Excavating the Visceral in the Films of Matt Hulse 1989-2022
TT Journal, ISSUE 4, 12th September 2022
By Matt Hulse
BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION
This essay offers a chronological overview of a selection of my work in moving image, photography and performance from the past thirty three years.
The mirror into which I looked darkly and deeply revealed an underlying, consistent sense of the visceral; it is this particular aspect of my work that I have focussed on and excavated.
PRAGUE 89 (12’, Super 8mm with cassette audio, 1989)
In 1989, an enterprising and visionary painting tutor called Alan Plummer took a bunch of us Art students from University of Reading on an ambitious continental coach tour via London, Paris, Amsterdam, Kassel, Berlin (West) and Prague.
This resulted in one of my earliest films.
It combines footage I shot in the streets of Prague with ephemera I had gathered there, plus animations created once I was back in Reading, inspired by the work of Czechoslovak animator-filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, plus the earlier influence of Czechoslovak illustrator Ota Janeček, who illustrated a heart-achingly beautiful 1968 edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince that I have cherished since a child.
It was the first time I took a splicer to celluloid, joining cut film with tape (in this instance standard household sticky tape). It is curious to see the impression of the splicer’s blade, with its wavy diagonal, creating composite frames at the join.
It’s an early example of a parallel montage technique that I still favour.
The music I created on a Casio SK1 sampling keyboard, plus vocal effects and the sound of the cine camera. I multi-tracked using at least two cassette player-recorders.
The jar that fills itself with oil, dried beans and lentils was my recreation of jars I had seen part-filling shelves in a meagrely-stocked supermarket in a vast, largely empty shopping centre.
Aspects of the cinematography appear to prefigure my telescopic work in China and North Korea.
The steady gaze shots are Warhol influenced. Let the action unfold; let the machine record.
The film ends with a shot of a wedding scene; the marriage of a wooden spoon and a bodkin.
A fairy-tale like form and resolution is common in my work.
PURPLE RINSE (6’, Super 8mm, 1989)
Purple Rinse survives today as a digital scan of the original hand-spliced and treated Super 8 film, a film that started out as a poem, became a song, and then a live performance with a cassette recording of the song as backing: this is a performance art document.
That particular sequence, combination and collision of creative iterations led to me becoming an artist filmmaker (as opposed to a writer/director); it’s a pattern and process that, in one form or another, I pursue to this day.
The original poem was written when, as an art student at Reading University (1987-91), I was living in a deprived housing estate in Reading, called Whitley.
The area was infamous for the ‘Whitley Whiff’, a powerful stench that oozed from the local sewage treatment plant (since contained).
In 1989, we were also breathing in the whiff of Thatcher’s policies of market liberalisation, and the rush towards brash, shameless American-style consumerism.
The poem I wrote was a direct, visceral response, adopting a tone of disgust.
Donning a cloak of aggressions that I felt around me, the words in the main part of the poem/song are intentionally brutal: Musty clothes and scabby mouths / Two ugly paupers getting wed / Crack open a cock and split a cunt / Pear-shaped ladies and pale men / You’re too scared to say that they repulse you / God forgives people like that / And God forgives people like us.
At this point in the essay, I must acknowledge the deep impact of David Byrne and Talking Heads.
In relation to Purple Rinse, the track Social Studies from Byrne’s album Music for “The Knee Plays” (1985, composed for Robert Wilson‘s opera the CIVIL warS) is of particular relevance. In it he imagines and proposes – from his point of view in a queue at a supermarket checkout – that by buying and consuming the same products as a shopper in the queue with him, he might eventually become them.
I thought that if I ate the food of the area I was visiting / That I might assimilate the point of view of the people there / As if the point of view was somehow in the food / So I would make no choices myself regarding what food I ate
In Purple Rinse, as the song-performance-film progresses, I ‘become’ one of the old ladies of Whitley. Starting out in just Mickey Mouse print knickers and yellow socks, I get into drag during an act of embodiment, attempting to ‘assimilate the point of view of the people there’.
The triumphant, charismatic finale of the work follows these lines: Heaven is a Gateway / Heaven is a Tesco /Heaven is a Sainsbury’s / Heaven is a Co-op / We all fall down…
The neatness of the wordplay has diminished over time: back then there was a supermarket chain called Gateway.
Again, with this focus on supermarkets, we see Byrne’s influence, from the seminal 1986 film True Stories, which features unforgettable scenes inside the vast NorthPark Center shopping mall in Dallas. The position Byrne takes in the movie is to see differently, to shed light on the beauty that may be found in the mundane: Look at this! Who can say it isn’t beautiful?
I share his vision and ability to see the beauty in the mundane, and in 2022, I find myself involved in projects (in association with Düsseldorf artist Julia Zinnbauer) that take inspiration from Reading’s Broad St Mall (formerly The Butts Centre).
The Tesco seen in Purple Rinse (no longer there) was the first store to open in The Butts Centre, back in 1971.
The electrically-charged blue lines that dance around my performing self were scratched directly frame-by-bloody-frame into the emulsion of the Super 8.
The choreography during Purple Rinse’s supermarket sequence is, again, partly inspired by David Byrne’s moves from the incredible Talking Heads’ concert movie Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme). Byrne draws freely from the ecstatic body language of pastors and members of congregations of North American evangelical churches.
In addition, I had my own personal experience to draw from as an impressionable 11-year old that was lured into a Canadian evangelical – well, cult really – in Bath, in 1980. It was short-lived but left a deep impression.
