Saturday, 2 May 2009


For a thorough assessment of my research up until this moment, please see the blog dated 8th February entitled Time and Resolution: Experiments in High Definition Image Making, which outlines my work and current findings.

What follows are some notes for a proposal to celebrate through a series of screenings, Analogue Video and its transition into Digital Video during the late seventies, the eighties and the early 90’s. There are some video links in here but do let me know of other works online and I'll connect the dots...

I may have misremembered some facts and would welcome correction on anything I’ve said during these notes - also healthy disagreement. Meanwhile however, you are going to see some details that differ from the books on the subject that have been published since 1980. There are many incorrect ‘facts’ stated in most of the UK output in the area because they have been coloured by a revisionist thinking that this history sets out to redress. There are some simple untruths and incorrect things written such as in ‘A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain’ by David Curtis, where for instance my own 5 part series on UK and European Video Art is said to have been selected by myself and Sean Cubitt. Though Sean was interviewed by myself, he did not select any of the work. It was selected by Rod Stoneman and Triple Vision together.

The question then arises: ‘what else is incorrect in these histories’ and the further question arises concerning whether or not they leave out much of the ‘intent’ of the period under review and concentrate instead, on a history that fits a world view that was then dominant. For my money of course, the last question is its own answer. This history no longer needs to be as dominant as it was (and to some of us this history is destructive). As a documentarist as well as artist at the time, I found myself described in one book as a ‘sometimes psychedelic artist’. I directed some 20 hours of documentary, some of it very socially concerned at the time - perhaps I was moonlighting too. So much for documentary 'verite'.

Though the Seventies and Eighties many makers dealt with the question of ‘ubiquity’ that analogue video had presented them with by engaging with the television form. Following on from Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay these makers celebrated the fact that the aura of art could neither adhere to the original nor the replication of the original. If all were ubiquitous and re-produceable where could the aura of the art object lie? Therefore the strategy HD to be to adduce value in other areas - in the aesthetics of the work itself whilst the electricity was turned on. This was the earliest gesture toward the digital which itself has no material, only a set of processes to describe itself.

From the beginning makers decided to intervene in the dominant hegemony as represented to what people felt was the central value system of society: Television.

One of the earliest engagements was David Hall’s Television Interruptions in 1971.

Click here to see Television Interruptions.

For me these were the products of a film understanding and derived from an attitude evinced from the modernist project of truth to materials and remediated the new form in the shape of film and its working practices. Hall engages with the TV set in the sense that he occupies it with elements such as water. In one intervention he focusses on a tap dripping and eventually the TV set is filled with another medium. This is reminiscent of Viola’s more spiritual installation where a camera looks at the drip on the end of a tap as it forms - a buddhist statement of impermanence as the image is projected on a wall and the world comes into being and out of being periodically. The British material reading of the form at the time was more concerned with the material of the medium itself - in my opinion, a lesser study. Later taken up by conceptualists like Hirst and co with their evaporation out of art into concept. True, Viola had a material concern too - but over-ridden by the act of the artist concerned with our place in the world as opposed to the artist concerned with his or her materials.

The excitement these makers felt was limited as many film practitioners were bound by a love and loyalty to and of the material of film and therefore their excitement was derived from the fact that some of videos process were ‘improvements’ on the problems of film. With video you didn’t have to wait for development and printing; with video you could shoot for longer than a standard roll of 16 mm which lasted 10 minutes at most and 4 minutes if you used a Bolex 16 mm camera; with video you could erase what was unsatisfactory aesthetically and marvelously, re-record over that to make a new recording. But these virtues were not the aesthetics of the new medium, they were simply improvements over an old medium and therefore constituted a re-mediation of the new medium. The film-makers were busy re-inventing themselves in their own image.

What came next was a new generation of makers that were not bound by the aesthetics of the material of film or busy with an anti-establishment view on a material level. However they were intensely political and carried with them antiestablishment political views.

