What follows is an edited discussion,
conducted via e-mail, between Chris Byrne and Malcolm Dickson that starts
to plot a history of the profusion of film and video activity in Scotland.
This discussion is an attempt to redress, in a very small way, the recent
miasma surrounding the documentation and discussion of such activity in
Chris Byrne: There is currently
an absence of real discussion in Scotland about what we might call Moving
Image art. Video art, experimental film, screen-based art displayed on
computers or via the internet, it is all out there, happening. It's just
that no-one seems to talk about it much. There is a sense of operating
in a relative vacuum: ideas and influences appear from elsewhere, outwith
Scotland. Yet there are traditions of work in these fields by artists within
Scotland. It seems that very few know much about them. It is essential
to begin the process of mapping a history of these areas of practice, with
a specifically Scottish context.
If there are Scottish histories,
when did they start? Certainly with Avant-Garde film there was a good deal
of activity in the 1930s around Norman McLaren, Glasgow School of Art and
the GPO film unit. Unfortunately the sources of this experimental energy
left for Canada and elsewhere, leaving post-war Scottish film practice
to the documentarists and dramatists.
Malcolm Dickson: That period
in question is an interesting starting point to an origin of forms for
'experimental' practice in film. The hand-crafted nature of these films,
most of which involved animation, suggests a correlation with painting
which shouldn't have been too much out of step with the dominant taste
of the art schools and the 'academy'. I don't know very much about that
time or extent of the practice and how it made itself visible in public
terms. Film-makers have been grouped around the 'Kinecraft' movement, and
I believe the Scottish Film Archive is the first point of call regarding
that history. The1996 New Visions festival, co-ordinated by Ann Vance and
Paula Larkin, included a package of works on the Kinecraft movement put
together by Pauline Law.
CB: Out of this milieu did
emerge a distinctive voice in film, that of Margaret Tait. Her films were
grounded in realist documentary, but transcended the standard conventions
to become much more lyrical, poetic works. Simply made, but with great
elegance and flair, focusing on moments, fleeting glimpses, everyday settings.
Telling stories through moving images and location sound.
MD: Margaret Tait is interesting
because she has a creative proximity to a literary tradition. I think the
links through literature and philosophy to the visual arts are quite strong
and robust--it offers a more holistic overview than one constrained to a
stifling tradition of fine art. Writers and artists in moving image have
and do work together--it's important to mention Tom McGrath, Writer in Residence
at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (DJCA) who worked in the video
department in 1985/86.
CB: Tait's was a lone voice
during the 1960s, when most Scottish film makers were pre-occupied with
documentary realism, or 'the movies'. This situation was in contrast to
what was happening in London, New York and elsewhere, where underground
and experimental film making was flourishing. Video art had also started
to make an appearance in Canada, America and Germany.
One exception to this trend took
a London-based artist to the Edinburgh Festival in 1971. David Hall made
a series of short television works, which were broadcast on Scottish Television
in place of advertising during the Festival period. Shot in and around
Edinburgh, they are a landmark both for UK television and moving image
art in Scotland. Mick Hartney in his essay 'Int/ventions' in 'Diverse Practices:
A Critical Reader on British Video Art' states that Hall's television works
were part of 'Locations Edinburgh', curated by Alistair Mackintosh at the
Scottish Arts Council for the Edinburgh Festival. According to Hartney:
"The central idea of the project was that the artists should deploy the
various communication networks of the city to make their work or to make
it visible." Other artists in the show included Stuart Brisley, David Parsons
and Jeffrey Shaw, all with Hall part of the 'Artists Placement Group' (APG),
a conceptual art grouping which interested itself with tactical interventions
into popular culture and public space. Brisley apparently staged a slow-motion
car crash in a disused car showroom, Ed Herring played back ambient sounds
into the environment, Parsons made street banners, Shaw and others made
MD: John Latham's statement
underpinning the APG, that 'context is half the work' of course went on
to inspire and provide the philosophical foundation on which David Harding
began the Environmental Art Course at Glasgow School of Art.
CB: Later in the 1970s, the
first 'video art' started to appear in galleries in Scotland. In 1973 the
Scottish Arts Council gallery in Edinburgh hosted 'Open Circuit', featuring
video, photography and film, including an ongoing performance installation
by David Hall, using video equipment.
