I couldn’t believe it when I literally stumbled across the opportunity to work with the world renowned Shirin Neshat. Shirin is an Iranian-born, New York-based artist, photographer and filmmaker. Much of her work addresses the personal, social and political dimensions of women’s experiences in contemporary Middle Eastern societies. She was awarded the First International Prize at the 48th Venice Biennale and in 2009 won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for her first feature film, Women Without Men.
Last September, the London Film School offered 12 international artists the opportunity to work with Shirin for 10 days. I sat blinking at the Artsadmin website, wondering if this could be possible. My disbelief was quickly interrupted when I saw that the deadline was that afternoon.
The application was reasonably detailed. As well as sending examples of my work, I had to explain why I wanted to work with Shirin specifically, and what I expected to get from the workshop. This was quite easy for me as I was really inspired by her cinematic imagery and multi-screen installations. I had been to her retrospective exhibition at IMMA in 2001 and was hugely impressed. I was also curious about how she negotiated her role as artist and filmmaker within the very different the worlds of fine art and film.
I was delighted to get a place on the workshop. It was a very tight schedule from notification to start date, due to a delay with funding from the Arts Council of England. The workshop was free on the proviso that any films created during the workshop would remain the property of the London Film School. I made an application for a bursary to Screen Training Ireland and was very grateful that they agreed to fund my travel and accommodation.
The workshop was run over 10 days from 21 – 31 October. It was extremely packed, with scheduled group work from 10am – 5pm most days, as well as a series of evening events and seminars at the Barbican Gallery, Couthauld Museum and the London Film School.
It was a brilliant opportunity, not only to work with Shirin and her partner Shoja Azari (who came for the first week of the workshop), but also with the other 11 filmmakers from around the world. We started with short presentations of our work. There were eight different nationalities in the group so the diversity of experience and aesthetic form was really exciting. While most of the group identified as artist-filmmakers, some had experience in television and advertising.
Shirin and Shoja are in the process of making their second feature film about the life and music of Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum, and it was a real privilege to hear about their process of collaborative working. Shirin shared her ‘mood book’ or storyboard for the film. According to her, “film-making is all about image-making”, and she is very focused on the aesthetic form of any project and how we can transcend cultural narratives and issues through art. She gathered images from her own past work, archives and the Internet to present us with a visual picture of her next film. “I have to be clear about what my intentions are and then leave it open for interpretation” she explained.
She talked about the importance of working with others who can bring different technical skills to a project. “You must learn to dance with others but you must not compromise on your integrity”. Both Shirin and Shoja share a studio with other others, which they described as a “laboratory” and space of “community synergy”. “I think I would find it very difficult to be out there alone”, Shirin told us.
She also emphasised the importance of taking on new challenges. “Experimenting is so important. The anxiety keeps me on my toes. I like the anxiety that I might fail”. Thus, over her career, she has moved from creating photographic images to multi-channel video installations and onto feature films for cinematic release. She described how it took six years to make her first feature, Women Without Men.
Both Shirin and Shoja were really open and interested in generating conversations with the group. They posed some thought provoking questions for us all on the first afternoon. “Why do you make art? Who is it for? What is your ultimate goal? Why should the public care what you have to say?” Shirin asked us, “How will you get the world to stop and listen?” She stressed the importance of passion and obsession. “If you have that everything else will fall into place”.
As well as the 10 days of workshops and seminars, each filmmaker had to make a three-minute short film. Day two was spent discussing our ideas and a number of questions such as, How do we frame our ideas? What are our parameters or boundaries? How do we balance the demands of form and content?
By the end of the second day, we had agreed a number of parameters for our projects, to ensure some level of consistency between them all. We decided to focus on portraits of a person or place. We agreed on a number of rules (and the permission to break one): three-minute duration, no synch sound, black and white, natural lighting and a single-screen projection. My initial feeling was one of resistance, as I don’t generally like rules. However, I discovered that there was great creative freedom within those clear constraints.
Wednesday and Thursday were spent developing, presenting and clarifying our individual proposals. From Friday to Sunday we were shooting our projects. We worked in groups of four and organised the filming within these groups. On the following Monday and Tuesday, we worked with professional editors to compete the films. We also had individual tutorials with Shirin. Her enthusiasm, honesty and engagement with each of the filmmakers was really impressive.
The final day of the workshop was spent watching and critiquing each of the films. It was amazing to see the incredible range of projects and how we all responded so differently within the boundaries. That night we screened the 12 films at Bl-nk gallery in Shoreditch, with an audience of around 200 people.
The whole experience was almost equally exhausting and exhilarating. Each day was packed with new questions and challenges. I found myself constantly sketching and playing with ideas in my notebook. Before I went to London, I was exploring a new project about food, farming and art, possibly based here on our farm in Kerry. The timing seemed a little off. What was I going to do about farming in London? Little did I know that there are hundreds of food, gardening and farm projects in the city.
I did some research and ended up making my film with the Farm Shop in Dalston. What goes around is a portrait of an aquaponic system of food creation within an urban setting. It is essentially about how fish poo can be used to grow lettuce without any soil. Shirin originally thought this was aesthetically impossible and it was quite challenging in a four-hour shoot. However, I took on board Shirin’s feedback about balancing content and form and was really happy with the results.
On applying for the workshop, I wanted to learn more about bridging the gap between film and art. I wanted to learn how to distribute my work, which often sits uncomfortably between the two worlds. I came away with more confidence that it is okay to do both and I don’t have to choose one or the other. Each world offers the work and the audience different possibilities and varied levels of engagement. Both are equally valid and exciting.
I do have ongoing concerns about living so physically removed from any visual art ‘centre’. Shirin felt it was very important for her to live in New York. “I can hardly imagine living on the periphery. You have to be in the middle of it”. This was reiterated in a session by David Gryn, a visiting film curator from Art Basel who stressed that “If you want to be ‘in’ the art world you must ‘be’ in it”. Travelling to cities and visiting art exhibitions continues to be a challenge when there are chickens to be locked in at nighttime and cats who just seem to like human company. Perhaps the time has indeed come to bring the art to the farm.
Lisa Fingleton is an artist, filmmaker and farmer based in Kerry. Last September she completed an MA at Goldsmiths College, London. She is currently developing projects on the theme of art and farming.