Iain Sinclair on Portaiture in Contemporary Animation

The following transcript is taken from animate!’s three-part series of screening & discussion evenings in Spring 2006 at the National Portrait Gallery, London, entitled Tracing the Contours: Portraiture and Place in Contemporary Animation, investigating the unique way in which animation, the manipulated moving image, can amplify notions of portraiture.

The second evening Route Masters: Portraits in Transition on 13 April screened the following animate! commissions:

Dad’s Dead by Chris Shepherd, Feeling My Way by Jonathan Hodgson, Flight by Dryden Goodwin, Go West Young Man by Keith Piper, Miles from Anywhere by Gary Carpenter, The Nuclear Train by Daniel Saul and Sunset Strip by Kayla Parker.

These were followed by a discussion between novelist Iain Sinclair and writer and Time Out film critic Gareth Evans.


Gareth Evans: Iain, these films are works about place, they’re films about place in motion, about the journey; they’re also portraits in various ways - or perhaps they aren’t? For yourself both as a filmmaker independently and also with Chris Petit, and obviously as a writer very much of place, did you come to them with any particular expectations or preconceptions about how the moving image can work in regard to place?

Iain Sinclair: Well, the first thing is this word ‘animate’. I had to get away from a certain sense I had of animation that was linked to those very short films you used to see at the Academy cinema before you got into the film you really wanted to see. There was also a sense - and I’ll come back to this - to do with animation and permission, but there’s another sense that ‘animate’ has, which means to bring to life, to resurrect. In the world of dead cinema and dead TV and conveyor-belt imagery, these things are very important.

In watching this show tonight, it became a kind of unity from the abstractions at the beginning, the moving across textures, to that very time-consuming Brakhage-like movement at the end. It’s very impressive to me to see these fragments knit together into a sense of movement and space and place.

Sunset Strip animate! commission © Kayla Parker 1996

Then, to play devil’s advocate to the whole business, I feel with all of this that if somebody lets you do it - if you see that logo come up which says ‘Channel 4’ - there’s always something wrong, there’s always something nagging at me. Why? This sense that you’re being allowed to do it, and you go so far, and how do you go further? Can the language give you more? How do I get back to the sense of vision I got out of Brakhage’s films? - which are silent. I want that silence. If there’s going to be sound, that sound has got to do something equal to the image that’s in front of it, it can’t just make it acceptable.

GE: This idea of what is sanctioned - let’s take Brakhage as a kind of starting point on this. He’s clearly someone who made film as you might write perhaps - it’s essential to his very being, making work in whatever way: scratching directly onto film…

IS: I think, tonight, I didn’t see anybody walk out - that’s always a bad sign! I can remember seeing Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, which was really important for me - this film about autopsies. I saw it back in the 1960s in the Royal College of Art and the door was going slam slam slam at this silent, absolutely essential head-on look at a body being cut up, with the amazing rhythms of the editing of that film.

I think of Brakhage’s connections with the American Poetic people like Charles Olson - you’re going into very deep waters, into what they call an ‘open field poetic’, which was escaping from the sense of permission, escaping from what was sponsored and allowed, escaping from the neat garden of verse into something that was absolute. They had to deal, as one of the films did tonight, with this notion of the West - what does it mean, how does Herman Melville fold into the karma of whale-killing, the karma of slavery, the karma of pushing west across America to open up this enormous landscape…

Feeling My way animate! commission © Jonathan Hodgson 1997

I want things that are as big and as grand as that, and if you have to pitch to Channel 4, you’re not going to go that far. You can’t, but within that I think these things do go very far. There is a moment in Feeling My Way where you go into the railway station with the dead and the living and the skeleton-like things. It was made in 1997 I think, and already it’s a kind of pre-image of the [London July 2005] bombings. Stations are a kind of place between life and death in a city, and I think this film, just in passing, in this kind of travelling shot, touches on these things - which is what a film should do.

GE: This idea of the West is a very large theme, clearly; it’s a portrait of our entire civilisation, our society. How can an individual maker, whether writer, animator or artist, negotiate these themes to some kind of provocative effect, in the way you’ve described and you enjoy yourself in public work?

Go West Young Man animate! commission © Keith Piper 1996

IS: I think it’s very difficult. You’re always caught between what could possibly be an artwork in a gallery, what could be acceptable to the medium of television… We haven’t really got a space, an independent space for a certain kind of film. I met somebody yesterday who had finally got to make a feature, but said that almost everybody he knew was making short films endlessly - it is the kind of dialogue of the moment. Yet they’re largely unseen. They can find space on the internet; there are corners, but they’re not part of the great dialogue of life.

And this is at a moment also when mainstream publishing is in a kind of crisis. Unless it suits the chain and the supermarket there isn’t anywhere to go, and the concept of the back list is gone. There’s this general cultural amnesia - so much is forgotten.

GE: Absolutely. But were these films portraits of individuals or of place in any way that we could make sense of in this gallery? Or were they something else altogether?

