Conversation with Beth Fox from the BF Artist Film Festival

Posted by Steve Maher on 15 May 16:57


Arlene Tucker (AT):  You have been roaming around my periphery and sometimes within my sphere without me knowing it!  Anastasia told me that you also have been working with Umelec. How funny! When I lived in Prague, I started working with them and then continued even when I moved to NYC.  So probably for a good ten years, here and there. How did you start collaborating with the first magazine since the fall of the Iron Curtain? How are you involved with them?

Beth Fox (BF): I met Ivan, the director of DIVUS/Umelec years ago, he came to the very first show that I curated after graduating from St Martins. We got talking and he offered me a job., they had just launched DIVUS London for the second time. You know, I don't think it still exists here at all...I don't think London really suited the Umelec ethos

 Image result for umelec mike diana

AT: I was surprised and not so surprised to hear that it was launching in London.  I like that about Ivan and about DIVUS/Umelec. Full of surprises!

Did you have a good day?  What did you get up to?

BF: I think Ivan is a mad man, but a sort of laudable madness, haha.

AT: I think everybody would agree with you!

BF: Today has been very much dominated by doing admin! I have just finished doing a very arduous arts council application to fund the BF project for the next 2 years, I had actually finished writing the proposal last week but actually inputting it into the online portal took aaaaaaages!!

AT: Oh my. I was going to say you should get off the computer, but that would mean you leave me behind.  I’m pretty useless right now though. Brainwise.

Congratulations!  Does that mean you’ve sent it off?

BF: Yes! It’s gone and there is no changing it now! Which is a relief, but scary also!

How about you? How have you spent your day??

AT: Super that it’s now out of your hands.  Today was great! I always start my Wednesdays by going to a group (when I say group, it’s usually just me and the guy that opens the door) (meditation) sitting at 7am for an hour.  Then I treat myself to a latte before going to school. At the moment, I work as a 1st grade teacher and when my day finishes at 1pm, I put on my artist hat and continue with my projects.  Today, I met some Pixelache artists and started on some other interviews. And now I’ll have some me time.

BF: That sounds like a super nice day! How old are first graders?

AT: They are 7, now most of them art 8. 25 very sweet bunch of people. Yes, well, today, we had a teacher’s meeting which lasted to 4pm, but all in all, I love my hours.  

BF: Awww, working with kids must be nice. Also - any work day that ends at 1pm is good! Do you find teaching has an influence on your practice and other projects? At the moment I do some commercial video editing to make money and I find it is influencing my work… I cut things specifically for people’s YouTube channels and it has to be super upbeat , I have noticed that my own work has become a lot more…. Can’t think of the word. Maybe direct?

'00II' by Ankita Anand, screening as part of ZIP ZAP BOING

Wednesday 22.05.19  Oranssi, Kaasutehtaankatu 11/20, Helsinki  

AT: I know what you mean.  And yes! They have a huge impact on my work and I think my current projects somehow seeps into the classroom conversations, learning points, and maybe act as a catalyst for opening up and sharing personal stories.  Last week, I got the rights to a song for my video and so was really excited to tell them how magical and powerful it is to know how to write and speak your mind! The video was about my projects, Hair Tree and Intertwined, which basically is me collecting all of my family member’s hair and researching what it means to be a family.  When the video was over, one of my student’s said, “Miss Arlene, I have something for you.” I walked over to her and she gave me some of her hair!! I was so touched by how she immediately got the message and wanted to empathize with me and my art. Soon, I had about 5 kids running to get scissors and cutting their hair. It got a bit crazy for a second, but … yes, … I have not gotten any messages from the parents yet.

I can’t say I test things out on my kids, but we talk about everything.  I ask them A LOT of questions. I’m THAT annoying kid. But I just love hearing what they have to say.  And since my work is based on the process of translation, playfulness, and opening dialogue, they are full of amazing insight.  I learn the most from them.

BF: Yeah, I don’t really have very much contact with children but it is always kind of surprising how insightful they are!

AT: Do you feel you get feedback or hmmm what am I trying to ask?  I’ll back up. When I lived in Prague, I also worked as a video commercial editor so I can relate to your profession.  It got really lonely for me being in the darkroom by myself. Is this an issue for you?

BF: I really enjoy editing because I find it super absorbing, like a whole day can go by quickly. I think boring work is the thing that is really soul destroying. But I do feel like a crazy person sometimes, working from home. You have to be quite strict and actually get out of bed and get dressed and stuff, because obviously, you could just work in your pyjamas!

