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On Form And Medium For Creative Works, by Emma Darwin

Thanks to the ease and speed of digital – and the particular advantages it offers, while analogue has other advantages – the industry for analogue film is dying. And so film itself is going the way of… well, can you think of any other creative medium that has ever just plain, vanished? So there’s a campaign, of which the likes of Martin Scorsese are only the most visible parts, to get cinematic and photographic film named a UNESCO World Heritage… um, thing.

Recently I found myself at a campaigning celebration of Tacita Dean’s work Film, at Tate Modern, which not so long ago was Bankside Power Station: a cathedral of the early twentieth century, the era of the electrical age, with big, grubby power stations in the middle of big, grubby cities. We stood in the soft dark to watch the colours and forms in Film that flowed and flowered where the east window is. There’s a west window, too, and it gets a starring moment in Film, so there’s a metaphysical but also physical link of light and form that runs the full length of the nave. Then we turned aside, to where the speakers were spotlit on the platform on one of the long sides of the hall, and heard each of them make a call to arms.

Suddenly I saw us all as the ordinary folk of that Reformation world that turned the space inside a great, Gothic cathedral on its axis, so that the people no longer knelt before an altar to witness an event, but gathered round a pulpit to hear an argument. Tacita Dean says that she ‘needs film as an artist needs paint’ – the real, physical substance of art. I heard what was said as something akin to the Protestant argument: that we should keep hold of the raw, analogue, temporal business of making art and being human, so that we can take it with us as we also grasp the new opportunities of the new age.

Those people in the Grote Kerk of 1673, were the first generation who could go home and read what we’d recognise as a novel. Tacita Dean’s form and medium are a product of the electrical age as mine are of that humanist age. If ever there was a moment when the past was present to me and yet, by being so present, filled me with the knowledge of how immeasurably distant it is, it was that evening in the Turbine Hall. Dean makes her art by running the film through the camera again and again, masking different layers, layering different colours and lights, stacking up images or leaving them alone. Historical novels get written in rather the same way.


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Writing Historical Novels

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