Essay for Polytechnic exhibition curated for Raven Row, 2010

'Polytechnic' developed from a number of conversations between Alex Sainsbury, the director of Raven Row and myself over a couple of years before the gallery opened in 2009. He said he hoped that the programme would look at various and sometimes overlooked expressions of experimental practice, and I mentioned a number of video works made in the UK in the late seventies and early eighties exploring ways of engaging with narrative and content which I had seen through my involvement in The Basement Group in Newcastle. I thought of these - or rather, remembered them - as thrilling. It also seemed to me that there were certain echoes and parallels between the period that the artists were working in and today that were resonant and interesting.

'Polytechnic' however is not intended as a historical survey of the period or of the area of engagement. There are many important works and artists that are not shown here. Rather it is a selection shaped by what I saw then - most of the artists showed at The Basement - and what has stayed with me. There is a central focus on video, but also there are practices that use and combine other media. All of these works in their different ways have a central concern to reveal, generate and explore narrative, and this, at the time, put them in contrast or opposition to some of the concepts that had defined experimental work.

The late seventies in the UK was a period of change and uncertainty. The financial crisis - the Callaghan government called in the International Monetary fund in 1976 - increasingly undermined the social and political consensus on the role of the state and how society should be conceived that had maintained since the end of the Second World War. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party were victorious over an unpopular and discredited Labour administration and their free market philosophies were to change the fabric of the country through de-industrialisation and increasing mass unemployment.

Wider access by artists to the technologies of visual production and reproduction was becoming possible. The arrival of the portable video camera and later the domestic video cassette recorder allowed radically different engagements with the electronic tools which up to then had been the province of the mainstream media of the state, and the corporations.

'Progressive' or 'experimental' practices saw themselves as, de facto, alternative and oppositional - be this to the narratives of commodity capitalism or the (still mainstream) practices of sculpture and painting. 'New media' and time-based practices - performance, film and video, and installation - were a central focus as they were considered to have the history and expectations of 'art' less encoded into their fabric than painting or sculpture. The sixties and early seventies saw this field develop to become a discipline with its own dictates, philosophies and histories, many of them informed by the modernist focus on materiality and reduction and its commitment to 'truth to materials'. In painting and sculpture, ideas formulated by Clement Greenberg regarding post-painterly abstraction, flatness and medium specificity - and his stated desire to purge art of 'the curse of content', were playing themselves out in the hyper-essential explorations of minimalism and similar concerns animated much of the work in non-traditional media. John Hilliard's Camera Recording its Own Condition (1971) documented the progressive darkening of a camera's recording of its own reflected image as the exposure time was reduced. The London Film-Makers' Co-op in 1966, was a significant site for the production and representation of 'Structural Film' practice, which was concerned with the materiality of film. The means of production was the content of the production, and ideas of 'representation' and narrative were necessarily anathemised. Peter Gidal wrote in 'Theory and Definition of Structural/ Materialist Film' (BFI 1976) 'The dialectic of the film is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the suposed reality that is represented. Consequently a continual attempt to destroy the illusion is necessary.' David Hall, who established the first time-based arts degree with video as an option in the UK at Maidstone Art School in Kent in 1972, was a pioneer in British video practice. He came from an engagement in minimalist sculpture and explored the materiality of his new medium using operations of cameras and the quirks of magnetic tape as ways to destabilise the suspension of disbelief encouraged by television realism.

These experimental approaches were animated by the modernist belief that avant-garde practice would effect a revolution not only in the realms of art but in the material relationships of mankind. This allowed for the possibility for progressive art practices, no matter how abstruse, to see themselves as agents of a teleological imperative. As Peter Gidal describes in his essay, the focus on materiality and refusal of narrative in Structural Film was a political act against the 'manipulatory, mystificatory, repressive' functions of mainstream cinema which 'maintain the ideological class war and (...) the state apparatus in all its fields.'

