INTRODUCTION

Meet Frank. He’s a contemporary artist and film maker who lives in a run down East London loft apartment with his sixteen year old daughter Amy. He’s been on the fringes of the Art world for decades, hitting the headlines here and there, usually in the form of chastisement from Art critics. In his most recent work, portraits of celebrities in which his uses his own faeces as the ‘paint,’ he was accused of ‘patronising his audience’. Frank is not a well-liked artist. As a result he’s broke. He tells his daughter, many times a day, it’s not about the money.” [1] An Artist must show the truth in world that people don’t want to see, I want to punch them in their fucking faces he declares to his daughter. “Who?”’ She asks. Everyone.” [2]

So when a wealthy Art beneficiary shows up at his door, offering to fund his next great work, Frank wastes no time in setting up a series of happenings; experiments in humanity, re-enactments of recent crimes, tried and sentenced in British courts as inspirations for his seven Visions of Hell. A hell that exists right here, right now, right in front of us, whilst we are all conveniently looking the other way.

I want violence to reach you through the eyes and ears and to stay with you, to wound you so you have scars deep within simply from my work, simply from what you are watching.   And once I have assaulted you with this, I want you to rise up in anger. I want to infect you with an uncontrollable desire to change everything. I want the world to be altered and warped and broken so that we can rebuild it, piece by piece.” [3]

Frank is fictional. He doesn’t exist in the real world. He is merely a construct. But his ideas are powerful. They express what many of us feel in the creative industries; that we’ve stopped seeing, that the truth of Art has been abandoned in favour of banality in the form of ever so popular reality TV. An American housewife in the suburbs once declaredhow can I give a damn about the dishes when children are dying in Vietnam? [4] That was in the 70s. Forty years later, IS terrorists are beheading Western aid workers, broadcasting the murder on YouTube for all to see and we’ve yet to go to all out War in response.

Frank thinks we’ve fallen asleep. That our state of comatose commercialism is allowing evil to run rife in our world. He’s right. That’s why we’ve brought him to life. We gave him a body so his words could be spoken, a stage for him to walk amongst us and an audience that for 80 minutes, without break, were trapped in an underground abandoned railway tunnel with him in the heart of London city.

So this is Frank. Welcome to his Hellscreen.

CREATING THE HELLSCREEN

The imagery Frank creates as his Art is intended to shock the world; to bring us to our senses by violating them. There is no shying away from the brutal truth he expresses. Socially unacceptable, culturally offensive and ethically unsound; as the real life creators of Frank’s Art, we were in dangerous territory from the very beginning.

I have my own moral code when it comes to creating images. There are literally no boundaries anymore. Technology and software has enabled us to create any image, of anyone, doing anything, which is why photo and film based evidence is viewed with great suspicion and indeed subject to verification investigation in a court of law. When asking if an image is ‘real or not,’ many times the answer will be ‘we just don’t know.’ In those cases the photographs and film footage can not then be submitted as evidence, even if their actual truth is the key to proving the entire case.

Working in an arena which is boundless whilst being a great source of liberation and enjoyment for the creative, also comes with a great deal of responsibility. There are some things I just won’t shoot, extended acts of violence, for example. The time frame is crucial; not long enough in the edit and you belittle the act, it’s over in a flash and its impact is softened because of that. Too long and you will de-sensitise your audience, undermining their sense of outrage to the violence that you were trying to trigger by creating the scene in the first place. By imputing those visuals into their minds, you are already altering their boundaries. In fact you’re changing their brain chemistry. Studies showing links between extended exposure to pornographic imagery and higher rates of domestic violence testify to that.[5] The sexual cortex and the cortex that processes violent thoughts and imagery in the brain are right next to each other.[6] Us image makers are, quite literally, fucking with your mind.

That’s not to say I shy away from violence. If you’re re-creating a true story albeit in a fictional form, you have a duty to those who endured atrocity to represent their experience authentically. To not do so, in my mind, is unforgivable. Perhaps this is why Frank uses real court cases as the inspiration for his Art re-creations. He’s also striving for that verisimilitude. But as we present these crimes in a theatrical setting in the show, we ran the risk of it appearing fake. So I set the scene with real footage of crime scenes, from the documentary Crime Cleaners.



The footage includes the clean up operation after a man had committed suicide in his home. The real blood stained sheets, the real distress by family members, the real remnants of this man ghosted out in family photos on the walls, was disturbing to say the least. Perhaps what I found even more disturbing though was the fact this event was filmed and indeed broadcast; it had become info-tainment. The grieving widow opened the doors of her home revealing this tragedy to the whole world by allowing a film crew in. Most frighteningly of all, her home looked like any other suburban dwelling, underlying the fact this could happen in your neighbourhood, on your very street. Things have certainly changed since the 70s. Staff photographer for a local newspaper, Bill Owens photographed the world that surrounded him to create a devastating critique on early 70s middle class suburban life in California, America. In an Art a Go Go interview, Owens explains, “the photographs for Suburbia weren’t done by accident. I put together a shooting script of events that I wanted to photograph … Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Birthdays, et cetera. I got a small grant, and began taking photographs every Saturday for a year, so basically Suburbia was shot in 52 days.” [7]

Owens built his work around the conflict between seemingly neutral photographs in people’s homes and their deadpan commentary of their own lives.

surburbia

We’re really happy. Our kids are 
healthy, we eat good food, and we 
have a really nice home. [8]

So I begin this project to create the Hellscreen on Frank’s side. We share the same politics All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.” [9]And for his first happening, he made me drown a dog.

