Weather Report: Chris Welsby on DVD

By Steven Ball


Chris Welsby’s films are among the most rigorous works by a collection of practitioners who emerged with a flurry of landscape filmmaking around the British structuralist film scene of the early seventies, and this new British Film Institute DVD release provides a good introductory survey of the range of his activities. In the DVD liner notes Laura Mulvey pinpoints the unique contribution that Welsby made to the landscape sub-genre, as in his work’s crucial integration with ‘natural forces’, she suggests, he is particularly a ‘weather artist’. Certainly his work is weather driven, for the two-screen Wind Vane (1972) each camera’s panning movement is controlled by the strength and direction of the wind on Hampstead Heath; the view of the landscape in Windmill 3 (1973), is determined by a windblown mirrored windmill in front of the lens; and Seven Days (1974) uses the course of the sun to orientate the camera position in filming a Welsh landscape over the course of a week. By the making of Sky Light (1988) however, Welsby had shifted his attention from the immediate effects of environment on filmic reproduction and towards an invisible sinister sublime, a ‘post-Chernobyl’ perception of landscape irrevocably changed as local conditions threaten to become as much an effect of distant forces as a determining factor in themselves. In the 29 minute profile theFrameChris Welsby included on the DVD, Welsby speaks perceptively and sensitively about these relationships, and in the documentation of his interactive installation Changing Light (2004), in which the presence of the viewer effects the movement of the surface of a ‘video pool’, we see a recent, more literal demonstration of nature determined by the agency of human intervention

A.L. Rees has broadly characterised film artists’ approach to landscape by observing that “...the rural landscape of the avant-garde is industrialised and humanly shaped, often ruthlessly so. It is rarely romanticised as the sublime...” (A.L. Rees, A History of Experimental Film and Video, British Film Institute, 1999), indeed one could go further and suggest that all experimental film practice is by necessity urban, where urbanisation is the material and representational transformation of an environment by human agency. Indeed Welsby’s works are frequently staged in far from essentially natural environments, rather the settings are would-be pastoral simulacra such as parks and heaths.

As an audience to Welsby’s work one has the sensation of being inside the machine in the garden, occasionally windswept, now and then rain drenched. Peter Wollen, as quoted in the DVD booklet, wrote: “The techniques developed by Welsby made it possible for there to be a direct (‘indexical’ in the semiotic terminology developed by Pierce) registration of natural phenomena on film. Natural processes were no longer simply recorded from the outside, as objects of observation; they could be made to participate in the scheme of observation itself”, (originally from Chris Welsby Films/Photography/Writings, Arts Council of Great Britain, London, 1980). Introducing the theme of Piercian ‘indexicality’ unwittingly draws attention to a potential irony in releasing this work on DVD.


Pierce suggests that in viewing a thing from the inside it appears as consciousness, which leads to the idea of the artwork as medium as a kind of body in and of itself. This of course has become a dominant tenet in old school structural and materialist film practice: the work is its own index, not a representation of experience but the experience itself. I recall a certain amount of hand wringing a few years ago on the Frameworks experimental film discussion list over the preparation of a DVD compilation of Stan Brakhage’s works (by Brakhage: An Anthology, Criterion DVD, 2001). Much of the concern was about how faithfully the MPEG-2 encoding necessary for DVD video, might or might not render both the colour, and particularly the movement of Brakhage’s hand worked films. Many felt that as the encoding produces approximations of a number of frames through keyframing, not every frame of the film would be faithfully reproduced resulting in an unacceptable loss of the indexicality presumed crucial to the experience of the work as consciousness and, one imagines, by indexical extension, the Brakhagian consciousness. More frame information is lost with MPEG-2 encoding than with a video transfer which at least reproduces each frame without approximation and at a regular rate (and to this day the experimental film video label Re:voir releases its titles on VHS video in preference to DVD for this and similar reasons). In spite of this the Brakhage DVD looks fine, probably because perception happens not passively in the ocular nerve, at the micro level of frame-by-frame movement, but is constructed cognitively, neurologically.

Welsby’s films’ indexicality is less directly materialist, more connected with how light and movement is reproduced in relation to the contextual scale of the work, how it produces its own environment. This is where Wollen’s Piercian “participat[ion] in the scheme of observation” resides and becomes problematic in terms of the observers’ once integral relationship to the experience of the film as environment. In the DVD’s reproduction of two screen works such as Wind Vane and River Yar (made with William Raban, 1971 – 72) there is a reminder of the filmic origins (countdown leader suggests that there was once an exhibition context where synchronisation of projectors was critical), and in the documentation of the 1977 six screen installation Shoreline I in theFrame, we might feel some residual nostalgia for the clatter of the projectors, the dust floating in the light of the 16mm projector beam; while watching this DVD on the small glass box of a TV we might long to be in a darkened room full of people without the remote control to hasten the ride, resigned to let the environmental factors fashioning the film fill the room, the shoreline or horizon occupying the frame of our vision on a scale that accounts as much for spatial motility as visuality.


But significantly the first image of theFrame documentary is that of a digital video projector’s lens captured during an exhibition of Welsby 2003 installation At Sea. Welsby has embraced the potential of digital technology, finding it a place in the exhibition space, the mobility of the hardware allowing the projector to be pointed downwards to produce a pool of water in Changing Light, and the viewer becomes part of the consciousness of the total work as their presence becomes a determining material factor in the water’s movement, proposing an extensible indexical feedback loop.

In contemporary art increasingly film as an exhibition medium is entering the gallery and moving image artists are paradoxically editioning collections of DVDs as a way of conferring scarcity value on work using an ephemeral and eminently reproducible medium. Chris Welsby however, is exploring the interactive exhibition potential of digital cinema media in the gallery while having his early 16mm work released on DVD for domestic viewing. Information trumps the sublime and the DVD is for now the most convenient medium for distribution and personal viewing. And this is the key to this release: it provides a considerately programmed and contextualised setting for the work, allowing the viewer to appreciate how Welsby has maintained a sensitive indifference towards the relationship between the human and the natural, with a refreshing lack of dogma in tracking the changing relationships. As global environmental issues have proven to be of even greater urgency over the last 30 years, Welsby’s work quietly renews its relevance and might figure as much of a barometer of any one cultural historical periods environmental zeitgeist as the work of the likes of Turner or Constable or Long in a history of landscape representation.

With this fledgling British Artists’ Films series of DVDs the BFI tentatively dips its toe in the water of a huge cultural reservoir of artists’ film and video. The Chris Welsby DVD is only the second in a series that started with another landscape oriented filmmaker William Raban. It might be a series that is able to go some way towards a wider dissemination and awareness of artists’ film and video practice. The suggestion here is that we have the official BFI approved version, the imprimatur of the jaunty ‘bfi’ logo on the cover, the institutionally branded design. But the BFI’s DVD release policy to date regarding work in this area has been somewhat confused. It has also released titles by Patrick Keiller, Peter Greenaway and Andrew Kötting without the ‘artists’ tag, and its History of the Avant-Garde series consists only of Decasia by Bill Morrison and Temenos by Nina Danino, thereby proposing a rather haphazard alternative canon. Will the British Artists’ Films series fall victim to similar BFI whimsy, or will it meet the challenge of truly representing the range and diversity of works produced by artist film and video makers in the past and to be made in the years to come? Such eccentric inconsistency from an organisation charged with the curation of the national moving image cultural interest is perplexing, more so than if it were exercising gate-keeping practices reasserting anachronistic canonical structures, for at least that would represent a clear hegemony.