“They can expect a throwback in technology.” explains Thomas, speaking over Microsoft Teams. “My Hive residency is underpinned by previous exhibitions of old style cameras that they’d had in the Hive years ago.”
Thomas Jack Brown is the third in a cohort of eight artists in residence as part of the OKTA program at The Hive, a community hub based in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter. Supported by the Ruskin Mill Land Trust, the residency invites creative practitioners to develop new work in response to the space and its archives, activities, community, and local environment.
“My practice is underpinned by the reconstructive nature of memory.” explains Thomas. “When we experience something, or we witness an event, or we share an experience with other individuals our recounting of those events can be altered by a number of external or internal factors. My belief is that each of those recollections is just as valid and just as “true” as the original experience moment. It’s the way in which narratives and stories pass down and change and morph. You know, when you’re recounting a story in a pub and your four pints down it’s going to be different to you recounting it to your parents.”
“I work with either self shot or archive Super 8 film.” he says, surrounded by equipment. “I just prefer working with negative. Because it’s tactile, you can do things with it that you can’t do with an SD card. I just think there’s a greater discipline to it personally. My original choice of working with archive film was because it’s cheap. Three minutes of self-shot and processed film comes to around ninety pounds – it can be very expensive – whereas people sell their archive film; on ebay, at car boots and that – because they don’t possess the technology to be able to play it anymore so they think, “It’s clutter, we’ll get rid of it”. I think that’s a massive shame ‘cause people are essentially selling on their personal histories.”
“I feel there’s an element of custodianism in using archive film as well, because it means that you’re kind of keeping something alive. In the same way that stories get passed down, you’re keeping a tradition, you’re keeping culture, you’re keeping narratives of history alive into the next generation. We learn from history, we learn from mistakes that are made and not to make them again… or in the current political climate, we should learn…”
“I think with current technology and current culture we’ve become less careful with memory because of what we have the ability to do. Camera phones, they’re wonderful devices…but I think we’ve become less precious about those moments because we’re able to take an infinite amount of versions of them. When we have the ability to record lots of “precious moments”, then by definition maybe those moments aren’t precious because you’re constantly recording all of them. My experience of the kind of social media, mobile phone experience began in undergraduate, and it was people uploading photos of every single Friday and Saturday night. If you’re constantly doing that, do you dilute the preciousness of those moments?”
“When you transfer an mp4 or when you transfer a jpeg, upload or anything like that, like we do currently with social media, it degrades. They digitally degrade every time you save it, every time you copy it. If you hold the original, if you have the space and the ability to hold the originals, at least you’ve got a backup that way. But again, we are constrained by market forces, we are constrained by technological advancements. We kind of move along with what is now what is popular, and have a culture in discarding what is not.”
“One of the latest Macbook Apples got rid of the usb port. We don’t have that anymore; it’s cloud storage, it’s online storage. I don’t abide by cloud storage, because the person who has control over the cloud servers can choose at any point to turn it off and that’s suddenly all gone. It’s the same with social media, with facebook archives and things like that. There might be a moment in the future where someone decides ‘aaaand Facebook’s gone.’ It’s gone and we’ve lost everything. We saw it with Myspace, we saw it with Bebo, with Friendster, with all of these platforms where we were archiving our lives. Rather than putting it on film we were archiving it digitally, and then those plugs got pulled because of external market forces.”
Thomas is conscious that artists in the future might not be able to work on archival material the way he does now.
“It might become scarcer and scarcer to pick those apart because those collections may be more fragmented over a person’s timeline. The fact that they’re on multiple platforms, they’re on mobile phones that are no longer existing because they’ve upgraded to a new model, or because the cloud server that was on there they cannot access. That’s why I prefer to work with tactile, because you can physically hold it. You know that it exists in the physical world and you know that the evidence on the negative is self evident and self evidenced. That person existed in that moment, in that place. It’s not digital, it’s not numbers, it’s not data, it’s viewable with your own eyes – it’s as “true” as possible. “
Much of the archival footage Thomas works with has a strong sense of place.
“I bought a 50ft reel of film years ago and used it in 2019. With the kind of production of reels of film for projection, in that tradition of getting your holiday film back and projecting it for your family, it had writing on it. I managed to do some online investigating during the early stages of lockdown and it was footage – I can’t remember how I came to own it- but it was footage of a mother returning home from visiting Mount Rushmore, and then having a picnic in the park with some family friends. I managed to find the son of the mother from the sixties and it was footage that they’d never seen before.”
“For this residency at the Hive, my girlfriend’s eldest brother was at a carboot in Studley, wandering around, and he called me up and he said, ‘look, there’s a box of archive film here – do you want it?’…and it was fifteen pounds! Fifteen quid for hundreds and hundreds of feet of film. And it’s like Brittany in France from 1959. It’s Tunisia, it’s Bulgaria, it’s Venice, it’s Devon, it’s Swanage, it’s…this family have just lived a jetset life over the years. In my opinion this is a valuable set of memory. It’s amazing how much there is and they’ve just decided to throw it away. I think that’s really really sad.”
Thomas feels a responsibility to the materials and the formats that make up his work.
