Although there are significant differences in the ways that the image is reproduced, the distinctions between film and video as tools for making art have dissolved in today’s visual art world where the practices of many artists—Luke Fowler, Torsten Lauschmann, Dalziel + Scullion, Smith/Stewart, and Douglas Gordon, amongst the better known exponents, exist in a moving image environment embracing both analogue and new forms of digital media. Such artistic pluralism has its artistic legacy in Scotland’s recent art past. The Scottish Arts Council’s dedicated video art fund goes some way to acknowledging a reasonable scale of support for production in this field, and this also has its antecedents in the support infrastructure. Whilst Isla Leaver-Yap’s report ‘Can Video Thrive as a Marginal Activity’, in Issue 7 of Map, was timely and a useful reintroduction to some key issues around video art, it contained gaps. The critical absence in the visual art narrative of such debate around video art is beginning to be addressed in a number of initiatives and there is an urgent need for an archive of ‘Scottish experimental moving image culture’ to fully appreciate the diversity of approaches and events that have helped shape present circumstances.
In Scotland that recent history isn’t recorded yet, and much of it is scattered, but a few names and events might give some indication of a potential chronology that such an archive could embrace. A critical forerunner can be found in Margaret Tait, a pioneer of a poetic and experimental tradition of Scottish cinema whose works date from the early 1950s onwards (preserving and re-presenting the Tait collection has been undertaken by the Scottish Screen Archive). In 1971 the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) commissioned English artist David Hall, who presented a series of radical conceptual interruptions on Scottish Television, not only credited as being the first artists’ interventions screened on British TV, but also the beginnings of British video art to many.
In Glasgow, in 1976, the first major exhibition of video installation in Scotland took place at Third Eye Centre. Video: towards defining an aesthetic argued for specific codes of consideration in the medium of video—a symposium, The Future of Video in Scotland, coincided with the exhibition. Tamara Krikorian’s An Ephemeral Art took place in April 1979 at Third Eye Centre and then in October 1979 at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. This exhibition was therefore not the first exhibition of video art in Scotland, as Leaver-Yap’s piece states, although it is important to the timeline of events. This fact is yet again symptomatic of the lack of visible historical continuities, more than a case of revisionism on the writer’s part. It wasn’t until 1986 that the next major examination of video occurred, Event Space I, at Transmission. At the time, the Glasgow Herald wouldn’t send a journalist: they said it wasn’t art and it wasn’t TV, a common reproach in the attempts to acknowledge video within contemporary practice.
There have been many events and developments that have marked the formative period of the late 1980s and early 1990s which are absent from Leaver-Yap’s piece, and which space cannot include here. The reference to the demise of the Fringe Film and Video Festival also carries some significance. This event, along with New Visions, were part of a growing climate of plurality within Scottish film and video making, which passed under the radar of dominant mainstream concerns over art on the one hand and industry-driven film on the other. They helped establish grassroots initiatives for the exhibition of creative video, experimental film and new media, activities that led to an increase in popularity.
A number of books have recently been published examining the origins and evolution of video art—Experimental Film and Video by Jackie Hatfield; Video Art—The Development of Form and Function by Chris Meigh Andrews; Video Art: A Guided Tour by Catherine Elwes and Analogue edited by Meigh Andrews and Elwes. Some excellent research has resulted in online resources which capture the same field of activity: Luxonline, The British Artists Film and Video Study Collection, and of course, REWIND. A pioneering European equivalent is ‘40 Years of German Video Art’. Some of these concerns have been reflected in two international seminars organised by Street Level: ‘Video>Art>Scotland’ in 2005 and ‘The Work of Media Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction’ in 2006, both of which were timed to coincide with the Glasgow International Festivals in those respective years. ‘Test Transmissions’ at the CCA in Glasgow, and the REWIND exhibition at the Visual Research Centre in Dundee (both 2006) restaged a number of installations from the early period of video art’s history.
Alongside the lack of a publicly accessible archive for this sector in Scotland, what has also been lacking is the continuous tradition of writing and reviewing, in order to track activities and to tackle the diverse philosophical and critical discourses around the practice. Sean Cubitt, in the catalogue to ‘Analogue’ has written: ‘Piled up in one-off little mags and catalogues, mimeographed sheets and letraset layouts are the fragments of a thriving culture swept under the carpet of history by a sad confusion of missed opportunities, crossed wires, confused responsibilities and overcrowded archives. Given the technological savvy of its practitioners, film and video art in the UK has been for the most part an oral culture, every time one of its old guard dies, like the African adage about fathers, it is like a library has burnt down.’
Malcolm Dickson is director of Street Level, Glasgow.