VDB Asks... Louis Henderson

Lindsay Bosch

Louis Henderson is an English filmmaker whose films and writings investigate the networked links between colonialism, technology, capitalism and history. A graduate of London College of Communication and Le Fresnoy – studio national des arts contemporains, Henderson is currently completing a post-diplôme within an experimental art and research group at the European School of Visual Arts. His research focuses on new materialities of the Internet and the neocolonialisation of cyber space through planetary scale computing. He has shown his work at places such as Rotterdam International Film Festival, CPH:DOX, Transmediale Berlin, Muestra Internacional Documental de Bogota, the Centre Pompidou, FRAC Midi-Pyrénées, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern and the Whitechapel Gallery.

VDB is pleased to welcome Henderson to Chicago for the Fall 2015 season of the Conversations at the Edge screening series. In conjunction with this local appearance, VDB sat down with the artist to discuss his influences.


1. Can you tell us something about your background?

I come from a very flat land in the east of England called Norfolk, it is rural, empty, beautiful, strange, home, muddy, salty, and one can see horizons that go for miles and miles. The North Sea kisses the shores. I love that coastline and being amongst the trees and birds and water – this is where I grew up and it is what I am made of. Yet from a very early age I was keen to travel, perhaps fuelled by the stories of North and West Africa from my mother, whose parents were both archaeologists and with whom she spent a lot of time travelling, both in Europe and Africa. So as soon as I could, I left and never turned back – ici c’est jamais bien, ailleurs ça sera mieux – stopping off to live in Barcelona, London, Lille and Paris on the way, and eventually making journeys around the world to the Americas, Africa, Asia. Currently I am based nowhere and have no dwelling I can call a home – it is unsettling but exciting.

2. What inspired you to become an artist? To use video? 

I think really, that a certain sensitivity to being overwhelmed emotionally by everyday experiences as a young person is what led me to want to make art – which is to say that I have always been a daydreamer and had a very active imagination. However, the most significant event in actually becoming an artist was my encounter with the artwork of my great uncle Nigel Henderson – a very important artist who worked in London and Essex from the 1950s – 80s. He was a photographer, collagist, collector, printmaker, writer. Essentially a poet of refuse in the Baudelairean sense – he used to make images by collecting objects found on the post-second world war bomb sites in the East End of London and then turning them into photograms, or what he called “Hendograms”. Collage, waste, technics, anthropology, post-production – all of this in my practice was channelled through him. The first film I made was about Nigel, a long walk and conversation with his ghost. I never knew him as he died when I was only two, but I know him now. 

Video? Well, I was born in the cinema — came into being through the cinema. Always wanted to make cinema and always watched cinema. An absolute obsession from a very young age, not with television or video particularly, but really with cinema – that theatrical space in the dark with loud sound. Even though my first images were made with a photo camera, I was always interested in movement, sound, narrative – life! Video animates life – and this is wonderful! I could also use film as opposed to video – I don’t care about strange, conservative alliances to media: old, new, dead or alive – but the digital simply allows me much more flexibility in terms of what I can do with image and sound. Fiction comes from the Latin word fingere, which means to mould, to form, and I find the digital to be a very malleable material that aids my desire to fictionalise life. Film could be like marble and digital video could be like clay – I just haven’t got to working with marble yet, I prefer to dirty my hands in the mud.

3. Did you have formal art training/schooling?

I went to London College of Communication and did a BA Honours in Film and Video. This was actually quite formal training and I graduated as a cinematographer – yet I didn’t know (and still don’t know) anything about lighting or cameras. I was much more interested in philosophy at that point and dedicated my whole last year to writing a long dissertation – I didn’t really start to make my own films until I had graduated and moved on. So my ‘training’ as such was strange, I trained myself through going to the British Film Institute and watching all the retrospectives that were screening, reading philosophy and film theory, and having conversations with my tutor, mentor and friend William Raban (also one of the most important influences on my films). Then I started a PhD, also at London College of Communication, but I started it too early and was not ready, so two years later I decided to stop and I went to Le Fresnoy – studio national des arts contemporains in Lille, France. At Le Fresnoy I really learnt to make films, both on my own and with others. I learnt to trust myself as an artist and how to have a voice. Currently I am part of an experimental research group (Document et Art Contemporain) at the European School of Visual Arts and we certainly do not train ourselves at all! We do research and we learn to discover the world through different forms of thinking and approaches to working, both collectively and individually. I think perhaps we are going through processes of unlearning, untraining — and it is brilliant.

4. How do you balance life and art? Are you able to make a living through creating art?

At the moment I have reached a point where I can live from my work as an artist, yet this is very unstable and completely precarious. Living through residencies, grants, screening fees and the occasional cash prize is good, but difficult – and one has to be aware that it could go at any moment. In the past I have taught at universities and this is something I am still very keen to do – I enjoy the processes of pedagogy and learning together. Perhaps this could be a good way to finally find a balance between life and art? Yet currently I enjoy unbalance. Furthermore, I don’t really do anything else but my artwork – so there is no division as such between life or art, my life is the life of an artist. And this is worrying in many respects – what kind of worker have I become? One that works seven days a week and takes no holidays and is not paid a wage. Yet the work is fun and I love what I am doing. To have that is unique and rare and I am very happy that this is where I find myself currently.

