lux

The Borders of Moving Image History (Or, Post-Brexit Research Blues)
by Colin Perry

This year has witnessed the anniversaries of venerable British institutions, from the cult of Shakespeare (four-hundred years old) to punk (forty years old), as well as the London Filmmakers’ Co-op (fifty years old) and London Video Arts (forty years old). Each of these is being met with celebrations, exhibitions, conferences and publications. Most crassly, at a recent exhibition at the British Library celebrating punk’s anniversary, the anarchic energy of the era was eulogised as a quintessentially British phenomenon, its sacralised, soiled flags repurposed for bellicose museology. It was the very illustration of the Futurists’ metaphor of the museum-as-mausoleum: radical culture, reified. There was even a ‘Punk Pop Up Shop’, a commercial venture only outdone by MacDonald’s, whose latest advertising campaigns feature Buzzcocks theme tune. I reflect on these cultural landmarks at a time of exceptional jingoism, of Brexit and all its social and political toxicity. The question arises of how we should record these particular and local histories without slipping into bigotry and false pride.

Despite decades of postcolonial studies, the nation remains a defiant category in academia, art discourse and cultural institutions. There is a strong current that emphasises the radicality of nation-specific art: the militant cinema of 1968 in France, or the Marxist underpinnings of the counter-cinema. This year, the LUX centre for artists’ moving image has assembled a yearlong series of film screenings and talks commemorating the history of the LFMC, while the Moving Image Review and Art Journal (MIRAJ) is currently producing a special issue on British moving image histories. The motivations here are not nationalistic; instead the impetus is one of recuperation, saving lost histories of British art before they are forgotten. These celebrations have built on an impressive body of research since the millennium, which has made available histories of British video art and independent film from the 1960s to the 1990s – including those by David Curtis, Margaret Dickinson, Jackie Hatfield, Julia Knight and Peter Thomas, AL Rees, as well as the Dundee-based REWIND project.[1] These histories, told by participants in those scenes, are now being re-examined, with younger researchers rethinking the truisms and complexities of the past (this, indeed, is what we hope to get out of the next issue of MIRAJ).

Such research should also be understood as a response to the wider context of the Anglophone literature on artists’ moving image, particularly that emanating from the USA. The counter-canon of British moving image outlined above is at least partly the result of a sense of anxiety within this broader transnational context. American video artists have been well served by the commercial sector, with plump monographs on everyone from Vito Acconci to Dara Birnbaum, Carolee Schneemann and William Wegman dominating art gallery bookshops. Meanwhile, US experimental film has its own canons, which are actively kept alive through publishing (the key writing of P. Adams Sitney has never gone out of print). By contrast those volumes on early British artists’ film (such as the US expatriate Stephen Dwoskin’s Film Is…) languish in the stacks out of print. The past decade or so of academic research in the UK on legacies of the LFMC and LVA is, therefore, a struggle of visibility within this global Anglophone context. Britain has now, I think, nearly reached parity with the US on the bookshelves.

This anxious relation to dominant nations has, in fact, always played an important role in narratives of artists’ moving image – despite the clear international origins of a great deal of independent film and video, and the internationalism of artists in general. Peter Gidal, the US-born filmmaker, was assertive about the differences between his version of structural film primarily in England and that of Sitney in the USA.[2] The Video Show at the Serpentine in 1975, which is generally cited as a vital moment in the early history of video art in the UK, was conceived of as an exhibition and festival for encouraging British video art. David Hall, an artist who had exhibited internationally, was in favour of exhibiting British work, and further ‘foreign’ work was admitted into the exhibition primarily because of the limited amount of UK material available at that time.[3] This division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ was even evident in the exhibition catalogue, which was colour coded: white pages for British artists, blue for ‘foreign’ ones.

Another key factor is the state sponsorship and funding of exhibitions and institutions. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, artists established national organisations, including the Independent Filmmaker’s Association (IFA), in order to appeal for funding from state bodies. The IFA sought funding from the British Film Institute and Arts Council, frequently pointing out how much money the French and Germany governments gave to their respective national film industries. The tendency for British moving image practices to define themselves against the yardstick of their neighbours was quite literally in the hothouse of London’s Soho. For a time, three groups – London Video Arts (LVA), the IFA and the Other Cinema – all shared a building in Soho. Yet each institution was also in competition with one another for funds and ideologically: the LVA was definitely not a cinematic institution, and video art was assertively not oriented to discourses of the cinema. For Stuart Marshall, by the mid-1980s, video was ‘independent’ and was defiantly not-art. Like independent cinema, such a video practice was state-dependent, and therefore in competition for a limited pot of funds.

