Dr Lee Campbell shares his journey of using the ‘rip’ as a way of re-engaging with past work and past selves during the pandemic.
What may it mean to remediate, excavate and bring back to life a personal archive of paintings and drawings and mobile phone recordings made over the span of 25 years through the medium of moving image?
Beginning a perpetual process of making and remaking, constantly recycling myself, constantly requoting myself to create a density, beginning in late 2019 and then again at the start of lockdown March 2020 I made several short films which reused/recycled bodies of my past artwork. These films used the rip as both metaphor, symbol and structure to build upon existing work, create new forms out of ‘old’ practice and indeed show new versions of ‘old’ me. Collage became a major tool in this recent film practice, reinvigorating paintings and drawings that I produced nearly twenty years ago which are juxtaposed throughout my films with current photographic and performance for camera work. Things insist, in a spiral, nothing’s wasted. In this exciting new phase of my practice, I used all my capacities, from theatre to drawing, to painting, to language, to the comic, to the affective, to the relational, to painting and performance and film. Excavating (fine art) work I made long ago and resuscitating it, I brought these back to life through the medium of film.1 Integrating my fine artwork into my film work, my films created an arresting palimpsest effect by recycling pieces from previous bodies of work and placing them within my current context to see how their meanings may now differ from when they were first conceived.
R.I.P is often used as acronym for the phrase ‘Rest in Peace’. By using ‘Let Rip’ in the title of a cluster of these films, e.g. Let Rip: A Personal History of Seeing and Not Seeing (2019), past memories, previous ideas, artworks that I had made years and years ago etc were never left (to rest) in the past (i.e., not ‘put to bed’) but returned to again and again. This gives contradiction as this is an excavation of older work, old material, old me. I am revisiting myself and previous work, bringing myself and this prior work back into the present. Each film builds up a sophisticated linguistic system of collaging image to recycle my archive into the present. The ‘rip’ in terms of this work could be defined as creating visual textures on screen, which both concealed as much as they revealed, and that ripping something apart did reveal certain things about my homosexuality. Reflecting now on this process, I have realised there were certain parts of myself I must keep private/at bay.
Let Rip: A Personal History of Seeing and Not Seeing (2019), set within the context of gay male adolescent reaching sexual maturity in 1990s British suburbia, presents a personal history of sight – not seeing yourself, discovering a part of yourself through seeing. It was in the production of this film where I first discovered my usage of the physicality of ‘ripping’. The ripping signifies another fleshy layer seeping underneath and being revealed, another set of imagery or text coming through. Creative green screen usage in films has been around forever and could be said to feel retro but I hope that in my films it doesn’t as I use green screen to review history.
When I started experimenting with green screen in iMovie (the software that I use to produce and edit my films), I stumbled across the kind of imagery layering, bits coming through pixelation effect by (happy) accident. Wanting to take advantage of this, I realised that there were some parts of the imagery below the top layer that I wanted to ensure that the viewer would see so the ripping was used as a much more direct/quicker way of revealing that something underneath the surface. In discussion about the film at Turf Projects in Croydon soon after the film had been made, artist Deborah Findlater usefully remarked that ‘the sonic motif of a rip points to the era which I grew up in with physical magazines, posters on bedroom walls, collage, X-rated late night tv and Top of the Pops. The repetition of the first one [rip] gives the film a rhythm’. Indeed, there is something very musical in my usage of sounds and repeated phrases. Varying sound levels of the ripping also give texture and difference.
Reflecting upon the act of ripping within the scrapbook appearance of this film, it acts as a means of releasing/revealing something, revealing deeper truths, of ‘unscrapping’. As a teenager, you do not really know who you are. The film acts as a self-reflection – a ‘this is what it was like’ to come to terms with my homosexuality; of me finding somebody attractive (men) but not really knowing what I am. Layered physically and then layered further digitally, the visual is a collage that interacts with the human figure (me). Embedding physicality into the film through the ripping, some ‘rips’ reveal imagery and text quickly, whilst others are slow – how things come to you over time. The ‘ripping’ is so visceral, it’s on your skin. It hits you on an intuitional level and is inarticulable, but really supports this going back in time and reconstructing something in the present time.
