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LUX Writer in Residence Ed Webb-Ingall continues to draw out the development of community video practices in London between 1968 and 1981.

Since the first uses of portable video technology in community settings in the early 1970s the exhibition of the videos made by community video groups tended to be limited to screenings in community centres, tenants halls, classrooms and workplaces, venues familiar to and often chosen by the participants – with the audience largely made up of those with a personal investment, often in both the making of the video and any outcomes the screening of it might result in. With the exception of television, explored in the previous article, the relationship of community video to a wider and more general public audience was largely unheard of. John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and TVX organized the first known public event with a focus on the demonstration and presentation of works on video as early as 1969 as part of the Camden Arts Festival. It included the screening of both European and British tapes and the live use of newly acquired portable video technology[1]. It wasn’t until six years later that a similar event took place.

The Video Show exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in May 1975, the first large-scale exhibition to focus on video from the UK and internationally, has been described as a landmark by a number of those community video practitioners invited to be involved. It was the first time that many of them were asked to show their work in an exhibition context alongside work made by video artists. For the work of community video practitioners the focus shifted from process to product and the audience extended beyond those who originally made and were directly affected by the content of the work. The introduction to the exhibition catalogue refers to the ‘live qualities’ of video that were also taken up by the exhibition with the commissioning of a ‘series of closed circuit installations and live performances… The essence of many of these is audience participation – the visitor to the gallery can make his own art by interacting with such installations.’[2]  It also makes specific reference to role of community video practitioners in the development and application of this new medium; ‘Thanks to the energies and convictions of a number of groups and individuals in this country, video activity has expanded greatly over the last year or two, especially in the context of community experiments, where portable equipment is used as a process tool.’[3]

The exhibition set video up as an oppositional medium to ‘static art forms’, ‘incompatible with quieter art forms’, a kind of anti-television with ‘political and artistic ambitions [that] are radical and independent’.  The catalogue goes on to state that ‘video confronts the BBC and ITV with a radical challenge to their kind of television… Video people take the opposite view. They actually concentrate on personal moments of feedback. They don’t use process as a secret preliminary to the performance, but as the show itself’. The exhibition itself created a space to debate the relationship between what was viewed as Video Art and what was viewed as Community Video. David Hall attempted to make a distinction between these two uses of video with a focus on the distinctive form of each in issue four of Film Video Extra published by the GLAA in Spring 1974:

‘Video Artists are, by inference, undoubtedly equally aware of the potential of the Popular Medium as independent political and community organisations yet their methods and objectives are usually quite different. Such work takes on two forms, though the two often overlap. One is the production of videotapes, the other live performances and closed circuit installations’.[4]

This issue of the publication took up the exhibition for its cover story, listing the ‘possibility for visitors at any one time to see the following: British Videotape, International videotape, Installations and performances’ as well as ‘five seminars and a one day conference entitled “Video Perspectives: A critical reassessment of the role of video in community development’ run by the GLAA. The catalogue for the exhibition consists of a collection of photocopied A4 sheets of either white, yellow or blue A4 paper, each colour corresponding to a different type of video project on display; white pages for British video tapes, yellow pages for an installation or performance and blue pages for any foreign videotapes. Each artist or group was invited to use their allotted sheet as they wished in order to advertise, explain or promote their contribution. From the catalogue I have identified twelve examples of video work that relates specifically to community video in order to give a sense of the kind of work being made and shown at the time:

  • Bolton Women’s Liberation Group presented a video made by four women with no previous experience of video, they describe the tape as ‘intended to raise, both dramatically and through the use of interviews, what we regard as the primary issues of the women’s movement’.
  • Borough Town Plan, from Hammersmith presented excerpts of video material made when using video as a means for local residents to ‘enable them to say what changes they wanted to see, and which priorities they wanted to give in providing homes, jobs, community facilities, parks and open spaces’.
  • Cablevision Wellinborough presented a selection of short video clips from six minutes through to thirty-two minutes made as ‘a community experiment under home office licence with a small professional staff and a very limited budget. All participants are local volunteers as are a number of cameramen and studio assistants’.
  • Delves Junior School from Walsall in the West Midlands screened three video projects, two of which were student produced and one of which teacher produced. ‘Since 1972, delves Junior school has pioneered the use of CCTV as a means of expression and communication… the editorial contents and opinions are determined by the pupils aged 8-11 years old… all CCTV equipment is manned by the pupils themselves, girls as well as boys’.
  • A fifteen minute video about squatting called Carry on Squatting by Joseph Fenton
  • Graft-On! chose to screen excerpts from The Politics of Squatting and used the page from the catalogue to republish a number of newspaper articles referencing the use of video in relation to housing issues and legal matters
  • Inter-Action showed three videos, one by children ‘from a wide range of ages and backgrounds and in a variety of situations’, one called Video and Community Work that shows the ‘uses made of video by community groups and voluntary agencies as a catalyst to form a group, present a case to a local authority, attract grass roots support, inform others about their rights and benefits, publicise and record a neighbourhood festival’ and a third video made up of material recorded by ‘kids and community groups with the resources of Inter-Action’s Community Media Van’.
  • Tony Dowmunt and Mick Jones exhibited a video called Breakthrough in a Grey Room, which they describe as a ‘context tape produced within/in reaction to/for college courses designed to teach the existing production techniques of the mass media’.
  • Cliff Evans of TVX and Time Travellers presented a special edition of Electric Newspaper  made up of over 40 hours of footage, over seventy reels, they gathered together material shot by non professional participants working with TVX over the course of its four year run. For the exhibition at the Serpentine the aim was to recreate the type of video happening that occurred at the Arts Lab on Roberts Street ‘utilising multi-screen presentation and often expanded out into a multi-media show, incorporating film, slide, light-show, dancers, live music, inflatables etc.’
  • The Faculty of Art and Design at North East London Polytechnic, under the guidance of Harry Levinson, invited the audience to ‘come and participate in communication and role playing games… Use the camera yourself. Interview and be interviewed. Watch yourself on the screen – understand your electronic environment.’
  • John Hopkins was responsible for both the screening of a video tape and an installation/performance. He chose to screen a selection of work under his own name from 1971-1974 including Livin’ Free (1971), Global Village Truckin’ (1973), Titles for London Weekend (1974) and Systems Seminar (1974). His submission for the catalogue was an annotated photocopy of the contract for The Video Show exhibition that draws attention to the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy and low payment conditions of the show. Hopkins was also responsible for an installation that invited the audience to make their own video or TV programme; ‘You can make it if you try. You, the public, plus: A TV Studio, A Rock and Roll Band, Surprise Attractions’. The proposal had four names: you make it, we assist, its free or How to run TV stations Democratically or Living evidence to the Anna Committee on the future of broadcasting or A cool afternoon in the park.[5].
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Video Times: The Video Show ; Festival of Independence Video ; Serpentine Gallery 1. - 26.5.1975. London: Serpentine Gallery, 1975

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Video Times: The Video Show

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Video Times: The Video Show

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Video Times: The Video Show

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This brief survey of the work on show gives a sense of the range of applications of portable video technology in a community context – where the community might be a women’s group or an after-school club, a school or university, the residents of a squat or a whole borough. In each case the use of video is tailored to the specific aims and intentions of the group initiating the project, where it might be used as a mode of research, a teaching tool, for consciousness-raising, to collect data, to develop a group or build a new community, purely for entertainment or to influence policy.

The Video Show exhibition marked a moment in video’s short history, since its arrival in the UK, where video art and community video momentarily converged as distinct yet complimentary forms. The curators of the exhibition invited ‘all independent tape makers working in Britain’ to show up to an hour of their work. As a result of this open submission process they had over ‘100 hours of tape from different sources’ covering ‘both artists’ and political/community video work’[6] with only a small proportion screened publicly previously. It was the first time many UK video practitioners working with video met and were able to see each other’s work, described in Julia Knight’s survey of the distribution and practice of alternative moving image by David Critchley as a ‘revelation’[7]. A number of the video artists involved in the exhibition including David Hall and Stuart Marshall went onto form the London Video Arts (LVA) in the summer of 1976, which went onto become what LUX is today. Very much duplicating the model taken up by the London Filmmakers Co-op, the LVA focused on creating a dialogue between interested parties: distribution, the setting up of independent workshop facilities and the organisation of future screenings and exhibitions[8].

