“Questions of synergy” – Notes On The Shifting Context Of Artists’ Film And Video.

Recent Notable Events

– Last week Irit Batsry won the coveted Whitney Biennial prize of $100,000 for her piece ‘These are Not My Images’. In many ways this marks the final integration of video art if not experimental film traditions into the visual arts. It’s importance should not be underplayed for it signals not only the acceptance of a personal, poetic and highly experimental practice as valuable in the visual arts but also its expression in the moving image.

– Last year Isaac Julien was shortlisted for the Turner prize – the fact that a renowned film-maker who has worked across many film disciplines, shorts, documentary and feature length fiction is now to be found successful in the gallery world also seems to close the loop between film, video and the visual arts. It is a testament not just to his talent and timely shift into visual arts but also to the incredible pull the gallery environment has had on film and video makers over the last 10 years.

– This week two one person retrospectives of artists working in the moving image have opened in two of the largest galleries in the country. Sam Taylor Wood’s show opened at the Hayward Gallery and Eija-Liisa Ahtila at the Tate Modern. Taylor Wood, one of the more successful artists coming out of theYBA movement works strictly in video and photography, Ahtila’s works is even closer to cinema at it engages with narrative and fiction. Without passing judgement on these works, it is rare that such young artists get full retrospective in such large populist Galleries and Museums……Furthermore they are both working in film and video!

– Next week the Tate Modern is hosting a week long retrospective with screenings, a symposium and exhibitions called: ‘Shoot, Shoot, Shoot’ of the work from 1966 to 1976 of structural film-makers mainly based at the London Film-makers Co-operative. Much of the drive for this exhibition has come from the curator and band member ofthe pop group “Pulp” Mark Webber. Such an interest in this difficult work by an institution which previously refused to collect experimental film and video art because it was “reproducible” is another significant sign of change.

The Problem of Context

The Gallery: From small ghettoised practices within the fringes of opposition cinema, artists film and video is now mainstream in the visual arts. The market share of these practices has substantially increased over the last decade. International museums, galleries, agencies and arts organisations have all successfully embraced artists film and video. The Tate Modern, the Whitney, MOMA, Beaubourg and a host of private galleries have given artists film and video prominence and value. In that process we have seen the commodification of the work through the sale of limited copies and the ironic situation for a medium of reproduction that the less a work is seen the more it is worth.

Cinema and TV: Artists film and video’s relationship with cinema as a language and an institution is in proportional decline with its rise in the arts. While film and video is being commodified as a saleable artefact in the gallery it has suffered extensively from the decline of cultural television and film. Nevertheless, the context of cinema in relation to artists work is one which offers some potential particularly in view of a new lightweight ‘Digital Cinema’. A cinema which follows the traditions of Personal Cinema but which takes on the advantage of digital production and on-line distribution. Digital cinema, on-line film is situated at an increasingly exciting meeting point between moving image and network technology cultures which should provide not only increased opportunities for creation but new forms of dissemination.

Digital Media Environment: The context of digital media is one which is currently in fusion, an unstable environment where technology and language are intertwined. The digitisation of culture is amatter of fact but the development of a digital practice is still emerging and its ability to provide a new context for artists work is still in development.

In the UK there was….

In the 60’s the film-makers Co-ops and other collectives had Anarcho-Marxist agendas which made them powerful cultural hothouses. These film-makers considered the gallery market as a simply corrupt capitalist environment akin to Hollywood. There was a desire to create a separate self contained other space where production, distribution and exhibition could take place.

In the 70’s many film-makers then entered the education systems and academic worlds where they preached their form of interventionist experimental practice backed up by ruthless theoretical models. At that time the visibility and credibility of experimental films was found more in the academic journals such as Screen than on the silver screen.

In the 80’s television became a new possibility, it hadsome credibility and money but its overwhelming reductive context soon put artists off. Although this strategy did provide a boost to experimental film and video art the demise of C4 remit towards independent practice soon ended the promise of TV as a cultural venue. Furthermore it just isn’t really exciting or personally rewarding to show on TV. I was in bed before my work was broadcast at 1 am on C4.

In the 90’s with the rise of YBA’s and exhibitions such as Spellbound: Film and Art at the Hayward Gallery, Pandaemonium at the ICA the links between art and film were back on the agenda. When we set up Pandaemonium it was to be ‘Where Art And Film Collide’. The work that was shown in two distinct sections – single screen in the cinema and commissioned exhibitions in the gallery. Traditionalist film and video artists showed work in the cinema and younger artists where working with installation. The aim was to bring these two worlds together but the event revealed agreat gulf between these two groups.


