Arts

Mark Lewis

His films are quiet and controlled, choreographed studies of strangely evocative, quotidian places—highway overpasses, corporate entryways, urban crossings, swamps, mountains. For several years he has been shooting in 4k and 5k Ultra High Definition video, formats that have only recently become possible to show in their native resolutions. His interest in extreme detail is rooted in the practice of looking, something which, depending on its intensity, is either constant or uncommon. His own steady gaze highlights the mechanics of a viewer’s eye as well as of filmmaking, illustrating how mise-en-scene renders a microcosmic view of reality, as in One Mile, shown here, which is the record of a municipal monument and the spontaneous community of derelicts who routinely form around it.

Arts

Mark Lewis

What typically captures your attention about a place, or inspires you to shoot it?

I am never really sure. I just have a sense that there might be something there for me. With most locations I usually return over and over—taking pictures, making test films, and sometimes for years—hoping to better understand what it was that struck me in the first place. But I think that, in the end, the making of the film (and there are many locations that have captured my attention for long periods of time where I decide not to make a film) is how I begin to understand the fascination of a place or a phenomenon. It’s through depiction that we learn how to look at and understand the things that are not depictions.

Why do you choose to make your films silent?

In the beginning film was silent and so therefore the decision to add sound was really the active choice and the maintenance of silence was the default. But if that’s just a quibble, there are many aesthetic and practical reasons why one might choose to have a film without sound. For instance, I am interested in how we look at things, and in particular how we look at pictures. Painting and photography had to learn how to transliterate what they could not physically ‘do’—movement, sound, the passing of time—so that we could feel or sense these things when we looked at a picture but without them dominating the pictorial form. To put it another way, I am interested in understanding what sound looks like, and you can’t really do that if you hear it. Real sound can be very manipulative: it can force you to read an image in a particular way, cathecting it with an emotional charge for instance; it can also silence you, whether that means making it difficult to discuss an image with a friend as you stand in front of it, or compromising your internal speech—the conversation you have with yourself as you try to remake the picture as your own. Sound is typically not very precise, it has no real form and so it literally spreads, not only filling the air but also your head. I make films for places—museums and galleries—that are not generally equipped to contain sound so there are very practical reasons too why I feel sound is not appropriate. Finally part of the pleasure at looking at a depiction is the necessary confrontation with the abyss of representation, that place where form hovers on the edge of informe. This is often experienced as a difficulty, something that can feel very close to boredom, and certainly as ‘a pause’. And perhaps the last thing you might need is to be eased through that difficulty via sound’s reassuring sirens.

Arts

Mark Lewis

With such a high level of detail and no cuts you are giving your audience a lot of freedom in terms of how they look and what they choose to focus on.

Many of my films are single takes, uninterrupted shots that unfold in front of you in exactly the same way that they were made. But some are not as I also make films that are compiled from lots of different shots, or from lots of different bits of different shots. But the point is that even these latter films appear as if they were single uninterrupted shots, so your description is right in so far as my films eschew the language of editing or ‘the cut’. It would be foolish of me to say that I was against editing, but we know well that the grammar of editing imposes upon, or overlays the image with readings that are ideological in some way. And many artists have necessarily wanted to address that condition; but I am interested in imagining or thinking about what happens to film before that imposition. Film began as single uninterrupted takes so in a way it defined itself from the beginning as something that could later have things done to it, but did not have to. The single shot establishes duration as the real time of looking, and as it goes on and on (for more than a few seconds at least and upwards to ten minutes and more), a sense of an ending begins to dominate your experience of the film, the later hangs as the inevitable undoing of the shot. And it’s against that particular sense of time that our own human time is measured and felt—time is passing and an end is coming. Once you introduce a cut, you start all over again, and you can feel the imposition of some other time.

It’s rare for people to end up in your films and those who do are often disenfranchised, living in the margins of society. What draws you to these people and do you build people into your films as subjects or extensions of place?

I have no rules, or at least no rules that I won’t break (I have, by the way, made films with sound and other films with visible edits). But I do recognize, when looking at my films, the same condition that you have just described. Generally speaking I try only to have the type, social class, size, shape, gender, race, etc., of the kinds of people that typically inhabit or pass through the places I film. So when choosing to put people/actors into the films, these choices are almost always predicated on whom I might have seen there at one time or another. It may be that I would not have seen all of the characters that appear in a film at any one given time, but they more or less would have been seen there over time. My films often condense that time, producing a montage, not necessarily through cuts and additions, rather through condensation and concentration. People in my films also tend to be small, in the background so to speak, and this is probably because I am more interested in how people appear in a place rather than how they perform there. For me people are as much part of the composition of the image as the buildings or landscape. I think that this emphasis is crucial: it helps to reduce or contain the theatricality of the films. Of course it does not eliminate theatre, but I think my work tries to understand how people inhabit places formally, phenomenologically—compositional things that in turn help us better understand social complexities.

Arts

Mark Lewis

Are your very deliberate camera motions more influenced by cinema or more utilitarian technologies such as surveillance and scientific observation?

Obviously these technologies, or image regimes are inter-related, they develop in tangent and inventions in one realm produce effects in the other. For instance, the view down from a plane, as Gertrude Stein apparently once said, allows you to better understand Picasso; equally, I suppose, looking at cubist compositions can help you understand the complexity of military 3d animation. In the end these observations are self evident and therefore a bit banal. What I am more interested in is in imagining that the camera, with all of its attendant prosthetic devices, might have consciousness; that its desire to look and to see and to depict is part of its self-definition. So if you assume that, then you need to imagine what the camera might do in a particular place presented with a set of visual or optical possibilities. The deliberate camera motions that you describe (pans, tilts, zooms, dolly motions, etc.) are the articulation of camera decisions, calculations and prevarications as it works to produce appropriate and meaningful composition(s).

Do you have any ambitions to make a longer or more involved piece one day?

I am always tempted to be a little pedantic in response to questions like this: to ask why is it always assumed that artists like me inevitably want to make a ‘real’ film; and he idea that the latter is somehow ‘more involved’, better, or whatever is certainly a bit irksome. However as I am in the middle of preparing such a film, I feel that to respond that way would be churlish.