Film portrait of a woman with shoulder length hair with repeated fading exposures

Film as Paint: Disarticulating Authorship

Artist and film­mak­er Vicky Smith, recip­i­ent of a WEVAA R&D Bur­sary, reflects on 30 years of exper­i­men­tal film practice.


I began as a painter, mostly of portraits, until a film workshop at university. We drew directly onto 16mm filmstrip, which brought about an understanding that painting could be set into motion through animation. The tutor, Guy Sherwin, set my compass to a world of experimental film practice, and upon graduating I continued this work at the London Film makers Co-op.

I have sought to combine the qualities of painting: layering, liquidity and tactility, with the properties of film - the temporal, the instantaneous and the gaze. I find the visual clarity of the photographic immediate and intrusive, whereas using ‘film as paint’ can defamiliarize, offering the subject some anonymity.

In my early works (1990-2007), synthesis of the filmic and painting was achieved by quite literally modifying painted forms under a static film camera. The liquidity enhanced the themes that I work with: the notion that the female body is volatile and uncontainable; and wider ecological concerns about environmental instability and impermanence.

The condition of fluidity continued in later works (2009-2019), where paint was substituted with body fluids placed directly onto the 16mm filmstrip. Noisy Licking, Dribbling and Spitting (2014) reflects an ongoing concern with the notion of the unruly female body. The film was included in the exhibitions Femme ’n isms: Bodies Are Fluid, Oberlin, US (2023), Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty, Barbican, London (2021) and When we were Monsters, Courtisane festival 2023. It was important for me to observe the acknowledgment of themes I work with by other artists and curators.

Film still showing a circular red shape that has been marked and scratched.

I learnt of a developer made from household ingredients: caffenol. This catalysed a new phase of work with photochemistry. In 2015, as a member of the recently formed Bristol Experimental & Expanded Film (BEEF), I had access to the Brunswick Club darkroom, a pleasure to work in due to its spaciousness and accessibility. This was the first time in my artistic career that I had a studio, a dedicated space where I could construct small film sets and leave them for prolonged periods of time. My work became more measured and rigorous as a result, whilst retaining some of the brutal rawness.

Not a part (2019) is a photogram portrait of bees that reintroduces the photographic into my practice. The photogram is activated through light and the sensitivity of film emulsion and lends itself to the film’s themes of entanglement as all objects, human and insect, mingle in the flattened surface space of the medium.

Image of a film strip with a white light burst pattern.

At the height of the Covid pandemic, BEEF was involved in The Centre of Gravity, an ambitious artist takeover of the vast former Gardner Haskins store, with a collective installation: The Department of Moving Images. At the time, I was struck by the way face masks offer anonymity and I saw a way to film the faces of visitors to the exhibition, creating Smiths Screen Tests (2020-unfinished). At the time, I was also making Re:exposure (2020), which compares the delicacy of skin to the sensitivity of film emulsion – both accessible to physical contact and both easily damaged through excess light. The film’s themes of physical irregularity and imperfection were enhanced by the context of its exhibition alongside Jo Spence, whose photography equates the surgically disfigured body to the monstrous (A Picture of Health at Arnolfini, 2021).

Film still of a hand holding a film strip of a hand holding a film strip.

In my recent work, the film camera that initially pointed downward to animate compositions from the imagination is now repositioned to face outwards and record the world. Further to Re:exposure, I’m interrogating the limits of photographic exposure through a series of filmic self-portraits that explore, among other things, the experience of ageing. Sending the film repeatedly forth and back through the camera makes it more susceptible to damage, and so the idea of exposure extends to notions of being touched. These multiple superimpositions have the effect of altering physical appearance, such that the figure appears too bright or dense, producing an unlikeness. The medium is also de-familiarised, as repeat exposures act like glazes, softening the photographic and bringing the filmic into the painterly. To date I’ve completed three of five self-portraits, Deliquesce (2022) commissioned by Aspex Portsmouth, and Shedding & Spinning (2023).

Installation view of a film projection featuring a portrait of a woman's face.

Abusing film in this way has been practically difficult in terms of choreographing the lighting, movement and camera, yet most of these setbacks have contributed to strengthening the work. With the support of a DYCP grant, I was mentored by Maria Walsh whose input was valuable, focusing on what, in the absence of narrative, sustains spectator engagement. The technical errors that forced me to painstakingly re-perform works have resulted in greater variation on a limited repeated action, with elements of unpredictability that sustain viewer attention.

Performance to camera in analogue film resonates with 70s and 80s video art and is often experienced in white cube spaces. My works have been presented as single screen in cinema spaces, and I would like the current set of work to be exhibited all at once, as a multi-screen installation. The WEVVA award supported this experimentation and enabled me to try out different modes of presentation. I digitised the analogue material and hired a range of different video monitors, presenting the work in progress at Spike open studios. The square proportions of the monitors enhanced the format of the portrait. There’s almost a 1:1 scale with the viewers’ own head, suggesting a sense of presence that is perhaps missing in cinema.

Over the last two years, I’ve learnt a great deal through intense focus on performance to film camera and analogue film processing. I’ve come to know the Bolex camera and its distinctive film language intimately. Now that I’m performing solo to the camera, I’ve become more sensitised to its versatility. To precisely choreograph my movements with the lens, I’m taking my cue from the audible click that signals the passage of one second of film; the film is passed multiple times through the camera body, thus increasing levels of contact and handling. And yet, although the camera is more of a collaborator in current work, it remains fixed on a tripod while I move in front of it. In this respect the work continues to have the status of animation.

Pushing filmic exposure to the limit has increased my knowledge of film emulsion in relation to qualities of light. I’m better able to predict how light will behave when creating a new exposure – its reflective qualities and how to gauge areas of darkness in a scene where the silver has not yet been used. These are skills that I’ve been able to share with other practitioners in workshops at Lux, London and BXL lab, Brussels.

It has taken me 30 years to pare my work down to a system and rigour that more closely addresses the principles of experimental film practice. I plan to continue with modes of portrait filming by returning to the Screen Tests, but using the new method of superimposition. The approach of defamiliarizing the subject will be sustained, but through the method of compositing.

My references draw from several practices from the previous century, and yet the depiction of self as imperfect is a political strategy with much contemporary resonance. As Lauren Elkin observes in relation to the objectification of the female throughout art history,

  • It is no wonder so many feminist artists have turned to ugliness, abjection and roughness in order to be taken seriously.
    (Elkin, 2023: 36) Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art.

The West of England Visual Arts Alliance (WEVAA) is a three year programme of activity that aims to transform Bristol and the West of England into a place where the visual arts can thrive, providing critical opportunities and support to enable artists, curators and young people to develop their careers and achieve their potential. Find out more about the programme and opportunities here.

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