The Wire

In Writing

Vicki Bennett reflects on The Mirror, unlocking the archives and a curious cease and desist order

May 2018

“I believe that something does not diminish by doubling it and duplicating it, and I don’t believe in the art gallery ethic of the less there is of something, the more value it has,” declares the UK collagist

People Like Us aka Vicki Bennett has been sampling, editing and mashing up bits of films and music into increasingly complex psychedelic collages since 1991. Her films are an audiovisual overload, full of startling juxtapositions and wry humour, and rich in details that emerge with repeated viewing. She will perform her new work The Mirror at Rich Mix, as part of at London's Splice Festival, on 12 May. Dedicated to audiovisual performing arts, Splice runs from 10–13 May and a full programme can be found on the Splice website. On 11 July, Bennett will also perform The Mirror as part of a double bill with Carl Stone at Cafe Oto in East London. She discusses her new work with The Wire Deputy Editor Emily Bick.

Emily Bick: You’re presenting The Mirror at Splice festival – how long did it take you to put it together?

Vicki Bennett: The thing about working in the way I do, collaging lots and lots of footage, I collect things along the way – so I collect hard drives with lots and lots of snippets of labelled edits. For instance, I’ll have Gold Diggers Of 1933, synchronised dancers, Busby Berkeley, so things like that will already be there. But that project I started last summer.

Which part of it did you work on first, the audio or the images? Or did it all happen in parallel?

They work quite hand in hand, because I start by looking for related material. In this case it would be to the mirror – I’d start searching the internet for things to do with the mirror, but also for surfaces, for things going through things, the image of something, the reflection. But I do this with audio and with moving image at the same time, through forums and Facebook friends and all kinds of things.

There are three or four big themes in The Mirror. You have a whole sequence of doors, or portals and windows; you have one of aliens and biblical shepherds; you have a sort of chapel/horror sequence, and then you have a whole thing about eyes and zooming in close on people’s faces. What made you come to that progression? How did you associate all of those images?

Well, I don’t want to be crudely obvious and stick to the immediate subject, I love to go on wild tangents. Because that’s where you get to be creative with things. So technically the way I make these things is I’ll search 300+ movies based on an inkling that there might be content in there, and then I’ll make tiny edits from those movies, with a description and the title of the movie, and then once I’ve either run out of time or think I’ve got enough to start editing, putting stuff together, I’ll print out the file list on paper. All the descriptions, both of the music content and the movie content things, and then I’ll look at it all as text, I’ll cut it up as text and start looking at it on the floor. And then I’ll start making stories out of it, new stories, new themes, things that are more fluid than banging a drum that ‘this is a mirror, this is a mirror’: you kind of make tangential stories out of it. I like what I do to be very fluid and psychedelic in the true sense of things forever changing and moving, and there are no hard edits in my movie. It’s all dissolves. Because I try and make it like the brain, where you’re constantly moving subjects – one minute you’ll be thinking about one thing, and five minutes later you'll be thinking about something completely somewhere else. I like to treat my movies the same way, to make any subject much more playful and fluid.

The Mirror trailer

I watched Carl Abrahamsson’s 2015 documentary about your work, Nothing Can Turn Into A Void, and you pull up this intricate geometric structure you've made, out of the cutouts you’ve printed of all your descriptions – and it looks like an Escher drawing turned into a sculpture. Do you make those while you’re piecing these edits together? Is that how your brain sort of collages the ideas?

When you work on a computer, it takes up a lot of your creative energy, and also you can’t fit all your ideas onto a screen. The thing about this is you kind of want to see the whole picture, everything you’ve been thinking about, and the only way to do that is to get out of the computer and into physical form. So I make all these paper things to guide me through this mass amount of information that I’m putting together. And a lot of artists do this, not just working with film, but I’ve met a lot of people who do the same thing, you can come up with clusters, or mind maps. It’s a really nice way of working, you can just get out of the computer and into physical forms where you can see right in front of you everything that you’ve thought about, rather than relying on your poor old memory.

Your next piece Gone Gone Beyond is going to be a four screen immersive project...

It’s actually ten screens, it’s room sized, it’s seamless projection with ten screens and eight speakers. It’s massive.

So you’re expanding your process to that many more dimensions.