 Man’s Best Friend re-enacts a recent court case in which a man, on returning home to find his puppy has defecated in the living room, grabs said puppy and in a fit of rage and intoxication, holds the puppy’s head under the running tap until the puppy is dead. Frank shares this true story with our audience by instructing a man to re-enact the scene via instructions given on a walkie talkie whilst the point of view footage of the act is revealed to the audience on the film screen.

To be clear, I did not drown the puppy but it looked like I did and there’s only so much smoke and mirrors a director can use. There still had to be a puppy and that puppy still had to be submerged…the steam was fake (no we did not use boiling water) and through use of several subtle edit cuts (hidden by the black and white , grainy, wide angle distorted image of the culprit’s drunken point of view) the drowning scene itself looked far longer than it actually was in real life when we were shooting it. To extend the cut further, the edit finished on an up angle towards the shower head as noises of a dog squealing echoed around the underground tunnel in which the audience was watching the scene play out. I took a Hitchcockian approach to this shower scene and it worked, no animals were harmed in the filming of this production, but the audience were appalled.


The next re-enactment posed a similar set of problems. Using the same point of view, hand held black and white grainy wide angle look (communicating to the audience ‘this is real, not fake feature film production style’) we shot a sex assault. Directed by the transcripts of another recent court case in which a well known TV personality groped a young production assistant in the corridor of the BBC building, we created the visuals to tell the story. In this instance I wasn’t willing to employ actors to re-create the scene. As the shooting itself didn’t require revealing faces it was possible to have myself as the victim of the assault and my partner as the attacker. A choice he found a bit strange, it must be said.

At this point I started to see the differences between Frank and me. Unlike him, I was not willing to repeat abhorrent acts in order to amplify and highlight their atrocity. For Frank, the most important aspect of his Art is that it is real. For me, the most important aspect of my Art is that the audience believes it. Even when I’m faking it, indeed especially when I’m faking it, I use the tools of my trade to make you believe.

 I felt it would be hypocritical of me to put actors through this scene in this case. In a project highlighting the violence of others, I didn’t want to inflict more violence during the execution of it. Perhaps this is why Nan Goldin included a self portrait after suffering domestic violence in her touchstone collection The Ballard of Sexual Dependency.

 
ballard

 [10]

The series is a visual diary chronicling the struggle for intimacy and understanding between friends, family, and lovers— collectively described by Goldin as her “tribe.”[11] To expose them so fully; often naked, pre, during and post coitus, drug use and violence and to not include her own suffering could have been seen by some, as fraud. “I didn’t really care about ‘good’ photography, I cared about complete honesty.”[12]

In 1997, when then US president, Bill Clinton, made a statement in which he accused Goldin of promoting heroin chic during a moral panics over Fashion’s use of skinny, blank-looking models. “I hate that kind of glamorisation. I thought the Clinton gaffe was hilarious, but I was appalled that my work was being judged that way, because I never took pictures of people doing drugs to make a fashion statement. My work has nothing to do with that. It’s about honesty and trust. I know that most of the people I photograph trust me.” [13]

Thirty years on from shooting Ballard, people filming themselves and their friends taking drugs has its own underground movement. Goldin herself may have moved on, “my work is full of light now, too. Sometimes people don’t seem to see that. They refer constantly to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and think I am the same person that took those pictures. That series is stark,” [14] but it seems that the legacy of those images linger and influence. Perhaps now it’s even common place, what was once at the fringes, in the shadows.

Maybe this is why when I searched YouTube for clips of heroin use and found the shot I needed, it took my Producer commenting “isn’t that clip sad of that girl injecting herself “ for me to realize I hadn’t even noticed the girl, only the shot. The fact that we were hours away from curtain up and under pressure to find the right footage may have been the reason for my lack of compassion, but it is certainly no excuse.

Unlike Richard Billingham’s series Ray’s a laugh in which he photographs his own parents; alcoholic father Ray and chain smoking, at times abandoning, mother Liz, in their council flat existence, I do not know this girl. She does not know me. She is unaware I am now using her footage of real life drug use as an element in our play. I know she knew the camera was rolling because in the full-length cut of it she repeatedly looks into the lens and the footage itself has been posted on YouTube (and viewed over 200 000 times) so legally I don’t have copyright issues but morally I start to feel the ground tremor. Even Turner Prize nominated Billingham felt it necessary to protect his parents from press interest after his series was published ‘You can’t parade them around like poodles.”  [15] Ray [16]

It would be unthinkable to tell a story about the state of modern day society and criminality without discussing the beheadings of IS. In our play we showed the audience drone footage whilst Frank tells them “this is where IS generals are hiding” as he walks around the audience holding a video game detonator bating them to “take fucking responsibility, push the button.” When an audience member finally comes forward and does so, the drone footage shows a bomb drop and detonation followed by a kill count ‘Insurgents 19, Civilians 42’. Frank’s point is simple, yes we want revenge, yes we want justice, but justice through an act of violence creates more vengeance, with peoples in Iraq and Syria citing that allied drone attacks have become in fact, a recruiting force for IS.

