Friday, 26 April 2013

Sinister Yet Interesting: My So-Called Life as Video Artist

Sugar Honey Control (8:41) - Maidstone 1986.

In September 1983, I began a one year art foundation course at the Mid Warwickshire College of Further Education in Leamington Spa, following in the footsteps of Hazel O'Connor and possibly one or two other briefly famous names who had done the same course in previous years. My main interests were painting and music, although I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life, as I'm not sure anyone really does at that age.

My painting at the time looked like this:

Velocity's Price - 1984.

Further examples can be found here. During my initial interview for said Art Foundation course, Head of Department Alan Halliday told me, 'I don't want to see you painting anything like this ever again.' Whilst I can, with hindsight, see the point of such a request - a student trying to run before having properly learned to walk - it still strikes me as mystifying. There I was already developing a style by my own volition, albeit a style indebted to Fortunato Depero, and this was somehow a bad thing. It was a little upsetting, and I didn't paint anything for a couple of months, but eventually returned to the medium whilst keeping it at a distance from my formal art education. The degree course I pursued in the years that followed required that I find myself a subsidiary subject, something secondary to my main area of study. I put down painting, seeing as that was what I was doing anyway, and continued to paint for the next three years without once referring myself to any tutor attached to the painting department, assuming they would most likely take Alan Hallidays's view.

My degree show was in the summer of 1987. It came as a shock to recall that I had signed up for painting as a subsidiary subject, and would hence need to account for this as part of my show: I shrugged, bought a stack of clip-frames, and hung everything I had painted to date in my allotted exhibition space. It was gratifying, but also slightly annoying, that the painting tutors told me my work was wonderful and asked why I hadn't been to see them during the previous three years. So it goes.

Anyway, painting aside, prior to Art Foundation course, I had started cannibalising tape recorders and making rudimentary loops from cassette tape, convinced that I had single-handedly invented a new form of music, at least until I discovered Throbbing Gristle and Stockhausen. This, I reasoned, wasn't entirely incompatible with the art college curriculum, such as it was, how can you call that music? being not so different to how can you call that art? So that was the area upon which I focussed during my time at art college, very roughly speaking, something open to expansion and refinement which would additionally leave me free to carry on painting in peace.

Distortion (11:35) - Leamington Spa 1983.

I made a Super 8mm film entitled Distortion. This utilised footage and sound recordings made around Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa. The idea (although it was certainly not so well expressed as such at the time) was, as the film progresses, to increasingly distort the subject through use of editing, looping, and whatever other means I had of treating the original material. Distortion begins with blurred images of people walking around in a park to the sound of ducks quacking, and ends as a rapidly edited sequence of semi-abstract forms with overdriven tape loops of park-derived noise screeching away.

It was rudimentary, and never destined to set the world on fire, but it did a job.

Nearly thirty years later and I seem to be transcribing my entire life into digital form, scanning photographs, paintings, cartoons, everything I've ever done for reasons that escape me but may be to do with either closure, perspective, or curiosity. Coming across a stack of nearly two hundred photos comprising screen shots of my video work, I was startled to recall four fairly significant years of my life that I had somehow forgotten. This find coincided with a chance online encounter with Thomas Frenzi. Frenzi was someone I knew from the days of making my own tape loops, and finding that there were other people out there who also made their own tape loops and had albums by Throbbing Gristle, the major difference being that Frenzi's music still sounds good today. Being roughly the same age, our lives ran parallel tracks with him signing up for a film course at Bulmershe College in Reading. We wrote letters, exchanged tapes, and met up a few times, meetings characterised by raucous exchanges of ideas and leaving me slightly envious of the quality of his film and video work - sort of what I was trying to do but more competent. We lost touch for no coherent reason around 1987, each making the occasional attempt to track down the other without success up until about a month ago. Inevitably, in light of his efforts still looking pretty damn fine on YouTube after all these years, it seemed time to revisit my own. So I scanned the photographs and dug out VHS copies of all the work from my four years of art education, material which for the most part I had not viewed since the late 1980s.

Thomas Frenzi in Horror Film (2:34) - Maidstone Summer 1985.

And it was quite an education, not least because of six hours worth of supposedly finished material, Distortion, eleven or so minutes of fumbling around with a camera and only a vague idea of what I was doing, well... it now looks like Citizen Kane compared to the rest of that stuff.

Live Performance 1 [24/11/83] (3:37) - Leamington Spa 1983.

