by Al Rees
Al Rees is a writer and critic on Fim. He is Senior Research Fellow in Fim at the Royal College of Art, London
above still from David Hall's 7TV Pieces 1971
The major historian of the American film avant-garde, P Adams Sitney, once remarked that the crucial moment in an artist's career is the state of their chosen artform when they make and exhibit their first work. In this respect, Stephen Partridge was there at the right time. He made his early videos in the 1970's under a propitious sign, and in a unique constellation, when artists were turning to film, video , sound, performance and installation. This revolution took place twenty years, before the more recent second-wave explosion of the 1990's when yet again British artists embraced these new (but how new?) media in similarly controversial ways.
Among the roots and seeds of British postmodernism, in its first phase, were a number of cultural shifts in the late 1960's. The London Film Makers' Cooperative, an early offshoot of the international (but US-inspired) underground film movement, opened in 1966. By 1969, the Co-op was effectively taken over by artists who turned it from a distribution centre (on the New York model) to a production workshop. Most of them wanted to extend contemporary painting - with its emphasis on surface, system and procedure - into the new medium. Malcolm Le Grice built a printing machine which gave artists a new hands-on freedom to explore film material directly. The first works of Le Grice, Peter Gidal, Annabel Nicolson, David Parsons and many others exemplified the artisanal British craft-based tradition of making art. It gave this generation optimum control over all stages from shooting the film, to processing the manipulating the print and then to projecting it on one, two or many screens. This was about as far away from commercial cinema as you could get, reinserting film back into the agenda of contemporary art from which it had largely lapsed, at least in the UK, since the days of Fernand Leger, Man Ray and Hans Richter back in the 1920's.
That so much of this activity took place in and around art schools was no accident. The late 1960's, when the British film avant-garde was formed, were also the years in which the art schools were being shaken up and opened out by the famous 'Coldstream-Summerson Report'. Sir William Coldstream, perhaps not so coincidentally, had edited films such as 'Night Mail' for the tempestuous Scots pioneer of radical film in the 1930's, John Grierson. Under Coldstream's aegis at the Slade School in London, a small but volatile outpost of film culture was forged by the historians Thorold Dickinson and James Leahy, which research students included such key voices of the 1970's as the documentarist Lutz Becker and critics/animateurs like Deke Dusinberre, Simon Field and Annette Kuhn.
St Martin's School of Art, also in London, became a base for new ideas in conceptual art and for questioning the foundations of modernism (giving another first run for the conceptualist art often associated with the yBa twenty years later). At St Martin's, Peter Kardia and his associates radically dematerialized the art-object with their famous 'lock-ins'. In which students had to make work over several days with no given materials and without leaving the building. Among Kardia's co-tutors was David Hall, which already had a major reputation for heavy metal sculpture on the lines of Anthony Caro and David Smith. He abandoned and renounced this direction, much to the surprise of his contemporaries, first in order to make films and then - even worse - turning to the low-key and them primitive medium of video. While Le Grice built his 'Film Action; Group at St Martin's, with students such as William Raban, Chris Welsby, Gil Eatherly and Marilyn Halford, a different direction (in which film played a less specific role) was explored by Hall at Maidstone College of Art in Kent.
It was here, at a particularly exciting time for new modes in art, that Stephen Partridge encountered both David Hall and indeed a host of fellow students who were to be significant in his career, some of them to the present day. After a year, Partridge had stopped painting and was working within Hall's first improvised attempts, on the fringes of the Sculpture Department, to establish a new area of practice. This area was finally dubbed 'time-based media', in which video was unusually privileged as a means of making art - by contract to most courses, in which video (as sometimes it is even now) was the poorest of relations. It is likely that Hall was attracted to video for the very reason that so many rejected it, for it had no associations with high art. Video was quite literally post-modernist; the avant-garde of the 1920's had made a few (and important) films, but obviously video was unknown to them or to any artists until the well-known 'Portapak' experiments of Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, John Hopkins ('Hoppy') and Hall himself in the 1960's. Al;though artists had worked with early electronic imaging, notably the Whitney Brothers and Mary Ellen Bute in the States from the 1940's onwards, video itself was a product of the contemporary age and as yet was unexploited by artists, another point of proleptic encounter with the 'Blimey!' generation of the 1990's who were attracted by much the same thing when it came to making art.
