Falling Silent: Emma Geliot interviews Anthony Shapland

Anthony Shapland works predominantly with moving image and he is currently exploring a new approach to how sound is perceived with visual imagery, and how silence can be used as more than the absence of noise. Emma Geliot talks to him about the spaces between things and the knotty problem of defining a multi-faceted practice.

The first thing that strikes you about Anthony Shapland`s work is that it is filled with poetry, even though few of his films have any kind of dialogue in them, and that they ooze a generous and empathetic quality. He has been described as `an astute people watcher`, with a painter`s eye for detail. In A Setting (2007), a simple, two shot work, which switches from a landscape to the image of an elderly man, seen reading a newspaper through a caravan window as night falls, Shapland`s steady gaze allows us to drink in his father in a way that is rather moving. This work has stayed with me since I first saw it, in 2007, as part of his solo exhibition, Suddenly After a Long Silence, at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff.

`Suddenly After a Long Silence`, is a quote from Jon McGregor`s first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, and it`s easy to draw similarities between that book and Shapland`s work. However, where McGregor uses liquid prose to chart the lives of the residents of a street, the prose in Shapland`s work is implicit, forged in the minds of the viewer. The response becomes a wordless poem, where words are replaced with a kind of sensation around a word, evoked by the rhythms of images.

`I realised, recently, that I talk more of books and writing in relation to my work than I do about film`, Shapland reflects, `There was a type of character emerging in the pieces - usually male, existing slightly apart from others and absorbed in their own world - that was recurring. In one film it was Dad, in another it was a guy I observed in Swansea Market, then the small team of Spanish security guards in Asturias, [Seguriadad, 2009], who existed below ground, while the world carried on above them. Ray Cook is one of these characters. I started to wonder how much they stood in as surrogates for myself. This is how I read fiction; I empathise so completely with another viewpoint that the central characters become inseparable. Ryder, the central character of Ishiguru`s The Unconsoled is also Singer in Carson McCullers` The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, more recently I`ve found the same character cropping up in some outstanding Tove Jansson short stories.`

Shapland, an evocative writer, has been, periodically, working on a series of chapters of a book, in which he imagines the life story of R C Cook. Cook`s civil service career is shrouded in mystery. He suddenly came to the attention of the British public when, in the 1970s, he appeared on the children`s programme, Blue Peter, to talk about his miniature matchstick carvings. Shapland meticulously fabricated Cook`s workbench for The Life of R C Cook (Title Sequence), in 2009 and there, his eye for authentic detail shines through. He`s also concentrated on creating convincing R C Cook ephemera - a film poster, a book cover - while the chapters of the book aren`t intended to be joined together, but seen as discrete moments. And in these extracted moments it`s clear that the reason Shapland`s work can be so emotionally engaging is his ability to inhabit another character, to take on another point of view.

Some R C Cook works were brought together in The Unremark (2013), but this seam of work has yet to be worked out. Will it ever be resolved for Shapland? `What to do with Ray Cook is an ongoing question. He had his first outing with a show that Sean Edwards put together, nearly ten years ago. Sean had Beth Harmon at the centre of the show, a Walter Tevis character to work out - I had Ray Cook. The difference is that Harmon exists in just 243 pages, where Ray Cook existed/exists. I only know about a brief moment in his life; all attempts to find out more are slow and painstaking. I still don`t know what this work is - it`s been many things. I didn`t even know that I remembered him, until I was writing a text about those moments when we realise that something isn`t real, that film is constructed - those moments when you have to work hard to mentally sustain an illusion. I was writing about this and, while my brain fished around for information, I remembered a moment from my childhood. The moment was when a camera panned off-set and revealed the edges of the studio fakery, along with the other cameraman - I was a child and I remember my shock.

`I researched it and my recollection was right. The person being interviewed, when the cameras were swapped, was Raymond C Cook of Pinner, and since then I have been trying to work out why he`s important to me. What is his story? I`ve spent days in archives on microfiche viewers, followed dead-end leads, put out articles in local papers in Harrow and Pinner, as well as producing a series of works that take apart and reconstruct his life, often in collaboration with film/ TV professionals. A title sequence for the film that might be made about him was made in collaboration with a props buyer, to recreate Cook`s work desk. The sequence left space for the titles and credits, to be added at some point when the story is known. I still don`t know how it ends, but then neither do I know how it begins.`

