Inner City: production diary
Spring 2001

Glass: the first test filming day
I dreamed of doing handstands against the wall; two splinters of glass in my finger, which I removed. Through a camera you look small - the world won’t all fit through the tiny lens. So you pick out bits, stick them together, and give the wider picture.

Underneath the Arches, Busker Jack plays on the site of the North Gate. His right foot counting time in the reflected wet as 26 silhouettes move forward in formation through the subway.

Roll one
The top of Armada Way: look toward North Cross, grey sky, gulls up above, people walk along to the subway. Brittle palms, lavender beds. Afternoon shoppers travelling home. Guys on bikes freewheeling down into the city. A pair of benches by the YMCA, low down camera: our first time with the whole team together. The two dancers have begun some initial choreographic work with Lois in the studio and on site.

I have to be very focused about our shoots as we actually have very little filming time. The days are short with company class at the Barbican in the mornings, then Jun and Amanda need to refuel and warm-up before we start working in the city centre in the afternoons. Lois needs to pick up her son and doesn’t want to finish too late in the day, so we agree that our window for working with the dancers is between one and about four thirty.

Stuart and myself can do the business and work quickly when we need to. We’re used to working in public, in amongst people. Filming is a fluid process. I know what I and the team need to achieve day by day so that a film can evolve and develop - and so we get what we need to record.

As film-makers we’re conditioned to changing schedules and filming set-ups, making quick decisions, anticipating and reacting to wind, sun and rain, grabbing opportunities as they present themselves. For us, the process of film-making is a performance.

Jun and Amanda, our dancers, are a good match:

Amanda is salmon pink, strong and muscular with tiny feet. She’s bendy and sways, leading movement with her hips. She’s fair and flushes easily. Her face shows her moods. She likes to be in control.

Jun is cool teal blue, his moves definite, contained and athletic. A perfect face for the camera, sensitive and controlled. I like the crackling noise his pimpled green Japanese sneakers make as his feet dance across the gritty pavement.

Entering the city
We are creating a psychic landscape, a place of stripped down images and sounds. We transform something visible into something privately experienced. The audience steps inside the space and creates meaning. Inner City: public art in a public space in the centre of the city. The project explores the idea of city, of private activities in the public spaces of pedestrian and garden zones.

"The problem faced by contemporary artists tackling urban space was twofold: first how best to apprehend the experience of urban space not as spectator but as actor; second how to best re-present urban space, not in terms of figure and ground, on a two dimensional plan, but in active physical and mental intervention. The first question was solved through derive and its ulterior forms in Fluxus and Conceptual Art; the second by the topographical mapping of drifting processes, or cognitive mapping."

Critic Christal Hooevoet writing about post-war art in ‘Wandering in the city, flanerie to derive and after: the cognitive mapping of urban space’, The power of the city, the city of power (1992). New York: Whitney Museum of American Art. Quoted by Iwona Blazwick in the book Century city, published to accompany the first major exhibition at Tate Modern 1 February - 29 April 2001.

Iwona writes of the psychogeographic responses, of artists, writers and film-makers "giving over authorship to the city itself...a compelling strategy. Aimless wandering, ludic nomadism, shadowing strangers, co-opting the streetwise strategies of direct action, cutting across the grooves of commuterdom - by turns playful and dangerous, such ‘senseless acts of beauty’ bear witness to the great Situationist slogan ‘Sous le pave, la plage’ - under the pavement, the beach." ‘Senseless acts of beauty’ is a phrase associated with eco-activism and also the title of a book by George McKay, London 1996.
Blazwick, I. (ed.) (2001) Century city: art and culture in the modern metropolis. London: Tate

Drawing space
Digital video (DV): “dissolves the distinctions that separate the permanence of architecture from the transience of events.”

DV could be “a new centre of gravity for the design/production process of architecture and its kindred arts. The promise of DV is that it taps into the great fund of visual/operational knowledge held in the culture at large, and that it can enable the design/production process to become more responsive and more open to a wider group of interested parties.”

Extracts from Gavin Hogben’s essay Studio movies which proposes that: “the moving image can be developed as a powerful sketching medium, with all the intimacy and the immediacy, of pencil and paper.” Hogben, G. (2000) ‘Studio movies’ Digital Creativity (Volume 11 / No 4 / December 2000) New York: Routledge. p. 219

What was once
In the Blitz of 1940 bombing raids wiped out the heart of Plymouth. Eye witnesses wrote of "the almost physical impression that a city is slipping away from under one’s feet" (Andre Savignon), and that "the heat was so great that we could not look at was lighter than day and great bombs were falling every few seconds" (Stanley Goodman).

