Opinion: can Scotland's film industry learn from its visual artists?
Douglas Gordon, Luke Fowler and Rachel Maclean are making great film-based works - so where are the filmmakers?
Looking back at the artists and artworks that have shaped Scotland's visual art scene in recent years, one thing stands out: the rich body of moving image work. Douglas Gordon, Luke Fowler, Duncan Campbell, Torsten Lauschmann and Rachel Maclean are proof of the high quality and diverse film-based art being made here. This is backed up further by the success of Glasgow Film Festival’s Margaret Tait Award, which each year awards £10,000 to an artist working in film, and the recent announcement that LUX, the UK-wide artist film body, will be opening a Glasgow office this spring.
In a parallel universe this would have spilled out beyond the gallery and into wider film culture, giving rise to a thriving, grassroots filmmaking community. Bright young things would be grabbing cameras and experimenting with everything the medium has to offer, perhaps recalling periods of creativity like 1960s Paris or Austin in the 90s. This might sound like fanciful daydreaming, a romanticised idea of the way films are made, but Glasgow’s indie music and contemporary art scene have gone through similar prolific periods.
In contrast, away from artists working with moving image, Scotland’s filmmaking has felt stifled and stilted in recent years. There have been some notable success stories (what a joy it is to see Glasgow explored so ambitiously in Under the Skin), but these appear to have sporadically popped up rather than emerged from a fertile community. So why, if the talent and potential is so obviously here (as demonstrated by Gordon et al), has Scotland had nowhere near the success in filmmaking that it has in visual art?
Many people would point to the structural factors at play. Feature filmmaking often requires a large amount of money, and relies on assembling an experienced technical crew. Widespread cinema distribution is always a challenge and the competition (Hollywood) is backed by multi-million pound marketing campaigns. Others will point to Scotland’s lack of a film studio, and the recent announcement that Pinewood is to open a studio in Cardiff is a reminder of what we lack north of the border.
But does all that explain the absence of a DIY scene, especially at a time when filmmaking equipment is more accessible than ever? And the internet offers a worldwide platform. Commentators have tried to pinpoint the exact recipe that has created Glasgow’s artistic success in the last 25 years, the so-called ‘Glasgow miracle’.
One key ingredient appears to be the Environmental Art course at the School of Art; established in the mid 80s, it wasn’t tied to one medium, and attracted a group of aspiring artists keen to rethink contemporary art with alumni including Douglas Gordon as well as Christine Borland and Martin Boyce. Famously, Gordon said that on the course he learned ‘To sing. Not how to sing but simply, to sing’, hinting at both the sense of community, and the unabashed outlook that encompassed the school at the time.
Can we take inspiration from this to give Scotland’s filmmaking the boost it needs? Perhaps a little injection of money, aimed at the grassroots level with few restrictions, and encouragement to take risks could give rise to a culture that over time will feed the wider industry, resulting in feature films of the calibre of our leading artists. Trying to orchestrate artistic success is a nebulous affair but as Steve McQueen and his recent Oscar win suggests, there seems to be a lot of evidence that we can learn a thing or two from our friends in the galleries.
Gail Tolley is The List’s editor and film editor.