Zipping back to 1983, following on from Distortion, I took it upon myself to treat fellow students to a performance. I'd seen the noise band Whitehouse playing live in Birmingham a few months earlier, and was pretty sure I could pass off the same schtick as performance art whilst remaining true to my vaguely musical efforts of the time. People cued up with no real idea as to what might happen, then took seats in a room where a tape of distorted television noise played to uneasy effect, myself sat still in the corner, identity concealed by balaclava helmet, sunglasses, and other apparel that unintentionally suggested a member of the Baader Meinhof gang. Once enough faces seemed to wonder as to whether this was the performance and whether anything else was going to happen, I sprang into action, kicking chairs across the room, screaming into people's faces about doing something. It was short, sweet, perhaps not amazingly original, but popular enough to warrant two further sittings to accommodate all those who had been unable to get in for the first one. It made an impression of sorts, and was a big hit with some of the cooler kids (notably one David Newton, one of those people whose opinion was of value to me), but remains entirely of its time. The video is sadly almost unwatchable, revealing the power electronics tour de force I imagined to be a squeaky voiced teenager with big ideas and a limited vocabulary by which to express them.

Live Performance 1 [24/11/83] (3:37) - Leamington Spa 1983.
Following this, I turned to video, it being time based and in some way compatible with my musical ambition, such as it was. Additionally, groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle had begun releasing material on VHS and I appreciated the democracy of the format, the way by which it rendered art as information subject to duplication, removing it from being a single object limited to one time and place. My first video, excluding documentary recordings of the confrontational performance described above, was named Dopolavoro after the leisure and recreational organization of Mussolini's regime. It's basically a collage of sounds and images: Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, the usual assortment of serial killers, clips from shows like Dallas and Fame, the music of Elvis Presley segueing into that of Charles Manson. The message was supposedly that concepts of good and evil are defined entirely by the media, although it was actually more like I am sinister yet interesting, and I have all of Throbbing Gristle's albums.

Dopolavoro (7:28) - Leamington Spa 1983.
Excepting a few blips, it was pretty much downhill from Distortion onwards.

In September 1984 I was accepted for a place on the Fine Art degree course at Maidstone College of Art specialising in Time Based Media. I was later told that the way to ensure acceptance on such a course was to show a video containing shots of a television set, this being tantamount to making a comment upon the media. Whether true or not, this is what I had done with Dopolavoro, so I can only assume I must have let my interviewers do the talking and had managed to avoid blurting out that it was actually a load of bilge about good and evil and how any of us could be Charles Manson or one of the other bad lads from the Throbbing Gristle reading list.

The Silence Deepened (5:36) - Leamington Spa 1984.
Unfortunately, once I had started the course, I'm pretty sure they saw straight through me, and I found myself forced to rip off Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire by ever more devious means. Thus, by accident rather than design, I occasionally managed to come out with the odd half decent idea for some film or video, through being obliged to follow some theme other than I am sinister yet interesting. On the foundation course I had made a short video entitled The Silence Deepened, its name taken from a phrase in Marinetti's extraordinarily vivid first Futurist manifesto. The video had been inspired by a walk around the back streets of Leamington Spa, and the peculiar serenity which enveloped the area and somehow reminded me of De Chirico's paintings. I tried to capture this impression of almost surreal tranquility with sequential shots of deserted streets and a soundtrack scored for tape loop and mournful keyboard. The results weren't amazing, but neither were they entirely dreadful, and the idea seemed worth revisiting.

As an aside here, during the first year of the degree course at Maidstone, we had access to Super 8mm film and a portable VHS video recorder, and that was pretty much it. The more professional Umatic video equipment and associated edit suite were initially off limit. This was frustrating given my preference for video over film, and that said video could only really be edited in camera, thus meaning whatever one did, the greatest idea in the world would inevitably suffer from crappy, noisy edits. I tried to get around this by creating a piece comprising one long, continuous shot, working towards something in the vein of The Silence Deepened. So all I had to do was film something at an odd angle for ten minutes whilst slowly zooming out, secure in the knowledge that mournful keyboard music would do the rest. The resulting video was called Project and now serves as the most succinct illustration of why I spent three years pissing into the wind. It's a simple if unexciting idea, one that you might be hard pressed to screw up you would think, and yet I found a way.

