DOWN AMONG THE PIXELS
by Anna Ridley
Independent Producer, Annalogue Productions Ltd.
The inauguration of Stephen Partridge as Professor of Media Art is a significant moment. Not only has he been recognised as a seminal artist and prime mover in the development of this art form but also that the form itself has come of age. Unlike other art forms, painting, sculpture, installation for example, a single screen work can be exhibited in a number of ways with no alteration as to how it may be perceived because it is of the medium whether broadcast on television, viewed via a video cassette or on-line through the Internet. However the advantage of being able to reach a potentially vast audience direct, an important factor to a number of artists, has been offset by the less than enthusiastic response from the art establishment. In fact this art is wayward; it can crop up at any moment: on the TV screen as did the 1990 series of TV Interventions, 19:4:90 for Channel 4, conceived by Stephen Partridge (this series referred back to David Hall's 7 TV Pieces of 1971 broadcast by Scottish Television); it can appear in a shop window on the high street - Stephen Partridge's 15 TV monitor piece, Display-Displaced, in Birmingham in 1981; or disrupt your post Sunday lunch snooze in front of the telly - his Dialogue for Two Players, Channel 4 1984.
Having been involved in the development of this work since the beginning myself whilst working within the TV Industry at the same time, it seemed obvious to me that artists should be brought into the arena of broadcast TV and all its subsequent offshoots. I have worked to achieve that aim and it could be said to be my passion. The history of this work is not widely known and since it directly parallels Stephen Partridge's development as an artist, I will refer to some of the important stages as I go along.
During the latter half of the '60's in this country, many artists were unhappy with the vested interests of the art market and the art establishment which they believed placed unwelcome constraints on how they wished to make and exhibit their art. So they literally took to the streets, staged performances, made huge sculptures, created bill boards and produced art objects as 'Multiples' to be sold in supermarkets at affordable prices, to name but a few activities. Some artists even focused on the dematerialisation of the object - what nothing to sell! At the end of the decade the first light weight video equipment became generally available. Although it was black and white and of low resolution it opened up territory which had been the exclusive preserve of the broadcast television networks. Just as the 8 mm portable cine cameras had liberated film-making (artists were already using film as a fine art medium), this video equipment created more opportunities for artists to explore the potential of sound and moving images in a medium with unique properties quite distinct from film. It was also easy to set up the equipment for an audience to view: a TV monitor, video player and electricity being the only requirements.
Although the term 'video art' was coined to establish its independence and singularity and distinguish it as being apart from the dominant form of mass communication, a number of artists recognised that their potential audience were unlikely to divorce a viewing of the work from their expectations largely shaped by television regardless of any previous experience of art practise. What could not be anticipated then was the rapid and far reaching developments in electronic technologies and means of communication. Artists are now provided with almost limitless possibilities. The on-going search for a descriptive title for the work is, in a sense, a measure of its evolving nature.
In 1972 Stephen Partridge became one of the first students in the newly formed department of Film, Video and Sound within Fine Art at Maidstone College of Art (now known as the Kent Institute of Art and Design), which was conceived and set up by David Hall, himself an artist who had moved through sculpture to photography, film and video. Unlike other established art forms, video/TV came with little baggage and was, in effect, a blank screen. SP took up the challenge and launched himself into the unknown to explore the possibilities of this new medium. He characterises his early work as a search for a syntax and formal language; the first available video/TV equipment was crude but, paradoxically, this afforded a freedom to push the boundaries and capability of the system and its processes. In so doing his understanding of the physical properties and the underlying technology became finely tuned and laid the foundation of his art practise. For SP the technical realisation is intimately related to the idea and aesthetic, the one informing the other in an interdependence which remains a primary characteristic of his work. Monitor, a piece he made in 1975, is an early example of those characteristics where, as he puts it, " My first videotapes were 'structuralist' in nature, overtly formalised in time scale and non-narrative."
At first video art was received enthusiastically as a truly new phenomenon: in addition to the broadcast of David Hall's 7 TV PIECES mentioned previously, BBC 2's arts series SECOND HOUSE broadcast Peter Donebauer's Entering via a micro-wave link in 1974. Recognising its growing importance, the Serpentine Gallery staged the first major international video show in London in 1975 including a piece by SP. Access to the airwaves had already been established by John Hopkins (Hoppy) and TVX whose independently made programmes, also produced on the new video equipment, were first included in BBC 2's arts magazine series, LATE NIGHT LINE UP, in 1970. Until the early '80's only 3 TV channels were in existence and audiences were measured in their tens of millions. People around the country were united in a shared experience through watching television which had superseded newspapers and radio as the most common means for people to receive the news and current affairs. Video artists were not only alert to this but were also very conscious of how the means of presentation was selective and manipulative through the editing of both content and form. Although programme-makers are required to exercise 'balanced' reporting, artists were aware that the process of producing a compelling and watchable programme was subjective.
