John Smith – ‘Playing with the Power of Language’

The Girl Chewing Gum 1976

Artist filmmaker John Smith 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)

Exhibition: ‘Vivienne Dick, 93% Stardust’ – Irish Museum of Modern Art, 16 June – 15 October 2017

Vivienne Dick, Augenblick, 2017, Production still, HDV, 14 mins. © Vivienne Dick.

‘For Dick, the title of the exhibition 93% STARDUST, suggests that we are moving into a new age, following the age of Enlightenment, where man is no longer the centre of the universe’ (Exhibition Guide, IMMA).

Yesterday I went to the ‘Vivienne Dick, 93% Stardust’ exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Vivienne Dick is an Irish artist and filmmaker, who was a key figure within the ‘No Wave’ movement, a short-lived avant-garde scene in the late 1970s in New York, led by a collective of musicians, artists and filmmakers including Nan Goldin, Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, James Chance and others.

The exhibition at IMMA presents some of Vivienne Dick’s early Super-8 film works from late 1970s New York, including Guérillère Talks (1978), Staten Island (1978), She Had Her Gun Ready (1978), Beauty Becomes The Beast (1979) and Liberty’s Booty (1980), alongside her recent film works The Irreducible Difference of the Other (2013), Red Moon Rising (2015) and Felis Catus (2016) and the world premier of her latest film Augenblick (2017), which was made while on IMMA’s Residency Programme earlier this year.

Having never heard of Vivienne Dick until now, this exhibition was a wonderful discovery. Her New York films focus on female sensibilities. Guérillère Talks, for example, presents a series of portraits of women associated with the ‘No Wave’ music and art scene. In Liberty’s Booty, Dick makes use of real-life footage, personal testimonies and acted-out scenarios in a film which examines the commodification of the female body through the perspective of prostitutes. Filmed in Super-8, these early films have the look of home movies, with the grainy picture, rough sound and handheld photography we associate with home movies.

Images of exhibition courtesy of Irish Museum of Modern Art

In her latest film, Augenblick, ‘different realities, seemingly disconnected, flash by, from an imaginary virtual world to a frozen landscape’ (Exhibition Guide, IMMA). From Jean Jacques Rousseau ranting about society, to three female actors recounting the story of human beliefs in animism, God and the digital world through quotes from Rumi, Harari, Gramsci and Hildegard Von Bingen, to the same three women chatting spontaneously around a table.

There were a number of things I particularly liked about this moving image. Such as the way in which she blends acted-out scenarios, unscripted conversations and landscape images together in the film; her use of lines quoted from older texts; and the moments of silence interspersed with 18th century music. All of which helped to give the film an organic, spontaneous feel. Techniques which I shall explore in my own moving image making.

Experimental filmakers in mainstream cinema - some notable examples

Experimental film or avant-garde cinema is a mode of filmmaking that re-evaluates cinematic conventions and explores non-narrative forms and alternatives to traditional narratives or methods of working in filmmaking. Many experimental films relate to arts in other disciplines, such as painting, literature, poetry and dance.

An experimental film is generally characterised by:

  • the absence of a linear narrative
  • the use of abstracting techniques
  • the use of non-diegetic sound
  • the use of a non-narrative, impressionistic, poetic approach to structure

with the goal of drawing the viewer into a more active and thoughtful relationship with the film.

Many experimental filmmakers have also made feature films.

Some notable examples include Lars von TrierNikos NikolaidisJean-Luc GodardSteven SoderberghKathryn BigelowAndy WarholPeter GreenawayDerek JarmanJean CocteauSally PotterDavid Lynch, Jørgen LethPatrick BokanowskiPier Paolo PasoliniSimone Rapisarda Casanova and Luis Buñuel.

However, the extent to which these filmmakers take on mainstream commercial aesthetics appears to differ widely in their work.

Jonas Mekas

Fig. 1.

“When one writes diaries, it’s a retrospective process: you sit down, you look back at your day, and you write it all down. To keep a film (camera) diary, is to react (with your camera) immediately, now, this instant: either you get it now, or you don’t get it at all.” Jonas Mekas

Born in Lithuania in 1922, Janos Mekas left home during the Soviet invasion in 1940. He and his brother were confined in a labour camp in Germany. They were brought to the United States in 1949 by the UN Refugee Organisation.

After arriving in New York, Janos became involved in the avant-garde art scene. He frequented Amos Vogel’s Cinema 16. Then arranged his own screenings and began making his own films. His early films include Guns of the Trees (1961) and The Brig (1963), which won Grand Prizes at the Parretta Therme and Venice Film Festivals respectively. It was during the 1960s and 70s that he developed his signature diary style in films such as Walden (1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) and Lost Lost Lost (1976).