One final note. My moves also suggest a kind of rudimentary sign language. My interest in sign language stems from Carson McCullers’ 1940 debut novel The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, that features at its core a deaf-mute (acceptable terminology at that time) named simply Singer.
That book’s deep influence is evident in my second feature film Dummy Jim (87’, 2013), which we’ll be looking at later.
SINE DIE (4’, Super 8mm, 1994)
Sine Die was shot using a Canon 514xl Super 8 camera, hooked up to a simple but reliable intervalometer, on Kodak Tri-X reversal film. I spliced it together from the camera originals.
I created the soundtrack using the Casio SK-1 Sampling Keyboard again, with its maximum (and only) sample length of 1.2 seconds. I mixed it through a Fostex X15 and after many failed attempts, managed to sync the mix down to the magnetic tape stripe that had been applied to the spliced montage by Derann Film Services (Dudley, England, 1964-2011).
It was shot in and around Kintra on the Isle of Mull (Scotland) on Christmas Day 1993. At that point in time my mother Ruth Pendragon was living a hermetic life on the island.
That Christmas Eve, news came through on the landline that my paternal grandmother, Joan Hulse, had passed.
Naturally those of us in the small crofter’s cottage – myself, mum, and my brother and sister – were really upset, and frustrated that we’d need to wait some days before bus and ferry services resumed, and we could make it back down to England.
My actions here are a direct response to that atmosphere, and situation.
The film starts with a shot of a stylus being placed onto a record, and ends when the record ends.
Sine Die is a legal term that translates as ‘with no appointed date for resumption’.
Completing the film I recognised that my archaic workflow was incredibly time-consuming, expensive and volatile. I felt motivated to retrain, to get to know computers, non-linear digital editing and post production techniques.
I applied to study the PGDip in Electronic Imaging at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (Dundee, Scotland).
Following an interview at which I showed this film – projected with my incredibly heavy Bell & Howell projector – I was offered a place.
TAKE ME HOME (7’, Super 8mm on Digital, 1997)
‘A chain of free associations & non-sequiturs evoking the spirit of Dada.’ (A Century of Artists Film In Britain, Tate Britain)
‘Part performance art, part film space-time perception comedy, Hulse’s piece is a delightful heir to Dada cinema of Hans Richter & other early avant-gardists.’ (SolPix Review).
Take Me Home marks a key point in my journey, as it was picked up by many short film festivals and took some prizes, notably the Video Award at Berlin’s 1999 Transmediale whose jury awarded it for its ‘naked, grainy digital dirtiness’.
It was also the first film that had attracted support from Arts Council of England, a grant totalling £4376.
The film is a wilful collision. All those years working hands-on with celluloid, splices, razor blades, self-shooting with the intervalometer propelled into a violent head-on impact – a forced marriage – with digital editing and digital imaging techniques.
A feisty argy-bargy of ill-matched mediums.
Also in the mix, bringing great texture and depth, the results of hand-processed, and many times re-processed Super 8, toxic chemical work undertaken by Dutch filmmaker Joost van Veen at Filmwerkplaats (Rotterdam), under the influence of caffeine-fuelled, visceral, edgy moods that followed those long nights of powerful Belgian beer.
At that point in time, as digital emerged and celluloid retreated, I found myself drawn to the fruitful overlap and intersection between the two. It became possible to treat digital sequences as if they were in fact celluloid; you could add splices, scratches, jitters and weaving, ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ looks. This technique is now possible using a standard app on any smart phone, and has become something of a cliché perhaps, but in 1997 these combinations of technique were novel.
In the end, it’s not the tool, it’s the person using the tool. I was fortunate enough to have the assistance of fellow Electronic Imaging post graduate Steven Murgatroyd, who had landed an impressive job at The Mill (digital post-production house) in Soho, London.
In downtime between long shifts working on Madonna’s video for Frozen (released 1998, dir. Chris Cunningham) he would help abuse my very clean 3D animation of dancing furniture, that I had created during my time as an apprentice to artist animator George Snow using architectural modelling software Form Z, plus a separate frame-rendering application that took upwards of 45 minutes to render each single frame (and it often failed).
It was George that taught me how to punch the face of a Mac Classic as an occasional – and necessary – (visceral) release.
The dancing furniture animation was based on a photograph I took in the café at the Filmmuseum in Vienna during Christmas 1996.
A few words on the soundtrack and editing.
The soundtrack came first – this has since become my preferred modus – forget scripting: create structures and a sense of narrative arc through the progression of sound and music.
I gathered together a bunch of old cassettes from my teenage years – short experiments in recording, songs, mostly of no real consequence in themselves – and dumped these on the floor of Gerald Mair’s studio in Glasgow. I also handed him a hat full of my own Oblique Strategies.
Oblique Strategies is a card-based method for promoting creativity created by musician/artist Brian Eno and multimedia artist Peter Schmidt, first published in 1975. Physically, it takes the form of a deck of printed cards in a black box. Each card offers a challenging constraint intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.
Here’s an example chosen randomly from Oblique Strategies online: Work at a different speed
I no longer have my own set, but they would have been more like: Squeeze until it squeals
With my arms-length misguidance, Gerald eventually produced a fantastic soundtrack. He told me some years later on a freezing night in February in a bar on a boat somewhere in Berlin that he thought I was insane, and that it would never work.
