John Smith wins the Jarman Award

Dazed speaks to the avant garde filmmaker and winner of this year's Film London Jarman Award

Last week, artist-director John Smith won the 2013 Film London Jarman Award, which commemorates Derek Jarman and honours filmmakers making work in the "spirit of experimentation and imagination" that was so fundamental to Jarman's work. Smith will receive a £10,000 cash prize and a film commission for Channel 4’s short-form arts strand, Random Acts. 

The artist has been working since the 1970s and was selected from a shortlist of 10 that featured Ed Atkins, Rachel Maclean and Emma Hart for his exceptional body of work. Over a forty-year career, Smith has produced over 50 film, video and installation works, and in the process making a vital contribution to moving image practice both nationally and internationally.

His most recent film, Dad's Stick, was in the body of work submitted for the Jarman Award – it's a touching, oblique potrait of the artist's father, as embodied through the display of three well-used objects that were shown to Smith before his father died. It also won the ARTE Prize for European Short Film, Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, Germany and the Jean Vigo Prize for Best Director, Punto De Vista International Film Festival, Spain.

Dazed Digital speaks to the avant-garde filmmaker about Dad's Stick and his recent win. 

Dazed Digital: Congratulations on winning the Jarman Award! You mentioned in your acceptance speech that you were quite surprised by the nod – why?

John Smith: I’ve been teaching for a long time and my work is shown in lots of art schools, so I’m sure lots of young people who went for the award had seen my work. So it’s a slightly strange feeling! But at the same time I guess when I was their age, there weren’t any awards like this so I never had the opportunity to go for them. I was slightly apprehensive about going for the award because of that – in some ways I kind of didn’t want to compete with younger artists, but I didn’t think for a minute I would actually win. I just thought it was interesting and a good opportunity to show some new work. 

DD: Tell us about the piece you submitted for the Jarman Award.

John Smith: Shortly before my father died, I went to see him one day and he said “Oh you might be interested in this.” Throughout his life he had painted and decorated the houses his family lived in, always using the same stick to stir his paint. He had cut off the end of this stick, revealing all the different coloured layers that had accumulated over the years. I could recognise things from a very long time ago – there was this kind of tangerine orange that was the colour our hallway was painted when I was about 12. It was about 40 years of history. After he died, I thought, “I really have to make a piece of work which somehow has to do with my father.” In 2012, I got asked to do a short film commission for Frieze and it was three months till it had to be finished. I didn’t have that many ideas and I thought, ‘What the fuck am I gonna do?’ Then I remembered the stick. 

I ended up making a film, which uses printed captions together with images, so the printed captions leave a lot open in terms of how you read the tone of what’s being said. It’s something quite loaded but they’re presented in a quiet neutral way. It’s not emotional. There is no voice telling you how painful it was or how great it was.

DD: You’ve been making films for over 40 years – what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the medium?

John Smith: It depends who you’re talking to. On a cynical level, one could say that film has become much more acknowledged within the art world because they’ve found a way to commodify it. I think one reason it was invisible for a long time was because it wasn’t valuable as an object –then the world realised it could make a limited edition of five DVDs and sell it for lots of money.

DD: How has your art evolved over the years?

John Smith: It’s really important to me that you are looking at something which is constructed. I don’t make work that draws you in an imaginary world like commercial cinema does. But my work has also changed enormously because of changes in technology. I made 16mm films until the late 1990s, I never made anything in video because video looked like crap. I was interested in the aesthetic of the image. But all of a sudden you could get portable high-quality camcorders that could shoot videos and record sound at the same time. I also really believe in the spirit of Derek: in order to make work you don’t need an enormous budget to make enormous ideas.

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