Oblique Viewing

By Alia Syed

swan-alia-syed.jpgSwan, 1989

Remaining sane while moving home


"All really inhabited space bears the essence of home… when memories of other places we have lived in come back to us, we travel to the land of motionless childhood, motionless the way all immemorial things are. We live fixations. Fixations of happiness." – Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

I am, or have until this moment, described myself as an experimental filmmaker. I have always made work specifically to be shown in the cinema. My work reflects very personal and political issues around representation, identity and the language of film. I have however decided to break with tradition and show my work in a gallery context. Why? I want my work to be shown. After fifteen years of having single sporadic screenings, I feel it is time to bring my work together over a concentrated period of time. With the support of inIVA I have been given this opportunity.

I studied at the University of East London, which at the time had a very dynamic and thriving film department. It was the mid ’80s, feminism was still a force to be reckoned with, as were the miners! Channel 4 was barely in existence. As a young, mixed-race, woman from Scotland – identity yet unknown – landing in Plaistow was a bit confusing. I gravitated to the film department more out of an interest in the debates than any concrete desire to make a film. I was shown the equipment, and fell in love. Film cameras were sexier than video cameras. We had a film processor, a printer and free black and white film. I could physically intervene on the film surface, creating areas of texture, rhythm and light. Unlike video, where everything seemed hidden, I could understand how the film image was formed.

spoken-diary-alia-syed.jpgSpoken Diary, 2001

It was obvious that exciting new developments were happening in video and many people who were politically engaged switched over. Arguments about accessibility, representation, form and content were fiercely contested but we all agreed that our home lay within the confines of cinema and not the gallery. This debate involves two different histories and traditions but ultimately it is also about authority. The authority of the gallery as a space to view, where our gaze is free to roam, versus the authority of the cinema, where physical space collapses and our gaze is caught by the penetrating gaze of the projector; where the audience collectively surrenders a given period of time to an audiovisual feast.

People have shown film and video work in the gallery before. There is also a history of performance. Previously, such work was exceptional, an intruder in gallery culture, both physically and ideologically. On the whole these practices existed on the fringes. Time based work has now taken centre stage and guess what! It’s also for sale. Sites exist not only physically but ideologically – currency knows no boundaries. But the gallery has become more open both in its remit and the audience it attracts whilst, apart from the festival circuit, the cinema as a place to show challenging work has virtually disappeared.

Different venues pose different problems, as do individual films. How do I retain the original intention of my work as well as address the issues of location? Of all the films showing, only one, Swan, will be projected on 16mm. Despite numerous words of comfort from other filmmakers, this is a prospect that fills me with dread.


"In true travel, what matters are the magical accidents, the discoveries, the inexplicable wonders and the wasted time. The superstition that we only see or only film one single film is transformed within each of us to this: from film to film we are in pursuit of a secret film, hidden because its desire is not seen. ...Without such a secret film there is no cinematographic emotion." – Raul RuizPoetics of Cinema


This part of the project will be at the new Walsall Art Gallery, large, spacious and very light. Visiting it, I found the space very inspiring, and felt that it would be an appropriate and challenging place to work in. Much of my initial apprehension vanished. Using three rooms, I intend to show Swan, The Watershed, and a three-screen version of Spoken Diary. All three films deal with a sense of physicality that is to do with touch, rhythm, sex and power, and although they evolve around similar themes they are, on first viewing, quite different.

watershed-alia-syed.jpgWatershed, 1995

Swan was made in 1987. The film is a rhythmic, visceral, montage of reworked black and white footage; the creature that emerges is both a sublime enchantress and a priapic incarnation of Zeus. It is short, four minutes, and silent, and can be easily looped. It will be shown continuously. Four minutes become stretched into an eternity. Gradations of light fall onto the gallery floor, a play of shadows up for the taking. Do you surrender momentarily? Or are you transfixed? You hear a woman’s voice – loud

She had killed twice before

And this was going to be the third

Although she didn’t know it at the time

Nor for a long time afterwards.

The sound jolts you. Another space, a different film.

swan-alia-syed-2.jpgSwan, 1989

The Watershed. A film about the pain of speaking… The voice-over is layered, builds, points of clarity give way to an intense cacophony of words. We only actually hear rhythm and texture; we are in the midst of a round. The first image in the film is the back of a woman. A man’s arm pushes her gently down. We hear the sound of wind chimes. You expect a moment of tenderness. You’ll get it, but not yet, it’s not time yet. I want to draw your attention to the beginning. In the end you can have it – but on my terms.

The film is twelve minutes long but it will be shown on DVD in fifteen-minute cycles.

Three minutes of waiting in the dark, the viewer is caught in two dreams, hers, and mine falling out of one and into another – a moment of apprehension. She hears a different voice emerging from a tunnel.

She keeps writing until the page goes black keeps writing until a tunnel appears driving in like a hole, like the hole in her belly, a tunnel back to you

Has she moved or is she still waiting?

With the advent of computers I can control the relationship between two different films in two different spaces. The space I am working with is “T” shaped and the journey becomes like a figure of eight between the three films. Swan lies in the ‘belly’. It is the first film you see, and to reach the other films you have to pass through Swan. Meaning becomes cumulative. Individual journeys intervene and intertwine upon the film journey.

I am interested in time and memory: both cultural and individual. How external events collide with internal realities creating spaces of clarity. We may or may not live “fixations of happiness” but we do live through moments of cohesion where clarity does exist fleetingly. We build sense, a sense of self, through these moments. In the gallery, the seepage of sound, memory, remembered space, and actual place, within intertwining narratives, will make a new distinct experience of a cohesive whole: three separate films will become one new piece.


Alia Syed’s exhibition in Walsall is part of a larger project to be held in 3 separate locations over 6 months; The New Art Gallery, Walsall (Feb 1st-Mar 6th), The Space Gallery at in Iva,London (Mar 6th-Mar 15th) and the Turnpike Gallery, Manchester (June 2002).

Alia Syed is an experimental film maker currently working with inIva – in the gallery.