Rebecca Birch is a good filmmaker. She knows when to make an edit, when to take a conventional shot and when to allow the action to take place offscreen (in The Year-Going, her 2011 video portrait of young Dutch clockmaker Johan ten Hoeve, the protagonist is only revealed bit by bit – a shot of his hands grinding a cog into shape, a closeup of an eye inspecting a tiny component). Birch also knows how to play with light and shadow (indeed it’s a bit of a motif in her work); she knows the merits of a good song to ratchet up the emotive resonance of a situation (in Great Northern, 2011, a video made during a residency in the frozen Northwest Territories of Canada, a melancholic country ballad sets the mood for this portrait of an insular community). But what makes her a great artist isn’t any of this formal stuff; it’s the interaction she builds up with her subjects, and in the relationships she creates as part of the subtly performative process of her practice. In the case of the two works mentioned above, the subjects’ ease on camera, and willingness to tell their stories, is testament to this rapport.
A second strand to Birch’s work, in which she instigates road trips with fellow artists, or leads public walks, points to the dialogic quality of artmaking as the true, and perhaps radical, heart of her practice. A look at the artist’s website reveals photographs documenting journeys up and down the UK – she’s just about to start a new series that will take the M11 motorway north out of London as its primary route. A lichen-covered stick is present in many of these images. Picked up on an earlier trip, it now acts as a sort of MacGuffin around which collaboration and conversation circle within the hermetic confines of a car. With this, one can perhaps understand the videocamera as taking a similar role – giving Birch the opportunity to embed herself in a community or situation that would remain closed otherwise. The presence of the camera enables the artist to strike up conversations with the people she finds there – a not inconsiderable creative feat. In fact this is the true art in her work, the bit that goes largely unrecorded.
Originally published in the March 2014 FutureGreats issue, in association with EFG International