Close Up

6 October 2022 - 19 January 2023: John Smith: Introspective (1972-2022)


In celebration of John Smith’s 50 years of radical filmmaking, and Close-Up present the most extensive survey of his work to date: screening 50 films by Smith, organised into ten weekly programmes at Close-Up and the ICA. The screenings are arranged chronologically, combining rarely screened works with well-known favourites. Guests in conversation with Smith include Erika Balsom, Ian Bourn, Jarvis Cocker, Gareth Evans, Juliet Jacques, Carol Morley, Jocelyn Pook, Stanley Schtinter, Iain Sinclair and Alia Syed.

John Smith’s Introspective launches with a special, one-off music-focussed programme at the ICA, marking the vinyl release of Blight, the soundtrack from Smith’s film with original score by Jocelyn Pook. Smith and Pook will be present and in conversation, with rarely seen films including commissions for Charles Hayward and Echo & the Bunnymen. Two more programmes will be presented at the ICA: with Carol Morley on October 27, and with Jarvis Cocker on December 1 (closing event).

John Smith: Introspective (1972-2022) is organised by Stanley Schtinter. For the full programme, and information on the vinyl LP, Blight, by Jocelyn Pook to mark its happening, visit: om" target="_blank">


Programme 1 (1972-76)
With John Smith and Stanley Schtinter in conversation

John Smith, 1972, 3 min

Smith’s first 16mm film comprises abstract animation punctuated by found footage, cut to music by The Velvet Underground.

Someone Moving
John Smith, 1972, 5 min

Choreographed actions of a moving figure, broken down into still frames and reanimated in superimposed layers. Soundtrack by Peter Cusack.

The Hut
John Smith, 1973, 5 min

An experiment into visual rhythms that animates still photographs of a decaying building.

John Smith & Lis Rhodes, 1973, 7 min

An exploration of arbitrary meaning involving random combinations of words.

Out the Back
John Smith, 1974, 5 min

An improvisation around the view from an urban window, the first of Smith’s films to be edited in camera.

William and the Cows
John Smith, 1974, 6 min

Slowed down glimpses of life on the island of Sark.

“One of the most surreal films I have ever seen.” – Malcolm Le Grice

John Smith, 1974, 6 min

A study of movement and stasis involving the animation of still photographs.

John Smith, 1975, 7 min

Images from magazines and colour supplements accompany a spoken text taken from Word Associations and Linguistic Theory by Herbert H. Clark. Playing upon ambiguities inherent in the English language, Associations sets language against itself. Image and word work together/against each other to destroy/create meaning.

Leading Light
John Smith, 1975, 11 min

Leading Light uses the camera-eye to reveal the irregular beauty of a familiar space. When we inhabit a room we are only unevenly aware of the space held in it and the possible forms of vision which reside there. The camera-eye documents and returns our apprehension. Vertov imagined a ‘single room’ made up of a montage of many different rooms. Smith reverses this aspect of ‘creative geography’ by showing how many rooms the camera can create from just one.” – A.L. Rees

The Girl Chewing Gum
John Smith, 1976, 12 min

A commanding voice over appears to direct the action in a busy London street. As the instructions become more absurd and fantasised, we realise that the supposed director (not the shot) is fictional; he only describes – not prescribes – the events that take place before him.

"Smith takes the piss out of mainstream auteurist ego, but provides proof of the underground ethos: Even with meagre mechanical means, the artist can command the universe." – Ed Halter


Programme 2 (1976-78)
With John Smith and Erika Balsom in conversation

Summer Diary
John Smith, 1976-7, 30 min

Filmed in London during the summer of 1976, the view from the filmmaker’s window becomes the locus for a series of visual and verbal descriptions of the past and present.   

