Rebecca Hilton – The New Generation of Poetry Filmmakers, June 2019
The New Generation of Poetry Filmmakers, June 2019, by Sarah Tremlett
Rebecca Hilton – Suspended Up Up Up Until You Breathe
Poet, fine artist and filmmaker Rebecca Hilton has recently graduated from Central Saint Martins, London, and for me, is already a leading light in the new generation of videopoets and poetry filmmakers. Her poetry film Storm Song (2019) https://vimeo.com/333132412 screened in her degree show, and as part of Open Mouth Film Festival, London, directly centres us underwater in a swimming pool. Fully clothed (feminine) bodies tip upside down, are inverted or turn, with long fabric kites trailing in a womb-like space, that reads like a moving, abstract painting. Each oneiric fragment that we are privy to is broken by frequent black ‘rests’ – a technique I haven’t seen except with intertitles – and, in a ‘ma’-like way, help to reflect on what has just been said.
Within this space, lacking the fixed co-ordinates of embodied interaction, and often in staggered slow motion, the sylph-like bodies become the ink and the brushstroke, shaping space: being the moving finger as image. Watery, turquoise and darker blue and black dress shapes combine with the sinuous fabric ‘train’ in a visual dance, where the women seem to stay under for a long time. Ironically it is as if here, underwater, the bodies have room to breathe rather than in the politically polluted climate back on the surface.
Rebecca notes that the imagery was influenced by German artist Rebecca Horn’s Finger Gloves (1972), Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by American artist Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012) and the Angel Series, Rome, Italy (1977) by American photographer Francesca Woodman (1958–1981). She also cites the importance of the late American artist Julie Becker (1972–2016), and her contribution to the myths surrounding the merging of The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, (part of Becker’s first survey exhibition at the ICA (2018)).
This film has a genuinely personal feel with a lyric centre, and avoids exhibitionism or really any sense of an audience. We inhabit the eidetic, dream-like, mind-space of the artist, but the politics of power in a harsh, bifurcated society interweave enigmatically with a storm. Hilton states in our interview: ‘… those in authority require our blindness’; and equally how, with mental and literal darkness ‘a semi-dark room creates merging’. How do bodies then merge, make shapes in a space ‘swimming’ metaphorically beyond designated spaces, identities and systems. Here, they are cut to a rhythm that the filmmaker hones between simply stated, condensed phrases and seemingly weightless images: ‘for all we understand is power’ or ‘to know a failure there would be no return’.
She also demonstrates a real sensitivity to sound: the subtlety of the soundscape forces a real attunement to her voice. The underwater ‘glooping, gurgling’ auditory effects are overlaid with excerpts from two poems, ‘Ghost Ribbon’ and ‘Cataclysmic Storm’ which, just over halfway through interweave with each other. The themes in ‘Ghost Ribbon’ explore return from failure, whilst ‘Cataclysmic Storm’ investigates the weight of authoritarian power and control ‘Suspended up up up until you breathe’.
Intrigued by Hilton’s seeming combination of the personal and a wider, more political (yet also enigmatic) conversation that seemed to be suggested, I asked her a few questions about her practice. She kindly gave a lot of thought to the answers, which I am very pleased to share here.
ST: Did you write the poems before you made the films, or did you write the poems specifically for the films? I mean have you got a written collection of poems that you are sourcing and hoping to have published, or have already published?
RH: I started to write both poems quite a while ago at two separate instances. I didn’t write them specifically for Storm Song, but they were written alongside making the film. They were totally separate entities but spoke to different parts of my artistic practice. When I was meeting the poems with the film, they would just marry up. It didn’t seem like that they were unknown to one another, more like sisters.
With regards to publishing, I’ve designed my own anthologies in the past. The first was a collection called ‘Tundra’, which I sold in Housman’s Bookshop and at the Anarchist Book Fair in Goldsmiths, in 2018. I have had poems published by Bitter Magazine, London. I have also had a poem feature in the anthology for Saltford Festival 2017 Poetry Competition.
