Recently during the preparations for the exhibition Icons of a Process, Carlyle Reedy (4 – 28 September 2014) curator Karen Di Franco found this video documentation of a London Video Arts meeting at the end of a Umatic tape of one of Carlyle’s performances.
We believe that the tape might have been recycled at LVA and the original content forgotten about. This video is a unique record of a management meeting of one of our predecessor organisations, London Video Arts, recorded at its offices in Wardour Street circa 1981 by Penny Dedman of VIDA and featuring Peter Anderson, Margaret Gillan, Stuart Marshall, Dave Critchley, Terry Flaxton, Dov Eyelath, Alex Meigh and Peter Livingstone . Below are personal recollections and thoughts from two of the individuals involved, Dave Critchley and Terry Flaxton both artists who were closely involved in the organisation in its early years..
Sincere thanks to Karen Di Franco, Carlyle Reedy and Irene Revell for bringing this material to light and to Dave Critchley and Terry Flaxton for so generously explaining the content and context of the meeting below.
The LUX DVD box set Rewind + Play. An Anthology of Early British Video Art includes work by many of the artists mentioned here.
“Stuart Marshall sums up this tape at the very end, after a lovely analogue video glitch, with his feeling that this meandering, impressionistic, ‘dirty washing in public’ document should not be shown. Certainly not as a representative promotional video for London Video Arts. If such a promo tape was to be made, he says it should be a highly professional, slick, strong representation of what LVA stands for.
Such a tape has never been made. As far as I know, this lovely piece of history is all that remains on video of that time and place in the development of LVA, LeA, LUX… As such it is very faithful to the reality of the people who voluntarily managed and ran LVA from 1976 to 1981 when this was recorded. The fact that we were sitting in LVA’s second central London office, (rented from The Other Cinema who had the lease on the whole of the upper part of 79 Wardour Street, above what is still the Ann Summer’s shop at the end of Old Compton Street), is testament to the many people who voluntarily created and grew LVA, “The organisation for the production, distribution and exhibition of artists’ work in video” as I remember the sub-title of our publicity saying at that time.
The organisation that became London Video Arts began through discussions and increasingly regular meetings between a group of interested artists who took part in, and met at, The Video Show at the Serpentine Gallery in 1975. David Hall, Stephen Partridge, Tamara Krikorian, Brian Hoey, Roger Barnard, Stuart Marshall, Peter Livingstone, Jonnie Turpie and myself began to talk about how to develop video art as a practice that went beyond the educational institutions that largely had supported our experiments up to that time. That history is referred to and touched on elsewhere in other books and articles.
The meeting covered in this tape begins with a brief shot of Terry Flaxton and slowly pans up to concentrate on Stuart Marshall and Margaret Gillan, sitting comfortably sharing a footstool while having a verbal spat about how to proceed with setting up a representative video exhibition. Dov (Doobie) Eyelath puts in his ideas from screen right. It is a good example of the friendly yet often differing opinions of the many artists who gave their time, practical efforts and insight into making LVA work for the first five or six years of its existence. There is a discussion further into the tape of an application to the Gulbenkian Foundation. I express hesitation about progress on the draft application, voice my appreciation of Jonnie Turpie’s draft version and am delighted that Margaret offers to start typing it up, (yes, that’s real Typing! We are well before computers here.) That application was eventually successful and paved the way for the first paid staff to work at LVA, namely Jane Parish, Jeremy Welsh, and myself.
The almost ceremonial entrance of Peter Anderson near the beginning of the tape is another clue as to the nature of this meeting. I remember that we usually saved having a pint until after the meetings when we would retire to the White Horse, the Intrepid Fox or another local hostelry. The fact that several of those present have a can of McEwan’s Export suggests to me that this was a late evening meeting and could carry on beyond pub time. Such was our dedication.
Another sign of the times is Peter Livingstone carefully rolling a cigarette while discussing decision making procedures. The fact that most of us did smoke at that time does not prevent me from cringing now at the thought of the poor non smokers passively inhaling in that small, smoke filled room. That’s the way it was.
I can no longer remember the exact exhibition being discussed at the start of the tape, but Peter Anderson is very clear about a meeting he had with Jonathan Harvey of ACME. I think it was an LVA showcase exhibition held at the ACME Gallery in Covent Garden. In the discussion after his report, many organisations and galleries are mentioned. LVA as a group had already been very active in screening work and mention is made of amongst others, AIR, ACME, the London Film Makers’ Co-op, London Musicians’ Collective and South Hill Park. In relation to funding, the Gulbenkian, the Arts Council and BFI. There were many other connections at that time and a wide network of possibilities had begun to open up.
I apologise in hindsight for incessantly clacking away on the golf-ball typewriter. It was a continuous background noise at that time. It meant that work was being done. Regarding work, Alex Meigh has a very practical conversation with Stuart and Margaret over the camera towards the end, while Terry has a conversation with a person I can’t now identify, and to whom I apologise. I believe Alex worked at Fantasy Factory with ‘Hoppy’ (John Hopkins) at that time, Terry Flaxton and Penny Dedman had several production companies running and we all had other jobs that supported us in our aim of creating a functioning financially viable LVA.
