Projecting Back – UK film and video installation in the 1970s

A. L. Rees 

And what do you think of the work of people like Douglas Gordon, for example?

What you can tell from those works in the first place, is the total ignorance of the fine arts community towards avant-garde filmmaking, because what Douglas Gordon and Stan Douglas are doing really was done before, and it was done, in most of the cases, much more compelling by the avant-garde. And everybody says: "Oh! How wonderful! What a revelation!" This is simply unfair, but that’s the way it is; and it’s our business to point out that problem with the general discourse about recent media art.

- Interview with Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky, Balthazar N°5, Spring 2002.



Artists who began to show film and video in galleries during the mid-1990s were greeted as a wholly new phenomenon, as if this was the first time that moving image projection had been shown as an art form. These excited claims continued over the next decade, only fading recently as digital video projection has become the norm rather than the exception, from small independent galleries to the blockbuster art shows of Venice and Documenta.[1] As art theorist Michael Newman writes, in a collection of essays on projection art published in 2009, “In the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is practically impossible to walk round the gallery district of a major city, or visit a biennial, triennial or art fair, without seeing a large number of artworks containing images that move.” [2] It is an astonishing story, validating film as an art form on a par with painting and sculpture and for some even superseding them.


Few artists and critics who have celebrated the birth of a new media art seemed aware of or interested in an earlier wave of gallery film projection that took place during the 1960s and 1970s. It is easy to blame the invisibility of such work on historical ignorance, or on the marginal status of its key practitioners within the art world, but this cannot be the whole explanation. The Fluxus movement, for example, which generated many hours of conceptual film experiment in the 1960s, like Yoko Ono’s famous 1966 Bottoms film and the first works of avant-garde filmmaker Paul Sharits, was hardly obscure in 1995-6. On the contrary, by then Fluxus was already collected, exhibited and hailed as an early example of postmodern and dematerialized art. Maybe its residual anti-market iconoclasm was too strong for a direct link to be made or felt by gallery filmmakers in the 1990s. Specifically, the hard-core of Fluxus was adamantly anti-art, however collectible its residue thirty years on. Films by Fluxus artists were a deliberately provocative collection of gags, flicker films, slow-time movies, or films made up of leader, countdown and other detritus. The affront to meaning in Fluxus cinema did not therefore lend itself as an example to ambitious video artists trying to break into, rather than to break up, the expanding gallery and museum scene just a few years short of the millennium.[3]


But long before Flux Art in the sixties, film and art had intersected at many times during the twentieth century in extremely diverse ways. Examples include multi-screen abstract film projections by Oskar Fischinger in the late 1920s; ‘light-play’ experiments at the Bauhaus; film provocations by the Lettristes and Situationists in France; film as performance in Viennese ‘Action Art’; Underground light-shows in the USA and the many kinds of exuberant and spectacular ‘Expanded Cinema’ events that were traced by Gene Youngblood in his 1970 book of that title,[4] written on the verge of the computer age which it heralds. These and many other alliances between art and screen, notably the pioneering techno-based E.A.T. events in the 1960s, led by engineer Billy Klüver and artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Bob Whitman, figured very little in the context of the 1990s. Possible exceptions to this rule were the recognition of Bill Viola and Gary Hill, the first video artists to make the break from the ghetto and reach wider gallery audiences. It may have been that their content-driven and emotionally engaging work, with its self-consciously transcendental rather than technological drive, overcame the traditional reluctance of the art world to engage with the machine beyond the specialist sector of ‘kinetic art,’ which was sculpture rather than projected-image work.


There were of course many reasons why earlier groups and individuals in the film avant-garde and video art were written out of accounts of the new projection art in the 1990s, and why even now the artists who emerged specifically in the UK during the last decade seem to exist in different world from that of their putative ancestors a mere thirty years ago.[5] I shall try to sum up some of those reasons at the end of this essay, but since the gap still exists – though it may now be closing – I begin with a brief survey of a still little-known aspect of British film and video art of the 1970s and beyond, to try to find the shadows of the forgotten ancestors of new media practice.


Along with two-screen films by the ever-rebellious Jeff Keen shown by the London Filmmakers’ Cooperative (LFMC) at Better Books in London, and the end-to-end projections of found or waste footage by the enigmatic Scotty (The Longest Most Meaningless Film in the World) at the Drury Lane Arts Lab in 1967, the first hints of an expanded cinema in the UK came in 1966 from Jeffrey Shaw – today an installation and digital artist – who projected films onto smoke, balloons and screens at Better Books. He then took these into galleries and public parks, screening on large inflatables as part of the Event Structure Research Group. This group included John Latham, who made vibrantly rough-edged abstract animations with raw sound along with his notorious Skoob Towers of crushed and burnt books. Also in 1969, Tony Morgan showed film loops for the innovative “Strategy – Get Arts” show in Edinburgh, and again at “The Floor Show” for the Lisson Gallery, London, in 1972.[6]