By all accounts, it was a lively time. In 1974, in the middle of his degree course, Partridge met his long-time collaborator, David Cunningham, then a Foundation student. Rob Gawthorpe, and Jane Rigby were there at the same time, making video film, sound and installation work in Hall's new subject area with Tony Sinden and Paul Gillieron as co-tutors, later aided by the invaluable technical assistance of Colin Smith. Over the next decade the tutors included Stuart Marshall, Tamara Krikorian, Bruce McLean, Stuart Brisley, Paul Gillieron and (via the painting studios) Michael Upton. Hall and Sinden had just finished a series of five experimental films and had embarked on gallery pieces like '60 TV Sets' (1972 Gallery House) and '101 TV Sets' (1974 Serpentine), in which the receivers were randomly tuned or detuned to the then three channels of live broadcast TV. From 1975-6 video was featured by the Serpentine Gallery, The Tate, 'Studio International' magazine and the BBC's Arena arts programme, the highpoints of video art's first wave . In 1976, Partridge participated in founding video's equivalent to the Co-op, London Video Arts (later London Electronic Arts) with a nationwide orbit despite its name.
The Maidstone climate was famously abrasive and demanding. Concept and confrontation ran together, breeding passionate loyalties and conflicts. It was at its best a flourishing centre of free experiment, but braced up for debate and critique. Argument was as vigourous as the times, which attracted a host of new-style hardline illustrators and designers as well as tough minded fine artists, In his sometimes entrenched centre of video art, Hall was carving out space between the then-dominant avant-garde film tradition and the increasing use of new media by gallery artists. For him - even though he still had a foot in both these camps - the video medium was unexplored territory for artists, its codes yet uncracked. He argued that video art was integral to television and not just its technical by-product. TV - and its subversion - was where video's vital core was located, well beyond the ghettos of film co-ops, arts labs and art galleries. This view opened an unusual space, somewhere between high art formalism (which it resembled) and the mass arts (which it didn't). Anti-aesthetic and ant-populist - conceptual art with a looser, dada streak - the sinews of this approach stretched back into the European heartland of politicizes, video post-avantgardism, especially to Germany, Poland and Yugosalvia.
The tone of the seventies, including the now quaint but then furious stand-offs between film and video makers over the artistic claims of their chosen media, had a lone underground incubation. In retrospect, it forms a distant and ambient background to the earliest work in the current exhibition. At that time, the art schools - some, like Maidstone, still 'free-standing' outside the larger polytechnics and universities - made room for composers as well as visual artists: Gavin Bryars, Brian Eno, Michael Nyman, Cornelius Cardew, David Topp and Michael Parsons taught variously at Portsmouth, Leicester, Nottingham and Maidstone. Structural film, associated with Le Grice and Gidal, had taken root in the colleges, by way of systems art and post-painting, and was to peak at the end of the decade, somewhere between the rise of punk and the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979. Concept art promoted 'ideas' over 'objects'. Language in art ceased to be a dirty word, a turn announced by the influential group called, precisely, 'Art & Language'. Perhaps above all, the ethos was collaborative rather than individualist, and many strong egos were thus tempered in a form of group practice which had been first tried out, astringently so, by Kardia and Hall at St Martin's. In the same democratic spirit, young video makers like Partridge showed work in public on equal terms with their tutors, as had Malcolm Le Grice's Film Action' group in London only shortly before, in 1973. This substantially challenged and exploded the patriachal roles which Le Grice and Hall were felt by some to adopt.