“The film’s concern lies in memory and the awkward distance between reminiscence and fact, personal accounts and objective phenomena… The function of memory presented through reminiscence and re-enactment presents the subjective at odds with objectifying mechanical devices (such as camera, thermometer, calendar) but engaged in the construction of a personal and historical position.” – Michael Maziere

John Smith, 1977, 6 min

An experiment with densely layered information, commissioned by EMI to explore the possibilities of the newly invented video disc. Gardner was inspired by the man cited in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s fastest novelist. Erle Stanley Gardner, the mystery writer who created Perry Mason, dictated up to ten thousand words per day and worked with his staff on as many as seven novels simultaneously.

Hackney Marshes - November 4th 1977
John Smith, 1977, 15 min

An improvisation recorded over the course of one day, starting at dawn and finishing after dusk. The film was edited in camera and shot from one camera position in the middle of one of the 112 football pitches that covered Hackney Marsh, a location chosen because of the similarities between the surrounding buildings and objects. Unforeseen events occurring in the vicinity were also recorded, influencing the direction of the subsequent filming. Through selective framing and changes in cutting pace and speed of camera movement, the film fluctuates between record and abstraction.

Hackney Marshes (TV version)
John Smith, 1978, 30 min

“Explicitly challenging all the accepted forms of the TV documentary, John Smith’s important film is extraordinary as the product of a major institution. The dual subjects are the inhabitants of tower blocks in Hackney and the components and conventions of filmmaking. Interviews with the former are cut against a limited sequence of compositions which illustrate and question the soundtrack in a number of distinct ways. Repetition, sharp editing, unlikely images (chalk lines, lift doors closing) and the deliberate reversal of normal devices all work to disorientate the viewer and to force a reconsideration of his or her relationship to the film. The overall result is, perhaps surprisingly, given the theoretical concerns, a strangely intimate picture of the subjects.  Importantly, its success demonstrates the necessity for many TV film-makers to re-think their safe approaches and accepted techniques." – John Wyver


Programme 3 (1978-84)
With John Smith and Juliet Jacques in conversation

Double Shutter
John Smith, 1978 / 2018, 7 min

As a reassemblage of two excerpts from Blue Bathrooom (1978), Double Shutter is a distillation of ideas concerning the tension between representation and materiality. An apparently straightforward representational image is gradually revealed to be an artifice, foregrounding the filmmaking process as subject matter. By superimposing and alternating identical framings of three windows filmed by day and by night the film uses their positive/negative qualities to construct and break down representational images and sounds.

John Smith, 1978, 8 min

7P is constructed around the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, juxtaposing similar picture and sound fragments recorded on consecutive days over the Christmas period. When the seemingly predictable structure starts falling apart, nonsensical combinations of word and image begin to acquire their own unfathomable meanings.

Celestial Navigation
John Smith, 1980, 10 min

Celestial Navigation could be seen to work in the tradition of British landscape film in that it incorporates a ‘natural’ element (the Earth’s rotation) into the structure of the film. Filmed in the course of one day on a beach, the film uses pan and tilt movements to follow the shadow of a spade and retain its vertical position in the frame… Many peripheral elements come into the film, adding humour to an otherwise near scientific exercise. The tide comes in, a sandcastle is built and washed away, a cyclist crosses the scene, which all works to incorporate human presence without denying the original strategy.” – Michael Maziere

Light Sleep
John Smith, 1981, 6 min

An experiment in temporal layering involving the parallel development of sound and picture. Shots of the same scenes were superimposed on each other in camera over a number of hours, up to a maximum of about a hundred superimpositions.

Shepherd's Delight (an ananalysis of humour)
John Smith, 1980-4, 35 min

Shepherd’s Delight confronts the problem of humour head-on, referring directly (since a large part of the film is composed of jokes and their analysis) to the viewer’s perception of the film itself. The film is largely concerned with how context determines the reading of information. Since the film’s statements oscillate between the deadly serious (concentrating particularly on an examination of the more sinister aspects of humour) and the totally bogus, with no clearly defined points of changeover, the context is often ambiguous. This strategy undermines both the authority of the ‘serious’ statements and any predictable effect of the ‘jokes’. 

