The winner of the prestigious Solo Exhibition Prize talks to Wayne Burrows about his latest project, a remix of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to be shown at Sillitoe Day on 27 October.
Ahead of a sneak preview of his ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’ cinematic remix on Sillitoe Day at the Tempreh on October 27, Frank Abbott talks about Arthur Seaton as international icon, changing technology and winning the Castle Open’s Solo Exhibition Prize…
How did the remix version you’re currently making of ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’ come about?
I’ve been interested in remixing films live for a while, but this came about when I did a piece called ‘Spaghetti Powerpoint’ at Broadway as part of a Hatch event there earlier this year. Someone saw that and thought a remix of ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’ might be something I’d be interested in doing. The film I worked with at Broadway was ‘Adios Gringo!’, a sixties Italian spaghetti western that nobody remembered, so I had a free rein to do what I liked with it and I did. Obviously ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’ is a completely different kettle of fish. I’d done a couple of talks about Alan Sillitoe and film, where I’d slowed down, changed and modified scenes to illustrate certain points, so I already had an interest and had worked with the material. But the approach for this is going to be very different to what I’ve done in other remixes.
I suppose something like ‘Spaghetti Powerpoint’ uses a film that nobody would ever think of as a classic, but in Karel Reisz’s film you’re really playing with the cinematic equivalent of the Crown Jewels, aren’t you?
Oh yes. It’s a very good film, and it’s not a realist film in the conventional sense people sometimes think of, either. It has a lot of visual elements and the director used approaches that made it a real marker for film of the future when it was released in 1960. People tend to think of it as a film that captures the past and harks back to another age, but forget that it was very fresh when it was released and had a huge influence. It’s one of those rare films that did change the way people made films afterwards. So I want to emphasize that in no way do I think I’m improving it. Instead, I’m making something that I hope re-positions it for a new audience so some of that original freshness can be seen again.
Do you think some of that power comes from the fact that Karel Reisz, a Czech director, came to Sillitoe’s script as an outsider?
It’s true that if you watch ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’ and then look at ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ you can see that Karel Reisz deals with the material very differently and doesn’t read it in any clear cut class-bound way. So much in the film is about unknowingness, about not being able to read people and situations, and perhaps coming from an Eastern European background did mean he was able to bring that out in a way that a British director might not have done. There’s a political position there but it’s not easy to pin it down. There’s a phrase in the book when someone says to Arthur Seaton, “I’ve got you weighed up” and Seaton thinks: “I don’t know why you think you’ve got me weighed up, I can’t even weigh up myself”. There’s another scene when Arthur looks into a mirror and asks himself: “who am I?”. There’s a very strong existential strand in the film that’s sometimes missed when the realism is emphasized.
Of course, Sillitoe himself was by then writing both the novel and film script as an outsider to Nottingham, wasn’t he?
He was in Majorca when he wrote the book, so yes, he was. And that ‘outsider’ status comes out very strongly in ‘Birthday’, which is the sequel he wrote to ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’ many years later. In ‘Birthday’, he writes himself into the story as the writer brother of Arthur Seaton, who has by then divorced Doreen and happily married someone else. That writer character in ‘Birthday’ is always displaced and never at home. As soon as he arrives in Nottingham he needs to return to London, but when he’s in London he needs to get back to Nottingham. I’m sure Sillitoe felt much the same way.
You also mentioned that you’d slowed down parts of the film in other talks, which makes me think of Douglas Gordon’s famous ‘Twenty Four Hour Psycho’. Between high art like that and all the different things people mash up on YouTube, why do you think there are so many remixes around at the moment?
When I did the talks I mentioned, I was using slow motion to illustrate things. So there are scenes where you can reveal elements of the acting and the camera shots and see how they reveal relationships that you feel but don’t always have time to consciously register when you watch the film at normal speed. One scene I slowed down has Albert Finney and the two women, and doing that meant you could really see the subtleties of the acting and the way Reisz choreographed the looks between the three characters to underscore their relationships. But in my new remix I’m not taking that film studies or lecture approach, I’m making a re-enjoyment of the film. So if I do end up using similar techniques it will be for other purposes: to build on the rhythm of the film, or reveal themes and connections in it we might not have noticed or thought about before.
It’s an aesthetic rather than an analytical tool?
Yes. I’m showing some of the work in progress for Sillitoe Day on a single big screen, but the finished piece at Lakeside next year will be shown in the bar and presented in a very different way. I hope we can get them to serve beer, pies and peas on the night, and it’ll be seen with performance and live music, projected onto multiple glass screens, so that’ll be a much more performed and fragmented kind of experience. I want it to be something that brings its own aesthetic to the film, so if you come and see the version I’ll be showing at the Contemporary it’ll give a taster for what’s in store.
