Rewind + Play: An Anthology of Early British Video Art
LUX, DVD, 2009, £30
Are you ready for five and a half hours of British video art from 1971-82? For what Sean Cubitt describes, in the booklet accompanying this monochromatically packaged 24-video, three-DVD set, as ‘the only real avant garde ever generated in Britain’? For a cavalcade of films wherein the thrills of shooting on a Sony Portapak meet those of driving around a ring road in Coventry? Okay, so that’s not wholly fair (except, that is, to Stephen Littman’s 1979 clip, ‘Mirror’). But, down to its analogue-era title, Rewind + Play mostly feels like another world.
One transfixed, for starters, by a thennew medium’s potentials, and its distinctions from film. Accordingly, numerous inclusions set up a fixed-position image of another screen and proceed to play winsome, video-artists-only perceptual games with it. Case in point, Stephen Partridge’s neat, sly, five-minute ‘Monitor’, 1975. A monitor is rotated by hand; inside it a nested succession of monitors rolls sideways too, seemingly due to the infinite recursion of video feedback. Delay in the internal images’ turning, however, and their consequent movement counter to the movement of the ‘real’ one, reveals that the inner sequence is pre-recorded. Not everything here speaks so concisely: if you want eleven long minutes of a blade splitting wood on two screens, analogising a physical division with a formalist one, you now know where to get it (1979’s ‘Split Seconds’ by Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield).
Both here and in America, early video art was not only a structuralists’ hobbyhorse but an offshoot of performance (and sometimes both at once). And, due to the resultant work not depending entirely on the shock of the technologically new, but on fripperies like physical presence, scripts etc, the performative works frequently date better. Kevin Atherton’s self-reflexive ‘In Two Minds’, 1978, features the artist on two screens, playing interviewer and interviewee, asking/facing a catalogue of tough questions about the efficacy of the artwork he’s making (along with accusations of drunkenness). Ian Bourn’s brilliant ‘Lenny’s Documentary’, 1978, features the 25-year-old playing a bigoted inverse of ‘cheeky cockney chappie’ stereotypes, drinking alone, voicing nihilist thoughts about Leytonstone and rehearsing some kind of subjective documentary of his dead-end life in East London. At 45 minutes, Bourn’s sour meta-narrative is the lengthiest work here; but sustains attention through a) the artist’s superb characterisation and timing, and b) the film’s mirroring of the milieu’s apparent longueurs. The carefully ambiguous closing sequence, a filmed-through- the-windscreen drive down Leytonstone’s main artery accompanied by Frank Sinatra singing ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, could imply escape or inexorable sameness. (As the film ends, Bourn’s car is stuck behind a truck.)
Elsewhere, there are abstractions that translate the language of abstract film to video, like Peter Donebauer’s ‘Circling’, 1975, in which cloud-like, synthetic imagery and proto-ambient sound inflect each other, and Mike Leggett’s ‘The Heart Cycle’, 1973, which superimposes onto some found medical footage a video-processed image of a film projector, the two tied together under the sign of circulatory systems. There are deconstructions of televisual convention, such as Ian Breakwell’s elliptically compressed melodrama ‘In the Home’, 1980; though not much—aside from David Hall’s ‘TV Interruptions’, 1971—that aims to insinuate itself into the structures of broadcasting itself.
In terms of artist’s film, nothing here is as flat-out pioneering as Michael Snow’s ‘Wavelength’, 1967, or as cool and moving in its fusion of formalist and emotive content as Hollis Frampton’s ‘Nostalgia’, 1971, though Mick Hartney’s outlandish, very English ‘State of Division’, 1978, comes close (a to-camera monologue in which Hartney talks as if he were a video recording––he’s in black and white, he never changes, etc––narrates the artist’s depressive outlook in distanced, formalist terms). The collection’s timeframe, meanwhile, means that ‘Scratch Video’, which began just after, and was made by British artists who weren’t awestruck by video as a medium, isn’t represented. In the sense that this is an avant garde, it’s frequently one a little like cubism: a visual record of people being really excited about something we might now look at and say, huh?
At the same time, however, there is work here that is lastingly involving and uneasy: Judith Goddard’s ‘Time Spent’, 1981, a stop-go inquiry into flux and suspension which intermittently, and boldly lengthily, freeze-frames videoed fragments of the artist’s domestic life, and Catherine Elwes’s ‘Kensington Gore’ from the same year. Footage of Elwes, herself a special-effects makeup artist, applying a fake cut on a man’s neck is, ah, cut together with snippets of narrative concerning an accident on a location shoot: the storyline is speedily edited, uses multiple narrators seen recording their voiceovers, and calls attention to its artifice. It could have been made yesterday, right down to Elwes’s uber-80s spectacles. That says something about the endurance of its concerns with communication, form and fracture; something, too, about how much ground was broken in British video during Rewind + Play’s days, and how little during our own mannerist moment.
Martin Herbert is a writer based in Tunbridge Wells