The edit was gleefully undertaken at the Glasgow Film and Video Workshop by yet another post graduate of Electronic Imaging, Gregory Allen. He and I have a mutual deep understanding of what visceral means or, rather, feels like. Take Me Home is not an intellectual experience; rationality and the intellect are bypassed in favour of surprise, absurdity and physical impact.
In this clip, there are a number of experiences held in playful tension: cold vs hot, hair/fur vs skin/nudity, fake/artificial vs real/natural, gravity vs levitation, speed/anxiety vs stillness/calm.
Why is it called Take Me Home? I can’t honestly remember, but perhaps somewhere in all of this is a cry to be held, finally, by someone: to find a place of rest, far from the Pantomime dogs, the neurotic furniture, the monopods and the gloomy lanes that recede endlessly into fog.
2022 marks the film’s 25th anniversary.
HOTEL CENTRAL (10’, Super 8mm / 16mm on 35mm, 2000)
Hotel Central was created through a process of close collaboration between the director, the performer (Joost van Veen) and the crew (Aimara Reques, Roel van der Maaden, Lucy Brown, Jim Rusk and Holger Mohaupt).
Locations included the Isle of Mull, various spots on the west coast of Scotland, the desultory Royal Hot l (sic) l in Callander and the disused top floor of the Grand Central hotel (Glasgow).
There was no script. Accidents were welcomed as important tools for production, as were found objects and chance locations.
Luis Buñuel called this open-ended, intuitive process conscious psychic automation and as a method it was followed right through to the final cut.
The eccentric result does not attempt to narrate a dream, but exploits the same kind of mechanisms that dreams utilise.
Simon Field, then Director of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, picked Hotel Central as his favourite film of 2000, describing it as being ‘in the twilight zone between art and cinema’ and the director Matt Hulse as one who ‘makes images like Stockhausen makes music’.
Hotel Central shared the Special Award for Film with Jean-Luc Godard (for his feature Éloge de l’Amour) at the Split Film Festival 2001.
In this clip, Joost van Veen engages in a neurotic, sustained frenzy of scratching. This was the direct result of the fact that every time he stood still to be filmed – he was placed around Scotland like a statue, Last Year in Marienbad style – a fearsome cloud of midges would descend upon him, and it became unbearable for him to stand still. So we just decided to go with the slapping and scratching, and incorporate the wretched wee bastards.
Hotel Central was funded through the C4/ACE scheme animate! (estd.1991 by the late Dick Arnall). The innovative venture produced 90+ short British animations and hybrid live-action/animation films, many of which were hugely successful on film festival circuits and TV sets worldwide.
THERE IS ONLY LIGHT (JEST TYLKO ŚWIATŁO) (4’, Super 8mm on Digital, 2004)
‘There is no narrative, there is only light.’ (Luis Buñuel)
Shot during a brief residency at the Centre for Contemporary Art (Warsaw, Poland) on a Braun Nizo 801 Super 8mm camera, set to music by Gardienice Orkiestra Antyczna, who I caught live by chance during my stay.
What I hadn’t anticipated was that this Nizo model’s much-admired ‘auto B’ function – used to shoot automatically-exposed time-lapse frames in low light – would be almost knocked out by the well-below zero February temperatures.
However, the sturdy German device would not give up entirely, shooting bursts of frames at a time, spluttering along valiantly, sometimes seizing up completely.
Recalling George Snow’s advice regarding the Mac Classic, a few sharp slaps with a frozen hand would usually encourage its respect, and off it would go again.
I had no way of knowing if I was capturing anything at all, but had no choice but to continue.
I was thrilled with the results once I finally got round to the telecine, a difficult transfer to digital mastered by John Crane at BBC Post Production. He had a way of being able to get an image from the most over or underexposed material.
I have a deep connection with the broken and the faulty; when that Nizo 801 finally died, I was bereft. But post-Warsaw, it soldiered on for some years.
HALF LIFE (6’45”, S8mm on Digital, 2004)
‘From the flickering light, the harsh ring of the phone or the boredom of the work, the people here are trapped in a half-dead state and you know what, many of us feel that way even though our offices are better lit.’ – (Bob The Moo, IMDb)
Half Life was shot in a disused X-ray developing facility in Edinburgh (Scotland) on the naughty Nizo 801 (still spluttering), plus a second Bauer camera I’d acquired, just to be safe.
I worked with five performers, individually, in turn – they were never in the same space at the same time; they were brought together through the Magic of Montage.
The performers were Nick Currey (editor of my feature films Follow The Master, Dummy Jim and Sound For The Future), performer/singer Fiona Staniland, Samuel Dore (who later played the lead in Dummy Jim), actor Mark Bishop and Sarah Beauvoisin.
Both Sarah and Samuel are profoundly deaf, reflecting my increasing engagement around that time with the British d/Deaf community, an engagement that led to my founding and curation of three years of Sign Language Cinema at Edinburgh Filmhouse and Glasgow Film Theatre.
Half Life hones the visceral tropes present in much of my work up to this point, supported by Daniel Padden’s irksome score. As I recall, the only guidance I gave him was to mirror the faults of the troublesome Nizo 801, and as a result notes / sounds are truncated, melodic notions are half-finished; there’s frustration, then suddenly things burst forth.
In this clip Fiona is leafing myopically through a thick catalogue of promotional materials that I found at a flea market in Leipzig (Germany), held tightly together in a sturdy binder with the title CHEMIEAUSRÜSTNGEN: DEUTSCHER INNEN – UND AUSSENHANDEL (CHEMICAL EQUIPMENT: GERMAN DOMESTIC AND FOREIGN TRADE).
