Monday, 15 October 2012

Piotr Krzymowski in conversation with James Holcombe about his film "Tyburnia"

James Holcombe: Where shall I start?

Piotr Krzymowski: Is it called “Scenes from Tyburnia”?

James: No, it’s actually called “Tyburnia”. Basically, the general idea for the film started when we were working in the Centre for Possible Studies on Edgware Road back in 2009. The first building the Centre for Possible Studies occupied was very close to where Tony Blair now lives on Connaught Square, which itself was supposed to have been one of the sites for burial of corpses from the site of the Tyburn gallows. In fact, when they were laying out the Square they had to cart away many bones left from the gallows. This had been a site of execution since the Norman Conquest through to 1786 when the area started to become gentrified and they started laying the large squares such as Hanover Square and Connaught Square – all these large houses. The public hangings would always attract a large number of spectators, whom these new residents would have deemed undesirable. The decision was taken to remove executions to Newgate Prison and finally they would take place behind prison walls.

I also remember a book that I had at home as a child, which was a sort of Reader’s Digest book. It gave a very romantic view on this site of execution.

Piotr: What is a digest book? We don’t really have such a thing in Poland. (laughs) Well, not that I am aware of.

James: It’s a book people would read in waiting rooms, waiting for a dentist’s appointment for example. It’s basically waiting room knowledge. Anyway, having this book at the back of my mind and being on the Edgware Road and having a chance to make some research in Westminster Archives gave me a chance to look at it a little bit further. I was really amazed that there were no films made about it, other than a couple of films that are in the BFI film archive. I think they may be connected to that book, which I had as a child. They seem to only be recreations of the executions made through those ‘prisms’ of romance of punishment and crime. There was also another book that I came across in my research. It’s called “Tyburn Tree: It’s History and Annals” written by Alfred Marks in 1903.  What was very interesting about this one was that it took a very critical view of punishment. He went back in time and basically listed the people who were executed and various things they were executed for. He started to bring in the fact that it was a site of punishment, which he called “a lesson”, and that throughout history this site had been used to teach the poor, the unemployed and dispossessed to obey. Through seven hundred years of history the lesson changes, but the punishment remains the same. So, I started with that book and the accounts of torture was amazing in the way they connected crime and punishment, spectacle of death, religion, social history, folk history, sayings that we still use today, like “go west”.

Piotr: And what does it mean, “go west”?

James: If something “goes west” it basically goes wrong. (laughs) Actually I think we say it’s gone west when we’ve eaten something. It needs looking into. There have been several books published recently which attribute very English or British sayings such as ’pulling your leg’ (joking about) or ‘falling off the wagon” (drinking heavily after a period of abstinence) to Tyburn..then actually a lot of people online refuting that and saying that Tyburn has become a convenient way of explaining sayings we don’t actually know the origins, I don’t know what to would be amazing to think that ‘Pulling your leg’ comes from friends and family looking to hasten your death on the gallows..but I’m not sure..

Piotr: All right.

James: So, again, it was interesting to me that there doesn’t seem to have been a film made about it. It seems to have been erased from our, I would say English rather than British, collective consciousness. I am documenting the materials and objects that remain from executions. There is a lot of material held in the Museum of London, Royal College of Surgeons and British Museum. On one level I am making a photographic record of things stored in vitrines and cases. The other thing is that I am trying to make a piece of work that connects these kind of folkloric aspects of executions with the political, the personal and the poetic. I know that it may sound quite broad, and I am still finding my way through that.

Piotr: So what exactly did you do in 2009 in The Centre for Possible Studies?

James: That initial project was a Free Cinema School. We as were invited to develop this project the Free Cinema School, which involved training on cameras and then working with young people to develop projects and shoot scenes for a film that we were making with young people.

Piotr: What kind of young people were they?

James: Well there was on open invitation for the people living on and around Edgware Road to come in to make a film, donate a sound recording, or allow us to make a scan of their photographs. We ended up with one hour-long film consisting of 16mm film, stills, sound recordings and mobile phone footage. It was an amazing bricollage of people’s internal interests, obsessions, it crossed cultures, time zones, races, everything…and so for me one small part of that was a short scene on the Tyburn gallows because I think my inflamed brain stoked some interest in few other people. (laughs)

Piotr: I actually imagined execution by chopping the heads off rather than hanging.

James: Well there were of course various methods of punishment. This one was very public. We have this phrase saying “to hang, drawn and quarter”, which you might have heard of before. Popularly what would happen was that you would be drawn on a hurdle (a kind of stretcher) behind a horse through London, head normally facing the horse’s backside so if it excreted you would have got all that. Once you arrived at Tyburn you would be strung up and  hung until you were semi conscious, then cut down. Depending on the crime your entrails and genitals would be removed and held up in front of you, then the head cut off and the torso hacked into four quarters. These body parts would be then set up at the four gates of London – Old Gate, New Gate… a couple of other gates. Anyway, so the body parts would be hanging there as a warning. This was something that was finally outlawed in, I think, in the early eighteen century. We can go into very forensic details about punishment. There were different categories of course and severities depending on the crime being treachery, sedition, theft, or religious crimes.

