[Image courtesy of LIFF]
There are many hidden creative gems working amongst the Leeds Art Scene. ‘Artist in the Spotlight’ is TSOTA’s attempt to shine a light on some of them. You may or may not have come across them directly, but here at TSOTA we hope to gather them together and give you their lives in few words. You can then decide if you want to know more…
This week’s Artist in the Spotlight is: Laura Ager
Currently working on: Leeds International Film Festival 2014
In a nutshell? Relentless enthusiast, freelance cultural intermediary, DIY producer and activist
TSOTA: Why do you have a particular interest in cinema, is there something that got you hooked? What is it about this art form that inspired you to do the work that you do?
LD: I think that cinema is just about the perfect medium for revealing or creating other worlds. In the right setting, it’s so immersive, as an experience it can be really powerful and influential, there is a reason that film was one of the tools of global politics for the majority of the 20th Century. I also like it because it’s accessible to all and it’s relatively inexpensive – to watch I mean, I’ve never got involved with the production side of things! I’m probably more interested in festivals, on the whole, though, rather than just cinema, so I’d say film festivals are really my thing, because there is such a lot of activity there all at once and they create this sense of community and purpose, bringing people, films and ideas together in new juxtapositions and assemblages. It makes the city feel alive.
TSOTA: How did you start working in cinema?
LD: I volunteered at the Film Festival when I first moved to Leeds. We didn’t have anything like it in Nottingham, where I used to live, although I used to go to the cinema a lot and some friends made films, music promos mostly. Actually, I did a whole load of zombie make-up for a music video once…
I got completely hooked after working on the LIFF screenings and became a sort of ambassador for the festival. Soon after that I was working for them off and on, I guess I’ve sort of hung around long enough for the festival to become part of my life. I worked at Bradford International Film Festival one year too, where my cinema knowledge grew exponentially, they have some incredible facilities over at the Media museum, I learnt so much just in 3 months being the festival’s print co-ordinator, especially because it was at a really exciting time when things were just changing over from film prints to digital formats and downloads as the default medium.
TSOTA: You were involved Scalarama “the nationwide Celebration of Cinema” through the pop-up screening of Polyester at The Reliance in Leeds this September. Why did you want to participate?
LD: ‘Pop-up’ is sort of the word of the moment, isn’t it? There seems to be a lot of pop-up cinema happening in unusual spaces like bars, art galleries, book shops, swimming pools, it’s rather exciting. I first noticed Scalarama last year when I saw a whole load of interesting screenings being mentioned on Twitter. This year, when the name started appearing again in tweets, I took a look at the list of films they were offering to event organisers and immediately thought about screening one of them at The Reliance. Luckily, I bumped into Michael, one of Scalarama’s organisers, at a ‘Radical Film Network‘ meeting in London and found out that he could supply the (hard to find) scratch and sniff cards that go with John Water’s super-trashy 1981 film Polyester, which I love, and which was one of the films on their menu. That basically sealed the deal and so we went for it, it was a brilliant night, the cards themselves were quite strongly scented actually and the odour in the Little Cinema at the end of the show was, er, interesting!
Scalarama were brilliant to work with, very professional and super-enthusiastic about film. John Waters even recorded a special introduction just for the Scalarama screenings which we played before the film, in which he talked about working with Divine and how much the people living in the neighbourhood where Polyester was filmed hated the film crew and the actors being there. It was a good night. I’m thinking about the 2015 programme already and we’ll do Scalarama again, for sure.
TSOTA: What is it that you think makes pop-up cinema events worthwhile for organisers to put on and why are they popular with audiences?
LD: I’m glad you’ve asked this question because I’m really interested in this whole idea of the ‘pop-up’ but I am quite confused about the actual value of the concept. To me it seems to be indicative of a bigger shift or a struggle that’s going on in cities right now, but it’s something that I can’t quite put my finger on.
Doing ephemeral or one-off happenings allows you to be responsive, react to favourable conditions, change with the times, and in the post-modern, destabilised times we now live in, I’m sure that is an excellent and realistic strategy for survival. The opening of that room at The Reliance allows us to show films that perhaps it would not be possible to screen in a regular movie theatre and we can relax and have a nice, sociable time doing it. It’s a single film screening, a fairly lo-fi presentation with no time pressures. The value there, I think, comes from being there with a small group of people with a shared passion or curiosity, in a bar which has a great atmosphere. I would never say that all cinema should be like this. Many films would not, absolutely not, work at all in that setting. The Little Reliance Cinema is all about the occasion, the sharing of an unknown or slightly forgotten gem of a film, with the sociability of a film club.
TSOTA: Could you tell me about your work involving the Brotherton archive and the Stanley and Audrey Burton gallery?
