Tuesday, 21 October 2014

David Hall

David Hall was born in 1937 which, to my astonishment, means I am now older than he was when we first met in the summer of 1984. He was head of department for the Film, Video & Sound course at Maidstone College of Art. It was a fine art degree course and, as I have subsequently discovered, was the first of its kind, initiated by David himself in 1972. Understanding this I feel I gain a deeper appreciation of why he became so pissed off as the course was steered increasingly towards the vocational towards the end of the Thatcher years. The Time Based Media department - a name change referencing a term he himself had coined - had been about art, not selling tins of baked beans; and art as something other than a commodity.

I was never really sure how David regarded me, but presumed he'd seen some potential in the rudimentary video work I'd done during my art foundation course and which I brought to my interview. One such work was a droning Throbbing Gristle inspired collage of media images mixing Margaret Thatcher and Richard Nixon up with Charles Manson and J.R. Ewing. As a comment upon the media it was doubtless a bit bleeding obvious and entirely kak-handed, but I guess it did its job. Someone later explained to me that our tutors tended to see potential in anyone whose video work incorporated images of television sets, so I suppose that would have been the commenting upon the medium box I had ticked.

Being eighteen, from my perspective David seemed ancient, a grey-bearded patriarch who gave the impression of having already seen and done it all. Of course the thing was that in terms of video art, he sort of had seen and done it all, and had even invented some of the things we were all busily playing back to him in hope of passing it off as something new. From time to time we got to see his work, that upon which he'd built something of a reputation. One piece featured the BBC newsreader Richard Baker, and it particularly impressed me that the video material had been produced with Baker's co-operation; it wasn't simply some crap taped off the telly, which is what I would have done under the circumstances, and did do on a few occasions. There was also a short film called Edge, a western which played with suspense and expectation, moody shots of frowning gunslingers approaching each other, building up to the inevitable confrontation until, in the last shot, they finally appear in the same frame only to pass one another without a word. It was clever, funny, and beautifully simple.

I tried, but I'm not sure my work ever really made him happy. Each tutorial was more or less the same. I would show a video piece - whatever I'd been working on - in a darkened room. I would turn on the light as the screen went to black. David, by now almost horizontal in his chair would blink, then make a noise acknowledging the shift of tutorial emphasis. He would sit forward, interlace his fingers and stretch, then sink back, hands behind his head, the body language of a long-suffering but otherwise soundless groan. Whilst he never directly pointed out that I was apparently producing self-involved and largely derivative crap into which very little thought had gone, this was generally the thrust of his observations; and this was always galling because he was right, and right in such a way that obliged the case for the defence to shut the fuck up and take its beating like a man. Ultimately this meant that I never butterflied into the great video artist, and the world has thus been spared my wibbling time based crap which would in any case have no real reason to exist, and thankfully doesn't. This should not be taken as a complaint, nor as requiem to a promising career cruelly foreshortened by a man saying some things that weren't very nice; on the contrary, David Hall was probably the first tutor to disabuse me of the idea that a piece or art was necessarily and inherently valid because I had done it; and a friend who will tell you when something is basically drivel will always be more valuable than one who finds some value in even the most pointless and inane expressions of art for the sake of art.

David's arguably gruff exterior was thrown into relief on the occasions when he joined us down the pub. He didn't suddenly transform into Tommy Cooper, but he was warm, convivial, and generous company - from which I deduced that his apparent dislike of my work was at least nothing personal.

David Hall very clearly cared about art as a potentially redemptive method of communication, and he cared strongly. He wasn't in the business of feeding anyone's ego, or pandering to lowest common denominators. He tended not to speak unless he had something worth saying, and in this respect was ever a source of valuable advice, providing one had the wit to recognise it as such.

In more recent years as I discovered his presence on facebook, I came to appreciate the above understanding all the more, and to realise that the man had a quite profound influence on my development at a crucial time, even if that development ultimately fired off in a completely different direction to that for which David might have hoped as head of Time Based Media.

Just today I discover that he is no longer with us. At the time of writing, I am not even sure as to the cause given that no obituary has yet appeared in any of the usual places. During those few years I knew him, I often found him a somewhat awkward man, even a little rude at times, but now that he's gone I realise that part of me always hoped that one day we would meet again, and I would be able to buy him a pint, and say thanks, and admit to his face that he'd been right all along. It has been a privilege to have known him.

Some details of his life and work here.

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