So Mayer talks to filmmaker Sarah Turner about spirits and spirals in her 2015 film Public House, which documents and experiments with the rescue of the Ivy House in Nunhead from developers via its designation as an ‘asset of community value’, enabling collective ownership. In response to the film’s depiction of a community renarrating its relation to space, the interview asks how we hold on to and expand our understanding of publics and houses during this year.
The filmmaker has made Public House available to watch for free via her Vimeo channel for two weeks, from March 1-March 14. Go to https://vimeo.com/159774681 and enter the password MAP.
So Mayer: What has the situation been for the Ivy House during this year? Many, if not most, publicans are tenants and have faced horrible conditions during the last year – not only rent crises, but also wasted stock costs as well as trying to keep staff on. “I found out on the Tuesday night we’d be closing on Sunday” (as one speaker says in the film about Enterprise Inns announcing the sale of the Ivy House to developers in 2012) has been a nationally shared experience for pubs this year. Has the community been able to use Ivy House for alternate purposes (e.g. as a mutual aid centre or food bank) or is it empty like it was in the period between the sale to developers and the asset of community value purchase, as we see in the film?
Sarah Turner: I don’t know what’s going on with the Ivy House because I don’t live opposite anymore. I’m still a shareholder but I’m not actively involved. The pub is closed and the staff are furloughed, everyone is furloughed. I can only imagine—because I’m not bodily going to that space and speaking to that community in that way—that it is absolutely decimating because the pub is run by the community. How they’re dealing with this, I cannot imagine. It’s an awful moment for that pub. You know at a particular point they were doing loads of innovative things to do with, you know, how can you keep coin circulating in a community. They had different strategies with take-out and stuff like that. But the bottom line is that pubs, like churches, like football grounds, like parks where people meet collectively, they are places where our bodies resonate with other human beings. That’s the compulsion to go there, that was the compulsion to save the pub in the first place. This space of being resonated on, and through, and with other human beings is real. It’s not imagined, it exists in buildings, in allotments. There’s a spiral at work: I don’t believe that time is linear, I believe that time is cyclical, and we are constantly being acted on cyclically. In these spaces, we are resonating with the past and the future possibility in our present the entire time.
SM: Since Public House premiered in 2015, with many of the community members in the audience at London Film Festival, we’ve seen a “turn” towards community architecture in art practice including artists’ moving image: I’m thinking for example of Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s film Estate: A Reverie (also 2015), the 2015 Turner Prize for Assemble, and 2018 nomination for Forensic Architecture – all coming seven years after the 2008 housing crash, and five years into Tory austerity. What other conditions or contexts do you see or feel that shaped your work, or might connect it to this “turn” or movement?
ST: The collapse of economy, it fucked up people who didn’t fuck up, but the bankers… I mean, only in Iceland were they even put in prison, nowhere else in the world. How could that possibly happen when people lost their entire lives, their homes, jobs, everything? I think after that moment culturally, there was a broader turn against late capitalism—certainly not late enough—of people saying enough, just enough. Broadly what happened with the film, but really with the community itself, was quite simply a movement from the I to the we, this form of human solidarity which has been deliberately decimated, deliberately ravaged and deliberately structurally undermined by the assetization of absolutely fucking everything. That is taken to its logical and most awful consequence in this idea of the so-called ‘experience economy’, being sold an experience as opposed to experiences being things that we have as human beings, which are activated by other human beings, sharing a moment of collective being in and of a moment, you know. So, the Ivy House—both the community and my work on it—and the movement of the commons completely refuses that. And this is where the spiral comes in because memory is also acting on our future. It’s completely activated when we resonate together in collective spaces. Obviously in a building like that, a pub, those memories are really tangible, because you can see it, in the graffiti on the walls.