Piotr: Wow. A very interesting and brutal research James.

James: When I started working on this Edgware Road project I was reading the Alfred Marks book and then I went into the Westminster Archive and they have original broadsheets that were published and sold in front of the gallows. And - I actually started to feel almost as I was being possessed or something was trying to channel itself through me, because the overwhelming horror of it all and these fragments of people that actually remain, like fingers, fingernails, blood and bones…I was reading about these deaths and then seeing these bits and pieces of the people that remained. Which I guess you would be familiar with from the Polish history?

Piotr: The Holocaust?

James: Oh no, I wasn’t thinking of that... I was rather thinking more about Poland being a Catholic country?

Piotr: Of course – relics. I have fortunately never seen any.

James: Well from Tyburn there are at least sixteen catholic Saints; they are called the English Martyrs. The English College in Rome has frescos in marble on the walls of their deaths. It’s no coincidence that when the Pope came to London they chose Hyde Park for him to preach to the capital’s Catholics. When he came on stage, which I filmed, the first thing that he said was “We are but a stone’s throw away from England’s holiest site”. For true believers they call it England’s ‘Holy Mount’, and in fact there are still pilgrimages from the site of Newgate prison, which is where they would be held before execution. The pilgrims walk twice a year and I walked with them in 2010, which was quite amazing. I also filmed that, the whole thing was about suffering in the footsteps of these Martyrs, so it was odd going down Oxford Street listening to around a hundred people reciting catechism and the praying the rosary. Did you know that Oxford Street was in fact called Tyburn Way?

Piotr: No. That was the old name of it?

James: Yes. The whole area from Bond Street and Hanover Square to Marble Arch was called Tyburnia. That’s where the name of the film comes from. It became a very fashionable part of London at some point, but there was this really interesting crossover point where these executions were still happening. You would get the ‘plebian’ masses amongst these newly laid out regency squares. Most of the material that survived comes from mid eighteen century when they finally took down the gallows. My film therefore becomes a filmic archeology through the place, through space and time and through artifacts and through shifts in politics and culture. I also look at where we are now today. It was interesting with the riots last summer when a small group went looting up Oxford Street and they headed to Marble Arch. It’s not a coincidence that speaker’s corner is where it is. So a site of punishment became a place where everyone can say anything. That’s very significant and interesting to me. 

Piotr: Is there any sound in the film?

James: Yes. I am going to work with a folk singer who re-sings bawdy ballads from the eighteen century. There are probably hundreds of Tyburn ballads sung in Canting language, which is the language of the underworld basically. (laughs)

I will also talk to the Tyburn nuns again as I have plenty of questions. What I don’t understand is how… Because we had Queen Mary, who was a Catholic Queen, then we had Queen Elizabeth. Queen Mary is famous for sending many of the architects of the English reformation led by her father Henry the Eighth to their deaths, and yet nobody was executed at the Tyburn even though it was the main governmental site of prosecution. When Elizabeth came back on to the throne the prosecution really racks up. That period of the English Martyrs is from the Elizabethan period. There are sixteen saints that come from England, but yet there is no documentation of the miracles associated with them, I can’t find anything online which I find strange. So sixteen of them are Saints and another twelve are ‘Blessed’, which I think means they are on their way to become saints. There just need to be a few more miracles associated with them. So the Tyburn nuns will be drawn into the film, as they also pray I think twenty-four hours a day over the remains of these Martyrs. And I am also hoping to go to the Royal College of Surgeons. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century when surgeons were looking for bodies to dissect they would go to trials and they would be selecting certain criminal or body types. So fifteen minutes after the executions the hanging body would be cut down and would be handed over to surgeons for a dissection. There was an act of parliament passed in 1751 called the Black Act and basically it was put onto the statute books, meaning it was passed as English law. It was a law allowing for the increase of capital offences – for example you could be put to death for stealing food. It also provided for surgical interference with the body after death by the surgeon. For most criminals this would have been a major thing. Not only would you be killed, there would be no hope of corporal resurrection on judgment day. You would never be able to be resurrected as the body had been hacked up. This may seem strange now but it marks a real up-scaling in state violence against the individual and the body. There were massive riots between the families of those condemned to die and the crowd. The surgeons even had the ability to order the King’s Men, proto-police I suppose, to attend hangings. There is one surgeon in particular John Hunter, who was a Scottish surgeon. He would attend trials and on two occasions I believe he played a part in ensuring that the man in the dock was condemned to die.