Firstly, I had somehow taken from Throbbing Gristle the idea that if you are an artist (although I never called myself that because I viewed the term as somewhat wanky, and continue to do so), whatever you do is valid, and mistakes are an interesting component of the work: arbitrary decisions can be good decisions.

Project (8:07) - Maidstone 1984 .
So this being a fairly easy philosophy to which I might adhere, Project began with my pointing the camera at a parked car, then slowly zooming out to reveal other buildings in the vicinity of the Time Based Media Department. The De Chricoesque sense of the still is fine up until about six minutes into the piece, at which point Pat Murphy wanders across the screen and turns to share a cheery wave with the viewer. A normal person would have started again from the beginning, or at least chosen a more visually engaging location, but not me. That should do, I apparently decided after eight minutes, either taking comfort from my shit happens methodology or else mindful of the pub being about to open.

This kak-handed approach informed the rest of my time at Maidstone. Mistakes were part of the piece. I'm not sure it even occurred to me that the piece might benefit from having a few of those mistakes extricated during editing. I'm pretty sure my tutors would have counselled me regarding this point, but once your head is past a certain stage of its journey up your own ass, it's not easy to hear what others may be trying to tell you.

Having realised by this point that I'd already said most of what I could say about being sinister yet interesting, or places with not much happening being a bit like De Chirico, I expanded to become my own subject matter, artistically speaking, which after all only seemed to be what everyone else was doing at the time. This amounted to the next year or so being spent producing videos about feeling depressed or in some way alienated from both my fellow students and society in general. On the positive side, this resulted in films and videos with at least some arresting images or musical accompaniment in the Cabaret Voltaire sense, although few of these remain entirely watchable thanks in part to either my whining voice, absolute inability to express myself with any degree of eloquence, or reluctance to accept that cock-ups might in some way hinder whatever I was trying to communicate. One film was entitled Nowhere Nuthin' Fuck Up '86, named after a song performed by a character in Philip K. Dick's Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. The character in question, Jason Taverner, wakes up to find that no-one in the world, including friends and acquaintances, knows who he is. I identified with this idea and attempted to express it with words and images. One particular combination of these specific words came out as why won't anybody talk to me? - not exactly Ian Curtis material. I imagined myself as authoring the video art equivalent of Jean-Paul Satre's Nausea (which naturally I hadn't heard of at the time) but sadly, with hindsight it all looks a lot like Harry Enfield's Kevin the Teenager.

Nowhere Nuthin' Fuck Up '86 (6:59) - Maidstone November 1985.
Perhaps I am being too hard on myself, one might suggest. Perhaps this is true, but my tutors might not agree, and they mostly had a fucking good point, although of course that was hardly what I wanted to hear at the time. Kevin Atherton, a renowned video artist in his own right, was of all the tutors valued for his dispensation of honest and, if necessary, ruthless criticism whilst maintaining a sense of humour. If he drew the same conclusions as other tutors, they seemed to me better communicated through being delivered with a degree of amiable sarcasm. After sitting through two or three of my pieces during one assessment, each work exploring different strains of misery, he sighed and told me that my videos reminded him of the swirling pit.

'The swirling pit?,' I wondered.

'The swirling pit,' he explained, 'like when you've been in the pub since seven and you think you're fine even though you can't walk in a straight line. Then you get home and lay down,' - he slumped in his chair, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, miming an illusory whirlpool with his hands in the air - 'Oh noooooooo - it's the swirling pit!'

He had a point.

Moving to Maidstone was the first time I had properly been away from home. This coincided with my parents getting divorced, and my first girlfriend appearing on the scene, annoyingly a mere three weeks before I found myself living at the other end of the country amongst complete strangers. The relationship lasted nine months through letters and weekends away which ate up my grant faster than Warwickshire County Council could dish it out. I'm not really sure how much any of these things impacted upon me. Breaking up with the aforementioned girlfriend certainly did; the divorce of my parents I had seen coming and so don't recall having given it a great deal of thought, and I know I had friends and laughs during the college years, but those fucking videos really look like the work of someone suffering from clinical depression. At least one tutor pointed out that there was a cathartic element to my work, and I agreed once I had looked up the word, although I still didn't see why this was a bad thing and so I carried on. Had someone consented to join me for a shag or at least lain still whilst I had one, the body of my video work might have ended up a little more watchable. Traci Emin attended Maidstone at the same time, and that tent of hers is testimony to sexual congress aplenty, but none of it coming my way. I should probably point out that Traci, hugely entertaining personality that she was, was never my type, and I was a long way off being hers as was evident from the first time we ever met and she scowled and said isn't your 'air 'orrible?! which admittedly it probably was at the time.

