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Video: From Art to Independence
A short history of a new technology.

The new technology is itself a product of a particular social system, and will be developed as an apparently autonomous process of innovation only to the extent that we fail to identify and challenge its real agencies. [1]

In his Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Raymond Williams describes how the relationship between twentieth century communications technology and society is most usually accounted for by the powerful argument of technological determinism. Technological determinism sees a newly developed technology as being abstracted from society upon which it then has certain predictable (and sometimes unpredictable) effects. In his attempt to shift this orthodox view, Williams recasts this polarisation of Technology/Society by restoring intention to the process of technological research and development. Although he differentiates communications technology from that of industrial production and military technology he argues that new technologies are always sought for as an answer to needs felt by those parts of society which have the power to sanction and encourage development investment. In the particular case of broadcast communications Williams describes how the technology was developed to allow new forms of communication and social interaction without a developed definition of the nature of the broadcast message itself. The intended social effects of broadcast radio and television were considered to be the new possibilities of information transmission and reception rather than the specific ideological effects of the information to be relayed. The programming problems experienced by early television broadcasters bear witness to the accuracy of his perception.

Unlike the case of broadcast television it is evident that most of the research into new video technology was very definitely concerned not only with the creation of new forms of social communication but also with the nature of the communicated message itself. For those who are excited by the radical social possibilities of the video portapak it is easy to forget that the development of this particular consumer commodity was underpinned by a vast investment in new commercial, military and managerial technology such as commercial information storage and retrieval, computer visual display units, internal television and video systems, data banking and military and commercial surveillance. In relation to this infrastructure, the portapak seems like a momentary hiccup in a process entirely committed to extending commercial and managerial control and efficiency.

Portable video technology became available in Britain in the late sixties and, as in North America, was immediately taken up by users whose interests could be described as counter-cultural. The socio-historical context into which video was inserted should be sketched out to provide some explanation for the jubilation with which it was greeted. Since the '50s broadcast television had become the focus of increasing concern for both radical and orthodox sociologists. In sympathy with the theory of technological determinism, television was scrutinised as the 'cause' of many and various social 'effects'. This period of media theory was strongly influenced by the work of McLuhan and other American formalists who described the inevitable consequences of broadcast technology rather than considering broadcast television from its institutional/industrial base as a producer of ideological representations acting at times in concert with and at times against those of other institutions within the social formation. In these accounts it is the very fact of television which is seen as a problem; the technology is described as necessarily and inevitably producing specific social effects. This debate around the consequences of television was, in fact, part of a general debate which addressed itself to 'mass' communications. Television was seen as the exemplary instance of these new forms of social communication. The criticisms which were levelled at television from both Left and Right shared a mutual base of technologically determinist assumptions. Orthodox views gathered a particular force in the case of the newly emergent forms of youth culture -all of which were attributed to the increasing importance of television as a form of social 'manipulation'. The spread of youth culture was explained as an effect of television which was 'caused' by a process of imitation or role-modelling engendered by the broadcast form. Radical views assigned to television the responsibility for widespread social apathy and described the effects of television as the embourgeoisement of the masses. Such explanations inevitably lead to the concentration of political criticism upon the ownership of the means of production and communication. It is not therefore surprising that the new video technology was greeted with celebration. The very fact of video seemed to offer the promise of the inevitable democratisation of the television medium.

‘Traditional guerilla activity such as bombings, snipings and kidnapping complete with printed manifestos seems like so many risky short-change feedback devices compared with the real possibilities of portable video, maverick data banks, acid metaprogramming, cable tv, satellites, cybernetic craft industries and alternate life-styles.'

North America in the late '60s saw a rapid counter-cultural response to the availability of the new video technology in the form of new media groupings such as Radical Software in New York. These users were well versed in the 'cyberscat' of systems, information and cybernetic theory which they had already harnessed to their critique of dominant cultural forms. The early discourse of North American video was, as a consequence, woven through with a counter-cultural political rhetoric which was to determine strongly both the forms and subject matter of video practice for several years. In Britain a similar situation obtained. Groups such as TVX, set up when video equipment was donated to the Arts Lab in 1968, were to become the Centre for Advanced TV Studies, Fantasy Factory, Graft-ON and a number of community activist organisations.