The apparent paradox here is that by defining oneself against others, you inadvertently admit to their influence. As Benedict Anderson makes clear in his analysis of ‘imagined communities’, the idea of the nation state only really makes sense as a unit of semiotic difference: for example, the meaning of Britain being guaranteed partly by its being not-France, and Canada by its being not-USA, and so-on.[4] Clearly, modern intellectual and artistic cultures are also transnational in a more positive sense. Video art was a cross-border phenomenon, an interconnected public discourse that threaded through the USA, Canada, Europe, Japan and South Korea in a spirit of sharing and discovery. Video artists from Britain and around the world exhibited in Italy (David Hall had a residency at Galleria del Cavellino, Venice), in Germany, the USA and Canada (Stuart Marshall exhibited at Documenta in Kassel, the Kitchen in New York, and Video ’84 in Vancouver). Yet transnationalism also reinforces borders: think of the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale, for example. These global currents and ideals clash and rub up against conceptions of national difference, producing complex, unresolvable, historical narratives.

There are personal reasons that I am reflecting on these historical complexities at this particular moment. I am writing this text under the shadow of Brexit, while at the same time finishing a PhD on the history of independent film and video art in Britain in relation to television. My fury and despondency about Brexit, shared with so many others, has also made me uncertain about the PhD research. Have I fallen into a trap, a pit of nostalgic sentimentalism for a resistant, oppositional British culture? Evidently, the limits of nationalistic discourse are not merely girded by fear of immigrants, nostalgia for empire, and blind socioeconomic disenfranchisement. The issue of the nation is also very much present in the processes by which oppositional groups define themselves within nation-based media ecologies, funding patterns, and in transnational systems of art exhibition. Is there an unsavoury pride in clarifying the specific ‘British’ qualities of video or film at this time? Or is there a way to think of the art produced within the unit of the nation-state that is more nuanced, at once global and local?

I think that there is. Localised art histories have a role to play in recognising specific differences while also negotiating global contexts. They may, for example, act as a counterbalance to crass globalised arts discourses that assume that a borderless world is inherently a desirable object (as Slavoj Žižek paraphrases Lenin: ‘Freedom yes, but for WHOM? To do WHAT?’).[5] Terms such as ‘migratory aesthetics’ or the ‘post-internet’ are positive terms for the jet-setting classes, but their virtues are less obvious to the disenfranchised working classes, or to forced migrants fleeing their homelands. This is not an excuse for writing isolationist cultural histories, but for a closer attention to the forces at play within and between nations. With Brexit, we are currently witnessing the return of the repressed: the nation, in all its ideological ugliness and complexities. Histories of the moving image must contend with the ways in which nations continue to coalesce as both real and imaginary formations, offering thoughtful ways of connecting local and transnational cultures.

[1] See: Cubitt, S. & Partridge, S. (2012) REWIND British Artists’ Video in the 1970s & 1980s. Eastleigh: John Libbey.; Rees, A. L. (2011) A History of Experimental Film and Video. London: BFI.; Knight, J. & Thomas, P. (2011) Reaching Audiences: Distribution and Promotion of Alternative Moving Image. Bristol: Intellect Books.; Curtis, D. (2006) A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain, 1897-2004. London: BFI.; Hatfield, J. (ed.) (2006) Experimental Film and Video: An Anthology. Eastleigh: John Libbey.; Dickinson, M. (1999) Rogue Reels: Oppositional Film in Britain 1945-90. London: BFI Publishing.
[2] See: Gidal, P. (1976) ‘Theory and Introduction to Structural Film’ in Structural Film Anthology. London: BFI.
[3] See the notes on this exhibition available on the REWIND website: http://www.rewind.ac.uk/documents/The%20Video%20Show%201975/VS001.pdf
[4] See: Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised edition. London: Verso Books.
[5] See: Žižek, S. (2001) ‘The Leninist Freedom’ in On Belief. London: Routledge. p.114. Available online: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ot/zizek.htm

Colin Perry is a writer and researcher based in London, UK. His PhD research at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, focuses on experimental documentary film and video in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. Since 2006, he has contributed features, reviews and artists’ profiles to journals and magazines including Afterall, Art Monthly, Frieze, ArtReview and Art in America. He is the reviews editor for the Moving Image Review & Art Journal (MIRAJ).