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Venice Biennale

It would be nice to do something political (AIS 22)

Scottish avant-garde film
Life on the margins the Scottish avant-garde film. An overview by David Morgan

There are a number of problems when attempting to discuss Scottish avant-garde film work, many of which stem from the fact that the concepts of ‘Scottishness’ and the ‘avantgarde’ seem to work in opposite directions. While most theory and criticism relating to experimental film work has a broad outward look, spanning a plethora of different countries, movements and periods the study of Scottish film work is, by its very nature, an introspective process; examining questions of national self-identity and how this is related through the media. These separate forces, pulling in opposite directions, have led to a state of affairs whereby it becomes almost impossible to talk about any kind of school, tradition or movement in experimental image work in Scotland. On the one hand Scottish artists are treated as part of an international frame of reference, with no kind of interest or significance attached to national identity, while on the other hand much avant-garde work is sidelined within the study of Scottish film since it does not directly address questions of national identity. One of the key concepts in Scottish film theory is the notion of marginality. If Hollywood represents the dominant mainstream then British cinema exists in a marginal state to it. In turn Scottish cinema (and it is now possible to talk seriously about such an entity) exists in a marginal relationship to British cinema, doubly divorced from the mainstream. Where, then, does this leave experimental film work ? It would seem that it has been relegated largely to the footnotes. Although there are many Scottish artists who have made important, high profile contributions to the field there is little serious study or in-depth discussion about their work, or about how these artists stand in relation to each other. This is nowhere more noticeable than in the case of Norman McLaren. There is scarcely a book on experimental filmmaking which fails to mention his name, yet few manage to discuss his work in any kind of depth. Born in Stirling in 1914 McLaren attended Glasgow School of Art in the 1930s. Whilst at the Art School he became enthralled by the films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, and soon began working on his own amateur film projects. 7 till 5 showed a day in the life of the art school. Heavily influenced by Eisenstein’s work with montage 7 till 5 displays a clear picture of a filmmaker in love with movement. As soon as McLaren was able to get his hands on a Cine - Kodak Special, a camera with stop frame and rewinding capabilities, he began throwing himself headlong into animation. Hell Unlimited, a film which McLaren produced with Helen Biggar in 1936 is probably his best known work from this period. Hell Unlimited (1939) was a radical political statement and a clear expression of McLaren’s communist principles. Using a mixture of live action, animation and still photographs the film uses a bold agit-prop style to illustrate the way in which major businesses were making huge profits by re-arming Europe. Despite the strength of Hell Unlimited’s message, and the important role that politics continued to play in McLaren’s life, much of his subsequent film work was nowhere near as overtly political. Only his Oscarwinning 1952 film Neighbours was to match Hell Unlimited in its outspoken political content. As McLaren was nearing the end of his time at art school his other main amateur production, Camera makes Whoopee, came to the attention of John Grierson, the driving force behind the documentary movement in Britain. Grierson offered him a place at the G.P.O. film unit, but was quick to realise a frivolous streak in McLaren’s non-political works. In later years Grierson was to criticise McLaren as "perhaps the most protected artist in the history of cinema." Such criticism stems largely from McLaren’s use of improvisation, a reflection of his interest in Surrealism. Whilst at the G.P.O. McLaren’s Love on the Wing was barred from release by the Postmaster General for being "too Freudian." The film itself was one of the first examples of McLaren’s experiments in drawing and painting directly onto the film strip. One of his prime beliefs was that animation was not the art of drawings which move but of movements which are drawn. This method of working directly with the filmstrip led to an increasing degree of abstraction in much of his work throughout the 1950s and 60s. The films Boogie Doodle (1948) and Begone Dull Care, both from the 1940s, display a riotous use of colour and pattern similar to some of Len Lye’s works such as A Colour Box. By the 1960s, however, works such as Lines Horizontal and Mosaic, where the sole image of the film is composed of lines scratched into the emulsion, display a hypnotic minimalism. In Synchromy (1971) the image is determined literally by the abstract electronic score. The square - wave pattern of the optical sound track is reprinted onto the image area of the film, which is then coloured during the processing. The result is a strobing display of perfectly synchronised light and sound. This kind of minimalist filmmaking, which in many cases did not even require the use of a camera, made McLaren’s work of special interest to many experimental filmmakers in the late 60s/early 70s. His examination of methods of film making at its most basic level brought his films close to the work of other filmmakers working with the material aspects of the medium. It was this kind of recognition that ensured that McLaren’s work would be remembered for a long time to come. One of the facts of life that comes from producing work in Scotland is that there is rarely a large market for film work within the producer’s home country. For generations many of Scotland’s top artistic talents ventured abroad in order to gain a