VDB Asks... Paul Tarragó

Lauren Pirritano
Paul Tarragó

Paul Tarragó is a filmmaker, using both video and celluloid, living in London. His work? A mix of underground experimentation and metafiction, tugging at the leash of film language but with narrative often held close at hand.

1. Can you tell us something about your background?

A quite unremarkable childhood in suburban Essex, on the far outskirts of London.

English and Spanish parents, sister, dog and cat – and a love of films (tv was my teacher).

And then the thrill of moving to a city with repertory cinemas: Double bills! Triple bills!!

And then (2): the big (film) life affirmation of joining the Exploding Cinema - a collective dedicated to originating alternative methods of exhibition for low-budget/artists’ film and video and related performance.

I now live in south London with the wonderful Jennet and two rescue cats – Kino and Pixel.

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

I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to be an artist! Maker probably fits me better.

I started off with Super 8, and stayed with it exclusively for 10+ years. The intermittent mechanism feeding film stock across a gate – it’s so gettable. Like a sewing machine, really. And yet the film side, that photosensitive emulsion… its magic in action! So – the poetic and the prosaic in one bundle. Irresistible.

After 10 years it dawned on me that I was constantly having to transfer my celluloid films to video to send them to festivals etc. And by then affordable non-linear editing systems were available for domestic computers. Plus I liked the idea of being able to record synchronous sound with a single unit, people speaking even – so video ticked lots of next-step-forward boxes.

I still do use Super 8, but mostly for single frame, timed exposure, and stop motion work. It’s a lovely medium, but definitely no longer the cheaper option.

3. Did you have formal art training/schooling?

My undergraduate studies were largely in Spanish and Latin American literature, plus some French. Then after graduating I started going to evening classes (intro to Super 8 + 16mm production, certificate and diploma courses in film history + theory), cobbling together my own post-college film course. And in the daytime filmed and filmed (and read).

I then returned to college for one year as a postgraduate to learn the impractical art of making films beyond my financial means. This was followed by a dedicated return to Super 8.

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

There’s not really a separation between home and making life - the two worlds sit one on top of the other, for which I’m very grateful. If I’m not making something I’ll tend to feel ‘less than’, anyway, so it’s up there in terms of importance alongside eating and sleeping.

I teach part time at the University of the Arts London, working enough to support myself, but not so much to majorly interfere with making. So my filmmaking supports me both indirectly (I’m employed because of my filmmaking background) and directly (making me happy and so adding value to my life).

5. What influences or motivates you in the world?

Just being awake, really. A combination of the everyday and the fantasized flowing past and through me sets ideas sparking. Coffee’s helpful too.

And film/moving image culture has only been around for approx 125 years. There’s so much territory unexplored - or yet to encounter in one’s own particular way - and that’s so exciting.

I also feel a bit like that Arthur Machen quote (which, of course, I can’t find at the moment), the gist of which is: if you can’t find wonder on your doorstep you’re unlikely to find it by traveling far and wide in search of it.

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

I live with filmmaker Jennet Thomas, so am definitely keeping an eye on her work! But I don’t find ideas or inspiration come from looking directly, and intently, at a particular maker. It’s more often about fragments – the way X uses sound in a scene, or Y holds a shot.

In recent years magic (as in conjuring) has held a general fascination for me, and has a lot of obvious crossover with film effects and ‘tricks’.

For ‘The Variations’ I guess the influence/precedence of makers like Jeff Keen, Robert Breer, and Paul Bush is there - Jodie Mack and Walerian Borowczyck too. I noticed also, during the making, how William Kentridge’s work kept drawing my attention (similarly the stop motion work of silent era film maker Charley Bowers).

But following? Hmm…well, I’ll admit to being pretty intrigued by the work of Agnes Varda.

7. What was the last exhibition you saw?

J.R. at the Saatchi Gallery (this was a side effect of seeing AV’s collaborative film with him – ‘Faces, Places’). It was majorly impressive.

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

I come from a culture of DIY micro cinemas, projector beams cutting across low-ceilinged rooms, over non fixed seating, accompanied by the clink of glasses etc. So, the early days of the Exploding Cinema – putting on shows in a circus tent, a swimming pool, various pub back rooms, ballrooms, bars, and weird civic spaces – are the most vivid.

And a 3-hander show at the legendary Horse Hospital – alongside Jennet + Leo Chadburn – is a cherished memory.

9. What are you working on right now?

Mostly an ‘in between projects’ project. Having completed 4 films this year has felt like enough for 2021, so I’m cobbling together materials, and shooting some rostrum and time lapse work, for an occasional advent calendar (which will mostly manifest next year).

I’m also currently a bit tied up with family stuff (funeral etc.), so am traveling in a slightly lower gear this month. But I can see a break in the traffic, just ahead, and then…

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

I regularly get my ideas down on paper – as fragments, glimpses – in the form of sketches, scribbled notes, or even just a phrase. I’ll then figure out which have affinities, as well as look back at previously unused notes that may have been inappropriate for a former piece, but still have value, maintain a kind of lustre…

They then form clusters, which may become scenes or sequences, and then I’ll start shuffling around those clusters and deciphering the inferred relationships they may have. Etc.

This is happening most of the time, so things have often ‘started’ in fragmentary note form before I’m consciously aware.

And things are finished when the work hits a balance: no passages drag, and the ending feels appropriate. By that stage I’ve been working so intensely on the piece - and so its developed its own network of internal logics - that notions like ‘balance’ and ‘appropriate’ are then almost startlingly obvious.

11. What are you currently reading? Watching?

‘The Gradual’ by Christopher Priest.
‘Belleza y Felicidad’ by Fernanda Laguna + Cecilia Pavón
‘Parlour Tricks’ by Morgan + West
And watching the last series of Twin Peaks.

12.  Room for final thoughts:

If it doesn’t hurt you, or others, then it’s not a bad idea.

This comes from years of teaching (+ my early days as a maker), trying to stop students from being too dismissive of their initial creative ideas. Because it’s not the idea that counts, but how you develop it… which is kind of obvious, but frequently requires repeating.