Emma Leach: Your film Tidal Island was shot partly on location in Outer Trial Bank, an artificial island off the Lincolnshire coast. When you shot the original test film you left a camera on the island to capture time lapse footage, so you didn’t know what you would see when it came back from the lab. Were there any surprises?
Neil Henderson: Before I’d filmed that test footage I had no idea the island would fill up with water – I thought it would just capture the sun passing over the island in the course of the day. So I was gobsmacked when the footage came back.
You didn’t know the island was permeable?
No, I didn’t think it was. That’s what’s great about film – there’s often a surprise when it returns from the lab, unlike with video where there’s a playback function that lets you see the footage immediately. Something magical happens between shooting some film, sending it to the lab, and it coming back to you. It’s a revelatory medium.
When there’s that gap between shooting the film and seeing it, does it distort in your memory?
It does. And almost always the best things are the bits of footage you didn’t realise you’d got, and those can become the basis of the whole piece. When I saw the water level rising in the island I realised that’s what the piece was about.
We were going to show Tidal Island in a venue that, ironically, had a flooding problem during that very wet spring before the festival. So we moved it to another venue – the Sea Cadets Hall. Did that change the work at all?
The original venue was really big, and when we visited it I imagined two films projected side by side on two screens – one in colour and one in black and white. Both screens would show the island with the water level rising and falling, and just that. Later on I shot some extra footage that established the location, showed revolving maps and objects; I also added a soundtrack. But I think the pressure of the deadline changed the work more than the venue did.
At what point did you decide to use the other elements, and not just use the footage from the island?
Having a deadline made me really scrutinise what I wanted to show. So I was looking at the location footage thinking, “Is this enough?” It seemed quite obscure. I wanted to give the island some context in its surrounding landscape and even show a little of its history, if possible. I made a decision to include myself in the film, walking up to the island. I thought it would be good to include a figure, to animate the location and give it a human scale. That decision was quite spontaneous; it wasn’t storyboarded.
Seeing you walking up to the island, I could imagine myself approaching this strange structure, which otherwise could seem quite alien.
When I shot the footage I thought it would be useful to have, but I wasn’t sure if I’d use it or not. Having a figure in the film gives the viewer an immediate connection to that place.
What about the other imagery – did you always know you would shoot those other elements, like the maps and stars, or did you make that decision later in the process?
I shot all that about six weeks before the film was shown. I had a bit of a revelation about the work. I was influenced by the film Robert Smithson made about Spiral Jetty, which shows objects and maps as well as the footage of landscape and the piece itself. The island looked a bit like it could have been made by Smithson, so I wanted to apply his methodology to my film and I used a few of the same references.
A lot of the imagery appeared to be rotating. How did you shoot that?
Through problem-solving at home. I found a way of rotating the maps on a Fisher-Price record player, which moves really slowly and smoothly. There’s some other imagery that rotates more quickly and I used a normal record player for that.
A composer made a soundtrack for the work. At what point did he see the footage?
The sound came last. I wanted to hand the film over to someone else to interpret, and see what they came up with. I worked with Paul Wilmott, who composed the soundtrack for the final cut. He made a rough version, and then watched the film while shifting elements around. We spoke about the soundtrack containing rising and falling notes, relating to the water coming and going. Paul also used looped sounds, which gave the soundtrack a sense of spinning.
Have you gone back to the piece since you showed it in Whitstable, and changed anything?
I showed some early footage in a few places and I did a photo essay about it for Sequence [an artists’ film and video journal published by no.w.here Lab]. The final version’s been screened at Apiary Studios in London and at Media City Film Festival in Canada, but I haven’t changed anything since it was shown at the Biennale. It’s always tempting… But I think it’s probably gone as far as it can go.
– Neil Henderson showed Tidal Island in Whitstable Biennale 2014.
– Emma Leach is a curator at Whitstable Biennale.