In the last few days, I have been making books for these recent two poems, ‘Ghost Ribbon’ and ‘Cataclysmic Storm’. I wanted them to be situated in a short anthology, just the two of them. This is so they would run alongside one another in the same space. At the moment, I have been experimenting with the placement on a word document of these two poems and how they might disrupt one another to make a third poem. Especially because their presence in the film created a third entity in combination with the footage. So, this third thing was formed by adding the underwater footage to the poems, the result being the film.
ST: How did you arrive at making poetry films?
RH: The combination of putting them together (poetry and film) actually arose when I was showing a film that I’d made to my university tutor and some classmates. I was presenting some short story books that I’d made and was asked whether I wanted to read them over the top of the film. We put the film on silent and I read them whilst it played and it elicited a very unexpected emotive response in my audience. The film was actually meant to be quite funny and comedic, the stories not so. I realized how it doesn’t take much for two things to make sense together if they are just placed together, especially in something like film and sound.
I haven’t always written poetry, no. I used to hate writing actually! When I was younger, I disliked English lessons, until we started doing poetry. I remember suddenly feeling that the text, or at least the content of text, meant a lot more to me. I was thinking about how moving certain poems were, in the anthologies from GCSE English, and quickly grasping how content can create effect on the reader. The placement of words and the texture of words, can strike so deeply in a person when you are reading them; you can be so startled by a line.
From that moment on, I started to have a keen interest in poetry. But it wasn’t until I came to university that I started to write every day and most notably, I began writing poetry. I went through a phase of writing every morning which was extremely productive for text-based work, especially because you have to shift through quite a lot of not so good stuff or not so effective work to get to the writing that sings. This pace of writing slowed down, but when I write a poem now, I’ll work on it for much longer, or focus on one for a while, rather than writing every day.
ST: What interests you the most about the subject?
RH: I think it is very interesting to work with language and particularly a language that you know so well. You experience that language every day, in so many different forms: it is what we use to communicate with, we use it write to one another when texting, writing letters or emails. As such, to then use a medium like this within art, showing the language in a more finite or more formatted way, changing the very arrangement of words, the choice of words, in what you choose to be there and also what you choose to not be there: it can create such a vivid stir in the person who reads it. It can engender such a strong feeling within the reader and within you as well.
When I’ve been performing poetry in the past, there are moments of silence after you have said a line. It hangs in the air. And when you have written something well, you can feel that in this moment there is a kind of ‘thickness’. The thickness is the effect of the writing when it is really working. When things aren’t working then it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it happens later along during a poem. I find the conditions of where you read can enhance this thickness. As the performer, it is like striking notes that captivate, but all this is felt in a specific feeling of thickness in the atmosphere, it moves over and through the top part of your head. This is what interests me about the subject, it is this effect, or rather, the conjuring that happens when words are read aloud.
ST: I think you have found your genre [videopoetry] – what do you think?
RH: I’m learning more in what defines itself as videopoetry. How these things can kind of run parallel to one another, pull away and intersect with one another. I’ve not yet used actual words within the film, except the occasional subtitles for other projects, but this is something to try!
It feels good to identify within a genre of film, or of literature. It feels good to identify within that because it involves the two mediums that I have enjoyed so much. Not until recently had I started to meet them together, and, yes, it feels very right! I can imagine something else brewing from this. When I’m writing now, the images I am generating within the text are already in my head now. I can imagine making more poetry into films, or films for poetry. In addition, seeing what is created when I place two very different types of work together.
ST: In Storm Song who are the people in the swimming pool? I assumed that one of them is you? Or are you behind the camera?
RH: So, in this film, I’m behind the camera the entire time, I filmed everything. There are three people acting in the film, one of them is my friend Katherine Plumb. She wears a coat that I have worn frequently in films that I have made in the past. The imagery for ‘Storm Song’ came from an experiment with the film stills that I had from a previous film. In that film, I’m wearing this coat. The stills depict me as a silhouette: the coat is flared; I’m reaching my hands out towards a curtain. Katherine and I look a little similar, so I wanted her to be in the film as a nod towards the inspiration from the film stills; her role in the film alludes to that. Her presence in the film is subtle, she is often in the background but plays a vital role as she mirrors me behind the camera. The two of us almost ‘carry’ the image as it is being filmed.