I will show you now some footage of a man who was executed at Tyburn. In 1776, smugglers Benjamin Harley and Thomas Henmanwere hanged at Tyburn for murdering a customs-house officer who had intercepted them trafficking tea on the Deptford turnpike. One of these two gentleman might well be the flesh-and-bones person behind the ghoulish ecorche sculpture known as “Smugglerius”. He was fascinated with his musculature and the physique of his body. As soon as he was cut down his skin was flayed off and the body cast in plaster then bronze. The body was arranged in the position of The Dying Gaul, which is sculpture from Greek Antiquity. The original bronze of it is at the Royal Academy, who refused me permission to film that! I filmed the cast in plaster instead, which is in Edinburgh Collage of Art.

Piotr: Unbelievable. Is that something they would do a lot?

James: I think this was the only one that was actually ever cast. And in fact the original accounts say that the smuggler was of interest to Hunter because he was well known for sleeping with the women of the lowest type. Hunter knew that he would be a perfect specimen for dissection. When he was cut down Hunter took the body and basically removed the penis, cut it open and took it back as a primary example of a syphilitic penal organ. I asked the Royal College of Surgeon if I could film that...

Piotr: What did they say?

James: That they would get back to me. (laughs)

Piotr: Is that the plaster cast?

James: Yes. It was very strange to be there. Though it’s made of plaster, you are looking at the cast of a dead human being. It was very strange being in there.

Piotr: It’s also very dramatically lit.

James: The thing is that the lights I took with me to film broke in my suitcase. So I had to film with an overhead projector they happened to have in room.

Piotr: It’s beautiful. The fact that the light comes from the projector is amazing.

James: To me it shows what film, as a medium is capable of. What I am showing you are just rushes, I don’t intend to use the footage in this way. Another thing I wanted to show you is footage I shot in the basement of the pub around the corner of Marble Arch called The Carpenter’s Arms. In 1789 or 1786 when they finally stopped public executions in Tyburn they took down the gallows and a local carpenter bought the wood. He took it to this pub and used it in the construction. I contacted the landlord and asked if he was aware of that at all.

Piotr: And what was his response?

James: That I was the second person who had ever mentioned it to him. And he let me film it. I went there down with my camera and with Adam Asnan, who is the sound artist I work with, and it was probably one of the filthiest places I have ever filmed in. It was really humid, smelt very strongly of rotten beer. I was trying to film in there and not damage the camera. There was some very old wood in there and perhaps it could be from the gallows. (laughs) The Tyburn Convent also says they have fragment of the gallows in their cabinets. So you got a public house on one side of the street and the Convent on the other side. So the Convent worships these fragments and in the pub they are covered in filth.

Piotr: Are you planning to film the one in the cabinets in the Convent?

James: I am going to contact them.

Piotr: And they will ask for money of course?

James: I really hope not. (laughs) If they ask for money I am going to say something in Latin. (laughs) The other thing I am interested in is to attempt to recreate scenes from Tyburn’s history via various experiments with 16mm film. As there are no photographic documentations of the executions and I am only left with textual accounts I was wondering if it would be interesting to manipulate the footage chemically, so you would have for example melting and reforming images.

Piotr: Is this why there is a flicker effect at the very beginning?

James: Yes. Kind of… It was kind of going to that space with these things in mind and trying to translate these historical accounts into moving images.

What we are seeing now is a group called Mad Pride, which I shot in October 2010. They staged the hanging of David Cameron and George Osborne in effigy to demonstrate against cuts to mental health provision. This was at Speakers Corner near Marble Arch. Brad Butler and I went to shoot it. It was like a proper hanging you know… they filled the dummy with fake blood and sausages and disemboweled it. The dog you see in the film was chewing the sausages…

Piotr: What I find really fascinating is that though the historical and political context is very specific, the film has a huge visual impact on me, despite all these references.

James: It’s very important for me that it doesn’t fall into the space of documentary, but becomes more experiential, and a document of itself and of objects and the place. Karen Mirza once said that I make forensic images and I think she is quite right in a way that I do want to go very deep into it this. It’s not going to be a straight history of the gallows. That’s not interesting to me. I think there are very strong parallels between where we are now in terms of punishment and “lesson” and where we were then. And maybe the frame for that would be that Tyburn particularly came into itself at the birth of English capitalism, which was the Industrial Revolution. Where we are now with the huge crisis of capitalism, the riots, the punishments, all that made me think that there are huge parallels.

Piotr: It’s all very interesting to me James. I have been sitting here quietly and listening to you as this is a whole new island to me. (Laughs) Thank you.

James Holcombe is a film maker and head of lab and education in 
Images: stills from the film "Tyburnia", courtesy of James Holcombe

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