John Smith

Hotel Diaries


Not on display

John Smith born 1952
Video, projection or 7 monitors, colour and sound
Duration: 82min
Presented anonymously 2010


Hotel Diaries 2001–7 is a colour film with sound, comprised of seven individual films made over six years in the hotels of six different countries by the British artist and filmmaker John Smith. The series of video recordings take the form of a ‘video diary’, relating everything from Smith’s personal experiences to conflicts in the Middle East.

Each section of Hotel Diaries plays on chance and coincidence, using the hotel rooms in which Smith stayed as a kind of found film set. The rooms and contents provide triggers for Smith’s narratives, often relating the personal circumstances of the artist’s trip to major world events. For instance Smith has described the impetus for the first film originating from a random, uncanny event in a hotel in Ireland.

On October 8th 2001, a few weeks after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center and two days after the USA and Britain started bombing Afghanistan, I was at the Cork Film Festival in Ireland. Returning to my hotel room late at night, I switched on the television, intending to catch up on the latest news. Expecting to see a moving image, I was surprised to discover that the close-up of a man’s face that filled the screen was completely still, frozen in time. I watched the screen for several minutes but nothing changed, and the clock in the corner of the screen remained stopped at 1.41. What was happening? Why wasn’t the image moving? Worried and confused, I picked up my video camera and attempted to talk about what was going on inside my head.
(John Smith, ‘Hotel Diaries’,, accessed 25 February 2016.)

The first episode includes a shot of the static television screen and is titled Frozen War. The subsequent sections are: Museum Piece 2004, filmed in Germany; Throwing Stones 2004, filmed in Switzerland; B & B 2005, filmed in England; Pyramid / Skunk 2006–7 filmed in the Netherlands; Dirty Pictures 2007, filmed in Palestine; and Six Years Later 2007, also filmed in Ireland. Each one consists of a series of single takes, shot on Smith’s camcorder as he explores the non-spaces of the hotels, while delivering monologues to camera on his thoughts and observations.

These commentaries on the mundane surroundings Smith found himself in as he travelled around the world to different film festivals between 2001 and 2008 ¿– during the West’s so-called ‘war on terror’ ¿– escalate to reflections, not just on the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, but also on the plight of Palestine. Smith brings together the personal and the political through the form of the film. The apparent spontaneity of the video diary, as well as the lack of editing, suggests that events and the artist’s thoughts are unfolding in real time, documenting the state of affairs at a particular moment. The critic Ian Christie has described Hotel Diaries as adopting the form of the ‘nocturne’ rather than the ‘diary’. However, he has also suggested that:

Smith, I’m sure, would have no qualms about his film being regarded as propaganda on behalf of the Palestinians. But it’s also propaganda on behalf of film as a vital way of connecting with the world. A dirty lens matters to a filmmaker, as it should, while a wall of ‘separation’ built to encircle a captive people should matter to the world.
(Christie 2009, accessed 25 February 2016.)

Smith studied at the Royal College of Art, London, in the early 1970s. Since that time his work with film has transgressed the boundaries between documentary and fiction, representation and abstraction. His work The Girl Chewing Gum 1976 is also in the Tate collection (Tate T13237).

Further reading
Mark Cosgrove and Josephine Lanyon (eds.), John Smith Film and Video Works 1972–2002, exhibition catalogue, Watershed Media Centre, Bristol 2002.
Ian Christie, ‘John Smith’, Vertigo, vol.4, no.3, Summer 2009,, accessed 25 February 2016.
Martin Herbert, ‘John Smith’, Frieze, no.132, June–August 2010,, accessed 25 February 2016.

Andrew Wilson
January 2010

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