During the 1950s he founded the journal Film Culture, which became the voice for American avant-garde cinema. He also ran the influential ‘Movie Journal’ column for Village Voice and established institutions such as the Film-Makers Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives.

Diaristic Film

He began making videos in the late 1980s. His 365-Day Project, in which he recorded a video every single day of his life for a year, was made in 2007. Talking about his 365-Day Project in an interview with Natasha Kurchanova in Studio International, Mekas says ‘I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments.’ These films, each of between 4 and 10 minutes long, present small, personal moments about his life and the life of his friends.  As we watch these short diaristic films, we see what he sees while he is filming, we see the way his eye moves and the way his body moves with the camera, we see the details upon which he focuses.

Mekas used a small Sony video camera to make these films. Talking about his filming and editing processes, he says: ‘When I film, I never know how a particular situation will end. So, I just go along with it, follow it with my camera, and permit this flow. […] I do almost all of my editing during the filming. My filming is like when one paints: all decisions of hand or brush movements are decided during the process of painting. […] For me, if I failed to get the essence of the moment during the filming, no amount of editing is going to get it.’

Figs 2 to 4

With his films, Jonas has given us a direct personal response to the world, keeping the direct contact between his camera and the moment preserved.” Martin Scorsese

What makes Janos Mekas such a fascinating filmmaker for me is his search for the essence of a moment as it happens, and the approach to filming and editing he adopts in achieving this goal. What’s interesting in his approach is that there is no obvious planning or design within his diaristic films in a conventional sense. Rather than having an idea of where a film will go, he just starts and sees where it leads him. I looked at three of his films, I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009), A Walk (1990) and As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000). All the three were fascinating examples of his diaristic style. Together, they embody what Martin Scorsese calls ‘a direct personal response to the world’. Yet, individually, they are quite different from each other in their responses to the moments that are captured and ‘preserved’.

One film that stood out for me, in terms of Mekas just starting and seeing where it leads him, is A Walk (1990). A Walk is exactly that, a record of a walk Mekas made in Soho, New York. It is also his first attempt at creating a single-shot film. Completely unrehearsed and unedited, the film captures an hour long walk in the rain he made starting from Wooster Street, where he was living at the time. Accompanying the film is an equally unrehearsed and unedited monologue, in which he shares musings, recollections and poetry in response to the ambience of the streets through which he passes. Whatever comes to his mind as he walks. What fascinated me most about this film is the unrehearsed, unedited, meandering nature of the film in both picture and sound. The way in which he has captured a moment in time as it happened. A moment in time that was not predicted and that will never be seen in that way again.

I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009) is a wonderfully poetic piece of filmmaking. Filmed in 1967, in black & white, it shows Jonas Mekas leaving Chelsea Hotel and walking towards 7th Avenue. While watching the opening shot, we are led to believe that this is a simple record of him stepping out of the hotel with a stack of journals under one arm and a duffel back slung over the opposite shoulder and walking along the street. In actual fact, it is a sequence of shots repeating the same event; Mekas leaving Chelsea Hotel. Mekas manipulates time, presenting us with the same ‘event’ several times, with minor variations between. Yet, as the picture builds, it still feels fresh and unrehearsed. It’s like a memory recurring in thought, over and over. Which maybe, in a way, it is, as it was edited 40 years after being filmed.

Jonas Mekas is a fascinating and very endearing filmmaker, whose work I have quickly grown to admire. Having never heard of him or his work before, I am keen discover more about the way in which he and his films work.


Bogdanovich, P. (2015) ‘Jonas Mekas’ In: Interview Magazine [online] At: [Accessed on 1 April 2017]

Kurchanova, N. (2015) ‘Jonas Mekas: I have a need to film small, almost invisible daily moments’ In: Studio International [online] At: [Accessed on 1 April 2017]

A Walk (1990) Jonas Mekas (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Paradise (2000) Jonas Mekas (Accessed on 1 April 2017)

I Leave Chelsea Hotel (2009) Jonas Mekas (Accessed on 1 April 2017)


List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Jonas Mekas in New York (2015) Craig McDean, Interview Magazine, October 27, 2015

Figure 2. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

Figure 3. I Leave Chelsea Hotel,(2009)

Figure 4. A Walk (1990)

Complex representations: Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (1977-80)

Fig. 1. Untitled Film Still #21 (1978)
Fig. 2. Untitled Film Still #3 (1977)









I first encountered Cindy Sherman’s work in the Tate Gallery, London, in the 1980s. It was a colour photograph of a young woman sitting in front of a mirror. The title of which I can’t remember. My first impression of the photograph was of its cinematic qualities. Although clearly staged, the image could easily have been a still from a movie or tv drama. The young woman’s body language and facial expression was such, that you felt you had walked into a scene mid-action. Who was she? Where was she? What had just happened before I arrived? I knew there was something unique about this image, but couldn’t put my finger on it. It left me guessing. I had to fill in the blanks for myself, in an experience that has remained with me ever since.

