Brexit really has brought out the worst in people. The rhetoric spewed by certain right-wing politicians has allowed blatant racism to ooze out of hiding, revealing a cesspit of empire-loving xenophobes that wouldn’t know what makes Britain “Great” if it smacked them in their bland food-loving faces. But with that rather enormous caveat, it’s also been an utterly fascinating time for people-watching. If you’re interested in the idea of ‘Britishness’, like artist Max Colson, the past three years have been a revelation. Via nostalgia for a Britain of the past (in many cases a fictional country that never really existed), there’s a tonne of insight into the values, fears and neuroses motivating us Brits.
It’s these idealised views of Britain that Max has mined for his latest short film The Green and Present Land. The film is a portrait of the British pastoral landscape created using 3D animation software as you watch. This Britain was shaped by verbatim comments Max found below the line of online articles about new housing being built in the countryside and YouTube videos that celebrate rural landscapes in Britain. Commissioned by Arebyte gallery and developed through a residency with support from Arts Council England, it was released to the public on the day we were due to leave the EU back in March.
“While it began as a film that was initially exploring what makes people so protective about the British countryside, it then spiralled into an investigation of the kinds of images and histories associated with Britain and British landscape that are available online,” Max tells It’s Nice That. There’s a cereal box family staring up at towering trees, couples in 18th century pastoral garb, military regalia and bayonets, a cart of stolen antiquities and so many beagles – all soundtracked to somewhat unnerving lift music.
Rather than present the outrageous xenophobia you often find spewing from human trash fires in the comments, Max opted for a more subtle approach. “I was more interested in the nuances of language that some people use to articulate their ideas of our country and its past. In particular, I was drawn to the use of euphemism and understatement, which I found more insidious than the other material I saw online. What was being hinting at in what I was reading?” For Max, the film-making process was about suggesting what was being communicated covertly through certain turns of phrase. Many sounds are innocuous at first but there’s xenophobia and classicism lurking underneath. “Pinpointing and lancing these utterances was part of the interest and challenge for me,” adds Max
The Green and Pleasant Land is a continuation of an animation technique Max developed in previous films, such as Construction Lines about a London billionaire’s subterranean extension to his mansion property. Both use off-the-shelf digital imagery from Google and 3D models. “Everything in the film was pre-fabricated already by other people and uploaded to the network. All of the components have just been rearranged by me in the film into to a new choreography. In this way, the film works on both a metaphorical level but is also a just literal demonstration of the kind of ‘Britain’ that comes out of such a limited and specific dataset. I’m very interested in making the artifice of digital imagery and the politics that lie beneath it more explicit,” says Max.
Whether Max thinks his post-Brexit Britain looks like a nice place for a picnic or a sanitised hellhole, he’s keen to keep to himself. But the film is a clear jab at a very specific type of Leave voter. “I think the reasons behind people voting to leave the EU are complex – too complex to be covered by this mode of film-making,” says Max. “Different segments of the Leave-voting contingent had different reasons for voting the way they did and I understand some of those reasons. But my film was a provocation to the subset of the Leave contingent who want Britain to somehow build or take inspiration from its previous historical, imperial conditions." The animator come director finally concludes, "It’s a provocative and satirical joust directed at some people’s rhetoric about what Britain should be.”