We get to find out what exactly it is about live-documentaries that enticed Sam Green to explore this creative concept, why he’s excited about doing coming to the Brighton Festival to perform ‘The Measure Of All Things‘ this year and how he ended up in The Guinness Book Of World Records without hula-hooping for a ridiculously long time.
Well to start with, let’s talk in a general sense about creativity and the arts. How do you think it affects communities? And the positive impacts it could have?
I think creativity and art is vital and is second only to food and water in terms of being valuable to people’s spirits. I think there’s certain kinds of art, a term I kind of hate ‘community art’ or ‘public art’, that is more geared towards creating that in an overt way. But I think all art is positive and healthy and valuable for people, and good for their spirits and it often brings people together and creates a public experience, which I think, especially these days, is super important.
The way technology and the market is pushing everybody to have private experiences watching movies, or listening to music or experiencing art, it’s all going in a direction that’s private and commercial.
Now more than ever, that public experience of art and creativity is super important.
In some ways, that’s what my work is all about, trying to create that. Because it’s just funner. It’s more enjoyable, I mean there are certain people that just want to be by themselves, but I’m not one of those people. I like other people and I like the energy of other people. If you think about seeing a comedy for example, if you watch a comedy alone you might chuckle but if you watch a comedy with a big audience and everyone is laughing, you laugh more, you feel it more and that’s a real simple example that just shows there’s something in the energy of other people, not to sound too new-agey but, that’s important to us and we crave and need it. I believe that creativity and art are hugely important in the spirits and emotional wellbeing of individuals and also communities and publics as well.
And that’s what the Brighton Festival brings for the month, celebrating art and communities. Are you looking forward to coming down?
Hell yeah! I’ve never been and I know Brighton from the movie Quadrophenia, weird notions of it. But I love the sea and I’ve heard great things about it. I’m happy to do three shows! We’ve never done three shows in a row. That’s fun because you get really comfortable with it and by the third show you’re totally kicking ass, but also to stick around in a place feels exciting.
Your show, The Measure Of All Things, it says it’s ‘loosely inspired by The Guinness Book Of World Records’. Why loosely?
For two reasons, for one… Legally [laughs]. It’s important for me to say this is not an official endorsed project. The Guinness Book Of Records has no involvement with this project. But secondly, it’s loosely inspired because a lot of the tone around the Guinness Book Of Records is sort of silly. Like the biggest pizza in the world, a whole city gets together and makes a pizza and gets in the Guinness Book Of Records. I’m resolutely uninterested in that. There’s a part of the book that resonates with me and that’s the people who don’t want to get into the book that inadvertently get in there, the oldest person in the world or the tallest person in the world, the guy who’s been struck by lightning to most times is a perfect example of that,
It’s someone who fate has chosen and he never knew why, nobody else knew why, it’s just the mystery of being alive. It happens to some people. I’m interested in that and the Guinness Book Of Records is poem about that, about fate, about time,
About being compelled to do things where we don’t understand why. In some ways, it’s just about the mystery of being alive. So it’s loosely inspired because it’s a riff on that element of the Guinness Book Of Records as opposed to the silly part of it that most people think of.
What would you want to be in the Guinness Book Of World Records for?
Funny you should ask, because through this project I actually ended up in the Guinness Book Of Records and I didn’t even have to do anything. I didn’t have to hula-hoop or anything like that.
What was it for?!
I went to a place here, in the United States, the quietest place on earth. Which is this audio lab. The camera person I was with took a lot of pictures and this photo was online of me in there holding a microphone, Guinness Book Of Records got in touch with and I was like, “oh no, what does the Guinness Book Of World Records want”. They wanted to see if they could use this image in their book for that record to show the quietest place on earth. I was like, “this is fantastic, this is a childhood dream come true” and again I didn’t even have to do anything.
The great thing is now, friends of mine who have kids who are really into The Guinness Book Of World Records, I’ll say, “take a look a page 74”, they’d go “OMG that’s you”. Right next to the most valuable tongue, which I’m pretty proud to share a page with.
[See below for the picture Sam sent over of himself in the Guinness Book Of World Records].
The show is a live documentary format, which is your third live documentary, why do you prefer this format over traditional documentaries?
For a lot of different reasons ranging from economic to political to aesthetic and here I can really go on and on and on, which I wont. I just happened on the form about five years ago, I was making regular documentaries and through various circumstances I tried it as a piece where I would show clips and talk and have some live music, I really loved it. Somehow it just worked. The piece worked exactly like I wanted it to and I thought, “wow, I’ve never heard of anybody doing anything like this”, even though there are things like this in film history, live music and films and like narration. I wasn’t making anything up but I’ve never heard of anyone in a documentary form doing this, I thought id just try it and see what happens.
I’m completely smitten by the form.