"Shepherd’s Delight turned on the very humour for which Smith is noted, revealing the dark as well as the light side of jokes. Doubt, scepticism and a sense of the arbitrary all pointed to deeper patterns in his films. The opposition of illusionism and materiality, the key motif of the post-war avant-garde cinema, is used here and elsewhere in his work to underpin subtle questioning and undercutting of the authority of the word." – A.L. Rees


Programme 4 (1985-92)

John Smith, 1986, 4 min

"This is hardcore cinema." – Peter Kubelka

"This four-minute film explores our response to stereotypes – aural, visual and ideological.  Smith signals these stereotypes to the viewer through a chiefly associational system, which deftly manipulates the path of our expectations. The structure is stunningly simple and deceptively subtle. We are taken on a journey from one concrete stereotype to its diametric opposite, as images transform and juxtapose to, ultimately, invert our interpretation of what we see and hear." – Gary Davis  

The Black Tower
John Smith, 1985-7, 23 min  

"Smith’s 'accidental horror' film wears its constructivist tricks as a primary-coloured cloak around the barest of wireframe figures. That Smith dismisses the plot as secondary to the film itself reveals more about his artistic leanings than any supposed embracing of genre, and the fractured realism and creeping terror of the story plays out despite and because of them. Enchanting and good-humoured (as with almost all of Smith’s films), The Black Tower tells a singular story of architectural horror and madness worthy of the ungovernable geographies of Machen, Welles, or Lovecraft, situating itself firmly in the quotidian grit of Thatcher’s Britain. Constantly pointing to its own telling, as well as the mode and method of that telling, Smith’s film questions the viewer’s own certainty even as the narrator loses theirs." – Thogdin Ripley  

John Smith, 1987, 3 min  

This film was originally made for Dungeness: The Desert in the Garden, a multi-media theatre production directed by Graeme Miller. Through selectively framing and alternating monochrome fields within the Dungeness landscape the film creates a series of abstract rhythms. Incidentally, and unbeknown to the artist until years after filming, Dungeness features a guest appearance from Derek Jarman’s then recently acquired Prospect Cottage.    

John Smith, 1992, 1 min  

“A gigantic reptile fills the frame as Smith begins to sing. The manipulative power of script and framing in film and video is sharply yet playfully highlighted in a single shot.” – Helen Legg  

Slow Glass
John Smith, 1988-91, 40 min  

"The film begins with a shout in the street and a smashed pane and ends with a bricked-up window. Between these literal images of opening and closing, Slow Glass spins immaculately shot puns and paradoxes that play on reflection and speculation – words that refer both to acts of seeing and of mind. Glass is the key, as a narrator’s running commentary sketches the glassmaker’s art, splicing a history lesson with a quasi-autobiography. The cutting of glass is matched to the editing of film, and the camera’s lens to the surface which it captures. Through the pub-talk and the downing of glasses, other themes emerge; among them is the constancy of change, as the face of London alters and the past becomes present (conveyed in jump-cuts showing streets and shops changing over time and season, and in a gently ironized evocation of a 50’s childhood). The flowing Thames echoes the theme of flux, but also underscores the renewed attacks on East London life in the age of the property war – another kind of speculation. Slow Glass suggests that the living past has been turned into capitalized ‘Heritage’, that the British Documentarists’ noble craftsman only survives as a museum piece, and that reality in film is itself a fiction. In this film, the fiction is a crafted illusion that always has a human face." – A.L. Rees


Programme 5 (1993-96)
With John Smith and Ian Bourn in conversation

Home Suite
John Smith, 1993-94, 96 min

Home Suite is a close-up journey through a domestic landscape and a journey through memory. Playing upon ambiguity and the unseen, the tape uses physical details of the space to trigger fragmented verbal descriptions of associated memories.

