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from audiovisual performance, Electronic Church, Berlin (2008); Sam James from audiovisual performance, Electronic Church, Berlin (2008); Sam James

James’ imagery is potent whether as the polished, layered animations, land and waterscapes of Erth’s Nargun and the Stars or the onstage improvisations for De Quincey Co’s Improlab, where a change of lens and a shift of focus can transform an innocent object into something fantastical. His Anamorphic Archive, an entrancing, alchemical engagement with dancers he’s documented, is evidence of the capacity for James’ work to stand strongly on its own. At the same time he’s collaborated with choreographers-turned-filmmakers, helping them (on camera or as editor or projection designer) to realise their visions and compete as finalists for awards.

Sam James describes himself as a theatre and media designer, which seems apt since as film- and video-maker he’ll create spaces by projecting onto multiple screens or walls and through materials. It’s not surprising then to find that his education included architecture and sculpture, and that he describes his creations for other artists as “media installations.” His output has been prodigious, designing media installations for over 200 productions since 1995, when he began designing for PACT Youth Theatre and adding dance film to his practice in 2000, with Potsdamer, featuring Martin del Amo. Many of his collaborations have been with artists associated with Performance Space, although his work has taken him to the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Ballet. His dance film Nun’s Night Out (2006), made as a super-8 docu-drama for director Julie-Anne Long’s The Nun’s Picnic, won Best Australian Dance Film at the Australian Dance Awards in 2007.

How and where did you start out as an artist?

I studied Architecture for three and a half years at Adelaide University, then fled to the College of Fine Arts in Sydney and began sculpture and installation in first year and then moved into film with Stephen Cummings. I made three films in two years, all unbearably expensive, but essentially process films. I’d start with one or two ideas of filming people I knew in abstracted impressions of their normal life and it would progress in experiments using one or two rolls of film every month or so. I would edit the material on video. I realized through editing you can make up a reality, which is still now my main interest.

How did you find your way into collaboration?

I made a work at Performance Space in 1999 that really took it out of me in terms of the complexity of imposing my ideas on other artists. I consider all artists to be equal. Some have louder voices and some make their work hit in the right time and place. Other artists are less able to be collaborative; it’s not in the nature of their process. I realised that to survive I had to collaborate. To me it seems either you are in collaboration or in your own void. It has a lot to do with artists’ personalities and their sociability.

What do you regard to be your key works?

When I was 21 I wrote a book, titled Diffusion, about the essentials of movement and change for existence. This was never published, but since then all of my film and performance work has been an essential philosophical decision about survival. I made my second dance film, Post Romantic, in 2000, which was about pulling an individual from the ruins of romantic imagination into the turn of the new century. It felt important although maybe it was just cathartic. It was about trying to find some kind of resolution to living in a city, Sydney, with superficial values. I followed up that train of thought much later in 2006 with Simulated Rapture where there was some breakthrough with the same idea—to place isolated dancers within foreign environments which I had linked and re-animated to represent the dancers’ locked-in condition. It was more successful because it became something beyond my initial investigation. These weren’t artists working in isolation, they were all prismatically intermingled in their complex relationships and part of each other’s environment.

After that I made Anamorphic Archive, which was a collation of fragments from the many dance performances I had documented, to try to exhume neglected electronic archives and give them a new life. This was all about authorship in media, at what point does this become my work, who owns the end product, what is the original and how much distortion makes the original work no longer visible? It linked back to my initial fascination with the power of editing. In post-production almost anything can be manipulated, often to an event or artwork’s advantage. Is it a tool of disguise or illumination?

study for The Nest (2009), Sam James study for The Nest (2009), Sam James
When you work with other artists on their projects, how do you see your role?

With every artist I collaborate with it’s about our artistic relationship. Often status has something to do with it, but it’s usually much more than that. I am never a servant to another artist unless I specifically agree that my role is not to be creative. I always feel that if an artist is capable of making their own video, they should do it but, if they don’t know how to, then I do it. There are always relationships between the languages of performance and film and each performer’s approach to performance indicates which approach to the film I should take. Every show is a different process as well, so applying a constant aesthetic and mode to a performance I think is wrong. If there is artistic frustration in the collaboration, the answer is to get past it, to find what the work is about and see what the investigation gives us.

What are some of the key shows you have worked on with other artists?

