“The skeleton of what you’re making” — An Interview with Richard Forbes-Hamilton

by Maximilien Luc Proctor

Over the summer I was introduced to the work of Richard Forbes-Hamilton through a screening programmed by Neil Young for European Film Festival Palić. Although I met Richard in-person at the festival (and we had a lovely chat riding into the neighboring town of Subotica to take our Covid tests), this interview was conducted later on via e-mail.

In his latest work, (Third Study for) Swedge of Heaven (2020), multi-disciplinary artist Richard Forbes-Hamilton presents us with the precise image of his beat: a digitally animated individual with an oversized yellow whistle for a head – complete with a stoic ‘have a nice day’ smiley for a face – arrhythmically pounding on a drum with glow sticks. With each hit, the camera (although the environment is entirely digital) zeroes in with a forward movement to emphasize the vibrations – a digital rendition of distinctly physical phenomenon. Smiley appears as a reference to UK ‘90s Acid House and its corresponding club scene, and his surroundings are something of a virtual approximation of the rural outskirts of Essex – where many Acid House raves were held in fields at the time.

So too is an IRL site key to an earlier work by Forbes-Hamilton, A Ghost Eats Mud on the Mountain (2018). Here, Hong Kong is re-envisioned as a ghost town that vibes to constant low rumblings and angular synth slices. The title is borrowed from a Cantonese proverb. Naturally, a yin and yang symbol rests at the bottom of a pool in a Sims-perspective wide shot of the empty city. The symbol returns at the center of a spinning mandala presented in a void. Signs of life do exist in Forbes-Hamilton’s holographic Hong Kong, but they are scant: the light traffic which passes a stack of boxes on a pallet busy defying all laws of physics by floating away from us on a slight upward incline, and a solitary bald (and faceless?) figure seen huddled under a concrete table. Later (though one cannot say with certainty that it is the same individual) he is again spotted playing the flute astride a hulking buffalo, silhouetted by the shimmering golden water behind them, a swirling resonance of all things vibrating in harmony. Cities retain their harrowing effect on the psyche, even when emptied. To bask in natural light bestows a means of healing, even as a replica.

MLP: As an artist from a painting (and musical) background, what brought you into moving image work? Was it a natural means of combining the sound and visual styles you had developed up to that point, or did you see it more as a chance to start fresh in a new medium?

Richard Forbes-Hamilton: I’ve always loved animation and was really inspired as a kid through my exposure to a TV programme called Four-Mations on Channel 4 in the UK; the 80s/90s are often regarded as a golden age of animation in the UK, I guess this platform grew out of that and showed a huge variety of UK and international animation, lots of auteur/experimental work too. I was really drawn in through this and started experimenting with animation a bit when I was about 8 years old, a little stop-motion camcorder stuff and a bit of computer-based animation too. It was the first thing as a youngster that I had really romanticised as a future profession but I never had the patience for it.

Fast forward to studying Fine Art Painting at the University of Brighton. Around this time I was getting pretty heavily into cinema and was particularly inspired by film makers who really engaged with the image and how they manifested this through a particular relationship to the camera. So Parajanov, Tarkovsky, Deren, Weerasethakul, Tarr and more were all fresh inspirations for me at that time. I started thinking about how time functions in the experience of painting, and began experimenting with the idea of making animated paintings. I asked myself ‘what could be equivalents for painting in moving image?’, in both the creation (bringing the immediacy of painting to animation which is often viewed as a very technically laboured media) and the experience as a viewer. The animations I was making were made out of oil/acrylic painted acetate ‘cells’ that I would scan and digitally assemble as looped rhythmic components. These explorations culminated in my degree show work The Final Act of Geng Yaoting:

Considering finding equivalents to how painting might be experienced, I also became aware of the different ways in which a viewer might encounter or spend time with a painting as apposed to a durational artwork. I had personally experienced that strange feeling of encountering a piece of video art in a gallery, and the experience immediately being encroached upon by thoughts of “how much have I missed?” “should I wait until the obvious beginning comes round again and the watch the whole thing? or just to where I came in?” “does it matter?” So I made works that could function on loops where the conceived beginning or end wasn’t necessarily important, also often displaying work on rear projection screens so the viewer could get as close to the screen as they liked without casting a shadow over it. I perhaps pushed this furthest in an animated study called Windmill Study (light and time), a 2-hour animation of a slow repeated pan around a windmill with the suggested light, colours (perhaps time of day) slowly shifting on each repetition – I liked the idea of creating a time-based work where there is no expectation to sit through the entire duration, more so that you might come and go and experience something different on each view or passing.