The fictional autobiography of R C Cook is called The Unremark. I`d not heard this word before. Shapland enlightens me: `Things not said; the compound adjective formed by putting un in front of the noun, or verb. It talks of things not done, or things that are slightly unreachable. An unremark is a silence - but not an absence. It stands for things thought but not spoken, things not remarked upon but observed. It`s also the root of things that are deemed insignificant. I coined the term, so it can mean what I like - but it fits. It became the place for Ray Cook, a life that was briefly glimpsed in a spotlight, but otherwise quietly lived. But it also serves as a good description of the things I`m currently working on.`

Shapland is excited about the new works he`s making. The technical requirements and the resources that he needs mean that some works develop in bouts of activity, followed by a waiting game, so it it`s sensible to have more than one on the go. He`s also in demand, with several exhibitions in the pipeline and a Northern Film & Media Connect/Exchange residency at Chapter, giving him much-needed development time. He`s become interested in the disconnect between what we hear and see and, at Universal Sound`s Foley studios, is filming the objects used to make sound effects, like walnuts and apples, crashing onto parquet flooring to aurally mimic breaking bones.

How does a work evolve; what happens in Shapland`s head? He explains: `There are moments, images, or ideas, or words that I come across, which have a resonance. I sit with them; sometimes for days, sometimes for years, until they let me know why I think they`re important. Sometimes making work feels like a long wait, a good wait that allows for thinking. Eventually, some or all of these ideas coalesce and make sense together. Every decision has a reason - and every decision is the result of deliberation, compromise, circumstance, or luck. These waiting spaces are important to me. I used to think they were the physical spaces - the ones that are often referred to as `liminal` - but I`ve realised since that it`s a space of anticipation and uncertainty.`

Attempting to illustrate his conceptual connections, Shapland thinks, `There is the inescapable sense, sometimes, that the world - its fabrication, human and otherwise - is all constructed in the same way that a film set is put together. It is a functioning prop, within which we exist. It`s transient and changing. Maybe those places that undergo regular change, like galleries, have this stamped all over them, but those spaces that exist over a longer timescale are equally transient. What makes something real? What is the baseline before things exist, happen, animate, resonate? It`s perhaps `silence` and `emptiness` that best expresses this baseline. Rather than an absence of stuff, silence could be seen as the `solid`. The phrases `to break a silence`, `pierce the darkness` would suggest they are solid. But sound travels, light travels. Silence rests and darkness waits to be illuminated.`

Exploring the relationship between sound and vision, for the 2016 Cardiff Contemporary biennial, Shapland filmed Cardiff sign writer, Alan Caverly, producing two discrete single channel films, Do The Dashes Split (Over The Water) and The Hand That Makes The Sound (both 2016). The first is filmed in real time, as Caverly`s hand writes each letter of Marconi`s first messages. For the second film, Caverly is observed as he works. Shapland says its origins lie in previous work using decommissioned billboards, in Buenos Aires. `I started to think about the sounds of language before comprehension and the practice of Foley. The power of writing to create silent sound. You draw an o and I hear one, you follow it with an n and I hear a different sound and find a different meaning, when that sound is added to the first. Writing sits there, shaping sounds that we then form in our minds, or with our mouths, in order to understand it. We add the sounds together to understand the collection of sounds and the sense they might make.`

Those two works were some of Shapland`s longest, but watching many of his films creates the sensation of time suspended, that more minutes have elapsed than actually have. `I`ve become known as that guy that makes slow films and it`s really difficult to get away from that description, so I wear it`, Shapland seems resigned to the label, `In fact, hardly any of my films are more than six minutes long, but there is a peculiar thing that happens when you screen footage without jump cuts. Real time inertia ticks by and feels longer, more drawn-out than our experience of it.

`But I know there is a very thin divide between expectation and boredom - and more recent viewing habits have shortened our attention span. We view, hand on mouse, at the ready to click on, to ffwd and rew at will - to see what happens next, like skim-reading books. Its easier to skitter through digital footage, there is no physical film to move, nor tape to spool.

`There is an impatience in our daily lives that I just have to embrace. When people talk to me about my work, they mostly talk about the still that has been the publicity image - I wonder how much we absorb when there isn`t a digestible `story` to repeat. We all long to make sense of things, to be able to order or arrange things into a clean narrative in the re-telling. I hope I might make that process more difficult. It`s complex, it doesn`t make sense, it has non-sequiturs. If anyone has ever transcribed speech - stutter for stutter, pause for pause - they will know that we are often inarticulate, unsure, uncertain if what was said by me was understood by you.`

Shapland is the king of crepuscule, the shift from day to night, or night to day, as seen in works such as False Dawn (2007), in the same show as A Setting. His fascination with that tipping point between light and darkness continues almost a decade on.