Yeah, I mean, basically version one of Gone Gone Beyond already exists, we premiered it at Recombinant Festival in San Fransisco a year ago. But the thing about Gone Gone Beyond is that I don’t see it as something that I finish, I see it as something that I forever change, like an ever spinning wheel, like windmills of your mind, it’s kind of like that. I keep adding to it and making more, so at the moment we’re actually bringing it up to being an hour long. It was 40 minutes long. And we’re looking for venues – it’s basically in an installation form in a space called Cinechamber, which is a structure with Recombinant Media Labs, who host this kind of set-up in San Francisco, but it’s a portable piece. Cinechamber have been into places like Mutek and Transmediale, that kind of place.

You were talking about things forever changing, and [when we talked briefly at Cafe Oto] after watching The Mirror, you said that every time you watch it you’re going to find something you didn’t notice in it, you’re going to make new connections. It seems like a lot of your pieces work like that because they’re so rich, connections just arise out of your experience changing as a viewer, and the things you look for and respond to.

Yeah, the thing about making collage, I kind of call myself a collage artist, is because it’s beyond the actual medium. It’s more about bringing together different things in a transformative way, but previously existed, that work in that way. You’re bringing about associations that forever do change, because you’re making a kind of puppet show, but with many layers of things to see or hear, and whoever’s experiencing it, they’re never going to see it all at once – particularly with Gone Gone Beyond, which is a 360... you kind of have to experience it a few times. I try and do it in a way that it’s not irritating, so that they don’t feel like they’re missing something, I like there to be a continuity and a glow to it so that whatever people do experience at that time, that’s it for them. But the thing is, that’s like real life as well, both for this and the 360, we’re forever experiencing all sorts of things that we’re missing out on because we’ve only got two eyes and two ears; but our nervous system makes that necessary that we have to limit our appreciation through that. I try and make my art to be like the experience we get with our senses, but you know, collage is a very deep thing in that it’s many, many layers of things, and I like it that people bring their own experience to it, but obviously I’m in there too, because I’m obviously manipulating and affecting their experience as well, but hopefully in a – I want it to be in an elevating, positive way.

Gone, Gone Beyond trailer

A lot of your early work used archive footage – this might have been down to what was easier to get hold of. You had the Prelinger archives and a lot of UK 70s and 80s educational or informational films. Some of the imagery could have been seen as nostalgic to a particular time and place. I was wondering if there was a need for people to have a kind of kinship, or awareness of a particular set of images to draw certain associations. How important is it to be from the same culture that the images come from? Or do the juxtapositions have a language of their own, because you are so transparent about where the edits are and what you’re doing? Do you need to have the cultural background to fit this stuff into for it to work?

No, I don’t think you do need that. I mean, to start with I was working with Rick [Prelinger]’s footage in the early 2000s, because – it was partly to do with availability. That was the advent of broadband, and Rick was one of the first people to be putting great moving image footage online, to high speed download for free. It was a bit of an issue back then, the availability of good quality footage online. Things have changed massively in the last 18 years, and obviously I am good friends with Rick. So [using his archive material] was partly circumstantial, and partly because it was great footage. I moved away from that when I felt like I’d used everything I could find in the archive at that time. And it was also the time when you could start getting things from Pirate Bay, and likewise, you could also hire DVDs and rip them. I wanted to use well known feature films, because I've always used well known music in my music sampling, and I wanted to couple the visual effects in the same way.

Regarding nostalgia, I’m not keen on that word, because I don’t like the cosy connotation to that. I don’t avert from that, but I’m very much into being hyperreal, not the idea that you shut down and you sit surrounded by cotton wool, you know. But one thing about archives, people seem to think that that’s different to any other way of working, but it isn’t because we’re all reliant on the past for the way that we work. It’s like the beginning of this conversation is already the past; we’re not working with the future. We’re lucky if we’re working with the present a lot of the time. So I don’t see working with archives as any different from working with any other palette. It’s just relatively new in art, like in the last hundred years. So I see what I do as folk art in the age of digital reproduction: I’m working with the palette of the time. But I see it as the palette of now, not the palette of the past.

I read your essay about the liberation of broadband, and when Ubuweb went up… this is the one you wrote for The Wire, the Collateral Damage essay in 2012 [subscribers can read it online], about the cloud, and how exciting it was to have access to all this stuff. You had a really good point that I liked, about people listening to more less often? So people would have lots more music that they would be listening to, but they wouldn’t be listening to it as intently as they would have been when they only had access to a few things. If we’re going towards a future where there’s so much stuff online, and hopefully everyone can explore their interests in cinema, and music, into really specific and obscure specialties, is one of the things about Hollywood that makes those images so powerful that they are one of the last shared sources of culture?

