At the Edges of Meaning: Arthur & Corinne Cantrill
at the 2015 Castlemaine State Festival
I’ve arranged to meet with two of the most interesting alternative filmmakers in this entire swirling world. Arriving at their home, I am faced with many paths leading to the entrance and I’m hesitant. I choose the one with a hedged arch, I’m not sure why.
There are clusters of ripening tomato vines, the last of the season, strewn over a bench seat. The autumnal sunshine is magnificent and my boy is happy to settle down with his pencils and paper on the front veranda. I knock on the door and am welcomed by an incredibly generous and vibrant couple. Their films are housed in collections as significant as The Royal Film Archive of Belgium, Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek (Berlin), Musée national d’art moderne (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), New York Museum of Modern Art, The British Council and the National Library of Australia. I feel as green as the tomatoes as I sit down in conversation with Arthur and Corinne Cantrill.
There are so many competing factors as to why artists begin to investigate themes within their practice, and who they choose to create with. Arthur and Corinne Cantrill immersed themselves in a career of innovative filmmaking from a young age; the intense contrast of the communist background of Corinne’s family history combined with the uneventful true blue Aussie sensibility of Arthur’s was energising. The post war landscape of Australia in the first half of last century helped to invigorate a children’s education movement. The Rivett sisters, Elsie and Mary (Matheson), started the Children’s Library and Craft Movement (CLCM) in Australia and this is where the Cantrills first met. The movement took on the ideas of Herbert Read (anarchist, poet, philosopher and educator) where the emphasis was on creative free expression, the significance of play and supporting children to discover the materials of art as they see fit. This is the kind of art that really cooks my crumpets.
“Mary Matheson was always on the lookout for interesting people,” says Corinne. “… she was looking for vitality, strength, originality and things like that … all the people who worked for the Movement were very unusual people, multi disciplinary, coming from all sorts of backgrounds.”
In this way Mary Matheson seemed not only to have a large influence on art in education in Australia but was also a champion for artists wanting to experiment with new ideas in their practice. Working within a collaborative environment was the springboard for the Cantrills.
In the late 1950s, Mary saw the opportunity to make films about the creative activities at the CLCM’s centres to be programmed by ABC TV in the School Broadcasts and the Children’s programme The Argonauts’ Club. Several ten-minute films about the work being done at the Sydney centres were made. The Cantrills asked to make a series of eleven films about the activities at the Brisbane Centre of the CLCM; activities different to those already filmed in the Sydney centres. Mary Matheson agreed and gave them a contract.
Arthur says, “Fortunately for us, we had no formal training in film production”. It was an organic trajectory stemming from his work in puppetry for children that drove him towards film. After their documentaries on the Brisbane CLCM Centre, they moved into art documentaries and more experimental modes of practice.
Corinne elaborates: “Major themes in our work have been the cinematic process as the subject of the film, our work with the Australian Landscape (and that’s overlapping into indigenous concerns, though not in a documentary way), our work in three colour separation … and of course the other big area has been our film theatre performance works. They’re really interesting because they can’t ever be recorded as works, as such … that was one of the big drivers for doing what we did at La Mama in Melbourne, all the interesting Avant-garde art scene really. If you weren’t there you missed it.”
Sound is also vital to their work and whilst they commissioned composers for some of their early films, Arthur took on the primary role of making the soundscapes. He worked as a film editor, first at the ABC in Brisbane, and then at the BBC in London after the family left Brisbane in 1965 for four years. Inspired by the BBC Radiophonic Workshops in the early 60s and also the work of French composer and renowned broadcaster Pierre Schaeffer, Arthur and his contemporaries began to make original sounds, “relating to the needs of the image”. The Australian poet and social commentator Harry Hooton also profoundly inspired him.
On their return to Australia in 1969 to take up a Fellowship in the Creative Arts at ANU, Arthur and Corinne made an experimental homage to Hooton (Harry Hooton, 1970), whose anarchy, libertarianism and association with the Sydney Push of the 1940s/50s allowed ideas to emerge around technology and the ‘Politics of Things’. Arthur sculpted sound using the analogue modes of reel to reel tape manipulation, field recordings and found objects. He created cutting edge works now considered to be significant to Australian electronic music history.
