Wimbledon Performance Design and Technologies contextual studies lecturer Richard Whitby has won the prestigious £20,000 Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella prize to make a brand new film work. Responding to the theme of Going, Gone, which references the fact that the exhibition opened just as Britain was due to leave the EU this year, the new commission entitled The Lost Ones is currently on show at Jerwood Space in London.
The film combines live action with some stop frame animation. “I didn't directly respond to anything to do with Brexit” Richard explains, “but of course what's going on in politics is very interesting to me.” The piece he has created instead explores the bureaucratic nature of the immigration system through satirical exaggeration. “One of the things I'm keen to emphasise is that I am a UK citizen and I've never been a victim of the immigration system. My interest as an artist is in the environment - other people have described it as a process of weaponising paperwork. To my mind, the application process even for the most straight-forward spousal visas are made so complicated that presumably a lot of people just give up. They create this system where it's easy to fail.”
With this as his starting point, Richard has worked with a writer called Alistair Beaton to develop a script which takes the form of an immigration interview procedure, with actors asked to improvise responses to this difficult set of questions. The other reference for the film is slightly more unusual, however.
Richard has researched the story of Gef, a phenomenon from the 1930s, where a family on the Isle of Man claimed to be haunted by a talking mongoose who lived in the walls of their house. “The family stuck to the story that this capricious creature communicated with them and sometimes made demands of them. Lots of possession experts and spiritualists visited their house and he would sometimes promise to reveal himself to an outsider but then wouldn’t appear. I could see a parallel between this and a political idea we are now stuck with that's been created within this set of islands.”
The main role in the film is played by Carol Morgan, a fashion lecturer at Central Saint Martins, and Richard will also be working with Alice Karsten, a Wimbledon Fine Art student who is doing a placement on the film as part of her stage 2 personal and professional development assignment.
Working with people in an improvisatory mode is something that Richard has used before in other work. His interest in performance and moving image has evolved gradually since his days as a BA Painting student at Wimbledon where he graduated from in 2007.
“The college is changing a lot, but I see myself as very much in a particular tradition within Wimbledon of moving image makers” he says. “Within Painting - by far the biggest course at the time - there was a group of people who did stuff that wasn't painting. It was a real community that experimented with moving image thanks to the involvement of staff such as Jennet Thomas (Senior Lecturer, BA Print and Time-Based Media) and Richard Layzell (artist and former course leader BA Print and Time-Based Media) and the technical set up at the college.”
“This was in the early 2000s” he continues. “It wasn't possible to make moving image work on your own. So it was only when I got to Wimbledon that I had access to the equipment that I needed to be able to start experimenting and really go for it, which I did as soon as I got there!”
He came to performance through a meeting with artist Monster Chetwynd which turned into a friendship and professional relationship. “As well as teaching I also do tech work in galleries, which is how we met. I ended up performing in one of her pieces in Milan which is not something that I ever would have gravitated towards doing, usually, but I got a lot out of it.”
This led to him completing a Phd in Cultural Studies at the London Consortium which included research about performance. “By the time I'd done that I thought we'll I'd better try making some performance myself!” However, his interests have always seen him return to moving image work, and his PhD brought him to teaching, which in turn saw him return to Wimbledon after more than a decade.
As a Performance Design and Technologies contextual studies lecturer, Richard works across all three years looking at theory. “Teaching theory is much more integrated with course teaching now than it used to be. We teach in the studios and have group discussions – it's not so much about students going away and reading on their own. For me, it's not about getting all students to conform to a singular academic model but it's about helping them to find a way to be critical, to make arguments, to make statements, and to make themselves understood.”
“I always emphasise to students that the skills they learn from doing something like a dissertation will feed into everything that they might do afterwards - any statement they might have to write, for example, and will help them to understand how and where their practice sits alongside their peers.”
In discussing his own practice, he is keen to highlight that one of the key benefits of this specific award is that of the £20,000 prize budget, £4,000 is set aside specifically as an artist fee. “I help run Artists’ Union England and it's really important to me that they do that. A protected fee is quite rare even for big commissions and it brings peace of mind as a practitioner that you don’t have compromise the production budget to pay yourself.”
Artists’ Union England describes itself as the collective voice of artists living and working in England. As well as offering benefits such as legal advice, access to resources about artists’ issues and training and study opportunities, Richard explains that “We set up the union to act as an intermediary between artists and organisations. We provide standard guidelines for best practice and can represent artists in negotiations. I think it’s helpful because it can depersonalise the difficult discussions. I hope that more, younger artists sign up as they start their careers.”
Thinking about his own work, he concludes: “I really like this position I've managed to end up in where I'm primarily a practitioner and not a theorist, but I teach theory to other practitioners. It's something that works well for me and being slightly outside of theatre adds a different perspective to my teaching, outside of the traditional model of performance.”
Going, Gone is at Jerwood Space until 2 June 2019
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