The beautiful thing about pubs is they take on the great ritual markers of any human life, i.e. births marriages and deaths. All of that. The funerals, the wakes that are held, the wake is a celebration of a life, you’re brought together to collectively resonate, to experience the past and also experience the future and what it will mean when that person isn’t there to hold your stories in human relationality. So my intellectual movement with Public House actually evolved from my previous film Perestroika: the big idea in Perestroika is, ‘what if the other is not there to hold your story?’ both as a historical idea—perestroika as the reconstruction of communism to capitalism, you know, a culture re-narrated—and then the literal death and memory of an individual, because we can we cannot constantly re-narrate ourselves without the other. In Public House I was thinking ‘what if place is the other that is no longer there to hold our stories?’ In London, the act of capital is taking that away; we are losing places that hold our stories and places that have collective resonance. This for me is the spiral of collective consciousness, and it worked very powerfully in that community in a particular historical moment. It wouldn’t happen now; couldn’t happen now, the community could never raise the money to buy a building which is now worth however much it’s worth.
SM: I want to pick up on that mention of Perestroika. It really struck me when I was rewatching Public House that none of your feature-length films take place in the normative realist dominant narrative domestic house, they all take place in transient and shared spaces of inhabitation. Ecology is set in a holiday home, so it queries and alienates the domestic. Perestroika takes place on two trains, one in the past and one in the present, but they’re intertwined, and then it reaches this scene of environmental crime. Public House takes place in a building that is opening out to the world in a way that it couldn’t when it was owned by developers. So if space is our other, but dominant culture chooses the heteronormative domestic home as that space that holds us, how do we shape narratives of other kinds of spaces?
ST: The narrative remit of Public House was a reinvention, moving from document, record and memory into fantasy, rupture and desire. That’s absolutely an allegorical mirroring of the Ivy House takeover: that’s what we’re doing. There’s a familiar story which is the needs of gentrification and the needs of capital privileged over the needs of a community that was sidelined. That was then imagined differently by a community that altered the parameters. We literally choreographed those elements of that alternate narrative in order to effect a very different social contract. My approach to that was to perform what pubs do, or what you do in pubs: you ‘blah’, but you also spend an awful lot of time listening, which is a really important human tool. For me it was an experimental writing project which approached writing as an act of listening, and an understanding of memory as storied fantasy, which is both relational and projective, to come into interacting with all these layers of self, spirit, place, continuously remade in multiple forms of storying. The soundtrack of Public House is the aesthetic framing that carries the overall structural movement and the structural movement is a spiral that begins at the end. What I worked with was word text poetry, which is a form of text sound composition, in order to structure the soundscape. I drew on acousmatic composition, which comes from acoustic ecologies, which is the idea that we experience everything we hear as a form of musical composition, and that anything in our ether can then be layered in that way. The word text poetry of the film is being held by the film’s form of authorship, which is the participatory processes around spoken word performance.
When I was a kid and I was at Kingsway Princeton College in Clerkenwell – which is now flats of course, it’s a gated community – the pub on in the center of Clerkenwell Green, I think it was called the Rose and Crown, used to have Apples and Snakes poetry nights in the 80s, it was amazing. So for Public House
I went back to see Apples and Snakes’ open mics at the Roundhouse, listening, and it was brilliant. We brought in Laurie Bolger to run workshops at the Ivy House. None, or maybe only one or two of them, had had experiences in writing before, but the bulk of them didn’t write. They became ethnographers, authors of both their own community and selves performing in their own fiction, which involves a projected sense of self as a performer. And it involved a built-in intimacy because I got them to speak each other’s words. So literally, they’re holding in that in their mouths. That’s a very intimate experience to hold the words of another, in front of a live invited audience from the extended pub community. The writers were paired off and they each performed the other’s poem first. They weren’t just speaking each other’s personal poems in that environment—that is a huge responsibility in itself—but they are also channeling, like mediums for each other, for the feeling and the desire and the emotional content of each other’s experience. All of the identities are fluid. In the film, I intercut both versions, largely moving from other to self, and that produces some uncanny translations, which also involves transference and identification for the assembled audience.