Prior to describing the history of what came between 1976 and 1992, the period where the exploration and investigation of a set of ideas that amounted to the birth of the digital age via aesthetic concerns it is important to situate what the author believes to be the actual condition of the digital realm as it currently stands. On element that can be identified about the digital is its dependence on electricity in some form. When the power is turned off, the digital ceases to exist. Another condition of the digital is its requirement that everything that enters its continuum is first encoded into some form of data. Also, the use of a term like ‘continuum’ identifies something about its state and its material condition - or rather its lack of a material condition.

If the digital is not a medium, or has no medium then one must describe it in other terms, that of process. Lev Manovich described this in ‘The Operations’ which are basically threefold in nature: to gather, to compose, to publish. One gathers on the net via software; one composes on a ‘site’ like on the computer via software; then one publish on the net via software. To extrapolate backwards into a prior art form such as sculpture, one conceives the work, chops the wood, sculpts the wood, display the wooden sculpture - now substitute any object of art and its materials. The is a description of various material mediums via the processes that describe their operations form inception into materiality. Loosely though, the project is the same: gather, compose, publish. The difference is the prior conception and origination of the work in the mind.

The process begun by Duchamp where he argued that the patron no longer should determine the nature of art by commission, but the artist should choose what the work should be. Magritte question notions of representation in a prior representational medium - ‘ceci n’est pas un pipe’ - the use of text under a picture of a pipe to demonstrate a loosening of pictorial form in relation to concept. Mid 20th century art recognised that one could begin with the material (or the process) such as with Jackson Pollocks' paintings and then eventually came Warhols' project, that of demonstrating that not only anything in our world is art if the artist so chooses, but all of us, artist or audience member should open our eyes to see with this understanding.

With Digitality we now transcend and end the conceptualists project. Hirsts final statement about form and value, the platinum skull, demonstrates the end of the material project and also the end of the artist as selector. An Absurdist gesture prior to the ubiquitous event of everyone as artist maker which is demonstrated daily on utube. But again, current digitality is simply in a moment of change toward what digitality will eventually become, so even these articulations and insights are remediated by what has gone before and do not fully describe what is truly happening. That will only come when time has revealed what the birth of digitality truly was.

Where we currently stand is as ‘flatlanders’, the Victorian 2 dimensional creature that when witnessing the passage of a sphere through their world, first see it as a point then an expanding circle which then contracts to a point. They have been in the presence of three dimensions but not understood its nature. Our state of understanding is remediated by the past, our historicisations are naturally via the hindsight of the last understood era, our theories are equally derived from what has past, so the perception of the present is veiled through the absence of a language that will develop. The mistake is in trying to label it through the medium of the victorian project which is about categorising and indexing each element into a separate part which of course is analytical and part of the enlightenment project which does not understand that we now have to develop theories that are underpinned by a gestalt approach, rather than an analytical approach.

The period of innovation beginning in 1972 with the first edit that was constituted of a re-recorded image transposed across portapaks as opposed to that which was executed by a razor blade and glued together with sticky tape, ended around 1992 - and the world wide web was on the horizon via the early patterns of encoding of the analogue and now digital video signal. With the advent of wavelet transforms as opposed to discrete cosign transforms (both originated by Jean Baptiste Fourier in the early 1800s) a transformative period occurred during the ’90’s generally referred to by the term ‘convergence’.

This period was he tail end of a paradigm which began with the descent from the trees of early anthropoids with their gesture towards standing upright as the essential use of technicity and other uses of technology eventuating in the use of tools or implements, the first being the use of flints the last being the use of the stand alone personal computer.

By 2000 the modernist project had been superseded by the digital project, which still leaves many people confused by what it actually is - mostly because they try to understand it via modernism and its bastard child, post-modernism, a rehash of the analytical imperative with the bells and whistles of a non-rigorous gung-ho attitude. But convergence was simply the antecedent of the integrative as opposed to convergent moment. The integrative is digital, is no longer concerned with tools and implements to affect the world - the world as we now know it is digital, is immaterial, is not concerned with tools because the whole world is both tool and arena of experience: the medium is completely the message and the message and the medium is the world.