Sometimes I miss being in an organisation and having colleagues and work oriented social life…. But then I think about commuting on the Tube and I don’t miss that at all. Being freelance is quite financially stressful obviously… but then fingers crossed for this arts council funding!! It would be great to get some support for the BF project.

AT: Fingers crossed! I really loved the psychological storytelling you could do with editing.  How a splice between two images, two scenes, sound, colour, and speech could, in a flash, change the story or question the motivation of the characters.  It was from watching Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein montage films that led me to semiotics. So, here again, my current interests, environment, people in my life, all play a part in my work.  How could it not? Do you feel elements can truly be separated? Have you ever found an object or situation where it is contextless?

BF:  I think sometimes you don’t understand why you are making things until years after they are made. You need to put things in the wider context of the work, look back at it and then it makes sense.

Something that I am interested in with my current work, is how the internet has impacted the way we research things, how the Google algorithm is an active participant in how we shape narratives.

AT: Very interesting!  What have you found so far?  Have you found that keywords and phrases come up with different searches depending on the platform; Google, Mozilla, etc.

BF: I think sometimes we forget that computers are computers. It’s a time when all knowledge is there for us to find and consume in just a couple of clicks, but just occasionally the computer reminds us that it’s a computer, that words have more than one meaning and that it isn’t necessarily following our train of thought...because it’s a computer. Google obfuscates and suggests sub-plots, it detours, interjects, and miscommunicates, and that can take a narrative in a direction it never meant to go.

I never thought I was interested in work about the internet, but when I read the PIXELACHE brief and started to look at the archive of films from the BF Festival I realised that actually so many of them made sense in relation to the theme, so many of them deal with the uneasy relationship between ourselves and are online selves.

AT: What is the internet? Your thoughts just made me rethink what it has become.

BF: What is it! I heard someone talk about technology recently, they said “technology is stuff that we haven’t quite worked out yet”. He gave the example that glasses are technology that work so well that no one thinks of them as technology any more. We just put them on in the morning and forget about them.

AT: Oh nice way to think about technology! What is something you’ve become desentized to?  Something you’ve lost awareness of?

BF: I think something that’s interesting about the new generation of artists, people coming out of art school now, is that they have never lived without social media, so the curated and archived self has always existed. There are a lot of artists who make work about the sort of digital detritus of an online life, old LiveJournal entries and pictures from MySpace and stuff. I think you must experience your adolescence and teenage years in a totally different way nowadays, in a lot of ways you are a lot less free, even though there is unlimited access to infinite knowledge at your fingertips at all times…. I wonder if these adults will be a lot more controlled than other generations of people, because they have always been thinking about being viewed, they have always curated their online identity, maybe they are more self-aware? Or potentially more self-obsessed? Maybe that’s negative though.

'lacoste1’ by Gary Zhexi Zhang, screening as part of ATTACK SHIPS ON FIRE

Thursday 23.05.19  Oranssi, Kaasutehtaankatu 11/20, Helsinki  

What about the kids you teach? Do you you see technology having a noticeable impact on them?

AT: There are even slight nuances between writing styles, I think if you were born in 1980 as opposed to 1985.  In school, we were taught to leave two spaces after period when typing and in the later years they only leave one.  What were you taught? Stuff like this can show more of one’s age and experience than other behavioural tendencies. Spaces say it all.

BF: That’s so interesting!! There is a generation of people who were taught to capitalize all nouns. I notice in Donald Trump’s tweets he puts random capital letters on nouns, and I used to work for this older lady who did the same.

AT: I did not know that!  In which country? All nouns or just proper nouns?  Hmmm, I’d still question if Trump had any rhyme or reason though.

BF: Maybe I am just comparing my old boss to Donald Trump because they have similar personalities, haha

AT: People are mirrors.  We mirror each other. I think that’s where I see technology’s imposition on children.  For example, kids walking as they are playing their games on their phones. Adults are doing that too, but probably with writing emails and messaging.  It makes me think, oh my goodness, how many kids have gotten hit by cars because they weren’t paying attention. From my students, I often hear that they have made a deal with their parents that they can’t look at their phone while they are in transit.  But I have caught them on the metro with their phones out ; ).

