John Smith in the time of Covid: “I wanted to capture the melancholy of watching people through their windows”

With two new short film projects, Citadel and Covid Messages, the veteran British artist filmmaker has been busy during the pandemic – indeed, because of it.

Covid Messages (2020)

Selections of John Smith’s past films are available on DVD and on Vimeo; see

Come the crisis, come the artist. I once suggested the filmmaker John Smith belonged to a long tradition of ‘English eccentrics’, which would include Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, but also many other verbal and visual artists from William Blake and Lawrence Sterne onwards, and not forgetting the eccentricities of Shakespeare and Dickens.

Being ‘eccentric’ doesn’t preclude taking aim at the world’s absurdities – in fact, it may be the best way to hold these up to ridicule. And if Smith has sometimes seemed merely whimsical, there’s always been a strong vein of social and political conscience underpinning his choice of everyday subjects. This may be more evident in the demolished East London housing of Blight (1996) or Flag Mountain (2010), filmed in partitioned Cyprus, than in his now-classic The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), self-reflexively teasing audience expectations at a nondescript junction in Dalston.

Covid Messages (2020)

Under the UK’s 2020 lockdown that political conscience has welled up in his new works Citadel and Covid Messages, surely destined to be remembered as signature artworks of this challenging moment in British history. Citadel offers a telescoped view across 2020 from Smith’s London Fields bedroom window towards the forest of exotic skyscrapers that now constitute London’s financial district. Quotations from Boris Johnson’s speeches accompany the intensifying pandemic, with phrases like ‘buy and sell’ picked out as repeated mottoes.

We spoke on Skype, after I’d seen Citadel at a gallery preview in October, and Twice, one of Smith’s Covid Messages series, in the Royal Academy Summer/Winter exhibition, in which he grimly sings Happy Birthday to the tune of Chopin’s funeral march while washing his hands, following Johnson’s advice. I suggest that this recent work represents a rising fury at the Government and especially Boris Johnson.

John Smith: I guess it’s cathartic for me to make work which is as dismissive of him as I can be. The problem is not just him of course, although I think he is responsible for much of what we’re currently living through. Ever since Hotel Diaries I have found it difficult to make work that doesn’t reflect on the shitty side of the world we’re living in. Before we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq I think I looked at my country through slightly rose-tinted spectacles, even though I knew very well that Britain was an ex-imperial power with a terrible history. I have always despised Tory policies, but the extraordinary thing about the current government is how brazen they are about their corruption, handing out jobs and contracts to their mates and wasting billions on systems that don’t work.

John Smith

You have a long history of filming the world through windows and even Hotel Diaries ended with looking out of your Bethlehem hotel window at the Israeli West Bank wall.

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’m a big believer in synchronicity and chance – if you’re patient you can see quite enough of the world from a window, without having to go out into it!

Ever since we moved into this house in 2003 I’d wanted to film the view. Back then, there was only the Gherkin and the NatWest Tower, but over the years more and more ostentatious landmarks have appeared, like the Shard and the recently completed 22 Bishopsgate. I’ve always been interested in the effect of light on architecture, as you can see in films like Leading Light and The Black Tower. But now I find it really hard to focus just on aesthetics. I wanted to show what these buildings signify, the expansion of neoliberalism that fills more and more of my view every week. At Christmas 2019, I decided I had to start filming. The Tories had just been re-elected, and I wanted to suggest that the centre of power is really there, in the City, rather than in Parliament.

I started filming at the end of January. Then coronavirus struck, and Johnson made his free trade speech to business leaders at Greenwich, stating that while the rest of the world was putting up barriers and overreacting to the supposed threat of this little virus, Britain could seize the opportunity to make a killing – financially that is. 

All that seems ‘world-beating’ is our infection and death rates. But watching the gleaming towers in Citadel, I couldn’t help thinking of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.

Yes, there’s a contradiction between its beauty and its horror – it’s like a floating world, an island – very separate from the rest of the world, where we see people going about their everyday lives as best they can. And just last week Johnson was promising British fishermen that Brexit would lead them to Eldorado, which of course was fictitious, just like the Emerald City!