Integrative technology is the height of technicity where technology is the ontological state of being of its inhabitants, where the stand alone computer and its predecessor the flint tool gives way to a complete 3 dimensional real time mapping of the world inside the grand computer, where the ideal state is continuously held and updated waiting for perturbations in its fabric, created by its inhabitants which it intelligently and virally reacts to. The world is truly the suitcase, the suitcase is truly the world.

To situate the series of screenings I’m proposing, it is now necessary to elucidate the history of analogue and digital video with reference to the state of digitality we find ourselves in. The screenings themselves are intended to lead towards the propositions I’ve made in a discussion format at the end of the run with prominent makers (that are still active) from the sector.

It is important to note that the first gesture towards digitality via the analogue was accomplished by Frank Zappa using 2 inch video to ‘film’ the feature, 200 motels, in 1972. Here, 2 inch quadraplex machines were taken on site to to the studio to facilitate the recording of the film in apparently portable mode. The cameras however were connected to the recording machines via cabling.

In 1972 Hall and Le Grice made their interventions which were undertaken by film makers who were excited by the specific aspects of the new medium that speeded up the slower processes of film had coalesced into London Video Arts - this kind of film remediation of video was to hang around long into the early history of video.

Other film makers took an oppositional position and remained engaged with the material of film and its timeline whilst their colleagues more deeply immersed themselves into a remediated position with the new video medium. The concerns of that group and that period were of the academy: a concern with aesthetics of time, space, location, gaze etc that had developed from the work of the futurists, Vorticists, Fauves and so on who were a product of the acts of socialism and marxism at the turn of the 20th century. The influence of Kuleshev, Vertov and of course Eisenstein could be witnessed daily at the film co-op in the early seventies as the project continued and the light burned brightly.

The first portapaks entered the UK around 1967 and were instantly celebrated by a group of creative people distinct from the film based experimental moving image community located at the Film Co-Op. These however were more interested in ‘the happening’ than ‘art’. Yet of course, there were others less bashful about calling random experiments with light and colour by the term art, as was seen in the symposium on Expanded Cinema in April 2009 at the Tate. Early portapak video was a playful form which morphed eventually into ‘Community Video’.

As the middle of the 70’s passed, the community video makers jumped from out of the back of their vans in the derelict housing estates, they cried, much the same as that of the workers on an Agit Prop train during the 1917 revolution in Bolshevik Russia ‘We have the means of production - workers, let the revolution begin’. As Tony Dowmunt of Albany Video noted some years later: ‘Not many people came out to join the revolution and if it were raining then we’d be howling into the wind and rain’.

This socially active work was more related in some ways to the aesthetics of the post marxist experiments at the film co-op due to the simple common fact of a desire to change the society that the makers found themselves in. However, instead of examining the medium in a structural way as the filmmakers of the 20’s and 30’s had done, the community video makers were pleased that they finally had the means of production and it somehow echoed their lives. Film had to be sent away - video stayed right where you put the portapak and played back when you pressed ‘play’. This was instant and instantly affecting - it was of the period of now - a time period made popular in the sixties.

On the other side of the city however, painterly and sculptural concerns and the aesthetics that governed the academy and their work as derived from film practice grew and was sponsored by the Arts Council and became early video art.

Throughout the next three or four years new makers were engaging with the educational system and the project as espoused by the arts council sponsored video artists was falling on deaf ears. Punk was beginning but not necessarily in moving image terms (that was to happen 5 or 6 years later). But the strength of passion against the old school academy system was breaking down attitudes towards what video was and how it should be used. An early group thoroughly engaged in the struggle was Vida, coined from Video, to see. Vida meant, ‘look at this’. An imperative cry. Vida cut their teeth on late film style experiments with colour and flashing and actually shooting some film before abandoning the older language and engaging in the documentary form. By 1980 Vida had given over 250 shows.

