Expanded Practice in Television: Defending the Right to Difference

By William Raban

The closure of the Arts Council’s Film Video & Broadcasting Department in April 1997, passed without critical comment or public statement from the Arts Council. Seen in the context of more recent developments, this can be seen as just the opening round in a more systematic erosion of structural support for cultural production and in particular, for work defined by a commitment to innovation and experiment.

For 25 years the Arts Council has been the principal funding body promoting the development of expanded practice in film and video. Since the early 1970s, it has targeted two distinct areas of film funding. The Arts Films Committee commissioned films and programmes ‘about’ art, whilst the Artists’ Films and Video Committee (formed in 1972) had responsibility for funding work by artists. Following a 50% cut to its budget in 1981, the Arts Films Unit, headed by Rodney Wilson, opened negotiations with television broadcasters as a means of making up the funding shortfall, and in 1986, Film, Video and Broadcasting became an autonomous department within the Arts Council.

blight-john-smith.jpgJohn Smith’s Blight

The opening of the venture into the television arena for Artists’ Films began in 1988 with the Arts Council feeding strands into the second of John Wyver’s Channel Four series Ghosts of the Machine. As a result of negotiations between David Curtis, Head of Artists’ Film & Video at the Arts Council, and Alex Graham and Michael Jackson at the BBC, the first jointly funded broadcast scheme started in 1989 with the One Minute Television series for the Late Show. The scheme ran for four years with a total of 45 works being commissioned. The format proved to be highly influential with at least two festivals (Sao Paolo and Hamburg) dedicating sections to the exhibition of one-minute films and programmes. At the same time that this inroad was being made at the BBC, David Curtis and Rod Stoneman (commissioning editor for Independent Film & Video) started the Arts Council and Channel 4, Eleventh Hour Joint Commissioning Scheme. The series continued to run under various titles including eXperimenta and Midnight Underground until 1996. Aside from producing work that radically challenged the conventions of television, these schemes resulted in a total of 46 commissions and formed a vital source of new funding. Above all, they brought new work by experimental film and video makers to a television audience for the first time.

When Channel 4 started transmissions in 1982, Rodney Wilson secured a co-production deal with the channel to make eight hours of arts programmes each year. This agreement was axed by Liz Forgan (C 4’s Director of Programmes) in 1989 but after seven years of working in the broadcast sector, the Film Video and Broadcasting Department was well placed to benefit from the terms of the Broadcasting Act giving 25% commissions to independents. The BBC Music and Arts Department were receptive to new proposals coming from the Arts Council because a long standing co-production relationship on single, often large scale, arts documentaries had already been developed. The first jointly commissioned series Dance for Camera was started in 1991, followed by Sound on Film. Between them, these two series resulted in forty four commissions.

bloody-mess-alison-murray.jpgBloody Mess by Alison Murray

Although, as noted in the beginning of this piece, the two committees forming the Film Video and Broadcasting Department followed separate and distinct agendas, there was an increasing degree of convergence in terms of the work produced. Filmmakers like John Smith, Mike Stubbs and Jayne Parker whose films had been defined and identified with an experimental practice and supported by the Artists’ Film and Video Committee, produced films under these new schemes. John Smith’s Blight (1996) which had originally been developed by an Artists’ Film and Video production award, was subsequently commissioned for Sound on Film. It is a beautifully observed study of the displacement of the Leyton community in East London suffering the consequence of the M11 road building scheme. Smith contrasts the demolition of their homes with snatches of conversation heard in the music score by composer Jocelyn Pook.