However the social and economic developments of the seventies seemed to talk as much of entropy and disempowerment as possibilities of transformation and in May 1979 the distance and disassociation of progressive agendas and ideals from wider society was starkly demonstrated in the election victory of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party. Soon they were to start dismantling many of the structures and understandings that underpinned the post-war progressive social contract. Film, video and even photographic darkrooms were difficult for artists to access, but by the late seventies, in the wake of David Hall's initiative in Kent, polytechnics and art schools across the country had set up courses in non-traditional media, and arts-labs and other resources were emerging. Funding authorities started to provide grants and bursaries for production and exhibition. The Royal College of Art offered a Post Graduate degree in what it arcanely named the 'Environmental Media'.

The rigorous criteria of structural and material practice of the sixties and early seventies helped shape the content of experimental media courses. But increasingly they seemed restrictive and abstracted. Ideas and understandings shaped by feminist discourse, the gay rights movement, the concept that the personal was inherently political, were becoming important. In 1976 Punk exploded, shouting down the abstract complex productions of 'progressive' rock with direct expressions of disillusionment and alienation. Punk and post-punk re-animated ideas of atomised non-centralised modes of production, of 'doing it oneself'.

Technology had become more sophisticated. Recording sound on film in the sixties had been a fiddly and difficult process but now Super 8 film cassettes were available with sound stripes, audio cassette recorders had become mainstream, video recorders automatically recorded sound as well as image. This militated against a singular focus on the visual and instead favoured polysemous investigations. As Stuart Marshall pointed out, although UK video makers drew attention to the mechanisms that created the illusion of the video image, the tape itself could not be worked on directly, and, as a result, their critique became necessarily 'embroiled in the practices of signification'.

Outside the visual arts there were new explorations of narrative by experimental practitioners coming into view. The English translation of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino was published in 1974, followed by If on a Winter's Night a Traveller in 1979, both of which explored - and reveled in - the nature and potential of story telling. In non-popular music, ideas of the syntax of harmony and melody, rejected by modernist composers, were being reanimated by composers such as Philip Glass, whose Einstein on the Beach was performed in 1975. Language, the sign the signifier and media were becoming the raw material of critical engagement, the writings of Barthes were colonising the reading lists of colleges and the bookshelves of artists and students.

Limits were revealed in the approaches that had helped define how artists approached experimental practices and the social and political changes demanded practices that allowed the investigation of lived experience, of social constructions of the self, of the personal, subjective and domestic realms; that addressed the subject and explored language. The works in 'Polytechnic' engage with narrative and explore content. In contrast to reductive and materialist dynamics, languages and techniques the performative, the literary, approaches taken from mainstream media - are combined to generate impure, complex and hybridised works to illuminate the tangled relationships and interactions between the artist, the work, and the rapidly changing social and political worlds in which they operated.


Sensible Shoes (1983) by John Adams is an extraordinarily inventive and finely detailed collision of image and text. A woman's voice narrates a tale of a love affair that weaves in and out of responses and recollections triggered by images seen on the television. These we see on the screen - the ability to record and replay images from broadcast television was becoming more widespread with the entry of the domestic video cassette recorder onto the market - and they seem to construct a claustrophic and enclosed space. Sometimes the images seem to synchronise with what she is saying, at other times they trigger a line of association, but always they seem to shape her text and inflect our understanding. Some of the words are abstracted from her voiced phrases - seemingly at random - to appear on the screen as text, and it is only at the end, after the credits, that we are given a piece of information that profoundly alters our understanding of the narrative.

Television was the medium that much video practice was in one way or another in a direct dialogue with. Lenny's Documentary made by Ian Bourn whilst studying at the Royal College of Art in 1978 uses televisual conventions drawn from broadcast drama and from documentary to present a record of a man talking about his life and the city he lives in. In the grainy black and white footage we can detect echoes of the sixties kitchen sink dramas, of the 'Play for Today' series and documentaries about working life. It also has a confessional element, Lenny talking directly and unguardedly to camera which encourages the audience to take it as an unmediated and improvised expression, that Lenny is talking to us. However the character is a carefully written construct, an act of imagination that allows Bourn to explore ideas of the fabrication of the real in the media and ideas of class and masculine construction.

