This Must Be the Place

By Robert Chilcott

glass-stare.jpgGlass Stare

London’s no.w.here lab provides artists with a space for production and reflection


From its base in north-west London, no.w.here, a production lab and centre for critical dialogue around the nature of the moving image, has become an essential part of the delicate support network for artist filmmakers in the capital and far beyond. Its founders and directors, Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, spoke about their intentions for the project.

Brad Butler: no.w.here was the name we gave to our early critical discussions in 1998. Since then it has grown in its manifestations; right now it is currently a film production space that encompasses a critical dialogue.

Karen Mirza: It is an interesting development that no.w.here has become a physical studio space, as we always did envisage that no.w.here would be an entity in which other artists could engage with their ideas.

BB: That’s because no.w.here grew out of an enquiry about practice. From our earliest screenings and events (‘Light Reading’) our interest was in addressing how artists ‘make’ work in relation to the work’s ‘meaning’ in the world. Our original starting point was our backgrounds in anthropology and documentary (BB) and painting and fine art (KM). Obviously, bringing these backgrounds together already makes for a huge area.

KM: It is an interesting development that no.w.here has become a physical studio space, as we always did envisage that no.w.here would be an entity in which other artists could engage with their ideas.

BB: That’s because no.w.here grew out of an enquiry about practice. From our earliest screenings and events (‘Light Reading’) our interest was in addressing how artists ‘make’ work in relation to the work’s ‘meaning’ in the world. Our original starting point was our backgrounds in anthropology and documentary (BB) and painting and fine art (KM). Obviously, bringing these backgrounds together already makes for a huge area.

KM: Unfortunately, as the first ‘Light Reading’ series began, the LUX centre in Hoxton collapsed (see www.lux.org.uk for the dynamic new LUX operation). At first this seemed to be a signal that artists’ film & video would decline, and yet quite quickly it led to a very fertile period where artists and curators put on screenings in the classic model of the underground. For us the combining of historical work from the archive with contemporary work in the context of the LUX Centre collapse caused us to raise questions about production. Great as it was to look at the work, we began to question what it meant to create work now. What is the contemporary culture for making new work?

BB: Also, what does production mean now? What does film production mean now? And of course what does no.w.here mean in the ‘digital age’, when a lot of the artists with whom we were in dialogue approached their practice with a time-based philosophy of film frames? All this was and is very exciting. For example, we are currently involved in a critical forum run by Al Rees, where artists are addressing the philosophical construct of ‘the moving frame’ through analogue video, digital technologies and 16mm film. It seems to me that we are currently in a unique period for assessing what it means to construct an image before digital technology phases the others out.

mute-surface-space-between.jpgL: Mute Surface R: Space Between

KM: Imagine a generation who won’t know what 3band editing or an analogue video machine is...!

BB: It struck us quickly that while some people had already decided film production was a marginal dying exclusivity, we wanted to continue to make our work outside of the industrial space, to control our images and define our context. At first we waited for someone to salvage the film equipment from the LUX Centre, but when no one came forward we really had no choice but to try ourselves.

KM: It took three years for no.w.here to get from the point at which we knew this equipment was rusting in parts in a lock-up in Hackney to receiving the go-ahead to re-open access for artists and filmmakers. Along the way we faced staggering prejudice and ignorance for our belief that there was a need to work using this type of equipment to make an image ‘in time’. But we kept arguing that artists should have the choice to follow their ideas through another medium or another mode of expression, when one’s form of expression leads towards something different.

BB: This was a difficult period as, on the one hand, we faced having to justify to people, with no knowledge, what film means (now) as well as having to put forward a viable business plan for access, education and experimentation as well as creating a new demand. There are several assumptions we used to get our ideas across. For example, we would talk about the different thinking process between picking up a film camera compared to a digital camera.

When I pick up my film camera I’m dealing with non-diagetic sound, I have an immediate series of interpretive choices in terms of the light and my film stocks, my focal length, my focus and my duration of shooting. My limitations become a way of opening up possibilities. Even the point at which I choose to turn on my camera, knowing that there’s a difference between my three minute film or my 60 minute videotape, means that the way I deal with my subject matter is different. Then there is the built-in delay and the reappraisal and re-appropriation of footage that this delay sets in motion in me. I find these photo-chemical and mechanical boundaries to be a constructive way of approaching making images as they force me to question not what a camera ‘does’ but what a camera ‘is’. I believe this is at the heart of understanding film as an artistic medium.

space-between-2.jpgSpace Between

KM: Also, to gain control of your image, there’s a whole other area that is printing, whether that’s working with an optical printer or a contact printer. As an individual, you can’t go into a commercial lab and start to interfere with these processes. Coming from a painting background, being able to have control over colour and grading is not just about being able to experiment but is about pushing printing and processing in order to build in the flexibility you have with shooting. The easiest way to achieve this is to create the space where you can actually refine this.

BB: When no.w.here did finally come into existence, it also become interesting to me that we had indeed created a context that some artists used to take a position against the power of the commercial galleries and the politics involved with funding bodies. You do not need to conform to make your work fit at no.w.here. We hope to have created a space where you can self-initiate your ideas with a transference of skills and savings passed down to you.

KM: When you have an idea, one way is to choose how you’re going to get the project off the ground, how you’re going to get it financed, and how you’re going to get it exhibited and distributed. At no.w.here you can have an idea and start to articulate that idea rather than having to fit it into a form, a physical form, a funding structure, or a criteria where a commission can actually govern your thinking. We have fought hard and campaigned for no.w.here to get some public funding to protect film that is not industry or market led but is a valuable cultural activity or a process of thinking. That is also probably why it has been such a long journey as, on top of continuing to making our own work, we now need to meet the demand of running and administering an arts organisation.

BB: Having put everything back together, we have established that there is a demand, a vital need and a context for a contemporary film practice in dialogue with new media. This has led us to recently obtaining Regularly Funded Organisation status from Arts Council England, which means that we can now embark upon a longer-term vision for no.w.here. We are also collaborating with a range of institutions and individuals from Tate Modern, Lumen and the University of the Arts to the RCA, Artquest and many others. It is a very exciting time. When we get approached with an idea, we’re now in the position to help make it happen. There is a creative freedom and autonomy that we feel is very important in the arts.

KM: There’s a feeling sometimes in this area that when you have an idea you have to queue up to realise it, and then you can sometimes lose faith and maybe the idea slips out of date because you’ve queued up for so long; and that gives us all a sense of frustration and pressure. Saying that, we have been working in India for the last four years, which continues to humble me, because we still have such a support mechanism in the UK for artists compared to there, where we are involved with setting up an artists’ film and video infrastructure, in reality from scratch (www.filterindia.com).


no.w.here is at 14 Kingsgate Place, London NW6 4TA; Tel: (00 44) (0)20 7 372 3925; www.nowhere-lab.org

Robert Chilcott is a freelance writer and filmmaker.