In the early 1970s, conceptual art emerged from the underground and anti-art tendencies of the previous decade. A sense of dailiness, or documenting the everyday, was laced with political critique, art theory and philosophy. The scope was large, boundaries not yet fixed. 100 artists were shown in 1971 at “Art Spectrum” in Alexandra Palace, selected by artist Stuart Brisley, gallerists Annely Juda and John Dunbar, and the art collector Victor Musgrave, who bankrolled the first professional printing machine at the LFMC, an essential part of its survival kit for many years. Films were shown by Mike Leggett and Ian Breakwell, Bruce Lacey, Conrad Atkinson and Mark Boyle. Beyond the UK, “Prospect 71” in Dusseldorf featured two-screen films by John Hilliard, Malcolm Le Grice, David Lamelas and Ian Breakwell. The enterprising and sadly short-lived curator/producer Gerry Schum (1938-1973) commissioned young British artists, such as Barry Flanagan, Richard Long, Keith Arnatt and Gilbert & George, to make short ‘intervention’ films for German TV that were dropped unannounced into the broadcast schedule for Schum’s legendary “Television Gallery” (1968-9).


As with Schum, many of these early examples of film in or for the gallery depended on adventurous curators. Prime among these in the UK were Siggi Krauss and Rosetta Brooks, who ran Gallery House in Kensington (now home to London’s Goethe Institute). In “A Survey of the Avant-Garde in Britain” (1972) they chose videos by Denis Masi and films by William Raban, Malcolm Le Grice, John Latham and Anthony McCall. For 60 TV Sets, also at Gallery House, David Hall and Tony Sinden constructed a continuous installation by tuning the sixty banked sets to the available TV stations, which – in the era before daytime broadcasting - mostly showed test cards and static.[7] The following year (1973) was perhaps the apex of this first phase of artists’ film and video, with “Structures & Codes” at the Royal College of Art showing films by John Blake, Peter Gidal and David Lamelas alongside media art by John Stezaker, John Latham and Stephen Willatts. “Structure and Function in Time,” curated by Brooks at the Sunderland Arts Centre, included many of the same artists. But this phase was soon over. Even though the influential journal Studio International devoted special issues to film (1975) and video (1976), many of the conceptualists, such as Hilliard, had already abandoned film. By contrast, the artists grouped around the LFMC had defined film as their principal medium. This led to a split and a redrawing of the borders around the use of film by artists. The consequences were to last for the next thirty years.


Another new factor was video, already used by artists in the USA from the late 1960s onwards – notably by Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman and Joan Jonas – and then appearing in UK and other European art schools throughout the 1970s. Video’s direct and often crude aesthetic included instant playback, live feeds and the object-like monitor in gallery space. Its leading British exponent, David Hall, had gradually abandoned hard-edged sculpture in favor of time-based practice. His interest in subverting television led to his 1971 7 TV Piecesthree-minute conceptual ‘interventions’ shown unannounced and untitled between regular programs. Some artists combined video with live performance, or arranged serried ranks of monitors and live cameras with time-delay settings to act as an interactive art form in its own right. All these trends were represented in the first major “Video Show” at the Serpentine Gallery in 1975 and at the Tate’s smaller exhibition of that name in the following year.


The video artists’ group London Video Arts (LVA) also formed in 1976 and launched at the Air Gallery on Shaftesbury Avenue. LVA showed installation video in the abandoned Thames-side warehouses that comprised the artist-run spaces at B2 Butler’s Wharf (1977),[8] and at the Acme Gallery (1979) as well as the Ayton Basement (later the Basement Group) in Newcastle (1980), “a space run by artists for contemporary work in video, film and live performance.” When Air moved to larger premises on Rosebury Avenue in 1982, LVA began regular monthly video events there. This was a peak time for early video art, with the “Video Installation Shows” of 1982-4 at LVA curated by Jez Welsh, and at the Air Gallery – curated by Iwona Blazwick – with Tina Keane’s Demolition Escape, Mick Hartney’s Between the Lines, Tamara Krikorian’s Is This Entertainment, Is This Art? and Mineo Aayamaguchi’s Landscape.

With the exception of a few independent gallery curators and some public venues, culminating in the 1976 “Festival of Expanded Cinema” at the ICA, the main film and video shows of the period 1969-84 were led and run by artists’ groups such as the LFMC, LVA and Air. The reasons for this were various. The first was the ‘self-help’ and politicized ethos of the time, in which artists looked to control all aspects of their practice from studio and workshop production through to exhibition. This was partly because few galleries were willing to take on the technical problems of showing film and video; in a pre-digital period, film projectors needed rethreading, tapes had to be rewound and the few available video projectors were dim and low-powered, all factors which mitigated against continuous projection. Galleries also found it impossible to sell copies of films and tapes to collectors, before the recent invention of the ‘limited’ or signed edition. This tactic was pioneered at the time by another reproducible and disputed art form, photography, as it made its way from the printed page onto the gallery wall during the 1970s, but was less adaptable to time-based arts which required projection or monitor equipment and blackout rather than wall or floor space, and were therefore, deemed uncollectable. Attempts to sell videos as artworks, which were tried by enterprising gallerists such as Paul Maenz in Cologne, failed to work. Just as importantly, if not more so, many film and video makers rejected the commodity culture of sales, private collections and the museum itself, preferring artist-run venues or more social and collective ways of showing their work – including, for some, the potential of television.