The other two are my friends, Anastasia Alekseeva and Charlie Wood both of whom are the central parts in the film, and they are the ones pulling along the fabric. All three of them, Anastasia, Charlie and Katherine were all on the course [BA Fine Art] with me at Central Saint Martins. I also had assistance (above water) from Ava Reynolds, who is a friend on the course with us too. We always help each other out with film projects!
ST: You seem to be inverting the body, which makes lyrical shapes, visual patterns with the fabric; but perhaps this is a metaphor for inverting the politics of power in social relations. I feel the women become creatures, as mythological sylphs (air spirits) – not numbered, accountable, passworded citizens of our monitored state. But you say ‘Before you saw us, we did not see’ who is the ‘You’ in this sentence?
RH: So ‘Before you saw us, we did not see’ is a line within the latter poem in the film called Cataclysmic Storm, and in that poem, there is an exploration between the people, so to speak, and the power of the storm. This storm represents a fundamental shift or change that is about to occur. The you in that sentence is the personification of the storm. The poem begins narrating the behavior of the storm: the disruption of land, the shift in the soil and the flattening of things. The storm is also perceived as power and as authority, purely because of its strength and vastness. There is open discussion in the poem regarding the awareness of this power.
There a line that says ‘For all we understand is power’. It is alluding to how our lens of understanding is always within this hierarchical and complex structure of power, despite believing the storm could have the potential to bring about positive change, we must always ask, for whom is it positive for? Within the line: ‘Before you saw us, we did not see’ the poem raises the requirement of blindness from its people, in how structures of power may thrive and be implemented. We must be somewhat blind to their procedures, prejudice, and the unjust running of things in order for it to be effective. The poem was discussing this. I was imagining this powerful entity, the storm, which was embodying the thing it is critiquing: similar to the way satire embodies what it is analyzing: to critique from the inside out.
ST: Your words are enigmatic. I am not sure if it is a good seeing by ‘you’ or one that is ironic, like the ubiquitous camera lens in our world today which has no moral compass?
RH: Yes, the words are enigmatic, they are mysterious. I found that this ambiguity allowed for more freedom in creating an open discussion about the meaning of things within the poem. There is a merging. There is a merging between the power of the storm and the link between that of authority and control. There is an irony in it, absolutely. ‘Before you saw us we did not see’ is linking back to this idea of being guided to see, but also suggesting that this storm provides something else. In spite of this, the way the storm is perceived in the poem is emblematic of the way we perceive power. This perception being something that is inescapable.
ST: Is ‘seeing’ also aligned to a positive philosophical position underwater, so that the sylphs are breathing pure air outside all delusions – even though you say the sources are about failure and power and control. For me somehow there is a sense of liberation not drowning; also, because the shapes are pleasing to watch in their flow across the screen, they are like visual ‘brushstrokes’ or camera strokes with a 2-D painterly quality.
RH: There is an impossibility in the film that I was very interested in during the making process. It was like a dance. I feel the film is self-aware of its impossibility. I drag out the time. The camera strokes that you have mentioned, they are dragged out and elongated.
Within the film, I was thinking a lot about the extension of these bodies, of these people. They wouldn’t necessarily just be people underwater anymore. They would become creatures or mermaids. Extending their bodies was also a process of disrupting how and where their bodies existed. The bodily extension of fabric merges with the figure. I talked this through with friend and fashion student at Central Saint Martins, Hatti Rees, who helped me to realize the fabric kites and sewed them together. The bubbling-to-the-surface moments in the film show the heads of each performer, rising to the surface. They appear very angelic, mysterious, renewed in the flared pink light of the surface shots.
When I presented the film in the Central Saint Martin’s degree show and it was projected at an angle through glass, this created a refraction of the image on the interior wall. Thinking through failure and return, this two-screen projection was intended to make a statement on what was being talked about in the first poem. It was like repetitive debate, which was asking: ‘If you know what failure defines itself as, can you come back from that? Is it possible to return from this limitation?’ The dual projection represented the stance that, yes, you can come back from failure. I feel the content of the film represents that kind of transformation, of the individual and the individuals together, as a kind of movement.
What is deemed a failure in society, like financial debt, or something else that separates you from fitting into a society, may feel like a failing on your part. Yet, this is greatly to do with how a system can let you down. However, this is framed in such a way, where you feel like it is your fault.