I also see our technology driven/fast paced life have an affect on their writing.  In first grade, we are learning to read and write and already I have some kids who are abbreviating!  They will write bc instead of because and ttyl, lol, etc. It kind of drives me crazy because they don’t understand the source of why or where this exists.  They are merely copying. We are normalizing and validating this sort of lifestyle that is result-based and not process-based? Maybe for that reason, I really enjoy making intergenerational process-based installations.   Every stage of life is so valuable and can be a great point of reflection and I enjoy creating situations for these to be noticed, experienced, and space for them to grow.

Do you ever find yourself behaving differently when you are with a child or elderly person as opposed to somebody of your own age?

BF: Oh totally, I think that’s natural isn’t it? The language for older people has to be different doesn’t it? My dad signs all his text messages “lol” - I think he thinks it means “lots of love” but I don’t have the heart to tell him…

AT: That’s really sweet!  Don’t tell him! Or at least, not yet.

BF: I think that when I am alone with my partner we talk in a kind of nonsense language, I think that happens to couples after a while. I remember reading a line in a Kurt Vonnegut book about a couple who communicated purely by saying lines from old TV shows and I think that just starts to happen. There is definitely a language of like, Simpsons quotes for example… or a style of speaking from the TV show Friends, emphasizing different parts of a sentence, that really date people. It’s generational insider knowledge that certain groups communicate with. Now I hear kids talking and I don’t have a CLUE what they’re saying! It’s sort of interesting that the language is mutating to include the phonetic abbreviations. I hear people say “rofl” or “lol” in an ironic way, I guess that will be absorbed into language and appear on the Scrabble board at some point.

It’s worrying that little kids won’t know the root of these things though. I have a friend who works in a school and I remember her saying that sometimes kids draw emojis when they’re writing an essay, as though smiley faces were legitimate grammar. Sometimes I wish Roland Barthes was still alive writing essays - what would he say about emojis??

'Space Composition’ by Marta Krześlak, screening as part of ZIP ZAP BOING

Wednesday 22.05.19  Oranssi, Kaasutehtaankatu 11/20, Helsinki  

AT: Yes!  Exactly! I think for me, being with the elderly also brings about a different set of manner, for example, getting up for them, being extra polite and respectful.  With kids, it’s not using bad language or trying to be a “good citizen” like not jaywalking. And then with the middle aged- anything goes. Maybe, there’s an underlying sense of camaraderie too.  Not really sure.

But here again, I think I am being a bit irregular with my ways because I have friends of all ages and I don’t think I treat them differently.  So, it really depends!

I have a good friend whom I met in my late teens and she was homeschooled.  When we were with a group of friends, she couldn’t chime in on any of the references to pop culture.  It was a huge job for her to learn all these miniscule things that occupy conversation, time, and togetherness.  

Language is alive, living and no matter how international a language can be, colloquialisms are so interlaced with culture, time, and space.  Last night I went to go watch watch the newest Avengers and I realized I was the only one that laughed at the “shake my finger, don’t pull it” joke.  Nobody in Finland pulls their finger to fart. And even if they got it, they don’t really have the history with this finger fart to make it funny. That’s when I remembered, that I’m not originally from here.  Love how that realization came with flatulation.

Which emoji are you feeling today?

Image result for list of emojis

I think Barthes would get a kick semiotically decoding emojis!

BF: Today I am

But I think I look like this emoji all year round!

It’s so funny you had that experience with a homeschooled friend, there was a girl in my school who was brought up by her grandparents and she had just a slightly more old-fashioned way of talking. Someone pointed it out to me one day, they said “Have you noticed she never says cool” and then when I listened to this girl when she spoke I realised she never used any “Americanisms”. Maybe they didn’t have a television. This girl was a teenager but she had a really old fashioned way of talking.

I heard an interview with Jamaican writer Marlon James the other day and he was talking about how the English taught in the colonies was very different to the English taught in English schools, more verbose and ornamental, I think you do see parodies of this sometimes. James’ best known book is A Brief History of Seven Killings and it’s written in Patois, he says because he actually can’t write English that isn’t “colony English”, wordy and bombastic.

What emoji are you today?

AT: I’m  Image result for emoji picsImage result for emoji picsImage result for emoji pics. Just couldn’t pick one!  Who knew what emoji I’ll be in an hour.

We really are social animals.  Wanting to assimilate, fit in, blend, be noticed.  When was the last time you felt like you really wanted somebody’s approval or validation?  Why do you think you needed it at that time?

BF: I think I feel like this professionally all the time! The problem with working in the arts (maybe it’s not a problem) the difference with working in the arts to other professions is that so much of it is self directed, there isn’t really a correct way of doing things, and there is basically no one to guide you. You just learn things by giving it a go. The longer you work in the arts and the more you understand about how things are funded you realise that so many decisions are totally arbitrary - or based on nepotism. You just sort of flail around until something works out for you, or you go and do something else.