I have the tome on my lap as I type (it’s a very small desk). Its overpowering chemical stench remains as pungent as the day I acquired it, back in 2002, during a trip to Leipzig DokFest.
Some of the best shots I got during production were taken when set photographer Alice Nelson set the performers into still poses. It would never have occurred to me to direct them to be static.
It’s a method I still employ. Thanks Alice.
Funny story. I was on my way to the Burlington Bertie pub in Edinburgh one day, and there, plastered on the side of the King’s Theatre, a poster for an amateur production of Kafka’s The Trial, featuring Nick Currey in a still from Half Life. I was mildly peeved as it had been used without permission. So I got in touch with the young director and asked where he found it. “Oh! I am so sorry. I just did a search using the word ‘frustration’ and that’s what came up…”
Apologies to Mr Currey for broadcasting what he calls ’80’s nightmare dental work’.
REPLAY (10’, S8mm on Digital, 2005)
‘Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.’ (Sigmund Freud)
REPLAY was commissioned by International Film Festival Rotterdam. Selected filmmakers were invited to respond to a set of soundtrack stems prepared by American composer David Shea.
There were no restrictions on how we handled the audio; Shea himself actively encouraged us to create our own soundtrack from his sonic ingredients.
Anyone who has read this far will recognise that this approach was perfectly aligned with a way of working that I had already been active with for more than a decade.
The budget was sufficient to allow for travel, so I took myself off to Vienna in the middle of February, once again with the Nizo 801, which on this occasion ran smoothly.
I had no plan as such, other than to become a flaneur for a few days and nights.
flâneur / flaˈnə, French flanœʀ
noun 1: a man who saunters around observing society
What emerged from all the sauntering and observation might be described as a melancholic guide to a once-great central-European city, devoid of human life – with the exception of a couple in silhouette, in the far distance, who seem to be forever lost in an awkward moment of existential indecision.
Meanwhile the city appears to be populated by numerous statues, mannequins and waxworks that, despite this filmmaker-flaneur’s best efforts to connect, refuse to communicate, let alone reveal any kind of emotion whatsoever.
Words of Viennese artist Oskar Kokoschka come to mind: inescapable thingness. Kokoschka is describing the limitations of a macabre life-size doll he created of his former lover, Alma Mahler.
The film’s POV (point of view) suggests that the man shooting the film is himself lost in awkward moments of existential indecision. He uses the movie camera as a tool of investigation; through probing he hopes to reveal something – anything! – that might be concealed beneath the cold surfaces that stare blankly back at him. Is he looking for truth? Love perhaps? Himself?
I’ll give you a moment to consider what this says about Matt Hulse.
REPLAY was also inspired in part by Kazuo Ishiguro’s epic, baffling, labyrinthine and intense tome The Unconsoled (Faber & Faber, 1995).
The novel takes place over a period of three days. Ryder, a famous pianist, arrives in a central European city to perform a concert. He is entangled in a web of appointments and promises which he cannot seem to remember, struggling to fulfil his commitments before Thursday night’s performance and is frustrated with his inability to take control.
In this clip from REPLAY I refer directly to the closing scene on the final page of The Unconsoled, in which Ryder spontaneously gets on board a passing tram; the suggestion is that he simply wants ‘out of there’.
Then, as Ishiguro often does so well, without warning or explanation, he transforms the world in a magical instant: there, displayed enticingly within the rounded back of the tram, an opulent breakfast buffet on a white linen bedecked table, with fresh coffee, orange juice, sandwiches, bagels, cakes, stacked plates and cutlery.
Bitter-sweet flavours again from Alain Resnais’ 1961 nouvelle-vague masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad have also seeped into REPLAY – statues, ghosts, waxen expressions, indifference, opulent architecture, melancholy, a sense of loss and yearning.
REPLAY is divided into five episodes. In the final episode, the previous four episodes are replayed, rewound – in reverse – at high speed, ending finally on the shot of the filmmaker’s hand.
In the filmmaker’s hand, a pen, with which he struggles (and fails) to label a 1970’s audio cassette with the word REPLAY.
The Super 8mm was processed and graded by Joost van Veen at Filmwerkplaats (Rotterdam).
SEENOISEHEARLIGHT (20’, Super 8mm on Digital, 2005)
Arika (Glasgow) is a political arts organisation concerned with supporting connections between artistic production and social change. For a number of years they curated and produced weekend festivals of experimental music and performance at The Arches (Glasgow) under the name Instal.
They commissioned me to capture Instal 2005. Amongst the many extraordinary avant-garde artistes I was fortunate enough to witness, Ludo Mich.
“Ludo Mich is a painter, sculptor, holographer, musician, performance artist and fluxus associate best known for the series of hysterical films he made in the sixties and seventies, especially: ‘Lysistrata’ (1975), an adaptation of Aristophanes’ satirical poetic comedy into a strictly personal ludic burlesque. All actors perform naked.” (Michael Limnios)
Mich is evidently an artist that understands the physical, visceral connection between sound, vision and movement. Despite his disarming, rather frightening stage persona, off-stage Mich turned out to be a most charming and inspiring gentleman.
That same evening I saw the Japanese trio Oshiri Penpenz, in their first-ever performance outside of Japan. Hailing from Osaka’s Kansai scum rock scene, their name translates as ‘skelped arse’.
