Toby Tatum photograph by Jo Israel
English filmmaker, Toby Tatum, creates video art works which explore those ethereal, wild landscapes of the forgotten forest and the entangled garden: places where the fantastical, the dreamlike and the sinister might reside. We were already aware of Toby and his films from reading his interview in issue three of Film Panic magazine as we sat having lunch in the Damascus Drum in Hawick, flicking through the programme for the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. We had just begun discussing the fact that the festival was to include a double-bill installation by Toby and that he would no doubt be in attendance when Sarahjane suddenly spotted him quietly eating his lunch at the back of the room. "Isn't that him right there?" she whispered. We three immediately struck up a friendship and made sure that we bumped into each other frequently throughout the duration of the festival.
We interviewed Toby by post a couple of weeks after Alchemy...
AK: Welcome, Toby Tatum. Where might we find you at this moment in time?
TT: The immense swollen vines that relentlessly advance on the mouldering castle crawl inexorably closer each day. By the dim light of an obscured sun we hack away as many of the advancing creepers as possible, avoiding the giant perfumed flowers and their lulling narcotic scent. At night we fall asleep exhausted while listening to monsters rioting amid the advancing undergrowth. One night, perhaps soon, they will be upon us.
AK: Could you tell us about your installation at the 2018 Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival?
TT: I was lucky enough to be invited to present two films at Alchemy, both screened in an installation context. The works are both from 2017 and are called Lost Gardens and The Signal. Lost Gardens is a document of an abandoned out-of-control Eden, where the laws of nature have warped improbably. The Signal attempts to decode a cosmic message beamed from the sky.
AK: Could you give us a brief history of your involvement with creating moving image works?
TT: My uncle Simon had a junk shop and a Super-8 camera. My two sisters and I sometimes used to stay with him during the summer holidays. No-one seemed to visit the shop, which was piled high with unwanted, unfashionable oddities. Often, no doubt out of boredom, uncle Simon would encourage us to build movie sets out of broken furniture and moth-eaten taxidermy. Occasionally one of us would take up the camera ourselves, panning across the brimming shelves and the ruined antiques, or spying out through the window onto the street in search of random magic. I took a look at one of these films recently, having visited my uncle again. The reel of film, which had lain undisturbed in his desk draw for thirty years, was mostly too dark to make any sense of but there amid the crepuscular gloom I could see one image of our three childish faces peering out from beneath the unseeing gaze of a immense stuffed owl.
AK: What were the major influences in the arts and in life which encouraged you to become involved with this field?
TT: The art school where I initially studied was Shelley Park in Boscombe, near Bournemouth. As the name suggests Shelley Park had some association with the Shelleys, belonging originally, I think, to Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft. I found this impressive building, with its odd nooks and mysterious basements, intensely atmospheric and in studying there I enjoyed proximity, however distant, to some of the most notorious of Romantic outsiders. The two Marys are buried in a churchyard nearby, entombed with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s heart. I’d been a fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the legend of its creation since watching Ken Russell’s lurid 1986 film Gothic on TV late one night (shown on BBC2 as part of Alex Cox’s marvellous Moviedrome series). The notion of the Romantic channelled through the cinematic has been central to my practice ever since.
AK: What does the word “experimental” mean to you?
TT: My work is experimental in the Frankensteinian sense - a practice carried on in the shadows without official sanction. The unholy union of disparate elements stitched together into strange new forms is central to film. The hope is that something inviolate may one day arise from my experiments, something that ultimately transcends its creator.
AK: At Avant Kinema we have a particular interest in low budget, DIY or LoFi forms of creativity. What are your thoughts on films, music, zines or other artworks created in this way?
TT: Better to remain free than to compromise integrity and autonomy.
AK: What technology or processes do you favour in your work?
TT: The equipment exists to give rise to the dream.
AK: Do you think that analogue photography / filmmaking still has a place in the 21st Century?
TT: Yes, absolutely. It might be interesting to go further back too - to the phantasmagoria, to the séance-like atmosphere of the early magic lantern shows or even further back to the proto-cinemas of the prehistoric caves, where shadows danced on the walls and painted creatures flickered on the threshold between worlds.
AK: Could you talk us through the whole process of how you generally go about creating a work, from the initial concepts through to the finishing touches?
TT: As my recent work seems to have arisen from the forest I’ve included some reflections on this sea of green and how it informs my films and my general outlook:
I seem drawn to nature at its most dense, where it begins to close in, where walls of foliage rear up to engulf me. For me the forest is something other, something ultimately unknowable. In its green embrace, I engage with and attempt to record this abiding mystery. The footage gathered on these outings often lays dormant for some time before it may or may not be worked into a film. At this point it becomes something other, transformed during the arcane editing process into something more reflective of my emotional or psychological response to the world, rather than a literal document of a specific place. I’m not drawn to the forest because of environmental concerns (although I am sympathetic to those) or because I see nature as healthy or elevating in a moral sense. The age-old belief that the fertile profusion of the forest was something to be deeply suspicious of has more of an appeal to me, as if among the greenery broods the demonic. I often think about the Roman soldiers confronting the sprawling, seemingly endless, German forest and fearing it as something outside their comprehension, something pre-civilised and untamed, housing barbarians and secret animals.
AK: What methods do you use to generate ideas and stimulate your creativity?
TT: My book-filled study is enjungled with gigantic plants. Among them lives a royal python, re-homed from the RSPCA. This mysterious creature adds to the atmosphere of the room. To me she represents knowledge, perhaps forbidden or secret knowledge. Also, to me, the patience of the serpent is key - something abiding in the stillness of the leaves - this relates to my work I think. She transports me to the garden of Eden, where the biblical serpent lurked. For me the snake represents art, with all its transgressions.
AK: Could you tell us about your experiences of coming to Scotland to attend the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival? What were your impressions of Hawick, the Scottish Borders, Scotland? Which films, installations and/or expanded cinema events were the highlights of the festival for you?
TT: The procession of the devotees to the castle on the final day seemed a crowning moment. Stan Brakhage’s hour long 16mm film Text Of Light was shown in a darkened chamber in a remote Scottish castle. The journey to the castle, first by bus and then on foot, and the majesty of this masterwork fused together into a singular never-to-be repeated experience. One of the things that most impresses me about Alchemy - and I have had this impression every time I have visited it - is the coming together of a band of enthusiasts dedicated to the most uncompromising cinema. There is no hierarchy at Alchemy, no prizes are awarded. Instead a sense of a collective endeavour and a shared passion emerges. I expect that my experience at Alchemy will help sustain me for some time to come.
AK: How do you fund your work with Moving Images?
TT: The dream manages to sustain itself in opposition to the crushing pressures exerted by the outside world.
AK - Thank you very much for taking the time to answer our questions, Toby. x