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TateShots: Exploring Connections Between Music & Art
Luke Turner , January 29th, 2010 16:07

The Quietus chats to Nicola Probert, creator of an excellent new series of interviews with musicians discussing their involvement with, and appreciation of, the visual arts

The Tate Modern has commissioned film-maker Nicola Probert to create six five minute films looking at how musicians - Cosey Fanni Tutti, Billy Childish, David Byrne, Mark E Smith, Jeffrey Lewis and Lydia Lunch - see their work in relation to visual art.

The fascinating series, which was first screened at the gallery two weeks ago, is well worth investigating over the coming weeks as each episode is uploaded onto the Tate Modern website. Especially interesting is the film with Childish, where Billy the musician (sporting his old military togs) interviews Billy the artist (in smock), and we see a painting develop from first brush strokes to completion. Throbbing Gristle's Cosey Fanni Tutti recalls her provocative work in the early 1970s, while Mark E Smith sucks deep on a Pilsner and makes typically opaque comments about artists who paint while listening to The Fall.

Watch the first episode, featuring Cosey Fanni Tutti below, and then scroll down for an interview with film-maker Nicola Probert. The shorts will be released onto the Tate Modern website and released as podcasts over the coming weeks.

How did the Tate project come about?

I'd been doing some filming with The Charlatans about a year ago, they were thinking about doing a documentary to mark their 20th anniversary. I had an idea to film something in the Tate for that, with Tim Burgess talking about a work of art. That never happened, but it got me thinking about the possibilities of doing a series with musicians and the role of visual art in their work and TateShots seemed a good platform for this. I approached them with the idea, they liked it and it went form there.

Did you have a set idea of how you wanted the films to be?

It was quite organic, led by the content and it had to fit to the TateShots five minute format. I knew the topics that I wanted to cover, mainly an interest in the musician's processes and approach to making work; what interested them and how they use visual or musical mediums to communicate this.

I wanted the films to be direct, to show the content and essence of each artist in a five-minute piece, and not to embellish it with my own aesthetic, but just to show them and their work.

The interviews were candid, about discussion rather than mythologizing, filmed relatively informally. Their narratives led the structure of each film, with associated visuals and performance footage to show ideas. This was quite a different way of working for me - previously I've worked with a predominantly aesthetic approach so it was nice to do something more narrative and content led.

Has the interaction between music and art always been something you've been interested in in your own work?

A lot of my recent work has crossed over between music and art. My background is in visual art, and up to now I've been working with mainly moving image, animation and drawing. A while ago I started working quite closely with Hatcham Social, creating music videos and images for albums and single sleeves. It was interesting how ideas were translated and communicated differently, taking on different meanings through the music or visual medium, even when they began from a similar starting point. We used to talk about how you might translate a song into a painting, and vice versa... the differences in how you approach communicating an idea in a time-based form or in something static, like a painting or a still image. This artistic relationship with Hatcham provoked my interest in making the Tate series, based in my own experience of working in this way.

How did you go about choosing the artists? Were they people who you were specifically a fan of?

I started looking into musicians who also created work in visual mediums, and this was the link for all those we featured. Initially the idea for Mark E Smith's film was to focus on the Fall's collaboration with choreographer Michael Clark on the I Am Curious, Orange ballet. We couldn't get an interview with Michael about it so we focused more broadly on The Fall's connection with painting.

I focused on musicians whose approach I felt an affinity with, people who created out of a genuine interest in ideas and a love of the medium.

All of the musicians we featured, apart from Jeffrey Lewis, ended up being from the punk and post punk era. This wasn't something I'd initially set out to do but it ended up this way, perhaps there was something about that time from which people took a freedom of exploration, crossing over into different mediums - as Cosey Fanni Tutti discusses in her film through the loosening up of social values and arts values that preceded the 70's, hers was a generation bought up with these attitudes which fed into what they created.

It's such a broad subject that can be looked at through many frames of reference. My main feeling was that I wanted to create something intimate that focused openly on individual experiences of the topic in question. While there are connections between the six featured, they all have very idiosyncratic approaches to the subject.

Were there any artists that you really wanted to work with but didn't get?

Michael Bracewell's Roxy book has a section on Bryan Ferry's early influences for Roxy Music developing out of art school in the 60's with Richard Hamilton and British Pop Art. It looks at the combination of music, pop culture and fine art in Roxy Music. I wanted to talk to Bryan Ferry about this and feature him in the series, but alas, he was busy in the studio.

There were many others whose work could have been really interesting to look for the series, Kim Gordon, Laurie Anderson, Captain Beefheart, Bjork, Edwyn Collins, John Squire, Brian Eno, Patti Smith, Yoko Ono… I'm possibly making a film with Laurie Anderson in the spring when she's over in the UK on tour, which would be great.

How did the idea of Billy interviewing himself come about?

I'd been discussing Billy's 'multiple identities' with a friend, who sent me a link to Tommy Coopers 'Split Personality' sketch - I loved it and the format made so much sense for Billy's film, especially as he's such a big fan of uniforms and 'dressing for the job'. Billy loved the idea, and thought it would be a fun way to approach it. Initially I was planning on making some kind of costume, half musician and half painter but Billy, being a fan of simplicity, suggested he could just wear his own outfits so we shot it like that, with the artist and musician interviewing each other. He had to get changed quite a few times to cover questions that had come up while filming… It turned out really well. We should release the extended version some time - the whole thing is about 45 minutes long!

You said in the after-screening talk that you most enjoyed making the Billy Childish film because you felt an affinity with how he works. Can you elaborate a little?

I think there's a warmth in the way Billy approaches his work, not being too precious and having a sense of humor; that an element of enjoyment is important.

Given you had so much material, what shaped the editing process? Were there any specific aspects of the dialogue between music and art that you wanted to bring to the fore?

The editing was really tricky, there was so much interesting material. I focused on the bits where they talked about specific movements or artists and how these may or may not have shaped their ideas. For example David Byrne's early assimilations of Bauhaus theory into his music; Cosey saying she didn't take other artists finished work as a starting point, that that was theirs and her work had to come from her own experiences; Lydia's obsession with Marcel Duchamp; or Mark E Smith's appreciation of the work of Wyndham Lewis. . . . Another focus that shaped the editing was to show their intentions in the use of both media - how each media bought a different value to their work and to the way it is received.

Do you have plans for the unused footage? And what other projects are you working on?

It all goes in the Tate's archive. I haven't got any plans for it at the moment. We're talking about extending the project into something a bit bigger, for TV possibly, which would be great.

Finishing this is leading into new projects and ideas; some of which are offspring of this, some are totally different. I'm working now on a narrative for a film and animation piece that will use sound in a new way for me, alongside making some more experimental work with animation and painting.