While many of the world’s cinema blockbusters are now made in Los Angeles, Mumbai or Qingdao, the medium’s development can be traced back to more humble beginnings on Britain’s south coast. It’s a point in history which is reflected in the extensive archive at Hove Museum Of Creativity, and now being explored through a new three-year project.
“We wanted to make people in Brighton & Hove more aware of this collection, because it’s a fantastic introduction to early filmmaking,” Jamie Wyld tells me. He’s the Director of videoclub, a local platform for contemporary artists working in film, video and moving image. This is one of two organisations producing Days Of Wonder: an exploration and response to a unique resource. “The city was described as ‘Britain’s Hollywood’ in the early 1900s. When we did a pilot scheme, people were saying they had no idea that there was this history or this collection.”
Inspired by one of Europe’s biggest archive of early film and media, which features about 8,000 different artefacts, Days Of Wonder is an opportunity for people to find out more about the collection and see art being made in response to it. Part of this is Wonder Lab, running at the museum on Sat 10 – Sun 12 Feb, when a selection of artists will be working at Hove Museum and engaging with the public. Anyone will be able to come in and make projections, paper-based work or experiment with celluloid.
These include Bella Okuya, an interdisciplinary artist working across moving image, photography, and sound. She focuses primarily on documenting the inner and outer landscapes of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour and socio-economically diverse communities, blending elements of fiction with poetic imagery. Bella’s work aims to capture the essence within the collective consciousness and is anchored by the three pillars of sound, silence and spirituality.
Also working on the project is Connor Turansky, who builds interactive experiences, worlds to be explored and designs mechanical contraptions. Their work combines photographic methodology with various mediums: mixed reality, paper engineering, electronics and projection mapping.
Alongside them is Sapphire Goss, a multi-disciplinary artist working with moving image, photography and other lens-based methods. Using a hybrid of materials, like antique glass, paper, liquid lenses, inputs from public contributors and sound/data responsive elements, she creates work which grows, lives and decays beyond the edge of the image’s frame.
Each will be experimenting at Wonder Lab to see how they can make and show work amongst the museum’s existing collections. “The film and media gallery will have some obvious resonance,” says Wyld. “But we’re really interested in how the artists will respond in the others.”
The archive at Hove Museum of Creativity is as fascinating as it is extensive. It includes everything from paper and glass slides to Victorian optical toys. By blending a series of slightly different still images to create the impression of movement, novelties like the zoetrope exploited how the human eye worked to create a primitive precursor to modern TV and cinema. It’s already been a rich source of inspiration for the artists who worked on the pilot weekend. “When film was first developed, it only allowed for one minute to be shot at a time. So, we went back to that limit…”
Elsewhere, the artefacts and ephemera chart the course of technological advances during the early years of filmmaking – including early cameras and projectors. It’s here where my knowledge of cinema reveals its lack of depth. Apparently showing an image in colour is more complicated than merely placing a bright light behind some celluloid. “The development of colour took quite a long time. There was lots of experimentation globally about how to bring colour to film. Some of it was about mixing colours together, some of it was about taking colour away or adding slides. One in Hove has three mirrors inside, so the film was reproduced three times then brought back together with red, green and blue filters. So, it projects onto a screen in colour. It’s based on how pixels are now made on computer screens.”
The archive also includes things like a camera from 1890, which was used by George Albert Smith, who had a studio in Brighton’s St Ann’s Well Gardens. There’s also a wealth of information about the development of film locally, a tiny cinema which screens some of the earliest films contained in the collection and a sumptuous array of magic lanterns. “Some of the earliest ones are really beautiful. They’re powered by flame, so they have chimneys on top. They’re just stunning and wonderfully made.” It all drives home how much work and experimentation went into developing a medium which is so ubiquitous in modern society.
Wyld tells me one of the earliest examples of editing took place at a studio in Brighton. Previously in movies, the action would be confined to a single scene shot from one angle. In what must have been almost as scandalous as it was revolutionary in 1899, a film called A Kiss In The Tunnel features a cutaway from one scene to another to tell a short story. “There’s a train going into a tunnel, then it changes to a set which looks like the interior of a carriage, where two people kiss. Then there’s a shot of the train leaving the tunnel. It’s odd to think that it had to be invented…” It’s difficult to say exactly why Sussex played such a prominent role in the development of film. Some suggest it’s to do with the light near the coast. In 1915, Shoreham Beach Film Studios was built to overcome a lack of lighting powerful enough to reach every corner. “It was a greenhouse, with sets built inside it and sunlight lit everything. Apparently, the light in the southeast was very good. It was away from London where there was a lot of smog.”
In many ways, videoclub are carrying forward this spirit of innovation. Established in 2005, this Brighton-based organisation works across the region, as well as nationally and internationally to promote film, video, digital culture. They run Dreamy Place (formerly Brighton Digital Festival) and offer regular screening programmes at places like Fabrica. They also arrange residency projects for disabled artists, run in conjunction with similar organisations around the world. There’s also a long-running project with Hong Kong colleagues, reflecting culture and the region’s relationship with China through moving images. “It’s about how artists are using video to make comments which are cultural or political.”
Over the next three years, Days Of Wonder and its participating artists will be exploring new ways to immerse audiences in the rich history of film making. Work being created at Wonder Lab this month will also form part of an exhibition in May at Hove Museum as part of Brighton Festival. It’s a chance to be inspired and learn more about this fabulous collection. “We want people to come, get engaged, play and make things.”
Days Of Wonder’s Wonder Lab is open to the public at Hove Museum Of Creativity on Sat 10 – Sun 11 Feb (10am – 4pm).