Profile: Helen Cammock

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Helen Cammock, still from There’s a Hole in the Sky Part I, 2016, digital video. Image courtesy the artist.

‘A sea eagle screams from the rock, and my race began like the osprey, with that cry, that terrible vowel, that I,’ a female narrator intones evenly over waves crashing against a rocky shore. It is the opening scene of Helen Cammock’s short video There’s a Hole in the Sky Part I, 2016; that ‘I’ invoked goes on over the course of the video to visit a sugar factory and a sugar cane plantation turned tourist destination in Barbados, musing all the while self-consciously about what she sees and is told, occasionally breaking into mournful song. The video carries many of the threads that run though Cammock’s work, such as using photography and documentary film methods to explore the intimate bonds of history, often of colonialism, racism and cultural appropriation – in this case, tracing the slavery trade created to prop up the now-disappearing sugar production in the Caribbean – and first-person accounts of the disjointed experience of those ‘subjects’ who moved from the West Indies to the UK. The voice that narrates and binds these images shifts from spoken-word poetry-like litanies of evocative phrases to confessional anecdotes. When she asks at one point, ‘What can I see when I look, and through whose gaze do I see?’, the fact that this is not just one ‘I’ becomes clearer – it is an impossible ‘I’, a multiple ‘I’. The voice is the artist’s, but the ‘I’ being spoken constantly changes, shifting from her own lines and a patchwork of quotations, such as the opening lines which come from the late Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott’s ‘Names’, 1976, and authors like Maya Angelou and Jamaica Kincaid. This fragmented narration underlines Cammock’s videos, performances and installations – quoting, singing, ventriloquising, a procession of voices that successively inhabit the artist. Continue reading

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The Death of the Unreliable Narrator

Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist and Cabinet, London

Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist and Cabinet, London

‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!’ So the flustered old man shouts while fidgeting with the partition that kept him, and the controls for his distracting light and sound displays, hidden. The old man is, of course, the supposed Wizard of Oz, the scene from the 1939 film providing the starting point for countless books and essays on the qualities of sound and narration in film (yes, including this one). The authority of the wizard, an apparent god-like power, who is revealed to be merely a nervous man tinkering with an amplifier and a smoke machine, gives a concise and classic example of the trope of the unreliable narrator: when what we are being told is bending things a bit, misleading us, or just plain untrue. The unreliable narrator is a concept with which we are all familiar – whether in the form of boastful exploits in the Life and Exploits of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1759-67, or in Kevin Spacey’s voiceover from the grave in American Beauty, 1999. The dissonance between what we are being told and what is being made revealed has long been used as a tool in fiction and art; but what happens when the unreliable narrator becomes ubiquitous and all narration is untrustworthy? What happens when the unreliable narrator becomes the only narrator in town? Continue reading