Douglas Gordon’s calendar, bulging with not one but three mammoth openings this year, has earmarked him as one of Scotland’s biggest contemporary art exports. Yet this international art star is conspicuous at home for being one of only a clutch of successful Scots to produce work in the film and video medium. Battling the chill northerly wind of conservative tastes, Gordon might initially seem like an exception to the rule. Scotland, in contrast to the rest of Europe, lacks much of a heritage in the medium, preferring its art finely painted and academically sculpted. But one wonders whether Gordon’s forthcoming November show—his first in Scotland since 1993—might be indicative of a sea change. With a glut of video art filling the screens at Glasgow’s CCA, the Open Eye Club, Perth’s Threshold Artspace and the Society of Scottish Artists in Edinburgh, it certainly seems as though this underdog medium is coming of age, edging its way closer to canonisation.
Most importantly, interest in the medium has been registered at funding level, if only recently: the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) is administering a second year’s worth funding for 2006–07. The SAC, in partnership with Scottish Screen, launched the Artists’ Film and Video Fund last year, giving financial support of £50,000 to be distributed among five artists. The decision to offer up a subsequent round is crucial to the medium’s ongoing development. Wendy Law of the SAC says the fund was set up in recognition of ‘the need to raise the profile’ of film and video in Scotland. The SAC also supports the issue of artists’ video at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, where a panel debate has been arranged to discuss the position of artists’ film and video in relation to the visual art circuit, film communities and audience display. It is a welcome revival for a festival town where there has been a shortage of video art since the annual Edinburgh Fringe Film and Video Festival ceased trading in 1996. Since then, Scotland’s video art has suffered a markedly lower profile than its more organised southern counterparts—there is no north-of-the-border equivalent to the seasoned Film and Video Umbrella, and no legacy similar to that left by 1966’s highly successful avant-gardeists, the London Film-Makers’ Co-op. A combination of funding and discussion are required to unite a highly fragmented field of practitioners and curators.
But while the SAC Artists’ Film and Video Fund has been unanimously welcomed (technology-based art is a costly business), there is a sense that video has reaped strange benefits from its low profile up north. The prospect of mainstreaming the medium could well bring its own pitfalls.
‘It’s often good to be on the periphery, within the margins of culture,’ says artist/professor Stephen Partridge. Partridge established Scotland’s first School of Television and Imaging (now the School of Media Arts and Imaging) in 1995 at Dundee’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. The college now boasts an impressive array of graduates specialising in video art, experimental film, animation and net.art. Currently heading up the Rewind project at the University of Dundee’s Visual Research Centre, Partridge is more than familiar with the marginal nature of the medium: he worked alongside its early pioneers, who founded the London Video Arts: David Hall, Brian Hoey and Tamara Krikorian (the latter put on An Ephemeral Art, the first exhibition of video in Scotland at Glasgow’s celebrated Third Eye Centre in 1979).
As Scotland’s largest video project, Rewind is a four-year research programme exploring, documenting and conserving British artists’ video made in the seventies and eighties. When completed, it will be one of the most comprehensive surveys of UK video art history. Partridge believes marginality is no bad thing. His concern is not the current lack of ‘profile’ for video in Scotland, but what he sees as stunted development among practitioners and methods of display since the first flush of interest in the seventies.
‘Art students interested in producing video work for their final year are frequently encouraged to do so, despite a lack of technological knowledge,’ says Partridge. ‘If a video student decided to do a painting for their final year it would be considered absolutely ridiculous.’ Partridge acknowledges that these young artists-turned-videopractitioners have great ideas, but says, ‘The work is simply naïve. A lot of this stuff has already been done back in the seventies. It’s reinventing the wheel.’ But he is not cynical, praising the progressive work of Glasgow School of Art’s Environmental Art course and insisting that the time-based media course at Duncan of Jordanstone is ‘about how new media can move forward, not be repeated’.
Partridge highlights concern over Scotland’s slow progress in terms of technology, but admits the stealthy penetration of video into other disciplines has brought benefits. Photographers, sculptors and painters all test film and the unique ability of video to combine time with the different textures and strands of other media.
‘The distinction of video, photography and other practices is becoming irrelevant in this post medium state we have now,’ asserts artist Karen Cunningham, co-founder of the Open Eye Club. Created by Cunningham and artist Leonora Hennessy out of frustration of a lack of spaces to showcase artists’ video, the Open Eye Club has evolved into a series of cinema-style one-day events. Having already screened in the Glasgow Project Rooms and the CCA cinema, the pair are currently preparing the next Open Eye Club at Tramway in November.