`I have a collection of grey cards. They are 18% grey and, used with a camera, they give a balanced and measurable exposure. I`ve started to wonder whether the lux level at which our eyes shift from cones to rods is also at 18%. Is twilight 18%? Between the safety of daylight and the unknown blackness, there is a point at which we are in neither. We treat light as everything and darkness as nothing. We also treat silence the same way. Sound is something where silence is nothing. My question, I suppose, is whether this can be seen, or rather heard, the other way round?

`Visually, can I establish where and how the switch from cones to rods takes place? At what point do we measure this? Night vision becomes black and white. At what point does this happen?`

Shapland is similarly interested in visual shifts, `...the plane of water/glass mirror, which switches from view to reflection. It`s a place that marks the line between one state and another,

The world reflected is seen in Level (2015), a work that developed from a residency project at the Elan Valley. In this remote setting, artists were invited to respond however they liked. There is, indeed, something unsettling about a landscape filmed entirely as a reflection in a reservoir. The image seems plausible, then a fish breaks the surface, a fly lands, a leaf falls, and the illusion is shattered. Out of that residency came Circumnavigate (2016). The rhythmic pan past conifers at the water`s edge makes music in the head, as each randomly spaced trunk splits the screen into staves, until the final shot of a water-lapped island offers up a kind of finale.

Given the beauty of the Elan Valley, how challenging was it for Shapland to make a response that went beyond the scenic? `I struggled in Elan. Another description that has been hung on my work is that it`s about landscape. I made a couple of films in the hills of the place where I grew up and that was enough to seal the deal. One of the problems of working as a filmmaker and being asked to work in a beautiful place, a wild place, is that it is too easy to make something beautiful. In Elan I wanted to find the grit, the thing that was specific to there. The two films (of many) that came out are almost narrative-less, but they came from quite a long period of research and thinking. I was aware that the landscape I was in was also a set, was also completely manufactured and concealed a different place. The reflection of the world above on the lake surface doubled the landscape; it became a twin. Where once a stream or a river rushed and surged, this sound was drowned with the construction of the reservoirs. That work isn`t quite finished with either. I`m more tortoise than hare.`

These residency respites are important to Shapland, giving him time to step back and pull together his thoughts. He took an 18-month sabbatical in 2015 to do just that. Now he`s back at g39, the artist-led gallery in Cardiff he initiated in 1997, before teaming up with co-founder and director, Chris Brown, in 1998. How can Shapland be described: Artist? Film maker? Curator? Definitions are difficult. Of course he`s an artist - by training and practice - but `film maker` is too ambiguous, especially as he rarely uses film, shooting in HD video, often using dual channels to create two viewpoints, or points of view. And his work is not cinematic; it`s intended to be seen in gallery or art context.

He`s a curator too, but his influence extends beyond exhibition-making; he`s had a hand in shaping scores of emerging artistic and curatorial careers. Yet Shapland falters at that description. `I never quite feel intellectually adequate enough to call myself a curator. I struggle academically, I always have. It`s not that I don`t `get` things, just that I understand them differently. I have a belief that we can say the most complex things with simple words, and this is often at odds with the way the art world, often unintentionally, writes about art, confusing verbosity with eloquence.`

It must be tough, keeping his work at the gallery separate from his artistic practice. Shapland agrees: `So difficult. I struggle to keep space between the two and often fail. The conversations at g39, and the drive to make things happen, have always been at the forefront of what I do. It keeps me connected with how other people are thinking, what artists are doing, and how the public reacts to galleries. I think I have some skill in choreographing gallery spaces, in understanding how people experience those spaces and interact. This, combined with some building skill, means I keep building the sets. After all, galleries are just sets; it`s all just scenery, a space to house or display changing ideas or objects. One show ends and another takes its place. I sometimes feel cornered by a feeling of obligation; that there`s an expectation of g39 that`s somehow more pressing or urgent than my own work.`
In the end it`s Shapland`s approach that provides the solution. He decides that `editor` describes him best, because this connects the way that he pares down his films to the essentials, and how he works with artists to help them turn studio work into an exhibition. It`s a constant process of sifting and refining, of the detail in the bigger picture, of taking out the visual noise. Of finding the silence.