Partridge's own experience of Peter Kardia's mixed-media postgraduate course at the Royal College of Art (dubbed 'Environmental Media') was short-lived. After an ultimately frustrating year he left in 1976, to make his own way. Teaching at Coventry, he pioneered video-based art at a time of rapid technological expansion. Among his own students was Steven Littman, who later carried the torch back to Maidstone in the final years of Hall's regime during the later 1980's. He continued his collaboration with Cunningham, who had stayed on at Maidstone to take his fine art degree with a final show unusually made up entirely of work in sound - no visuals. This collaboration expanded after partridge moved to effectively found the media and digital arts courses at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. Cunningham by then was a key figure in the burgeoning world on new music, as well as a lead member on the proto-punk group 'The Flying Lizards'. He worked with Michael Nyman and Peter Greenaway, Peter Gordon and John Greaves, as well as composing music for feature films and making soundtracks for artists such as William Raban, Sam Taylor-Wood and Gillian Wearing. An Early version if his installation "The Listening Room" was developed at the Arts Lab, DJCA, in 1995. Recently featured at the 1998 Biennale of Sydney, this work is a minimalist sound sculpture in a large space, activated by its audience.
This is unusual collaboration, which covers almost twenty-five years, contrasts with those artistic duos - Fischli-Weiss and Gilbert & George, for example - in which the tandem defines both the work and its joint authorship. Partridge and Cunningham offer a unique twist. These two individuals often work independently of each other, as solo artists, and also collaborate with many others in a variety of contexts which span the contemporary arts. Far from yoked together, their collaboration has largely been carried out at long-distance, much of their joint work being made while the one lived in Scotland and the other in various bits of London. Their creative partnership is thus not exclusive, which gives the work they do make together a special edge. Furthermore, their work doesn't break down into a neat division of sound by one and image by the other, Or rather, and more unusually in out moving-image culture where sound is added and dubbed to the picture at a late stage in production, Cunningham's sound and Partridge's images often swap the conventions and merge the roles. In their Soundtapes (1982), for example, the viewer would be hard pressed to detect whether it is the sound impulse of the image-shift which generates and cures the montage. Which comes first? Is it either? Its a small but effective challenge to the standard media hierarchy of the eye and the ear, and an icon for the equalising of audio-visual space in their work as a whole.
Hierarchy in general was challenged from the first, signalled in the fact that Partridge was one of the first younger video artists to take up this medium directly. If the film bug (or fetish) bit him, it didn't show. Electronic video not only led logically to digital art, it provoked a new understanding of the audio-visual domain. While sound is almost always added to film, and is technically a distinct process from shooting the picture, video records sound and image in the same electronic stream, on equal terms. Unlike the pictorialist film tradition, with its 'camera eye' privilege of vision, video is neutral in the word-and-image war; on the monitor, text and picture hold the same status.
Partridge's first works, which still hold good today, and continue to inspire new generations who see them, were essentially performance pieces. This was before the age of edit-suites, when crude splicing was the only option to straight duration and when all video-pictures were grey and visibly 'degraded'. The image-word pulsing of Easy Piece, 1974, was made by fading in and out the key word of its title - 'Easy' - spoken on the soundtrack by a woman's voice. Again, video's real-time recording and instant playback - which most evidently made it not film - impelled the still stunning manipulations of Monitor, 1975, with its deep regress of angled tv's in a sequence of chinese boxes, frames within frames. This was live art underscored by basic playback. Like much of the work to come, both pieces assert their modernist origins. The flat picture-plane of Easy Piece, with its printed word as visual icon, telescopes a fifty-year history from cubism and abstract art to postwar dada. Monitor goes further as it de-realized the object - the monitor itself - on which the viewer (and the maker as performer) is watching the work. An active diagonal line across the framed space, repeated in the chain of monitors, is now dynamic rather than assertively flat. The logic of tautology or self-embedded system us at the core of both pieces, but this philosophical weight is carried with ease - not least by mapping such formal concerns onto the viewer's activity and space.
When Partridge began to explore the then new-fangled edit-suite in the late 1970's, he incorporated all these elements and added to them the montage film tradition (suitably altered) at a time when extreme duration and the single take were still seen as defining the nature of video as against cinema. This was far-sighted in staking out the artist's claim to, so to speak, cut and paste videotape well ahead of its commercial exploitation in advertising and television. Episodes Interposed, 1979, whose denotative title affirms montage as an act of cutting into time and action, is a good example.