I have been tempted by the effect of this tape as a catalyst, to go into great detail about the autobiographical possibilities that arise from that room, the people present, the words spoken and the wistful view along Old Compton Street. But you will be glad to know that I have resisted it. Enjoy”.
“I want to caveat this piece by saying that it’s written from hindsight with the benefit of the kind of sense that’s derived from a telescoping of elapsed time. At the moment the tape was shot of course – not a lot made much sense at all. Having that, anyone that views this now – coupled with both my comments and Dave Critchley’s comments, it encodes other meanings and gives glimpses of the nature of the time. At that moment technically for instance we could barely cut images together and only some high end places could dissolve images together. The Americans lead technically.
This video was shot by Penny Dedman of VIDA and you’ll see me (Terry Flaxton) also of VIDA with a Zapata Moustache and I’m told now, with a quite uncool jacket. (Anthony Cooper was also in VIDA at that time but not present). By the end of the tape you learn that we and it seems also Dov Eylath, had set out to make a record for public screening that recorded the processes of a small artists collective. At the end of the tape there’s a conversation about wanting something more professional.
About five minutes in you see on the screen is a Xeroxed handout partially obscured. What it says is: 1st National Independent Video Festival. This happened at the Film Co-Op over one weekend, the second and third at the ICA (these latter two organised by VIDA and Alex Graham of the ICA). These went on to become the Bracknell Video Festivals and latterly became ‘On Video’ a 5 part series on the subject of video art, commissioned by Channel 4.
I find generally that the information in the canonic literature about the history of video is problematic. It is often not only different from how I remember it, most have problems in their chronologies (and also suffer on a journalistic level of checking information at very basic levels – I’ve read recently that Peter Wollen organized and selected for this festival – he was nowhere near). The canon, (the books artists become academics have written on the subject area), are often personal remembrances and are therefore subject to mis-remembrance. As this one I’m writing right now might be.
A group of us had started to organize this festival event who were from various organisations – Berwick Film Collective, London Video Arts, VIDA etc and were looking around for a location and we alighted on the Film Co-Op as the site of the event to happen over one weekend in January 1981. It wasn’t lost on some of us that this was odd: the irony of a video event occurring at a film location. Both had not been synthesized into the current overall term ‘Moving Image’. Some artists deny the possibility of its existence as a term. David Hall for instance argues (on one level quite rightly) that the image does not move, as in fact the mind receives a series of still image. As Zen monks would argue, it is the mind that moves. We were at the beginning of having the battle to get the film makers in the Independent Film Association to change their name to Independent Film and Video Association – to let us in. At the time the material differences in the mediums really mattered. Mostly due to the ground being held by film because (and it had a champion in the person of David Curtis the then Arts Council Film Officer who was of a generation which had film as it’s chief moving image medium). Both David and John Hopkins (Hoppy) had been involved in seminal events around film and in Hoppy’s case, video. As I understand it, they had both been involved in the early J.G. Ballard exhibition of smashed up cars called, ‘Crash’- 10 or more years earlier. I asked where Hoppy had obtained his first use of a Sony portapak in 1968. Without Blinking he said: “John Lennon”. I took that in and then as if on the edge of a cliff, took the plunge: ‘What about the second”. He answered “Mick Jagger”. There was nothing for it – “And the third”. He smiled “Pete Townsend”. Rock and Roll in Hoppy’s eyes was a cybernetic organization of a certain part of the system. Early video was that too – more community video with occasional ‘Happenings” rather than Academy style ‘Video Art’. Still this was LVA and it was about Video Art.
I shot my first film in 1971, worked solely in sound until 1975 when I saw an advert saying ‘Do you want to learn video’ which a friend told me meant something like ‘to see, understand or comprehend’ which seemed pretty much what I wanted. I joined in with LVA around 1978 as we had a video group called VIDA and had put on quite a lot of shows – one with 400 people looking at a documentary on comics on a 28 inch televison which was then considered huge….. But at LVA there was an adoption of the academy position on the creation of art with moving image: form, colour, texture, space and of course a concentration on the material form of video. Film experimentation had a materialist imperative where the medium in its material self was being investigated – not just its grammar, shot lengths, cuts, etc – but what would happen/what did it mean, if you took a screwdriver to the celluloid itself and scratched it up. What would the marks mean when projected? The film materialists rejected narrative; that which the shot lengths, styles, cuts dissolves encompassed – in effect the grammar – was already occupied by the dominant form of its delivery, entertainment. Narrative was what ‘Hollywood’ used, therefore it was theirs and to be avoided. For me this was a head-in-the-sand attitude and needed challenging. Why give up such a powerful mechanism? A dialectical advantage of adoption of the discarded, has been the continuous problem of the left. Small pickings from the table of consumption.