Questions are arising today, now that film and video have been integrated into the gallery market about the future of what was a distinct practice – that of experimental film and video art. Although it has been more than a decade since those practices lost their specificity (particularly in the UK where new hybrid forms of film and video developed early), the benefit of the white cube seems to be at the expense of the black box. Whether artists or film-makers worry about all these issues is questionable but there is no doubt that critics, curators, funders, festivals, distributors and institutions are faced with difficult questions around context, culture, market and practice.

The attempt to provide a third space was one of the central aims of the Lux. With a flexible cinema and gallery it provided a bridge between these two worlds yet it was a constant struggle to mediate a dialogue. Even today when so many film and video artists are working in galleries there exist a very different culture and tense relationships between the visual arts and artists film and video.

Furthermore is the notion of a third space outside of the cultural and physical confines of the gallery and cinema possible? Would it not end up outside of language and commerce as have many of the utopian collective projects of 60’s and 70’s. Could there be an eventual dialogue and synergy between the worlds of art and film, the gallery and cinema which would offer both the open environment of the gallery and the spectacle of Cinema ?

Inside or Outside of Language ?

Since the invention of cinema artists had worked with film, Duchamps, Man Ray, Buńuel, Dali, Warhol…the list is endless. Early video art was born in the gallery, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, David Hall, Joan Jonas made works which blended performance, installation and video in a gallery environment. Looking at the situation in reverse angle may be more fruitful. Why did experimental film and much video art place itself (in the 70’s and 80’s) outside of the visual arts and in direct opposition to what it perceived as dominant cinema and television. Motivated by a fertile mix of utopia and Marxist politics it was thought that an alternative culture could be developed. Today, politics are dead and the wheel has turned full circle. Artists have moved back to the traditional space which will give them recognition and money – the White Cube. The inevitable issues with such a move have yet to manifest themselves fully.

In parallel the alternative festival circuit which developed over the last 30 years aimed to represent and celebrate experimental film, video and media art. This circuit was also born out of this desire for otherness. Partly out of the vacuum created by a political and cultural position which opposed the existing dominant spaces for production and exhibition. This project was also embodied by organisations such as the New York and London Film-makers Co-op, Electronic Arts Intermix, London Video Arts, The Lux and a host of alternative festivals and distributors in Europe. While these environments provided and continue to provide safe haven’s for experimental film and video art, few mediate with the outside world of commerce and language. This condition of separation from the financial reality of the social order often lead to artists working in education or unrelated activities to support their art. As Bjřrn Melhus says ‘..this kind of self exploitation sooner or later led to stagnation or to giving up on artistic work altogether..’

The Artist

Many artists today have no scruples as to the environment their work is shown in as long as they can have control over its presentation. They produce moving images using a variety of technologies and configure them for the various contexts which are available. Working with digital video this is easily done as there exists no final version of the work only the last saved edit file. Aside from the intentions of the artists the work has to live within a space. In the case of art practice in the moving image it currently exists in a diversity of contexts: the visual arts, cinema, TV and the internet. This effectively means that artists must work across contexts.

Yet with the rise of the White Cube we are now faced not with pluralism but with a new hegemony: The tyranny of the Curator. In the UK much of the power in art is in the hands of curators. Many are uninformed of the history of artists film and video art, others are catching up. Many claim to make ‘discoveries’ of works that some working 20 years in the sector consider the most obvious. But for the artist, is there really an option between being broke, pure and marginalised or paid, compromised and recognised?

Pluralism or Tyranny?

Opposing the White Cube to the Black Box is not necessarily helpful in solving questions of artistic practice. Artists have always been adaptable and interventionist in their approach to the world. The economic and market values which drive both these practices are indeed opposite – one creates an object, the other an event. Yet they are intrinsically linked by the experience of the viewer. Maybe the future lies in synthesis as more and more of language becomes image based, there will not be two options to choose from but a multitude of delivery systems for artists. While the massive rise in gallery based moving image work is notable so are the new possibilities of distribution offered by DVD, the internet and new media technologies. These possibilities are real, yet institutions, commerce and language can limit their development. In the end, it may be the economic and cultural context which gives currency to art and not the work itself.

April 2002

Michael Mazière is an artist and film-maker currently Research Fellow at Central St Martins School of Art.

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