It could also be argued that in the way that I am ripping I am trying to uncover something, but I never really expose. You can see/feel that the work has been made/shot in a domestic space, i.e. the window shadows – a specific response to the parameters of its making. The collage of drawings, paintings and photographs I have made is like a teenage bedroom wall (a semi-private space) but a subversion of it. It speaks to my bedroom walls as a teenager in the 1990s covered with posters and ephemera of male celebrities when I first discovered I was gay and when I dare not tell anyone I found men attractive. This very private bedroom activity now made very public. The returning motif in the film of the wall of eyes and texts feels like a space that is incredibly proximate – a slow disclosing of a very personal, proximate and intimate narrative feels like a space of slowly letting people ‘in’, but the rip has this violence of things being disclosed or unwillingly revealed / things ripped open (maybe without my consent).
There are currently three other short films in the Let Rip series. Reminiscent of early guerrilla protest video art from the 1980s, Let Rip: Bodies Lean and Ripped (2020) employs protest art, chanting within ACT UP and queer movements and visual and spoken word techniques used throughout Marlon Riggs’ Voices United (1989). This film highlights identity labelling, stereotyping and body shaming within the gay male community. This was the first film that I had made that included sections of me performing – ripping pages of a men’s health magazine promoting ‘ripped’ bodies to reveal my own pencil drawings of my own body underneath. It was the first film where I am also critical of gay male culture – laying myself bare using cultural expressions to talk about queerness as a community and speak of its challenges, pressures, pros and the cons etc. The gay male subcultural milieu needs critique – it creates such stereotypes and needs being ripped into/ripped apart.
Let Rip: The Beautiful Game (2020)employed an arguably more complex narrative structure by incorporating two voices in its storytelling. Juxtaposing my experience with my dad’s, this short film speaks about huge differences in memory about one or more football matches that me and my dad watched live in a stadium/listened to live on the radio whilst driving in the 1990s.
Conceiving of a rip as a form of disruption relates to my interest in the power of interruption and interruptive processes within art and performance.2 A disruption takes place at the start of the film. The film begins with footage I shot on my mobile phone of a car journey with my dad in 1996/1997 listening to aforementioned Coventry City and Aston Villa match. Green screen effect employed shows football players running across the screen. Everything gets flipped upside down, turned on its head, presented sideways suggesting another (non-conventional) narrative or point of view in operation (mine, as being different to that of my dad). Whilst the many upside-down and sideway angles draw particularly inspiration from my love of the work of Georg Baselitz, the German Abstract Expressionist painter who painted bodies upside down, these specifically reference my love of the work of François Truffaut and particularly the scene in Truffaut’s Les Quatre Centre Coups (1959), where the main character Antoine Doinel experiences a human version of a zoetrope known as a Rotora at a Parisian amusement park. The upside-down and sideway angles in The Beautiful Game draw upon Truffaut’s ability to use the camera in this scene to take both the character and viewer through a bodily disorientation, in most dramatic effect when he films the spectators peering into the amusement ride and seeing the riders (Antoine included) upside down. Throughout the film, ‘interruption’ can be characterised by disruption in terms of action related to the production of stops,3 pauses and breaks within the otherwise smooth running operations of an event or action in motion at the time of the interruption. Defining these stops, pauses and breaks as surprise moments that derail expectation in terms of what is pre-supposed to occur in the logical narrative of something, word play puns and double-entendres, i.e. in my humorous usage of the term ‘tackle’, ‘rip’ into my Dad’s version of events, but more importantly, rip into the climate of homophobia that I was living in in 1990s Britain at the time as well as what remains taboo even now, 30 plus years later, that the homosexuality of the homosociality of football is writ large. Compositionally, the roads in the film create a cross and grid effect reminiscent of a football pitch. This compositional mask remains the constant; it is something quite neat and ordered within the chaos. The road looks like a tear but then the rip was also like the St. George’s Cross alluding to nationalism and religion. In another version of the film, I would look to include a rip sideways to further complexify the composition. Whilst Let Rip: The Beautiful Game (2020) includes humour and poetry around how football shaped my homosexuality as a teenager in 1990s homophobic suburban Britain, Tackle (2020), made shortly after, uses a critical approach to football to ‘tackle’ some of the issues and problems that men are under at the moment. Its sound, reminiscent of industrial music (think Throbbing Gristle), has a blunt industrial lo-fi but unrelenting and unremitting aggressiveness that is not out to seduce in any way. Its compositional superimpositions evoking rips, arguably, cut deeper than Beautiful Game.4