Many of these factors (but not TV) played a part in the multi-projection events of the early 1970s – such as those led by artists from the LFMC and St. Martin’s School of Art – now often known as the “Filmaktion” screenings, although the term, which was only used for one or two shows at the time, was just a handy rubric and by no means described a single group or intent.[9] Key works of this period included the three-screen Threshold (1972) by Malcolm Le Grice, which opens in glowing screen-bursts of pure abstract color before transmuting into loop-printed sequences of a handheld and slightly ominous shot of armed police at a European customs post. As the color migrates into the black-and-white ‘documentary’ image by repeated over-printing, the icon of a target is added to the optical mix. The target was made on a scientific research computer, a year’s work yielding a few seconds of image, here permutated and inter-cut with the other shots.

The three screens slowly merge into one as the projectors are moved together to form a single multi-layered complex of colors, shapes and movements, accompanied by a looped soundtrack of an indistinct and broken spoken phrase which – like the images – is at the ‘threshold’ of fixed meaning. The film (or film-event) brings together its technical layers, made up of color fields, handheld camera footage and electronic imaging, in deliberately loose assemblage. Since the projectors are not synched, the images shift out-of-phase over their seventeen-minute duration; there is also no set ‘score’ that determines exactly when the three projectors are to be moved.

Gill Eatherley’s Hand Grenade (1971) is also in vivid three-screen color and adds yet another method to Le Grice’s compendium of devices: drawing with direct light. Shot in the dark with the camera shutter wide open and exposing single frames, Eatherley drew with a pencil-torch the shapes of objects, such as chairs and tables, and the outline of her own body. The resulting black and white traces of light were colored with filters in the LFMC contact step-printer, to make up rich layers of red, green and blue optical mixture. Set to a soundtrack by the German rock-band Neu, the dance of shapes and patterns over the three screens – which show the same material but in different orders - comprise an outburst of animated patterns of energy, whose visual exuberance is underpinned by the crafted inscription process of its making.


William Raban stripped the process down even further in his three-screen, 1973, Diagonal, by printing from direct shots of light in the projector gate, in flashes that echo the beep-tones on the soundtrack, which was similarly made by turning light impulses into optically-generated tones. Arranged in the diagonal format implied by the title, in a staggered tier of three projectors, this work is wholly abstract and perhaps one of the most reductive of the era – although a very visceral work to experience. In 1972 he made a two-screen film with Chris Welsby, River Yar, which took up their mutual interest in landscape, time-exposure and film as a record. Here, the left-hand screen depicts a river estuary on the Isle of Wight during the spring equinox; the right-hand screen shows the same scene in autumn. Extended time-lapse shooting reveals changes of season and light interspersed with occasionally reflected glimpses of the window from which the film was shot. Passages of darkness interplay with abrupt shifts between the different times of day and night. The film – like much of Welsby’s own solo work – effectively makes itself, following the initial decisions of frame-rate shooting and camera angle, and minimizes direct human intervention (although it is full of incident and movement across the estuary and pathways).


Filmaktion and like-minded events of the 1970s – and the elaborate installations Welsby made independently for gallery space – moved beyond the single screen to create a new kind of performative film event, more to do with the viewers’ experience than with passive contemplation. Such events were intensely physical. Projectors clattered in the viewing space, and were moved and shifted during the performance to overlap in new combinations. Loops trailed across the ceiling, while image and sound bore the abrupt traces of their hand-made processing. In Raban’s 2’45” of 1973, audiences were filmed live on rolls of film of that length for an ongoing work that was quickly printed-up and shown on successive evenings, each new audience adding a further layer to the piece.[10] Like the video art of the time, this was a distinctly analog culture with underlying aesthetic and critical positions. It invoked film as a counter-illusory event that takes place in the real time of the spectator. This is never strictly a one-to-one relationship, since film time always includes an element of distance from the viewer. Intensely present at the moment of viewing, film is made of hidden intervals – such as the space between frames, or the space beyond the screen. Brecht’s skeptical "basic objection" to film was that it excluded the participation of the audience, and therefore was “the result of a performance that took place in their absence.”[11] 2’45” is among the live projection events that closes this gap and supplies the missing link.