By the end of the war in 1945 Plymouth’s population had gone down from 208,000 to 127,000, as people were forced to leave the city to find somewhere to live.

Photos of the time show a few burned out hulks of buildings standing in a huge wasteland of flattened rubble. Thousands of homes were destroyed, along with 41 churches, 26 schools, 8 cinemas and 100 pubs.

I live just beyond the edge of the city centre near Beaumont Park. Here on the hillside of Greenbank and St Judes near the old Eastern city gate, German bombs fell in streams and clusters along the terraces, night after night after night.

One night’s bombing raid took out houses in the next street. The explosions lifted the roof of what would be our house, twisted rafters, brought down ceilings and split walls. In the back garden wartime mums and dads hid out in the shelter, the kids evacuated to South Hams or North Cornwall.

The Morrison shelter in our garden was a six by five foot chamber, walls of thick concrete reinforced with steel girders, nuts and bolts, and pieces of old iron. Almost indestructible. There was a green carpet on the floor and a steel escape hatch through the garden wall into the back lane. Others round here built an Anderson shelter, excavated a hidey-hole under the downstairs floor, or just chanced their luck.

As soon as the war ended Plymouth city councillor William Miller, born in Stonehouse, the son of a Sierra Leonean seaman and the grandson of a freed slave, became chairman of housing and started the process of rebuilding the city with a crash programme of prefab houses: in 1947 the reconstruction of the city centre was given the go ahead, the old geography was subsumed by post-war new-build, and the future began.
Note: see Ossie Glover’s piece All at sea: like father, like son for more about William Miller, and his son Claude Miller who became Plymouth’s Lord Mayor, in Black History 365 (Volume two / Issue one / Summer 2008) London: Smaart Publishing and p. 4

The plan: turris fortissima est nomen Jehova
Originally there were three urban developments: the towns of Plymouth, East Stonehouse and Devonport, which had all evolved along separate river estuaries. Early in the nineteenth century the architect John Foulston designed Union Street to link the three towns, which gradually expanded and merged, and in 1914 were formally amalgamated. The aim: to create a new modern commercial area in the centre of the city, reinforcing the importance of Plymouth as a major shopping centre for the region.

Traffic circles around the city centre along a ring of roads linked by roundabouts. Pedestrian access into the city is via subways to the north, east and south under the dual carriage-ways which form a tight boundary around the centre. The grid pattern is based on two main axes: north-south - Armada Way from Cobourg Street to the Hoe, and east-west - Royal Parade from St Andrew’s Cross to the eastern end of Union Street. A central concept to the Plan was to extend the green of the Hoe along Armada Way right into the heart of the city. A flagstaff set in a reproduction of Drake’s Drum was built at the Armada Way-Royal Parade crossing. In 1947 King George VI dedicated the flagstaff at a special ceremony to mark the formal start of the rebuilding of Plymouth.

Electric avenue
Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any medium and be lost. It is not your business to determine how good it is or how it compares to other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly.”
Spoken to Agnes de Mille: de Mille, A. (1991) Martha: the life and work of Martha Graham. New York: Random House. pp. 264.

The ocean rises in a tsunami of green, up, over and down past the war memorial, Moat House hotel. Splashing through Barclays' banking hall and around the curved fountains of San Sebastian Square.

Linear park
Armada Way - a wide avenue 1000 yards from North Cross to the Hoe, a linear park of groves, lawns, trickling streams, pools and fountains - the presence of water a reminder of the sea.

Entry to the city on foot from the east is through a labyrinth of mostly unnamed walkways, slopes, steps, subways, and opes. Down under roads, curving around buildings, cutting through gaps between shops.

There are no shared symbols, collective memories, or clear landmarks. The only prewar survivor in the centre is the Western Morning News building in New George Street - older people still use this to orientate themselves. Younger people, new residents and visitors to the city use the sundial and the Place de Brest.

In the wide grid of the centre we are aware of the unseen ocean just over the ridge. Gulls wheel high overhead above the tops of buildings, flap and screech at tree level, peck squawk and bicker for scraps and spilt chips on the ground.

During hot summer days a sea fret travels in on a high tide. Cool white briny mist rising up onto the Hoe plateau, then spilling down the bowl of Armada Way into the heart of the city. The temperature drops from steamy tropical to refrigerated in moments as the sun disappears behind a puff of ice cloud.

There are no clocks. We rely on the sun to tell us the time, the shape and depth of shadows, the colour of light. In the city centre we are outside time. A matrix of few permanent landmarks. Timeless we lose ourselves in the green and granite maze of the city.