As if to highlight the fact that so few artists bother to tout film or video art as their main oeuvre, the club’s inaugural screening disregarded video purists by inviting painters to create video works for their theme ‘This Is Not A Painting’.
‘The Open Eye isn’t really an exhibition,’ says Hennessy. ‘It’s more of a social event, a kind of performance where the collaboration is between us and artists from all practices.’ With no fixed premises and no funding (the SAC fund is only available to artists making film and video, not curators), Cunningham and Hennessy ‘beg and borrow everything’ to create a grassroots event. And although they work with no budget, Hennessy believes the success of their screenings might be due in part to the cinema environment. ‘People can find it hard to stand and watch video in a gallery, but the cinema is a very user-friendly format—people know how to sit, watch and react.’
In fact, the way in which video work is displayed to its audience has emerged as a central issue. A stalwart supporter of video art for over a decade, Edinburgh’s Collective Gallery has also recently opted for a cinemastyle projection of video works, turning its Project Room into Black Cube—a space dedicated to the screening of video art (albeit showcasing an international and specifically non-local showreel). But while the low attention-span of the average gallery-goer might be addressed by screening video as film, galleries have long been advocating the impenetrable single TV monitor display—a practice which may have contributed to the medium’s lack of accessibility, not least in a Scottish culture largely built upon the traditions of painting.
‘When applied to video art, time is the most precious commodity,’ says Iliyana Nedkova, curator of Threshold Artspace, the new media space at Perth Concert Hall. ‘Very often it goes beyond the average three-minute attention span of the visitor for a single piece to evolve.’ Nedkova has been working with artists’ film and video since the early nineties, when she moved from a traditional sculpture and painting background towards new forms of contemporary art. Espousing concerns similar to those of the Open Eye Club, Nedkova laments ‘the inaccessible nightmare of the small TV monitor, on a plinth, in the corner of a gallery.’ She argues that funding bodies, artists and curators need to recognise more sophisticated ways of displaying video. The problem of display is inherently tied to the ‘profile’ of video; if no-one can be bothered to watch it, why fund it?
Threshold, also part-funded by the SAC, is Scotland’s first ‘smart architecture’ project, where video display is incorporated into the fabric of the building. The 22-screen Threshold ‘Wave’ runs 24 hours a day: its showreel currently features a loop of videos by eight artists. The permanent, multi-channel display is a unique showcase for artists’ video, where works are specifically designed for the space. The accidental audience of café-goers, theatre-interval drinkers and conference delegates is far wider than that of most art galleries.
Threshold also transmits its specially created commissions live, streaming Susan Collin’s net.artwork ‘Glenlandia’ over the internet to a potentially limitless audience. Nedkova is a strong supporter of net.art, and the inevitability of online video is something desirable to most video artists unable or unwilling to find physical platforms to display their work. Online streams of Douglas Gordon’s work are still available from the website of New York’s Museum of Modern Art; while closer to home Aberdeen’s pioneering 360TV (www.360tv.org.uk) is a highly successful initiative that has seen podcasting and live online broadcasts with the video artists from the Society of Scottish Artists and Roderick Buchanan’s ‘Art Cup’. Recently, 360TV launched into online pop culture networker MySpace. If the SAC is concerned about the profile of Scotland’s video art, in the past two years its online presence has been racing far ahead of any of its physical manifestations.
The late John Latham, currently one of the artists documented in Partridge’s Rewind, declared that ‘context is half the work’. Smart architecture, public screenings and online streaming are the new contexts that curators and artists will need to tackle to access a wider audience beyond the gallery. And, ten years on from the last Edinburgh Fringe Film and Video Festival event, the SAC’s afternoon panel debate at Edinburgh International Film Festival seems particularly timely. But the discussion must remain ongoing if there is to be any concerted effort to redress the low profile of video in Scotland. The peripheral nature of early artists’ film and video, coupled with sparse and expensive technology, was crucial for the formation of strong artist collectives. And now, while funding is desperately needed to develop the medium and push it forward into new territories, it is just as fundamental to connect and organise its disparate clutch of enthusiastic and talented video artists if curators and funding bodies mean to build any kind of future legacy at all.
The Rewind project database is constantly being updated