This June Jem Finer, Lavinia Greenlaw and Ben Rivers returned to Aldeburgh in Snape Maltings – the venue at which they launched Stay Where You Are several months previously, in the stillness of winter – where they showcased the latest instalments in their ongoing exploration of all things local, immediate and present tense. Taking the ‘staying put’ theme somewhat literally, Jay Griffiths was at home in Wales. Her contribution took the form of a pre-recorded monologue, a voice reaching us from afar.
Proximity and distance, presence and absence, here and elsewhere, the present moment and the past – the dialectical exploration of contradictory ideas has emerged as a central preoccupation of Stay Where You Are; so too has the subtle shifts in consciousness that our changing environment brings. Three seasons have already turned in this yearlong calendar, and the summer has been, by English standards, exceptionally hot. The summer instalments of Stay Where You Are fittingly capture the sense of life on a warming planet, but also reflect this particular moment of the calendar, when the seclusion of winter and the unfolding of spring are overcome by sunny industriousness.
Ben Rivers kicked off the discussion by explaining how his project has changed over time, changing, in turn, his entire approach. Rather than taking his usual approach – allowing his films to gestate over long periods of time, arising from an immersion in isolated, often foreign, landscapes – Ben revealed that he had deliberately embraced the restrictions of the medium and the present moment. Working with equipment that only takes three-minute rolls of film, Ben described how his three short films are the result of him “improvising with the camera”, capturing what “happening in the moment”, with very little editing after the event. Lavinia shared Ben’s suggestion that slowing down and staying put draws your own consciousness into focus: ‘if you are being asked to stop,’ she said, ‘then you become aware of your own process and the process of perception, and the response to it, and the ways you might disrupt that.’
Ben’s embrace of practical brevity, of allowing the immediacy of the present tense to guide his approach to his work, is complicated by his use of ‘old’ material: stuff from his personal archive that he has had in his possession ‘for the last 20 years’. As Lavinia Greenlaw suggested, Ben’s use of an old recording of the legendary American comic Andy Kaufman (‘I’d rather if you don’t laugh,’ says the stuttering Kaufman, ‘because I’m not trying to be funny right now’) subverts the viewer’s impulse to laugh at the squirrel Ben’s film depicts. Kaufman – a voice from the past – modulates our perception of this otherwise unmediated, ‘natural’ present, a juxtaposition of temporalities and moods that reflects Ben’s fascination with producing new, if highly localised, worlds out of the materials in his immediate reach.
This folding of the archival past into the spontaneous present contrasts with Jem Finer’s film, in which we witness the creation of a new piece of music: the film almost exclusively comprises documentation of its own making, the piano riffs and glockenspiel chimes that slot together like cogs in the composition’s machine. It’s a marked change of focus and pace from Jem’s previous films, which brooded on formal patterns of darkness and natural light. As Jem’s new film revealed, the frugality of the earlier instalments of his project, but also Stay Where You Are as a whole, has given way to increasing ambition.
Jem’s contribution shifted the discussion towards music as a directive force, something that guides the production of work, particularly in the relationship of music to language. As Jay puts it in her essay, which we had listened to early on in the event, there’s a relationship between ideas of security, pleasure and music: ‘Seven degrees of home, seven notes in the scale of Western music before the melody comes home to the tonic, or the octave which repeats it.’ As Lavinia suggested, it’s easy to be seduced by the ‘music’ of language, to write something that ‘sounds good’. It’s ‘very easy to be imprecise’ with language, Lavinia said, describing poetry – broken-up language, language turned on its head – as ‘a way of being precise about the imprecise’. Recalling Emily Dickinson’s injunction to ‘tell all the truth but tell it slant’, Lavinia described language as her vehicle for ‘looking at things indirectly’. Ben responded with one of his favourite quotes about filmmaking, from the ethnographer and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha, who describes her work as ‘not making films “about”, but making films “to the side of”’. It was another example of the countless correspondences that continue to emerge as the year unfolds.