Such theories were extended by the polemics of Le Grice’s and Peter Gidal’s “structural-materialism,” which questioned any given or assumed identification between viewer and image. Often seen today as a kind of formalism, it in fact aimed at the opposite effect. Instead of the primacy of form or shape, as in P. Adams Sitney’s famous or notorious definition of the goals of US structural film, the UK filmmakers substituted duration and process – which had more to do with the spectator’s experience in time than with the work’s objecthood.[12] The tactics to do this were various, however, from direct drawing on film to the construction of elaborate camera ‘rigs,’ as in the expanded panorama of Raban’s Thames Barrier (1977, for three cameras at angles to each other) and the landscape films of Welsby (some using small toy windmills in front of the lens to activate the camera or to act as a second shutter that breaks up the image). For Shore Line (1977, at the ACME gallery in London) Welsby turned six projectors on their sides so that they made up a horizontal shifting expanse of looped waves lapping a beach, but with each screen in vertical format. Some of his gallery installations (a term used since at least 1973) were shown alongside maps, information, graphs and drawings related to the work.


At the other extreme – though still within the same paradigm – Annabel Nicolson evokes transience and fragility in time-based art. In a 1973 live event, Precarious Vision, two performers alternately read sections from a photo manual by match-light, swapping parts as their matches burn out and temporarily plunge the viewers into darkness. For the emblematic Reel Time (1972), Nicolson loop-projects a shot of herself sewing, while she sits in front of the screen at a real sewing machine through which the loop passes; the film is destroyed as she progressively punches multiple holes in the celluloid strip until it can no longer be projected. Many performance-film events of this era incorporate the shadows of the performers as counterparts to the screened image: Eatherley sweeping the screen with a brush; Le Grice with arms outstretched in front of three overlaid, projected color-fields to create optical mixtures; Nicolson’s shadow-play films; Tony Sinden’s gallery works that encourage the spectator to walk between the projector beam and the screen; Lis Rhodes’s abstract Light Music (1975) for two facing projectors with the audience in the middle between them; and most famously Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), in which the audience walks into the slowly forming cone of light emanating from the projector beam, to participate in the work as it completes its luminous cycle. Other performance-based work incorporated panoramas and corner projections (Jane Rigby), stills and photos (Ron Haselden, Tim Head), light-sculptures (David Dye) and drawing on a filmstrip as it passes through the projectors (Ian Kerr, Lis Rhodes).


The impulse to move beyond the fixed frame by “making films with projectors” (David Curtis) continued well after its founding moment in Le Grice’s early work, Castle One (1966), also known as ‘the light-bulb film.’ Here, found-footage culled from cutting-room waste bins, and mostly showing political congresses and military hardware, is intermittently bleached-out by the random flashing of an actual light bulb hung in front of the screen, to literally destroy the illusion. These overtones of dada anti-cinema and material practice set the scene for much interactive expanded screen over the next decade. Others continued to explore the vision-machine itself, as in Steve Farrer’s construction in the 1980s of a camera-projector with a shutterless mechanism that moves the film continuously sideways (there are no individual frames) while the camera spins on its axis. Each rotation captures a 360-degree image that sweeps around a circular screen, as in a diorama (this work, The Machine, was fittingly shown in 1988 at the historic surviving Diorama in London’s Regents Park).[13]


This vein of material action-image is still explored today by filmmakers who investigate the conditions and paradoxes of motion imaging, even as we appear to be reaching the end of the film age. For his Nervous System projection events, veteran filmmaker Ken Jacobs mines early comedies, travelogues, documentaries and (more controversially) primitive porn by projecting two static but adjacent frames on a pair of filmstrip projectors, inducing the illusion of movement with the aid of a fan in front of the lenses, which acts as a basic shutter. In The Glass Stare (2005/6), Karen Mirza and Brad Butler back-project two inverted head-shots in negative and positive onto convex mirrors that bounce back the images, now the right way up, onto a small suspended screen to show a single, solarized portrait head depicted in the act of its own making. Jacobs and Mirza/Butler directly reference pre- or early cinema in these works, but this is not a factor in Nicky Hamlyn’s Risoni (2006), in which two identical 16mm-strip loops are packed together in a single projector. The two strips show static layered images of pasta, but one strip is set two frames ahead of the other; projected simultaneously, these stills induce vivid effects of swirling motion, punning on the ‘grain’ of the film image, its title and its content.


Nearly all the still active 1970s filmmakers mentioned so far, and many more not named, now work in digital video formats, as do younger practitioners as a matter of course. Film technology still fascinates, however, often in a deliberately basic form. Austrian filmmakers Martin Arnold and Peter Tscherkassky have made stunningly intense films by repeating frames and sounds of found-footage material in staccato rhythms that deconstruct the original to produce new meanings. Arnold effectively psychoanalyzes cinema in Passage à l’acte (1993) by subjecting shots of a family breakfast-scene, taken from a Hollywood film, to staggered repetition and literal breakdown, constructing frame-by-frame images on a home-made optical printer.[14] Tscherkassky, in such films as Outer Space (1999), employs even simpler but equally painstaking methods in his own darkroom-studio to rework a 1981 horror film, The Entity.[15] He burns selected scenes and details from the original onto a new contact print with a laser pen, to pick out and recombine pictures and images, packing five or more layers into a single frame. The result is direct, immediate, disturbing and visceral – exposing the hidden violence of the frame-grabbed image in narrative cinema.


