Sinead Nunes talks to Sarah Hill and Shereen Perera of Video Jam, an ongoing series of experimental film and music events that have taken place in Manchester and elsewhere. The full Video Jam team are Michael Seal, Sarah Hill, Paul Evans, Shereen Perera and Sam Hughes.
Sinead Nunes: Video Jam is a truly original and exciting idea – what made you decide to start it up?
Sarah Hill: I made a short film about two and a half years ago, my first serious piece of work as an artist, and invited local musician Mike Seal to compose some sound to accompany it. Within hours he had sent a recording to me and it was a revelation: with the sound and moving image combined, a new third entity emerged. I had been interested in film music for a long time but was suddenly struck by the extraordinary relationship between these two mediums and between ourselves as musician and filmmaker. The potential of sound to alter an audience’s perception of moving image appeared limitless, and appealed to me as an ongoing experiment to undertake. There were events we’d been to at the time that gave structure to these ideas, including a one-off mixed performance night run by a friend called ‘Skrap’, and an event at the Whitworth for which the musicians Birchall/Cheetham Duo live scored an animated film.
All of us on the team were friends at the time and we recognised Manchester as a city famously full of emerging musicians but also, increasingly, video artists and filmmakers. Video Jam was only a matter of time.
SN: Andrew Anderson, Now Then, commented that it seems amazing that this concept hasn’t been done before – why do you think this is?
SP: There’s an extremely vibrant, dynamic and active music scene in Manchester, yet the film scene feels underdeveloped in comparison. Unless it’s a high profile event such as Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis or the screening of a black and white film such as Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 classic, Modern Times recently scored by the RNCM’s Symphony Orchestra, there doesn’t seem to be much of an in-between, which is where and why Video Jam is so important to Manchester’s cultural landscape.
SH: In the time I’ve lived in Manchester over the last five years, audio/visual experiences have become increasingly normalised in everyday life and the arts, whether at a concert or the shopping centre. We’re looking at or glimpsing moving image all the time and our lives are soundtracked by what we listen to on our headphones which I think has had a huge cultural impact, and as such we are constantly assuming a juxtaposition of disparate and unrelated information.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that live scoring films seems to be going through a rejuvenation period, but these type of occurrences often stick to conventional formats or alienate emerging artists from direct involvement. It’s become apparent that we tapped into something at a crucial time, though I wasn’t so aware of that at the outset.
SN: Who or what inspires you?
SH: A few of us, including myself, were fortunate enough to have David Butler as a lecturer in film at the University of Manchester whose incredible enthusiasm, energy and guidance were invaluable for us as individuals and to the ideas underpinning Video Jam. We continually return to him now, years later, as a source of knowledge.
Though we all find Manchester a stimulating place to live in regards to culture and the arts, I have often found inspiration in what I feel is ‘missing’, or the recognition of potential. You don’t have to dig very deep to find a rich and lively music scene here, but a film scene amongst filmmakers and video artists is far less prevalent. I would like to think Video Jam is providing a valuable opportunity, particularly to emerging artists, which otherwise would be lacking.
Ultimately, however, it has to be the artists involved in our events and their work which provides us with the greatest constant source of inspiration. Video Jam wouldn’t be what it is without the great number musicians and filmmakers we have become involved with over the last 2 years, a figure which now stands at over 270.
SN: How do you pair a film and soundtrack together, and which comes first?
SP: Firstly, the music and film curators consider their submissions independently and come up with their separate shortlists. We then come together as a group and spend an afternoon pairing the films with musicians, which is the crucial part of our curatorial process. We take our time to listen to the musicians’ Soundcloud etc and to watch each film submission.
Maintaining diversity is integral to our choices – we never put emphasis on one genre of music or film over another – and it’s not about how much the film suits the musician or vice versa. Our choices are informed by a desire to make the most interesting pairings.
Ultimately our control over the content of the programme is limited, and deliberately so. Once we send each film to its chosen musician, the creative process from then on is entirely out of our hands and we have about as much insight as our audiences members!
SN: ‘The Artist’ won plenty of Oscars in 2011 but silent films don’t usually achieve such notoriety in contemporary filmmaking – why do you think some people may find silence alienating, and is this something you aim to combat?
SH: This is a very interesting question, a wonderful topic for debate. I think it’s ultimately a matter of what we have become accustomed to. It’s interesting to remember that synchronised sound in cinema was initially rejected by lots of people as inferior to its silent counterpart before it became normalised. The Artist draws on this period of film-making as its subject matter and in doing something clever with it makes us aware of our conventional expectations of sound, which is a great thing, but I think it’s success is a novelty of sorts. For one thing, the film isn’t truly ‘silent’ in the sense that it has a synchronised orchestral accompaniment and any alternative to that, providing a live score for example, would be practically unfeasible on a grand scale. I think filmmakers such as Tarkovsky have had a vision of the perfect ‘pure’ cinema as an entirely silent medium, but it’s far more likely to achieve influence within less mainstream cinema.