But those who were relatively successful in setting this agenda – because finally they had gotten some of the limelight – were not going to be dislodged in their beliefs having taken so long to come into a position of power. This was ironic as during marathon bouts of long films with one take as the central idea (beyond boredom was new interest was the cry) Ridley and Tony Scott could be found in the Film Co-Op audience, harvesting the ideas to take into their next commercial – in much the same way as the Attenborough Brothers could be found at Fringe theatre events, getting their artistic top-up. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. One other effect of supporting materialist film makers to create investigations into the moving image form was that they then started to use video – to remediate its early cybernetic thrust, towards the mentality of research within film materialism.
It took some while for video makers to gain funding – and that is the context for this meeting on tape, concerned initially it seems with staging the 1st Independent Video Festival at the Film Co-op.
There were always enlightened film makers that saw the similarities as opposed to the differences which could unite us. Jonathan Collinson of the Berwick Street Film Collective, Tony Nicholls from Liberation Films got it, Dave Critchley and myself were there, Jon Dovey I believe from Oval Video – sometimes the meetings were small, sometimes larger.
On the screen we now see LVA deliberating on certain issues: and often the interminable personal conflicts between various members rose up and took centre stage – as they do here. So this is the miniature of what I’ve described, from the video perspective, with LVA’s concerns about getting rental from tape hire and so on.
Stuart Marshall and Margaret Gillan are talking, then Dov Eyelath takes up the argument (sitting next to him is Peter Anderson, and to his left next to camera and next to me is Alex Meigh. To the far left typing away is Dave Critchely. Dave told me recently that ‘Margaret was a second year post grad student at the Slade at that time. (Contemporaneous with Mona Hatoum and Peter Anderson). Dave also said that he worked there two days a week as the ‘Video Studio Demonstrator’ and that Stuart was teaching at the RCA and about to begin at Chelsea one day a week after Dave had abdicated that job in July 1981’.
Next to me between myself and Dave is Peter Livingstone, then Penny Dedman who is shooting – fascinated with detail and seeing and not so much by who’s speaking. We were all learning at the time and of course the men had gotten hold of the kit first and were using it before the women. But here Penny takes the camera up and for me interestingly explores the details of the world surround the discussion – reflections and distant lights in windows, shoes… She says under her breath ‘do you want to shoot and I say – carry on do your thing).
3 day pass £2.50!
But they seem to be talking about a 2 week event and splitting this between screening and performance – odd because the poster is published and says 3 day event (I believe we did two in the end). At the time I’d seen plenty of performance works – mostly mediocre but one or two brilliant and of course Abramović has raised them to a sublime and also international level now – and video is in the doldrums – or very popular, depending on how you feel about the ubiquitous. Film if it’s got a clanking sewing machine projector featuring, is big (for a while). All deeply ironic by 2014.
So there’s a testy relationship between Margaret and Stuart – perhaps personal or just chemical. Then there’s a report on a Gulbenkien application with Dave Critchley messing around, trying to lighten the mood. Penny zooms in and out of the TV – curious.
Then Margaret moves on to Jonathan at ACME gallery and the relationship. Chris Meigh Andrews and I set up some shows with both AIR and ACME galleries putting on works from Europe and the US as well the UK with fledgling artists like Bill Viola. We swapped tapes with Bay Area Video Coalition amongst others. Dave Critchley was always there, doing things. It might look ramshackle but in the early days there was a dedicated attitude to getting this new art form off the ground. It’s was not primarily an archive – it was an artists collective who wanted to promote the art form. All of these people made work, they’re all represented in the process.
So the early London Video Arts was specifically video oriented – Video or Film, we all saw each others works but due to the film/video divide, and them having the main funding, and us not, it seems perverse to put a film on video when its original intent was to explore the medium of film. But at LUX now you will see early film works as if they were part of the explicit context for the production of video art – which they were not. Film makers who wouldn’t have used video, now transfer their films to video and this is presented as if we were all part of a homogeneous moving image continuum – but at the time they and we video makers were in disagreement about the aims of the moving image form.
This later worked itself out within narrative – Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a Hollywood entertainment, albeit a thoughtful one. In the mid to late ‘80’ narrative was still not acceptable with the Arts Council funders. Some of us would be lucky enough to pick up a commission from Ghosts in the Machine, Avance Sur Image or Alive From Off Centre – which then prompted the video art on TV debate, which superseded film materialism as a conversation. The Film workshops could hardly make a 16mm feature on 16mm given the expense and would have to embrace the rapidly developing analogue video form which moved shortly thereafter to Digi-beta. The point was the iconoclasm of the film community soon had to break down for pragmatic monetary reasons a short while after this debate was happening at LVA in this tape. Those works of the early workshop sector of course were encoded within a mongrel aesthetic.
Last thoughts – early video artists are now getting older – John Hopkins is still around and should be celebrated for his contribution to video, as should David Hall. Perhaps LUX should have an artists alumni organisation to reflect that – to celebrate those who acted and gave their labour to get moving image art recognised”.