in Features | 01 APR 08
Featured in
Issue 114

Duncan Campbell

The Troubles, Samuel Beckett, Joan of Arc, knitted club flyers and reconstructing the past

in Features | 01 APR 08

‘How can I hope to deal with such complexity?’ The disembodied narrator voiced by Ewen Bremner in Duncan Campbell’s 16mm film Falls Burns Malone Fiddles (2003) is at the end of his wits yet unable to quit. The Scottish actor’s stormy 34-minute monologue – authored by the Dublin-born, Glasgow-based Campbell and modulating through bewilderment, frustration, fury and resignation – unfurls over stills and moving images gathered by community photography organizations in west Belfast during the 1970s and ’80s. Here, artless views of inertia-paused teens, fragmentary graffiti and decaying estates, skirting the calmer peripheries of life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, complicate widespread assumptions about the era. Compelled to understand what’s before him, determined not to misread the past, Campbell’s febrile investigator starts from first principles – he possesses awareness somehow, he initially concedes, and can perceive ‘mutations in the field of light’, i.e., the filtered photographic archive, whose specificity might be cautiously approached – but finds himself endlessly beset by uncertainty from then on.

Repeated bold leaps into metaphoric and sociological readings (replete with animated diagrams colonizing the imagery) quickly elicit self-disgust from Bremner’s character, evidently tainted as they are by his subjective consciousness – the very faculty, ironically, that led the narrator to begin this Sisyphean task in the first place. Remaining silent or giving up, he discovers, are not options either. And it’s this sense of being bogged, ridiculously so, that makes the reference to one of Samuel Beckett’s characters in the work’s title so apposite (albeit half-coincidentally: the phrase comes from a Republican poster, ‘Malone’ referring to an affluent area of Belfast whose Catholic denizens were thought indifferent to the violence nearby).

Campbell’s creative history is itself tricky to parse and seemingly accreted through instinct. During and following his studies at Glasgow School of Art he produced knitted versions of club flyers (make a backstitch here to posters as the inspiration for the title of Falls Burns …), made videos featuring pages ripped from fashion magazines and contributed footage of underpasses and roadside rubbish to Luke Fowler’s music-video compilation Shadazz 4: Evil Eye is Source (2002). Loose hypothesis: here the archival impulse is augmented first by a sense that we can’t handle found material without some degree of absurdist fumbling, and second by a gravitation towards peripheries, easily ignorable incidental details, which underlines how lost one can become in vast spaces – like, say, the space for interpretation within recorded histories, cultural or political – and only makes the potential for fumbling greater. Viewers are not exempt from this perplexity.

Campbell’s later 16mm excursion o, Joan, no … (2006), for example, drops any certainty of orientation, milieu or historical dimension whatever, seemingly picking up on the out-of-time mood of the narrator in Falls Burns … (plus the aforementioned magnetism to marginal details) and transposing it into a semi-abstract realm. A predominantly dark screen is intermittently lit with unpredictable shafts of light from a heterogeneous spread of sources, from street lamps to theatrical spotlights to rave-style glowsticks. A female voice-over ‘reacts’ to these stimuli for ten minutes with wordless expostulations, from ‘ooh’s to screeches: she sounds variously shocked, upset and tickled. The lights, and the infrequent sound of a barking dog, imply indoor and outdoor settings by turns. But much else about this sparse, agitatedly poetic and darkly comic film – which enlarges Campbell’s formal vocabulary by nodding to a continuum of early Modernist cinematic experimentation with the barely representational and onomatopoeic, as well as to Beckett’s Play (1963) – more readily implies a space of metaphor: the universal human subject maddened by the fungible unknown.

Indeed, just as in o, Joan, no … it is not the mysterious ‘mutations in the field of light’ but the woman’s involuntary reactions to them that commands attention, so one might consider Campbell’s work as primarily concerned with how – even when dealing with removed externalities like a country’s history – we’re screened off from any hope of objectivity. His work in progress, Bernadette Devlin, a study of the charismatic Republican figurehead in the form of a loosely chronological patchwork of vintage film clips sourced from British and American news archives, has precisely this abyssal wrinkle at its heart: in seeking to reconstruct Devlin’s life and work, the artist’s tilted take is indivisible from the private fascination with her that instigated the project.

The world’s image banks are huge and ever proliferating, Campbell asserts while fabricating a historical moment from the incidental warp and weft of Devlin’s life before cameras; the past can be reconstructed in so many ways, different evidence serving different agendas. Any attempt to do so is really just a story of the self; a doubled story, essentially, since once the interpretation has nudged past the scrim of the artist’s self-consciousness, it then gets shape-shifted by that of the viewer. And yet, even when the impossibility of the task is laid before us, we persist – stuck in the dark with shards of copiously interpretable light.