By the end of 2020, my work took a major turn when I started using films I had made as green-screen video backdrops. Emerging as a positive of using Zoom under Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, I explore the possibilities of how Zoom can really enhance my creativity in what I am doing in terms of combining my performance and live cinema practice, and generate a way of working with Zoom which can be something that isn’t just ‘more of the same’ but as an immersive storytelling prototype. Making full usage of Zoom’s video green screen effect as a performative filmic backdrop, this involves me creating a bridge between video, poetry and performance and, in turn, proposing a new way of thinking about what the somewhat tired term ‘collage’ may be.5
Whilst there are moments throughout the performances where I make everything super clear, then I go back out. These are performances where the importance and clarity of hearing and understanding is deliberately obscured/intentionally difficult to decipher; an intentional confusion to suggest that the audience many not understand what’s going on, but more to use the interruptions / disruptions / interferences that Zoom green screen effect may have on the viewing/listening experience to relate to the difficult that a lot of queer people experience themselves in terms of visibility. Being seen, not being seen, being heard, not being heard etc, especially when discovering their sexuality at a young age in spaces/places where being anything other than heterosexual is frowned upon/not accepted and obstacles are deliberately put in someone’s path to coming out or feeling they are unable to express their (queer) sexuality directly/clearly or express it in any way at all. The lo-resolution, the possibility of lagging and buffering create a texture within the performance that relates to the difficulties that queer people can experience to be heard/seen.
In 2020, when I was not only working online as well as teaching online, creating art online and socialising online, I really appreciated those moments when I was off-line and creating art with physical materials. This signalled another ‘wave’ of work for me, in terms of making a series of physical ‘rip’ drawings which included rips and tears to create a collage effect. Eventually I would re-plug/remediate these drawings into my films and then Zoom performances (e.g. in Spinach and Eggs) but feel it is important to mention that they began life in a physical form.
The ripped portraits in Eye, I, Eye, I (2020), a drawing about gay male cruising, have a grainy texture. On a sensorial level, it feels like there is more depth to something; the shinier something is, the more impenetrable it is in many ways, the less that it reveals about itself. The imperfectness of it not being perfectly, smoothly stuck down, gives it a depth. Time can be understood beyond that of a durational work in this, as time can also be considered as being an aggregate of thought. The repetition of the figure that is turned away from you. In making the work, I hoped to create an aggregation of time coming through in the sense that you can still feel the gentle tears and violent rips even if you can’t see them or hear them.
For a Zoom performance I gave for transitstation voices #3, part of the poetry I perform talks about the scrapbook I refer to in my film Let Rip: Teenage Scrapbook (2022). I printed out digital copies of pages of the scrapbook to use throughout the performance, the first time I had done so. I did not anticipate before the performance started exactly what I would do with them. The moment in the performance where I start to play with the pages of the scrapbook bought an exciting physicality back into the digital space – these pages that conjured up so many (difficult) memories for me. Pages of the scrapbook appearing digitally on screen as the green screen effect complexified by me engaging with the pages physically. Up to that point, much of the performance, in terms of what I said and did, had been rehearsed, but this moment with the pages was a breakthrough moment of off-the-cuff improvisation, serendipitous play, of exploring for the first time in front of an audience. I remember co-curator Charles’ comments about how this moment created a different texture within the performance. Up to that moment the audience could hear pages being ripped, they could see images being ripped as part of the green screen (or in actual fact, being smudged out and replaced). The moment in the performance where I then ripped the physical pages seemed (even more) violent but for me it felt like a real moment of emancipation/potentially finally freeing myself from these images/from the memories.6 However, working with the images digitally, I knew that the images are not being destroyed (by ripping the materials (the paper) physically). The viewer knows that the image is being smudged/wiped out, but the image is still there because of technology (the image still exists digitally). But when it’s the paper being ripped, the image is gone. As painter Andrew Bracey commented on this aspect of the work, ‘There is an irrevocable harm. But as the image is digital I know that I can bring it back’.
