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Antonioni

The Passenger or the search for identity (FW31)

CURATING A CENTURY OF ARTISTS’ FILM IN BRITAIN

David Curtis
CURATING A CENTURY OF ARTISTS’ FILM IN BRITAIN

I think the idea of presenting a survey that embraced the whole history of artists and film in Britain was seeded by two different models. One was the programme put together by Nicole Brenez and Christian Lebrat for the French Cinematheque Jeune, dure et pure ! Une histoire du cinma d’avant-garde et exprimental en France. It presented work from the Lumiere brothers to the present day in 82 programmes shown between May and July in 2000. It was rather poorly promoted, and its catalogue didn’t come out till after the show was over, but its ambition was interesting in that it included cinema’s first makers in the 1890s. The other was Chrissie Iles’s series of 80 programmes for the American Century show at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1999/2000. This covered only the post World War Two period, but included installations, and was remarkable for its rediscoveries, the archaeological exactness of its reconstructions, and for the care Chrissie took in her introductions to the screenings - often with the artists present. (Mark Webber worked with her on this show; and reproduced many of its virtues in his wonderful Shoot Shoot Shoot series for Tate Modern).
In both these presentations - works were presented in chronological order and shown in original format - 16mm/35mm or video - and screened just once or at most twice. So the projects had a scholarly feel - and attracted a small, dedicated specialist audience.

Inspired particularly by Chrissie’s example - the first idea I took to the Tate was for a series of 80 or 100 once-a week screenings with works grouped in chronological order - which would run for 2 years in Tate Britain’s Clore cinema. And I’d hoped for an attached space for installations.
Even at this stage I was fairly determined to mix together artists from both the ‘cinema’ and the ‘gallery’ traditions, because I’ve always been convinced that what unites these supposedly distinct phenomena is much more interesting (and much more substantial) than what divides them. I was also keen to throw light on neglected histories - for example Conceptual film in the 70s, figurative animation in the 30s and 40s, early computer film/video, the ‘New Romantics’, 70s multi-screen cinema, or anything from the 50s.
What emerged through discussions with Tate curators was the possibility of presenting this history in the form of a gallery exhibition or a display within the permanent collection.

The gallery context brought several challenges. How to present a historical survey containing a large number of artists and works to a non-specialist audience? The Tate curators Judith Nesbitt, Chris Stevens and Gregor Muir were very clear that we shouldn’t simply cater for the ‘pilgrims’ who might come to a one-off screening. And how (technically) to present a day-long sequence of works continuously - day-in and day-out for three months at a time? Having a bank of equipment and a round-the-clock team of 35mm/16mm and video projectionists was not an option. And the Tate challenged us to do this without daily human intervention. Equally important was to acknowledge that people would wander in and out of the exhibition-space.

If we solved these problems, the potential gain was the possibility that artists’ film might - at last - escape its pilgrimage status, and at least some of this history might be seen by the many thousands of people who visit the gallery each week. Works screened in the American Century at the Whitney were seen by a maximum of perhaps 200 people - so their impact was limited to a very specialist field.
So this was the moment I sent an urgent email to John Wyver at Illuminations Television saying HELP! Because the challenges were in some ways similar to ones which we had tackled together when working with Simon Field and Rod Stoneman on Midnight Underground in the late 80s - a series showcasing avant-garde film for Channel 4.
And this was also the point at which the chronology went out of the window. And in its place came the short thematic sequences - in which we mixed old and newer work linked by subject (Docklands), or assembled a mini-history of a particular field (Calculated Abstraction) or used a programme to mark a historical moment (Land Art in 1969; the experiments associated with the magazines Close-up and Film Art in the 1930s), etc.
Our response to the likelihood of people wandering in and out was to keep these sequences short and varied in pace - so people might get a sense of the diversity of this history - and therefore be encouraged to come back for repeat visits.
The history is there - in the captions and interviews that introduce the works - and the many historical clusters. But its experience is planned to be accumulative rather than linear. The website offers more background and links to distributors’ and artists’ sites. The programmes contain many rare and re-discovered works - including films/tapes by Francis Bruguiere, Kenneth Macpherson, William Turnbull, Lutz Becker, Helen Chadwick, John Hilliard, Darcy Lange, John Blake, Mary Kelly. There’s even a Derek Jarman film that has never been seen before. (Stolen Apples for Karen Blixen).
The technology we used - digitising work, compiling it, and playing it from a hard drive - gave us what (to me) was a great freedom - to group works according to ideas, rather than their originating technologies. In one of the Portrait programmes two 16mm films sit next to b/w half-inch reel-to-reel video and a digital video, with no change-over breaks or danger of technical hitches. In other sequences, 35mm sits next to Super8, and multi-screen works sit alongside single screen works.

There will always be something special about the one-off screenings at which film (and video) are shown in original format, with the maker present. But I believe we’ve broken new ground in terms of presenting moving image work to the audience that comes to a major museum to view its permanent collection. I hope the Tate (and others) will build on this beginning.
Click here to open the Tate Britain website