Image of Seamus Harahan Jarman Award

FLAMIN Artist Interview: Seamus Harahan

Date posted: 08.12.2016

Ahead of his new solo exhibition at Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, we caught up with the Belfast-based artist, Seamus Harahan, to find out more about his low-tech approach to image making, his interest in filming the social and cultural environment around him and the vital role of music in his practice.

How did your distinctive approach to filmmaking come about?

SH: I started making accidentally - I shot stuff without realising it was making 'films', I think I'm always trying to hold onto that initial, intuitive thing of lifting up a camera - just seeing something and deciding to film it or not film it. The impetus to soundtrack footage came to me when I was going through a carousel of slides to apply for a master's course. I had used a borrowed Hi-8 camera to document sound sculptures, had shot and forgot stuff. When I took slides from the tape, I took a few of the random shots. I was playing music while rifling through the carousel... a still of the old bag lady, a saint in the city, came up and something happened. I rustled them together on VHS....

I think we all witness these American Beauty witches knickers moments and go 'Oh it's poetic' - little moments of sublime, ugly beauty.

Image: Seamus Harahan, Auftakt, 2011, [fucking finland series]. Courtesy of the artist 

How do you approach collecting footage  - do you always carry a camera with you or is it more a case of deciding to go out and capturing what you encounter on a given day?

SH: I guess you could call it opportunistic but it's not that often that I'll go to a location - It's sort of integrated into what my general comings and goings in life are. For it to be opportunistic, I would have to be approaching everything as an Art, which I'm really not interested in. It's first of all about life - it's about signs of life in a micro-cosmic way - life connected to other life. Sometimes people ask me if the scenarios are staged (no words) - which I always find funny... to enact them would cost quite a bit of money!

Do you see what you do as having a sociological or anthropological dynamic?

SH: We have all the 'ologies' and for me, art is none of the ologies and any mix of them, between the 'ologies' - it's not an anthropological thing for me, I don't approach it in any scientific way. The thing that I care about is humanity, which you have to care about because you belong to it -it's your community. I was listening recently to a lecture on Mayan culture and thinking to myself, it's easy to talk about how brutal they were but in some respects, how can you say it's more brutal than contemporary western civilization? They had a massive respect for nature that, certainly, western capitalist culture doesn't. To me capitalism is a death cult - it depends on a lot of people suffering, so I guess in a way artists are trying to look through that suffering.

Image: Seamus Harahan, Samurai, 2006. Courtesy of the artist.

What would you cite as key influences on you as an artist?

SH: Diaspora. Potato printing, my brother's pencil drawing of a motor bike. Finbarr Dwyer, Johnny Cash, Tony Hart, Burning Spear... Rodger the Dodger. Repatriation.

I grew up with Irish music and American country and folk music and the mix in London, integrated in some respects, over the fence with Hindu, Jamaican, English, Bangla, Klezmer... a child's ears and eyes in foreign London... so that's where I found my first cultural influences - I'm always suspicious of people that don't like Hank Williams! And I guess you can look at those things as having a documentary content - somebody writing about their life, living their life.

I didn't come from an art background, I came from a working class London Northern Irish background. Stone masons and tailors, blacksmiths, who knows. Repatriating as a 9 year old, to a politicised east Tyrone in late 70's, with a cockney accent had its challenges.

Image: Seamus Harahan, Cold Open (Brendan's Test, 2010). Courtesy of the artist

For early video influences, the news and actuality of the Hunger Strikes, coverage of the Falklands wars, things you can't easily ask anyone from here in Northern Ireland to define.. a way of being for a generation. I fixed and sold TVs and converted 200+ hooky Secam Ferguson Videostars to Pal when I jumped school at 16. YTP.  I spent lunchtimes hooking up AV gear in the showroom, recording collages off the TVs, so that draw to the technology and representation is in there somewhere, the Challenger disaster on loop.. I can't not mention Ken Loach and Alan Clarke.

When I was doing my masters, I was watching Lost Highway for the second time and found myself being amazed by the editing... amazing little micro-edits that you can't fully contextualize... psychological nudges that you're not supposed to notice - a shadow moving on the back of a half opened door, I couldn't watch films in a conventional sense after that. Like musicians unravel arrangements of productions...That was an important moment.

I'm definitely influenced by documentary filmmakers, Terence Davies being one of them. Also the Russian filmmakers Sergei Dvortsevoy and Victor Kossakovsky were nice Storyville (BBC 2) finds I could reference - finished the same year as Holylands (2003), his film Tishe! was shot as he fathered his first born kid and is entirely shot from home, out of his window.

Image: Seamus Harahan, Holylands, 2003. Courtesy of the artist.

I came to Jonas Mekas after I'd started making films and it completely made sense to me as a way of working. Around the same time I happened to read about Occam's Razor and the law of succinctness, which seemed relevant to Mekas' idea that the thing only needs to be as long as it needs to be and both of those things were very influential.

As a visual person you're always absorbing stuff, although I find myself less interested in looking at art per se. - living in Belfast, it's once in a blue moon that I can see something that really affects me. As a young artist you're looking for things that reinforce your belief that it's worth making art.  When you're starting out and you go into a gallery and you really want to use these little skills you know you have to communicate something. You go to an art gallery and you see something that makes you want to go home and make your own work.

Dorothy Cross, Philip Napier, Victor Sloan, Alice Maher, naming a few seems wrong.

The last thing that I read was Bruce Robinson's alleged semi-autobiographical novel, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman and I can't say that hasn't made me think about certain things differently.

How do you go about pairing music with your footage?

SH:Certain tracks you can really love but you know you could get overexposed to. I know when I'm listening to a track that I can't get sick of it, which is obviously a personal thing. I can listen to it a thousand times. If I soundtrack with it, I might have to. In my head I'm always earmarking particular things... and thinking, 'that's still affecting me... still making me feel something'.

Sometimes when I'm shooting indoors and through a window, any music or sound on in the background can become part of the soundtrack of a film. I guess in a way it reflects the relationship a lot of people have with music. I guess to some extent, everyone soundtracks their life... they might be cycling down the road with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on their headphones observing a subtly different journey each day!

Jarman Award: Len Graham and Trees Prosper with Séamus Harahan 'Along the Faughan Side' is at Tyneside Cinema until 9 January 2017.

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