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The Passenger or the search for identity (FW31)

The evolution of the artist filmmaker 1997-2007: What has changed?
2007 marks the 10th anniversary of Filmwaves magazine. What has happened to artists’ film and video in the last decade? We asked practitioners, lecturers and writers. By William Raban

In one fundamental way spring 1997 feels rather like the present. Ten years ago there was a growing sense that after 18 years of Tory rule the May 97 election would bring a new direction in government. Ten years on and change is in the air once again as Tony Blair serves out his last few months in office. Politically the last 10 years have been a disaster and nothing but a smooth continuation of Thatcherism. The new labour government, that will forever be remembered for its tragic war in Iraq, eagerly began its reforming zeal with the introduction of university tuition fees and the White Paper A Bigger Picture, that was the blueprint for the formation of the Film Council. The Film Council was established on commercialist lines in accordance with the American system where production is led by the priorities of distribution. In other words, the Film Council was tasked with creating a UK film industry modelled on Hollywood. It quickly became clear that the funding of experimental film or artists’ film and video was definitely not on the government’s agenda. 10 years ago we did at least have some funding for cultural production through both the BFI and the Arts Council. New Labour plans closed those two funding sources. There still remains the regional film bodies such as Film London which do provide vital assistance to artists working in film and video but overall the funding of artists’ film and for any kind of film or video production that does not have a conspicuous commercial potential has never been harder to find. The closure of the Arts Council’s Film Video and Broadcasting Department in 1997 ended a decade of joint initiatives with television broadcasters that enabled artists working in film and video to reach much larger audiences than had been possible before. This started with John Wyver’s Ghost in the Machine shown on Channel Four. This was followed by the Arts Council/ BBC2 One Minute Television series for the Late Show. At the same time that inroads were being made into the BBC, David Curtis and Rod Stoneman (commissioning editor for independent film & video) started the Arts Council and Channel 4, Eleventh Hour joint commissioning scheme. The series continued to run under various titles including eXperimenta and Midnight Underground. The loss of these broadcast schemes reflects the increasing conservatism of terrestrial television. The only surviving broadcast scheme is the Channel Four Animate! series which commissions low budget experimental animation. There has always been a problem with describing my kind of practice. ‘Experimental’ film was never very satisfactory because there are mainstream filmmakers who claim that what they do is experimental. "Avant garde" seems a bit pretentious because strictly speaking it refers to a high point in the evolution of modernism that happened in the 1920s and early 1930s. ‘Artists’ film and video’ is sufficiently non-contentious to serve as a general descriptive term. It covers a huge area of interest from the work of the young British artists (the yBas) as well as the longer established film and video makers from the London Filmmakers’ Co-op and London Video Arts. I first became aware of the yBas when I saw their videos at the first Pandaemonium exhibition at the ICA in 1996. They are mostly attached to commercial galleries and sell their work in limited editions. The artists from the LFMC and LVA on the other hand, rejected the commodification of their practice and sought instead to make a financial return by renting the films and videos for exhibition. This remains an important point of principle and key difference between us. In September 1997 the opening of the LUX Centre seemed like a major triumph for state funding of the arts as the London Filmmakers’ Co-op and London Electronic Arts were brought together under the Lux umbrella in palatial purpose built premises in Hoxton East London. Sadly the organisation collapsed after only five years largely due to the massive rise in rent that the landlord charged on the building. The Lux lives on as the largest distributor of artists’ film and video in Europe and has achieved great success in getting work seen by a wider international audience through such initiatives as the luxonline website. There have been several large-scale exhibitions that have featured structural film and expanded cinema from the early 1970s over the past decade. Felicity Sparrow curated the film section to Live in Your Head at the Whitechapel in 2000. This was followed by SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT, which opened at Tate Modern in 2002 and toured to 13 countries. Mark Webber curated that programme as well as several large-scale shows of expanded cinema such as at Dortmund (2004) and Stuttgart (2006). In addition there have been other large exhibitions such as Into the Light at the Whitney Museum (2002) and X-SCREEN which surveyed a broad range of expanded cinema practice from the Fluxus movement in New York to the various European film movements of the 1960s and 1970s. All this activity points to a resurgence of interest in structural film and expanded cinema. I think this may be partly connected to the massive technological change that has taken place over the last 10-15 years. The digital revolution means that the subtle distinctions that used to exist between film and video have disappeared. There has been a lot of hype about the increased democratisation brought about by new DV technology. It may be true that for a modest outlay anyone can produce broadcast quality images on a digital camcorder edited on a home-based Mac or PC. This reflects a massive change that has overtaken the film industry. Most films are no longer made in the old (analogue) way of going from film negative to film print. The digital intermediate has become standard. This makes it possible to shoot in a variety of different film and video formats and bring them together in digital postproduction before scanning the final cut back to 35mm film if a cinema release print is required. Video projection has become ubiquitous to the point where many film festivals no longer project celluloid prints. Though it may now seem incredibly unfashionable to talk in these terms, the very limitations of the filmmaking process seemed to offer a more authentic or more objective account for documenting events unfolding in front of the camera. This is because there is a reduced opportunity for manipulating the film record during post-production. Or to put it another way: the image on celluloid is a more trustworthy witness than its digital counterpart. I think the current revived interest in structural film and expanded cinema may in part be explained by a nostalgic desire to recover the authenticity that has been lost as a consequence of the digital revolution. That ‘authenticity’ in relation to a materialist film practice is nowhere more evident than in the body of work produced in the 1960s and 1970s around structural film and expanded cinema. The term ‘artists’ film and video’ really seems to have been defined over the last 10 years. David Curtis’s magnificent exhibition A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain which ran for a whole year at Tate Britain, establishes a broad canon of UK practice from the 1890s to the present that encompasses work from the film co-op, the yBas as well as politically motivated films such as Nightcleaners by Berwick Street Collective. David’s recent book (same title as the exhibition) serves as an invaluable if belated catalogue to the show. His perceptive analysis of the films and videos is related to the institutional context that produced them. It has a breadth of scope that has not been attempted before, though some of the best histories of the work have appeared in the last eleven years. Books by Michael O’Pray, Al Rees, Malcolm Le Grice, Nicky Hamlyn and Margaret Dickinson have established a new critical framework on this area of practice. To my mind the best publication in the last ten years is the newspaper format ‘catalogue’ that accompanied Mark Webber’s SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT exhibition. It is comprehensive and brilliantly researched. Printed five years ago, the newsprint paper is already creased and yellowing. Get your hands on a copy now because it is sure to become a prized collector’s item in the future. Inevitably the changes over the last 10 years are a combination of gains and losses. On the downside there is less money available to stimulate new production and scratching a living is harder than ever especially as more filmmakers seem to be willing to show their work for no financial return. On the plus side there really does seem to be a renewed public interest in artists’ film and video (though sadly not reflected in tv programming). The two main film magazines Vertigo and Filmwaves have gone from strength to strength in the last 10 years and have continued to play a vital part in providing a focus for critical debate and exchange of ideas. William Raban William Raban is an artist filmmaker and is currently reader in film at the University of the Arts London.