My contribution to Roger Ackling: Between the Lines, edited by Emma Kalkhoven, published by Occasional Papers, November 2015. Buy the book here.
Roger Ackling was awed by contingency. All that was required to capture things, things occurring in spite of himself, were the right tools. Later it would be the magnifying glass; very early on it was the film camera. If both were conduits for light, they were also tools for scrutinizing. ‘One of the interesting things about film,’ Ackling told an interviewer in 2007, ‘was that you have this thing in your hand… purring away and you end up with something that is projected some feet away from you.’1 Trailing plumes of cigarette smoke between the projection box and the screen, he recalls, taught him something important about space, and demonstrated a principle of ‘hands off’:
I’ve always felt that ‘hands off’ is a practice of allowance, everything is occupied, and if you step back something else occurs. It’s like physics or chemistry really: you set up the procedure, an experiment, and then things happen.2
It was probably in the early noughties, not long into the new millennium, when Ackling’s only remaining film in public circulation was pulled from the LUX collection. Boot Film, shot in 1967 while a second year Fine Art student at Saint Martins College of Art, hadn’t once been hired in the previous three decades. Ackling made the decision to pull it himself. And yet today, despite Ackling’s efforts, Boot Film continues to circulate, via online FTP sites, an illicit scan moving between fans’ download folders; other known films, including Pete’s Film and documentation of a number of performances, for example when he kicked a tin can ten miles across Salisbury Plain in one his ‘line experiments’, are lost.
Ackling enrolled at Saint Martins in 1966, joining a single Fine Art programme, combining painting and sculpture, devised a year earlier by Peter Atkins (later Kardia). Along with Atkins and Phillip Fraser, Ackling had regular contact with the experimental filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice, who had joined Atkins’ staff in 1965 and, two years later, started an experimental film unit at the college. Le Grice first met Ackling in 1963 in his first part-time teaching job at Ealing College; it was he who encouraged Ackling to apply to Saint Martins (‘I was so impressed with Ackling,’ Le Grice told me, ‘I persuaded him to apply to St Martins and he, of course, was accepted’).3
Ackling, along with three or four other peers soon began making films, but, as he later recalled, few students at the time were interested. Initially, Ackling had been casting objects in clear resin, visiting the Royal College of Art to use their facilities. He’d already cast several boots when he decided to cast one in Boot Film. Shot, according to Ackling’s contemporary Martin Cook, in a Saint Martins toilet, the silent black-and-white 16mm film begins with a soft focus, closely-framed shot of the side of a boot to the right of the frame. As the camera finds focus, the boot begins to slowly rotate on an unseen podium (presumably a potter’s wheel). Lilting, rhythmic cuts, alternating between close-ups, scrutinize its surface texture. ‘The pace is gentle,’ reads the London Filmmakers’ Co-op catalogue description, ‘the result is sad and comic.’ Viewing the film now, it seems the comedy arises not so much from its pace, but its literalism, its zero-degree artlessness; the result is a meditation on the ‘thing-ness’ of the boot: its obdurate materiality (if we see the boot as commodity, it reminds of Rachel Reupke's Containing Matters of no very peaceable Colour (2009) or Mark Leckey’s refrigerator).
Next, Ackling made another tautologically titled work, Pete’s Film. ‘Pete’ was Pete Ellison, a contemporary at Saint Martins who, along with Ron Parsons and Andy Milne, Ackling shared a studio with. Although undated, and now lost, it must have been shot in ’67 or ’68. The London Filmmakers’ Co-op catalogue describes it thus:
This film is shown upside down and in reverse. It is unedited, the three main sections are in the order in which the Labs chose to print them. It has been shown in conjunction with a tape sound-track but any number of transistor radios at any station may be used instead.
As Le Grice recalls, the two alternating images of this film were the face of Pete Ellison, frontally and in profile. Although the film historian David Curtis has claimed how the work of Le Grice’s students at the time show little direct influence, including Fred Drummond, Mike Dunford and Ackling, Pete’s Film demonstrates a burgeoning formal and technical experimentation familiar to Structural film that, for better or worse, would define a generation.4 It was Le Grice who encouraged Ackling to submit two films to the London Filmmakers’ Co-op distribution. One of Ackling’s earliest exhibitions, while still a student, was Boot Film in ‘Avantgarde Film’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Dover Street; later that year he was programmed in ‘Four European Film Makers’, also at the ICA, and ‘Young Contemporaries/Film’.
Even if Ackling’s films are now largely forgotten, he is, in fact, writ large in one of the defining films of that period, Malcolm Le Grice’s Little Dog for Roger (1967), a 9.5mm home movie fragment featuring Le Grice, his dog, his brother and mother. Roger, however, is Roger Ackling. ‘The link,’ Le Grice told me, ‘is a quotation that Roger offered me – I think from H.G. Wells’s The History of Mr Polly (1910) – where Polly, in order to escape a chance meeting in the street, would point in another direction, exclaiming “little dog” and run off.’5
Much has been made of the photographic quality of Ackling’s light-seared objects (photo+graphy: ‘light writing’), but, arguably, he never completely left filmmaking behind. ‘Para-cinematic’, capturing light and duration, Ackling’s later objects make sense alongside the works of avant-garde landscape filmmakers such as William Raban – Raban began at Saint Martins the year Ackling finished – who used time-lapse to condense cosmological durations marked by the moon, sun and tides.
Still, Ackling has an artist’s page on the LUX website, devoid of information. Where a film clip ought to be is a delicate, black outline of a rectangle. This placeholder, ironically a very Ackling-ish motif, is a broken hyperlink, an index with its object displaced, that needs repairing. Boot Film’s withdrawal mirrored Ackling’s own earlier withdrawal from filmmaking, coinciding with his first use of a magnifying glass in 1974, when, conceivably, the cinema’s apparatus seemed, in a more literal sense, too ‘hands off’, too indirect an encounter between himself and the world.
1. http://originallittlebird.blogspot.co.uk/p/conversation-with-my-friend-roger.html. Accessed 17/08/15.
3. Personal email correspondence with Malcolm Le Grice, 14/08/15.
4. David Curtis, A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain, BFI, 2007, p.209.
5. Personal email correspondence with Malcolm Le Grice, 14/08/15.