With visceral in focus, it would be remiss not to mention the sudden fountain of vomit that escaped with force from the singer’s screaming mouth, showering this brave young filmmaker and his faulty Super 8 camera. I was later informed that pre-show the singer forced handfuls of Scottish Pride white bread and litres of warm water down his neck.
As the Japanese put it:
案ずるより産むが易しい (Anzuru yori umu ga yasashii)
Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it.
The film’s title, SEENOISEHEARLIGHT hints at synaesthesia, a condition in which someone experiences things through their senses in an unusual way, for example by experiencing a colour as a sound, or a number as a position in space.
IVUL UNMADE (20’, Super 8mm on Digital, 2006)
In 2006, my dear friend and fellow artist filmmaker Andrew Kötting was shortlisted for The Jarman Award. He wasn’t the ultimate victor, but each shortlisted artist received a sweet consolation prize of £1000. To my surprise and joy, he offered this sum to me, in return for shooting an on-location Super 8mm fly-on-the-wall document during the making of his third feature film IVUL (100’, Super 16mm and Super 8mm on Digital, 2009).
The location was a remote spot up a ravine in the French Pyrenees, where the Köttings have (just about) maintained an old farmhouse for at least 20 years.
I say ‘just about’ because every winter it threatens to slide into the stream under an avalanche of slurry, and despite Andrew’s excellent marksmanship and killer instincts, those noisily promiscuous dormice are legion, and, year by year, are winning the battle to consume the entire roof.
Visceral is a word that is also often associated with Kötting’s breath-taking oeuvre.
When I arrived on set, for reasons I can’t go into, dear Andrew was raging at the end of a very short tether. He had some kind of infection that was sealing his eyes, and his lower legs and arms were a mesh of lacerations from clearing brambles and nettles.
I wouldn’t say he had completely lost the plot, but I felt I had stumbled upon some wild combination of Mike Leigh’s Nuts In May (84’, 1976) and Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams (95, 1982) a fantastic work that follows the making and madness of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (157’, 1982).
I was honoured that the full version of my film was included on the Artificial Eye DVD release.
FOLLOW THE MASTER (73’, Super 8mm and DV, 2009)
My first feature-length adventure, created in an arguably visceral response to the death of my paternal grandfather, and to years of frustration at feeling held back from producing what was ‘supposed’ to be my feature debut – I Cycled Into The Arctic Circle – an adaptation of a little-known journal from 1951 penned by the profoundly deaf Scottish cyclist James Duthie.
This finally emerged several years later as Dummy Jim.
In May 2008, accompanied by my then girlfriend Lucy Brown and rescue dog Tippy, I set off on a 100 mile walk, the South Downs Way, which runs from Winchester to Eastbourne.
The walk was triggered by the death of Grandpa Eric, who died in April 2008 at the age of 96. Eric had lived in and cherished the Downs for many years. The trip was planned as a feet first tribute, a commemorative pilgrimage.
Other than the pre-existing topographical direction of the South Downs Way, we set off with no clear plan as such, trusting that happenstance would shape the story, which indeed it did.
We were armed with a Super 8mm camera (lightweight Canon 514xl), a rather cheap DV camera (I regret its cheapness), mobile phones, pencils and paper, vim and vigour, postcards, treats for Tippy and wee Union Jack cocktail sticks that we used to mark out the 96 years of Eric’s life.
Cut into this blustery scene, Super 8mm footage of a naked man that looks just like me, feelin’ the visceral breeze, flying a kite.
The full exposé: the Super 8mm was originally shot during a stunt I was asked to pull off for Health and Efficiency Magazine, part of their celebration of World Naturist Day. On my back is written World Naturist Day, and what I am flying on the kite is a pair of my knickers.
The location where both the DV and Super 8mm were shot is a spot from which Grandpa Eric’s house is visible. Meaning that if perchance he’d had his binoculars out that day, he would have spotted his pesky grandson Matty, naked, flying his knickers on a kite.
If he did witness it, it was never mentioned.
Follow The Master later toured remote areas of Scotland with the Tilda Swinton / Mark Cousins initiated and curated road trip A Pilgrimage, an eccentric 10-day adventure during which 40 ‘pilgrims’ pulled Screen Scotland’s 37-tonne mobile cinema, the Screen Machine, by hand, to remote areas of the country.
Follow The Master was edited with Nick Currey during a six-week residency at Wooda Farm in North Cornwall, courtesy of Wooda Arts. I kept a blog during that time; here’s an extract:
Anyway, this fine & sunny morning I’m here to share with you my thoughts about Death. It’s an important subject & one that’s been, unsurprisingly, uppermost in my mind since I’ve been working on this film about my deceased Grandpa Eric.
I’ve been going through some pretty dark times in my completely silent bedroom. I’ve not been scared, more awestruck. It feels as if Death has been lurking around a bit.
For many years I’ve had a kind of ‘standard’ dream in which I awake suddenly, pulling myself away from Death’s door – these feel like ‘near Death’ experiences but are probably more to do with snoring or having had a curry that night. The main thing with these experiences though is that I’m pulling myself back from some kind of brink.
The difference now is that somewhere deep within my dreaming I’ve made a conscious decision to ‘take on’ the experience – you know, come on then Death, do your worst, let’s see what really happens.
Over the ages there have been wise sages & voyagers into the unknown. I can safely say that my name may now be added to those brave few who challenged Death to answer the question:
Death, what are you?
