The essays that we have collected together here offer a partial reflection on contemporary experimental film and video in the UK. Other writers would undoubtedly shed light on a range of works and trends that are not covered here. Happily, and largely by coincidence, the essays here coincide with various recent and upcoming surveys of contemporary artists’ film and video. MIRAJ (Moving Image Review and Art Journal) has just put out a call for essays on ‘50 years of British Artists’ Moving Image’; in November (2015) at the Whitechapel Gallery in London there was a two-day conference on ‘artists’ moving image practice in Britain: from 1990 to today’; at present the British Film Institute is hosting a series of programmes that marks the 50th anniversary of the London Filmmaker’s Co-operative; and in 2013/14 Tate Britain hosted Assembly: A Survey of Recent Artists’ Film and Video Made in Britain 2008-2013. Added to these events, key texts such as A.L. Rees’ A History of Experimental Film and Video (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd edition, 2011) and David Curtis’ A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain (London: BFI, 2006) document the longevity of UK scenes, which constitute a tradition, albeit divergent and sometimes fractious. Experimental film and video is internationalist, perhaps more so than any other form of cinema, but there is a constellation of activities in the UK, especially London, which have made it a geographical focal point.
A term that seems to have had currency recently is ‘artists’ moving image’, a liberal and inclusive label that spans feature films by contemporary artists (or rather directors?) such as Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor-Wood, through to the range of moving image works made by any number of artists that are destined primarily for gallery exhibition. To our minds the term ‘artists’ moving image’ is a marketing ploy, used in the context of publicity machines, attached to cinema and contemporary art alike, to advertise something seemingly new. Describing an artist’s practice as one that centres on ‘moving image’ is to say almost nothing about it in terms of what the work might constitute, how it might be experienced, what aesthetic language it might adopt and to what history it contributes.
We have plumped for ‘experimental film and video’, which has its drawbacks but also signals something important: primarily the fact that something of the medium (meaning everything from the particular characteristics of the technology through to the spectator’s engagement) is put to the test in some way. The work that’s covered under this label sometimes stretches the definition, given that it doesn’t always involve film or video at all; the use of light, time and sound in other ways (as in the light performances of Laura Wilson or sound pieces by David Cunningham) is often brought into the fold. Paradoxically, an experimental approach to film, video and other time-based media, has a longer tradition than any other set of practices using film, video and moving image technology for specific ends. It is a tradition that runs in parallel with the history of cinema in general.
The practices that are discussed here clearly relate to histories and precursors. Patti Gaal-Holmes’ recent book A History of 1970s Experimental Film: Britain’s Decade of Diversity (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) looks at figures active in the 1970s whom she sees as having been marginalised by other histories. The essay here, which covers four filmmakers who came to prominence in the 1970s and have continued in their practice, in fact focuses on canonical figures. Highlighting the significance of international exchange in experimental film and video, Steven Ball’s essay charts cycles of influence between the UK and Australia. The presence in London, at different times, of Sue K. and Sally Golding, to name two individuals, has been a significant catalyst for adventurous programming. Nicky Hamlyn’s essay is a characteristically detailed account of two filmmakers’ work, with far reaching ideas concerning filmic vision that spring from having a long interest in the work of his peers. Simon Payne’s essay looks to the idea of negative aesthetics in various film/ video-makers’ work, as a recurring and common point of departure.
A significant factor in experimental film and video in the UK, and elsewhere too, is the range of collaborative and co-operative efforts in the field. The London Filmmakers Co-op and later London Electronic Arts involved a significant relationship between film/video making practices and screenings/distribution. After the collapse of The LUX Centre (in Hoxton Square) in 2001, the organisation no.w.here, which inherited its film processing and printing equipment, filled a significant vacuum for ten years, hosting a diverse array of screenings and events as well as providing access to filmmaking resources. When LUX was reconstituted in 2002, production dropped from its remit, to be replaced some years later with its ‘associate artists scheme’, a course run along the lines of a finishing school for recent fine art graduates, with a list of aims including the ‘application of critical discourse as the main tool for achieving development’. 1. For no.w.here, run by Karen Mirza, Brad Butler and James Holcombe, the trajectory has involved the promotion of practices that are ‘socially-engaged’.
More recently, ad hoc, informal organisations have come to the fore. They are largely artist-run groups (including Analogue Recurring, BEEF [Bristol Experimental and Expanded Cinema] Contact, Collective-iz, Nightworks and Unconscious Archives) which have focused on collaborative approaches, especially to programming and publicising work. None of these groups has an economic model that would make any sense in wholly commercial terms. On the contrary they run on the enthusiasm of individuals committed to fostering approaches to making and screening work with ends that are impossible to second guess.
Each of the essays published here are by writers who are also filmmakers (whose activities also involve programming and pitching in with the organisation of screenings, exhibitions and events). Part of the responsibility of makers in the field has often, it seems, been to write about it. Hence the writing of British film/video-makers including Peter Gidal, David Hall, Nicky Hamlyn, Malcolm Le Grice and numerous others. Certainly the best writing on experimental film and video in the UK has been penned by those sharing a perspective with its practitioners – a perspective that, at its best, makes for writing with a position.