Dusting the Corners: Luke Fowler’s Restorative Histories

By Michael Sicinski

“Why are Luke Fowler’s films so hard to get a grip on?” That’s the question that critic/Berlinale programmer James Lattimer posed regarding the Scottish artist and filmmaker last year in a piece for MUBI’s Notebook. While Lattimer concludes that Fowler’s unique style results in “loose, deliberately fuzzy essays” that give the viewer an unusual amount of freedom, taken as a body of work there are certain fundamental gestures and preoccupations. His choice of subjects, for one thing, tells us a great deal about how he thinks about historiography and cinema’s place within it. Modern history, like cinema, exists in a well-worn dominant mode, an edifice with its load-bearing pillars—Marx and Freud, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, stolid Englishmen and American renegades. Needless to say, Fowler isn’t interested in this cozy, self-perpetuating narrative.

Fowler’s films form a kind of counter-history of modernity. His work has taken on the contributions of radical (anti-) psychoanalyst R.D. Laing (All Divided Selves, 2011) and the Marxist historiography of E.P. Thompson (The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott, 2012); the institutional history of Pavillion, the British feminist photography collective (To the Editor of Amateur Photographer, 2014, co-made with Mark Fell); examinations of the musicians Cornelius Cardew (Pilgrimage from Scattered Points, 2006) and Christian Wolff (For Christian, 2016); the depiction of Scotland by the popular media (Depositions, 2014); and in his most recent film, Canadian electronic music pioneer Martin Bartlett (Electro-Pythagoras, 2017).

With each of these disparate subjects, Fowler moves us further and further into the margins of modernist intellectual history, exploring archives and bringing to light underexposed parts of our shared past. At the same time, it’s important to understand Fowler’s work in the context of experimental cinema, since from a formal standpoint the films have more in common with the post-structural avant-garde than they do with conventional documentary or even the essay film. Each of Fowler’s films is characterized by meticulous construction through montage, usually a blend of archival footage and original footage. What’s more, Fowler tends to rely on either archival sound recordings or original musical compositions, but his films never employ expository narration.

Fowler’s editing schemes are so carefully wrought that the viewer can forget that there is usually no concrete connection between the image being shown and the sound being heard. We can see this quite clearly in the opening segments of Electro-Pythagoras, which includes samples of Bartlett’s electronic compositions, a backing track that will ease into archival footage of a live concert. Before Bartlett is actually shown in concert (playing alongside Dan Scheidt and Doug Collinge), Fowler shows us a few snapshots of Bartlett to establish his subject. But then he shows us several shots of Vancouver: a trip down the road, a particular corner store, and a strip mall prominently featuring a Tim Hortons. Subsequent shots make it clear that these are elevations around a single city corner on Commercial Drive in Vancouver’s East End.

Fowler alternates these shots with images of an empty classroom, but the streetscapes establish a motif that carries throughout the film. This allows Fowler to create a distinctive editing rhythm, with sounds, locales, and additional visual elements intermingling in a kind of round-robin staccato. But, as I hope the above makes clear, he isn’t establishing a coherent diegetic space. There is no caption or voiceover explaining the significance of these places—“this is where Bartlett taught” or “Bartlett lived on this corner.” Rather than the visual information generating a tapestry of fact, it is the music that lends this and other passages of Electro-Pythagoras a basic coherence. Upon hearing Bartlett’s music, we assume that the visual information conveys scenes of importance to Bartlett as a biographical subject.

In Electro-Pythagoras, places in Vancouver are given cinematic coherence by their relationship to Bartlett, and one can presume that they had a role in shaping his identity and practice. In this regard, Fowler organizes Bartlett’s biography through his own modification of Adachi Masao’s “landscape theory.” In a 2007 interview, Adachi explained his theory quite simply. “All the landscapes which one faces in one’s daily life, even those such as the beautiful sites shown on a postcard, are essentially related to the figure of a ruling power.” So as one moves through a landscape in film, one is learning about the forces that impinge on a given subject, and that have gone to shape him or her almost imperceptibly. But through his polyvalent editing, Fowler seems to imply that the relationship of landscape to the subject is not necessarily the kind of top-down, ideological formation that Adachi describes. By lending (retroactive) meaning to an otherwise nondescript corner in Vancouver, Bartlett “acts” on the landscape in turn, helping us to see it as something significant and emergent.

