Ken McMullen (camera left) with John Cartwright of the British Council, outside the British Pavilion at Cannes, 1990, when 1871 was an official selection. Photo: James Leahy.

This interview originally appeared in Vertigo magazine, spring 2001.

For two years Ken McMullen, director of Ghost Dance (1983), Zina (1985), Partition (1987) and 1871 (1990) and professor at the London College of Printing, worked with scientists at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research in Geneva, and a group of artists to generate an exhibition responding to the technology (particle accelerators and detectors) and the ideas of modern physics. This opened in London in March 2001 at the Atlantis Gallery, and then travelled around Europe.

James Leahy, who has collaborated with Ken as a screenwriter and actor, talked to him about this new stage in his work, particularly the video projection Signatures, which runs from Abdus Salam to H. Yukawa.

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JL: I was struck by your saying that, in making films and videos for galleries, you’re back where you started out. How does this feel to you?

Multi-layered narrative: Une Partie de campagne, directed by Jean Renoir, shot 1936, edited under the supervision of Margaret Houlle {dit Renoir) and released 1946. Rodolphe (Jacques Brunius) stretches out as if from the audience to open the shutters. His action brings the two groups of characters together, allowing narrative development. The image juxtaposes two ostensibly different kinds of cinema, popular cinema - structured to fulfil the audience's desire for stories and visual pleasure - and “art” cinema, whose audience desires “serious” themes and the need to give close attention to character development. Henri (Georges d'Arnoux) is still in the latter filmic space: gulping his absinthe without bothering about the ritual of mixing a pastis reveals his indulgent self-absorption. In an instant, Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) will become the source of visual and kinetic pleasure for both spectators and characters, and Henri will take his place as a component in the film's entertainment discourse. Most viewers find the latter's combination of energetic articulation and wistful development so seductive that they fail to notice Henri remains a source of cynical misogyny and class contempt throughout. For those interested in intellectual tittle-tattle, there's also a narrative strand linking events on and off screen. Sylvia Bataille is about to be ogled on-screen by her off-screen husband, erotic novelist Georges, and master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, both disguised as seminarians for the camera's articulation of the narrative. The Batailles' marriage did not last much longer, and the actress, appropriately, was soon to become Mme. Jacques Lacan!

KM: I have been on a long journey, one filled with some utter idiocy along the way. If you want to make films with a budget that’s more than marginal, you’re drawn into negotiations with the media world, where celebrity is more important than ideas or creativity. It can be a dangerous mistake. You look back and realise it is only dust in the wind. The motion picture industry is run by half-wits, and you feel embarrassed if you have an idea! The conditions in which we make motion pictures today are so contrived, and controlled by so few, that the films I’d be genuinely interested in are almost impossible to make. Anything of a political nature, or with a deeper set of aesthetic sensibilities at work, is cancelled out immediately. I came to appreciate that some of my earlier pieces had a much greater intra-psychic power. These works had been done in solitude; perhaps that was just my mood at the time, but there is great freedom in that. Here’s the dilemma: the motion picture industry deals with narrative; they act as if you are a half-wit not to get that the point of it all is storytelling. But it seems to me they’re the half-wits: they don’t get it that storytelling may not take place in a linear fashion. It can be cumulative. Some of the greatest motion pictures – which certainly have stories – don’t necessarily work from A to B to C. Take Renoir – although they’re multi-layered, his films still tell stories – or Tarkovsky! It would be impossible for these people to make films now.

Stuart Brisley in Ghost Dance

JL: I had a moment of truth after your NFT show, when Jonathan Curling, who was working with us then, seemed to miss the point of that long, extended sequence with Stuart Brisley at the end of Ghost Dance, and the beauty of its extraordinary use of reflection.

KM: The thing about that particular image is that it is absolutely pregnant with meaning, but without any verbal language. In the equations in the video projection, the signs are equally filled with meaning: just the signs without any language. A bunch of physicists would struggle to go beyond that, put it all into verbal language, make it comprehensible in that medium.