Now, thirty years later, I feel more able to understand what Cindy Sherman is doing in that image I discovered in the Tate Gallery, and her inspiring black and white series ‘Untitled Film Stills’ from the late 1970s.

When seen as a whole, you quickly become aware that in these images Sherman has assembled a series of cliches, in which the fictional ‘blonde bombshell’ enacts a range of cultural roles, such as the housewife, the career girl, the chic starlet, the sophisticated woman. What’s particularly significant about the way in which Sherman renders these roles within the images is that, rather than simply using them as raw material or subject matter, she draws upon ‘a whole artistic vocabulary, ready-made’  (MoMA, exhibition notes). That’s what fascinates me most about Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’. The way in which she uses a ready-made artistic vocabulary drawn from popular film culture to communicate something quite profound about female identity within a still image.

While the pictures can be appreciated individually, much of their significance comes in the endless variation of identities from one photograph to the next. As a group they explore the complexity of representation in a world saturated with images, and refer to the cultural filter of images (moving and still) through which we see the world.” (MoMA, interactive exhibition guide)

The first thing I saw when looking at Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ were the cinematic techniques employed within the images: the lighting, framing, camera angle, etc. All of which make up a relevant component of the images, but not the main one. It wasn’t until after carrying out further research into the series that I realised how complex these images really were (both collectively and individually) and that, in making the artist the subject of these images, each of Sherman’s stills embody and represent much more than the replication of a promotional still for a movie.

Reseach Journal


‘Untitled Film Still’ #21

As with all good filmmaking, what you see inside the frame has been put there for a reason. Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ are no different. In ‘Untitled Film Still’ #21 we have a frame which could easily pass for a transitional shot in a 1960s movie. In the foreground, a woman in suit and hat is separated from the background, a Manhattan-style skyline, through the controlled use of shallow depth of field. A low, slightly tilted camera angle places her in the centre of the image, looking at something beyond the frame in what might be fear, anxiety or disgust, we’re not quite sure. The head and shoulders shot, a close up, also reveals enough of the background to set the context and tone of the image. However, although we have character and setting within the image, that’s as far as it goes. There are no more narrative signs within the sparsely composed image, other than the sophisticated woman standing on what could be a Manhattan street.

‘Untitled Film Still’ #3

‘Untitled Film Still’ #3 offers a similarly sparse, but controlled composition, also in the style of a 1960s movie still. In a carefully constructed wide shot, in which the various visual elements within the composition are placed in a banal domestic setting in accordance with the rule of thirds, we see a woman wearing an apron standing at a kitchen sink. Surrounded by household items (a dish washing bottle, drying rack and a spice jar on a shelf) she looks back over her shoulder at someone or something out of frame, while holding a hand to her stomach. A shallow depth of field throws a pan handle and small container in the foreground out of focus. Again, the character’s gaze suggests an unknown narrative.

Both images raise questions around the issue of female identity. Particularly around the question of whether female identity is culturally imposed or freely chosen. Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ challenges the way in which we view the role of being a woman. Through the act of turning the camera on herself, and directing and photographing the images through a vocabulary of popular film culture, she shows that being a women is a masquerade, a performance, something that you can freely choose and construct for yourself.

Looking at Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ in this way has shown me that both still and moving images are highly complex representations. It has shown me that rather than using the moving image as a way of merely representing issues on screen, I can actually engage with and define my own view of those issues through the moving image. It has also opened up the potential of creating meaningful non-narrative, poetic films within my own filmmaking practice.



Museum of Modern Art (1997) The Complete Untitled Film Stills Cindy Sherman. At: (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)

Museum of Modern Art (2012) Interactive exhibition guide. At: (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)

Museum of Modern Art Learning (s.d.) Untitled Film Still #21. At: (Accessed on: 24 March 2017)


List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Untitled Film Still #21 (1978) Cindy Sherman. [Film still] Museum of Modern Art, New York

Figure 2. Untitled Film Still #3 (1977) Cindy Sherman. [Film still] Museum of Modern Art, New York