Romantic, Beyond, Impossible and Heartbreaking

By Ian White

An open response to Tilda Swinton’s 2002 Vertigo address ‘In the Spirit of Derek Jarman

Dear Tilda,

We met once, you and I, a dinner at Casale Franco. Though that was ages ago and I think I was very different.

I wrote to The Guardian last year when I read the version of your Vertigo Edinburgh lecture that they published, asking them for a right of reply… I’d written something for them about a year before that, when the Lux Centre (where I worked) was shut down and all the staff made redundant on the spot. Actually they asked me to do it, they seem to like post-facto laments from the front-line. What I’d wanted to write in response to your lecture, by my own pitch, was quite the opposite. It’s not all Sunday Times “digested opinions about marketable artistic endeavours” that makes the papers like you said in Edinburgh. It’s also quite a dash of misery, the erosion of independence measured in column inches or a double page spread. So The Guardian never replied.

I’m interested in change. We’ve been thinking a lot recently about the relationship between cinema and change. I wonder how strange it must be, the avant-garde in waiting for access to the Royal Festival Hall. Renegade “punk-spunk nonsense” waiting for its BFI DVD release. And what happens when that happens? Maybe one accepts invitations.

So this then, my letter, is like an invitation. What I want you to know is that there are pockets of resistance. That the terms have changed. That in fact we’re finding alternative structures, not completely free of the institution but much freer of the film industry than you seem to think possible. Of course we’re angry, and we all have reason to be, but actually right now there is optimism. People working together, in the mess of all this life.

Do you know the videos of Nick Relph and Oliver Payne? This is an England. Do you know the films of Jimmy Robert? This is romantic, beyond, impossible and heartbreaking. Have you been to see anything outside of what we think of as The Cinema? This form, Cinema, is one way. There are others, moreover there are other ways of understanding the auditorium and it’s these alternatives we’re mining nowadays. Nostalgia may exist but it rarely does anyone any good. It’s like still looking at the Pre-Raphaelites in the Tate – they change nothing.

I curate the film programme for Whitechapel Art Gallery. What we’re trying (and I should emphasise, trying) there is to build an artists’ cinema. A place of questions, of new work, old work, but a site where things can happen, shifts might occur. It doesn’t always occur, but that’s the beauty of the effort that is shared and made with an audience.

For the past few months a group of us have been working on a project with the women’s film agency Cinenova. They’re now under threat, but more of that in a paragraph. This project we’re working on is called ‘Mary Kelly’. It’s organised collectively, around the work Cinenova distributes; a series of screenings, a publication, discussion. The first was a showing of Lizzie Borden’s Born In Flames. Do you know this film? A feminist revolution has occurred in New York that touches on every aspect of work, life, culture, politics. The screening took place at the re-branded Other Cinema. You know, the one that used to be the Metro. We sat in the auditorium afterwards and volunteers from the audience read out two statements from members of Other Cinema staff and one from a disgruntled customer. We talked for a long time about working conditions there at the cinema. Not confrontationally, just together. We began to explore ideas.

The Mary Kelly Project is attempting to pose radical questions about working practices, not just what it means to sit in an auditorium and take part in that experience, but what it means to programme film/video, to organise outside of Cinema, to find alternatives to the received structures of all this instead of waiting and working until we gain entry into a system that we profoundly doubt, that has been constructed, like most systems, around illicit notions of self-protection, mainly by men.

In the meantime, in the course of my thinking about writing to you, the BFI, who were housing the film prints that Cinenova distributed, decided they just didn’t want to do this anymore – the room they had they don’t have any more, mysteriously. They are returning them. Cinenova is run by women and engages with women’s film and video. A close friend of mine, an artist called Emma Hedditch, manages it and she does this on a voluntary basis – that is, she gets no money. Which isn’t the point of my grist but it is important you know it. We’re now working on saving Cinenova in the face of no current public funds but with the energy of belief and conviction. Theory/practice. Organisational structures. Imperative we sort these out, we claim them, they reflect the politics of our work – artists, curators, managers, collectives, people - if we can get there, and, crikey!, maybe we can?

There’s something altogether more fluid going on today. Like with raves in the ’80s we’re all on the motorway waiting for the call to the next point for the next call, and we’re keeping on moving but growing with it. It’s a shame you missed the screening of Anthony McCall and Andrew Tyndall’s film Argument in 2001 at Pentonville Prison, because that made some sense. Maybe you’d like to come to Emma Hedditch’s project-based exhibition at Cubitt Gallery in September? Maybe you’d like to come to Whitechapel? At the end of this year we’re starting a new project there – ‘Utopia’ – an assessment of the no-place, art/film/anthropology, politics actually, challenges, attempts to move beyond the audience kept in rows receiving the screen like we are too often expected to receive the decisions made by governments.

There’s more to say but less to no space left to say it in, but do also go visit The Horse Hospital, check the Lux’s calendar. I’ll jot some web addresses below, just in case. And this is, of course, an open letter and an open invitation.

Yrs, Ian

Ian White is a writer, critic and independent curator.

Whitechapel Gallery:; The Horse Hospital:; Lux: