Opening at ACMI this week, Phantom Ride is a two-screen video work inspired by the history of cinema and the way in which trains have featured as an extension of the camera for the purposes of experimentation with the moving image. Taking as a starting point films such as the Lumiere Brother’s Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896), regarded today as the first ever tracking shot, Daniel Crooks’ latest installation creates a continuous, seamless tracking shot that moves the viewer through a fragmented reality, constructed from a collage of Australian railways.
The work references the phantom rides of early cinema, a genre of film popular in Britain and the United States in the early 1900s. Pre-dating narrative features, these short films showed the progress of a vehicle, usually a train, moving forward by mounting a camera on its front. Beat had the chance to sit down with Crooks and chat about his upcoming exhibition, his influences and his advice to future filmmakers.
As one of Australia’s most renowned contemporary artists, and a multiple award winner, Crooks’ work has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally and is held in private and public collections including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. When asked about how he was inspired to get into filmmaking, Crooks says, “I originally studied graphic design because it was set in a nice half way zone between science and art. My favourite subjects at school were physics and geometry but I was also very into printmaking and photography. So I was studying design, but the most exciting thing by far in studying design was the moving image stuff, where I got to play with video cameras and Super 8 cameras. So that’s why I moved to Melbourne – to study animation.”
His current project Phantom Ride came out of a number of previous projects, and Crooks says most of his work stems from what came previously or immediately before. “The project came out of a long standing interest in the nexus of the train as an embodiment of our ideas of time. I had a long-standing interest in trains as a kind of metaphor for time and the experience of time but also the mechanics and the underlying logic of cinema and the moving image as well.
“I made a work a couple of years ago called Embroidery of Voids, which was a never ending tracking shot down a series of Melbourne laneways and, in a sense, it’s kind of a combination of that. I was imagining these train lines would give me these perfect smooth shots to start with, but because I wasn’t allowed to shoot on working train lines I had to use scrappy old lines.”
When asked about how he thinks audiences might respond to his work, Crooks says, “what a lot of artists would hope is that the audience will look at the world in a slightly new way, with slightly eyes and slightly new ears. I guess I would hope to destabilise the concrete model of the world that most people have and that it’s maybe not as fixed and real as we might hope.”
“I think we’re moving back into a post-camera or post-optical era and I think the moving image and being able to capture more than the life that comes through a lens means we can start opening up whole new ways of thinking about reality.”
When it comes to advice for future filmmakers and artists, Crooks is blunt and honest in his response. “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” he says. “I think I have been very lucky with seeing the internet and growing up with it and what I see as an advantage now is that I couldn’t know absolutely everything that was going on anywhere else – I didn’t know there was a guy in Slovenia doing something, I didn’t know there was people in the States or Europe working in similar areas. So if I’d seen that on YouTube I maybe would’ve stopped. Playing around, experimenting and jamming it on YouTube is not enough – you’ve got to keep on going, keep pushing, keep refining and resolving until you get something and I think that’s a big difference.”
His current exhibition wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission, a year-long commitment that lets artists dedicate a significant period of time to creating a new work that will significantly further their practice. For Crooks, a highlight has been having a budget to make this work in a hands-off process.
“There’s 1000% creative freedom and there’s no stress about how the money is being spent – it really is an incredible privilege to be able to have the support to realise the project which is possibly too ambitious. A wise person once said to me ‘You can’t get anywhere in this world with biting off more than you can chew,’ and I think I’ve bitten off more than I can carry.”