higher profile for their work. In McLaren’s case he was to emigrate, first to America and then to Canada where he joined the National Film Board, again at Grierson’s invitation. Once there he was responsible for the creation of the NFB’s film unit, a body which he remained the head of up until his retirement in 1984. Other notable filmmakers from this period include Margaret Tait, who studied in Rome in the early 1950s at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia before returning to Scotland to make a number of interesting poetic works which used both narrative and documentary modes. She is best remembered within Scottish film studies for her 1992 feature debut Blue Black Permanent, which she directed at the age of 73 with funding from the BFI. Also in 1971 Scottish Television made some important inroads into promoting film and video art by broadcasting David Hall’s TV Interruptions. Broadcast during the Edinburgh Festival the seven works, mostly composed of a single shot using time lapse techniques, presented a rupture in the standard flow of the television content and were intended to shock the viewer into an awareness of the television as object and televisual content as commodity. Although not Scottish himself, Hall’s Stooky Bill TV also appeared at the 1990 Glasgow exhibition; an event that formed a centrepiece for the city’s hosting of the European City of Culture and which also featured work by Liz Rhodes. Both of these pieces shown during the exhibition were made in conjunction with Channel Four, and in the 1980s the Channel’s regional workshop programme led to the creation of the Glasgow Film and Video Workshop (now G-MAC) and the Edinburgh Film Workshop Trust. For the first time a grass-roots infrastructure began to develop and by the 1990s a substantial body of work by Scottish artists began to emerge. Many of the artists emerging at this stage again had close ties to the Glasgow Art School. Some of the most notable include Douglas Gordon whose 1996 work 24 Hour Psycho picked up the Turner Prize. Like much of Gordon’s work the piece showed a fascination with the history of film, slowing down the Hitchcock classic so that it runs over the space of a full day. In Through the Looking Glass he projected the "You talking to me ?" scene from Taxi Driver onto opposite facing walls of a gallery, so that the viewer becomes trapped between two warring Travis Bickles. Many of his works use this kind of found footage to examine the way in which the spectator becomes complicit with a text. Hysterical uses a medical film from the turn of the century in which a woman is supposedly treated for hysteria by two doctors. Although the film constructs itself as being a documentary it is clear from the staging of the scene that it is a dramatic reconstruction, leading us to question the validity of the scientific clinical discourse which informs the film. The work of Stephanie Smith and Edward Stewart, on the other hand, is based very strongly in examinations of mutual dependence. In their work the camera serves to document the pro-filmic action, which often has a slightly sado-masochistic edge to it. Sustain, which is perhaps their most widely known work, features Stewart submerged in a bathtub, holding his breath. Whenever his breath runs out Smith dives in from the edges of the frame and breathes into his mouth to keep him supplied with air. As the piece continues the intervals between Stewart’s breaths become shorter and shorter as the amount of useful oxygen he receives each time grows less. Another piece starts off in darkness, with the noise of a car driving. It is only after the sound of a switch being turned and the car headlights coming on that we realise that the pair are driving along a country road at the dead of night. One attempts to drive while the other works the camera and randomly flicks the headlights on and off. Another major institution which is playing a role in the development of new media work in Scotland is Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee. The College’s School of Television and Imaging runs a number of courses on Electronic Imaging and time-based Media, and tutors on the course include established practitioners such as Mike Stubbs and Lei Cox, both of whom have recently held large-scale shows at the CCA in Glasgow. Amongst the graduates of the time-based media course is Matt Hulse, an Edinburgh based artist who’s work has appeared at a plethora of film festivals over the last ten years, picking up a number of awards along the way. His 1998 production Wee Three, made with assistance from G-MAC, picked up the Scottish BAFTA New Talent award for best achievement as well as the Fox Searchlight award for Best British Short Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival. His latest work, a performance of the Sex Pistol’s God Save the Queen in British Sign Language has appeared throughout Britain, and was runner-up in the Open category of Glasgow’s Real to Reel Film Festival. The development of both educational and funding networks within Scotland has led to an explosion in the use of film and video media in the arts. The brief list of artists who have already been discussed represent only the tip of the iceberg, and commissioning and production programmes such as the Glasgow based Digicult are helping to consolidate a core of artists living and working in Scotland. Other schemes, such as the Scottish branch of 4 Minute Wonders, are helping artists exploit their work through collaborations with record labels. For the first time in Scotland there is a large enough body of art and artists which we can begin to examine and discuss with reference to film and video. The only defining feature of this movement, however, is it’s variety. The lack of any kind of previous tradition in this field means that Scottish artists have embraced a whole spectrum of different techniques, styles and approaches in their work, which can no longer be easily summed up by handy or convenient labels.

David Morgan