Arcades and altered images

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 October, 2008, 12:00am


A half-finished shopping complex doesn't sound like the most obvious inspiration for a season of experimental documentaries and films, but that's just what's been happening in the British city of Cardiff, thanks to the Arcades Project.

Not many people know that Cardiff boasts the largest number of Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades in Britain, a fact which has led to it being dubbed the 'city of arcades'.

However, it is the construction of the very 21st-century St David's 2 Shopping Centre (or SD2) that provided the stimulus for curator Victoria Tillotson and artist Jennie Savage to collaborate on a varied programme of multimedia events.

Running during the next 12 months, they will examine issues such as history, the city, globalisation, local citizens, consumerism, industrialisation, commerce, art and architecture.

Sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the SD2, a four-day film showcase offered an impressively diverse body of work.

There was Jacques Tati's 1958 masterpiece, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, alongside London-based Mayling To's The Land Behind (2007). Ostensibly a short film about her father's upbringing in the Pearl River Delta, To fuses a soundtrack of his recorded memories with images that show how the landscape has been altered by industrialisation.

Then there was the intriguingly titled The Bureau of Inverse Technology, an information agency that has photographed California's Silicon Valley from a model plane, and The Globalisation Tapes, a startling film about the use of violent repression in the economic expansion of Suharto's Indonesia. In one scene, an old man demonstrates his method for dealing with union activists - he holds them upside down in flooded fields - while his granddaughter looks coolly on.

Finally, there were talks and live presentations by video artist William Raban and sound artist Peter Cusack. Raban introduced Under the Tower, a trilogy of films made in the 1990s about the area around London's Canary Wharf. Cusack, who was involved in the 2005 Sound & the City project in Beijing, discussed how his work documents areas of 'special sonic interest', such as Xinjiang and sites of major environmental damage, such as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in the former Soviet Union.

Speaking at her Cardiff studio, Savage says the film season was only the start of a year-long series of events inviting Cardiff residents to be both audience and participants.

Next March, they can take a tour of the many arcades, with a soundtrack of oral histories and interviews transmitted through wireless headphones. In April, there is a symposium called Nutopia: Exploring the Metropolitan Imagination, which provides a forum for artists, archaeologists, urban planners, environmentalists and architects to discuss the status of the modern cityscape - and above all, how people are incorporated into it. In September, Savage opens the Museum of the Moment, an interactive, multimedia archive of films, photography and writing about the arcades produced during the year by the people of Cardiff.

For Savage, the Arcades Project bridges a gap between the Victorian and modern age. An artist with a special interest in the city, constructed landscapes and the people who live in them, she wants to explore the parallels and differences between the two eras, and how they shaped the city as a whole. For example, Savage says that while it is tempting to see the privatisation of city space as a recent phenomenon, it is nothing new.

'Modern corporations have certainly taken over the modern city centre. It's happening everywhere. They have completely ripped up the public space in cities. But what is interesting looking back to the Victorian era is that David Morgan, who built three of Cardiff's main arcades, did 10 years of slum clearance in order to realise his master vision. There is a danger of looking back nostalgically, but there was a real cruelty to how the Victorians operated.'

Equally, Savage hopes that the film festival was free of any overriding agenda. Instead, she wanted to make the complexities present in Cardiff's city centre visible to the audience, who could then make up their own minds. 'What I find sinister is that people really don't know what is going on. Things happen quite invisibly. Then all of a sudden you are confronted by a finished project.' This is why Savage is so keen to include the audience in the Arcades Project. 'I feel it is political to get people involved. It is so difficult to express yourself in the city space, and I think people feel really disempowered.'

Not only does this explain the interactive nature of the Museum of the Moment, it justifies the unusual choice of venue for the film season proper. 'We are in a temporary shop facing the new shopping centre. The idea is that you step outside and are confronted in real life by all the things present in the films.'

Savage hopes that the location will add depth and immediacy to films such as To's The Land Behind, which traces the consumer products that will be sold in the shopping centre back to their countries of origin. 'Where does this stuff come from?' Savage asks.

'The Globalisation Tapes is quite similar. It looks at places where these consumer products are made, and the ethics behind them. The aim is not to be sensationalist, but to create a link - to create a map of all of the complex issues present in the 21st-century city.'

Perhaps this spirit of enquiry explains why Savage's favourite festival film is Chronicles of a Summer. Made in 1960 by sociologist Edgar Morin and anthropologist-filmmaker Jean Rouch, it is ostensibly about life in post-war Paris. But for Savage, it also raises fundamental questions about documentary filmmaking itself.

'The film asks how it is possible to tell the truth in documentaries. It poses all the questions I have been trying to explore through the programme. How can you represent a city through film? How do you represent people through film?' At least a few of these questions will be answered in the coming months.