Nothing was sacred at that point and whilst working through the ‘veracity of documentary’ Antony Cooper a founding member of Vida declared that ‘the only thing documentary documents, is the attitude of the maker to their subject at the time of making’. Hence documentary itself was under suspicion as not being truthful.

Elsewhere many other experiments were going on via the work of West London Community Video, Moonshine Community Arts, Fantasy Factory and Oval Video. Their film equivalents were Four Corner FIlms, Concord Film and Video, Circles Film Distribution, and the Film Co-op.

So the landscape held a series of separate and sometimes antagonistic artistic and political communities, split by aesthetics and intent. But then, with the advent of basic computers in the latter part of the 70’s, the new medium of analogue video was instantly in transformation. Mores Law, that stipulated that there would be an exponential increase in capacity accompanied by an exponential decrease in size, was having its effect.

By 1981 a group of interested parties, including London Video Arts. the Berwick street film collective, Oval Video, the Film Co-op, gathered around London Video Arts and formulated the idea that video should have a festival and the First National Video Festival was held at the film co-op in 1981, the second was at the ICA in 1982 and a dwindling 3rd festival at South Hill Park in Bracknell.

The altercations between the two media were overcome when the Independent FIlm Association allowed Video into the hallowed film ranks and the association became the Independent FIlm and Video Association - mainly because the language of video spoke to the new CHannel 4 initiative and film production was struggling both aesthetically, materially and financially with television as a display and distribution medium. Film sought to engage the video makers as allies in the cause.

Vida, who had originated in 1977 were responding to the transformative phase between film and video, then transmogrified into Triple Vision by 1980. Documentary experiments were still ongoing but now accompanied by experiments in narrative and non-narrative work. Some of the members of Vida had joined a commercial company called Videomakers in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue and the owners turned a blind eye to the exploits of this small team who then made equipment available to video artists and documentarists alike and began engaging in changing industry working practices by employing camera women at a time when there were only a few professional sound women in the sector.

Many Video makers had circled around London Video Arts, Oval Community Video, Albany Video and also Triple Vision who were working within the Framework of the Soho based company called Video Makers who worked in both the commercial realm and the arts realm. Videomakers distinguished themselves by engaging camera women and began to break down traditional working practices directly in the belly of the beast. Equally Videomakers allowed artists to come and use their equipment such as George Barber, George Snow and Gorilla Tapes. The Duvet Brothers were working at Diverse Productions at that time. Founded by Peter Donnebauer who had eschewed the cause of the Academy and its form of sculptural and painterly arts practice for the commercial realm. However, Rik Lander as part of the Duvet Brothers was given access after his working day to high level editing equipment, which allowed him and Peter Boyd McLean to creative distinctive forms of editing only glanced upon by traditional avant guarde film making. On his return form Australia, Jon Dovey who had worked with Oval Video brought back the australian fast cut form, a kind of montage of attractions on methedrine, which created a great furore at London’s Cinema Action when shown to a traditional film making audience. This was an avant garde of the electric cinema - not photo chemical cinema. The name of this form of editing was derived from black music experiments: “scratch Video’ named after working with playing vinyl records in a scratch style.

Whilst with Triple Vision I unconsciously utilised the form in a work which documented the arrival of Apple’s Macintosh through being the video crew (with Anthony Coper) for Apple on Ridley Scott’s famous commercial. I had previously worked with Jon Dovey on a Ridley Scott Commercial for British Airways. I then ‘stole’ the footage I shot, which I then used as ‘found footage’ and then scratched this into “Prisoners’. The act of scratching came about as I had edited this footage for about 6 or 9 monthds and I wasalways unhappy with the end result. It worked fine - but not potently enough. One night, about 3 oclock I became angry and cut the girl hurling the hammer into the television screen against the skinheads racist talk... I came out of my act and realised that this was how to cut the whole work. It’s not generally included in scratch anthologies because it is intensely serious and scratch had a humorous bent to it. C’est las Guerre.

Click here to see Prisoners.

