Artist Grayson Cooke’s interview with Real Time Arts

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What, as far as you interpret it, is the intention behind the 7 Halls. 7 Artists. 7 Events project as a whole?

I think this project overall is fantastic; for me it’s premised on this idea that community halls are more than architecture – or, rather, that they are a historical and social architecture as much as physical buildings. These places literally embody the community, they create a place where the community can be itself and see itself – and that’s an incredible thing! So for me this project is about naming and honouring that function that halls play in their communities.

What has been the philosophy or aesthetic priority behind the concept for Bonnywood Rising?

That’s a good question – there’s a lot in here! I guess my over-riding concern has been to explore this idea of the imagined cinematic history of the hall: to use cinema as a kind of dream-machine to tease out some of the stories of the hall and community, but to do it in such a way that when the images come back to the community, it doesn’t just look like more of the same; it looks different, heightened somehow, like the stakes have been raised. That’s what happens when you turn the cameras on, that’s the incredible effect of this apparatus. It’s like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard: “Alright  Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!”

Art has to be about possibility – about looking again at the world and seeing it differently, and looking at ourselves differently as well. Early on in the project, talking to community members about their experiences in the hall, there was a real sense that a lot of the “life” of the hall was in the past. That it had had its heyday but wasn’t used, today, anywhere near as much as it was in the past. I wanted to use this project as a kind of corrective to that, to propose collective art-making as a way of refusing to be bound by history.

And so the project is premised on the idea that throughout the 20th century, the community halls have been film studios, and have functioned as this incredible hub for collective creative activity. This is a fiction of course, but through doing this project, and getting everyone dressed up in historical costumes, we’ve ended up with images that give a kind of truth to the fiction, because in making the project we really did have to turn the hall into a film studio! For months we trucked out lights, cameras, jib-arms, camera dollies and motion-control equipment to the hall, and every time we had a shoot we both re-made history and added new chapters to the life of the hall.

How have you gone about conducting research for this work?

There was a lot of talking early on, with the Hall Committee, and also with community members, about their memories of the hall and feelings towards it – and obviously, the Show & Tell days that Arts Northern Rivers ran early on in the project were premised on this kind of research process. Meeting the Bonalbo people was central to the research, because it gave me a sense of their characters, their stories, what was important to them, the challenges of life in a tiny town in regional NSW.

Beyond this, I also read a lot of books about the region. I read Ruby Langford Ginibi’s autobiographies, which speak extremely fondly of her time growing up in Bonalbo, and which paint a picture of a strong, loving and tight-knit community. I also read the community history books, like Isabel’s Wilkinson’s Forgotten Country,  which tells the gold-mining histories of the region, from which I pulled many of the historical characters and details that pepper the project. These books are superb – because they’re community history not formal, academic works, they kind of sit somewhere inbetween fact, reminiscence and rumour. I think I took the flavour of these books for Bonnywood Rising, with its mashing up of historical details and complete fabrication. 

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How have you gone about re-creating a ‘classic’ sense of the golden age of cinema for the event at Bonalbo Hall?

This part of the project was so much fun. Firstly, the idea of presenting the project as a live cinema performance harks back to silent cinema, when films were presented with live music and often with live narrators and sound effects. Cinema has always been about spectacle, about a heightened experience, and so including live elements in its screening ensures the project maintains that sense of spectacle, the thrill and risk of the live performance event.

But also, with the video portraits we shot of all the main “characters” in the film, we employed make-up and wardrobe to give a real historical flavour to the characters, we dressed them up in period costume to again invoke those early years of cinema, where genres like the Western and Film Noir developed a really specific “look.”

More broadly though, the whole project is a kind of celebration of the elements of cinema – optics, projection, light, shadow. So all the characters in the film have these quirks and obsessions with cinematic technologies. For example, Ernestine Campbell, played by 1st AD Marion Conrow, is based on Ernest Campbell who built the first hall in 1910, but in the film she has an obsession with the magic lantern, a proto-cinematic technology from the 18th and 19th centuries. This allowed us to construct these insane machines out of slide projectors and smoke machines, and to really delve into that mystical and ghostly “phantasmagoria” of light and image that cinema emerges out of.

Why were you drawn to Bonalbo Hall in particular? What about its particular history (burning down three times etc) appealed to you?

Well, I was allocated Bonalbo Hall, so I really knew nothing about it before I started the project. As I got to know the community members though, I did come to see how appropriate it was that I was working out there. I come from a small town in New Zealand, a farming community. My parents are lawyers, and they would often be paid for their work with half a cow or something – Mum always seemed to be cutting up and freezing some vast amount of meat they’d just received from a client! So I think that rural upbringing helped in being able to understand where the Bonalbo community are coming from – their fantastic sense of humour, the hardships they face, their resilience.

One of the other great things about this hall is its size – it’s huge! And it was the sheer scale of the place that got me thinking about the cable-cam. A cable-cam is a camera platform mounted on a set of cables between two points, with runners allowing the platform to move freely along the cable, pulled by motion-control equipment. We installed this in the ceiling of the hall so we could get at the scale of the place, its immense floor and stage. This also allowed us to time-lapse all the film-shoots, producing these incredible sequences where the camera drifts above the action over one or two hours, capturing these quick-fire details of the minutiae of film-making. 

How does this work relate to your rest of your body of work down the years?

There are a bunch of crossovers between this work and previous work I think. I’ve done live audio-visual performance for many years, so conceiving this project as a live-cinema performance was an easy decision to make. I’ve got a strong interest in archives and historical images, as well as film genres like the Western, so this project’s historical and colonial elements come out of that particular obsession. And I also have an interest in cinematic technologies and film – the material of film in particular. As an artist I basically make a living destroying photographic film with corrosive chemicals – so conceiving of this project, with its fantasy of early cinema technologies and the dangers of nitrate film, was a great way to give a new context to that practice.

More broadly though, I have done a lot of community engaged art and research over the years, and I think that community engagement is absolutely vital for artists, particularly for artists and researchers who have the resources of a university to call upon. This project has engaged with close to 100 community members – that’s the biggest project I have ever worked on. It’s been huge, and hugely rewarding, to be part of this thing that really did take on a life of its own as it progressed.

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Having been through this process and learned more about these Northern Rivers halls, can you summarise the key ways in which they have served local people over the years? Has anything surprised you about them? 

As I said before, the halls embody the community, they are an architecture of acceptance and possibility; they accept all-comers, they are adaptable, they are theatres, meeting-places, rehearsal studios, ballrooms, sports clubs, daycare centres, cafes, gaming houses…. This incredible malleability of the halls gets to the heart of the way they serve the community, their fundamental open-ness to what may come. Open, even, to a strange cinematic dance-party where everyone wears pig and wolf masks and dances around with electro-luminescent glow-wire and strobe lights…

It seems that many of the artists are using the project to explore or establish some idea of ‘intimacy’ or at least a more tangible, direct reconnection with community that has been perhaps lost due to the digital revolution. Can you relate to this and was it an intention to create a certain closeness between people that might seem bit unusual today? 

Yes, I think in many ways this project, with its focus on invoking the “magic” of the classical age of cinema, is directed at the shifts we have seen recently with the rise of portable media devices, social media and the internet. Indeed, many of our interviewees during research for the project, put the end of cinema screenings in the hall down to television and video, which today have of course morphed into Youtube and on-demand streaming. That’s why we wanted the activities we conducted in this project to feel really special – for participants to feel that “real-time” intensity when you’ve got cameras, lighting, make-up etc, all focused on this particular moment when the director yells “action!”

Interview with Artist Grayson Cooke by Barnaby Smith from Real Time Arts