Mirza and Butler, by contrast, made The Space Between (2005) on some of the original printing and processing equipment installed by Le Grice at the LFMC in the 1970s, now restored to use in their lab, an artists’ film workshop that has reintroduced the film print and projection to new and younger artists and enthusiasts.[16] The Space Between permutates shots of anonymous housing blocks, a single-framed interior and a striking shot of landscape and sea. These basic elements, only ever glimpsed in short bursts, are reworked in increasingly complex mattes and overlays of color, to gradually expose the film’s location (India) just as it reveals the dynamic process and activity of watching a film, and its final ungraspability as an object despite the powerful illusion it generates as it veers from apparent depth to virtual flatness. This particular film also has no fixed form, since it can be can be shown silent, with sound (composed by David Cunningham),[17] in double projection or as an installation on two opposite walls.


However, the particular technologies of motion (film, video, digital) are not the same as the (time-based) media that they instantiate and support. Le Grice, for example, although labeled as a ‘medium-specific’ maker for his early commitment to film as a raw material, sees little difference between his LFMC origins and his current expanded video practice, which is now wholly digital. Conversely, many artists who use projected film today (such as Martin Creed, Tacita Dean, Mark Lewis) have little in common with 1970s structural film and video except perhaps a propensity for the long-take. The current use of film, especially when artists use the expensive ‘pro’ format of 35mm, is a new phase. Historically, by the end of the 1970s and into the next decade, video rather than film had become the preferred medium for installation. In his 1980 A Situation Envisaged: The Rite, David Hall banked multiple monitors with their backs to the viewer and close to the wall, so that the work comprises a matrix of reflected flickering colors whose source images – culled from broadcast television - are invisible. Others combined monitors with interactive sculpture (Chris Meigh-Andrews); placed them in forests (Judith Goddard); in streets or waste-ground (Kate Meynell); or showed back-projected videos in windows and pavilions (Ian Breakwell, Tony Sinden). These were perhaps the unhailed predecessors of a vogue in the late 1990s for projecting large-scale videos on the walls of public buildings, although this earlier work sought to transform and alter the installation space rather than to simply blow up images on a huge scale made possible by digital technology.


Some continued to work exclusively with 16mm film installation into the 1980s and beyond – such as Steve Farrer, Guy Sherwin, Stan Douglas - while the example of Derek Jarman encouraged John Maybury and the “New Romantics” to re-discover multi-screen film in the more flexible and cheaper Super-8 format from the mid-1980s. Then, in the 1990s, just when 16mm installations were thought to be dead, improved techniques for projecting extended loop films were chosen by a new generation that included Isaac Julien, Tacita Dean and Steve McQueen. These and other artists – many of whom had been taught by the ‘first generation’ of LFMC filmmakers in art schools such as St. Martin’s, the Slade and Goldsmiths – took up new directions, more personal, imagistic and subjective than in previous decades. Since the 1990s, the rapid spread of digital cameras and editing software has underpinned a tidal wave of projection art, mostly of single-screen ‘gallery films’ but extending to such innovative large-scale installations as the 30-screen Future City: Mumbai (2007) by filmmaker Patrick Keiller, which brought Mumbai’s colonial-era Victoria railway station into the massive spaces of the Le Fresnay Museum in Lille.


What, if any, are the connections between the expanded cinema of the 1970s and gallery projection today? There are too many factors at work across this thirty year gap for a single answer to be sufficient, and it does not even seem to be clear that we are discussing the same phenomena when comparisons are made – do the differences outweigh the similarities? David Hall originated a distinction between ‘video art’ and ‘artists’ video’ that is still serviceable, even though few today think that ‘video art’ is the separate genre it appeared to be in the 1970s and 1980s.[18] Hall describes two alternative but equally valid uses of video. The first – video art – was medium-specific and materialist in its approach to the video image or signal, the monitor and the viewing or installation space. That is, it questioned the medium that it deployed. The second – artists’ video – was more concerned with adding video “to the artist’s toolkit,” as John Baldessari noted in 1972, as a direct, personal, recording or observational device.


The distinction only carries so far, however, since many experimentalists in the 1970s – across Europe and the USA – thought of themselves as experimental filmmakers rather than as artists per se (the reverse of the situation in the 1990s). This was partly because they disliked the commodification of art and the museum culture, but it also reflected the reluctance of galleries to accommodate film as an art medium (the same factors that mitigated against the spread of the projected image into the wider art scene at that time). This mutual incomprehension led to a partly self-willed ghettoizing of experimental film – and later video – in the 1970s and 1980s. A further reason was that experimental film and video, at least in their so-called ‘structural’ phase, were seen to comment on, reflect or define a relation – even a negative one - to the mass media of cinema and television, and these were of little interest to the fine art world thirty years ago, except when absorbed into Pop Art. Even Warhol, although himself a mass media artist with a string of starkly abrasive and challenging films to his name, withdrew his films from circulation in his own lifetime. For most of that time, despite their influence and reputation, they went sight unseen, and have only recently been restored (both literally and figuratively) to the Warhol canon.[19]