Improlab with Tess de Quincey, Jim Denley, Amanda Stewart and Chris Abrahams (and others, 2006-8) was a series of totally improvised works which ended up being the most satisfying and challenging of events, the ultimate in collaborations. To work with such experienced and dedicated improvisors as Denley, Stewart and Abrahams with their fluid and beautiful sense of trust can’t be surpassed. Each says, you do what you want and I’ll do what I want and when we do it simultaneously it will either be beautiful or it will tell us where we are going wrong. There is no beginning and end to improvisation and it is impossible to encapsulate, it can only be a live experience. Improvisation is not always the best form of entertainment for an audience and there were varying degrees of success with the De Quincey Co Improlab tour. For example, sensitivity to the performing space for me was the key thing, using three live cameras, different lenses and analogue mixing, but The Studio at the Opera House, a place for presentation and entertainment, just wasn’t resonant.

Working with Hans Van den Broeck on Nomads in 2008 (RT90, p21) was a sudden and profound experience. Again, to work with someone with so much experience (a founding member of Les Ballets C de la B), an interest in psychology and huge energy and imagination, fuels your own energy to work. This was not an indulgent investigation but a boxing ring of ideas and tactics, drawing on each artist’s responses to tasks. One thing would lead to others. It was a risky piece and Hans had enough on his plate dealing with the dancers but he still had a mountain of video ideas he wanted to work out. In the two-day development period in Bundeena we shot about six hours of video performance ideas—most of which never made it into the show. But through that process I could see how he understood performance and video. That’s a crucial thing to find out fast if it’s the first time you are working with someone. Nomads took only two weeks to create but the speed of working, in combination with improvised video, seemed important, because these days, with limited funding, you have to work fast and very well to keep the work alive and to compete with the large scale works seen in festivals.

What is the relationship between your own work and the work you do with others?

Each work is an inspiration. I don’t know where this work has come from but someone has invited me to make work in it. It becomes, in the absolute sense, the world I am living in. I spend far more time in projects than I do anywhere else. Every time I go to a new project it’s a new tango, a completely new story. Sometimes the transition is hard if I start a new project the day after another finishes, but I think this adapting to new territory is nothing compared to, say, being a soldier in a war. I see the work as a filmmaker. The performer is the subject of the projected film, it is sculpted around them, where they travel. I learn from them as a filmmaker learns from their subject. I am part of their journey, and I try to illuminate their passage. Of course sometimes I don’t want to show too much, and performance delivers everything we need. But in terms of working with independent performers, the work is in progress and I help find the answers to their questions. To work alone is not so satisfying, I need other encounters to shape my path.

What is driving your own current project?

My next project is The Nest which has been commissioned by Reeldance to be part of Cinedans’ installation program in Amsterdam in 2010. I am using a process I’ve used before, which is to travel, filming new spaces in macro and microscopic scale with small digital cameras. All of these abstracted environments will become a space which I will link to certain dancers I’ve worked with. The main notion is that space is a series of interconnected links, like a nest. With conceptual forms similar to ant nest architecture, I am interested in making connections between these found spaces and people. The compositing and animation process is digging the tunnels, to try to make connections between subject and space, and also to make connections between them as newly invented, discrete entities. I’m using imagery mainly from Tokyo and Berlin and a prototype cut will be finished on a residency at GlogauAIR in Berlin in July this year. The performers are some of Sydney’s most independent and individually charismatic—Martin del Amo, Lizzie Thompson and Georgie Read—the film focusses a lot on their personas.

What is your relationship with technology?

Like many, I despise technology, but I embrace it because it is the dominant vice of society. In relation to media, everything must relate to it, or it doesn’t exist. It’s a flaw in humanity and the power behind our simultaneous success and annihilation. Film has magical power, sets of parameters and tools with which to attempt to express our dreams, but its power is hard to wield. My relationship to it is experimental: the results come from an outside force. It’s important to give in to the machine and the independent will of technology if you are a video maker, as important as it is to give in to another person’s life. The benefits are like travel: film can reconfigure and make impressions on the mind. Of course, film can also be escapist, but for someone who is not good socially, what a great escape! It makes the world seem bigger, more complex, yet reconfigurable. Its language helps me to make sense of experience by piecing it all together in the editing.I use compact mpeg video cameras for most of my capturing because it is immediate and real, and this format also has greater potential for animation, for me a great cross-over between worlds real and fantastic.

My collaborations are the most transient part of my work, lost in almost all aspects after the live act. Without the performance, performance video doesn’t really speak on its own. But it’s pushed my practice hugely towards the artifact and historical relic, the feeble and somewhat fractured and mythologised residue of something that was once great. Preservation of an event is another thing, it is possible to make it greater than the actual event, through nostalgia and distance things seem beautiful in their disappearance. I think this is also the real relationship to all this technology.

Sam James,

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 44

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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