Simon Welch Interview

By Alev Degim

Simon Welch

Expose: You have previously specialized in painting, how much of an influence do you think painting has on your video work?Your film Cast (2012), seems to have an affect similar to that of a painting, could you elaborate on the similarities and differences between the two?

Simon: The fact that I originally studied painting helps in terms of the visual elements of filmmaking. An awareness of art history helps too. The film Cast struck me as having a painterly aspect because of the highly contrasted light conditions which reminded me of Caravaggio paintings (and baroque paintings in general). Also, I had in mind a painting by Joseph Wright of an experiment with a bird in an air pump which plays on baroque motifs but in the context of Frankenstein-like 18th century science experiments, so you get this strange mixture of the sort of heavily contrasted light conditions you’d expect to find in a Georges de la Tour nativity painting and contemporary technology.

My other films also play on painting-related motifs. In Focus, the animal allegory evokes Landseer’s animal paintings while the slag heaps seen at the beginning of the film remind me of the visions of hell found in 16th century Flemish painting. In Prelude, there are a couple of indirect references to Van Gogh (the close up of the girl’s shoes and the dying sunflowers) while the angular Burgundy landscape reminded me of the cubist-influenced landscapes verging on the surreal of John and Paul Nash (both in wartime and peacetime).

Obviously making films is quite different from painting because of the temporal and audio aspects which result in another type of reception and appreciation. Film plays on expectations to some extent while painting is static and can therefore be perceived simultaneously as a whole and be contemplated at length.

Probably the experience of being a painter makes me want to control all aspects of film production by doing everything myself, from filming to editing.

Also, filmmaking allows me to reference art history in a way which might come across as being a bit too arch if I were painting.

Expose: In your shorts, there is a focus on mystical elements that you show in contrast to reality. Where do you think art falls under this spectrum?

Simon: I think I would reverse this slightly by saying that what’s interesting about the audio-visual medium is that it’s not clear what is real or not because it involves a very naturalistic, high-definition illusion of reality. The illusion/reality issue is something that interests a lot of filmmakers and video artists including myself. Anything represented in a film or video is by its very nature an illusion, including (and especially) works claiming to be realist. At the same time, the nature of truth and its representation through the deforming lens of the medium is central to my film work. In Focus, for example, one of the issues in play may be the veracity of the tale and its mediation via the medium of film (which is why certain horror films are named at the beginning).

Film is an ideal medium for treating supernatural topics because of the nature of editing technology and special effects, and cinema itself is a generator of “living ghosts” in the sense that the actors seem to exist in our present, even though they may be long dead. So, to say that there is a mystical element in the films may be slightly misleading in the sense that although spiritual (and sometimes “spiritualist”) subjects are evoked, it doesn’t mean they are necessarily true (and I myself am not a religious believer for instance). For me, such phenomena are interesting insofar as they tell us something about our collective history and our present human predicament, or else the nature of audio-visual media. Otherwise these issues would be solely anecdotal and of limited interest in an artistic sense.

In Focus, the preserved remains of the industrial past in the northern French landscape are like relics while the redundant miners themselves are like lingering ghosts of the past. The ghost story related by the miner may or may not be true but what’s important is that he believes it and that it relates to a wider social context.

The idea of Cast was partly that art has religious origins and, since the Renaissance, artists have had to struggle to replace conventional religious content with other meaningful content in their work. For me, the fishermen toiling in the dark served as a kind of allegory of contemporary existence in general and of contemporary art in particular (and of my stumbling efforts to film them).

Simon Welch

Expose: Your work comments on the everyday life struggles of individuals and yet comments on a deeper, almost spiritual plane of existence. How do you hope to achieve this sort of dialogue between the two worlds during production?

Simon: I may or may not have a clear idea of where the film’s really going during production and certain important elements sometimes emerge during post-production. However, while filming Cast, I was aware of the metaphysical implications of the situation. The dialogue of the night fishermen was eventually cut out and replaced with the sound of the sea in order to avoid a purely documentary reading of events. The unusual lighting conditions created by the head torches worn by the fishermen suggested something numinal (or even sinister). The Biblical signification of fishing and fishermen (ie certain disciples were fishermen by trade, described by Jesus as “fishers of men” and Christ was symbolized by a fish) was also of importance in shaping the film. The fact that a fish is finally caught and whisked off to its doom seems to me to be meaningful in that the fishermen/disciples produce a divine signifier but then dispose of it and are obliged to constantly seek a replacement. So banal daily phenomena may lend themselves to unexpected interpretations, especially in the artistic realm, and this is the real purpose of art as far as I’m concerned. But it also seems to be the case that the simple act of filming these events re-contextualizes them and aesthetically transforms them to some extent.