I got my answer the night before last – Death is a black slotted spoon.
Surely anyone can accept that? Fear mortality no more, all it amounts to is a kitchen utensil.
Ok, so my dream also taught me that one needs ultimately to go through the slotted spoon, but I’ll figure that out when the time comes & I’ll let you know if I work it out before the allotted time.
Death Makes Noodles of Us All.
SUMMER 3 (6’, Digital, 2012)
Commissioned by Universal Music, Summer 3 is Hulse’s visceral, personal, urgent film response to a re-working by post-classical composer Max Richter of a movement in Vivaldi’s well-known suite ‘Four Seasons’.
The score was performed by Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin, conducted by André de Ridder.
Hand-crafting is usually associated with the plastic / physical arts and celluloid, but works such as Summer 3 also draw the maker into serious and painstaking hands-on manipulation and digital alchemy.
In Summer 3 digital darkroom artistry collides with old-fashioned real-world trickery such as flashlights on boiling water, fire, sparklers and the workings of invisible threads.
Shot and edited during an artist’s residency at Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, NC, the film is infused with the close, intense, humid heat of a summer in the Deep South, fuelled by a passionate intensity of feeling.
Matt collaborated with Max Richter over a number of years creating film projection for live performances of his seminal album The Blue Notebooks.
If you sense a certain remove and coldness in the text for this chapter, then you must trust your feelings, and read between the lines.
DUMMY JIM (87’, Super 8mm and Digital, 2013)
Where to begin?
This epic project took 13 years to come to fruition.
Someone should write a book about it.
Someone did: I CYCLED INTO THE ARCTIC CIRCLE: A PEREGRINATION BY JAMES DUTHIE & MATT HULSE
“He who makes no mistakes, makes nothing.”
Nominated for the Michael Powell Award (Edinburgh 2013) and a Tiger Award (Rotterdam 2013) Dummy Jim weaves fiction, documentary, animation and archive to explore the eccentric adventures of profoundly deaf Scots long-distance cyclist James Duthie who hailed from the close-knit Aberdeenshire fishing community of Cairnbulg and Inverallochy.
In 1951, he set out on a lone cycling tour to Morocco. After three months of pedalling, he reached the Arctic Circle.
13 years in the making, Hulse crafts a multi-layered memorial to a quietly determined maverick and the community that shaped him, with present-day village inhabitants emerging as creative participants. Deaf actor Samuel Dore leads.
In this clip, which comes about two-thirds of the way into the film, interrupting the patterns and structures that have been established, our poor exhausted God-fearing cyclist has a physical and mental breakdown, suffering nightmares of a surreal and mildly psychosexual nature.
The treatment of the panel of six Super 8mm films – the way the film is disrupted, pulled wilfully hither and thither, eventually being tossed aside and off screen – is a nod to the work of Viennese artist filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky, in particular his darkroom masterpiece, the intensely visceral film Outer Space (10’, Cinemascope, 1999).
In this nightmarish sequence, blind-folded Jim’s hands – which he uses to express himself through fingerspelling and signing – are bound by a sinister figure (director Matt Hulse).
I’m struggling to explain how this came about, because it’s the result of many years of listening and learning and nuancing. I can reassure you that it took place with Samuel Dore’s full – and brave – consent.
The actions we are performing are in fact a mimicry of archive footage I’d discovered from the late 1940’s that document crude experiments with severely physically disabled inmates at some dubious sanitarium in the USA.
The point we were aiming to put across, swiftly, and poetically, was that the deaf in the late 40’s and early 50’s were treated very poorly indeed.
Duthie himself had some advantages, in that he was sent off from his remote fishing village to Donaldson’s School in Edinburgh (then Donaldson’s Hospital) and was taught to read and write.
In the book that he then went on to write and self-publish – the one that Dummy Jim is adapted from – he doesn’t speak kindly of his time at Donaldson’s, and these years must have been tough.
I imagined that – despite escaping on his bike – at a low moment, in his dreams, these struggles might come back to haunt him – viscerally.
RASON RHYTHM (3’, Digital, 2014)
Between 2014-2017 I was based in Beijing with the very brilliant filmmaker, producer and now drama therapist Vicky Mohieddeen.
For some years she had been working for the international British travel company Koryo Tours, who specialise in off-the-beaten-track type tourism. The company’s main activity over the years has been arranging group tours into the DPRK (North Korea).
They took me onboard as one of their Tour Leaders, and during that period I completed a total of nine tours into, and around, North Korea.
This clip was shot in a shoe factory in Rason on the northeast tip of the DPRK, an ice-free port in the Sea of Japan. I had to shoot at great speed, hence the somewhat breathless camera work; tour groups are not generally encouraged to linger during visits to factories.
This stands in great contrast to the mandatory visit to the Kumsusam Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum in which the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il lie in state.
The guided tour starts early; more often than not the tourists are nursing hangovers because the visits usually fall, for example, on New Year’s Day, or after a visit to the Taedong Brewery the night before.
Visitors are primarily transported in a crocodile of pairs through the interminable marble corridors aboard a painfully slow-moving travelator accompanied by reverberant martial music through the ever-present tannoy system.
Security is at maximum; visitors are stripped of everything, so no photography.
This incredibly lugubrious affair lasts up to three hours; after the first hour it becomes completely disorientating and increasingly surreal.
