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Out of Tarr's Universe

An uncompromised vision (FW34)

A century of Artists’ film in Britain : A response to the curatorial rationale

Nina Danino
A century of Artists’ film in Britain : A response to the curatorial rationale

A Century of Artists’ Film in Britain is a major show at Tate Britain which aims to present ‘the full range’ of artists’ film and video. The show responds ambitiously to the interest in and the need to, open a space for this work in contemporary visual arts. While video art, has long had a habitat in the gallery world, artists’ film, because of its different relationship to cinema, is not inscribed as ‘normalised’ within the contemporary visual art environment in the same way. If knowledge of artists’ film exists, it has unfortunately been cast as a genre on the fringes of art history/practice - except as represented by gallery video (now referred to as film) or conceptual film. A Century of Artists’ Film in Britain is much welcome in its attempt to open a space for showcasing artists’ film and video and for wanting to show the varieties of contributions which artists in film have made to visual arts in the 20th Century. The show’s siting at the Tate also wants to gain for these practices the legitimising recognition of an art institution of national prestige and it brings together these two estranged environments.

Having said this, this response will mainly highlight some of the problems that follow from show’s venue at Tate Britain and its title, which imply that a definitive account of artist’s film and video is being presented. At the same time, the problem arises from a curatorial rationale which also appears to want to allow itself the freedom of an eclectic (arbitrary ) perspective. These two approaches resulting from conflicting desires are intrinsic to the curatorial rationale of the show and are structurally unresolved.

Arguably, the title A Century of Artists’ Film in Britain closes down a potentially heterogeneous possibility for the diverse material on show which gives a vista of the varieties of practices in moving image. However, within the aims of the show “to reveal the full range and variety of these histories” there is inconsistency in the omission of some works and artists, combined with the over-representation of others (in which some artists show up to three ‘displays’) - especially from the account which the show gives of the last 20 years. These omissions are inexplicable as this period represents a definitive moment of bursts of multiple forms of production of this art in Britain instead, artists (such as Kenneth Anger) who to my knowledge, are not associated with British film or film in Britain are included. There are other puzzling decisions such as the reference to ‘film’ although video is included - which needs to be made clear and whether the show wants to structurally acknowledge or reject the difference of the histories of film and video. The title and the venue raise the historical stakes and the demand for the show to make evident the curatorial criteria for both selection and crucially, for omission. Whilst the curating has tried to give a variety of both well known and little known works, there needs to be evidence of what drives particular choices. The weakness of an eclectic approach is that it can effectively mask or be used to mask the reasons or the blind spots behind the decisions taken, such as selection or exclusion and disarms the need for accountability. This only becomes a problem when set against the aims to historicise and to give a definitive account as suggested by the title and legitimised by the venue.