Ironically enough, the revival of drama cinema as a popular art form since its economic decline in the 1970s – escalating to its current high visibility and celebrity status – has also revived and expanded the scope for artists today to work with ideas derived from cinema. But this only makes them more dependent on the norms of mainstream film than were the 1970s avant-gardes in the era of its supposed negation (for example, the staged reconstructions of classic films by Pierre Huyghe and Mark Lewis, the quasi-narrative installations of Isaac Julien and the appropriation tactics of Douglas Gordon). Art criticism has ingested cinematic terms such as ‘post-production’ to describe the post-modern project at ‘the end of art,’ just when the means of cinematic production have been democratized by digital technologies. Newly legitimized by the art world, a refreshed cinema culture has led to two kinds of projected imaging for the gallery. The first is essentially an extension of the ‘short film,’ usually shown on a single screen or wall, in a small white cube with benches for the viewers to sit on. Curiously evoking the earliest screenings of films in booths and side-shows at the turn of the nineteenth century, these mini-cinemas or customized viewing spaces demand little commitment from the spectator to see the film through. In contrast, the second major option is installation, which occupies real space, sometimes to sculptural effect, with screens arranged in complex banks or suspended from ceilings. Walk-through installations, especially when they compete for room with adjacent works, turn into screened displays that often fail (or refuse) to compel attentive viewing. Here the film viewer is less a spectator than a passing visitor, whose freedom to come and go is gained at the cost of a durational and overall experience, or one that calls for concentration.


Many current projections aim to be ‘immersive,’ especially when combined with electronic or interactive effects, but that was also a goal of the US-led expanded cinema described by Youngblood in the 1970s and so is not especially contemporary. Neither is the electronic technology of current art a defining point: back in 1972 Le Grice took the concept of ‘real-time’ from the field of computers for the title of his essay “Real TIME/SPACE,” which announced “the primacy of the projection event” as an “immediate reality.”[20] And he added, twenty-five years in advance of its actuality, that “the most suitable existing possibility must lie in performance or installation in the art gallery situation,” where the spaces were mobile and the projectors were visible.


But attempts to cross the time-barrier between the 1970s and the present day can also mislead. In the end, I do not see much connection between the experiential and process-driven projection art of the LFMC or LVA groups and the majority of gallery films today. Current work is largely iconic and imagistic, and driven by concepts of othernessespecially about the exotic other - that in fact elicit a range of imaginary identifications on the part of the viewer. Its guiding model is cinematic and specular, not material and situational. Whereas the 1970s promoted collective self-help in the form of co-ops and workshops, recent films and videos by the Tate’s Turner prizewinners Gillian Wearing and Martin Creed are fully crewed professional productions, a quite different kind of collaboration than that deployed by the Filmaktion generation. The goal or dream of directing a film has slid quietly but firmly into the artist’s domain, far from the participatory or hands-on ethos in the 1970s that was more akin to art school credo skills such as painting, printmaking and sculpture.


The 1970s brand of experimental film seeps through to current times in a variety of alternative ways, sometimes intersecting with the gallery world and at other times bypassing it altogether. One branch of younger artists in the UK continues to explore the form-language and process-driven art of the seventies in a direct line of descent, generating color-matrix projection (Simon Payne), temporal duration (Neil Henderson), spatial montage (Emily Richardson), close-up motion imaging (Sam Rebello), body prints and other indexical analogs (Emma Hart), direct printing (James Holcombe) and camera-less film (Jennifer Nightingale). In the US, a similar list would include David Gatten, Bradley Eros, Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, and in France the remarkable group of filmmakers around Pip Chodorov and Light Cone in Paris. Apart from the ‘filmic’ Austrians, like Tscherkassky, Arnold and Gustav Deutsch, a cluster of ‘digital’ Austrians have revitalized abstract motion-imaging by sampling and generating images and signals in wholly electronic forms based on avant-garde ideas culled from film, painting and graphics (such as Norbert Pfaffenbichler, Maia Gusberti, Annja Krautgasser).[21]


Ironically enough, most of these artists in this 'post-structural' lineage were born or grew up in the 1970s. Their relation to the earlier period is therefore quite different than anything that might have been experienced at the time. Many of them show their work in galleries as well as in venues and clubs that specialize in projected work, but it remains distinct from gallery film in that it is largely process-oriented rather than representational, and is more concerned with the sensory experience of the spectator than with the (apparent) content of the illusionist image. Its reference point, in short is not cinema but film, a term that now includes digital-video media as a frame-based art of duration and event. At its best, the projection art of both eras is – in the words of LFMC filmmaker Mike Dunford to a Liverpool Post journalist reviewing the 1975 Walker Art Gallery Filmaktion event – “having fun with it, but it is a very serious kind of fun.”[22] As William Raban summed it up in a 1998 recollection, "It was a time for experimentation where ideas were the driving force rather than preoccupations with style or the desire to simply put dazzling images onto the movie screen."[23] Film and video projection of the 1970s sat uneasily between the categories of art and of cinema, and was fully identified with neither, leading to its aberrant status and to an eclipse which is only now being remedied in the very galleries and museums where it failed to find a home at the time. But it also benefited from its unfixed and ‘inbetween’ status, which left artists free to explore the ‘serious fun’ and the experimental pursuit of ideas at the margins of the spectacle.