Meanwhile due to the advent of Channel 4 and the appointment of Alan Fountain with Caroline Spry and Rod Stoneman then funded the workshop sector, which was primarily film based but struggling with the budgets, the sector was engaging in trying to break down traditional aesthetics, but being mostly film oriented and having to use video, the struggle became confused because it was primarily motivated by budgetary concerns. Nevertheless some amazing video works came out of the cracks of the period. Isaac Julien’s ‘Who Killed Colin Roach’ for instance.

I and the other members of Triple Vision then left Video Makers and due to Channel 4 funding managed to operate in a television company form until 1992. This was a fertile period as television documentaries on various subjects were produced but long-form narratives such as Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Bad Sister (1986) were also made completely on Video as opposed to film - as an artistic statement and exploration of that mediums suitability in the act of suspension of disbelief - or its absence due o the effects of the medium. Birmingham Film and Video Workshop made Out of Order in 1987 for £500,000 - an unheard of amount in the sector for a video production up until that point. It was also one of the first ‘films’ produced worldwide on video and then transferred at Moving Pictures to 35 mm for theatrical release.

And where may you ask was the representation of the ‘dominant artistic video’ form backed by the Arts Council ? Absolutely nowhere. Abroad many of us met up at festivals and our work, the work that was not celebrated in the UK by the Arts Council, was being celebrated everywhere but in the UK. Only amongst the film/video coterie that was in its Ivory Tower was there any sense that that was where the work was happening. We made many connections abroad, set up projects involving 18 groups through ten countries (the State of Europe which connected RTE, TRBF, Channel 4 and ZDF), had retrospectives at places like the Mill Valley FIlm Festival in California (Coppola and Lucas had just moved up there and set up a festival). I found muself one day outside of a screening three people who were musing on the change from film to video. As I listened it dawned on me that they were the directors of the three films that were screeing and they were smoking and talking nervously. They were called Jean, Jim and David. After a while I reslised that whilst they kidded me about my interest in video, they were actually Jean Jacques Bienix (Diva) Jim Jarmusch (Down By Law) and David Drummond (Defense of the Realm). I had a cigarette and proceeded to go back into the screning and realised the little funhny bloke next to me was the star of Down by Law, Roberto Begnini.

Meanwhile, a branch of the academy, barely recognised but too powerful for the academy to ignore, was publishing the American revolution in the form of John Wyver’s Illuminations Ghosts in the Machine commissioned by Channel 4’s arts commissioning editor Michael Kustow. However, this was not the English Academy, this was the vital, fast, speeding video that video audiences as far back as the Air and Acme Gallery shows held in 1980 were used to. The Americans had access to hardware and the British had a less well-endowed access. Chris Meigh Andrews, Alex Meigh, Dave Critchley and myself had organised a series of shows where the early works of Gary Hill and Bill Viola, John Sanborn and Kit Fitzgerald could be seen. Equally shows of the work of LVA were being seen in the US by exchange. I always had a principle to not put my own work in these shows seeing that as a corrupt act. Doh!

By 1984 the Americans had matured and Ghosts in the Machine was an 8 part series of mainly American Video Art. Countering this Triple Vision had been commissioned by Rod Stoneman and Alan Fountain at Channel 4 to make a series about UK video art entitled ‘On Video’. This was originally to be done by Luton 33 but somehow it hadn’t happened, so we received the phone call to come in and talk about it.

Click here to see On Video 1.

Click here to see On Video 2

Click here to see On Video 3 (90 mins)

Click here to see On Video 4: TV or not TV

Click here to see On Video 5: Statement of the Art

Two sixty minute programmes and one 90 minute programme were initially made and in contradistinction to Ghosts in the Machine, interviews filled the silence between video art works. The difference was context. Many artists work was shown including Jeremy Welsh, Cerith Wyn Evans and John Maybury.