JL: I did A-Level Physics, so I recognised probably ninety percent of the names in the route signs in the video projection, without understanding the majority of the equations being written on the whiteboard. Many names conjured up little bits of narrative: memories, for example, of Chicago. Maybe I went to screenings at the U. of C. in a Fermi Room, or a Fermi Building? I know I used to wonder if the famous squash court was still standing on campus. There were also memories of Cambridge: someone pointing Dirac out to me; he was a fellow of my college. Conversations about mathematicians: how, like Dirac, they’d often made their contribution by the age of thirty! At the same time, I was puzzling over the thematic structure. Back home that night, all those route signs started to remind me of the crossroads sequence in Godard’s Vent d’est (1969). Then it came to me: I bet each equation being written on the board is associated with the name on the route sign bracketing the act of writing; it’s the route that particular person pointed out to modern physics!

Einstein

KM: I love that! To find all the signs was not easy. For example, Heisenberg was off-site, almost as if he offered a piece of physics they wanted to keep quiet about! So there’s a narrative for you. Democritus and the atom is an extraordinary story, and not just a dot on a wall. This was a gigantic conceptual leap without any experimental method or capacity. It was at the time of the Peloponnesian war, itself great drama as a backdrop, but all you have now is a road sign! But the road sign is a sign for a journey. The last thing I’d say about narrative relates to the difference between the road sign and the equation. What fascinated me is that the road sign is an absolutely static thing, and it is decaying. Take poor old Einstein, I mean his name is practically washed off by rainwater, and Cockroft has ended up in a carpark! The equations on the other hand are alive.

JL: The equations are also roads…

KM: Yes, and they have a great calligraphic quality. I find it intriguing to be looking at what are almost magic signs. Put the atomic bomb there, and you have the diabolic at its worst, put in radio-waves, and it’s the benign at its best. So there is a narrative – just not one I can sell a commissioning editor! It does stagger me that the route signs of the physicists were all there, but nobody had ever photographed them, let alone filmed them! And that I found strange as well: the story of this human endeavour, which has had such vast consequences for us, was itself decaying, purely through weather conditions. I bet you that, in ten years’ time, most of those signs will have more or less disintegrated. Whether they’ll replace them, or demolish the place, or rename them, who knows? It’s rather a strange testimony to two thousand, five hundred years of human thought. The equations and the route signs are both representations of a disturbing reality: life is simply a route. Motion picture meditations are valid…a form of concrete meditation, passing through time. As you watch, you are not necessarily glued to the image. Your own meditative and thinking processes will be projecting on to it. Talking about Chicago and all that, I absolutely agree, because the content of the work is in the mind of the observer.

JL: That reminds me of the classic Japanese cinema – of Ozu in particular, where the narrative space is a meditative one…

Tokyo Story (1953). After the family has responded to the news that the mother may not live to sunrise, Ozu cuts away to a characteristic sequence of five “still-lifes”. Noel Burch, pursuing an analogy with Japanese literature, has called such shots “pillow shots”. They offer a “suspension” of the narrative action, a space in which it is possible to reflect upon the events shown.

KM: I think that’s something missing in cinema now. The message is in your face, and it’s produced by crude minds and it’s candy-floss! Fantastic you mention Ozu – that sound while the mother’s dying at the end of Tokyo Story (1953)… A train whistle? Or a factory hooter blowing across the bay? I’m not kidding you, but sometimes, while filming those road signs, I would sit, just look at the sign and listen, and one of the associations I had was that scene… It’s haunting!

JL: And far more moving than a conventionally emotionalist narrative.

John Berger in the context of physics

KM: I haven’t stopped making films … I have a number of things prepared and ready to go. However it has been absolutely intriguing to walk around with production equipment which fits into a tiny case. In a discussion with John Berger, or some of the physicists involved in CERN, you can concentrate solely on content, without having to worry about the financial, legal, or technical apparatus involved in a major motion picture. Thus necessity opened up new channels and new areas of investigation and expression. It would have been impossible to have filmed John Berger in a controlled or contrived setting. He was only prepared to come unprepared and without preconceptions. Once you see a lighting rig, it’s always bound to be very contrived. We had such lightweight kit that the six tapes we shot contain very free-flowing conversation, with the camera much of the time centering on John Berger. What we see is somebody thinking and not necessarily responding. I think this never occurs in motion pictures, nor even in high-level discussions on television. What we get instead are people waiting until it’s their turn to answer and then they say their piece. Even in high-level documentaries, it’s almost impossible to get investigative work done. Interestingly, these tapes are rather difficult to show in a gallery context. You have no fixed time-span for your audience, and the conditions are clearly never under your control; certainly the audio conditions are never perfect. However, the material can be transferred to DVD or sent down the Internet. Some of the material here will feed into the London Institute’s “Signatures of the Invisible” site, and some will be on my own site. People will also be able to download unreleased material from my other work at my “virtual gallery”. For example, there’s the interview I did with Derrida for Oedipus Flabbergasted. It was in a play, thus never shown in a cinema. But the content is superb… Now I can distribute this myself, perhaps even on DVD.