A.L. Rees, April 2009 ©




Abstraction Now, Norbert Pfaffenbichler and Sandro Droschl (eds.), Vienna: Edition Camera Austria, 2004.

David Curtis, A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain, London: BFI, 2007.

Art and the Moving Image, Tanya Leighton (ed), London: Tate/Afterall, 2008.

The Art of Projection, Christopher Eamon and Stan Douglas (eds), Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2009.

The Expanded Eye: Stalking the Unseen, Bice Curiger (ed), Zürich: Kunsthaus 2006.

Film and Video Art, Stuart Comer (ed), London: Tate Publishing, 2009.

Peter Gidal, Structural Film Anthology, BFI, London 1976

Peter Gidal, Materialist Film, Routledge, London 1989

Nicky Hamlyn, Film Art Phenomena, BFI, London 2003

Experimental Film and Video, Jackie Hatfield (ed), John Libbey, UK 2006

Malcolm Le Grice, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, BFI, London 2001

Live In Your Head: concept and experiment in Britain 1965-75, Clive Philpott and Andrea Tarsia (eds.), Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 2000

Chris Meigh-Andrews, A History of Video Art, Berg, Oxford 2006

X-Screen: Film Installations and Actions in the 1960s and 1970s, Matthias Michalka (ed), Walter Konig, Cologne 2004




Shoot Shoot Shoot: British Avant-Garde Film of the 1960s and 1970s, Lux 2006

William Raban, British Artists’ Film Series, BFI 2006

Chris Welsby, British Artists’ Film Series, BFI 2006

Peter Gidal Volume 1, Lux 2007

Malcolm Le Grice Volume 1, Lux 2007

Lis Rhodes, Lux 2009

Rewind +Play: An Anthology of Early British Video Art, Lux, 2009

DVDs of work by Martin Arnold, Peter Tscherkassky and of Austrian Digital Video are available from Index Editions and Sixpack, Austria.




[1] Documenta 6 (1977) in fact had a strong film and video component that included David Hall, Nam June Paik, Joan Jonas, Kubota Shigeko, Malcolm Le Grice, William Raban, Anthony McCall, Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad and the Polish “Łódź Workshop of Film Form”; but historical memory of this and many related events has been seemingly erased (see David Curtis, 2007: p19).

[2]Moving Image in the Gallery Since the 1990s,” Michael Newman, in Film and Video Art, ed. Stuart Comer, London: Tate Publishing, 2009, p88.

[3] A welcome sign of change is the essay “Fluxfilms in Three Parts,” by Bruce Jenkins, in Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader, ed. Tanya Leighton, London: Tate Publishing, 2008 (see below, note v).

[4] Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, New York: Dutton, 1970. Available on

[5] See Art and the Moving Image (London: Tate Publishing, 2008, ed.Tanya Leighton), a substantial collection of essays which barely mentions such filmmakers as Malcolm Le Grice, Lis Rhodes and William Raban, with the exception of three pages in Jonathan Walley’s excellent “Modes of Film Practice in the Avant-Garde.” Nicky Hamlyn, Guy Sherwin and Chris Welsby are wholly absent, as the younger generation. Le Grice and Peter Gidal are briefly acknowledged in the Introduction as theorists, but with no reference to their writings (or films) since the 1970s. David Hall’s seminal 101 TV Sets (1975) is pictured (p24) but not discussed, and Hall’s co-artist Tony Sinden is not named. There are no essays about UK Video art and installation in this book almost wholly devoted to what contributor Gregor Stemmrich calls “the artist as film director” (p434), although some of its authors such as Liz Kotz vigorously contest the mainstream consensus. The same is true of other recent publications. For example, the UK film and video artists mentioned above are noted only in my own two (historical) chapters for Film and Video Art (2009), another Tate publication with the same bias as Leighton’s collection. In The Art of Projection (Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2009), only Mark Nash’s essay briefly alludes to the UK avant-garde and calls for “further fieldwork” in an area conspicuously ignored by the other contributors, who interestingly include film theorists (such as Tom Gunning and Mary Anne Doane) as well as art and media critics. How much of all this reflects the taste of video art collectors, such as C. Richard and Pamela Kramlich? Film and Video Art was originated by the then Kramlich Curator of Contemporary Art at Tate Modern, Gregor Muir, and the Kramlichs are thanked for “their generous donation” to publication costs. Another Kramlich Curator, Christopher Eamon is a contributor to the book, and is co-editor (with Stan Douglas) of The Art of Projection anthology, published with support from the Kramlich's New Art Trust. The Trust also funded Eamon’s major and significant 2005 book on the ‘solid-light’ films of Anthony McCall, British-born but long an American resident, with essays by Joseph Branden and Jonathan Walley. Both of these leading scholars appear (rightly enough) in Tanya Leighton’s Tate/Afterall anthology. Leighton herself is a curator and media activist who owns two galleries (in Berlin and Bogotá) for artists’ film, video and installation, a fact not mentioned in the book itself. The less collectable the work, it seems, the greater the chances of being written out of (art) history. British film and video makers are not alone in being missed out by recent gallery-style critique: not a single member of the very exciting group of digital-video artists, Austrian Abstracts, active for over a decade, makes it into any of these recent gallery and museum funded publications.