Eventually by 1987 Channel 4 commissioned two more 90 minute programmes, ‘TV or not TV’ which was ‘On Video 4’ and ‘Statement of the Art’ which was in fact ‘On Video 5’ which also interviewed and showed the work of European Makers such as Dalibor Martinez and Robert Cahen and his excellent and ground breaking Just le Temps which rivaled anything Viola or Hill was doing with the aesthetics of Video.

At that time too, there was another television investigation which I directed in association with John Wyver called ‘In The Belly of the Beast’, which used Video Positive in Liverpool as a platform to discuss where video might be going. Ths programme was commissioned by Zanna Northen at Granada.

Click here to see 'In The Belly of the Beast'

By 1987 I had developed a good relationship with Complete Video (a high level commercial house) at a moment when digital media became available. I gained access to some of the worlds most advanced digital equipment and this allowed me to investigate the coming digital realm with works such as ‘The World Within Us’ and later when I became Artist in Residence with them, The Inevitability of Colour (CH4 and ACE) which went on to be premiered at the Bonn Bienalle and win some international awards (Montbeliard and Locarno) - ironically I had directed Channel 4’s On Video series and The World Within Us was commissioned by John Wyver’s, Illuminations for Series 2 of Ghosts of the Machine. Meanwhile Invisible Television had been made by Gorilla Tapes (or Vulture Video depending on what they felt that month), and shown on Channel 4.

Click here to see The World Within Us
Click here to see The Inevitability of Colour

There is much more to say, many details to add but from the earliest experiments by Fantasy Factory and CAT, Albany Video, West London Community Video, Oval Video, Vida, Gorilla Tapes, the Duvet Brothers and Triple Vision, an aesthetic of production grew that was distinct from the academy and film based understandings of early video artists who’s concerns were those traditionally evinced in painting and sculpture. Again, there is much to add and as this is intended to be inclusive of what happened I welcome anyone emailing me to add to this history - or challenge it.

It is my contention that the excitement and aesthetics and material experiments of this time were the seedlings of the digital. We were passing across a boundary. Through my relationship with Complete video I made the Object of Desire which was a multi-layered version of Inevitability of Colour - this was deeply digital in its concepts and constructs and aesthetic. The Americans were generating works that were slight and lightweight with an aesthetic traceable to disney on a lot of levels. They were direct and obvious - the UK works were of a culture that had been around for a long time and one not prepared to be so simplistic about artistic and aesthetic concerns and therefore not so grabbing in their visual form - yet, in relation to time passed they stand up more strongly than the American works, which have of course grabbed the historical record. On that basis it makes sense to organise screenings of the named works of the timer against what was going on in the UK to give context and allow the audience to reflect on just how good the British makers were, who have been forgotten or written out from history.

These early investigations were indicative of what was to become digitial media and embodied concepts that were in contradistinction to the modernist project of truth to materials and a growing dependence on the concept as being as important as the material.

The screenings could run for three weeks and the first block could be the Channel 4 On Video series, 1, 2 (both 60 mins) and 3 (90 mins) and also On Video 4, ‘ TV or not TV’ and on Video 5, ‘Statement of the Art’ and a series of discussions with contemporary curators and artists. Screenings could be in the evenings, but also with agreement with various colleges during the daytime.

For the second week of screenings I propose to invite the group that chose the work for the 1st National Independent Video Festival in 1981 to select work from the ’80’s, plus have a series of discussions with artists who were active at the time the works were made.

The last 5 screenings could be in the form of showing a well known international work from a particular year that may for instance have originated in the United States - say the Vasulkas The Art of Memory - and then it could be accompanied by several works that originated in the UK and Europe. The point being that the US artists had a full blown push from their own culture on why the work should be seen as world quality work - the British however had none of this due to the reasons mentioned above, yet I will seek to demonstrate that the UK works are at least, as good as, if not better than the work that obtained the publicity. The screenings could be accompanied by discussions with artists of the time and contemporary artists and curators.

A possible fourth week of screenings could seek to demonstrate the nature of the digital via the works that have been made since 1992 - these works will be selected by a group formed of those active making work and curating during this period.