldn’t connect with the films. They weren’t easy, nor were they particularly enjoyable. And perhaps that’s the point. Art isn’t meant to be easy. Nor does it have to be likeable in order to get something out of it that’s of value in your own life and work. Anyway, I’ve had time to think and let the dust settle for a while, so here are some thoughts on where I think I may be heading in my own work as a moving image practitioner.

It was strange and unexpected, but the strongest feeling that came over me that evening as I came away from the event at the Irish Museum for Modern Art was knowing that my own calling as a moving image practitioner was very clearly heading towards that of making narrative films. What form these narrative films will take is unknown. But one thing is for sure, they will capture a story. I love people. And I love the way in which the stories we tell can bring people to life. Whatever the narrative form. Fact or fiction. I simply love experiencing a story unfold on screen. Not those simple, poorly thought out stories masquerading as narrative films. But the well wrought works of art that feed the imagination and mind with images and ideas that resonate in some way long after the film has finished. The type of films that engage me; that demand I contribute something of myself in return. If you know what I mean.

I like the ideas Alice Butler talked about – the correspondences between historical reality and fiction, and between art and nature, and the notion of ‘the talk’ and the ‘role of the expert’ in artistic expression. But, even now, a few weeks on from the screening, I still feel frustrated and disappointed in the works I saw that evening. Even at an abstract level, I couldn’t connect with them in the same way I could a painting by Rothko or Klee, for example. For In which the artist ‘speaks’; the viewer ‘replies’.

That disappointment has nothing to do with the works themselves. They were works of video art; well made. The frustration and disappointment was very much within myself, in my own personal response to those works; or, more accurately, my surprising lack of response to them. But that’s not the point here. What really fascinated (and surprised!) me during the event was the clarity, the absolute clarity, with which I saw myself as a moving image maker, wide awake and craving; moving towards narrative form.


Michael Rush (2007) Video Art London: Thames & Hudson

Screening: ‘Out of Body’ – Irish Film Institute, Tuesday 25th July


Last night I attended a screening of nine experimental films from 1943 to the present day at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. Curated by Irish artist and filmmaker Susan MacWilliam in response to the exhibition As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics currently showing at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Out of Body presented a selection of films that explore the psychic and physical spaces of body and landscape.

The theme of ‘physical spaces of body and landscape’ is of interest to my own practice as a filmmaker, particularly in light of my first two assignment films ‘Blue Jacket’ and ‘Ataraxis’, in which I was exploring ideas of person and place, though not as effectively.

The nine films screened, of which only Maya Deren and John Smith were names with which I was familiar, were:

Psychic Edit, Susan MacWilliam, 2008, Ireland, DCP, 14 second looped

Witch’s Cradle Outtakes, Maya Deren, 1943, USA, Digibeta, 10 minutes

State of Mind, remix #4, Mairéad McClean, 2005, Ireland, DVD, 10 minutes

Faint, Susan MacWilliam, 1999, Ireland, DCP, 4 minutes

The Black Sea, Jordan Baseman, 2010, USA/UK, Blu-ray, 3 minutes

Mountain Mist, Susan MacWilliam, 2002, Ireland, DCP, 8 minutes

Om, John Smith, 1988, UK, 16mm, 4 minutes

Ray Gun Virus, Paul Sharits, 1966, USA, 16mm, 14 minutes

The Last Person, Susan MacWilliam, 1998, Ireland, DCP, 11 minutes

Although the ‘psychic’ aspect of the theme of last night’s screening doesn’t resonate with me as a filmmaker, the nine films were excellent examples of experimental moving image practice between the 1940s and today. Using a variety of techniques, the films challenge our perception of the physical body and physical place/landscape.

One particularly interesting technique that figures in many of the films is the use of repetition and pattern. For example, the 14 second looped Psychic Edit (MacWilliams, 2008) establishes a pattern of images that repeats over time, building into a repeated extended sequence of family footage and a woman’s smile; a female figure repeatedly fainting beneath a tree in Faint (MacWilliams, 1999) establishes a pattern of movement and action that builds into a mesmeric, trance-like sequence; the single-shot of moving waves in The Black Sea (Baseman, 2010) generates its own graphic repetitions and patterns which, over time, appear to take on the appearance of a living, breathing form; and, by contrast, the highly charged sense of pattern and repetition that is established in Ray Gun Virus (Sharitts, 1966) exerts a strange hold over the viewer in a trance-like retinal experience that seems to engage with your own body in a way that none of the other films do.

In Mountain Mist (MacWilliams, 2002) the use of time and space plays a key role in the film’s structure and form. In a single-shot, in which the camera is locked down on a view of a mountain side covered in trees, space remains constant throughout, while time is manipulated through the use of time-lapse. We see birds flying, mists dispersing and rain storms passing in real-time, intercut with changes in the landscape such as clouds passing, fluctuations in light, and a sunset, in time-lapse.

Some of the films have no sound attached to them at all, such as Witch’s Cradle Outtakes (Deren, 1943) and The Last Person (MacWilliam, 1998). As a result, the absence of sound places all the emphasis on the visual experience of watching the movement and action within these two films. Even to the point that you become more acutely aware of the sound of your own body in the silence of the room.

To see these nine films in their original formats as they were intended to be viewed on the cinema screen was a real treat. Particularly, the 16mm prints of John Smith’s Om (1988) and Paul Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus (1966), which I now realise is a rare privilege.

This screening has left me with plenty of food for thought. Once again, as with my discovery of Vivienne Dick’s work a couple of weeks ago, a whole world of moving image practice has opened up for me.


As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics, Exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, 13 April – 27 August 2017

Faint (1999) MacWilliam, S. (Accessed on 26 July 2017)

Psychic Edit (2008) MacWilliam, S. (Accessed on 26 July 2017)

The Black Sea (2010) Baseman, J. (Accessed on 26 July 2017)

Ray Gun Virus (1966) Sharits, P. (Accessed on 26 July 2017)

Reading: Selections from Film Culture magazine (1955-1996)

Following on from my first look into the work of Jonas Mekas, I went in search of further references to Film Culture, the New York based magazine founded in 1954 by Jonas and Adolfas Mekas. Film Culture magazine evolved into the primary voice of independent and avant-garde cinema, publishing a total of 79 issues between the years 1955 – 1996.

Most of the magazine’s writers shared a belief in the poetic and ‘painterly possibilities’ of the film medium, defining cinema in lyrical or abstract terms rather than in terms of the narrative form of mainstream cinema.

I discovered twenty three articles from Film Culture magazine available on UbuWeb, a non-profit online resource of all things avant-garde.

Selections from Film Culture magazine (1955-1996)

The selection includes articles on experimental film, interviews with avant-garde filmmakers, transcripts and reports on symposiums, personal reflections, and a statement by Luis Buñuel.


Selections from Film Culture magazine At: (Accessed on 6 April 2017)