Whilst it felt good ripping the photocopies in a cathartic way during the performance, as it felt like I was showing a sense of anger that ripped through the (in places) saccharine sentimentality of the accompanying poetry, maybe I would not have ripped the original scrapbook pages. Then again I did throw my scrapbook away and document its contents with a lo-res mobile phone camera rather than preserve it carefully. My scrapbook containing imagery that once held such importance in shaping my identity, now existing what Hito Steyerl may refer to as ripped (Steyerl, 2009) ‘poor images’.7
If I reflect upon all of the examples of practice that I have presented throughout this article and think about ripping as a kind of revealing, as a sense making process, what my reflections reveal about me is that maybe I can never really let go of the past and I am drawn to my personal archive as a strange parasitic, yet pleasurable violence.
1 – You can view a selection of these films online here:
LET RIP: THE BEAUTIFUL GAME (2020) https://filmfreeway.com/l966
LET RIP: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF SEEING AND NOT SEEING (2019) https://filmfreeway.com/LETRIP
LET RIP: BODIES LEAN AND RIPPED (2020) https://filmfreeway.com/FITslashFATLEANANDRIPPED20
LET RIP: TEENAGE SCRAPBOOK(2022) https://filmfreeway.com/LETRIPTEENAGESCRAPBOOK
2 – In 2016, I completed a practice-based PhD exploring this topic, proposing that ‘working with interruption on a theoretical, practical and emotional level can be exciting, provocative and dangerous’ (Campbell, 2016)
3 – This description of interruption as a ‘stop’ picks up on French filmmaker François Truffaut’s fascination within interruptive ‘stops’ in filmmaking in relation to processes of narrative. Tom Gunning (1995) suggests ‘When Truffaut said that he loved the moments in film when the narrative stops, he seemed to announce a whole generation’s preoccupation with the contingent and non- narrative elements of film practice […] narrative seems to still carry an ambivalent react, a taint of ideological conformity and containment’ (1995: 120)
4 – You can watch Tackle here: https://filmfreeway.com/TACKLE2020
5 – You can view examples of these live Zoom performances online here:
CLEVER AT SEEING WITHOUT BEING SEEN (2021) https://filmfreeway.com/CLEVERATSEEINGWITHOUTBEINGSEEN2021597
SPINACH AND EGGS (2021) https://filmfreeway.com/WRONGKINDOFFAT-LIVEZOOMPERFORMANCEVERSION2021
6 – The ‘physical rip’ in the Zoom performance garnered such a response from the audience that I segued a section of it into the original Teenage Scrapbook poetry film to add a moment of recorded live Zoom ‘interruption’ into the flow of the film. Watch the film here: https://filmfreeway.com/LETRIPTEENAGESCRAPBOOK
7 – In ‘In Defence of the Poor Image’ (2009), Hito Steyerl suggests. ‘The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution. The poor image is a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued, according to its resolution. The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted and reedited.’ (Steyerl, 2009)
Campbell, L. 2016. ‘Tactics of Interruption: Provoking Participation in Performance Art’. Unpublished PhD thesis. Loughborough University.
Gunning, T. 1995. Response to ‘Pie and chase in K. B. Karnick and H Jenkins’ (eds) Classical Hollywood Comedy. New York: Routledge
Steyerl, H. 2009. ‘In Defence of the Poor Image’. E-Flux Journal, 10. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ [Accessed 10th January 2022]
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