In regards to our events, our aim is always to encourage people to reconsider the use of sound in relation to film, and that includes silence. I could give several examples here, but the most memorable was from our first programme in January 2012: we screened a short film of a home birth that the artist Helen Knowles from the organisation Birth Rites had sent us. We decided to screen the film firstly in silence and for a second time with musical accompaniment as an experiment to gauge the differing response of an audience to the same footage with and without music.
SN: I mentioned in my review that you reinvent a classic style of film experience – why do you think your formula works so well?
SH: Most people like music and most people like watching films, so when the two are combined you’re onto a winner. Video Jam events are a unique experience, which I think people really get and respond to. Many come to be entertained and to have a good night, but we’ve been lucky in that since our first event we’ve experienced very attentive audiences who have taken our events seriously. It’s always important to get a balance though, and we’re generally very keen to encourage a sense of informality while stimulating interesting conversation between acts.
SN: This year you have started making your events venue-specific. What do you look for in a venue and what would your dream venue be?
SP: We started this year with our own Rule of 3 – to adapt, tease and conceptualise each event we do to suit every venue, collaboration and opportunity.
We’ve created an adaptable and translatable concept rooted in the ever flexible word ‘experimental.’ We’re lucky in that every venue we’ve used has had it’s own defining character, whether it’s the grandeur of Liverpool Cathedral’s The Lady Chapel or the charming Anthony Burgess Foundation. For us it’s less about the dream venue and more about the dream collaboration, and with events planned with Sounds From The Other City, Manchester Art Gallery and Fat Out Fest the dreams already seem to be happening!
SN: Do artists/musicians come to you, or do you approach people whose work you admire?
SH: It’s almost always a mixture. Our first programme consisted entirely of artists and musicians we’d never met who had contacted us through our call out. I remember that as a very exciting initial experience and we continue to enjoy involving new people, and forging these connections. We’re also keen to retain strong ties with people we’ve worked with in the past, so we often invite artists back, and a ‘classic’ Video Jam event will typically involve a mixture of old and new faces. There are filmmakers and musicians who have shown outstanding commitment to what we do and our intention has been to support them through offering opportunities to develop their practice.
SP: For Experiment Perilous and Video Jam at AND Festival we curated a programme specifically relating to the context of the Lady Chapel and themes surrounding the legend of Hedy Lamarr. We approached bands such as HORRID and Ex-Easter Island Head both of whom we have a long standing relationship with, as we knew that they would sound incredible in the setting of Liverpool Cathedral. In terms of the music curation of our programmes it’s a mixture of submissions, recommendations and us approaching musicians.
SN: Video Jam usually takes the form of an event, so could you tell me about your podcast and album launch?
SP: We’re in the process of testing out what we can do between events so that we are not restricted to being just an ‘event’. The album launch earlier this month with long term collaborator Boz Hayward was the first time we have been afforded the opportunity to look back and reflect on a body of work solely created for our events.
From December onwards we will be releasing monthly podcasts with the aim of promoting Video Jam events, supporting artists and organisations that we work with, and providing a platform for the creatives that form our Video Jam community. Features will include the upcoming Video Jam programme, tracks by local musicians who we are working with, interviews with musicians, filmmakers, academics, artists and organisations within the Greater Manchester area, as well as interviewing other promoters and magazines to discuss what else is happening in Manchester.
SN: What’s next for Videojam in 2014 and how will Videojam evolve?
SP: After such a rollercoaster year in 2013, Video Jam 2014 is about evaluating what works and what doesn’t. We’re keen to take Video Jam to film festivals and create new links outside Manchester as well as develop ourselves as a sustainable business. We’re beginning a collaborative relationship with DIY experimental record label Slip Discs whose focus is on new acoustic and electronic music. This collaboration will begin with our debut at Manchester Art Gallery on the 16th January 2014, where we have been invited to curate a programme responding to Jeremy Deller’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Already we’ve got masked friends HORRID, Tombed Visions, glam drag collective Tranarchy and the infamous Northern Quarter Boys Choir on board for this event.
Our long term ambitions are to be able to commission new work made specifically for our events; to provide the resources, circumstances and environment necessary to support both emerging and established artists of outstanding talent.
We’re in a transition phase as we think about what Video Jam is and can be, who knows where we will be in 5 or 10 years time; hopefully owning an old cinema, running a venue, supporting artists and putting on events – our concept is a timeless one and one that hopefully there will always be an audience for.
Video Jam’s programmes rely on your film and music submissions to run their events. To submit your work to be considered fill in the submission form at www.videojam.co.uk.
Sinead Nunes is a recently graduated aspiring writer and artist, based in Liverpool.