In 1976 I persuaded Mark Kidel, then editor of BBC 2's ARENA series, to devote a whole programme to video art. I was involved with its production and selection of existing video art pieces by British and US artists. The programme was prefaced by a specially commissioned work, made at the BBC, This is a Television Receiver by David Hall and Peter Donebauer was also commissioned to make Struggling. But I felt strongly that, ideally, this work should be broadcast in its own right, not as a compilation package or part of another programme, and a regular TV spot should be made available as for any series of programmes. Then Channel 4 burst on the scene whose first Chief Executive was the maverick Jeremy Isaacs. He declared that he wanted "programmes that look like no other" and so the opportunity for artists and radical programme-makers finally arrived.
In commissioning Annalogue to produce what I termed "Artists Works for Television", Channel 4's Paul Madden also agreed to the terms and conditions: the artists could choose to make a one-off or a series, each of these would be of their own duration and not necessarily fit a prescribed slot and the artists would have access to the same technical facilities as any programme-maker. It was an added and unexpected bonus that I was able to sit down with the programme scheduler to plan when these works would be transmitted. On this basis SP conceived Dialogue for Two Players and we collaborated to produce the finished work. In 1978 he had created an installation for the Air Gallery, London entitled Dialogue for Four Players. 4 monitors displayed tight close-ups of a woman's mouth but each monitor played a different tape. The composer, David Cunningham, who has collaborated with SP on a number of works over the years, observed " Dialogue is an extension of the instant / real-time properties of video, but rather than reiterate these in mirror phase structuralist fashion, the work depends on these properties and therefore assumes their existence but does not actually depict the activity relevant to what the viewer sees."
Dialogue for Two Players was created specifically for the context of broadcast TV: instead of the production process being hidden, SP went further in his objective of revealing the dialogue and interplay between the two players, this time a man and a woman. Here the process is exposed as he describes " Multi screen digital techniques are used to reveal the relationship between the two participants and the structural manipulations which are occurring both within the original recording and its post-production (editing)." ...." The artist's presence is, at first, ambiguous as he is also present on screen, but his manipulations both on screen (directions to the cameras and actors), and off (obvious editing and juxtapositions of the material) gradually reveal his role." SP deliberately used the classic interview set up, familiar to any TV viewer, but within a few minutes that convention was broken down as the interviewer (SP) did not lead the discussion, as one would expect, and said very little. The two players had the freedom to say or do whatever they wanted only receiving cues as to when to start and stop.
It says much for the power and influence of TV that the two players abided by the conventions for the most part. As this work unfolds, its complexity becomes evident by the technique of holding a series of images, from different parts of the recording, together on screen. The manipulation of the material is made clear as the images are variously re-wound, slowed down, frozen or played in fast forward as well as played in real time, an interaction with TV itself. In all I produced four series and four single artists works for this commission.
Despite video art gaining some ground within the art community, it often fell to the artists to negotiate and organise exhibition of the work: SP organised Video Art '78 for the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry, selected UKTV - Videotapes by British Artists for screenings at The Kitchen, New York in 1978 where he was commissioned to make an installation: Study in Blue. Earlier, in 1976, his installation No.1 was included in the Third Eye Centre Show, Glasgow (organised by artist Tamara Krikorian with Lindsay Gordon). Later that same year, artists Brian Hoey and Wendy Brown set up an annual event in Washington, Tyne and Wear, The first being headed: Artists Video - An Alternative use of the Medium. In addition, SP was a founder member, along with other artists, of London Video Arts (now LEA) which launched its distribution catalogue of artists tapes and installations at the Air Gallery in 1978. But the Tate Gallery's first presentation of the work, which included SP's installation 8 x 8 x 8, - The Video Show, also in 1976 - was tentative to say the least. In his review for the London Evening Standard, Richard Cork remarked: "......it might be imagined that British Video Art is receiving vigorous support from the institutions which have neglected this new medium in the past. But we should be wary of false optimism."....." it has been allowed in only through the good offices of the Education Department and granted the status of a side-show politely but firmly removed from the space normally occupied by important exhibitions."
Somewhat belatedly in 1980, the Arts Council of Great Britain set up its Video Artists on Tour scheme which continued only until 1986. By comparison continental Europe, particularly France, Germany and Holland, embraced this new art form whilst, in this country, the art establishment still wavered. A number of video festivals in Europe had started to make their mark screening a selection of video works from around the world together with, in some cases, installations by invited artists. Two such: the World Wide Video Festival in the Hague and the International Video Week in Geneva ( a biannual ) were impressed with the calibre of British work but as a result of the lack of home support, funding and consequent visibility, the festival directors found it difficult to locate and view the work unless it was put forward by the artists or people like myself who were involved with its production and distribution.