Punctuated by a series of 'Preambles', which both structure and ironize its minimalist sequences, this video opens with a communicative act - a ringing telephone seen from back, front and sideways views - which gradually breaks down the symmetry of sound and image. A second sequence of a walking woman (a key theme in art from Duchamp to Giacometti and Michael Snow) asserts actual space, here an art school corridor, and then depicts closely related staggered shots of a woman repeatedly crossing her legs until a final glimpsed moment of voyeuristic revelation. An 'Intermission' of clouds of steam set against a cloudy sky takes us away from these intense interiors and also provides a natural metaphor for the passage of time. The final sections create colour patterns from men's shirts which then become 'colour checks' as a woman describes colour associations based on the light primaries of red, blue and yellow. The broken sounds which open the video here become continuous and echo-like, akin to the live feedback words of Boomerang, 1974, by the US sculptors and video pioneers, Richard Serra and Nancy Holt. Woman as object of the gaze here becomes speaking subject, guiding the viewer's institutions within the formal scheme of the work.
Cutting the image down into rhythmic clusters, isolating the fragment from its original real-time context and remixing it, Partridge pushed against the time barrier which he further broke in such large scale pieces as Interrun, 1989, a decade later. In some ways, he was in parallel with Cunningham's own fusion of live and recorded sound, devising ways of sampling long before the technology was available or even named.
Interrun us a 34 monitor video wall (with sound by Lei Cox), in which angles and planes of the Scottish landscape sometimes make up a whole image dispersed over all the monitors, and at other times break down into successive distinct shots and sub-grids. In one sense, and akin to the cut-up videos of the later-seventies and beyond, this piece takes up the complex 'montage within the frame' as well as his rapid-cutting, but here in a new media context.
As a pure example of 'landscape video' in Partridge's output, Interrun is in the larger tradition of landscape art - and on the grand scale. It also shares the radical revisioning of landscape pioneered by such structural filmmakers as Chris Wrelsby and William Raban, but is more specifically preceded by a Partridge-Cunningham landscape video made with singer and performer Mary Phillips, Vide Voce, 1986. Coincidentally, structuralist like Raban and Welsby also questioned the ecological and political aspects of landscape in their films of the 1980's and thereby took their earlier work beyond their original goal of pure observation. Similarly, this videowall offers an 'eye-scaping' challenge to the ideology of neutral vision.
The logistics of structure are also key to the Partridge-Cunningham Soundtapes, 1982, but more abstractly so. Apart from its intriguing link back to procedural or systems film. These elegant pieces transform human voices into soundworks. Speech as metaphor for communication of Partridge's earlier videos here becomes used as song and system. Soundtapes comprises three sections. In the first, a receding perspective of rail tracks is punningly cut and matched with changes on the vocalized soundtrack to create rhythms and variations. This piece is closest to the classical film. In the second section, perhaps echoing Duchamp's famous painting of 1912, a woman endlessly ascends and descends a spiral staircase. The final section is a multiple close-up portrait, in which a woman's face is duplicated and varied in the monitors beside or behind her. In this short trilogy, the classic genres of landscape, life-model and portrait are renewed by the devices of audiovisual sampling and montage. Cunningham's score also echoes another tradition, in fusing music and the visual arts.
Speech returns, but still highly manipulated, in Partridge tour-de-force 1001 Boy;s Games, 1984, a video-vision of John Yeadon's chanted poem, recited by Yeadon, Tom McGrath and Partridge himself. Graphic text, line drawing and video image counterpose each other. The wit of the poem inspires the complex counter-rhythms of the video, just as Yeadon's relentless and quasi-logical categories echo Partridge's own taste for philosophical equations (as in the line 'Boys called John; Boys not called John', for example). The tellingly titled Dialogue for Two Players, also 1984, moves into quasi-dramatic space, in which the seemingly spontaneous relationships, are revealed not just as a construct but also as a complex puzzle. It implicitly comments on and critiques the 'confessional' modes of video and its illusion of real presence. It thus rejects that was at the time a dominant style in artist's video, turning on its head the simpler versions of the slogan that 'the personal is political'. At the same time it is a political work in a different sense, questioning the popular TV format of the in-depth personal interview which it ironizes. As such, and with Partridge himself playing the part of interviewer/director, it is his most overt 'intervention' into documentary drama even as he subverts it.