Waves ripple across the Slumberdown mattress from Bude to Lipson. A 3.6 tremor in the solar plexus. About ten to one, just lain down to sleep, the earth moved. The window shook in its frame, floorboards bounced.

In the street looped together with hula hoops, a chain of kids - Lily, Oliver and friends. Over the road at number one, Tubbs is out gardening by eight thirty. Hubs and her scrape out their front flowerbed, ready for the summer. A ring of annuals.

The sun beats a hot solar rhythm on the dry slatey earth, baked rock hard.

I decided fairly early on in the pre-production process to consciously frame most shots of the two dancers in order to bisect or cut up their bodies. By chopping off significant portions of the figure I wanted to make the audience aware of the edge of the frame: our attention is drawn to the figure itself as well as what it is outside the frame that we cannot see.

This fragmented but controlled construction of images of performers and passersby resonates with our experience of moving through inner city space. It is as if we are moving along a tightrope. We achieve balance but it is precarious. We move forward in a linear direction and the momentum drives us further. In general, as viewers we learn the grammar of traditional shots - the long or wide shot, the medium or mid-shot, and the close-up - from watching television and film. And in such a way each successive shot pushes the film - and us - onward on our journey through the inner city, being led by the the two performers, who are given authority by appearing above us, being shot mostly from low angles.

Dancing without music to the rhythm of the dancers' movement within the frame, and against the hard edge of walls, windows, the percussion of footsteps and edits, the incidental choreography of passers-by.

We are moved on a journey through space and time as we follow the trail of images, being led to and fro, but always onward, from the beginning of the film to its end: the silent darkness.

Future past
Stuart and I are aware that the existence of what we're filming is limited. We are tuned in to time. Time has been called on the subways, pathways and copses that spool down from the heights of North Cross, linking one space to another in one fluid movement. Time is up for the Drake Circus shopping centre, (opened by Princess Anne), at the top of town.

We know that what we're seeing, the spaces we're moving within, won't be here for much longer. The escalator, the plate-glass display windows placed to reveal glimpses of ourselves and others multiplying as we disappear off into the future past.

The smooth slate circle is vulnerable to the council's 21st century restructuring of the city centre. What is old will be re-modelled as a shopping mall, the freedom for pedestrians to cross roads at street level, and the creation of a flat events space in Armada Way.

The subway under Royal Parade will one day soon be bricked-up with breeze blocks, the tiles telling Plymouth's story smashed and walled-in; the access slopes filled with rubble and paved flat with granite slabs.

As the choreographed journey of camera and dance takes shape in the early days of our three week residency in the city centre, our locations suggest names for themselves: Whispering Wall, Stop Start Steps.

I draw up a map of the action (a storyboard?) with North Cross at the top, moving down Armada Way southwards to San Sebastian Square and the twin crescent fountains. In the air there is a promise of the ocean, unseen beyond the bulk of Plymouth Hoe. Somewhere over there is a far horizon, flat-lining across a distant frame where sea meets sky.

During filming we capture a natural, lucent beauty from digits and pixels. The shots are framed carefully, the dancers move with precision, a counterpoint to the observed, undirected action of the inner city people.

The film is lit naturally, except in the subways where the light below ground is thick, gelatinous, sticky with time. We use the footage straight as it comes during the edit, no colouring, no effects, following the progression of our map as we select and cut the rhythm of the inner city journey together.

We compose the soundscape using audio recorded on location in the landscape the dancers travel through. A sound catches our attention: it's out of sight, but moves closer, into view, is held for a brief moment, then carried away into the distance beyond the frame as our ears pick up a new sound.

The principle components of the soundtrack are the diversity of voices overheard - different languages, accents, ages; noises produced by movement - footsteps across different surfaces and textures, water, the spinning wheels of bicycles and buggies; and qualities of sound in both enclosed and open environments - the echoes of children in the subways contrasting with the clarity of the wide spaces above ground.

Although we originally filmed on Kodachrome 40, back from the lab the footage looks so lush, moody and belonging to time past - especially the subterranean movement sequences - that it seems to belong to a separate film. We decide to include clips from only a single K40 Super 8 roll: home movie out-takes from one lazy off-duty afternoon after our rigourous lunchtime shoot outside the jeweller's on New George Street. It reminds us that we are watching the past, a memory taking shape: the dancers chat, and laugh and warm themselves in thick, golden sunlight outside Carwardine's café; Jacqui Gee's daughter and her best friend are caught forever in a teenage moment of ice creams, smiles and swingy hair. The dream replayed, these brief interludes remind us that what we're seeing is no more, can never be again.

Copyright © Kayla Parker 2001 - 2010
Extracts taken from Inner City production diary 2000 - 2001