The revolutionary politics of Britain in '68 tended to focus upon confrontation with the practices, power structures and ideologies of the educational institutions. Significantly for the development of British independent video practice, it was in the art schools that the voices of dissent were most clearly heard. The alternative radical press flourished as new and specific cultural groups sought representation, self-recognition and affirmation. At the same, time that students of Guildford and Hornsey Colleges of Art were occupying their colleges and arguing for a restructuring of art education in favour of a network or non-specialist system, the arts themselves were entering a new phase of experimentation and cross-fertilisation.

By the early '70s, modernism had reached its zenith in painting and sculpture. The semiotic shift begun by Cubism's rupture of sign and referent had eventually culminated in the play of pure signifiers free of any signifieds beyond the realm of aesthetics itself. Painting had achieved almost total reflexivity; it spoke only the conditions of its own material existence. Conceptual artists working within the commercial gallery system began to focus attention upon the processes of art production rather than the art object itself. Many claimed a political significance for this work by arguing that it challenged both the art historical and gallery definition of the work as a cultural and marketable commodity. The institutional effect of this shift within avant-garde art practice was rapid. Many galleries adapted their marketing strategies to recuperate these works as saleable commodities. Hence documentation of performance, site-dependent and conceptual art was offered to the collector in the place of the work itself or the collector commissioned an installation for a pre-existing private space.

Many younger and more radical artists felt the need to construct new institutions for the production and exhibition of work as an alternative to the commercial galleries and conventional forms of patronage. Co-operatives and collectives were set up which attempted to represent special interest groups and organise around new notions of the ownership of the means of production, audience/performer relations and the means and forms of distribution. The London Film Makers Co-op, the short lived but highly influential 2B Butlers Wharf group and the Basement Group in Newcastle are three notable examples.

It is at this point that the specific history of video practice in Britain begins to differ significantly from that in the USA. What, in fact, was to determine the specificity of British video was the form of modernism which it took up and developed to its own conclusions.


The entanglement of early British video with late modernism requires further elaboration. There was, of course, nothing inevitable about it. Early counter-cultural users had already established their difference from contemporary art ideology by moving towards the conventions (and dominant televisual ideologies) of agit-prop. In Britain avant-garde video never fully identified itself with, or was courted by, the traditional institutions of the commercial art world. Its first practitioners were the very artists who had instigated the development of alternative exhibition spaces. Video technology became available at the moment when traditional categories and definitions were being most forcefully challenged. As a consequence the technology was taken up in a number of hybrid practices such as video/performance in which its role was more of an adjunct to, or expansion of, other media and practices.

Several British artists were, however, devoting themselves almost exclusively to video and they recognised the need for a specific video practice to be developed. It is important to note the extent to which avant-garde film provided models of organisation for this early attempt to establish video as an autonomous practice. Artist film-makers had been struggling for several years to develop their own practice as an identifiable, autonomous and, most importantly, fundable aesthetic. In the late '60s, as many younger artists began to work outside the commercial gallery structure, the state -in the form of the Arts Council of Great Britain -took on an increasing importance in the funding and exhibition of alternative aesthetic practices. The two most significant new committees were the short-lived Special Projects Committee and the Artists' Film Committee, which was set up in response to increasing pressure from artists working in film for a specialist body apart from that of the visual arts.

Artist video producers formed a pressure group: London Video Arts (LVA), which was to become firstly a distribution library, secondly a regular showing venue in London and finally a production facility. The decision to provide a distribution and exhibition service prior to a production facility points to the importance attached at that time to the circulation of existing work (particularly from abroad) over and above the need to facilitate the production of new work. The decision was entirely pragmatic. Video technology was still developing too rapidly and unevenly for video artists to provide a convincing argument to state funding bodies for the enormous capital funding required to set up a production facility. Production was at least taking place, albeit it within the constraints of the educational institutions.

