I knew nothing about the work of John Smith before I watched his recent short film Citadel on Mubi. (Being able to see art films like this that would normally be shown in gallery spaces or film festivals is fantastic – I am only frustrated that more of Smith’s work is not available to view online, and wonder why this is.) Citadel is a film about the incompetent handling of the Covid pandemic by the UK government and a comment on the shift of power from Westminster to London’s financial district. The work emerged through serendipity, an artistic strategy that Smith favours and cultivates, Smith originally intended to make a film focusing on the way light changed the view of the financial landmarks such as the Shard he could see from his bedroom window. He began filming in late 2019, fixing the viewpoint of his camera out of the window, but by early 2020, the work started to gain in meaning as the scale of the Coronavirus pandemic and the effect of lockdown began to take hold – suddenly, Smith’s strategy of confining his view from his bedroom window gained new significance seen alongside the government’s stay at home message.
The film is beguiling, at once meditative and dynamic. Speeches made by Johnson over the course of the first lockdown accompany the visuals and the cavalier attitude expressed, first stating business as usual, and then, a message that we should get back to work is truly shocking – something that is left in no doubt by the end caption which states that by August 2020 the UK had achieved the highest Covid-19 related death toll in Europe and entered the deepest recession since records began. At times the words are remixed along with the visuals with phrases ‘buy and sell’, ‘business as usual’, ‘you should go to work’ and ‘get to work’ among the repeated refrains. Sometimes Johnson’s words are accompanied by lights going on and off on the tower blocks in a way that resembles a graphic audio representation – it is as if Johnson’s words are literal embodiments of these financial centres. The middle section is seductively contemplative as the camera focuses on the windows of Smith’s neighbours at night going about their business of cooking, exercising and working, illuminated by artificial light in a way that makes the scenes beautifully melancholic – there is a sense of literally having a window into the lives of these neighbours while remaining painfully separated – a clear representation of social distancing.
In an interview with Ian Christie, Smith describes his process for Citadel:
“As I prefer to work on my own I feel more comfortable filming from a window than in the street. But I also like working with self-imposed limitations and I am a big believer in synchronicity and chance – if you’re patient you can see quite enough if the world from a window without having to look into it!” (Christie, 2021)
These ideas of chance, self imposed limitations and patience all appeal to my way of working – although Smith has been particularly lucky in the way this project has come together. He continues explaining how he initially focused on the effect changing light on the architecture he could see from his window which includes landmarks such as the Gherkin, Natwest Tower, the Shard and 22 Bishopsgate. However, the piece became about more than aesthetics:
“I wanted to show what these buildings signify, the expansion of neoliberalism that fills more and more of my view every week…I wanted to suggest that the centre of power was there, in the City, rather than in Parliament.” (Christie, 2021)
Kim North makes a particularly bleak assessment of Citadel, seeing the buildings abiding in an apparent air of timelessness, seemingly unaffected by the chaos of the global pandemic that surrounds them:
“Rather than the great British myth of coming together in a crisis, Smith shows that Covid has really accelerated the forces that divide and atomise us. Towards the end of the sixteen-minute short, the windows of people’s homes flash S-O-S into a cold, ambivalent night; but the truth is that we no longer exist in communities that help each other in a crisis. The triumph of Neoliberalism has meant we are all on our own and no-one is coming to save us.” (North, 2021)
Citadel is an impressive piece and I find Smith’s working methods inspiring. At the point of writing I am beginning my BoW with no idea where it may take me or any preconceptions about what it will eventually be. The way Smith has transformed the seemingly restrictive idea of shooting a film from his bedroom window into something that is both visually and conceptually engaging fires my imagination.
- John Smith Website
- John Smith Vimeo channel
- TateShots: John Smith: Playing with the power of language
- John Smith in conversation with Gilane Tawadros, DACS at the Art Party Conference 2013
- Paranoia TV: John Smith in Conversation with Christoph Platz (Artists Talk)
Christie, I. (2013) English Eccentric. At: http://johnsmithfilms.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/English-Eccentric.-Ian-Christie.pdf (accessed 1st February 2021)
Christie, I. (2021) John Smith in a time of Covid: “I wanted to capture the melancholy of watching people through their windows.” Sight and Sound. At: https://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/interviews/john-smith-coronavirus-lockdown-films-citadel-covid-messages (accessed 1st February 2021)
Judah, T. (2021) Reflections 13. Ubiquarian. At: http://ubiquarian.net/2021/01/reflections-13/(accessed 1st February 2021)
McCahill, M. (2021) Capital Punishments: “Citadel”. Cinésthesia: Feelings. On Film. At: https://cinesthesiac.blogspot.com/2021/01/capital-punishments-citadel.html (accessed 1st February 2021)
North , K. (2021) Film review – Citadel. Medium.com. At: https://maligndesires.medium.com(accessed 1st February 2021)
Smith, J. (2021) John Smith introduces his film “Citadel”. Mubi Notebook Column. At : https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/john-smith-introduces-his-film-citadel (accessed 1st February 2021)