Sugar Honey Control (8:41) - Maidstone 1986.
Anyway, at great length, the combined sarcasm of Kevin Atherton and my friend Carl Glover, in addition to the generally upbeat disposition of fellow students Martin de Sey and Charlie Adlard gradually induced a degree of uncomfortable self-awareness regarding my unusually depressing work. Sinister yet interesting, boring to watch yet meaningful, and why oh why am I so much more sensitive than anyone else had run their course, and it seemed I had grown short of things I felt compelled to say. A minor turning point was a video entitled Sugar Honey Control (by this time I had given up on trying to be Throbbing Gristle and had decided I wanted to be Nigel Ayers of Nocturnal Emissions when I grew up - if you have any of their early albums, you'll know what I mean by that). Sugar Honey Control comprised me whining as per usual, interspersed with a ludicrous commercial break ('Buy these fucking beans, ya bastard!') and garnished with a slightly arch commentary deconstructing my own tendency towards dreary introspection. It wasn't a masterpiece, but it was probably a lot more entertaining than anything I'd done since Distortion, at least in so much as Yus My Dear was funnier than Get Some In.

Made In One Day (6:22) - Maidstone 15th October 1986.
This deconstruction business seemed to go down well with my tutors to some degree, and it was after all what many people on the same course did and to sometimes interesting effect. I instinctively disliked the idea of art about art, and still do, but it seemed like a new avenue. In the space of a month or more I churned out a whole load of videos of this kind, drawing attention to the editing process, or the mistakes, or whatever the hell else was there upon which I might make an arch if less than articulate comment. Unfortunately I ran out of steam fairly soon. Although I thought I was playing the game so to speak, my efforts remained hampered by characteristically half-arsed editing and sheer lack of content. I'm really, really sad may not have been much of a message, but it was at least true to my whining little heart.

During this final burst of activity, I had also begun to make some videos purely for the sake of chuckles, pieces I knew I would never show to the tutors - notably a sarcastic and half-assed science-fiction film entitled The Doom, with assistance from and inspired by Charlie Adlard, specifically Charlie's impressively ham-fisted horror offering Sweet Dreams. It sort of figures that this stupid throwaway stuff (also comprising a horror short made with Thomas Frenzi back in 1985) is actually still watchable in comparison to my other efforts. A sense of humour goes a long way.

Nick Scullard terrifying us all in The Doom - Maidstone October 1986.

The final video I ever made, or at least the last one I ever completed was another throwaway piece, entitled Frankie Howerd solely because it closes with me doing an impersonation of Frankie Howerd. It opens with a shot of a television set, my legs strolling casually into view in the manner of someone in Viz comic. 'What's this?,' I exclaim in cartoon fashion, pointing at the television set before pretending to piss upon it, concluding with my bum gyrating in a mime of garnishing the set with a turd whilst exclaiming, 'that's what I think of video art!' I kept the mistakes in as usual, delivering lines whilst trying not to collapse in hysterics, and for the first time ever, it worked. Finally, I had made an honest piece of genuinely communicative video art, even if it's less than a minute long and only came about by accident.

So, that's four years of work, fifty or sixty pieces, six hours of video tape yielding maybe an hour's worth of stuff I can stand to watch or that I could stand anyone else watching. An hour may be ambitious, and I don't even mean works I'd necessarily consider good, just the ones that haven't completely collapsed under the weight of my own bullshit.

It would be easy to regard those four years as a waste, but far from accurate. In artistic terms, they taught me a lesson that I hopefully continue to learn and expand upon - namely that what you leave out can be as important or more important than that which you choose to include. Additionally I learned that one should never consider oneself above criticism, no matter how singular your vision may seem. Other people are there so as to save you from your own bullshit, and you are there so as to save them from theirs. Finally, I guess you could say I learned that a piece of art, whatever the medium, needs a seriously good reason to lack a sense of humour. These may not be earth-shattering conclusions, but I wish I'd learned them sooner.

Also, possibly most important of all, I made some great friends during that time, one or two of whom may well be reading this. So if you ever had to sit through one of my videos, or even had the thankless task of numbering amongst my tutors, sorry about that, and thanks for bearing with me. I got there in the end. I think.

Originally posted Sunday 13th February 2011 at Ce Acatl.

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