An aspect of the early membership of LVA which was specific to video was that almost all of the first steering committee members were, or were to become, in some way related to colleges and schools of art. At this time many art colleges were setting up media departments and investing in video technology. This came as a response to both the new developments in cross-fertilisation in the arts and the increasing institutional fascination with new information technology which was making its presence felt in the form of audio-visual aids in media-dependent teaching practices. Early British video therefore became inextricably linked with undergraduate and post-graduate art education, both in terms of its means of production and the development of its aesthetic. One consequence of this institutional dependency was that avant-garde video found itself face to face with the traditional arts of painting and sculpture. Video not only had to develop its own practices but also had to argue for the aesthetic validity of these practices. If, therefore, video were to develop a modernist practice, it would stand on equal footing with the other traditional art practices. At the same time, however, it would have the advantage of being recognised in its specificity as a result of the modernist concern with the foregrounding of the 'inherent' properties of the medium. Only such a course would guarantee the survival of the current means of production and the future support of the state funding bodies. It was these factors which constituted the conjunctural determination of the specific forms of modernist video.

Late modernism in painting took the form of a reflexivity which excluded all representation or meaning other than that which resulted from the purely formal play of signifiers. Avant-garde film practice had become 'about' acetate, optical reprinting, movement, repetition and duration with an equal stress being placed upon the pro-filmic event, the process of image production and the projection event itself. In modernist video there was a constant attention paid to the possibilities of the technology and its means of image production. In some senses one can compare such work to modernist work in film in that there is a concentration upon the processes of image production. Yet there are also significant differences between the two media which make the comparison inappropriate. The video image only comes into being at the moment of playback. As a stored image its materiality consists of a complex pattern of invisible electromagnetic charges on a reel of magnetic tape. Modernist work in film involved a direct working upon the image/acetate surface. The encoded video image does not make itself available for such plastic manipulation in its 'pre-projected' form. In the case of video therefore, such interventions can only be made at the level of the technology of image production and reproduction itself. Separate units of image production-camera, recorder, mixer, monitor can be brought into different and complex relations but the producer is always kept at a distance from the actual electronic processes of image coding and registration. The early practice of video artists can be described as modernist in that the technology of video was their major preoccupation rather than the world in front of the lens which the medium was developed to reproduce. Video artists' overriding concern was the specificity of the technology -its difference from other mechanical means of image production. Many early works were concerned, with the specific effects of light upon the vidicon tube, foregrounding phenomena such as temporary image retention or overdriven automatic exposure controls in order to produce images which uncompromisingly referred the viewer back to the specificity of the technology.

As a result of this attempt by video to take up the procedures of modernism there was an inevitable and constant confrontation with illusionism and representation -the very antitheses of the self-referring modernist object. The drive to establish the ontological autonomy of video brought the artists up against issues which constantly displaced the terms of their projects. By attempting to produce a self-reflexive modernist practice, video, in fact, became embroiled within practices of signification. Unlike the media and practices of painting and sculpture, video technology and dominant televisual practices do not 'belong' to the artist. The technology was not developed with him or her in mind and televisual 'literacy' was established and is controlled by the television industry. Video's attempt to produce a modernist practice therefore produced a second unexpected consequence, the establishment of a critical relation to dominant technology and its representational practices.

The curious result of this set of factors was that much early avant-garde video turned the medium away from the world and in upon itself in order to achieve a high level of reflexivity, but then made deeply political claims for its subversion of dominant modes of representation. At the heart of this contradiction lay the seeds of a new oppositional practice.

Recent Video Practice

By the late '70s LVA had established an international library of over two hundred video tapes, developed a small scale production centre in the heart of London's film sector and curated several years of exhibitions on a weekly basis in the Acme and later the AIR galleries in London. Video was by then recognised as a fundable practice by the Arts Council of Great Britain, which instigated several video fellowships for periods of up to one year at a number of major polytechnic media centres and fine arts media departments. This policy was an attempt to promote video practice without having to invest large amounts of capital funding in a single production centre at a time of state cuts in the Arts Council budget. This funding policy further entangled developing video practice with art college media departments which were by this time more secure-at least as far as their proven aesthetic status was concerned.