In Prelude, a spiritual interpretation might be suggested by the scene in the cemetery and by the overhead point of view of the shots of the “Cinderella” character in the house. Meanwhile, the juxtaposition of the piano playing shots and what might be “flashbacks” also confuses our temporal reading of events and locates us in the indeterminate realm of what is remembered or anticipated, or imagined or dreamed.

The horrifying anecdote recounted by the former miner in Focus in which he describes how, as a teenager, he was pushed down into a tomb seems to me to somehow herald his descent into the mines a few years later, so I tried to suggest this in post-production by superimposing a descending vertical panoramic shot of miners’ clothing suspended in a mine changing room as he recounts this aspect of the tale.

Expose: Your film Focus (2014), reveals the struggles of a French mine worker through his involvement with the supernatural narrative. This juxtaposition functions almost like an escape from the harsh reality that he faces. Do you think that film can serve as such an escapist mode of engaging with traumatizing events?

Simon: Do you mean an “escapist mode” for the miner interviewed in the film or for the viewing public in general?
The miner’s autobiographical ghost story coincides with the progressive closing down of the mines but also with the death of his wife. From my point of view, these elements could be seen as analogous to one another. However, I didn’t get the feeling that the miner experienced the ghost story as an escape from reality but rather as a nasty confirmation of it. I don’t think making the film served any kind of therapeutic end for him (but rather the opposite in fact). If anything, the coupling of industrial decline with poltergeist activity is my own take on things. The miner probably wouldn’t have made that connection himself.
Cinema in general may operate in a cathartic way of course, and that may be its essential function beyond entertainment and aesthetic concerns.

Expose: Where do you see your work in relation to contemporary film/video art world? Do you associate your work with a certain movement or would you rather stay away from such categories? Why?

Simon: I don’t think we’re any longer in a period of real movements, at least I don’t feel part of any particular category. It may well be that my films could be classified with the work of particular filmmakers, but I don’t think in those terms when I’m making them so it doesn’t really concern me much (having said that, presumably my work is of its time in some way, otherwise it wouldn’t get selected for film festivals and exhibitions…).

Expose: How does your British background play into your work given you have been living in France? Have you faced difficulties culturally during the production of your work? How did you overcome these obstacles, if any?

Simon: That’s a difficult question to answer because I’ve been living in France for a long time and so may lack the distance necessary to evaluate this. I’m not aware of any obstacles related to my nationality in terms of making films and in fact I’ve received substantial equipment grants from the French Ministry of Culture. I guess coming from another culture gives me a slightly different angle on what I encounter in France in comparison with the local population. But, lately, I’ve been showing my films more in the USA than in France, so maybe that aspect of things doesn’t even register with anybody. The only disadvantage I can think of is that most speech occurs in French so I have to subtitle or voice-over any dialogue for foreign consumption, and that may be distracting for the viewer.

Expose: Which filmmakers inspired your work?

Simon: I got into video production more or less by accident, as a technical response to certain difficulties I was experiencing with interactive art installations. So, initially, I was using it more as a means to an end. Eventually I started making single-channel videos in their own right. I was impressed by Bill Viola and Douglas Gordon exhibitions I saw when I lived in London but I’m also influenced by cinema and I feel my work has moved closer to cinema in the last few years as I’ve become more interested in aspects of cinematography and film editing. I watch a lot of different films and analyze them in order to pick up technical information which may be of use in my own work (as I’m basically self-taught when it comes to filmmaking). As, quite young, I was brought up watching Hitchcock and Carol Reed movies along with 1940s American film noir which my mother used to watch on TV in the afternoons while she was doing the ironing. I’m particularly interested in Antonioni films and Powell & Pressburger films, both of which explore the connections between art and cinema in challenging ways.

Simon Welch