Consequently it’s really difficult not to giggle, especially at the crucial moments when you have to bow three times to the leaders in a vast hall, whose bodies are much shorter than you’d expected – that’s if you can even make them out properly given the feeble bordello-red flickering illumination.
It’s a bit like a journey into Last Year at Marienbad, but without the jokes.
This clip has, and depicts, a sort of rough sensuality; all actions look well-considered, practiced and elegant, yet also systematic, mechanical, seemingly free of emotional engagement.
However, as we used to remind our tourists, it’s easy to project onto the people of DPRK from our position of relative privilege.
KONFLUENZ / CONFLUENCE (3’, Digital, 2016)
‘Simone ten Hompel: A Life With Metal’ is a survey of the thirty five year career of the German born, UK-based silversmith. Jerwood award-winning ten Hompel worked with independent curator Amanda Game to bring together domestic objects, sculpture, images, models and photographs to trace her exceptional work as designer, maker, teacher and curator in the field of contemporary metal design. Produced by Ruthin Craft Centre, Wales, the touring show includes a newly commissioned film collaboration directed by Jarman Award shortlisted artist filmmaker Matt Hulse. – Glasgow School of Art
Along with the short film you see an extract of here, I also produced a two channel video installation, with objects that featured in the exhibition brought to life through animation.
Observing makers, artists, musicians and pretty much anyone at work, doing what they do, is a thread of fascination that has run through my practice for decades. Again, it’s that interest in and empathy for the tactile, the sense of touch – skin on steel, wool, silver, tapestry yarn, stringed instruments, painted surfaces, food, stone, fabric and indeed skin itself – and in the choreography of hands and fingers, in a process of manipulation.
I’m not confident that I can offer a satisfactory reason as to why I am drawn to this (and it doesn’t require justification) but I’ll have a go at a quick analysis.
There are a myriad of skills out there that I don’t have; but observing these processes unfolding in action through the lens, I sense an immediate and physical connection; it is as if I am participating in the making. This is life lived vicariously of course, but I have enough experience of hands-on making – albeit in fields unrelated to, say, silversmithing – to be free and able to embody the action (albeit visually/mentally), and understand the likely progress of what is unfolding in front of me.
This is particularly true when I document musicians at play/work. Deeply and intuitively I understand music and the motivations of musicians, even while the best I can manage on a violin is to make it sound like two foxes locked in extremis down a desultory back alley in Slough at 2.46am on a Tuesday morning in late January. Yes, that time and place specifically.
To be candid for a moment. I have always been a physically affectionate being; I love to touch and be touched. For me, physical closeness, trusting affection as expressed through touch is an exalted state of communication, transcending mere words.
In the general absence of such, ‘touching from a distance’ via a lens offers an analogue through which I achieve connection, of a sort; and perhaps my tendency towards the visceral speaks of residual underlying frustrations.
Thus spake Candid Cameraman, for better or worse.
This touch is exemplified by a photograph I took in North Korea. The image is one of a set of five telescopic portraits that together won the Gold Prize at the Felix Schoeller Photo Award in 2018.
07.01.2017 Pyongyang, North Korea. Security guard shot from room 3119 of the Yanggakdo International Hotel. The hotel stands on isolated Yanggak Island. During the winter months it is frozen solid on all sides. International tourists are ‘free to roam’ on the island but are not permitted to leave without the company of local guides.
One of my favourite scenes in all of cinema is from Czechoslovak director Jiri Menzel’s 1966 new wave classic Closely Observed Trains (Ostře Sledované Vlaky). See for yourself.
FEEDBACK FOR CARERS (1’, Digital, 2020)
A Great Leap Forwards! Suddenly we’re into the Pandemic and Lockdowns.
I was confined (pretty much) to one box room in Bethnal Green (London) and I set about working with what I had. In the end I produced something like 90 short videos for Instagram, mostly performative.
As I type, August 2022, these are being collated into an annotated medium-length film called OUT OF MY BOX: INSTAGRAM VIDEOS FROM LOCKDOWN with the help of the ever-supportive Nick Currey.
The text that accompanies the Instagram post reads:
8pm NHS feedback 23.04.20 stuck the amp out the window and wrestled the 🎸 last played (and broken) by @gangoffourofficial‘s Andy ‘Anthrax’ Gill RIP xxx CHEERS #nhs #gangoffour #lovelikeanthrax #matthulseperforms
Yes, we really did clap out of windows to show support for the NHS.
There’s nothing you can get out of that guitar that doesn’t sound visceral. Mr Gill broke it for us during the shooting of my third feature Sound For The Future, in early January.
Covid-19 killed him three weeks later.
JULIS (1’, Digital, 2021)
My experience of Lockdown was shaped by frequent exchanges of communication with my Düsseldorf penpal and artistic collaborator, Julia Zinnbauer.
A period of nine months passed during which we were prohibited from meeting in person, and so we kept things going with exchanges across all available mediums: text messaging, video messaging, coded posts on social media, postcards and occasional letters.
This activity produced much unique work; necessity being the Mother of Invention.
On my side, a cast of characters emerged; each evolved to address Julia in different ways, according to the demands of any given situation. To my surprise and pleasure Julia seemed to enjoy these other versions of me; perhaps more so than the actual Matt Hulse.