Flight animate! commission © Dryden Goodwin 2005

IS: I think they were other things altogether, but I think there was a real sense of place in a lot, of actually a studio - a sense of the city as a studio, and the city being auditioned for bits that work well in terms of film. It wasn’t an absolute sense of a city. Flight is very elegant as it moves through these various zones, and I like very much those interventions where you see that liminal landscape of fast food restaurants at night and the faces of the people are scratched.

But the zones that are delineated are safe zones in a sense. I have moved often between the city and the sea, and when you actually cross that landscape all the way on foot there are extreme peculiarities and surreal moments that can’t be touched on in this kind of portraiture. I haven’t been quite shocked or surprised or taken to a place that I didn’t know.

GE: Gary Carpenter’s Miles from Anywhere starts us not with the most abstracted sense, but the most textural, the most underfoot sense of what the landscape can be. How does this relate to your sense of walking, an almost aboriginal sense of being on the earth…

Miles from Anywhere animate! commission © Gary Carpenter 1997

IS: I think those textures have a great rhythm, a beat that becomes like the beat of the heart, and it works very well. It did take me back to these experiences, to early seminal days in the 1960s and those all-night 24 hour film shows. There was always the experience, sometime about three or four in the morning, of falling asleep and then coming back up and it would still be going. This was so intense, the textures and repetitions, I didn’t know whether I had been watching for two hours or whether it was a few seconds.

GE: Let’s stay with this idea of rhythm, because obviously it’s crucial to how these films are made, and how film itself works at one of its deepest levels. In your working as a filmmaker and as a writer, and in light of watching these tonight, do you find particular correlations or disjunctions between the act of writing and the filmmaking process?

IS: Well, it’s been a very, very long road for me to learn anything at all about writing film, because I’ve always felt the deadest kind of writing is the feature-film-type script. But the world of the documentary essay seems to be opening up very nicely - you can actually begin to get real language that isn’t boring onto film.

Dad’s Dead animate! commission © Chris Shepherd 2002

I thought the film Dad’s Dead was extremely well-written within its context. In such a short space of time to get this narrative over, which could easily have spread itself out over an hour and a half of TV without any problem at all. Using the various forms of animation; all of these tremendous tools, and there’s a real argument and balance there between the writing and the imagery. I think it was beautiful, and very nicely done.

GE: In terms of both the writing and the moving image work you’ve made, and again in light of the programme here tonight and the venue that we find ourselves in, do you consider yourself a portraitist, a portraiture-maker, as much as you are a writer of place?

IS: I think so. I think the landscape of the human face and the human psyche meld. I can’t have any sense of place without that place becoming boiled down into a person. Essentially I begin with place, but then try and find the spirits that represent or are animated by that place. Some people only seem to exist in certain spaces socially or geographically, and different human beings exist on the coast to those that exist in the city.

The Nuclear Train animate! commission © Daniel Saul 2002

GE: Clearly the films here tonight, to varying degrees and more or less explicitly, either with the maker behind the camera as it were, or the personality, the avatar, in the film, do try and find that deep relationship between visual identity and a sense of place. Are you surprised by such a programme, that these voices can find such diverse ways of representing what is, at least tonight, a shared purpose?

IS: No, I didn’t find it surprising that these things sat together. I thought they were hitting on the same tropes in very different ways. I think they sit within a kind of universe, and I think there are ways of breaking through this membrane into something often perhaps clumsier and more awkward which would not allow itself to be commissioned because it’s not defined, it can’t explain itself.

All of these films do explain themselves, but I think that there’s another place that I’m nagging at, and that is where you get the real major payoff. The best films rearrange your molecules, and you walk out of that cinema a different person.


Iain Sinclair is a British writer and filmmaker (and compulsive walker!). Much of his early work was poetry, much of it published by his own small press, Albion Village Press. His books have worked out an occultist psychogeography of London in increasingly ambitious, elaborate detail, creating a mythos in which Nicholas Hawksmoor, Jack the Ripper, John Dee, Arthur Conan Doyle and countless other historical figures are all part of a larger pattern.

Lud Heat (1975) and Suicide Bridge (1979) were a mixture of essay, fiction and poetry; they were followed by White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), Downriver, published in 1991 and winner of the James Tait Memorial Prize and the 1992 Encore Prize, and many others. One of his most acclaimed works of a series focused around London is London Orbital, along with a documentary, one of several film collaborations with Chris Petit which notably include the seminal hour-long ‘graphic novel’ and quest The Falconer.

Recent publications include the fiction Dining on Stones and Edge of the Orison, an enquiry in the footsteps of poet John Clare. He has edited a major anthology of writings on London, City of Disappearances, due in October 2006.


animate! thanks the National Portrait Gallery for supporting this film & discussion programme, a contribution to the Gallery’s 150th anniversary year.

The first evening in the three-part Tracing the Contours: Portraiture and Place in Contemporary Animation series entitled Face to Place: Portraits in Public with novelist and essayist AS Byatt took place on 9 March, and the third and final evening Private Eyes: Portraits Inside with writer and critic Sukhdev Sandhu on 11 May.

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