Frank Abbott. Photograph Julian Hughes
You’ve also just won the very prestigious Solo Exhibition Prize at the Nottingham Castle Open, so I wonder if you could tell us a bit about that?
I was really pleased because one of the reasons I entered that piece (‘You Do Something To Me’) was because I wanted to see it installed at the Castle. I liked the idea of a work that is an object but also has performance elements and can also be visited online. It changes through time and exists in various forms at once, so putting it into a fixed exhibition like the Castle Open just really interested me. Maybe that’s what interests me about remixing film, too: cinema developed very rapidly for most of the 20th century, but has recently tended to stick with the form it settled on around the 1970s and 80s. The innovations that are happening in film now – in both Hollywood and art film – are mostly in re-combinations and revisions of existing material. So you have Douglas Gordon’s ’Twenty-Four Hour Psycho’ winning the Turner Prize on the one hand, Hollywood ‘Godzilla meets Werewolf’ type mash-ups and TV sitcom remakes on the other.
As an artist who has been working with technology and media for a long time, you must also be conscious of how these technologies change and become obsolete over the years?
Absolutely. I made my first film in 1976, on Super 8mm film, and when I was looking through my archive I realised I’d made 52 films since then. I was thinking of putting them onto a website, making each film available for one week over a whole year, in chronological order. Since making that first film in Super 8mm, the material moves through 16mm film, then video formats like VHS, then early web streaming, ST Video, DVD, all the way up to current digital formats. Obviously organising and archiving all that poses a bit of a challenge. One of the earliest films I made was a series about the future of the media for Channel 4 in its very early days, when they were still genuinely looking for challenging work. The future we imagined then is very different to the world we have now. I also showed ‘Muscle’, which is a piece I’ve making with Duncan Higgins since the 1980s at the Bonington Gallery recently and that has a similar feel of tracing how the technology changes over time.
Arthur Seaton played by Albert Finney
You work with technology and digital platforms, but where a lot of artists using those mediums go for a very professional, seamless feel, you tend to do the opposite. The technology is there, but the look is often more evocative of the things built by garden shed boffins during the 1940s or has the home-made feel of Blue Peter. Is this your way of humanising these technologies?
It’s returning these things from the virtual to the physical. You can take something which might be broadcast in exactly the same form and viewed everywhere in the world simultaneously, like a Hollywood movie, and that’s one thing. But if you then take it to one very specific place, for just one night, with live performance, then something like ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’, which has been shown endlessly in the same way for fifty or sixty years, you can create a unique event that will never be exactly repeated. You can bring back the danger that it’ll go wrong, for a start.
A lot of new media work tries very hard to avoid human error but you seem determined to put human error right at the heart of what you’re doing…
Well, if you think about how easily the adding of subtitles and the mixing and melding of different things can be done now it makes the complexity of the technology behind it sort of invisible. But if you do the same things using cardboard boxes and dangling bits of wire people bring that awareness of the technology to it again, so even if it’s not really visible or understood, the awareness that this is what’s going on is made more explicit.
Like discovering that two tin cans and a piece of string have been unexpectedly enabled with satellite technology?
That’s pretty much how it is, though. I was listening to something on the radio the other day about two handwritten letters that had been discovered from thousands of years ago, with the words scratched into clay tablets. Someone said: “you know, it’s a bit like a 2000 year old iPad”. I’m not sure that what we do with all this technology changes very much, but the technology itself evolves and gives those things new forms and opportunities.
Which I suppose returns us to Sillitoe and the way you’ll be using digital methods to refresh the old celluloid technology of that 1960 film of ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’…
To some extent, but it’s also true that the finished remix will use a lot of older techniques, so there’ll be contemporary music played live, real performers and readings, spoken word, as well as the film and its revised digital version. One of my motives for taking this on is a sense that when I go to events about Sillitoe it’s often mostly an older audience, so I’d like to try and bring in some of the younger performance-y Hatch crowd as well. This stuff is still relevant.
Man with a movie projector
And you’ll also presumably bring in your own view of the city to complement Sillitoe and Reisz’s versions?
Well, I’ve been in Nottingham since 1974, so all through my work there are things I’ve made about places like Hyson Green, Forest Fields, the Arboretum, because even though I’ve never had a particular intention to focus on the city, it’s what has been around me for a very long time now. But I also think we can be a bit too parochial about ‘Saturday Night & Sunday Morning’ sometimes. We forget what a huge international hit it was. We forget how Arthur Seaton is much bigger than the city that created him. He’s become a kind of mythical character whose influence is everywhere, so when you think of the bit in the film where Finney looks into the mirror and asks “who am I?” you can also see where something like the famous “you looking at me?” scene with Robert de Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’ came from. There’s the scene where Richard Gere lays out his clothes in ‘American Gigolo’, too. There are lots of films that owe a lot to this one, if we think about it.