The opening minutes of Electro-Pythagoras are highly typical of Fowler’s biographical montage. Signposts such as voiceover or captions would severely disrupt the subtle system that Fowler is building. It’s not just that the filmmaker presents identity as fragmentary, although this is indeed an assumption underlying his cinematic strategies. It is the fact that landscapes, photos, letters, and other archival materials remain suspended in these films between illustration (“here are some pieces that tell us who R.D. Laing was”) and constellation (“these are pieces that hold no inherent meaning, but we imbue them with meaning with the proper name ‘R.D. Laing’”.) The identity and its traces are mutually constitutive, and Fowler specifically avoids any master narrative that would clarify this relationship.

This stands to reason, since Fowler seems to be compelled by those artists and intellectuals who break systems down, or at the very least propose radical, off-the-wall anti-systems. This can be seen in Pilgrimage from Scattered Points, as Fowler provides a careful look at Cardew’s “scratch music.” Neither conventionally composed nor improvised, the scratch music is created through highly unusual, alternative notations. Some pieces are derived from handicrafts, such as weaving and beading; others are graphic notations that resemble Sol Lewitt diagrammatic drawings. One composer uses an entire newspaper as his “score.” In this way, Cardew proposes a much freer relationship between composition and performance, but one still governed by a theory of direction by score. As the film shows Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra in action, it provides a picture of democratic principles—anyone can play music if they want— emerging from the breakdown of formalized music.

This interest in disruptive systems also explains Fowler’s recent turn to Bartlett’s work. Using electronic composition, Bartlett became involved in “just intonation,” the musical pursuit of tones that exist between the notes designated by the conventional tonal scale. Those musicians who pursue these “lost” notes argue, quite convincingly, that the scale is a systematic approximation, an average that has been overlaid atop a much more variegated sonic universe. While some musicians, such as Tony Conrad and Rhys Chatham, have used ear-splitting volume to achieve audible overtones interstitial to the tonal scale, others, such as Bartlett, have turned to Asian music—Indian classical music in particular—to discover alternate tunings.

As Electro-Pythagoras continues, we hear Bartlett’s music and see more of the suburban streetscapes of Vancouver. But Fowler also provides a voiceover reading Bartlett’s letters. This kind of direct archival material—the words of the subject himself—is something new and surprising in Fowler’s filmography. Previously when subjects have offered their words on their own behalf, those words have been fragmentary (as with Laing and Cardew) or dispersed across multiple individuals (in the case of the women of Pavillion).

Bartlett’s letters are unusual. They discuss his working process, but they spend just as much if not more time describing Bartlett’s participation in the gay culture of the time—local clubs, hook-ups, and concern about HIV. Fowler’s inclusion of this biographical content is a welcome anomaly. The discovery of Bartlett’s art coincides with our introduction to him as a human being. However, Fowler may be applying his skills of assemblage to suggest a homology between Bartlett’s creative and sexual life. It would be glib to push the idea too far, but one can’t entirely deny that, as we learn from Bartlett’s correspondence, he enjoyed being gay, refusing to accept marginality. And if just intonation entails bringing the marginalized forward—“queering the pitch,” as it were—then why assume some kind of mind/body compartmentalization?

Fowler’s cinema can perhaps best be understood as a kind of alternative archive, a record of temporary structures and anti-systems that were being generated on the fly. In certain respects, his films work to produce a document of a place or action while asserting that document’s incompletion. More than being open-ended, a Fowler film, with its sliding signification and uncanny half-matches between sound and image, suggests that there is more work to be done. Even a film like To the Editor of Amateur Photographer, commissioned by its subjects, adopts the trappings of an archive while gesturing toward a living, contested history.

