TALKING HEADS?

by Hugh Stoddart

Hugh Stoddart was director of the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 1978-81. He showed, amongst other work by Steve Partridge, a newly commissioned piece titled Display/Displaced. It was positioned in front of large retail-style windows facing out on to John Bright Street, then the gallery's location. Hugh is now a screenwriter and an art critic; what follows is an agreed text taken from his recorded conversation with Steve Partridge.

 

H: Let's just pick up where we left off eighteen years ago! I left the Ikon partly because the arrival of Channel Four offered hope of survival for someone like me writing screenplays within the (then) quite small sector of independent film production. It also seemed to offer new opportunities for people coming from a fine art background such as yourself. Were those opportunities fulfilled?

S: There were flowers in the desert, if I can put it like that. Some interesting things happened, but finally, the answer is really "no." I think a lot of us hoped - perhaps naively, in retrospect - that things would be different. But television is the great consumer itself: it consumes people, ideas, events. It assimilates everything very quickly. And we're no different in that sense - we the artists were just another subject, to be offered up to the audience and consumed. We didn't want our work on television, we wanted to make television. That's a crucial distinction. We wanted to be originators of programming. There were, and still are, isolated individuals who understand that distinction - but by and large, what we're talking about remains, even after all this time, an alien concept to the broadcaster.

H: In 1981 there were three channels and then a fourth arrived; in 1999 we're poised to receive dozens of channels. With the breakup of TV in that sense, with it ceasing to be an authoratitive structure - is that going to open things up for artists like you? Or is it all going to be too driven by commerce?

S: Speaking more as a political animal rather than as a professional, I've been in favour of these changes; I welcome them. There have been predictions about the end of broadcast TV for a long time; the beast has been a long time dying. Along with other people, I do have fears as to where the demise of public service broadcasting might leave us, but the change needed to happen, access needed to happen. It all goes together, whether all this is driven by the technology, or by commercial imperatives, or by cultural shifts. There's a larger question, and that's to do with changes across the whole medium. There's a jargon surrounding that: "convergence." Drama and films have always been very expensive, but in other areas of television that needn't be the case. That's been so for quite a long time: broadcasters have used a sledgehammer to crack a nut. They've been very slow to take up new, cheaper and more flexible technologies - partly because of inertia within the system. So a lot of developments have happened outside that system. It's the same with the Internet. It was around for a quite a long time, not really understood by the public - indeed, often not by journalists either. There were all these worries about security and pornography, for example. But for people working with it creatively, the question to answer is what can they do with the damn thing? Whenever a new medium comes along, it tends to ape the forms of the past: televison apes film, it apes theatre. Theatre apes the story-telling tradition. Eventually a medium finds its own form, its own syntax, its own language. That's what we were trying to do back in the 1970's with video: to help television create those fundamentals.

H: In 1980, there was a lot of talk about "third area" and "time-based art." It had to fight for access to art galleries which were still dominated by painting and sculpture. It seems to me that now artists move much more readily between media than they did then. Is that your impression?

S: I think it's a bit of an illusion; the artists who do that are very much in a minority. In the last few years, since video has been part of the mainstream, the people who are using it have positioned themselves cleverly - and properly - as simply artists. It's a political stance: they don't call themselves video artists, they don't go to video art festivals, they're not part of that milieu. I admire that and in some ways I envy it ... But it's difficult, once you've been labelled. In other words, this isn't just about the medium you use, it's about context, about where you come out from.

H: Are people like the "yBa's" reaping the benefit of what people of your generation did? Are they wary of being labelled as "video artists" because they don't need to be? Museums are buying video art in the same way as they're buying paintings.

S: Well, I welcome the change, but I wonder whether it's more subtle than that, or rather maybe it's not as firm as that. I think it might be a fashion: the museum world will move on and it'll be just as difficult as it always was to work in that area; those artists who do will be deemed to be old fashioned. Painting goes in and out of fashion all the time. That's a very frustrating thing for an artist no matter what medium he or she is working in.

H: Do you think the web might offer similar opportunities which seemed to be offered by TV?

S: Music often leads things - whether it's pop, avant garde or whatever - and some of the most interesting things happening on the web at the moment are about sound. There's new software and hardware allowing people to download with very high quality and it's changing the way at least the more progressive bands are thinking. The record companies are frightened because they see it undermining profits, but the fact is it's changing the whole means of distribution and dissemination of the work. To use the dread word - and this is where it can be used absolutely applicably - there's a new paradigm happening there with music.

H: Music has been a very important part of your work. Firstly, in the obvious sense of your collaborations with David Cunningham but also, it seems to me, because you work so much with rhythm - percussion would perhaps be a better term. Is music, you know, that thing you never did but would like to have done?

S: I guess that's true. Like a lot of people, I was in a band when I was young, I played bass - but I'm not a gifted musician. I listen to a lot of music, but yes, it's one of those regrets. I mean, it's not just about playing ... David Cunningham is a composer. I do use a a lot of sound in my work, and where I've done it entirely on my own, I see it as very much analogous to the vision side of it - cutting, blocking, pasting and things like that.

H: You think of music visually?

S: Yes. You may remember from the Ikon, I do often put "scores" into shows of my work - editing presented visually.

H: Art historians tend to write collaboration out of the story when they write about artists - I think that's partly coming out of the notion of the individual genius. This interests me because film is a collaborative process. David Cunningham has said the aim is to create a situation that makes him do something that otherwise wouldn't have occurred to him. It's a process of action and reaction, which is how it is with me as well.