MD: Scotland at this time
wasn't so far out on a limb in terms of artists intervening in exhibition
structures, as limited as they were. The 'Open Cinema' exhibition in the
Scottish Arts Council's gallery in Charlotte Square in 1976 is another
case in point. It included film makers centred around the London Film Makers
Co-operative, such as Malcolm Le Grice, Tony Sinden, Tony Hill, Nicky Hamlyn,
Annabel Nicholson and Jane Rigby. The introduction to the catalogue by
Deke Dunsiberre stated that: "This programme of 'expanded cinema' offers
Edinburgh the opportunity to see recent examples of an area of international
avant-garde film-making... By inviting film artists to present new work...,
the SAC is opening new perspectives on the cinema; perspectives yielding
film installations which should be viewed not in the narrow context of
conventional film history, but in the general context of art history."
Also in 1976, the exhibition 'Video:
towards defining an aesthetic' was held at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow.
It argued for specific codes of consideration in the medium of video with
David Hall's article beginning with the challenge: "... A brief attempt
at some of the distinctions between video and film may be useful." The
issues raised are interesting in relation to time-based art and they are
not marked in my mind as being time-specific. In fact, there are resemblances
to debates around digital arts, interactivity and new media happening today
in forums such as Digital Dreams, LoveBytes, Shock Waves and Ground Control,
numerous events organised at the ICA and throughout the Video Positive
Festivals to ISEA 98. There is a suggestive critical rigour there that
clicks with earlier ideas which in retrospect have had quite far reaching
consequences. It's not as if we don't have the Stuart Marshall's of today
it's just that our terms of reference have altered and are more fragmented.
Two books to mention here are Sean Cubitt's 'Timeshift: On Video Culture'
and also Owen Kelly's 'Digital Dialogues'. Every page of these books explode
with ideas that are linked to practice--they aren't hypothetical. Another
point of reference which I have to mention here are the articles by Sara
Diamond and Kate Elwes which featured in a series of works on 'Women and
New Technology' in the first volume of Variant.
Another change that has taken place
I think is the notion of 'opposition' and positions of contestation. Video
was seen as challenging conventional broadcast television and indeed institutionalised
But to get back to an earlier point
we've been alluding to regarding a lineage for practice today, is that
the lobbying for mainstream legitimacy is not something new--even if it
was articulated as contesting that which it actually depended upon--and
the aforementioned bears a frustrating similarity to the contemporary situation
in the 90s. However, now the ownership of an experimental tradition is
not such a critical issue between a film history or an art history--both
are too constrictive.
CB: On the distinctions between
film and video as tools for making art, the two are often grouped together
under a broad moving image category. There are significant differences
in the ways that the image is reproduced, however.
Experimental work did not really
take off in Scotland during the 1970s. Certainly it was a turbulent time
politically, and there were indeed groups making what might be termed 'agit-prop'
films in Edinburgh, notably Red Star Cinema, who made low-budget Super-8
films on topical local political issues of the day. I think Robin Crighton
(now with Edinburgh Film Workshop) and Dave Rushton (now running the Institute
of Local Television in Edinburgh) were involved with this group.
Maybe it was seen as more important
to be politically 'avant-garde', i.e. socialist, in Scotland at the time.
The big movements in theatre at the time seem to mirror this trend. It
also seems that anyone not involved in political, community-based groups
was aspiring to make popular entertainment, either for cinema or television.
Also during the late 1970s and early 1980s the film-making avant-garde
based around the London Film Makers Co-op was in the grip of a rather austerely
Marxist concept of 'structural film', whose main theorist was Peter Gidal.
This aesthetic may have seemed out of touch and unappealing to many artists,
perhaps unfairly. Video art of the time was possibly more adventurous,
but addressing itself to the galleries of London, New York and Cologne.
There may have been a reaction against such a metropolitan outlook in Scotland,
or possibly no-one here was much interested!
