Stuart Layton: The Act of the Spartan Boy

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Stuart Layton, ‘The Act of the Spartan Boy’, 2015, Single Channel HD video projection with 5.1 surround sound, runtime 10mins. Installation photographs courtesy of Jonathan Shaw and New Art Gallery Walsall. Image courtesy the artist.

I first interviewed you about your work in 2013. We spoke about your two short films, then screened at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, and titled The Devil’s Haircut and The Impossibility of Living in the Present. You’ve now finished your MA at the Royal College of Art. I saw your most recent film at the Degree Show earlier this year.

The film is titled The Act of the Spartan Boy, and is ten minutes long. For my Degree Show I presented it as a single channel projection, played back on a continuous loop. I experimented with various ways of presenting the film leading up to the final installation. During the process of developing the work, I explored multi-channel installation, live performance and text based components. While all these aspects are connected through research, subject-matter and process, I decided to show the work as a piece in its own right for the Degree Show. I chose a minimal space to show it wanting the viewer to focus in on the internal world of the film, images and sounds.

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Stuart Layton, ‘The Act of the Spartan Boy’, 2015, Single Channel HD video projection with 5.1 surround sound, runtime 10mins. Installation photographs courtesy of Jonathan Shaw and New Art Gallery Walsall. Image courtesy the artist.

The earlier films were constructed from found footage. You deliberately blur the borders ordinarily imagined between documentary and fiction. Your work also has an intimate relationship to memory, history, place and the political. You explore the political not by means of a didactic message but rather through the poetic and affective capacities of images and sounds.

The Act of the Spartan Boy combines found and purpose-shot footage taken in the small towns that make up the Black Country, an area in the West Midlands. The name, ‘Black Country’, refers to the soot and smoke produced by the foundries of the Industrial Revolution. The film aims to operate not as a document but rather as a transient, fragmented vision, free and fleeting, which speaks to the fallibility of memory itself.

Lines between fact and fiction are blurred by way of broken narratives that are woven through the fabric of the images, during which slippage occurs, and, in fact, I encourage this in the hope of leading to some undiscovered ‘other’. The work is also a reflection of the people of the Black Country and of how things exist today as a direct result or evolution of the loss of industry in the 70’s & 80’s.

The Act of the Spartan Boy relates to the work we spoke about a few years ago. During the course of the MA process, I left this work behind, questioned its importance, tried other things, and then returned to it. I developed a renewed interest in my heritage, which I had overlooked, perhaps actively attempted to escape for a number of years.

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Stuart Layton, ‘The Act of the Spartan Boy’, 2015, Single Channel HD video projection with 5.1 surround sound, runtime 10mins. Installation photographs courtesy of Jonathan Shaw and New Art Gallery Walsall. Image courtesy the artist.

Sound is a very important aspect of The Spartan Boy.

I thought more deeply about the importance of sound after I attended a lecture/workshop at the RCA by a sound designer who demonstrated what he did by showing an artist film before and after he had worked on it. Instantly the work became so much more immersive and interesting. At the same time, I had begun to experiment with audio recording and electronic music production. Before I went to the RCA I had also shared studio space with sound artists.

I became really interested in the idea of language and dialect (informed by my own relationship to dialect). I wrote a series of texts, mainly personal recollections from childhood, and these were to be incorporated into the film. I decided against integrating text, which had become problematic for me, and decided on spoken word instead. Initially I decided that the personal stories would be told by someone completely unconnected to me, and the area I grew up in, and I experimented with different kinds of recordings. Writing became an increasingly important aspect of my practice, and I became interested in spoken word artists such as Kate Tempest. I made various cuts of the film, testing various combinations of the recordings. During the course of this process, I was constantly questioning my relationship to sound, and my writing began to be less concerned with being cohesive. It became more fragmented, almost at times a stream of consciousness.

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Stuart Layton, ‘The Act of the Spartan Boy’, 2015, Single Channel HD video projection with 5.1 surround sound, runtime 10mins. Installation photographs courtesy of Jonathan Shaw and New Art Gallery Walsall. Image courtesy the artist.

You began reading a lot as you experimented with writing and sound?

I discovered the work of authors Ben Marcus and the amazing House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. These works were a revelation and unlike anything else I had read before. I find them very difficult to categorize, as their structure often defies preconceived ideas of what a novel is. Eventually this process led me to scrap all the recorded voiceovers I had made, and the original script I had written. I replaced all this with a more fragmented writing voiced by myself.  I found that by using my own voice (even though I find this very uncomfortable) I was able to give the work an anchor or grounded it within the place the film is set. The use of a second voice butts against the one I created producing a kind of tension, and hinting at differences in social class. I mobilise accents and voice to think about the political. It is important, and perhaps I think unavoidable that the political is present within art works.

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Stuart Layton, ‘The Act of the Spartan Boy’, 2015, Single Channel HD video projection with 5.1 surround sound, runtime 10mins. Installation photographs courtesy of Jonathan Shaw and New Art Gallery Walsall. Image courtesy the artist.

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