In To the Editor, Fowler speaks to most of the members of the Pavillion collective in Leeds, recording their recollections about the project and the overall state of feminist art and criticism in the ’80s. These artists and scholars are depicted talking or going through documents, but the audio from the interviews is out of sync. We hear Griselda Pollock, Dinah Clark, and others discussing what Pavillion did, while we see office spaces and various photos, Fowler emphasizing a slight disconnection, much as he does in the Bartlett film. But between these interviews, Fowler literally rephotographs the images from the Pavillion files, as though he were using his own film like a microfiche or a digital-imaging technology.

To emphasize this impression, Fowler maintains the “portrait” orientation of each image for uniformity of documentation, so many of the images appear on their sides. They provide a case study of feminist art practice, frequently depicting women and young girls engaged in activity or play, rather than passively posed. In addition to presenting the photographs one after the other, Fowler also takes snapshots of other archival materials: dossiers, meeting notes, newsletters, independent news publications, and the like. The film is made of the contents of file folders and boxes, and as such it can only offer a taste of what the archive contains. The documents move across the screen at a regular pace, set to a metronomic electronic beat that resembles the clack-and-hum of a Xerox machine. Going by as quickly as they do, the archival materials only attest to their presence. To the Editor allows Fowler to generate a “complete” archive that demands further research from the viewer.

In a sense, the same could be said for Depositions, a film that is a bit of an outlier in Fowler’s filmography. Where other of his works are more restorative, heralding underappreciated artists like Bartlett or championing marginalized figures like Laing and Cardew, Depositions falls more under the heading of institutional critique. From the film’s outset, it appears as if Fowler might be fashioning an ode to Scottish folk songs. But as Depositions continues, his actual strategy becomes clear. The film is an indictment of popular British depictions of the Scottish, in particular those promulgated by the decidedly English-centric BBC. After an introductory voiceover bemoaning the unique “asininity” of the Scottish Highlands, we see stock aerial images over the verdant fields and high cliffs of Bonnie Scotland, treated as a symbol of rough and rugged Britannia but, as per another voiceover comment, regarded as a “patient [that] is sick.” As Fowler demonstrates, Scotland is a place perpetually defined by its past rather than its present, a representational violence that has very real political consequences.

Where many of Fowler’s other works fashion an open-ended archive where one did not exist before, Depositions takes on those images that circulate in the British cultural imaginary, ones drawn from the well-stocked archives of the official media. What Depositions shares with Fowler’s other works is its concern with marginality, by using the dominant discourse of the English to foreground the “minor language” of Scottish identity. (The film begins with images of singing villagers and shepherds, and ends with a forgotten working class.) In this regard, Depositions performs in cultural and political terms many of the same moves that Electro-Pythagoras enacts on the aesthetic and sexual fronts. In both cases, top-down knowledge is supplanted by discourses that are smaller but at the same time suppler and longer-lasting. And in both cases, a consideration of landscape provides oblique but unmistakable resonance with the films’ broader ideas.

Although Fowler has tended to explore the minor and the marginal, the less-travelled byways of cultural knowledge, his method also allows him to take on more classically canonical subjects. We see this in The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott, which is a film re-presentation of a lecture by E.P. Thompson on William Blake’s poem “London.” Not surprisingly, though, Fowler has found a kindrid spirit in Thompson, the British labour historian and key member of the Birmingham School of critical theory. Thompson is compelled by Blake’s use of the city as a signifying system, particularly his repeated use of the adjective “chartered” to describe aspects of London. Although Blake could be referring to banking and incorporation, there is no way to know, and so the concept floats alongside the poem’s more literal mentions of the Thames and the city’s poor.

As Thompson has it, the concept is suspended much like Fowler’s use of voice and music, which always hovers in a mismatch with his images of landscapes and interiors. The relationship is one of conductivity, the two elements hovering asymptotically alongside one another and altering each other’s reception but not its basic composition. The Blake poem, then, turns out to be a text with a margin, a zone of uncertainty, however central it may be to the great tradition. This shows that Fowler’s method, while typically trained on outsiders like Laing, Cardew, or Bartlett, is capable of locating the “outside” of any discursive formation. By repairing to the corners of cultural discourse, Fowler’s films tap into a vital, uncertain energy.

michael.sicinski@cinema-scope.com Sicinski Michael