By the end of 1984 SP's plans for the newly formed department of Video and Computer Graphics at DJCA were well underway. He had been hesitant about taking a full time lectureship but the fact that his responsibilities extended beyond his input into the academic courses to include setting up of the pre-requisite sound and video facilities proved too tempting. Technological developments had significantly broadened the array of tools : Digital Video Effects (DVE) and especially Quantel's Paintbox sent ripples of excitement through the creative communities. SP, being keenly aware of the difficulties faced by artists in getting access to this (then) expensive technology, set up the Television Workshop at DJCA in 1985. This Workshop operates on a number of levels but, most importantly, it actively encourages artists to come and use the facilities. I think it is true to say that it kick - started the production of independently made work in Scotland which had enjoyed even less support and opportunities than across the border.
But what of television? Fuelled by the irreverence and outrageous behaviour of the punks, a new generation of artists arrived on the scene. Scratch Video plundered, illegally, material recorded off-air from the TV networks and re-worked it to make their own political and entertaining statements. This was the stuff that enlivened the burgeoning clubland circuit and in 1986 a pirate TV station, Network 21, hit the airwaves around London. Showing an eclectic mix of artists films, videos, Scratch and re-cycled material supplied by sympathetic programme - makers in mainstream TV, this channel was perfectly in tune with many people for whom TV had little relevance. Although only operational for 6 months, Network 21 proved highly influential as programme-makers, ever live to new ideas, recycled them for their own use: Janet Street Porter's Network 7 springs to mind.
The principle of showing artists work in its own right on TV, whatever its genre, was not taken up. TV executives still observed the conventions of packaging work under an umbrella title to fit neatly into the programme schedule. Some producers used the work to further their own ends and were out of sympathy with the aims and objectives of the artists whose work they compiled into 'wacky' series. Although SP came up against BBC Scotland's constraints when he negotiated Not Necessarily in 1990, he was able to win several commissions for artists to make new work for the series a showcase for Scottish work both made at DJCA and independently.
The series of TV Interventions, 19:4:90, was a different matter all together. Inspired by David Hall's 7 TV Pieces of 1971, SP came up with the idea of making short works to celebrate Glasgow as Europe's Cultural Capital in 1990. In the same way as the TV Pieces appeared on Scottish Television in 1971, these would crop up within the stream of programming and be repeated as many times as possible. Channel 4 seemed the obvious place. Although Jeremy Isaacs had left for the delights of Covent Garden, Mike Bolland, whom he had appointed originally as commissioning editor for youth, now held high position. I had worked with Mike whilst at the BBC and knew that he was still a bit of a renegade. The fact that he was also Scottish helped no doubt. We were greatly encouraged when Mike agreed to the principles of the idea and the commission went ahead. Unfortunately Mike left soon after and the project was taken over by Waldemar Januszczak, the arts commissioning editor. Whilst the individual works received no interference, Waldemar insisted that the series be introduced overall and each work prefaced by a graphic to be used for all the Glasgow celebration programmes. Imagine our glee when Waldemar's introduction 'fell' off the air and had to be re-scheduled.
The Sounds of These Words was SP's four minute intervention. For this new work SP used another TV convention - the talking head - one of the most ubiquitous images on television. Here some of the statements made by the woman are displayed on the screen as text which is then animated and manipulated. An extreme close-up of the mouth speaking is slowed down, almost to a stop, and then speeded up to a fast rate so that the appreciation of the lips forming the words is heightened. The play between the spoken word, the animated text and the act of speaking are brought together with an assured and telling touch. The English language is capable of great subtlety and we have many and various way of expressing what we wish to say compared with other languages. We measure our words carefully not always just to be truthful (or not) but to shape them according to how we think they may be received. For me The Sounds of These Words brings these questions into sharp focus.
Some ten years ago SP wrote " So what of the future? Artists must be involved in television directly, negotiating the right circumstances, approach and level of support." How things have changed! Apart from a fifth TV channel, cable and satellite, we now have ON digital, the BBC in partnership with Flextech - UKTV, a collection of digital channels, (some commercial), and, of course, the Internet. All of these cannot operate without programming and one might think that amongst these thousands of viewing hours per week there would be a space for artists work - a channel even. But the absence of risk-taking is even more evident than it was ten years ago. Channel controllers and commissioning editors know that even more change is around the corner especially when our TV set becomes merely a carrier of many different forms of communication. Viewing habits are changing but they have no idea what the end result will be. Everyone is hedging their bets and few, if any, TV executives are prepared to make decisions or be adventurous. In the meantime we'll have more of the same: programmes to change our homes, our gardens, our cooking, the way we look - but not many to change our minds.