Swoon’s View: The Real and Pure Worlds of Janet Lees and Terry Rooney

Swoon’s View was a regular feature at Awkword Paper Cut, which has now ceased publication as a magazine (though the archives will remain online indefinitely). So with editor Michael Dickes’ permission, we are moving the column here, where it will appear on a more occasional basis.

Janet Lees

Janet Lees

Short. Sharp. Quirky. Strange. Lovely. That’s how the videopoetry of Janet Lees (with Terry Rooney or on her own) comes across. I saw some of these works at the Filmpoem Festival in Antwerp this year and was immediately taken in by the sober power they effused.

Let’s take a look at four short videopoems she has made over the last few years. Janet gave me extra info on the origin of the works:

In the spring of 2011, I spontaneously began noting down words and phrases from ads on the London Underground. That sentence doesn’t come close to conveying what I was doing. I wasn’t just hungry for those words, I was ravenous. I couldn’t get enough of them: their music, their dark comedy, the strangeness beneath their familiarity – the other things they were saying – the way they compelled me with a startling urgency to rearrange them into skewed, oddly lucid pieces.

I shared them with the photographer & videographer Rooney, who around the same time had started to take his fantastically clear vision for portent in everyday life from still images into short, fixed-viewpoint films. Rooney and I had previously worked together as an advertising creative team and we’d always shared a similar outlook, visually and on many other levels.

I’m a big fan of how they gently force the viewer to keep their eyes on the screen. Not by overpowering jump cuts or clever visuals. They use a single-shot image and text on screen to full effect. Your eyes are drawn to the screen and the poems in an almost hypnotic fashion.

These films are short and sharp as a razor. The creators have cut away any unnecessary layers to leave behind the bare and essential power. The works are like a breath of fresh air in these times of cultural abundance and profusion of advertising.

Pure, yet quirky. Fun, yet disquieting.

Take your time to digest these (over and over) and enjoy the extra info on the who and how that Janet gave me.

high voltage acts of kindness

the big cool true natural picture

For ‘high voltage’ and ‘the big cool true natural picture’ we simply matched up my found-text poems with Rooney’s films. We both had a little stock of each, so it was a case of seeing which words worked best with which films. As time went on, my words would inspire Rooney’s films and vice-versa.

In ‘high voltage’, the overall feel we wanted was a jaunty, slippery precariousness, building into a sense of impending disaster. The gas flame worked perfectly – something so ordinary and yet potentially deadly – and just slightly ‘off’ (why is there no pot sitting on the flame?). ‘The big cool true natural picture’ is a much lighter poem – basically reflecting back some of the OTT promises we’re fed. The crazily short film of the doll baby on the turntable heightened the comedy, while not entirely losing an edge of darkness.

The hours of darkness

‘The hours of darkness’ features footage of flamingos that I took in a wildlife park in the middle of winter. I found the sight of the flamingos in this big gloomy shed electrifying – there was something both prehistoric and post-apocalyptic about it. In my mind, I knew there was only one poem for this film – ‘The hours of darkness’, which I’d written about a year before, inspired by the anodyne yet always to my ear potentially sinister messages contained within in-flight announcements and other forms of mass communication. Here, the repeated phrase ‘May we remind you’ assumes an increasingly dark, Orwellian tone.

everything is poetry

The tone in ‘everything is poetry’ is markedly different. This is an original as opposed to found-text poem, inspired by the beauty that exists in the present moment, where we so rarely live. Here the fixed viewpoint has a more Zen-like quality, with words and footage working together – both doing different things but effectively celebrating the same thing. The film was taken at Portmeirion Village in Wales, where I was mesmerised by the effect of a sunlit fountain in a pool. I scoured the amazingly generous resource that is mobygratis to find the right piece of music, and then worked with the brilliant videographer Glenn Whorrall on editing. Glenn also helped me to edit ‘The hours of darkness’ – his sense of timing is pitch-perfect.

About the artists

Janet Lees is a poet and artist with an interest in multidisciplinary digital work. Working in collaboration with Rooney and independently, she has had work selected for international prizes and festivals including Filmpoem, the Aesthetica Art Prize and the British and Irish Poetry Film festivals. Rooney is a photographer and videographer who has won acclaim for his raw, thought-provoking images and short, fixed viewpoint films.

Marc Neys (aka Swoon)

Swoon is a videopoetry & soundscapes addict with more than 200 international collaborations to his name. You can find him at swoon-videopoetry.com.

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