When Channel Four was set up in
the early 1980s, the Workshop Declaration gave funding to film and video
workshops to support their activities. Apart from London Video Arts, who
distributed and helped to produce video artists' works, I think all the
workshops were community based organisations making work mainly around
social issues. This includes Edinburgh Film Workshop, the only Scottish
organisation to be funded.
So perhaps it is more a question
of the support infrastructure not being in place for artists' production
in the 1970s and 1980s. After all, it is difficult to make films or videos
if you can't get access to equipment and maybe an artist would not think
of working in such a medium, if no-one was advocating it. Central to this
was the role of the Scottish Art Schools, who did not embrace these 'alternative'
media unlike similar institutions in England and Wales. There were a handful
of individuals who helped support work. Colin McLeod, now with the Photography,
Film & TV Department at Napier University, was I believe working at
Edinburgh College of Art in the late 1970s as a film technician in the
Architecture School. If 'fine artists' wanted to make films, they went
Acess to resourceschanged somewhat
with the arrival of video artist Stephen Partridge as a tutor at Duncan
of Jordanstone College of Art (DJCA), Dundee in the mid-1980s. He persuaded
the College to invest significant resources in the video department, and
it has become one of the UK's leading centres for video and media art teaching
MD: That takes us back to
David Hall and what is lightly referred to as the 'Maidstone mafia' from
Dundee. Joking aside, the influence has been profound.
CB: Yes, Partridge was a student
of Hall's at Maidstone College. The course was the first in the UK to teach
video specifically as a medium for artists. It has been very influential,
and during the 1980s some saw the artists trained there as an overbearing
legacy of 1970s conceptualism.
Later in the 1980s Edinburgh College
of Art set up Animation and Film & TV departments, followed by Napier
University. Though these courses were not specifically designed to teach
video art or experimental film, the result of this activity in education
was that many more artists were versed in the technologies. The establishment
of new access-oriented, membership-based film and video workshops in Glasgow
and Edinburgh meant that artists could source camera equipment and post-production
facilities after leaving College.
MD: There were possibilities
brewing in the late 80s regarding film and video from an 'experimental'
perspective. What it lacked was a desire on the part of funders to strategically
support this growing and visible area of practice. It was different with
photography in Scotland where it took a SAC commissioned consultancy chaired
by the director of the Scottish Film Council to go through the motions
of validation--then for a proposal for a festival to be drawn up, encouraged
by the SAC, and for Fotofeis to be established. Now of course the funding
has been withdrawn. Where do people interested in that direct their enquiries
now? The same is true for New Visions--the Glasgow based bi-annual festival
of film, video and new media--although that is on a different scale and
economy of financial and human resources.
There have been notable advances
in the past that I think we can still pick up on: the SAC established the
Visual Artists Video Bursary in 1987. Pictorial Heroes, who were among
several recipients of the award, made some very large and arresting video
installations for the Scottish Society of Artists and the Royal Scottish
Academy. Prior to that there was EventSpace 1, which involved Stephen Partridge
from Dundee, Doug Aubrey and Alan Robertson of Pictorial Heroes. That event,
held at Transmission in its early years, was the first exhibition in Scotland
of video since the 1970s. Artists included in that were Kevin Atherton,
Steve Littman, Zoe Redman, Partridge, Rigby and more. Whilst at Transmission
we organised a series of events under that title. When our tenure on the
committee was up we formed EventSpace separately--Ken Gill, Doug Aubrey
and Alan Robertson were the others. The model there as far as I was concerned
was Projects UK in Newcastle--that of a non-venue based agency promoting
innovative work in site-specific and non-gallery locations. The most significant
event organised there I think was 'Sites/Positions' in 1990 which commissioned
several artists to make new work, including Douglas Gordon, Christine Borland,
Alison Marchant, and Gillian Steel who created an animated film with girls
from Springburn. 'Sites/Positions' was the first event of Glasgow's Year
of Culture, and all the more significant for that. EventSpace continued
with similar projects before focusing more strongly on the moving image
with a series of screenings before organising the New Visions festival
The SAC set up a New Projects Scheme
(NPS) in 1988. This was at a time when discussions were taking place between
advocates of the sector and with both SFC (Scottish Film Council, now Scottish
Screen) and SAC. Many agonising moments were spent trying to justify what
this work was and was not. The 'get out clause' was always the inability
for the definition of experimental to fit within any established funding
criteria or for that matter just being able to recognise that. So, the
video bursaries and the NPS I think were ways of attempting to address
that and it must be said the arts officers, Lyndsay Gordon (who in fact
had been involved in organising the '76 video show at the Third Eye Centre)
and Robert Livingston were supportive.