 

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First London Video Arts (LVA) distribution catalogue

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The LVA applied for funding from the Arts Council’s Artist Film Committee with a focus on providing a distribution service – specifically a catalogue and equipment to support exhibition. Knight makes clear the difficult space video was beginning to occupy for the Arts Council; ‘not only had the diversity of activity become more apparent, but the funders were beginning to receive applications for resources to support it.’[9] At this stage the inclusive spirit of The Video Show began to be called into question, when the priorities of video artists and community video practitioners were to be pitted against one another. 1976 saw the Tate Gallery in London present its first video show, assisted by Simon Wilson and Cliff Evans, previously of TVX. Following on from the Serpentine show the previous year there is the suggestion that support for video by large institutions was beginning to be taken seriously. Two counter arguments raised by Richard Cork in his book Everything Seemed Possible Art in the 1970s undermine this presupposition. Firstly the show at the Tate was particularly small and hard to find:

‘Rather than presenting a firm commitment to video art by the main body of the Tate’s staff, it has only been allowed through the good offices of the Education Department and granted the status of a slide-show… a show which cries out for a maximum amount of public participation has been tucked away downstairs in the Lecture Room.’[10]

The contradictory nature of this curatorial decision is not lost on Cork who goes on to observe the ironic positioning of what is supposed to be a medium that enables accessibility for all, positioned in a hard to find space in the basement of an art gallery. Secondly in 1976 the London region of the Association of Video Workers (AVW) sent a telegram to the Minister for the Arts ‘deploring the fact that neither the BFI production board nor the Arts Council’s Community Arts Committee has provided it with any funds… and warns that if funds are not forthcoming shortly, independent video work will virtually cease to exist and many ongoing projects will not be able to meet their commitments to the public’.[11]

Whilst the Artists Film Committee continued to consult with the LVA, in collaboration with the Community Arts Committee they also commissioned Sue Hall and John Hopkins to investigate the future of videotape distribution in the UK. Their report, delivered in May 1977, prioritised the provision of a single centralised resource very much in the spirit of community video, ‘in order to offer open access to all non-commercial users’, with the recommendation of ‘a single national mail order hire service and a national dubbing centre to provide non commercial producers with distribution copies of their work.’[12]  Knight remarks that ‘Hoppy and Hall’s interest in helping pioneer video distribution waned relatively quickly’[13], whilst the LVA continued to reassure the Artist Film Committee that they would mirror the already understood and arts council approved framework set up by the LFMC, which sought to ‘benefit the maximum number of people’ and ‘ accept any tapes offered to them for distribution, with no discrimination against community tapes’. However in his history of video art, Chris Meigh-Andrews, makes clear the influence that David Hall would have over the development of video art and the direction the LVA would take:

‘Through a combination of polemical writing, teaching, the promotion of video art and his own work, Hall established a tradition of video that was pure, formal and rigorous… producing a body of work of consistent purity – a rarity in the diversity of contemporary video culture, but it also produced work that could be extremely restrictive and predictable.’[14]

Fortunately Hoppy and Sue Hall were pursuing other routes, under the newly established organisation Fantasy Factory, founded in 1974 as a post-production and training centre specifically for video, it provided a resource for the growing needs of community video practitioners. The position of Hall and Hopkins is made clear by the comments of video practitioner Terry Flaxton: ‘Most video was following an Academy tradition, and its forms and concerns echoed those that were important in the British tradition from 1600 on. One of the most notable exceptions to this was John and Sue of Fantasy Factory.’[15]

In order to continue to provide the open access service they saw as central to the development of community video practices in May 1975, they submitted an application to the Community Arts Committee for funding to expand Fantasy Factory’s video editing and production resource, for which they also sought funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation and the British Film Institute production board. A flyer produced by Fantasy Factory in 1976 describes the ‘low cost video services’ that they provided from their newly established base in Holborn, London, which included:

Viewing from National 3030. Sony AV3670 and CV2100 decks on high quality monitor and sound system… Transfer to Sony AV3670 or National 3030 from your playback VTR. Audio processing includes graphic equalization. Basic Editing on Sony AV3670 hi-density EIAJ … Studio 2-camera studio measuring 10’ x 15’ with gemlock vision mixer and special effect generator… Self-Help Maintenance Workshop a room with work bench, service manuals, basic tools and double beam oscilloscope which is set up to enable you to diagnose common faults in low-gauge equipment, You do the work yourself… Video Cinema at present we are holding a series of free playbacks of video tapes by artists, filmmakers, cable TV stations from home and abroad in colour and black and white. These are listed in Time Out in the appropriate week