Works by Ian Breakwell are temporal bookends for the exhibition. The first dates from 1974 (exhibited at the ICA in 1977), and the second from 1984. Breakwell was a writer as well as an artist working with drawing, painting, photography, performance and installation as well as film and video, which he variously overlapped and combined. The diary was a central strand of his work from the mid sixties onwards. These were written, published as books, performed and became the matter for wall-based work, video installation and television broadcasts. The 1974 diary draws on conceptual and process practices - with the use of the grid, the repeated action, exploring the inherent seriality of the regular repeated action of writing a date and making a diary. In contrast to On Kawara's date paintings, or his 'I Went and I Met' postcards however, Breakwell's dates, rather than being a blank registration of time or association, are accompanied by a flurry of writing and comment and small shifting collages that bring the world outside the frame into play. Ian Breakwell's Continuous Diary (1984) was commissioned and broadcast by Channel 4. The programmes combined readings by Breakwell, voice-overs, documentary images, and re-enactments to build a series of complex hybrid video essays developed from the written material of the journals.

Marc Camille Chaimowicz has explored the poetics of private and personal space throughout his practice, which has encompassed installation, photography, tape/slide, film, video, performance and design. Here and There (1978-2010) is an installation that uses photographs that record the details and intersections of a set of rooms. These are combined with decorative elements and displayed on panels arranged against the wall. The panels operate as much a furniture as autonomous art objects. They flicker between the indexes of fine art and the decorative art, shifting our understanding of the space in which we experience them, which oscillates between the aesthetic, the domestic and the dramatic. The work describes a world that is shaped by an early twentieth century European sensibility and imagination, with its echoes of Cocteau, Proust and Gide, of European film, of the lost realms of Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes. It is a place where the individual uses object s and space to construct a world, and in turn this world then helps narrate inarrate the individual Partial Views of an Interior (1978) registers the presences and slight movements in this realm and its soft washed out colour, suggests its contingency and fragility.

The generative power of language and the idea of the memoir is central to Pieces I Never Did (1979) made by David Critchley whilst at the Royal College of Art. He describes works and performances that he has not made. 'I wanted to do a piece about sweeping, sweeping up rubbish' he says, the three screens show the image and sound of him sweeping stuff with a brush on the studio floor, 'but I never did that one'. The act of description brings the works into being and we are plunged into a Borgesian hall of mirrors where a thing seems to exist only in its representation. This disjunction is given an extra charge through the very physical nature of the actions he describes himself as (not) doing - throwing himself against a wall, screaming 'shut up' until he loses his voice. The work is formally complex through its use of choreographed imagery on multiple screens, so that in the representation itself we are denied an original or unique image.

Artifice and the constructions of media are central to Kensington Gore (1981) by Catherine Elwes. The video combines footage of how to make a fake wound - the Kensington Gore of the title which is the name for the liquid used as blood used in the theatre - with variously different descriptions of a bloody and violent event on a film set where the artist was working as a BBC make up artist. Some of these descriptions are delivered in the authoritative tones of 'Received Pronunciation', others as an interview. The slippery relationship between fantasy and fiction, the ways that the world is constructed and understood in different modes, expands into a meditation on class, gender and identity.

The memorial is central to Campo Santo (1981) by Roberta Graham. This performance/installation work is an angry and bleak examination of gender, power and abjection and focuses on the victims of Peter Sutcliffe - 'the Yorkshire Ripper' - who killed at least 13 women and attacked seven more between 1975 and 1980. Some of the victims were sex workers which fuelled the lurid and misogynistic narratives in the press. Graham took photographs of the waste land sites where the bodies were found and displays them surrounded by detritus and the crumpled pages of newspapers reporting the crimes. The oppressive soundtrack combines the sound of the hissing airbrakes of lorries with extracts from Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood of the utterances of a nihilistic preacher inviting us to view the deaths in the wider context of how women are narrated in society.

