John Smith – Video Artist

27 09 2008

John Smith’s work is always a treat. He effortlessly mixes innovative use of moving image, often playing with the way that the soundtrack and images combine. His work is very strong conceptually, and contains a lot of passion. His sense of humour and personality is always present as well, and the often simple strength of his ideas make me want to see more from him. Unfortunately his work has not been released on DVD to my knowledge, but I’ve included some links to some small, short video clips which give a little indication to what he does.

The first piece that I saw of his was ‘Blight’. This was a collaborative piece for a experimental BBC commission. I think it was called ‘Sound on Screen’, but it paired up composers and filmmakers to explore the relationship on screen between sound and image. They created a strong piece about the M11 link road, which at the time was being built straight through old east end housing, and people who had lived there all their lives were forced to move out. Protesters were very active in stopping the destruction of the communities for a while, but eventually the road was built.

This film interviewed the residents before they moved out, and built a strong message about the destruction of their communities, by showing the physical destruction of their properties. The clip available below shows the beginning of the film. It starts off in a very abstract way, the properties feeling like they are pulling themselves apart. The voices from the community are abstracted, at times you are not sure what they are saying, the voices used like instruments. But someone says “Kill the spiders”. This is a metaphor which is repeated throughout the piece, seemingly abstract until a strong image at the end (not in this clip) gives the audience it’s real and powerful meaning.

I can’t recommend this enough, and although I taped it at the time of broadcast, the tape has unfortunately been lost. If someone does have it, then please let me know. While this clip is great, it only shows a small part of the piece, which keeps on adding new and exciting ideas throughout its duration.

”A stunning montage depicts the destruction of a London street to make way for new roads. The rhythmic, emotive soundtrack is partly musical and partly a collage of the residents’ voices. Shots and sounds echo and cross-link in the film’s 14 minutes to reinvent a radical documentary tradition.” A.L. Rees A History of Experimental Film and Video 1999, British Film Institute.

”In the first few minutes of his film Blight, derelict houses appear to be dismembering themselves. Bricks rattle, mortar falls, and wooden beams are dislodged, seemingly by poltergeist activity (a feeling reinforced by a poster for the film The Exorcist, on a bedroom wall that has become newly exposed to daylight). The claw of a bulldozer is filmed, ominously caressing a chimney stack it is about to tear down. But the shot stops short, and the inevitable destruction happens in our heads, not on the screen. The restraint of John’s editing beautifully undercuts the emotive quality of the music (composed by his collaborator Jocelyn Pook), and the music in turn replaces the drama that hits the cutting room floor.” Cornelia Parker ‘John Smith’s Body’ in John Smith: Film and Video Works 1972-2002.


Another piece of his is ‘The girl chewing gum’. Absolutely brilliant in its simplicity, a voice over dictates actions to a street full of people. I won’t say any more as the piece really speaks for itself. It’s also very funny.

There are plenty more films of his for you. Good places to look are

Luxonline – a great resource for researching British film and video artists

CanyonCinema have a list of his films

An interview with the artist can be found here


Update – more links, and also see comments below.$pkgdetail?JOHNSMITHP_002$tapedetail?BLIGHT




4 responses

27 09 2008
Marcos Ortega

John Smith is a fantastic filmmaker. I had the chance to watch “Blight” (which until your post I was convinced its name was “spiders”, such was the force of the pharase) in a british experimental cinema retrospective nearly two years ago. One of the best pieces i saw.

There’s almost no John Smith pieces out on DVD, but you can get ‘Leading light’ in the Shoot Shoot shoot DVD:

This compilation is a must. You can get it through several online shops such as Amazon or Movie Mail.

28 09 2008

Many thanks Marcos,

you can also get a nice looking compilation here$pkgdetail?JOHNSMITHP_002

I haven’t had the time to check it out yet, but it looks good as well. Especially if you’re based in the US.

28 09 2008
Marcos Ortega

The VDb archives are impressive. but unfortunately, only a few of them are available for individuals, and at prohibitive prices 😦

However, I hope the BFI will soon dedicate a DVD in its British Artists’ Films series to Smith! They have released DVDs about Welsby, Raban, Breakwell, and Jayne Parker, and there’s one in preparation on LeGrice.

28 09 2008

Thanks for that. If you’re based in London then I know that the Brick Lane video library has Blight and others – usually on VHS though.

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