SM: One of the things that structures the film is finding these alternate rituals and markers of community—as opposed to individual or developer—ownership: the melancholy ritual of stacking the chairs on the stage, the joyous rituals of dance from lessons to performance, and the closing angelic mirroring on Peckham Rye. How did you find rituals that mark both belonging and agency without centring individual ownership?
ST: Look at the swing dance: it’s an idea of film noir restaged as a homoerotic space, where a very gendered dance form with a male leader and a female follower is reinscribed as a female homoerotic fantasy, all of these various choreographies speak to the mutability of elements. Roles are changing or reversing throughout the film; the dance class start as followers, but they end as leaders. That’s an idea that spirals from the multiple roles that people play in any communities, like the dad who’s the coach of the football team and the singer in the band in the evening on the pub stage. It’s beautiful that we all have multiple worlds within any of us, that offers an increased sense of our social agency and a fluidity. We are not fixed except in the workings of capital, which absolutely do fix us, and try to determine us. That’s part of the power of these spaces, that people constantly reinvent themselves. Rituals around birth and rebirth are constantly going on in the film, but of course they run through the rituals of the pub. Every night they light the candles on the tables, that’s a beautiful ritual. When we light a candle we are somehow connecting with spirit. Those images are allegorical in the movement of Public House, but all of them were inspired by that sense of agency that people felt in that particular space, the pub, and that inspired the activism and the longing.
Almost uniquely in contemporary life pubs are social spaces that allow us to connect with people that are actually quite different from us. Think of the intergenerational exchange that happens in pubs, very different classes of people coming together, for example, in pub quizzes. The encounter with a stranger that we have there is at the heart of that culture, and I also think it’s one of the reasons that we really value it, uniquely so. I can’t really think of other places that bring together these layers of social differences, other than public transport which we can’t use right now, and churches, mosques, synagogues. They bring together people in dialogue. It was the loss of this—i.e. the ability to imagine the future without the pub—that created a future with it. This idea of ‘what we imagine, we create’ is so important right now, because now our embodiment has been taken away, and that affects our space of imagining through taking away human relationality, except through these mediated technologies of big tech.
What happens when we lose that comes up in one of the choral refrains on the sound soundscape which plays out over the last choreography of the poet setting the stage for evening, the voices ask ‘will we still want to be local when the only people that can afford to live here are investment bankers?’ It’s the key question that the film asked but cannot answer, but it’s acknowledged through the affectual staging of both loss and hope.
SM: Can I just come back on a word there? The word ‘investment’, which plays a big role in psychoanalytic thinking as well, and one way of describing this film is that it shifts the word ‘investment’ from its financialization, its assetization as you say, back to thinking about what happens when we psychically invest in something, what happens when we invest our labour in something. There’s quite a few terms or ideas in the film that shift like that, like ‘public’ and ‘house’: what happens when we really think about a house for the public, and of a pub as where people literally live in all the ways that they live. I was similarly really struck by a brief mention that English Heritage supported the application; they’re usually thought of as a very conservative organization, so it’s this radicalization of the idea of heritage, giving it back to the community. To me, that’s what poetry does, it reconnects us to collective agency over meaning by showing how words change. What’s happening for you in terms of this inhabitation and reclamation of languages – verbal, visual, aural, choreographic, cinematic?
ST: If we think of poetry as a semantic and a social contract which is constantly shifting, it’s holding the initial meaning, introducing another meaning, and asking us to produce a third meaning, and that third meaning, I would argue, is the space of investment. And investment is the space of the imagination, which is both literally and metaphorically a space of activation and activism. In a broad sense that’s precisely what poetry does. With English Heritage we can say this is the instrument of colonialism, but we all own the spaces, the people own the spaces, they can constantly be reinvented. With the Ivy House, £500,000 for an interest-free mortgage came from English Heritage to save public buildings. All of these institutions are semantically and literally up for grabs if we do the labour of imagination; imagination is an act of labour. That’s what happened with the takeover for that pub, it’s an act of imagination, of re-imagination. All kinds of complex skills came together. There’s no way that would have existed without Tessa, who is a lawyer, middle class skills which she gave pro bono on behalf of the pub. It also needed all of the people who went in and did the community clean. All of the earth in the planters around the pub, that’s from my back garden!