Frames from John Smith’s Citadel (2020)
Citadel (2020)

You shift from the distant towers of capitalism to a patchwork of figures visible in their homes as lights go on and off. It could be like Rear Window, but I kept thinking of Edward Hopper as a painter of ‘night windows’. There’s also a contrast between different passages of birdsong – which you’ve manipulated? And an extraordinary outburst when the whole city seems to be frantically messaging.

I wanted to capture the melancholy of watching people through their windows, a kind of moroseness in their postures and actions.

You’re right that the birdsong isn’t naturalistic. I always think of the cawing of crows as sinister, a sign of ‘bleak midwinter’, while the trilling in summer is deliberately over the top, to match Johnson’s promise of a post-COVID El Dorado – ‘the country is going to be better than ever’…

I had my camera fixed in one position for a couple of months, so that I could record changes in the scene while retaining the same framing. Late one night, all the lights in the biggest building went on and off in a kind of wave from top to bottom, reminding me of a giant digital audio meter. I had already planned to combine voiceover excerpts from Johnson’s speeches with my wide shots of the scene, so to cement his relationship to the city I decided to modulate this movement of the building’s lights in post-production to match his speech patterns. The introduction of this artifice led me to think of modulating the lights in the windows of houses too, so that they went on and off rapidly, signalling SOS in Morse Code in response to Johnson’s speech telling people that they should go back to work.

At the end, you break the chronology and go back to bleak midwinter, with snow falling.

It’s the same as the opening shot. After Johnson’s ridiculously optimistic speech that accompanies the scene in glorious summer sunlight, I wanted to show the reality that would follow the promise. We already knew that we were likely to have another lockdown when winter returned.

Covid Messages (2020) – viewed by a visitor to the Royal Academy

But the closing shot also refers to going to work, specifically in the construction industry. The snowy scene is accompanied by the sound of heavy manual work on a nearby building site that happened to be taking place at the time. By the time I started editing, this arbitrarily recorded sound had taken on a new significance. As we know, builders, like so many others, have been encouraged or forced to risk working throughout the pandemic, as can be seen from the shifting positions of the cranes on the Emerald City’s skyline. This is just one example of the contrast between Johnson’s out-of-touch and privileged optimism and the reality of the hardship that half of the population are enduring, with many having the sole option of going to work or going hungry.

Johnson, meanwhile, seems (like many of his gang) to have no idea about the practical aspects of existence, as you can see from any of his many PR walkabouts in factories and warehouses, where he clumsily attempts to carry out the same tasks as the workers. Even sweeping a floor is beyond him.

Covid Messages is a six-part series, all based on the televised Downing Street press conferences. In one of them, you show Johnson in close-up, with his hands seeming to cup his head, like a mobile Toby Jug. And there’s a running joke about spirits at work in the conference room, mysteriously moving papers, with the speakers making magical incantations.

Watching the press conferences, I became obsessed by the set at 10 Downing Street, because everything looks so shoddy, with badly designed bits of cardboard stuck on the lecterns, slightly frayed at the edges. It looks a bit like a computer game, a virtual set, with people keyed into the space.

Covid Messages (2020)

It’s great how themes sometimes emerge without having to invent them. Johnson makes these expressive hand gestures that are actually meaningless. When he started making these pronouncements, saying wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice, it was like a mysterious spell, an incantation. Why not choose a longer song you only have to sing once, and why Happy Birthday, when everyone’s dying? From the start, I thought it was a weird ritual. And then he started making speech errors, saying “contract tasting” instead of ‘contact tracing’ – a real Freudian slip considering how many tasty NHS contracts his government’s friends were picking up.

You’ve actually made well over 50 works in film and video during almost as many years, but the pandemic, and our government’s handling or mishandling of it, have spurred you into overdrive.

I’ve been less and less productive in recent years, but in 2020 I made a total of 40 mins, which is a lot for me. The work all comes out of my own experience, as it always has, but it was great to have a commission [for the Steirischer Herbst (Styrian Autumn) festival in Graz, Austria, for its 2020 Paranoia TV event] that made me finish Citadel for September.