CSM Study Collection

Fantasy Factory handout

CSM Study Collection

The cost of these services very much depended on the status of the user with the lowest rates made available for ‘bona fide non-profit individuals or community groups operating without subsidy’ with educational and voluntary organizations being charged twice the basic rate and commercial local and national authorities charged five times the basic rate. The relationship of the BFI production fund with video can be seen as representative of the relative trepidation surrounding the funding and support of video work deemed outside of the clear remits of art or entertainment. In a booklet published by the BFI in 1976, which focuses on the Production Board, previously the Experimental Film Fund, there is a section on video that describes ‘a limited investment of finance and manpower made in a spirit of research and enquiry’[16]. This research is divided into three areas an ‘Equipment Loan Scheme’, ‘Project Funding’ and ‘Formal Consultation’. The Equipment loan scheme worked as a two-way exchange, whereby video practitioners were invited to borrow equipment owned by the BFI and in return the institute were able to observe projects and view videotapes in order to understand more clearly how this new technology was being used. Projects were funded under three categories the first of which was the ‘documentation by television of aspects of urban community life’. This was used to fund a project by Sue Hall at Graft On! called Song of long ago (1974) which tells the story of West Kensington through the eyes of local elderly residents. This was the first British local history videotape and was since used as a model by many later practitioners, shot on half-inch and edited on an experimental automatic system[17]. The other two categories to receive funding were for fictional and dramatic purposes and thirdly the ‘experimental use of television for the production of abstract imagery and sound in a colour-equipped studio’. The formal consultation listed above aimed to understand the needs of the growing constituency using video technology who they deduced as being made up of members of the AVW, those exhibiting work at the Serpentine Video Show exhibition as well as the number of students graduating with film and television degrees having trained and studied under the influence of this new technology. The report also draws attention to videos relationship to other media, again making the distinction between what can be seen as video art and community video.

‘Video practitioners are concerned with the medium as a component part of other activities; uses are as diverse as those which relate to the fine arts on the one hand and those which relate to social work and community politics on the other.’[18]

The research taken up by the BFI appears inconclusive except to suggest that they would proceed with caution when considering supporting the development of this new medium, which the report refers to either as television or video, as if the two terms were interchangeable.

‘Whatever the Production Board does in the television field, it will be taking money from elsewhere, and one television project funded would effectively prevent the funding of others… criteria cannot emerge from the ad hoc, multifarious and random demands of outside bodies and individuals, but must emerge from the board’s own definition of what it is… For the sake of cogency and efficacy, the Board should ally itself with the aims of its parent body and define its purpose and methods of funding video activity accordingly’.[19]

The conversation by no means ends here – please join us for a screening and in discussion with Margaret Dickinson on July 29th 2015 at The Showroom, London,  which will focus on the legacy of this work; asking what might we learn from this work in the present, seeking to draw lines between then and now.


Footnotes

[1] TVX equipment used in Camden Fringe Festival 1969

[2] Video Times: The Video Show ; Festival of Independence Video ; Serpentine Gallery 1. – 26.5.1975. London: Serpentine Gallery, 1975. Print

[3] ibid

[4] Hall, David, Video Art and the Video Show, Film Video Extra, GLAA, London, p.2

[5] All excerpts taken from text found in the Exhibition Catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, 1975

[6] Knight, Julia, and Peter Thomas. Reaching Audiences: Distribution and Promotion of Alternative Moving Image. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2011. Print. p.104

[7] ibid. p.104

[8] ibid. p.104

[9] ibid p.105

[10] Cork, Richard. Everything Seemed Possible: Art in the 1970s. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. Print p.149

[11] ibid. p.149

[12] Knight, Julia, and Peter Thomas. Reaching Audiences: Distribution and Promotion of Alternative Moving Image. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2011. Print. p.105

[13] ibid

[14] Meigh-Andrews, Chris. A History of Video Art: The Development of Form and Function. Oxford: Berg, 2006.p.75

[15] (Terry Flaxton) (Knight, 1996a: 354)

[16] The Production Board and Video, Peter Sainsbury, BFI production board, edited by Alan Lovell, BFI, London, 1976

[17] By 1978 this had been shown over 300 times in local libraries ‘List Of Completed Video Production 1969-1979′ (London), John Hopkins [JH] / Sue Hall [SH] (TVX / CATS / Fantasy Factory), British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection. Retrieved October 8th 2014

[18] Sainsbury, Peter, The Production Board and Video, ed. Lovell, Alan. BFI Production Board. London: British Film Institute, 1976. Print.p.58

[19] The Production Board and Video, Peter Sainsbury, BFI production board, edited by Alan Lovell, BFI, London, 1976 p.59