S: Absolutely. People tend to exaggerate what collaboration means. It might just be where an artist is working with a group of other artists and just getting feedback - there's a sense of common purpose, no more than that. But I've always enjoyed collaboration, and that's happening now with Elaine Shemilt.

 

H: In the text I wrote in 1980, I referred to an involvement in education as a necessity because of the technical resources you need. You've put a huge amount of time and energy into building up the School at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art. Is that something you see as diverting you from your art, as it were? Or is it a stimulus?

S: Well, everybody gets fed up with aspects of their job, so to speak, and I'm no different. But I've always seen it as symbiotic process. I think it's unproductive to separate the two: my work is both things, they feed off each other, and if I had my time over again and didn't have that involvement, I think I'd miss it. It's probably possible now not to be involved in an educational institution if you're working in new media (video, digital imaging or whatever) but it's still quite difficult and there'd only be room for a few people in any particular country. We talk about research now, because everything's been re-defined, and that's both false and true. It's true in that we're a sort of a team - the other staff as well as the students - in discovery and learning, so there's a very positive aspect to this, beyond the necessities of having a job and remuneration.

H: Dialogue For Two Players from 1984 is a kind of deconstruction of some of the key elements of contemporary TV - obsessed as it is increasingly by "fly-onthe-wall" and the confessional. You're probing issues such as when is somebody being him/herself, when is somebody acting, can somebody be unaware of a camera.

S: This was a first opportunity, brought to me by Anna Ridley, to do something actually for broadcast television. I had all sorts of ideas of what I might do, but I was anxious that it shouldn't be a piece of "video art" in that sense, with quotes round it. I picked one of the classic forms: two people, the talking heads, the interview. If you watch Newsnight, for example, the interviewer is supposed to be revealing the content, of whatever the story is, a topical story of some kind - but in fact there are all sorts of games being played, of role playing.

H: Where do you feel your work is positioning itself at the moment? What are you currently exploring?

S: That's never easy - to talk about work I'm still making ... But I'd say there are two areas for me at present. One has involved looking back, and that's the work I begun with David Cunningham some three or four years ago: the CD-Rom (THIS IS A SENTENCE) is an encapsulation of that. The other is my new collaboration with Elaine Shemilt, which is taking me into different media - both electronic and traditional printmaking, for example.

H: Describing one of your own installations, you wrote once about "a visual patterning in time." That's a revealing phrase: time is very crucial in your work. The notion of time being stretched or contracted is one that you have worked with a great deal - even the pieces which might appear to be about words, or language, perhaps the issue is really that of time and how you put those words through distortions by altering the time allotted to a sound.

S: I discovered, only about a year and a half ago, that I have a condition called synaesthesia. I'm still doing some reading on it, and it can be quite an alarming condition in its extreme form. A lot of people have it quite mildly, a few people, like me, have it a little more strongly. I guess it's quite a useful thing for an artist to have. It's hard to explain, but, for instance, when you look at a word, you have a sense of shape, colour, form, sound, texture - all associated. It's not to do with how it looks on the page, it's a kind of metaphor. I think it's that which influences the way I look at images, the way I shape them, and cut them in time. It's not necessarily a classic montage technique, in the sense of story-telling. Of course, my work is non-narrative, abstract - but there again, if you look at a piece like Dialogue for Two Players, there is content, there is a political message. It's the same with The sound of These Words from 1990, although it's much more abstract... I'm a political animal, as I've said. So, in Dialogue, I'm revealing the power of the form, that classic TV form: there is a deception going on in the sense that a viewer cannot know absolutely what is fact, what is interpretation, what is propaganda - the form has the ability to aid that deception. And there's a manipulation going on in the piece - of the protaganists, the players - by the artist. I reveal myself in the piece (I'm in shot) but I don't reveal what I'm doing, that I'm in control of the situation.

H: The point has been made, by Catherine Elwes amongst others, that women artists have brought personal material to video art - something which male artists mostly don't do. She says specifically that "skill" is one of the ways the male asserts mastery. Do you take that as an accusation of formalism in the work of artists such as yourself?

S: Well, yes, I think it is. But if you look at David Hall's work, for example, it's not just formal. It's more multi-layered than that, and in my view it's the more powerful for it. Televison is already full of documentary and exposition and explanation and mediation - but at the end of the day, you just consume that stuff and are you left with any insight? An artist tries to make you think, make you draw your own conclusions and though the means to do that might seem merely formal, it's in fact more of a challenge to the conventions and assumptions.

H: The accusation here is perhaps that male artists by and large keep themselves out of their work; they're wary of the vulnerability which other courses of action might imply. Do you think there's a tendency in your own work towards the "observational," a kind of cool "looking at" - an almost voyeuristic approach? Is that tendency something you try to challenge, or undermine?

S: I try to signpost that problem. I want to try to give an indication that this is part of the male psyche, the male gaze ... I'm putting it there, you can find it in the work ... but I think that to put the personal in the work in an obvious way is not a solution. You end up with something which is very similar to current TV, but which lacks the production values.

H: "Video Diaries" for example?

S: In some ways those are preferable. They don't try to position themselves as art, but they make good television. I like the frankness of some of them, and their playfulness.

H: Do you think programmes like that are a consequence of artists' work? They do at least depart from the traditional smooth seamless approach; you are aware of the camera being there - you know, it's sitting on a table, maybe...

S: The approach is "referential" towards the camera's presence, that's true. It's a combination of the technology allowing that form and yes, I'm sure you're right, there has been a contribution from artists' work in helping that development. There are power-shifts happening in television, and with new media generally, there's a sense of major change. And that's good.

H: Yes.

S: Even if there's no resolution!

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