Ahead of the Festival's screenings of The Inertia Variations, and our complimentary exhibiton, Radio Cineola: The Inertia Variations at Summerhall, Marketing Officer Michael Douglas Hunter (MDH) caught up with THE THE's Matt Johnson (MJ), director Johanna St Michaels (JSM), architect Jacob Sahlqvist (JS) and lighting designer Kate Wilkins (KW) to chat about the genesis of both the film and the exhibition.
MDH: I’d just like to begin by trying and paint a picture of the exhibition – it’s quite hard to explain until you’ve been there!
MJ: We try to explain it to people, and almost get confused ourselves!
JS: So many layers!
MJ: Yeah, we used elements of the 1986 film in this one as well, so it comes full circle.
JSM: It started for me as a small art installation, in Gothenburg, and the idea for an art film – and now we’re building an art installation out of a documentary, it’s a constantly evolving project.
MDH: As for The Inertia Variations, What came first? The film?
MJ: The poem came first. That was the genesis. An old friend, J G Thirwell – you may know him as the musician Foetus – sent it to me. He was a long-term friend of John Tottenham, who wrote the poem. I read it in one sitting, and contacted John and said “I really want to do something was this” – the initial plan was a spoken word album. I did an edit of the poem – it was originally 100 verses – I edited it down to 7 chapters of 7 verses, and set it across the course of a day. Then Johanna heard it and said, “it’s you! – we should do a film”.
JSM: And an art installation!
KW: It’s been through many different variations.
JSM: When we initially tried to do it as art film, we couldn’t get the funding for it, so concentrated on a documentary with Matt, and the radio station idea. We started getting funding around 2010, when Jacob and I got together.
JS: It began for me in about 2011, when we talked about a typical New York Radio station setup.
JSM: the funding we started getting pushed us in an interesting direction – we got funding to build something in the city of Gothenburg – so the Radio Tower was pushed by the funding!
MJ: So then Kate got involved – she’d worked with me over many years on live shows, and I had the idea of bringing her in to illuminate the tower in Gothenburg, and the idea was then to take it to different locations – a pier in England for instance – but the cost was astronomical. So we went to the Swedish countryside, where it was, shall we “weathered”. Jacob recommended it was made of steel rather than aluminium so it would tarnish, and change appearance.
JS: The rust is actually a protection for the steel – it’s like a coating that keeps it longer. The tower is a symbol that connects to Matt and Johanna’s interest in propaganda, which, with Trump and the era we’re living in, is becoming more relevant. It’s a symbol of free speech, but also of controlling the message.
KW: The red filter is chosen to take out all of the blue light waves from the room, and the lights cycle emphasising the feeling of time, of inertia – or of time passing, and running around and still not managing to do anything – like working at a film festival!
MJ: These projects are all related to time – the interviews come from a gruelling 12-hour broadcast, which forms the backbone of the film. And later in the year, we’ll be releasing a triple album, with a final disc called The End of the Day, with other artists covering my songs – so it starts with This Is The Day and ends with This Is The Night. Everything in the project is about cycles of time, within lifetimes and days.
MDH: That’s interesting – You’ve previously said, in reference to Infected, that 2016 and 1986 have so many parallels. Another cycle?
MJ: Another female prime minister! Human nature manifests itself in different ways, but doesn’t really change that much.
JSM: We’re always taking the highlights out of everything – who is editing the truth? The exhibition is like you editing yourself, taking highlights of the broadcast, and experiencing it differently every time.
JS: The exhibition is moving to different locations – New York for example – and can be put together in different configurations in different spaces. It can be scaled up, or down. The tonality changes as different elements are put together in different rooms. Kate’s lighting brings everything into place.
KW: It’s all about the ambience – the shadows of the tower cannot be chosen, the cycles and waves keep coming round, and choice is taken away. If you lie down and listen to the poetry in the tower room the circadian rhythm is removed – the bio-receptors in the back of your eyes have nothing to react to, so it removes you from time. It’s maybe a little too relaxing….
MDH: I also wanted to ask about the relationship between your Radio Cineola broadcasts and this project.
MJ: It’s a romantic look at a dying mid 20th century medium. I’ve always loved radio – I had a little paperback size transistor radio, which was my constant companion, and listened to things like Radio Luxembourg through the night. You could tune into Russian, Chinese stations, travelling the world. Later on, when I lived in America, I couldn’t stand the media propaganda, so I listened to Russian or Cuban news for balance. If you’re going to listen to the BBC, you should also listen to Russia Today – the truth is somewhere in the middle.
JSM: And for the film, I came up with the 12 hour continuous broadcast as a way to make Matt relax in front of the camera. After 12 hours he couldn’t help but be relaxed.
MJ: You know, I didn’t like the idea of this at all…
JSM: And then I asked you to sing…
MJ: And I was going off it more and more! Jo was quite right though – when we were filming I was completely unaware of the cameras, as there was so much going on.
JSM: Documentary is about access.
MJ: Johanna was very crafty – she was fairly unobtrusive, and also manages to persuade people to do things they don’t want to do, in a very sweet way! In the film, there’s another layer, which is the personal – dealing with bereavement and families, which wasn’t something we decided upon, it just happened, and Johanna let it become a natural part of the story – and paradoxically, the personal is more universal than the political.
JS: It makes the film more lasting – it has different stories within it.
MJ: There are lots of different pathways through the exhibition, the interviews - though the documentary is always the central point.