These works range from restrained environmental soundscapes to abstract electronic and musique concrete, represented in the CD available entitled Chromatic Mysteries: Soundtracks 1963-2009.
Arguably the most pivotal event for the Cantrills was the Expanded Cinema project in Canberra (1969), the start of their multi disciplined performance works. Corinne thinks back to this time: “That was very important, we were really able to open up whole areas of cinematic investigation through Expanded Cinema. We had a lucky break with La Mama Theatre Company too; from 1977 onwards they gave us every opportunity to present five works we called ‘film theatre performance works’ where we were the protagonists; the live actors with our films and slides were investigating the films through a scripted narration, using sound effects and so on … it was very much rehearsed.”
Works over the years at La Mama such as Edges of Meaning (1977), Passage (1983), Projected Light – On the Beginning and End of Cinema (1988) and The Bemused Tourist (1997) created a hybrid approach to presenting their work, extending the cinematic boundaries of the screen to a more physical 3D space. They set up sand filled campsites, multi screen scenarios, object and installative elements and scripted narration to expand their ideas further. The audience now had an active role to play.
The Boiling Electric Jug Film (1970), Calligraphy Contest for the New Year (1971), Passage and The Berlin Apartment (1986) are just a few films that were created specifically for performance. Layered thinking around subverting the illusion of film and the destruction of the screen itself is prominent. Working with multiple screen technology, hand painted film techniques, physical interventions through painting and cutting up of the screen, projecting a film of the subject onto the real thing – for example boiling jugs of water that will inevitably steam up and cloud the imagery on screen beyond recognition – the Cantrills played with the theme of destruction at its most allusive.
There’s also an appealing mathematical basis to their film and sound work, and a sense of beauty in the equation of their films. The process driven practice of the Cantrills is very much embedded in the natural and everyday world, with a real sense of ecological concerns that is both attractive and powerful. “…from the mid 80s we started making films within our house using very slow film stock, picking up fleeting patches of light that were falling on objects around the house. That was a whole series of work called Illuminations of the Mundane.”
These art projects not only expand the screen but also seem to amplify the ongoing investigation into the more concrete, non-narrative nature of film; their study of object, colour and light has paved the way for much of the contemporary art practice we see today. I see their work as largely poetic, successfully engaging with the materiality of film and extending further into how we choose to live in the world, what we choose to believe is real, and how we value our environment. Calligraphy Contest for the New Year is one of the most popular projects they made, and was able to be fully developed through numerous presentations, stemming from the initial Expanded Cinema performance in Canberra, a three week season for the NGV at the Age Gallery in 1971, and finally as a special event for the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival. They developed ideas around the destruction of both the screen, the shift into less physical modes of processing film stock, and as an attempt to destroy the illusion of film as narrative and focus whole heartedly on the process of making it. The simple art of projecting light is the key.
As I leave, Arthur and Corinne discuss if there is enough light for getting the winter seedlings into the garden. I find myself thinking about the significant changes the Cantrills must have witnessed during their 50 years of filmmaking, art and travel. They are without a doubt inspired by the structure and process of the mechanics of film, but it’s also the landscape and the sonic texture of our everyday that makes their work so evocative. As we move more deeply into a more technologically driven world, the huge body of work made by the Cantrills seems to gain more and more momentum. The continually changing societal landscapes that we choose to live in seem to be catching up with their work, and this is the sign of true art.
Arthur and Corinne Cantrill consider their 50 years of filmmaking collaboration, including their influences, the various film genres they explored, and the meanings behind their work in At the Edges of Meaning at this year’s Castlemaine State Festival, 13 – 22 March 2015 – castlemainefestival.com.au
Arthur and Corinne also edited the review journal Cantrills Filmnotes, for 30 years. Arthur has a new LP entitled Hootonic – the soundtrack to their 1970 feature-length film Harry Hooton – released on vinyl through Shame File Music.
Klare Lanson is a writer, poet, mother, performance maker, sound artist, data consultant, arts worker and past editor of Australian Literary Anthology Going Down Swinging. She is also performing at the 2015 Castlemaine State Festival with a multi-arts collaboration called #wanderingcloud, at the Castlemaine Woollen Mill, 19 – 21 March 2015 – castlemainefestival.com.au