“I think having those older technologies is so important because…with the home movies, they’re precious. People have just chucked them away because they’re cluttering space and…you’re chucking away a memory that will reconstruct, it will recall, it will recount and those memories are valuable, but at the end of it all those memories will fade. They will fade and it’s a case of who gets to decide what memories are valuable and what are not. There’s a bittersweetness in looking at the archive footage as well. In this collection there are these incredibly sweet twin little girls just experiencing Belgium, Venice, Toronto, Bulgaria …why would you not want that? Why would you not try to find some way of digitizing them for your family, for your descendents? “
“There is a preciousness to the kind of medium that I use and it’s dependent on what is in the footage that informs my practice. The material itself informs what I do with it. For example with the footage of Brittany in 1959, I wouldn’t do anything tactile with that. I’ve bleached film, I’ve coated it in laundry detergent, I’ve painted, I’ve inked on it… I personally wouldn’t do anything tactile to that because I think that is quite a significant reel of film. However, footage of Devon in the 1970s or Cornwall in the early 80s, that is fair game, because of how technology and how the medium of filmmaking have proliferated across that period of time. I believe that that is fair game for painting and inking over and experimenting with because in my opinion there is more value to footage that is older, in that time period, in terms of geography and location and everything as well. In the collection there’s footage of what I believe to be…it looks like Soviet Bulgaria…I don’t know if Bulgaria was part of the USSR, but it looks like there’s Russian flags in Bulgaria. That is quite precious to me cause it’s like okay that’s a very different experience and very different cultures to what we have now, and what I have experienced. When I do self-shot footage it’s fair game as well. It’s now, it’s current culture, it’s fair game to be mashed up and messed with.
“My self shot stuff is influenced by other video artists who have influenced my path. Early Bill Viola, Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Len Lye animation stuff and Richard Reeves is kind of what I look at when I’m manipulating the film with paint and ink and stamps and brushes and things like that. Things like Anticipation of the Night by Stan Brackage, Nostalgia by Hollis Frampton…there’s an amuetureness to it. It’s not narrative in the strictest sense that we may understand what narrative may mean, in terms of understanding a narrative film, but a narrative may be loosely created and divined from it by an audience member.”
“When I finished my first degree – it was film, radio and television production – I was totally disillusioned by it all. I didn’t wanna live in London. I had to travel through London to get home every single time I wanted to come back to the Midlands and I hated it. After three years I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to do something a bit more free.”
As with the footage itself, Thomas is passionate about maintaining the gear used to shoot on these formats.
“I collect different Super 8 cameras; again, there’s a preservationism, a conservatism – conservative with a small c! – to it. For me, looking at those cameras and collecting those items, it’s like looking at the early days of automotion. You know cars – you’ve got your clutch on the left, your break on the…they’re in a layout like that. Looking at old cameras, it’s like, ‘how does this even work as a camera, how does it even make sense?’ ”
“I’ve got one that looks like a Captain Scarlet ray gun, it’s utterly bizarre. In most of my experiences with the cameras, you either load the camera cartridge in the back or you load the camera cartridge in the side of it so it’s all fitted in one box. The model that I have, the cartridge loader for some reason is a giant square on top of it . It doesn’t look right as a camera but it’s fascinating that someone decided to design a camera like that. At the residency space in the Hive there’s a glass cabinet with lots of different cameras in there from my collection: 8mm, double 8mm and Super 8 cameras.”
As part of the residency, Thomas will be recreating the viewing experience to go alongside these heritage formats.
“It’s showing film in the way that we – I say we, I wasn’t included in that because I wasn’t born at the time – but screenings of films that would have happened at the time when the film was around. The family would have filmed Tunisia, they would have filmed Brittany, they would have got it back from the developers available to project it in their home. In the Hive there is a living room space, so my work sits in an environment that looks quite similar to how it would have done.”
“Exhibitions I have done with projectors in the past – it’s been a while because of the pandemic – it’s interesting to listen to audiences. There is a fracture. There is a line in time: I get older members of audiences who, that sound of the projector whirring, that flickering, it takes them back. I had this one woman talk to me about the fact that when she was in the cinemas in Plymouth and the film broke, the projectionist at the back had to repair it and it took a while. What would happen is…she described it as “the icecream ladies would come out and give the audience free ice cream to keep them entertained.” That’s wonderful culture. Then you get another side of it, the younger audiences, they’re like what the hell is that. They wanna touch it, they want to get involved and, health and safety, you can’t, but here you go, this is what this is. There’s a vintage, an ancestral magic to it. This is what we used to be like. This is what fashion was, this is what culture was, this is what the place looked like.”
“Preparing the reels means you’ve got to load it all back onto the reels for it to be able to loop through. It’s a material, it’s a physical object, it’s not a case of pressing play like on an sd card or on a screen. It’s me physically interacting with memory, almost. Actually loading the film back onto the reel in preparation for the next screening. So as part of the residency there will be a loose performative element of me winding the film back and getting it ready for the next show.”
The Family at OKTA will be screening at The Hive throughout the day on 11th, 18th, and 25th February and 4th March. Thomas Jack Brown is also an Artist In Residence at the University of Wolverhampton, and his video installation Communion is currently on show at St Peter’s Church as part of OFFSITE9.