Steve Hawley's We Have Fun Drawing Conclusions (1981) uses illustrations of ideal family life taken from the classic series of Ladybird childrens' books 'Peter and Jane' which had wide circulation in British schools and homes in the fifties and sixties. These books represent an ideal, white, middle class atomic family at home and at play. Peter helps his father wash the car. Jane is in the kitchen. Hawley reproduces and recombines these images and provides a wry narration that not only talks about how these representations generate sexually determined realms of action and expectation, but expands into a consideration of how these are encoded into the structures and operations of language.

A fractured various, opened-ended, non linear narrative and the constructions of self and identity lies at the heart of Susan Hiller's Monument (1980-81) The work consists of photographs documenting ceramic Victorian memorial plaques in London of ordinary people - non military, civilian, local - who died heroically. Displayed in a simple, ordered diamond shape, the edges of the rectangular plaques form a stepped edge which seems to imply that the series could continue into the space around it (in fact the number of panels on display coincides with the number of years the artist had lived). The viewer is invited to sit on a bench and put on headphones, so becoming a component of the work, and immerse themselves in a soundtrack that is a complex investigation into ideas of death, heroism, gender and representation - 'a discourse full of holes to match a world made of fragments, linked to the names and acts memorialised before them' (artists notes).

Stuart Marshall's work engages directly with the artifices and hidden structures of television. He was influential as a practitioner, curator, teacher and theorist. In 1976 he was one of the founder members of London Video Arts, with others including David Hall, David Critchley, Tamara Krikorian, Brian Hoey, and Stephen Partridge. LVA was an initiative, informed by the work of The London Film-Makers' Co-op, designed to support the exhibition and distribution of work made by artists working with video. The Love Show (parts 1-3) (1979) is a complex critique of the operations of broadcast television, where Marshall uses many of its structures and approaches to reveal its own operations and explode the illusions of authority. Marshall was deeply involved in gay politics and theory and this underpinned his investigations into the ideological constructions and representations of gender and sexuality in the electronic media.

Images without text construct the world described in the tape/slide work The Mysteries of Berlin (197982) by Cordelia Swann. It was inspired by The Mysteries of Udolpho, written by Ann Radcliffe in 1794, in which the heroine is kidnapped from the Pyrenees and transported to Venice - both places that the writer never visited. We experience a barrage of projected images accompanied by surging music. These photographs, shown in their entirety and in close up, seem to describe a dramatic world full of shadows, threat and romance. This is a representation of Berlin, shaped by thrillers and , American movies and European film noir. Much of Berlin itself was inaccessible and hidden behind the wall and it took on a strange charge of attraction, threatening and strangely erotic, as something denied by the dominant political narratives of the West. None of the images used by the artist are in fact of Berlin but were chosen from magazines, books and films for their closeness to how she imagined this alien zone.

Accidents In The Home (1984) by Graham Young is a series of video works that used domestic spaces to construct narratives without language. In No. 17 Gasfires - which was broadcast on Channel 4 - we see a man gazing into a gas fire, listening to the rousing sound of Germanic music. We are shown a fan with streamers attached slowly panning to the right and left, and a model aeroplane made out of balsa wood and tissue paper. Then we see the plane flying towards the gas fire and the image freezes and the tape ends. In another video, a darkened living room is shown with suitcases being assembled to the sound of African music. These vignettes are poignant and poetic and do not determine a singular reading but seem to talk both of the isolation and oppression of the domestic space where even possibilities of removal and escape seem to be fraught and problematic. No. 17 Gasfires was broadcast on Channel 4.

© Richard Grayson 2010