It goes back to what we were saying about community, as a filmmaker now, you know a lot of people watching your stuff are on their computers and doing Facebook at the same time. I do that. I’m not judgmental about it and I’m not angry or bitter about it but I do think it’s a very diminished way to experience art. I know from myself that stuff online has a kind of throwaway quality to it and you half pay attention to it. At the risk of sounding self-important, I make work that I think is valuable and should be experienced in a full way.
That feeling of going to theatre, the lights go down, you’re sitting with strangers, it’s public experience, you turn your phone off, you give yourself over completely, that’s the magic of cinema.
It’s a transformative fucking fantastic magical experience. I love that and I’m trying to work in that arena and that realm.
It also goes back to that thing where the market and technology, everything is pushing us towards having these private experiences, these private commercial experiences with art and with media. I don’t dismiss that completely, I do it, but I feel like the world needs more public. The world needs more people coming together with people they don’t know. The world needs collective experience. I’m all for that. I think its super valuable and I like it, I also like a world where we can download everything. Where your work is reduced to just being a file. Live documentary is a kind of form that is never the same form. It will never be the same, I change it every time. We never document it, it’s not on Youtube or you can’t stream it on Netflix, it’s an ethereal thing that happens and only exists in people’s memories. That too, in this day and age, feels like a lovely utopian gesture that I appreciate and I think there’s something unique about it.
Was it difficult to originally translate your ideas of a documentary into a live performance?
Yes. The first one I did was sort of half a film, half a live thing and each one I’ve done I’ve tried to take the form further and do more with it. When I said I was smitten with the form, it’s true, I’m always curious, “what gives this form it’s power and how can I maximise that?”
Music is so wonderful and sometimes people say, “why don’t you just send a DVD, you wouldn’t have to come all the way here”. True but that negates the fact that there’s an enormous world of difference between hearing the score that yMusic, this fantastic chamber group of New York, play. Hearing it recorded and hearing them play it live. In a way it’s all the same notes, they could play it exactly the same, but there’s this world of difference that’s almost intangible, and you start to sound like a new-ager talking about this, but,
The energy of them playing live in the room, there’s some powerful magic in that that I love. I think that infuses a work or a piece with meaning and heightened significance.
There’s always that substantial difference between live music and recorded music. It’s the same for music gigs.
It’s so true.
There’s a teaser video of your show, including the woman with the longest name… and her last name was simply Williams.
Yeah! She’s so great. She was one of my favourite people I talked to, the thing about her is that her mother gave her that name. It’s not a name she made up. You’d think she would be like, “oh god, the first thing I did was legally change it to Sue Smith. Fuck having that name”.
She loved the name and the name is this fantastic quilt of other people’s names, family names and places and things. It’s a wonderful thing.
The thing I wanted to mention was that I’m very excited to do the show in UK because here in the USA, or elsewhere, people know the Guinness Book Of World Records but they don’t know anything about the McWhirters, the twins who made it, or anything about that. People in the UK at least know Record Breakers, the show that they were on, and many people know one of them was killed by the IRA and so it’s a different context. It will be a little more meaningful to people.
Did you read it as a child? Is that why you were so interested in it?
Totally. What happened was as a kid, I was totally into it. A lot of it was just looking at the photos, I was completely captivated by the photos and then about 5 years ago I found it an old paperback copy of the Guinness Book Of Records from the time when I was a kid. I looked through it and I remembered all the photos, I was like, “oh my god, the woman with the smallest waist, the finger nail guy”. I was very curious, why had I been so taken with it? Why is it even kids now are really taken with it? What was that about? I started leafing through it and was really moved by a lot of the stuff in there and suddenly saw it in this way that was kind of a very odd self-portrait. A lot of times, kids will be into things like fairytales because they’re sort of simple on the surface but beneath there’s all kinds of truths about life.
I started to think about the book as that, a silly on the surface but beneath it are almost a series of parables about what it is to be alive.
I do think that that’s actually true even though very few people think of it like that, I do and I don’t think that’s inaccurate actually.
We completely see where you’re coming from. It’s like, why is this the oldest woman in the world? Also, we can’t believe someone was struck by lightning 7 times and lived.
I know! And then he killed himself. You couldn’t make that it. If you made that up it would be dumb. Documenting the world, the reality is way more interesting than anything I could ever dream up.
What can we expect to see from ‘A Measure Of All Things’ in a nutshell?
There’s a lot of wonder in the piece and there’s some poignancy and the Guinness Book Of World Records is nothing but fascinating. Just the wonder of it will hopefully tickle people, but also there’s a fair about poignancy and then live music, as I mentioned, is by this fucking fantastic group who will blow the lid of the place. They’re a six-piece timber group so they have a huge sound and I saw them at Carnegie Hall in New York and fell in love with their sound, it’s such an epic wonderful sound. So, they’ll be huge images and I narrate the piece and they play a soundtrack.
I hope it will be something that will really move people and will linger with them for some time after. In both a lovely way and also a poignant way.
See Sam Green’s ‘The Measure Of All Things‘ at the Brighton Festival on May 23rd/24th.