Many strands unite in The Sounds of These Words, 1990, a piece made - and shown - for tv broadcast as another kind of 'intervention', but which demands repeated viewing. Its portrait head is 'a speaking likeness' in the realist tradition, but streams of text and sampled sound are used to digitally rescore the typographic revolution of the early modernists, from Marinetti to Cage and concept art, for the age of audiovisual technology and semiotics. The facts that the speaker is audibly a Scot gives the work a precise location and context (it was made for the Glasgow Festival of that year by an artist long resident in Scotland). The fact that the speaker is a woman is also central to the meaning of the video, splitting the logic of the male maker's gaze and passing the work into the diverse and gendered community of viewers who are its audience.
Some of these ideas are drawn out in their purest form by the Sentences series, 1988-93, in various languages and formats. The hints of linguistic philosophy, its word-games and literalness, which permeate the earlier works, are here centred on screen. The sentences in the cycle are self-referential tautologies, near-complete propositions which encompass all their elements - including graphic signs such as full stops. The digital play of letters is complements by a pop-mix soundtrack, so that the austerity of the printed word enters a more demotic or popular sound-space, taking up the post-Fluxus word-play format of artists like Paul Sharits and Michael Snow, but here stripped down to bare statements rather than expanded by word association, the Sentences ramify out in later pieces. The format of the CD-ROM which Partridge and Cunningham issue this year, is founded on them, as the user soon discovers when clicking along the on-screen text taken from this work. Some of these hot-spots eventually lead to Cunningham's This Moment, 1993, a one-minute TV work, in which shifting sounds and letter-forms in the phonetic alphabet finally spell out the title of the work as an index if its own duration.
The CD-ROM is a free anthology of the makers' video and sound work from the 1970's through the 1990's, interspersed with quotes, games, shouts, shouts, groans, sighs, remixes, out-takes and variants. The collaborators have themselves collaborated , so that a variety of other voices - some identifiable, many not - can be heard on the soundtrack. At this level, it does what CD's do best, which is to access information.. Along another strand, it presents its contents directly as art in a new format, notably when its clips are played in programmed time so that the user becomes - again - a viewer. It is at these points, when the clip plays without interference, that the CD becomes an independent art work. Cut against this insistence on the time-base is the user's freedom to move through overlapping paths, to reach the last sentence - if there is one.
This exhibition, which honours one of the UK's and now Scotland's leading contemporary artists and educators, allows for the first time a coherent review of a prodigious body of work which should have the widest recognition. Conceptually and firmly grounded, Partridge has kept pace with the changing times by rooting his work in a powerful visual tradition. The formal language of the early abstract avant garde is echoed in his awareness of screen space and topology, while the work never loses grip on the codes of representation. At the same time, the work is never as self-enclosed as the formal devices and languages which often underpin it - it is open to the viewer's interaction, both as a challenge and as a possibility. An instance of this is his long struggle to turn the technical device of the screen-saver into a viable option for art; a seemingly frustrating but quite typical battle with a recalcitrant material which (if it is ultimately successful) will drag yet another chunk of everyday experience into aesthetic life. Like much contemporary work, this looks to uncolonized zones of experience as potential spaces for art. In its day, video had the same problem - but, three timebased Turner prizewinners later, the picture has radically changed, not least by the efforts of the pioneer video-maker who preceded the achievements of the middle 1990's. Similarly, by joining a squeeze of the hand with the gaze of the eye in his recent Slap Movie (another tellingly punning title), as well as by digging deep into the primary pixillated codes of the digital image in the installation ...for one of your smiles, Partridge continues to explore two of his abiding concerns - the contrast in form between the real and the apparent image.