"John Smith takes us on a real time tour of the home from which he is being evicted, chronicling the history of the everyday items he has lived with and bringing them back to life. Reminiscences of the emotional scenes which have been played out on the stair carpet, the confusion of trying to remember who brought each of the many toothbrushes, and the problems of decorating the kitchen, are both hilarious and poignant. The ephemera and detritus of everyday life as seen through the eyes of a comic genius." – Abina Manning  

"The space gradually fills with its history: complex, eccentric, funny, until it has become a kind of monumental environment, about which epic stories could be told for ever more. The work serves to remind us about the complexities of the history of even simple spaces and objects, a complexity to which most films do not even begin to do justice." – Nicky Hamlyn

John Smith, 1994-96, 14 min

Blight revolves around the building of the M11 Link Road in East London, combining images and sounds of demolition and road building with the spoken words of local residents. Taking these actualities as its starting point, Blight exploits the ambiguities of its material to create its own metaphorical fictions. The emotive power of Jocelyn Pook’s music is used in the film to overtly aid this invention, investing mundane images with dramatic significance.

"A stunning montage depicts the destruction of a London street to make way for new roads. The rhythmic, emotive soundtrack is partly musical and partly a collage of the residents’ voices. Shots and sounds echo and cross-link in the film’s 14 minutes to reinvent a radical documentary tradition." – A.L. Rees


Programme 6 (1998-2003)
With John Smith and Gareth Evans in conversation

The Kiss
John Smith & Ian Bourn, 1999, 5 min

A depiction of the forced development of a hothouse flower. Organic growth is progressively overtaken by a more sinister, mechanical process.

The Waste Land
John Smith, 1999, 5 min

A personal interpretation of the poetry and letters of T.S. Eliot.

John Smith, 1999, 17 min

A portrait of the artist as a not so young man. The filmmaker attempts to enter the digital age by making a new video version of his 1978 film 7P.

John Smith is not afraid of time. His films continuously show his patience in setting up a visual pun, filming certain angles over several days or months in order to develop our sense of place and flux. Regression makes time a focus of his humour. As he recreates a film he made 21 years earlier, he tapes each of the twelve days of Christmas, getting progressively younger as he replays the chorus of the accompanying song.” – Chris Kennedy

Lost Sound
John Smith & Graeme Miller, 1998-2001, 28 min

Lost Sound documents fragments of discarded audio-tape found on the streets of a small area of East London, combining the sound retrieved from each piece of tape with images of the place where it was found. The work explores the potential of chance, creating portraits of particular places by building formal, narrative and musical connections between images and sounds linked by the random discovery of the tape samples.

“Visually the audio-tapes tell us almost nothing; they must be ‘decoded’ by the equipment that put them on the soundtrack. But we come to see that the signs, cars, and pedestrians in the videotape pose similar ‘decoding’ problems: what do they mean, where do they come from, who are they? A city that at first seems comprehensible is revealed as a layering of mysteries; we know no more about the passing humans from their images than we do about what's on the crumpled tape.” – Fred Camper

Worst Case Scenario
John Smith, 2001-03, 18 min

Worst Case Scenario is constructed from a collection of still photographs depicting daily life on a Viennese street corner. Shot over the course of a week from a window overlooking the scene, the film develops themes that focus upon watching and being watched, distance and uneasy proximity. As the static world of the photographs gradually comes to life, the soundtrack introduces another, unseen, space to the viewer and an increasingly improbable chain of events and relationships starts to emerge.

