I feel compelled to write in response to the recent furore in some of the less contemplative areas of our print and digital media in reaction to an incomplete new work by artist Sam Firth. The film Stay the Same, as reported in the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Scottish Sun earlier this week, involves Firth filming herself standing still for ten minutes every day at the same time and in the same place, in front of a loch on the Knoydart Peninsula in Scotland. Beginning on 22nd June last year she intends to repeat this process for a full twelve months after which time she will edit the sixty-odd hours of accumulated footage into a short twenty minute film. The film has been funded by a jointly awarded grant of £10,000 from the British Film Institute and Creative Scotland which are both publicly funded bodies.
With headlines such as: “Woman paid £160 an hour from public money to stand still by a loch” (Daily Telegraph 6/2/12), “Taxpayers' money spent on giving artist £160 an hour to stand motionless beside a lake (sic)” (Daily Mail 6/2/12), and “Money for nothing: Filmmaker’s £10k grant to stand beside loch” (The Scottish Sun 6/2/12) it is clear where the focus of the fracas lies. The issue is two-fold: a lack of understanding of art in large portions of the general population, and the question of how do we place a value on art.
In this case the second point is the easiest to deal with. The £160 an hour mentioned in the headlines is the actual time spent filming. The project itself lasts a year, much more than a year when pre- and post-production are taken into account. £10,000 for over a year’s work does not sound like a particularly high wage to me. In fact, according to the report A Minimum Income Standard for the UK in 2011, published in July last year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, “a single person needs to earn at least £15,000 a year before tax in 2011, to afford a minimum acceptable standard of living.” (www.jrf.org.uk/publications/minimum-income-standard-uk-2011)
The issue of understanding is much harder to address. Like any specialism there is a language to art. If you are not conversant with the language you will find it difficult to comprehend. In order to comprehend a language you would be expected to make a certain amount of effort. You can’t, for example, expect to understand the intricacies of quantum mechanics without putting in some work on the subject. It is the same with art. Sam Firth’s film, in an incredibly simple and elegant way, addresses a diverse range of complex concerns, such as identity, place, time, change, and aging. By placing herself so directly into the film she becomes the subject of the work as much as the landscape behind her and her relationship to it.
It is a work with numerous precedents. The discomfort of staring silently into the intrusive lens of a camera is a subject explored most famously by Andy Warhol in his Screen Tests of 1964-66 and much more recently by Noah Kalina. Kalina took a photograph of himself everyday between January 11th 2000 and July 31st 2006 and uploaded the result onto YouTube (Noah takes a photo of himself everyday for 6 years) where currently it has been viewed over 22 million times and has inspired many other similar films. The comparative artistic merit of the two works is another, though not entirely unconnected, debate, but the fact that a work like Kalina’s can go viral on the internet and yet a work like Firth’s can cause such indignation says much about the hostility towards and misunderstanding of the art world shown by large proportions of the population. And this misunderstanding isn’t helped by the lazy and ignorant journalism shown this week in the reaction to Sam Firth’s film Stay the Same.