In the mid '70s many of these departments had begun to make use of semiotic theory in their daily teaching. The attempt to establish a 'science of signifying practices' was taken up as a theoretical practice to accompany, inform and displace avant-garde film and video practice. The debate that ensued at every level of film and video culture was to result in the rejection of the keystone of modernism -the denial of representation-and the development of modernism's progressive and radical potential. Semiotic theory began to provide the analysis of ideologically dominant televisual practices of representation which would allow video-makers to re-evaluate aspects of modernism and combine them with a new perspective on cultural politics to form the basis of a critical and oppositional practice.

The Women's Movement provided a major political context for such an oppositional practice. The questions that women had been asking for several years tended to concentrate upon issues of representation and the ideological effects upon women's consciousness of dominant media representations of femininity. Feminist analysis suggested that power structures and practices of representation were inextricably linked and that the ideological had a specific effectivity which helped to mask contradictions within the social formation. Such observations led to the notion of a cultural politics which would demand interventions at the ideological level in order to deconstruct the fictional worlds constructed by dominant modes of representation. At an institutional level such interventionist strategies involved the setting up of new distribution organisations such as Circles (which places women's film and video work in distribution).

It was becoming increasingly clear to LVA that, in order to establish institutional autonomy and to maintain independent distribution and exhibition outlets, it must sever its dependency upon the infrastructural support of the educational institutions. These shifts took place over several years. In a sense they came about as a result of slow realisations rather than a consciously planned policy. Nevertheless, they do represent a steady turning away from the dominant institutions of art production and consumption towards new forms and definitions more appropriate to a newly developing practice.

These institutional shifts were accompanied by a complementary development of video practice itself. It would be inappropriate to attempt to characterise the heterogeneous body of work making up recent video practice but two general observations can be made. Firstly, as video began to develop an autonomous practice its identification with fine art values became less relevant; secondly, the critical relationship to dominant televisual ideology became more acute. To a great extent these two characteristics of recent work can be related to the interrogation of the modernist aesthetic and a re-evaluation of its potentially radical aspects. In its most radical instances, late modernism sought to deny the notion of the author as the transcendental source of the work's meaning. It consequently detached itself from conventional art historical models of creativity and the ultimate expression of this creativity in the form of the masterpiece. Marks of authorship were expelled with the signified. This radical suppression of the author had as its concomitant a foregrounding of those aspects of a work which constituted it as a cultural text. The term 'intertextuality' describes this cross-referencing of aesthetic texts which tends to challenge the uniqueness of the individual art object. In recent video practice this quality of intertextuality allows the work to be read in terms of its cultural and ideological resonances rather than in its capacity to 'represent' the consciousness of its author. It becomes evident that the meaning of a work is precisely a social construction.

Recent video practice has not given up modernism's reflexive separation of signifier and signified in order to re-instate the regimes of Realism and Representationalism. Modernism extruded the signified. Recent practice has re-introduced it but displaced it in its 'natural' relation to the signifier in order to understand better the ideological effects of dominant televisual forms. This relationship of signifier to signified has been reconstructed cautiously and problematically to demonstrate that no meaning is given or natural but is, instead, the product of a signifying practice. The world is not reflected in the practice of representation but is rather seen to be a product of it.

For the last ten years the two major independent video Communities -video artists and social action/agit prop video workers -have been separated by major ideological differences. In Britain this gap is now beginning to close as community video workers increasingly question dominant televisual forms, and video artists loosen their historical ties with modernism and begin to embrace issues of social and political relevance. It is also becoming evident that the historical distance between independent film and video producers is beginning to close as film-makers learn more about the history of video practice and recognise that many of the debates within the independent film community have also taken place within the video community. It is important that these dialogues continue and that an institutional consolidation takes place at a time when the independent sector becomes increasingly subject to political scrutiny and the withdrawal of state funding.

This article is based on the introduction to the catalogue for the show on recent British video which was presented at the Kitchen Centre, New York, in May 1983 with the assistance of the British American Arts Association and the British Council.

[1] Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, London, Fontana, 1974, p 135.

[2] Paul Ryan, 'Guerilla Strategy and Cybernetic Theory', Radical Software, Spring 1971.

Stuart Marshall
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