Dialogue: Film Bee

Image of Film Bee's performance, 'Visions of Collisions', 26 September 2019
Film Bee, 'Visions of Collisions', 26 September 2019

In advance of their event Visions of Collisions in September 2019, we talk with Christo Wallers, Mat Fleming, Sarah Bouttell and Chris Bate from artist collective Film Bee about the history and context of the group, agonism vs. antagonism, analogue film, and more.

PROJECTIONS: As a collective, you go back to 2003, which is starting to sound like Quite A Long Time Ago. Could you tell us something about the history of Film Bee, and how you came together?

FILM BEE: Film Bee came together around Cineside, a project running at the Side Cinema on the Quayside. We (Mat and Christo) were interested in Super 8 and 16mm film, and trying to tap into an underground filmmaking scene that may have existed but we couldn’t find it until we met Chris and Sarah from Teesside. We did occasional nights called ‘Eyes Wide Open,’ screening work by filmmakers in the area, and once gave out rolls of Super 8 for people to shoot and bring back for a screening at Side, which Chris and Sarah contributed to.

Image of the Side Cinema, Side, Newcastle
Side Cinema, Side, Newcastle

At the same time, Mat discovered Helen Hill’s zine ‘Recipes for Disaster’, and he was keen to test some tricks from that book. We did a couple of big events in the basement and attic of Waygood Gallery (now Baltic 39), which were incredible, forgotten spaces, called Expanded Cineside. For both of those we wanted to create Super 8 installations and screenings of experimental films, but for the second one we invited David Leister up, who brought his playful DIY spirit plus a load of tips on how to hack Steenbecks to make them into film contact printers and such like, and FilmBee really kicked into action around then. FilmBee was very loose at that point: it was just an open thing for friends to come and join in. A Bee in the sense of a quilting Bee, as Helen Hill suggested. Lots of people were part of it. After that we met fairly regularly to shoot stuff spontaneously, and we had a very basic dark room at the Waygood, using Lomo tanks. At some point, after the Star and Shadow Cinema had been started, and the lab was set up more properly there, and quite a few bits of kit started coming our way, needing mending and installing, the group became more focused.

Image of the original Star and Shadow Cinema on Stepney Bank, Newcastle (image: The Chronicle)
The original Star and Shadow Cinema on Stepney Bank, Newcastle (image: The Chronicle)

Collaborations happened in a freeform way, but everyone was committed to the sourcing and maintenance of the equipment and lab. We then formed a co-op which was intended to combine celluloid and video projects, which still exists. Different members followed their own paths simultaneously, and it is only since the new Star and Shadow has opened that we have been working together again in this particular way, doing improvised group performances.  The new lab will soon be built at Star and Shadow, and then we can resume our processing and printing activities.

PROJECTIONS: It’s exciting to think that there’ll soon be a new lab – and what it will do for the Star and Shadow too, to be a place of making as well as showing once again. ‘Visions of Collisions’ takes its force from the concept of agonism, which argues for the benefit of conflict in political life. Where did your interest in agonism stem from – and what implications does it have for film, and your performance?

FILM BEE: No-one in Film Bee is a philosophy expert, but because the concept has been embraced within the art world it feels important to consider. My (Christo’s) interest in agonism came from a defensive position at first, as a participant in the Star and Shadow project. I have thought about democracy because we try to make Star and Shadow a very democratic space, and we use consensus decision making, as an attempt to reconcile differences through people being heard, and coming to an agreement which suits the group, rather than the individual. I am not saying this is a perfect technique, but I feel it is an important experiment, and with good facilitation we learn a lot about each other, ways of building trust, ways of critiquing power etc which is important for community building. This goes more for the running of the place, but it definitely spills into the way audiences experience films there.

The concept of agonism is troubling from that perspective because it suggests in our plural society there are underlying irreconcilable differences, that can only be excluded by consensus. [The theorist who popularised agonism] Chantal Mouffe is very critical of the concept of consensus, so that leads me to feel defensive. The Mouffian interpretation of agonism proposes that democracy must start from a position of understanding that conflict is natural and unavoidable. From that position she argues that public space should form an arena for differences to be passionately expressed.

Right now with Boris Johnson proroguing parliament, backed up by the right wing media, it feels like antagonism rather than agonism is becoming the dominant form. Agonism involves a respect for the adversary’s right to their opinion, hence is framed within the political model of democracy. What is happening now feels like a major threat to democracy. Our performance, though, is really located within a critique of cinema space.

The implications agonism has for film, or rather cinema as a space and a set of relations, are what we wanted to play around with in this performance. The cinema is a public space, and the majority of cinemas are hegemonic spaces, highly corporatised, organised around consumer desires. The arrangement of the space, the lighting, sound and image size and quality, the mood, the behaviours, all play by the rules we have been acculturated to, rendering the space we are in, and the potential relationships to each other almost invisible.

