Thursday, 14 January 2016

Birmingham Camera Obscura Research Part 1

In November I found out a project I was involved with had been successful in receiving  Art's Council funding for Research and Development. The project is the Birmingham Camera Obscura, as my contribution to the project I'll be writing a short play which responds to the Camera it's history and ideas that respond to how the camera works. To find out more about the project in general check out the website 

What is a Camera Obscura? 

A camera obscura (Latin for "dark room") is an optical device that led to photography and the photographic camera. The device consists of a box or room with a hole in one side. Light from an external scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface inside, where it is reproduced, inverted (thus upside-down), but with colour and perspective preserved. The image can be projected onto paper, and can then be traced to produce a highly accurate representation

The Project 
In November we had our first formal meeting for the BCO creative team, I had already met Pete before applying to be part of the project so it was good to meet Jenny and the other artists. We met at BOM (Birmingham Open Media) which is fairly recent addition to the Birmingham art scene, it’s a nice space with a café next door, I visited earlier in year when I first met Pete and got to look at the Camera Obscura for the first time. This time we were upstairs which has a few desk spaces and kinda snug area with sofa where we had our meeting. The meeting was a general overview over the BCO so far and what Pete and Jenny had planned for the next 6 months their aims and goals, then we went around in a circle and spoke a little bit about who we are and our practice. We discussed in loose terms what we had planned for the camera and what we need from Pete and Jenny. Possible places where our finished work could be exhibited. 

After the meeting on my journey home I began to think about my project again, I have rough idea of how the piece might work visually, but being a playwright what I am really interested in is story and character which responds to ideas and themes that link with BCO. Originally I had planned on something which was based on the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops (as the story also appears in one of Sinbad’s voyages and the history of the camera interest me) the idea was the play would take place in the Cyclops cave, the box would be cave and the lenses would act as a opening from which images relating to the story would appear.  But since that original concept I've been having a few doubts as to whether this really makes best use of what the camera can do.

One thing Pete said was the theme of perspectives and changing perspectives. The camera by its very nature changes the perspectives for the viewer, in fact it was instrumental in giving artists an understanding on perspective to begin with. I was thinking about figures from history someone who in some way could relate to the story of the camera and whose own life had a change of perspective or people’s perception of them changed. This made me think of Roscoe Arbuckle, or as he is more commonly known Fatty Arbuckle at one time the highest paid actor in Hollywood, certainly one of the very first movie stars (both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton began their career appearing alongside Arbuckle.) 

Roscoe was the first of many for Hollywood, the first star, the first comedian to make feature lengths and sadly the first scandal. Arbuckle was accused of Murder (later dropped to manslaughter) after a woman died at a party he was hosting. Eventually found completely innocent Arbuckle public persona had completely changed and he would never star in a Hollywood film again.

I find Arbuckle’s story an interesting starting point there is a very clear change in perspective narrative wise, there is the link to the camera (Arbuckle being one of the first stars of moving pictures) but I also think there is a lot to play with a lot of things to explore which could really interesting to experiment with the camera. Pete also talked about how silent cinema plays with perspective it made me think of this scene from Buster Keaton's One Week (1920) 21 minutes in where Buster's moving home has become trapped on a train track and a train is fast approaching, we see Buster and his wife desperately trying to move the house of the tracks succeeding at the very last minute.

Only for a train coming the completely opposite direction to smash the house. 

I met with Pete a few weeks later and discussed with him my ideas. We set up the camera and discussed how it might work. We played around and tried to work out the play might work in performance, my gut feeling is that this would be a short piece that would be performed for 1 or 2 audience members at a time.  I discovered you need A LOT of light. We also discovered that the actor performing the piece would most likely need to wear make up to help highlight their face. The workshop was useful, I left with a lot of questions both from a storytelling point of view and ones which relate to the camera, as I often find with these type of things narrative questions and staging questions have a way of answering each other and it when that happens you get a piece of theatre...I hope so anyway. 

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