"Smith’s 30 years of eccentric, good-humoured and enlightening radical filmmaking opened up endless possibilities for visual creativity.  His Worst Case Scenario, comprising a stream of movie-like images from rapidly shot camera stills taken on a Vienna street corner, is an exquisite documentation of everyday waiting, eating and road-crossing, with just a whiff of Freud." – Keith Gallasch


Programme 7 (2001-07)
With John Smith and Alia Syed in conversation

Hotel Diaries
John Smith, 2001-07, 82 min

Made over six years in the hotels of six different countries, Hotel Diaries charts the ‘War on Terror’ era of Bush and Blair through a series of seven video recordings that relate the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel/Palestine to Smith’s personal experiences while travelling. In these works, which play upon chance and coincidence, the hotel room is employed as a ‘found’ film set, where the architecture, furnishing and decoration become the means by which the filmmaker’s small adventures are linked to major world events.  

Frozen War (Ireland, 2001)
Museum Piece (Germany, 2004)
Throwing Stones (Switzerland, 2004)
B & B (England, 2005)
Pyramids/Skunk (The Netherlands 2006-07)
Dirty Pictures (Palestine 2007)
Six Years Later (Ireland 2007)

"Several years ago I watched John Smith’s Hotel Diaries at a festival in Tampere, and left the theatre with the feeling that my idea of what film could and should do had changed forever. These short films, made in uncomfortable hotel rooms where the director stayed – almost impromptu, without any budget, with a small amateur camera and his own voice – keep the viewer’s attention just as well as a good thriller, although they have nothing in common with one. Smith does not look for 'beautiful' and large-scale shots as an occasion to express himself. Some little thing in an utterly unremarkable hotel room is quite enough for him to launch a chain reaction of associations and cause and effect relations in our heads. They take us so far from the two-dimensional everyday 'reality' on the screen that the inevitable return to the 'here and now' of the filming location resembles the sudden wakening up from sleep." – Mikhail Zheleznikov


Programme 8 (2010-12)
With John Smith and Iain Sinclair in conversation

Flag Mountain
John Smith, 2010, 8 min

A view across the border in Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus. The camera looks over the rooftops of the Greek Cypriot south to the mountains of the Turkish Republic in the north, where a display of nationalism is enhanced by filmic means. Moving between macro and micro perspectives, Flag Mountain sets dramatic spectacle against everyday life as the inhabitants of both sides of the city go about their daily business.

Demo Tape
John Smith, 2010, 5 min

Whilst staying in a very expensive hotel in Geneva, a businessman expresses his outrage when the TV news reports a demonstration in London against student fees.

Unusual Red cardigan
John Smith, 2011, 12 min

The filmmaker's discovery of an overpriced VHS tape of his work on eBay triggers obsessive speculation about the seller's identity.

The Man Phoning Mum
John Smith, 2011, 12 min

Revisiting the original locations of The Girl Chewing Gum after three and a half decades, The Man Phoning Mum retraces its camera movements and superimposes new material upon the old. Black and white passers by from 1976 meet their colourful present day counterparts in the well-trodden street, oblivious to each other’s existence.

"… So, thirty-five years later, in a cultural moment now characterised by reflex nostalgia, you return to the same street corner – and the same field, or at least that’s the aim – and film again and layer the new film onto the old, the girl chewing gum and her momentary compatriots flickering through crisp video like monochrome celluloid ghosts, past and present interlaid. The fact that you’re using a different recording medium now is far from all that’s changed. The archetypal figure, here, signposted by the title The Man Phoning Mum, is toting a compact technology inconceivable in the year of Punk, a mobile phone.” – Martin Herbert

Soft Work
John Smith, 2012, 37 min

Waiting by the sea with his camera ready for action, the artist complains about the weather and attempts to describe his intentions and working methods. Soft Work is a film about the making of a film, where the viewer can only imagine what that film might be. It was made spontaneously during the production of Horizon (Five Pounds a Belgian), a video installation commissioned by Turner Contemporary, Margate


Programme 9 (2012-21)

Dad's Stick
John Smith, 2012, 5 min  

Dad’s Stick features three well-used objects that were shown to the artist by his father shortly before he died. Two of these were so steeped in history that their original forms and functions were almost completely obscured. The third object seemed to be instantly recognizable, but it turned out to be something else entirely.  Focusing on these ambiguous artifacts and events relating to their history, Dad's Stick creates a dialogue between abstraction and literal meaning.  Looking back over half a century, the work explores the contradictions of memory to create an oblique portrait of “a perfectionist with a steady hand”.  