Image of Paul Gailiunas's drawing, from Helen Hill's 'Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet'
Paul Gailiunas, from Helen Hill’s ‘Recipes for Disaster: A Handcrafted Film Cookbooklet’

If there is an agonistic thrust to this project, it might be to argue for an alternative approach to cinema-sociality, which embraces moments of collectivity, as spaces to seek connection and mutual understanding, acceptance etc. Neither devoid of conflict, and passion, nor organised exclusively around it. So this performance is based on a potentially self-cancelling confusion – to use a public space agonistically to call for an audience community inspired by a consensus model. That is the reason to make something about this issue, as a way to think it through and possibly involve others (an audience) in helping to think it through. If it is not an oxymoron, could this audience-community exercise a form of agonistic consensus? 

Image of Film Bee in the early days, in Berwick
Film Bee in the early days, in Berwick

PROJECTIONS: I think it could – and really what you are proposing is not a dissolution of cinema but that which could save it from itself. To use its greatest resource – its temporary community – and to play with and disrupt dominant forms of presentation. Your performance for Projections features four 16mm projectors, one 35mm projector, and various non-film props and accoutrements. It’s not easy working with analogue film, and it’s not always cheap. What is it about it that’s exciting to you?

FILM BEE: A lot has been said about the tactility of film, the craft qualities of its production in contrast to digital. Also the desirable limitations it places on you in terms of the duration of shots, the fragility of the film to light and developing, and this creates an unpredictability that is very invigorating. Chance things happen, like a potter using different glazes and firing techniques, that are beyond your control. The mechanical nature of the equipment, which have been so elegantly designed. The strength of the mechanisms and the respect they demand if you load them wrong. The physical weight of everything, just feels really grounding, and right now, since a lot of this stuff is verging on obsolescence, when you use this equipment and these processes you are connecting to a history that is really impressive.

Imagine railway enthusiasts reopening a closed line on a Victorian viaduct and thinking ‘wow they built things so beautifully’. It’s a bit like that. When it comes to projection, particularly this sort, with the projector in the space, it disrupts the atmosphere of the auditorium, and renders the apparatus visible. They are very commanding machines, projectors, and at the same time a bit anachronistic, but they make lovely sounds and emit heat and light and make a space feel like a home cinema, all cosy. 

PROJECTIONS: That is a very eloquent paean to the process and the format – and what you mention about the importance of chance is pertinent as it rubs up against what has come to be expected of ‘expanded cinema’, the field which ostensibly your work falls into. It’s very much part of the canon, with many of the seminal works from the 70s now feeling pretty museological. I saw your performance at the Star & Shadow Cinema in January as part of Circa ProjectsFestival of the Not, which for me was defined by its energy and its irreverence to the idea of being part of any ‘canon’. But how do you see it – are you continuing a tradition?

FILM BEE: I think the spirit we started with was DIY. David Leister had a big influence, and he was so playful. We also hosted Dave Markey from L.A and he had a very punk approach. Meeting the European labs at Cinema Nova in 2005 opened us up to a whole culture of more free-spirited performance projection from labs like Atelier MTK, which is maybe more ‘experimental film’ rather than the more austere ‘artists’ moving image,’ if that distinction actually exists. Canons are a tricky thing because they do create value hierarchies, which are relative to those writing the books. History pulls people into canons, and some people naturally or persuasively insert themselves into canons. One thing we have never been is strategic with regards to this! 

Image of an Early Film Bee lab at Waygood Gallery (now BALTIC 39)
Early Film Bee lab at Waygood Gallery (now BALTIC 39)

PROJECTIONS: Strategy is after all a military concept, so perhaps it’s just as well to ignore it. But you’re a collective… of five people? How does it work, in practice – do you each take on different roles? And how closely aligned is your way of working with the ethos of your spiritual home, the Star & Shadow Cinema?

FILM BEE: We have been and sometimes still are a bigger group. The current group is pretty solid because we have built up a lot of trust and mutual understanding over the years. In practice we work quite independently. On different projects we come together in different formations and we are all very relaxed about who is involved in what.

Film Bee can be defined as a group of artists but it has  also been a collection of resources. For these last few performances, there has been a bit more division between sound and image. Generally our approach is to be extremely spontaneous, and work with whatever we generate. We agree on a theme, we shoot stuff alone or in pairs, we get together to work out rough approaches to the material we have created and then go for it. Its a bit like improvised music. Some of our members have a great enough role in Star and Shadow to be able to freely occupy space there- for the lab and storage and so on. Luckily the wider cinema group has always seen the symbiotic value in the celluloid counter culture and so have never asked us for any money! 

PROJECTIONS: And what about Newcastle? Besides the fact you were all based here already, what is it about Newcastle that sustains Film Bee?

FILM BEE: Newcastle as a city and an artistic community is based on friendships, and a lack of adversarial qualities, probably why we are not entirely in tune with the concept of agonism! It has big enough artistic community, there are great collective resources and a keenness to co-operate, and it has not been pigeonholed for a certain artistic approach.  Other artist-run labs around the world have high rents to contend with or a big population of strangers wanting access to their resources. Our location affords us a lot of freedom to operate creatively and informally.

FILM BEE: I think that sums it up perfectly. There aren’t many places like Newcastle. Finally, what advice would you give to any would-be agonists?

PROJECTIONS: Hee hee! Would-be agonists don’t need advice, they want to give it. 

Dialogue is a series of interviews with artists and curators involved in the Projections programme. 

26 September 2019