Wouldn’t it be nice… Wishful thinking in art and design

Somerset House, London

Sept 17-Dec 7 2008

The MacGuffin Library

Sept 17-Oct 5 2008

More details on the Somerset House website

The work of artists Noam Toran and Onkar Kular spans multiple disciplines and mediums, from film to installation, often using conceptual product design to engage with a broad range of social and cultural issues. For their most recent collaboration, an installation shown as part of the Somerset House exhibition Wouldn’t it be nice…, they propose the foundation of a library of MacGuffins. The MacGuffin is a term that Alfred Hitchcock used to describe a cinematic plot device, usually (but not necessarily) an object, for instance, stolen jewels or secret documents, a pretext that motivates the characters and moves the story forward. Over the course of the exhibition, Toran and Kular aim to design and produce up to 20 of their own MacGuffins after writing a series of film synopses around these objects. Turning the gallery space into a working ‘laboratory’, the artists will manufacture the objects on site using a rapid prototyping machine.

Pamela Jahn met Noam Toran and Onkar Kular at the RCA last week to find out more about the MacGuffin library project.

Pamela Jahn: What exactly is a MacGuffin for you?

Noam Toram: It’s a plot device, it’s the thing that is of vital importance to the characters within the film, that allows them to move through space. But it’s essentially something that is replaceable. So, as Hitchcock said, in spy movies it’s almost always the microfilm, in crime movies it’s the diamonds…

Onkar Kular:However, we want to build upon the Hitchcockian terminology. We are not going to stick to it as a rigid framework. We are trying to expand upon that and play with the idea of the MacGuffin, even subvert it. So, Hitchcock was our starting point, but while working on the project we found that it was much more interesting if we took the idea of the MacGuffin forward.

PJ: What was the starting point of the project?

NT: We’ve got a long-standing interest in film; we produce film and we also work with designed objects that exist within film. Often in my work, I foreground objects as protagonists in a narrative that I then film. While researching we came across the MacGuffin, and we realised that there was this object typology, which was something of a certain size that was easily hide-able or steal-able, and that, in cinema, the object that everybody desires needs to have a certain scale or a certain tangibility. There are numerous films that subvert that to great effect, or use it as a symbol of something else on a psychological level. This allowed us a space to play with and to come up with a series of our own objects and synopses. Although we are not making the film we are hopefully producing a space between the object and the synopsis where an audience can create the film themselves, and where they can think of what we are intending to present cinematically.

PJ: It seems quite a brave venture given that the nature of the MacGuffin is that it is irrelevant, or as Hitchcock says, ‘it can be anything or nothing at all’…

NT: That’s right, and that’s exactly where we find the challenge. We started to look at dramatising historical events; for example, if you shot a film about Christopher Columbus you could argue that ‘America’ is the MacGuffin. But then, how does one represent America? Because it’s not just the continent, it’s perhaps also the idea of America for an individual. Is there something physical, even if it’s totally abstract, that we could design that would represent that thought? It’s a struggle, but this is also what makes it very interesting. So, in some cases we are playing with scale, whereby some of the objects become representations of things that are architectural or even continental in scale.

PJ: What sort of objects does the library consist of?

NT: Some of the objects are ‘mundane’ objects; they are pre-existing objects and we are providing them with this sort of value and importance through the narrative. Other objects have been designed specifically for the purpose: we have created them and worked with engineers and sculptors to get them made just the way we want.

OK: For example, there is a videotape. People may think that videotapes are used as MacGuffins in a number of other films, but we are actually writing a new film plot based on the idea of the tape…

PJ:How are the MacGuffins presented in the exhibition?

OK: Each object will be presented with a 100-150-word film synopsis. We are hoping that the two elements will provide enough of a framework for people to interpret or have their own vision of what this film could be about.

NT: It’s the beginnings of a library, but that library is one that is based on a process of producing a piece of work. And we’ve found that this medium, the object and the synopsis together, is the basis for conversations that we have between ourselves about art themes and other interests that we have, for example, alternative histories, unorthodox fantasies, the way cinema influences reality and vice versa. To some extent, we hope that audiences will also add their own ideas to that, and that the library will become an open source.

PJ: Where do you take your ideas from to develop the film plots and objects?

NT: We are shameless in that way… literature and cinema are our main sources of course; we are taking some films and using them as the basis for a story that happens afterwards. So, not so much a sequel but, say, in a new film a character is influenced by a character taken from an existing film. Part of the pleasure is to get people to say, ‘oh, I know that film, that’s Peeping Tom‘ or ‘that’s Strangers on a Train‘, based on the information that they have been given. So there are clues. However, the themes are not necessarily immediately cinematic; the stories are based on our interests, and then we write them to make them feel like films, including the action, characters, conflicts – the things that make up cinema.

PJ: So, there are no remakes of films?

OK: Oh, yeah, there is one. Among the 20 objects we felt that it would be nice to recreate one existing MacGuffin and see how the audience might read that, or if they would recognise the original film because of the object and synopsis given.

PJ: And the remake-MacGuffin is…

NT: It’s the lighter… it’s the homage-MacGuffin to Hitchcock.

PJ: Do you follow a set of rules to create the objects or the stories?

NT: Yes, there is a certain structure in the way we create the stories and objects, but we are happy to go beyond those rules and go wherever our creativity takes us. We are already limited by scale, we are limited by the material, and we are limited by a definition of the MacGuffin, which a lot of people are happy to argue about. We use these rules as the basis of the project in order to express the themes that we find interesting, and to create a space that allows us to engage with the audience.

PJ: Are you planning to make the MacGuffin library available for filmmakers, scriptwriters or producers once the exhibition is finished?

OK: I suppose there is a chance that could happen…I would feel flattered if someone wanted to make a film out of one of the MacGuffins, absolutely.

NT: Mmmh, maybe we should copyright everything… Some of the MacGuffins are based on films that we wanted to do, one in particular, that I wanted to do. Getting the budget to produce this film is currently totally unfeasible, so actually getting it out there in this manifestation is great.

PJ:What is your favourite MacGuffin at present?

NT:It’s hard to say, I think I like some of the objects more than others and I think some of the synopses are better or more interesting than others. I like this piece very much (points at a bunch of twisted cables) because…

OK:…because it is your story (laughs)

NT:(laughs) …because even physically, the object itself isn’t so rigid, and there is a lot that can be interpreted through this, as to what it is, what its function is; potentially it could be a very unpleasant function; and that space where the audience will perhaps come up with their own sick ideas or fantasies is a nice one.

Interview by Pamela Jahn