I was trying to also separate that understanding of failure, from creative failure. Failure in creativity is when something doesn’t work out the way you planned. However, I believe it doesn’t end there. It can fling your artistic practice from one place to another, transporting you to a fresher perspective. Hence the double projection for the film. Hence the decision to move through the glass. We cannot move through glass. But my film can, the projection can, Anastasia Charlie and Katherine are all moved through the glass and then projected back onto the interior wall. I feel there is something interesting within this impossibility; how things are not necessarily what they seem to be, how you can reinvent the understanding of things for yourself.
When I was writing my dissertation, I was thinking about the possibility of literal darkness as a philosophical concept. When you see in darkness, or in near darkness, the world around you blends into itself. Things blend into other things, things morph, things change because you can’t see the limits of the well-lit world you are used to. Your imagination does the work. I was wondering how you might apply that in terms of the body, where it can be, in contrast to how it is understood when things are in light, limited and certain. As such, semi-darkness can form a visual environment that contains possibility in the way you are perceiving the world. To look at, the environment is almost dusty when it is very dark. The world can turn that way in darkened water; or in the night, things blur, things change, things shapeshift. I was thinking how you might apply that as an idea in the way that you see the world around you. In addition, how you see the body: it extends and blurs with the light and dark fabric in Storm Song. Light, the lack of, plus the water refract the shape and alter the perspective of distance.
ST: Do you also paint – perhaps in an expressionist way?
RH: I used to paint a lot! When I was 16, I remember painting a lot of portraits. I was always very interested in identity and the attributes of a person. In particular, how you can never really know a person, truly. You can never really know how they feel; you can never really understand the sensations that they feel. If you had toothache and the other person had toothache, that sense would feel completely different from one person to the next. I applied this thought into my paintings. You could paint someone’s portrait, their eyes, how they see things, yet you could never really hold them to that, or have them in any way. Not even in a snapshot way within a photograph. Usually with painting there is a lot of buildup. One of my large paintings might have taken ten hours or longer. It takes time, or at least you feel like you are taking time to build up this picture, this portrait, this person, whilst knowing that you can’t know them. Whilst knowing that you can’t assume their attributes, assume they are this kind of person e.g. happy, angry, bubbly, sad, quiet. It doesn’t really help to define people in this way; it doesn’t really help to define and then attempt to understand them.
ST: The sound is very, very attuned and I wondered if you are also a musician?
RH: I’m very interested in the rhythm of my films. I’m very, very particular about the way I cut my films. During the editing process, I’ll listen to and watch the film many, many times. Over and over again! Sometimes I’ll listen to it with music, sometimes I’ll listen to it in silence, sometimes I’ll hum, nod my head, tap my hand to see what kind of rhythm is being created and whether I agree with what I’m creating. I’m not a musician but I have learnt different instruments throughout my life. Mostly woodwind instrument, such as: trumpet, French horn and clarinet. The first instrument I learnt was recorder. I can play guitar a little bit. I am just about to start lessons in guitar and piano and maybe learn how to sing!
ST: If you want to say any more about the cutting to black and the timing of those – great. Also, the use of overlaid voice and slowed-down visuals.
RH: When we briefly talked about the black title pages before, you described them as a form of ‘rest’, which I completely agree with! That is exactly the reason for their placement. To expand on this, they also represent a bridge between one section to another. They help to balance the attention between the underwater sounds, the footage and the poetry that is overlaid on top.
I think they allow the viewer to reflect on what is being said; additionally, they permit me to highlight certain moments in the poems. This offers the writing its own breathing space and the listener may examine what’s being said. For example, there is a line near the beginning of the film ‘Last long, like summer’ … and there is a blankness afterwards where there is no sound for several beats. It is a breathing moment where the listener (or watcher or reader) can reflect on their interpretation: What is summer to them? What is a long summer? Where did it happen? What did it feel like? Summer is such a slow feeling season, it is very warm, your head may become quiet in the heat. As opposed to winter, when you are very cold, alert, wanting to be warm, shuffling along the busy paths and going where you need to be. Summer is different.
ST: Thank you so much, Rebecca.