I had a meeting the other day about organising an event with another “arts professional”, someone like me, who had set up a project by themselves and was trying to somehow get paid for the work they were doing.  During the conversation I really wanted validation from the other person, I think working in the arts, if you’re not doing a job in a specific public institution, if you’re trying to organise and facilitate things alone, you can feel a bit insecure. With the film festival I partner with different spaces to host the screenings, and it’s always good to meet other people doing artist-led events, and remember that we are all flailing around.

Have you encountered this? Do you work alone or do you collaborate a lot with groups?

'Actions on stillness’ by Imann Gaye, screening as part of ZIP ZAP BOING

Wednesday 22.05.19  Oranssi, Kaasutehtaankatu 11/20, Helsinki  

AT: Yes!  I think for me, because I just want to make and do, that becomes my aim rather than get caught with getting recognition.  And then I just seek out other doers or collaborators and then hope for the best that it all comes together. I don’t want funding to get in the way of making a project, but of course, it’s needed with certain projects so you just have to pick your battles.  For my most meaningful projects, I didn’t get funding for the first years and then I started to get some “recognition” or “support”. So you just have to do what you love. Tenacity!

But of course, it can feel really demoralising if you keep on trying and trying and you are not receiving the support you would like.  And on the other hand, it’s a very humbling experience and it teaches you how to find that sort of validation and strength from within.  For some, I see “rejection” breakdown creativity and for others it makes them push harder and produce better work.

How are you curating the film nights for Pixelache?  Can’t wait!

BF: Curating the Pixelache programme has been really fun!

I spend a lot of time thinking about the films that I show at the BF festivals so it’s been fantastic, having the opportunity to go back into the archive and create new lineups. The first night is quite a literal response to the theme of “breaking the fifth wall”, so most of the films are reflexive in nature. I’ve always been interested in reflexivity as a theme - my MA research paper was written in the third person about an MA student trying to write a research paper about reflexivity, so I guess I am always attracted to films that are self conscious and acknowledge the process of film-making. That first night is called Zip Zap Boing after the game that actors play when they warm up before a performance.

'Holiday Worlds’ by Campbell McConnell, screening as part of ATTACK SHIPS ON FIRE

Thursday 23.05.19  Oranssi, Kaasutehtaankatu 11/20, Helsinki  

I have also included films that are about a person’s physicality in space, so films that explore our relationships to borders, or edges.

The second night is called Attack Ships on Fire, a reference to Bladerunner, and I guess it deals more explicitly with AI and our relationship with technology, machines, The Other. There is some really interesting work out there, artists who are exploring different online communities, mining the Internet for material, using User Comments or Customer Reviews as a script.

'We Exist Between Layers of the Surface’ by Samantha Harvey, screening as part of ATTACK SHIPS ON FIRE

Thursday 23.05.19  Oranssi, Kaasutehtaankatu 11/20, Helsinki  

I try to curate programmes that showcases a broad range of approaches to moving image - so there’s some films made from appropriated footage, some video collage, some artists doing weird things with green screen, re-edited music videos, cgi animation, lots of different techniques. Also showing some quite established artists alongside some current students / recent graduates.

I am really excited to see what people think!

AT: How would you define or what’s your perspective on the 5th wall? What are we trying to break?

BF: I guess in a very simple way just doing anything that stops us looking at our phones for an extended period of time - breaking that connection just for a couple of hours.

It’s funny, I really love the NBA, and the playoffs are on at the moment, I can’t watch any of the games live because they’re happening in the States and it would be the middle of the night for me. So I stream them the day after. But I have been really anxious not to find out who is winning games. I follow a bunch of basketball players on Instagram and I had to make such a supreme effort NOT to look at my phone the day after a game. It made me realise how totally addicted I am to checking social media, it’s a compulsion.

Being in the cinema is one of the only times people don’t constantly check their phones or take photos. It’s weird, people are much more likely to photograph the screen in a gallery setting than they are when watching a film in a movie theatre - why is that do you think? Something to with virtue signalling maybe? Or do we think a still image of video art somehow can capture the work in a way that we don’t about movies? Or is there just a bigger stigma about taking your phone out in a cinema?

AT:  I am very much looking forward to putting my phone on silent, hiding it for hours and staring at another screen.

For more information about Beth and her projects please check here and here .