It is worth noting some of the many
events that have marked this period: I remember a huge Dan Reeves installation
at the Pearce Institute in Govan 1990, then later his 'Jizo Garden' at
the CCA in '92. He appeared again as part of the National Review of Live
Art, which (with the help of the video department at DJCA) for many years
hosted many installations and screenings and gave video a strong platform
and presence. The homage to David Hall's 'TV Pieces' was replayed again
with Fields & Frames' 'TV Interventions' event in 1990. Even earlier
in 1989 Jane Rigby and Steve Partridge working under the company title
of 'Art Tapes Ecosse', put together 'Made In Scotland' which was shown
at several festivals and events. The same year I was involved in making
Variant Video, which was an electronic compliment to the printed magazine.
One edition featured works from Dundee and interviews with video artists.
CB: An important show was
'Interference', at the Seagate Gallery, Dundee in 1987, this being the
first video show outwith the central belt. A clutch of artists associated
with the course at Dundee made installations over the course of the event.
Stephen Partridge, Pictorial Heroes, Chris Rowland, Alistair McDonald,
Tony Judge, and Kevin Atherton. Single-screen tapes by other artists were
also shown. The year after, Partridge and Steven Littman from Maidstone
organised the video section of the National Review of Live Art at the Third
Eye Centre. Installations were staged by Mineo Aayamaguchi, Lei Cox, Paul
Green, Daniel Reeves, Chris Rowland, and Jeremy Welsh.
MD: So there has been a lot
of frenetic activity.
CB: The Fringe Film Festival
was started by Harald Tobermann in 1984 as an alternative experience to
the mainstream Edinburgh Film Festival. Community projects and low budget
Super-8 films were shown alongside old classics and 'Indie' movies. The
festival consisted of cinema screenings mainly, with some occasional interesting
live events. Particularly memorable was a night of classic silent films
with newly composed musical scores, performed live. Tobermann went on to
found an unfortunately short-lived Scottish based video distribution company,
which promoted productions from the many workshops then active in the UK.
It was not until 1990, when film-maker
Louise Crawford ran the festival, that Edinburgh saw expanded cinema again:
several installations were shown at the Collective Gallery in addition
to the core event of cinema screenings. In 1991 the first video art appeared
at what was by then the Fringe Film and Video Festival (FFVF), Video being
added to the title, co-ordinated by video artist Nicola Percy. Between
1992 and 1993 I organised the festival and showed several site-specific
moving image and performance installations during the period. Artists included
Riccardo Iacono, Kenny Davidson, Ally Wallace: also in 1993 I brought over
a show to the Collective Gallery from the World Wide Video Centre, The
Hague which included work by Jaap de Jonge and Justin Bennett. During the
1995 and 1996 events organised by Dave Cummings and Becky Lloyd, the FFVF
showed a video sculpture by Bob Last at the Collective, an early Cary Peppermint
internet performance, plus various works on CD-ROM.
The significance of a festival such
as the FFVF was, I feel, not appreciated widely at the time. It gave artists
and film-makers the opportunity to make their work visible to the public.
It also provided an annual focus around new work, raising the profile of
this area with funders and exhibitors. The forums for debate on the film
and video sector in Scotland were an important chance to meet other artists
and discuss concerns and issues of common interest. The fact that the scene
now seems so fragmented can perhaps be attributed to the lack of any such
regular forum for showing and discussing new work.
