Essay: James Richards’ ‘Call and Bluff’

The following essay relates to James Richards’ video installation Call and Bluff, a multiple projection work originally exhibited at Tramway, Glasgow, in August 2009:

“The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary… The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.”
– Francois Truffaut, May 1957


James Richards (born Cardiff, 1983, lives in London) creates installations and video collages that explore disparate elements of cultural marginalia. Mining the moving image and sound, as well as customising mass-produced objects as part of his sculptural practice, Richards’ work is distinct for its highly personal and poetic sensibility.

The richness and unpredictability of his video works is, in part, reflected in his wide range of source material: amateur DVDs, internet streams, VHS cassettes found in charity shops, instructional videos, extracts from television shows, classic and cult feature films, not to mention a vast array of music and spoken word soundtracks that often accompany his moving image montages. In turn, these sound and image clips are sampled and saved into Richards’ personal library; a vast bank of material to which the artist constantly adds, consults and reworks for each new project.

For his exhibition at Tramway, Richards presents a new multi-channel video installation, titled ‘Call and Bluff’. The gallery contains four continuously looped projections: three videos run simultaneously with one another, and play alternately with a further video projection on the opposing wall. Richards refers to this arrangement as a system of ‘call and response’, drawing an explicit relationship between the interchanging content of the videos, while also placing the viewer at the heart of such a scenario.

The footage in the three simultaneous projections has been culled from a single promotional VHS video, found by the artist in a London charity shop, and the content of which comprises of a lighting company’s product tests in various staged situations. Richards has sequenced scenes depicting a male subject lit with a variety of different lamps, and posed with a series of unlikely props. Tense, contrived and uneasily mute, these three sparse projections resemble that of an uncanny moving photograph, and are also suggestive of the traditional tableau vivant: a composition of live actors statically posed to form a living picture. Tableau vivant is a theatrical model that varies hugely in its theme, from sombre liturgical dramas to bawdy forms of entertainment that might include nude actors in eroticised gestures.

In Richards’ triptych, this motionless pose never quite tips into a straightforward portrait of the subject. Rather, the model’s unnatural blankness takes on a satirical or dramatic aspect of a surrogate – a figure that implicitly ‘stands in’ for the gallery visitor. Meanwhile, the ambient soundtrack that accompanies these projections – which culminates in a sound resembling that of a man suddenly awakening from sleep – hints at the more surreal properties of this dream-like space, while also swiftly curtailing any conclusion by cutting to black and alternating to the fourth projection.

These three screens can be interpreted as a ‘chorus’ working to counterpoint the stylised ‘verse’ of the opposing projection, the latter of which contains a series of clips that run at a radically different pace, tone and texture from the former. A looped dance sequence, which is perhaps not immediately recognisable as the prom dance in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), is coupled here with a mesmeric soundtrack clip from an audiobook from the artist’s personal collection. The infinite rotation of the dancing couple, encased in a misty haze of pastel-coloured lights, seems off-kilter with the affected – and equally disaffected – voice of the narrator. And while both image and sound seem hypnotically circular, the inevitable friction between the two splits apart a sense of wholeness or unity of content, both in terms of this video sequence and, more broadly, the installation. The viewer’s experience is again cut short, as the projection flicks back to the three-screen bank of expressionless faces. Throughout the installation, conclusive action is constantly denied and the gallery visitor is returned to a unresolved state of cyclical tension.

Richards’ source material is notable for its origins in the area of the instructional video, the corporate commercial, and the home-made movie. Rarely does this elementary content sit easily within the category of fine art. And yet in each of the aforementioned categories, the on-screen address is made directly to a viewer, by eye-to-camera contact, physically frontal gestures or by indication through sound. Such formats are also generally understood to be watched in private, rather than in the social site of the cinema theatre. When amassed into the artists’ rich archive, there is a compelling intentionality about the reception and functionality of these types of videos that clearly provide a fecund site for Richards’ practice that is, by contrast, intuitive and contingent, and which seeks to construct an inherently personal iconography or distinctly private form of creation.

The use of some of this material seems, at points, highly politicised or imbued with underlying social commentary. Certainly, Richards’ practice has been frequently compared to the political works of ‘Scratch Video’ artists of the 1980s, such as George Barber or Guerilla Tapes. But politically explicit occurrences are often incidental, rather than intentional. His appropriation of material is not intended to be simply a subversive act or a strategic manoeuvre. Rather, his decisions over individual clips – and their relationship to one another – are contingent to the assemblage as a whole. The mood of the subject, the tone of the piece, and the visible texture of the original format, are all contributing characteristics that the artist seeks to synthesise into the evocation of eventfulness. These sequences move between the quotidian, the hysterical and the banal, and this easy mobility is integral to the structure of Richard’s practice – something that he is careful to maintain within individual works. His edits serve to only just make a series of abstracted clips hang together, and to render emotional or unconscious slippages in the viewer.

Certainly, Richards’ specifically seeks out fleeting moments where the unlikely occurs and the mask slips: actors might appear off-balance, or the camera depicts actions that seem to be working outwith the ‘correct’ manner. In each case, Richards looks for something that might possess an unexpected awkwardness or a compelling detail that might pierce the viewer in a non-verbal manner, and uses such moments to build up a collage of tonal movements between clips.

Elements of Richards’ videos might strike the viewer not as if they were orchestrated and manipulated by the artist, but rather appear as a series of small and scattered events that were always there, simply waiting to be rediscovered and renovated into a new context. And, in Richards’ constant reconfigurations of sound and image, the work is rarely presented as a finite experience, but a restless desire and an ongoing endeavour.

Isla Leaver-Yap, July 2009

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