LD: I’ve been involved with LIFF for a number of years and Cinema Versa is probably my favourite part of the programme. Whenever I can see that there’s the potential to develop a particular aspect of that programme further, to engage with other organisations in the city and bring in a wider audience for these really niche films I try to do that. This year the festival received a great new film all about the life and work of a Yorkshire-born author and art critic, Herbert Read, produced with the support of the Arts Council and directed by Manchester-based filmmaker Huw Wahl.
‘To Hell With Culture‘, Herbert Read
As I watched the film, I realised that there was a really important story to be told here, one that directly involved the University of Leeds. Herbert Read was a student at the University of Leeds in 1914 when the First World War broke out and he went to the front, rapidly rising through the ranks as his company of men were culled by the fighting. He came back to Britain profoundly affected by what he had experienced. For years afterwards he was a celebrated war poet, but he was also a passionate champion of British modern art. He helped to launch the careers of Yorkshire artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, he co-founded the ICA in London. He published a lot of books on the meaning of art in society and his politics were pretty radical, even by today’s standards. He is a really interesting character, an anarcho-syndicalist, a revolutionary romantic who wrote an essay called To Hell With Culture, who was also a part of the establishment, even accepting a knighthood for his services to poetry.
The film, also called To Hell With Culture, contains scenes filmed inside the Herbert Read room at the Brotherton Special Collections in University of Leeds libraries. I got in touch with the archivists at the University & the curator at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery to see what they thought about organising a guided tour of the archive, and it all developed from there, really. Now there are two free events happening there as part of LIFF on the 19th November, and I’m delighted because it connects the film screening to something tangible and allows us to celebrate something people would possibly not have known about, this incredible archive of books and papers that speak from a really interesting point in history.
TSOTA: You’re a PhD student, what are you working on in your academic studies?
LD: My PhD is about universities as cultural intermediaries, but more specifically about a set of activities that sometimes come under the heading of ‘public engagement’. A lot of universities put on festivals. When you begin to look, you can see there’s an enormous amount of activity there, so that’s what I’ve been drawn to. There are elements of policy and funding in the mix, also institutional change, because UK universities are changing so rapidly at the moment, but what I’m really interested in understanding the motivations and practices of groups of people who work collectively to produce cultural events, where the university is a strategic partner.
TSOTA: Tell me something about yourself; is there something quirky about your character that people wouldn’t expect?
LD: After finishing university in the 1990s my friend and I started a business together. I have a degree in Fashion design and we spent a few years living in Nottingham and making far-out silver club-wear for ravers and hard house club kids. We used to drive around the country showing our designs to people, we even did Clothes Show Live a couple of times.
I am sort of managing a new Leeds-based band at the moment, Das Pain, who’ve just released their first single.
TSOTA: You’re currently busy putting together a competition of short animated films for the Leeds film festival. What has this venture entailed? Could you tell us a little about the films that you are bringing to the 28th Leeds International Film Festival this November?
LD: Every year the film festival has several short film competitions in its programme, which are in a section of their own called Short Film City. This year we’re doing short film events at Everyman, Hyde Park Picture House, Left Bank, Belgrave Music Hall and The Tetley. The area of the programme that I look after is the World Animation Competition, which is an Oscars qualifying competition so the winning film will be eligible to be selected for the Academy short film competition.
This year, because I’ve been so busy, I have co-produced the competition with Bex Hill, who has worked on the Bradford Animation Festival and knows a thing or two about animated films. It’s all online right now, you can see all the films we’re screening and read about them on the LIFF website. We’re really happy with the selection and we have films in there from Iran, Japan, Denmark and Ukraine.
TSOTA: Have you any future projects in the pipeline? Is there anything you would love to achieve or create if you were to be presented with the opportunity to do so?
LD: I have always wanted to go back to making clothes again someday, maybe just part-time, but the next time it would have to be creating one off pieces rather than hundreds of the same item, perhaps for performances. Maybe if Das Pain get to play a lot of big venues, or someone gives them a load of money to make a video, I can get them some custom suits made up. I have always adored the work of Nudie Cohen, who made clothes for The Byrds and Gram Parsons, Elvis Presley too. I’d like to be Yorkshire’s answer to Nudie Cohen.
Follow @LIFFLaura for more of Laura’s work, or browse the links below to find out more about her specific projects.
- Herbert Read’s ‘To Hell With Culture’ at LIFF28 – Nov 10th & 19th
Watch some of the trailers for the World Animation Competition below:
Timber (Nils Hedinger, Switzerland) – screening on November 12th
Démontable (Douwe Dijkstra, The Netherlands) – screening on November 12th