These characters included Robot Boy (compliant, loyal but dim), Water Guy (lazy bottled water delivery dude from Los Angeles, who originated in the first instance in Beijing, but Vicky didn’t much like him), Herr Frosch (Mr Frog, limited vocabulary, expressive bursts of sound, still very much in use, and since picked up by a number of associates), Sir Matthew Leatherpod (verbose English poet / wordsmith, a collision of Quentin Crisp, Noel Coward and Pam Ayres) and most importantly of all, CCW (Cute Construction Worker) aka Joey Boyce, an English cousin of legendary Düsseldorf artist Joseph Beuys.
Today, as I type this, a new character has emerged: Drone Boy.
The title JULIS comes from my frequent typo of Julia, that soon became a nickname. The sung refrain is from a voice message. It works as a kind of mantra. The footage is from the brilliant online resource Prelinger Archives. There’s a touch of Lynch here, too.
Here’s Joey Boyce in action:
SOMETIMES EVEN BRICKS LET YOU DOWN (1’, Digital, 2022)
MARIENBAD (1’, Digital, 2022)
If you’ve managed to get this far, and have been paying full attention: well done! You are in an exalted position, to appreciate it fully with your heart and body, without explanation.
It cuts together photographs I took on a trip to Düsseldorf to visit Julia – specifically Schloß Benrath and the Volkspark – with photographs of paintings that we saw together in Oxford at the Ashmolean. You’ll recognise the feeling of the brusque physical transitions, that you first saw in the clip from Dummy Jim. I added a ‘page peel’ wipe purely to annoy Nick Currey: viscerally.
A SWALLOW IN WINTER (2’, Digital, 2022)
Dandyism is the assertion of the absolute modernity of Beauty. – Oscar Wilde
This documents a street art project undertaken with the unwitting collaboration of Reading Borough Council. It’s an ongoing conversation between us involving the various and rather beautiful tones of grey that environmental services use to cover graffiti.
Czechoslovak artist Ota Janeček’s cover illustration of the selfless swallow from a 1968 edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince flits and swoops above the misty rooftops in the pedestrian underpass between Holybrook and Coley, two urban areas of Reading that have retained great resonance for me since I was 10 years old.
Well, the wee swallow did flit and swoop until recently, when it was smothered with a blanket of soft grey. He’ll be back; that’s what swallows do; they return.
Oscar Wilde is of course also associated, sadly, with Reading, specifically its ugly Gaol.
The tattoo was inked beautifully by Two Snakes Tattoo in Hastings on the occasion of my 52nd birthday in 2020.
SOUND FOR THE FUTURE (101’, Super 8mm and Digital, 2020)
An affectionate, daring and hilarious reconstruction of the story of The Hippies, Britain’s youngest post-punk band, as told by the band’s drummer, filmmaker Matt Hulse.
“An incredibly ambitious, and community-minded film, Sound For The Future explores how impossible it is to separate personal, political, and national histories, and how difficult that can be to reckon with.” – Joel Whitaker, The Slice
My third feature – supported by Screen Scotland and Creative England, produced by Pinball Films and Aconite Productions and edited by Nick Currey – had its World Premiere online during Lockdown 2020 at the BFI London Film Festival: the Gala screening of the EXPERIMENTA strand.
The film is due for a limited but UK-wide theatrical release / tour this October 2022.
If, as filmmakers, we have done our job correctly, this clip will speak for itself and, I hope, serves to bring the essay full circle, having diligently excavated the visceral along the way.
IN AN ATTEMPT TO CONCLUDE
The title of this essay: I DREAMED OF A MOTH IN THE EAR OF A CAT.
I set about trying to start writing all this while I was cat-sitting for my cousin Clarissa’s three feline companions, Bertie, Stanley and Lulu.
Clarissa, incidentally – or perhaps rather significantly? – was born in Prague, and it was her Greek mother Dimy, along with Uncle Christopher, that gifted me the edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, the one that keeps cropping up in my work, and life.
(Another coincidence of possible significance is that I was born on the very day – August 21st 1968 – that Russian armed forces invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring.)
One night, as I struggled to get going on the essay, I had a dream: a close-up, claustrophobic and visceral experience during which I studied, with some revulsion, a moth that I found living inside a cat’s ear.
Once I had wrestled myself from uneasy sleep, I got up, made a huge pot of strong coffee, and began to write.
Chance favours the prepared mind.
These images were generated by an AI app that creates images from written prompts.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share this essay with acknowledgement to @thisismatthulse
Přeji vám dobrou noc a krásné sny (I bid you good night, and I wish you beautiful dreams).
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FULL FILMS AVAILABLE ONLINE
TAKE ME HOME
THERE IS ONLY LIGHT
DUMMY JIM (full feature)
A SWALLOW IN WINTER
A SOUND FOR THE FUTURE (official trailer)
Nick Currey, Clarissa Hulse, Tereza Stehlikova and Julia Zinnbauer.
Matt Hulse is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, performer and writer. His films have screened at dozens of festivals and galleries in 25+ countries internationally. He has been nominated thrice each for The Jarman Award and The Margaret Tait Awards. In 2019 he was one of ten artists commissioned to make a short film for Margaret Tait 100, celebrating the centenary of Orcadian filmmaker. In 2017 he was the overall winner of Germany’s prestigious Felix Schoeller Photo Award. His work features in Time Out’s 1000 Films to Change Your Life (Simon Cropper 2006) and A History of Experimental Film & Video (A.L.Rees 1999) and is kept at the National Media Museum (UK), National Library of Scotland, Gallaudet University (Washington DC), The Wallace Library (Rochester, NY) and Fales Library (New York University). https://anormalboy.wordpress.com/