While struggling with the massive challenges posed by Covid-19, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery have also been quick to shift activity online where possible. A few weeks after lockdown began they unveiled a new Cold War Steve commission, the panoramic Benny's Babbies, and then a month later saw the arrival of cut-up collage film Excerpt by Birmingham-based artist Mixed Milk (aka Martin McNally). We chatted to Martin about quarantine creativity and Jemmy the Rock Man...
Excerpt was the result of a call put out by BMAG and Black Hole Club. What attracted you to the brief?
I thought the combination of BMAG's historical collections and Black Hole Club's experimental outlook was a very exciting one. I had already started experimenting with a new technique that uses found images for a film called Exit (which will be available from my channels soon), and from there the pieces fell into place.
The film was made largely during lockdown, with a working method that I imagine lent itself well to domestic isolation. Do you think the film turned out differently as a result?
Definitely. With such a time consuming technique, I was anticipating the outcome to be minimal and much shorter, but isolation and the extra time allowed me to delve deeper into the collection and weave a more expansive narrative into the film.
In the making-of video you say the film was largely shaped by the images themselves, that an ‘unspoken narrative’ emerged through the process. Did you have any thoughts of your own about structure and theme which guided the selections you made?
It took time to become familiar with what imagery recurred closely enough to become a sequence. As with most filmmaking, you have to consider change and progression over time. I knew there were a lot of sea- and mountain-scapes that could bring a cosmological feel to the film when presented before the more cultural artworks and artefacts, as well as loads of portraits, so I knew there would be some figurative stuff. Everything else was positioned due to how they related to each other.
Was there anything in particular that surprised you about the collection, or any avenues that you weren’t able to explore?
Yes and yes! BMAG's online archive hosts a huge amount of images, but due to the time it takes to digitise and archive it's still a small number compared to the collection as a whole. The digital resource not only represents what has fallen out of copyright, but also what there is academic and journalistic demand for, so there were some interesting insights there. A rather entertaining discovery was the reappearance of a character called Jemmy the Rock Man, a local Birmingham legend from the 18th century who would sell 'medicinal' confectionery and play drums. (You can see two portraits of him at 1.16 in the film) His stories and accounts have been documented and include an encounter with a 15 foot mermaid and a shape-shifting lamb that told him to grow a beard.
There were so many directions that I would've liked to explore with more time. There was a lot of imagery that I 'd prepared but didn't make the cut, such as angels, cherubs, interaction between figures such as mothers and infants and many lovely renderings of material and drapery.
The soundtrack is a really important thread, by turns sinister and humorous. Did you create this once you’d pieced together the visuals?
Due to the nature of the commission, I wanted to use sound effects that were openly available and free to use, these were added to individual sequences before they found their place in the structure of the film. The score was created alongside and finalised towards the end of the process. It was a case of trial and error, but it's very fun to work out what sounds match up to visuals, such as the sounds of mountains, the sounds of buttons, or the sounds of buildings. A lot of magic happens at this stage of the process.
Roughly how many eyes are in the finished film?
By themselves there are just under 400, but then there are the eyes of faces, figures and animals that also appear, which would bring it to over 500.
Has the last few months got you thinking differently about how you make work?
Overall, the lockdown has allowed me to work on multiple passion projects that were gathering dust. Making Excerpt during this time has made me think a lot about the up-cycling of existing resources. Whilst we may not be able to get out physically to create or capture images, we can still get out there digitally to explore abundant fields full of meaning and beauty, ready to be conceived with a new idea or use. Anyone with an internet connection can make great art without needing a block of marble or a huge production studio.
There’s a real mixture of styles and approaches in your work - community video, stop frame animation, cut-ups, music videos and so on. What’s next for you?
There are a few things I'm currently working on, mostly illustrations, animations and film edits, and I've just finished a film that's been 4 years in the making. It's rather silly and involves an aubergine - look out for that. The postponed Cut, Copy Remix exhibition featuring Excerpt is coming up in the autumn at BMAG and Vivid Projects, featuring Cold War Steve and artists from Black Hole Club.
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