How did you decide to work with computer-generated imagery? And how has that experience compared to working on your music (which I presume is also made entirely in a virtual setting, though please correct me if that’s not the case)?

Although painting is something I’ve done regularly since I was really small and is seen as perhaps an archetypically analogue medium, I also have an older brother who was really into computers growing up, so I guess that digital familiarity or skill set was always there. So its perhaps more about having an idea and using whatever means makes sense to explore or see that idea through.

In the case of my more recent moving image work it was a mix of scratching a creative itch and chance… With sound and moving image I’ve worked collaboratively with others on both sides, composing/producing scores/soundtracks with moving image artists and producing visuals with musicians. In the time leading up to beginning work on A Ghost Eats Mud on The Mountain I had been thinking about what a singular but multi-disciplinary project where I did everything might look like. I’d also been developing some new skills in tandem with my day job as a 3D visualiser that I’d been looking to put to use in my own practice.

A Ghost Eats Mud on The Mountain was almost a happy accident, it wasn’t something I’d planned on making. I came back from a trip to Hong Kong with a shit ton of photos and a couple of short videos I’d shot on my DSLR. I thought one of the videos had something interesting to it but it felt like it needed to be part of something more expansive and I was wondering what I could do with all of the photos. I’d done a little with photogrammetry and projection mapping before so I thought these could be interesting ways to explore the photos further. I started rebuilding the photos as digital 3D environments that I could film with virtual cameras, then I was wondering about figures that I could introduce to navigate through these spaces and so I created the youth/buffalo as virtual actors.

I began making music in a more dedicated way a year or two before starting uni at Brighton, in the early days I was just using a couple of instruments/effects pedals and recording stuff with a four track. I was starting to explore using a computer more for music around the time I started making animations at university, I didn’t really know what I was doing and started out looping/stretching samples in a very simple audio/wav editor to make drone-y compositions, which I started using in the animations too. Now the vast majority of my music workflow is based around a computer (using Ableton Live) with MIDI controllers, but I do have some physical instruments that I bring in sometimes and I do a bit of field recording too, which I’ll use for sound design/making virtual instruments (I’ve put this to significant use in making Swedge of Heaven).

With comparisons between working on animation/moving image and music, I think as much as I’m a very visual person I often think in what might be conventionally recognised as musical terms in my moving image work. Like the equivalent of note division in visual rhythms, denseness/lightness, build ups, impacts, cuts, tone, motifs/refrains etc. Perhaps these sorts of terms or ways of thinking have become a bit interchangeable across my practice, I certainly find myself thinking about the equivalents of how I engage with painting in music, like the equivalent to an image being a hook, refrain or central melodic/harmonic/rhythmic part (even in something very abstract) like it is the skeleton of what you’re making, and the materials used, the quality of them and how they’re applied holding equivalent to sonic decisions/qualities.

My managing editor, Ruairí (who was also at the screening in Palić), suggested I ask about your relationship to British horror literature, classic and modern. Would you say it’s had any bearing on your visual work?

I’m very dyslexic and a poor reader, I definitely find it difficult to commit to novels and I would say I’m far from any description of being well read. In terms of horror literature though (in this case Irish) I think I read Melmoth the Wanderer in as few sittings as I’ve read any other novel. That perhaps leads nicely onto Sarah Perry, who I haven’t read at all but I’m really keen to read her reinterpretation of Melmoth and of course (given Swedge of Heaven and its relationship to Essex) the very popular The Essex Serpent.  

So although I haven’t read much in the way of British horror literature, I could certainly understand that observation of a relationship to gothic or folk horror in the use of place/landscape as atmospheric device, allusions to spirit realms and reference to culturally/geographically specific myth/legend, ritualistic signifiers and objects.

Maximilien Luc Proctor is a French-American filmmaker & critic living in Berlin. He is a contributing editor for photogénie, the editor-in-chief of Ultra Dogme, and a curator for Fracto Experimental Film Encounter. His moving image work can be found on Vimeo, and he is one of Two Nice Catholic Boys.

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