MD: Both festivals engaged
a wide cross-section of makers, public and supporters. Their great strength
was the diversity of international media art production that both embraced
and their motivation in linking local makers and concerns with a wider
international perspective. A main feature of New Visions has been the 'International
Zeitgeist' programmes culled from open invitations--as you will know there
are hundreds of responses to these calls for submission. That's encouraging
in terms of the volume of new work being made. There has been an attempt
to blur art and community approaches through the 'Communities of Resistance'
programme theme devoted to documentary, group and issue-based work. Another
feature has been the forums for debate: in 1994 there was the 'Digital
Deviance' event featuring Despite TV, Graham Harwood and Mathew Fuller,
and the 'Tactical Television' theme; representatives from Van Gogh TV came
and from the Amsterdam Translocal Network. There was a lot of discussion
created and some anticipation concerning how the prospects for image making
could be linked to the social purpose of working with those marginalised
from the mainstream through the creative use of new technologies.
Many Glasgow based artists put on
installations at New Visions in different venues: Smith/Stewart, Stevie
Hurrell, Ewan Morrison. But it's really just the tip of the iceberg, and
whilst we might bemoan the lack of structural support for activity emanating
from the 'grass-roots', there has been a process of legitimacy aided by
the international attention given to the emergence of video projection
by artists such as Bill Viola and Gary Hill. This has assured the absorption
of video into the mainstream institutional context of art history. Douglas
Gordon's '24 Hour Psycho' at Tramway in Glasgow was quite influential I
think in affecting younger artists here in their perception of what video
was or is and how it can be used. I hope that the 'V-Topia' show also at
Tramway is a case in point here. The aesthetic of video has eluded the
critics and journalists because they have been unaware of its presence
and history in Scotland--there hasn't been anything that has penetrated
that fog to bring all the connection points together. Now we can't talk
of medium-specific aesthetics given the convergence between digital arts,
fine art practice, graphic design, film, video and multimedia, except to
provide an historical cohesion for present practice--that, however is vital.
CB: I think that is true,
there is more promotion now of the individual artist as opposed to the
medium. That said, in the past few years video in particular has had a
higher profile in the major art institutions. In Edinburgh, Marina Abramovic
showed a video sculpture installation at the Fruitmarket in 1995; there
was a lot of work in the British Art Show in 1996; the Fruitmarket showed
Bill Viola last year, Yoko Ono and of course Smith/Stewart this year. This
rash of activity is interesting given that during the 1980s there was I
think only one video show at the Fruitmarket: Marie-Jo LaFontaine in 1989.
Unfortunately these recent shows have been confined mainly to successful
artists already made famous by the international art market. Exceptions
to this rule include recent installations by Dalziel and Scullion at the
National Gallery of Modern Art, and David Williams at the National Portrait
It has been mainly in what used
to be the alternative spaces that video by Scottish based artists has been
most prominent in the last few years. The Collective Gallery has a particularly
good record of supporting work. This was often in collaboration with the
FFVF in the past, but over the last few years some interesting artists
have made video or computer works in the space: John Beagles and Graham
Ramsay's incisively witty show being easily the most memorable.
MD: I like to think of art
activity as being made up of all these little points of nascent energy
and the role that a festival or an organisation has is to temporarily harness
that without dulling it. Many venues have focused a lot of attention into
the Lottery in terms of building based projects, rightly so I suppose in
that the infrastructure has to be there to be materially facilitated. There
are a couple of non-venue based organisations in Glasgow though who are
doing their thing, but in the area of the moving image and new technology
there is not an established organisation that understands the nuances of
the inter-connecting sectors of small budget film, independent video, fine
art and the possibilities with the new media to bring all those things
together in exhibition and distribution across Scotland.
CB: Certainly the need still
exists...one only has to look at the example South of the Border. England
would not have anything like the presence it now has in this field without
organisations such as the London Film-Makers Co-op, London Electronic Arts,
Film & Video Umbrella, Hull Time-Based Arts, Videopositive...the list
goes on. With the withdrawal of funding from FFVF, New Visions and Fotofeis,
in Scotland we now have no organisation at all advocating, promoting or
touring in this area of work. Whilst some galleries do a good job, I still
think they need support, and the artists in this field certainly do.
MD: Lobbying tends to come
in cycles--ten years is probably the maximum amount of time anyone can sustain
energy on one issue without a corresponding change occurring from the lobbying
before they have to move on, if they are not burnt out. There have to be
tangible legacies to build upon in practice.
CB: Hopefully what has gone
before can inform future developments. If not, the field will be left to
others to start from scratch all over again.