5. What influences or motivates you in the world?

Love and politics (and love is the most political of all things). Yet politics proper – the moments when a people speak out loud and show they have a collective power of annunciation. Not the institution of politics, which Rancière rightly terms the Police, but politics as an anarchic democratic practice that resists control and territorialisation. Molecular revolutions! And this practice must be based on love and kinship amongst beings that struggle as minorities in the face of molar powers. In addition to this, what motivates me is a strong desire to always go somewhere new – to experience places I have never been to before. Arthur Rimbaud influences me in this sense, to be a voyager and a voyant – a seer, which is to go completely against Proust’s famous idea of not seeing new landscapes but seeing the world with new eyes. I would prefer always to see new landscapes in order to allow my eyes to see anew.

6. What artists or movements are you following right now?

Teklife from Chicago! The Jura mountains. The Rhône river. The Haitian revolution. The Black Audio Film Collective. John Akomfrah. Douglas Sirk. Hito Steyerl. Teddy Williams.

7. What was the last exhibition you saw? 

The caves at Vallorbe in the Jura in Switzerland. This is a huge karstic network of caves complete with one of the most extraordinary displays of natural forms created over hundreds of thousands of years through the erosion of the limestone interior of the mountain by the Orbe river – one of Europe’s largest underground rivers. I saw the most unbelievable shapes and forms inside this mountain, unimaginable even and greater than any exhibition of art I have ever seen. In those caves I experienced the spirit of a mountain and saw that it was indeed a living being, complete with organs, flesh, skin and blood.

8. What has been the best screening experience of your work?

Hmmm, hard to say – I just like it when the sound is really loud.

9. What are you working on right now?

Currently I am working on two projects. One is short film called Black Code/Code Noir, which attempts to draw a series of connections between the French revolution, the Haitian revolution, the Code Noir in the slave colony of Saint-Domingue, the Black Code laws in post-slavery USA, the necropolitical control of African Americans throughout the history of the Americas, present day algorithmically organised Big Data policing as neo-plantation capitalism, and the murders of African Americans at the hands of the Police in the USA today. The film will have its premier in October and from then on it will be used as the starting point for a project that will take place throughout the coming year, involving many other people, discussions, new works, exhibitions, screenings, meetings – conversations. This is a project I am working on in collaboration with Olivier Marboeuf – an artist, writer, curator and all round incredible person from Paris who runs a space called Espace Khiasma in Lilas, Paris.

The other project is a feature-length documentary-fiction ghost story about Toussaint Louverture, the head of the Haitian Revolution of 1791 – who was kidnapped by Napoleon and brought to France where he was starved to death in a prison in the Jura Mountains. The film will be shot half in France and half in Haiti, based on an idea that the bones of Louverture became fossilised amongst the limestone strata of the Jura, and after the earthquake in 2008 in Haiti a huge fissure was cracked across the earth’s surface from the Caribbean to the French countryside, splitting open the stratigraphic layers and releasing the bones of Louverture into the light of day. An animist haunting of present day France, which eventually travels to Haiti as Louverture’s ghost returns to his native land – creating a reflection on the current neocolonial situation of Haiti today. This will entail a long working process, as I would like to make this film with people rather than about people – to work with Haitians in the writing, development and making of the film as an attempt to move towards the potential decolonisation of a certain approach to cinema. Next year I shall be going to Haiti to begin the research, collaboration and conversations. Currently I am in Switzerland working in the Jura – visiting sites and writing ideas. This film is also being made in collaboration with Olivier Marboeuf and Jacqui Davies – a wonderful producer and curator based in London.

10. How do you start a piece? How do you know when a piece is finished? 

All of my film projects start with an idea and a title. I have an idea about something I would like to make, I start researching and reading, and then the first step is the title – which always comes from a quote from somewhere else. Then I start to feel certain sensations and colours that I would like to express with the work, this is also very important: the colour palette that the film will follow and how this may be able to relate ideas and feelings. For instance I will write down the title and start to try and sense which colours would suit the feelings I am having about this topic. Sometimes they don’t always come so clearly and other times they arrive immediately. I never write scripts, but rather notes and ideas, and then I look for material and locations that will have a historical resonance and attachment to the topic, this usually takes place in an archive and on the Internet, this may then lead to visiting these locations as a kind of topographic study. Then the gathering of material happens, either with a camera, a sound recorder, screen capturing software, a youtube downloading website, 3D image generating software etc. Then editing/collaging/moulding, and then finally writing. I write my films in the stages of post-production. The pattern could be: “…first, there is the idea, then there is the matter, and then the form…”

A piece is finished when you feel it opens a discussion and asks questions.

11. What are you currently reading? Watching?

Reading: Off the top of my head and looking on my desktop: Edouard Glissant, Donna Harraway, Aimé Césaire, CLR James, Chris Kraus, Roberto Bolaño, Friedrich Hölderlin, Kristin Ross, Susan Buck Morss, Louis Sala-Molins, D+G, Suely Rolnick, W.G. Sebald, Isabelle Stengers, Matteo Pasquinelli, Michael Taussig, Mckenzie Wark, Alex Galloway, Tiziana Terranova, Karl Marx, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Virginia Woolf. Fragments, patches, pieces – a tapestry.

12. Room for final thoughts:

Currently, for many reasons — all I can say to myself to save myself is: move on, move on, move on!

Read more of the VDB Asks... series