Luke Fowler

What You See Is Where You’re At


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Not on display

Luke Fowler born 1978
Video, projection, black and white and colour, and sound (stereo)
Duration: 24min, 40sec
Purchased with funds provided by the Charities Advisory Trust 2011


Luke Fowler’s film What You See Is Where You’re At focuses on an experimental community of patients with mental health problems that was founded in 1965 at Kingsley Hall in Bow, East London, by the pioneering Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing. The treatment offered to patients at Kingsley Hall was unorthodox in comparison to other institutions: they were given an unprecedented level of autonomy and were encouraged to explore their mental states, and to overcome their problems without the use of drugs or physical restraints. The film combines archival footage shot in Super 8, 16 mm and digital video with still photographs and video recorded by the artist. These fragments are presented in the form of a visual and aural collage that has no clear narrative. The film opens with a close-up of Laing’s face as he responds to an objection from the audience during a conference, followed by scenes featuring archival footage of interviews with inmates at Kingsley Hall, audio narrative describing case studies of patients, archival photographs, conversations among doctors negotiating the degree of intervention regarding, for example, the administration of tranquillisers, and scenes showing residents in discussion with psychiatrists. Throughout the film, shots of the interior of Kingsley Hall and scenes showing the activities and speech of the patients and psychiatrists are abruptly intercut or dissolve into one another. The final part of the film focuses on the mathematician and Kingsley Hall resident David Bell, specifically the texts and slogans that he wrote on or attached to the institution’s walls that compare the Kingsley Hall experiment and its community with the practice of what Bell terms ‘proper communism’. The film ends with one of the residents at Kingsley Hall ‘removing a window, climbing out and then sealing it back as if that was the only means of exit’ (Laura Cumming, ‘Now, let’s try a little experiment’, Observer, 10 May 2009,, accessed 15 November 2014).

The film was made by the Scottish artist Luke Fowler in London in 2001. As part of his research for the film Fowler interviewed a number of people who had worked with Laing at Kingsley Hall. These included the therapist Dr Leon Redler, who supplied Fowler with archival material relating to Kingsley Hall. Fowler was also given archival footage by a friend who worked at the BBC and by a producer who had made a documentary on the subject of Kingsley Hall. According to Fowler:

It was when I put these materials together that I became interested in the ruptures in these different modes of information. One of them was a DIY archive that was made by the patients and residents of Kingsley Hall with no structure or pretenses to being broadcast. Then there was my own filming, which had a purpose, and this television footage, which had a purpose. Seeing this stark contrast, I recognized the ideological differences between the materials. This got me interested in making films that in some way criticized the prevailing norms of how documentary film is structured.
(Quoted in Maerkle 2013, accessed 9 September 2014.)

What You See Is Where You’re At is the first of several video works made by Fowler that relate to Laing and Kingsley Hall. In 2007 he produced a film in collaboration with Redler called Bogman Palmjaguar, which was made using entirely new footage. His installation The Nine Monads of David Bell 2006–7 focuses on Bell, the Kingsley Hall resident who is featured heavily towards the end of What You See Is Where You’re At. Several other works – specifically The Way Out 2003, Pilgrimage from Scattered Points 2006 and All Divided Selves 2011 – also make reference to Laing. In an interview in 2000, Fowler said of his interest in Laing: ‘First and foremost I was drawn to [Laing’s] experiment [at Kingsley Hall] because of personal circumstance, i.e., my own experiences of contemporary psychiatry … disillusion with the way in which my father was treated by the system, and an overall healthy, cynical attitude towards institutions’ (quoted in Serpentine Gallery 2009, p.34). As the curator Will Bradley has observed, Fowler also seems to have been interested in ‘the social radicalism of Kingsley Hall’, which was evident in the psychiatrists’ interest in exploring rather than simply curing their patients’ conditions (Will Bradley, ‘Implicit in this Attitude is a Belief in Freedom?’, in Serpentine Gallery 2009, p.21).

Fowler’s work can be compared to that of Johan Grimonprez and Walid Raad, who also began making films in the 1990s and early 2000s and who have focused on critically exploring the genre of documentary film. Fowler has stated that his own ‘research-based’ approach to filmmaking could be seen as ‘a rejection of the [then] dominant strands in video art: performance-to-camera works and those looping grand spectacles’ (quoted in Serpentine Gallery 2009, pp.27–8). However, Fowler has acknowledged the influence of a wide range of earlier cinematic genres and sources on his work, including the Free Cinema movement of the 1950s, the work of British structuralist filmmakers during the 1970s, and the documentary films of Lindsay Anderson (1923–1994) (see Will Bradley, ‘Implicit in this Attitude is a Belief in Freedom?’, in Serpentine Gallery 2009, p.22).

Further reading
Luke Fowler, ‘An Interview with Leon Redler’, December 1999,, accessed 9 September 2014.
Julia Peyton-Jones, Beatrix Ruf and Hans Ulrich Obrist (eds.), Luke Fowler, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 2009, pp.21, 28, 34, reproduced pp.35–7.
Andrew Maerkle, ‘Leader as Gutter’, Art iT, 2013,, accessed 9 September 2014.

Natasha Adamou
June 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

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