SM: What does this mean for where creative practice lives? The film ends with a reference to William Blake’s vision of angels on Peckham Rye, and it feels like this last year has really asked us: is creativity even possible without a commons?
ST: The film is full of both film historical and art historical references, as well as the closing and central reference to William Blake’s vision of angels on Peckham Rye, ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’, which is enacted in the ritualistic slow circling with hand mirrors, reflecting the trees en masse, but it’s also an alchemical ritual. The outcome is really important because it reprises the pub’s mirror ball, the idea being the generations that have seen themselves in this ball. Keeping it turning refers to the social body forming a whole image, composed of individual fragments, and for me that is a reference to both Blake, and also Derek Jarman. He was heavily influenced by Blake, by alchemy, and the English Enlightenment, and also like Blake he contested all of the dominant ideology of his time. Both of them are discussed as phenomenologists of liberation. Jarman used mirrors extensively in his films, drawing on punk’s much-cited gesture that refused individual representation through holding a mirror up to cameras that wanted to socially position them. The choreography in the trees concludes with that collective reenactment of this refusal, which returns the gaze of the camera.
It’s also a collective response to Blake’s poetry, because I commissioned Jane Yeh, who is a friend of mine, to write a poem that responded to Blake’s vision on Peckham Rye. The lines that the choir is performing are taken from Jane’s poem, that whispered line ‘well kept secret’. The choral movement is a movement of the heterophonic voice in a social body. They started on one octave in their own resonance, and they hold the note in the zone of their comfort pitch, which is varied by age and experience. Then they shift into refrain, so the voices start to oscillate in minor thirds, so it was actually like a football chant, finally returning to the note they started on.
The heterophonic voice is not a conformity, it’s a social choreography of difference on every level, a mass response to an art historical image, but it’s also a metaphor for how our imaginary potential is engaged. Social spaces speak to us through the echoes of cultural memory—and that’s very resonant in sound—but through that we are continually reinventing the past and each other through an act of engagement. It’s a call to remember that the creative commons is a universal mind to which we all have access. Everything is happening at once, past, present, future; it’s all happening now in our bodies and information constantly seeps through. The film is an allegory of how the resonances of all of those ideas of individual and cultural memory have the potential to reinvent these spaces and in doing so imagine a different social contract.
Sarah Turner is an artist, filmmaker, writer, curator and academic. Her feature films include Ecology (2007), Perestroika (2009) (which featured in Tate Britain’s major survey: Assembly), and Perestroika: Reconstructed, conceived and executed as a gallery work (Carroll Fletcher Gallery, London, May 2013). Her latest feature, Public House, was nominated for the Grierson Award. Public House has been re-mastered in 2016 for wider audiences.
So Mayer is the author of A Nazi Word for a Nazi Thing (Peninsula Press, 2020), jacked a kaddish (Litmus, 2018), Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (IB Tauris, 2015) and (O) (Arc, 2015). They contributed an essay to Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (Allen & Unwin, 2018) and the introduction to Spells: 21st Century Occult Poetry, edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamás (Ignota, 2018). So is a bookseller at Burley Fisher, a curator with queer feminist film collective Club des Femmes, and co-founder of Raising Films, a campaign and community for parents and carers in the screen sector, who publish a COVID-19 labour issues scoping study, Back from the Brink, on 1 March.
TENANCY is a MAP project in twelve parts, presenting new work considering what it means to occupy somewhere–or something–temporarily. The project is curated by Helen Charman, MAP Commissioning Editor.