It is, it is. Oh yeah, you were saying before, do you have to identify with a culture, in order to enjoy the movies? Well, I can’t speak for someone working in a similar way with a different culture. I haven’t been to the Far East, say, with what I do. But what I can say is once you edit something, to start with, it’s like a thesaurus, or a film buff fest, where everyone’s going, oh, there’s that film, there’s that film. But after about five to ten minutes that starts to fall away, and it starts to become the experience of just the content, dislocated. And that’s what I want to do.

The nostalgia element, that could be just your memory of when you first experienced, or first heard a piece of music, or first saw it – and that’s great, but what I like about that is that your memory is only creating something instantaneously, apparently. Apparently every time we have a memory, we’re making it anew. And they're pretty unreliable anyway, memories. Also, your experience of something changes, like for instance, if you’re listening to a piece of music and something really extreme happens, your new association with that piece of music will be different to what you had before that happened. So your experience of these archives will change with your experience of life. That’s great. If I'm working with this stuff, originally your experience might be the Hollywood movie, or seeing it in the cinema, or remembering something from the 70s or growing up or something. But if I dislocate it and associate it with something else, it’s just as likely that a future association will be with what I put with it, as in the same way as when people make mash-up music, which is a simple version of what I do. I changed the original association, but also, if you hadn’t heard the original, if you’d only heard the mash up, and then you heard the original – then that goes to show that the flow of time isn’t always forwards. Because my association with mash-ups is discovering the originals for the first time through the mash-ups. So time doesn’t go forward, it’s all over the place.

And film is a loop anyway, it’s like time passes within the loop, and then the loop also passes through time.

Exactly.

In so much of your work, you show the editing, you show what you’re doing, you show the dissolves, you show what’s going on with a green screen, you’ll have two screens above each other – and when you’re being so open about that, it’s like you’re being really generous to the viewer, it’s like you’re saying: look, this is how I put it together. You're showing how it’s done, so it’s not an illusion to trick the viewer; it’s something you can dip into and be fascinated by.

Well, you know, I believe in abundance and sharing of this stuff, and things shouldn’t be locked up, they shouldn’t be locked in archives, they shouldn’t be locked behind walls, behind firewalls. I believe that something does not diminish by doubling it and duplicating it, and I don’t believe in the art gallery ethic of the less there is of something, the more value it has. I think that everyone should be trying to interact creatively with what’s around them, and I just want to show them one way that you can do it.

Have you had any problems about copyright? Even the documentary about you has a very protective bit of disclaimer text at the beginning, saying, 'Oh, we’re only showing these films for illustration, please don’t sue us!'

Wasn’t that a laugh, yeah – it was not my idea to put that notice there, I thought it was very ironic that they put that there. No, I’ve had very little trouble. I’ve been publishing since 1991, I got one cease and desist order, which is hilarious, now that I know the full information about it. It was the film I made called The Zone, which The Wire featured [subscribers can read this online]. It’s basically using Stalker by Tarkovsky and The Wizard Of Oz, side by side, because I thought conceptually they’re both quite similar in that they’re both journeys from mono, unenlightened, to full colour, enlightened. So I cut both films backwards and forwards, from the crossover from mono to colour. And then for some reason a few people picked up on it, and the BFI Southbank wanted to show it at a Tarkovsky festival. And then they were going to show it, and there was going to be a Tarkovsky panel, and there was a Tarkovsky expert – she was very angry about that.

She contacted Mosfilm in Russia, who apparently – remember the apparently at this point – they were the executors of Tarkovsky’s estate. They sent a cease and desist order, as I was just about to premiere it at Transmediale a couple of days later, at great expense to them on a massive screen, and I had to decide, basically, am I just going to carry on or am I going to stop? Because it was associated with Lux film archive, and we didn't want any trouble, we stopped. A few years passed, I put it back online anyway, not straight away, but I waited and then put it back online, a few years passed, and then I found out Curzon had got Tarkovsky’s archve, the rights to it, all of it, and they emailed me a couple of years ago and said, did I want to do something? I said, well, I can’t, because I don’t own the rights! And they said, no, Mosfilm never owned the rights, ever, they’re crooks. And they’ve been suing and sending cease and desist orders for years to people – and they didn’t even own it! So the only time I ever got into trouble was from people who didn’t even own it anyway!

For links to the work of People Like Us and future performance dates, visit peoplelikeus.org. The entire People Like Us video catalogue is available online at Ubuweb

The Mirror by People Like Us will be on show at London’s Splice Festival on 12 May

People Like Us are currently editing the video backdrop for The The’s forthcoming UK/US tour starting in early June

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