They will also, ironically, be the very images that bring them to justice. Once these murderers are found and tried in a court of law, their own videos will be the evidence that secures their execution for War Crimes. Images by Ian Berry of the massacre at Sharpeville, one of the most brutal events of the late apartheid history, were used successfully as evidence to prove that the police had fired on an otherwise peaceful rally.

I got up to the fence and they all looked pretty quiet to me. The crowd didn’t seem too aggressive, either. I thought nothing was going to happen so I walked back to the car and as soon as I got there, the police opened fire. Bodies started to fall around all over the place. It was all over very quickly. I just had a couple of Leicas in those days with a wide-angle and a normal lens. And I simply shot people running towards me. When I realised people were being killed around me I sort of got thrown in the grass.”  [17] Sharpeville_Massacre1

 [18]

It took three months to create the film sequences for Hellscreen. Our stage production garnered a host of Four Star reviews, a selection included here.  [19]  [20]  [21]   [22]

But not everyone enjoyed the show. It’s uncomfortable viewing, deliberately so, both in its content and experience;  from the hard, unyielding stools the audience sat on, to the lack of interval, to the traverse staging which requires the audience to look directly at each other as they sit on opposite sides of the stage. For some, having Frank shout in their face ‘take fucking responsibility’ during the bomb drop scene proved too much, despite the fact that as a nation, Britain recently sanctioned drone raids in Iraq. Hellscreeen, as the title indicates, is not nice theatre.

And others wanted to be even more scared! So for the show’s next re-incarnation, I would trap the audience in a mirrored box, to heighten their sense of being watched and watching each other, putting them under further scrutiny. Using four projectors instead of two I would have the giant mirrors morph into film footage and morph back into mirrors. This trick of the eye will make the audience feel that the walls are literally disintegrating and altering round them, putting them inside the horror of the film images we create, shot using the latest digital cameras in a four rig array. For the audience, this would create the experience of a horror film you can’t escape out of.

Now that would be terrifying.

By Susan Luciani

MA GRADE :  DISTINCTION

[1] Hellscreen Production Script

[2] Hellscreen Production Script

[3] Hellscreen Production Script

[4]    Owens, B -1972 – Suburbia – San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books

[5] http://www.mincava.umn.edu/documents/arpornography/arpornography.html

[6] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/sex-and-violence/

[7]http://138.23.124.165/exhibitions/suburbia/#

[8] Owens, B -1972 –  Suburbia – San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books

[9]Burke, Edmund –  English statesman and Philosopher 1729-1797

[10] Golden, N – 1986 – Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture

[11]http://aperture.org/shop/books/nan-goldin-the-ballad-of-sexual-dependency-book#sthash.35NCZ1IE.dpuf

[12] http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/23/nan-goldin-photographer-wanted-get-high-early-age

[13] http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/23/nan-goldin-photographer-wanted-get-high-early-age

[14] http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/23/nan-goldin-photographer-wanted-get-high-early-age

[15] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/4726608/Meet-the-parents.html

[16] Billingham, R – 2000-  Ray’s a laugh. London: Scalo.

[17] http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/ian-berry-magnum-interview-sharpeville-massacre

[18] Berry, I – 1978 – The English. London: Allen Lane

[19] Hellscreen is a troubling black mirror held to pop culture, leaving you foxed, mocked, and strangely tense in this technologically adventurous show.http://grumpygaycritic.co.uk/2015/02/theatre-review-hellscreen-vault-festival-london/

[20] Hellscreen is never less than fascinating, a deeply effective production, one that’s constantly finding new ways to toy with the audience and provoke a response from us. In a world of fluffy theatrical trivialities it cuts a distinctive, solitary figure –  one well worth checking out.“ http://www.londoncitynights.com/2015/02/hellscreen-at-vault-festival-2015-27th.html?m=1

[21] “Hellscreen was a thought-provoking, fearless theatrical experiment in  a wonderfully atmospheric location. The gambles it takes pay off the vast majority of the time, and one is left with a raw, genuine piece. You will be unlikely to find anything like it elsewhere: highly recommended. http://playstosee.com/hellscreen/

[22] Hellscreen” is uncomfortable viewing due to its totally immersive nature – it is a piece of art in its own right that challenges our own perception of artistic integrity and how far we, the art supporting audience – of whom the Vaults Festival is full – are prepared to go to be entertained. https://www.londontheatre1.com/news/103584/review-hellscreen-vault-arts-festival/

 

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