JL: What is the logic behind having two different screens together in the same room?

Each sequence in Signatures has a three-shot structure

KM: The equations and the route signs, in colour, were to be video-projected on the largest screen possible, 14 by 25 feet, effectively the wall of a room. The monitor, a flat screen carrying the discussion in black and white, was going to be positioned against the centre of the wall. Thus the signs (Einstein, Fermi, Dirac and so on) would run across the screen and the equations would be written above the monitor. And there’d be the experience of two different light sources: reflection back from the screen and direct light from the monitor.

JL: So the big screen – in colour – is the conceptual environment which has generated the conversation on the black and white monitor?

KM: Exactly. There is one other aspect to it: on the big screen, all the people mentioned are from the last century or before, and the title of the work is in Latin: Commemorationem – the signature they have left. The people talking are all alive now. There is a strange contrast there. It is not seen at its optimum here.

JL: Are hoping that it will be at its optimum elsewhere, when it travels?

KM: Yes, it will be. With some re-adjustment!

JL: You mentioned the problem of the sound; in fact you wanted to play both soundtracks here?

KM: Yes, they are not really contradictory: one actually underscores the other. Each physicist’s memorial is not only in a different place but in a different sound environment. If it’s by the road you hear the road sound, if it’s by the generator you hear the generator sound. There is something extremely meditative about that, just sitting and watching it. However, this particular room is large and has no sound-proofing, so the audio conditions are not optimal. That’s why I decided to take out some of the atmosphere. But I imagine you would have different showings in different conditions.

JL: I guess that’s something you can do with gallery spaces: you’re not fixed to one way of showing the material?

KM: Some of the other people have very single-mindedly designed their space, and that’s good and fine. But I decided I would test out the spaces in different ways. I wondered whether it was feasible to have two discussions in one room. There are lots of interesting questions like that but this is a departure. I may try and make some further refinements – I would love to have the other track working. I was even wondering yesterday whether to take the monitor with the John Berger discussion out of the room completely, leaving just the equations and their sound. Put him somewhere else.

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Update, September 2003: this summer Ken McMullen completed a pair of linked documentaries for the Interdisciplinary Arts Department of Arts Council England. The first, Art, Poetry and Particle Physics, extends the videoed discussions involving author and critic John Berger and the particle-physicists from the CERN nuclear accelerator in Geneva which were an important feature of the Signatures of the Invisible exhibition. The quest of a leading participant in these discussions, physicist Michael Doser, to generate “anti-matter” provides part of the narrative of the film. He was successful last year. The second film, Metzger, is a collaboration with Gustav Metzger, whose invention of “Auto-destructive Art” (an influence on artists as wide ranging as The Who and William S Burroughs) and pioneering work with computer scientists during the 1960s, have made him a pivotal figure in the culture of the 20th and 21st centuries. Tony White of ACE says educational audiences will be one of many target audiences for the new films, and goes on to describe how, as a 17-year-old studying for A-Level Art in the early ’80s, seeing a video of Ken’s collaboration with performance artist Stuart Brisley, Artbeit macht frei: “did change my life – as it directly catalysed a pretty seismic shift in my understanding of what art could be, and what it could actually do. So, 20 years later, to be working with Ken on the Pioneers in Art and Science series is very exciting – maybe they’ll change a few more lives in the future”. Meanwhile, an extended version of Signatures of the Invisible is coming to the end of more than two months in New York, at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Centre of the Museum of Modern Art.

Ken McMullen can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

James Leahy is a film historian and screenwriter, and has worked with Nick Ray, Ken McMullen (he co-wrote 1871, an official selection at Cannes in 1990) and Med Hondo. His writings on cinema have appeared in The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinéma in English, Vertigo and PIX.