White Hole
John Smith, 2014, 7 min  

The only time Smith visited a communist country was when he went to Poland in 1980, not long after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was first elected in Britain. He first visited the former East Germany in 1997, eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a few months after Tony Blair's 'New Labour' government was elected. Recalling these experiences many years later, White Hole questions the idealisation of life in other places and political systems, while remembering a time when we could at least imagine that the grass might be greener on the other side.  

Steve Hates Fish
John Smith, 2015, 5 min

Filmed directly from the screen of a smartphone using a language translator app that has been told to translate from French into English, Steve Hates Fish deliberately confuses the software by instructing it to interpret the English signage in a busy London shopping street. In an environment overloaded with information the signs run riot as the restless software does its best to fulfil its task, looking for French words to translate in places where there are none.

"Thrashing around hopelessly in its dictionary, the app’s stabs in the dark replace words on shopfronts and displays with some very wayward guesswork, before it faints completely and enters They Live territory, planting spurious nouns and verbs on blank concrete walls and pavements. The empire of signs is overthrown, its language of control scrambled beyond repair..." – Tim Hayes  

Who Are We?
John Smith, 2016, 4 min  

On the 23rd of June 2016 Britain voted to leave the European Union. Who Are We? is a re-working of material from a BBC television debate transmitted a few weeks earlier.  

Song for Europe
John Smith, 2017, 4 min  

Inspired by a message for motorists on Eurotunnel trains, Song for Europe is an underwater celebration of Britain’s connection to the mainland.  

John Smith, 2020, 16 min  

Filmed from the artist’s window during the first English lockdown, Citadel combines short fragments from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speeches relating to coronavirus with views of the London skyline. Recognising the government’s decision to place business interests before public health, it relocates the centre of power from Parliament to the financial district of the City of London. Presenting the city as a site of both horror and aesthetic beauty, the film documents the dramatic effects of changing light conditions upon its architecture. Shifting its focus from the city’s gleaming skyscrapers to the inhabitants of the dense urban housing that lies in their shadow, Citadel contrasts faceless corporate power with the particularities of individual lives.  

“Typically incisive and playful, Citadel is an urgent film of the Covid era: a subversive city symphony made in confinement, critical of the status quo, responding with wit and humanity to the reigning chaos.” – MUBI  

Jour de Fête
John Smith, 2017, 1 min  

During the last week of July the village of Serviès-en-Val in the South of France celebrates its annual fête. A stage is erected in the main square and fairground attractions are installed, sometimes in surprising locations.  

A State of Grace
John Smith, 2019, 3 min  

Enigmatic diagrams and the artist’s poor hearing on a flight to Ireland trigger a radical interpretation of the airline’s safety instructions.  

Time and Motion (for A L Rees)
John Smith, 2021, 2 min  

The filmmaker blames a pioneer photographer for his speeding fine.  

Covid Messages
John Smith, 2020, 22 min  

Covid Messages is a video in six parts, based around broadcasts of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s COVID-19 press conferences. The work focusses on the British government’s attempts to eliminate the virus through the use of magic spells and rituals. While the pandemic spreads and the death toll rises, the Prime Minister makes repeated errors of judgement. Exasperated by his many mistakes, the spirits of the dead rise up and intervene.  

"Under the UK’s 2020 lockdown that political conscience has welled up in his new works Citadel and Covid Messages, surely destined to be remembered as signature artworks of this challenging moment in British history." – Ian Christie

John Smith, 2021, 1 min  

A larger than life portrait of Prince Philip, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, recorded in 2002 and completed on the day of his death, April 9th 2021.