Mirza & Butler
Sonya Dyer explores Karen Mirza and Brad Butlers collaborative practice as artist filmmakers.
Karen Mirza and Brad Butler have been working collaboratively since the late 1990s, having met as students at the Royal College of Art. Despite having built an international reputation as artists working with film, neither came from a film background originally Karen trained as a painter at Camberwell College of Art and Brad studied anthropology at University College London.
Their work mainly consists of multi-screen celluloid film installations, site-specific installations and single-screen work made for a cinematic context. Underpinning their work is a deep engagement with the western Avant Guarde filmmaking tradition.
Mira & Butler also run the no.w.here artists film lab, one of the only artist-led centres that supports artists working with celluloid film in the UK.
They are also adept at connecting with people who share similar interests, with a network of partners / collaborators that span Europe, America and India. What is particularly interesting about the way in which Mirza / Butler have managed their practice and the multi-faceted nature of their involvement with artists film making is how, approaching a decade of working together, all their interests seem to have come full circle. In many respects, Mirza & Butler are an example of how total dedication to an area of interest can lead to unexpected opportunities.
Since making their first film together at the RCA Karen Mirza and Brad Butler have used various strategies to produce work, curate projects and create opportunities for artists interested in film and their audience to meet each other.
Upon graduation they were invited to participate in a screening in New York, which led to introductions to artists working with film there. The duo found a kinship amongst the artists filmmakers they encountered, which inspired them to start organising and curating events themselves more often than not on a shoestring budget focusing on artists film, at 291 Gallery in East London.
Using a can-do mentality that typifies their attitude if you want to something to exist you should create it Light Reading screenings and installations of work by artists like Nicky Hamlyn, Jayne Parker, David Cunningham and Steve Connelly provided a much needed platform to see often neglected work.
This curatorial work which can be seen as a parallel activity to their own films, rather than in opposition to it has continued throughout their practice and no.w.heres Light Reading sessions from their West London base.
After running Light Reading for a while, Mirza & Butler received an unexpected invitation from Experimenta, a fledgling film festival in India, inviting them to curate a programme. Characteristically, Mirza & Butler focused on getting the work rather than themselves over to India, utilising their small budget to transport and support the films they wanted to show. This has led to an ongoing relationship with the festival organisers and the Indian film community, which has led to the couple returning to India on a regular basis, typically building a long-term relationship with the country. They are also shortly due to undertake a residency in Pakistan.
Another consequence of this relationship has been no.w.here housing Indian artists in residence. This supports an Indian artist working with film time and space at no.w.here lab in a funded and facilitated residency another example of this pattern of creating opportunities for other practitioners through the opportunities the duo are presented with.
Over the past decade, Mirza & Butler have developed an international reputation through exposure to their work in number of high profile international exhibitions. In many respects, there is perhaps a sense that in the UK many peoples introduction to Mirza & Butler is through their work with other artists (via Light Reading and no.w.here), whereas abroad they are perhaps known as artists first. This is a common problem amongst artists who also work with / facilitate other artists.
None the less, recent exhibitions have included They Do Things Differently There at St Pancras Church, London (2007), The Expanded Eye. Seen and unseen, Kunsthause Zurich (2006), as well as exhibitions at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, Whitechapel Gallery, Site Gallery, Sheffield, Ikon Gallery Birmingham and the Tate Triennial (2003). Screenings have taken place in festivals in Sydney, Amsterdam, Mumbai, France, Germany and New York.
Avant Garde influences
Mirza & Butlers work is characterised by a deep engagement with time, space and architecture, combining a strong formal eye, conceptual rigour and a sense of fragility that provides a sense of two artists having a conversation with each other both during the making and through the work itself.
Their practice is involved with questioning the filmic, sculptural and architectonic qualities of the moving image aiming to blur the distinctions between film and sculpture, art and cinema1. There is a strong sense that Mirza & Butler are artists who happen to work with film, side-stepping predictable questions about whether such work is film or art.
A major influence for the pair is an interest in seminal avant-garde film. For Non Places (1999) the influence was 1920s constructivist films: Where a straight Line Meets a Curve (2003) took inspiration from Alvin Lucias I am sitting in a room (1970).
More recently, Mirza & Butler have taken a single vision as a point of departure in works like The Space Between (2005), Structural Constellation (2006) and The Glass Stare (2006). Their work is open ended, combining a range of visual / conceptual languages and proving space for the audience to actively engage with the work, rather than passively receive it.
1Mirza & Butler artist statement 2007.
The Return of the Real (2007)
Mirza & Butlers forthcoming work, The Return of the Real, is composed of a series of interrelated mise-en-scenes featuring members of the public in India, and (forthcoming) the UK and New York, questioning issues of subjectivity and authorship, observer / participant.
These locations form the three main centres of their practice over the past decade. The Return of the Real walks the line between film and performance, anthropology and the histories of portraiture and landscape painting. The viewer / audience is put in the position of the filmmaker. It marks a stage in their practice that speaks of two artists working as a partnership whose key influences and backgrounds as well as the intrinsically peripatetic nature of their practice have combined in synergy. The anthropologist and the painter turned filmmakers/artists using everything theyve learnt to make something that takes their work into a new direction.
By Sonya Dyer
Part of a set of Artists profiles exploring perapatetic practices.
First published: a-n.co.uk November 2007
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