[6] These and other examples of UK expanded film and video from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s are taken from David Curtis, A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain (London: BFI, 2007), especially pages 18-22 and 38-41.

[7] By the time this work was expanded into 101 TV Sets for the 1975 “The Video Show” at the Serpentine, daytime broadcasting had been introduced in Britain - since 1973 - but was still in its infancy.

[8] For an illustrated account of Butler’s Wharf by David Critchley, see

[9] See the fully illustrated on-line essay “Defining Filmaktion” by Lucy Reynolds, “Filmaktion” included Malcolm Le Grice, Mike Dunford, Roger Hammond, David Crosswaite, William Raban, Gill Eatherley, Annabel Nicolson, Paul Botham. Related multi-screen events also included Tony Hill, David Dye and Sally Potter.

[10] For the event ‘Expanded Cinema: The Live Record,’ BFI, Southbank, December 2008, Raban remade the film in 35mm as 4’22”. In 1972 he described it as “a film that IS its showing, different each time, always the sum total of its past screenings."

[11] Brecht’s objection to film is made in a diary entry for 27 March 1942, following a conversation with his fellow-exile in California, Theodor Adorno: see Bertolt Brecht Journals 1934-1955, translated by Hugh Rorrison, London: Methuen, 1993, page 214. It is also translated by Ben Brewster in his illuminating essay “The fundamental reproach (Brecht),” Ciné-Tracts v1 n2, Summer 1977. In Brewster’s version, Brecht states that "mechanical reproduction gives everything the character of a result: unfree and unalterable." Unlike the theatre, where the audience members 'have an opportunity to change the artists' performance," in the cinema the audience is "not assisting at a production, but at the result of a production that took place in their absence." I have used Brewster here, and also above in citing the final sentence of the diary entry, but his striking phrase -‘fundamental reproach’ - for Brecht’s Grundeinwand is probably too strong for the context; so, Rorrison’s ‘basic objection’ is preferable. In Rorrison’s translation of the last cited line, the audience “is not faced with a production but with an end product that has been produced in its absence."

[12] The key texts for the UK structural/materialist film are in the Structural Film Anthology, ed. Peter Gidal, London: BFI, 1976. Also essential reading is the two-part essay by Paul Arthur, “Structural Film: Revisions, New Versions, and the Artifact,” Millennium Film Journal No. 2 1978 (for part one) and 4/5, Summer/Fall 1979 (for part two), which incisively and critically discusses the evolution of the term in its British and American variants.

[13] This astonishing 35mm film for “360° spinning camera/projector” was recently shown again in the “Oil Tank” cellars of Tate Modern during the Expanded Cinema conference, April 2009, along with installations by Lis Rhodes (Light Music, 1975) and Tamara Krikorian (Time Revealing Truth, 1983).

[14] See interview with Martin Arnold in A Critical Cinema 3 – Interviews with Independent Filmmakers, Scott MacDonald, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, pages 347-362.

[15] See: Peter Tscherkassky, edited by Alexander Horwath and Michael Loebenstein, Vienna: Filmmuseum Synema Publikationen, 2005.


[17] David Cunningham, former member of the Flying Lizards and a sound artist whose interactive Listening Room (1998) has been seen and heard internationally, has had a crucial role as composer for films and videos by many contemporary artists (including Ken McMullen, David Hall, Bruce McLean, Martin Creed, Cerith Wyn-Evans, Susan Hiller, Ian Breakwell, Gillian Wearing, Thomas Demand, William Raban and Sam Taylor-Wood).

[18] Hall’s views on video art and the gallery are in his essay “Early Video Art: A Look at a Controversial History,” in Diverse Practices: A Critical Reader on British Video Art, ed. Julia Knight, Arts Council of England and John Libbey, 1996.

[19] See Andy Warhol Screen Tests, Callie Angell, New York: Abrams and Whitney Museum, 2006.

[20] Malcolm Le Grice, “Real TIME/SPACE,” in Experimental Media in the Digital Age, London: BFI, 2001, pp 155-163. This essay first appeared in the journal Art and Artists, December 1972.

[21] See: Abstraction Now, edited by Norbert Pfaffenbichler and Sandro Droschl, Vienna: Edition Camera Austria, 2004.

[22] Cited by Lucy Reynolds (ff. ix).

[23] William Raban, “Lifting Traces,” Filmwaves, Spring 1998.