The convergence of work between the two areas of the department’s broadcast activity – films on artists and films by artists – is exemplified in Expanding Pictures (1997) which was jointly commissioned by the Arts Council’s Film Video and Broadcasting Department and the Combined Arts Department which has a remit that includes the performing arts and BBC2. The series features recent work by young British artists such as Sam Taylor Wood, Mark Wallinger and Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing. Interestingly, none of these artists are mentioned in the Arts Council’s Directory of British Film & Video Artists which was published two years ago, though this omission merely serves to illustrate the emerging vitality in the area of expanded practice, particularly in relation to gallery based work. When ‘hung’ in the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy, it was hard to make sense of Wallinger’s Angel. As the artist taps a blind man’s stick at the foot of an underground escalator, he speaks the opening lines from Genesis, memorised backwards whilst the camera films in reverse motion. The resultant impeded (though recognisable) speech, constructs a play of oppositions between sightedness and blindness, primacy of word and image. The subtleties of the piece that had been lost in the gallery become engagingly clear and effective on television. The importance of series like Expanding Pictures is that they have opened a much wider audience for work that would otherwise only be seen by a small minority as an exhibit in an art gallery.

All these jointly funded broadcast schemes were curtailed by the closure of the Film Video and Broadcasting Department last year. The department had already survived the devolutionary pressures of the Wilding Review when the Regional Arts Boards were established, because it was able to argue that there was a legitimate national dimension to its activity. Rodney Wilson was asked by the Arts Council management to look at ways of ‘out sourcing’ the department in order to gain access to Lottery funding - the only way in which the budget of £1.3m could be increased. It was decided to set up an independent agency that would work under contract to the Arts Council. A business plan was produced by KPMG, but the initiative stalled and eventually collapsed. The Arts Council chose to axe the department rather than reinstate its budget. With the benefit of hindsight, the closure of the Film Video and Broadcasting Department might be seen as premature, given some subsequent relaxation of the Lottery funding rules that will allow some level of integration between Lottery and Treasury funds. When these changes took place last April, Artists’ Film and Video moved into the Visual Arts Department and continues to operate on a budget of £600,000 which is divided between production and exhibition spending. However the Arts Council is now planning to shift its support away from detailed project funding, focussing instead upon advocacy and policy.

Current discussions suggest that the Arts Council’s commissioning role might be taken over by franchises operated by artists’ organisations and independent sector companies. Responsibility for broadcasting will in future rest with a new Creative Industries Team.

There has been considerable confusion and delay in implementing this new agency. Rodney Wilson had been offered the job of heading the new team which was to have a remit for music and publications in addition to broadcast, but after completing much of the groundwork to bring the agency into being, Wilson was made redundant on 16th April. Taking the lead from the newly formed Creative Industries Task Force at the Department of Culture Media and Sport, the Arts Council chose an apposite New Labour title: Creative Industries Unit (one can only guess that ‘agency’ was dropped to avoid the CIA acronym). Whilst it has been accepted that the unit should benefit projects that carry ‘an element of risk’ there is no clarity about what kind of work will be supported and whether a specifically cultural remit will be included. The Arts Council are currently working on ways of integrating the two streams of funding coming from the Treasury and from the Lottery. How this will be achieved is contingent upon the Financial Instructions contained in the Lottery Act. No final decisions on the new Unit’s terms of reference, or how it will fit within the Arts Council’s departmental framework will be taken until the Lottery Act is passed later this year.

The delays in setting up the agency means that the momentum developed across the range of joint broadcast schemes has been lost. The sole survivor is the highly acclaimed Animate scheme, now in its eighth year and continuing to be run by David Curtis and Clare Kitson (Commissioning Editor for Animation at Channel 4) as part of the Visual Arts Department activity. The loss of the remaining schemes has shifted the profile of broadcast television backwards into a much more conventional mould. In particular, the long standing commitment of the Independent Film & Video Department at Channel 4 to promote diversity of aesthetic form, now seems to be in serious doubt. Following the change to 24 hour broadcasting, Channel Four displayed an increasing tendency to ghettoise expanded work into the dark zones of post-midnight transmission. The final series of Midnight Underground for example, played to audiences of around 50,000 whereas the original Eleventh Hour slot regularly reached ½ million. By contrast, the BBC has consistently shown a more committed approach by slotting their joint commissions within the prime-time schedule. The problem with Channel 4 is that it is tamed by the constraints of advertising, and the need to operate within a ‘branded space’ which often puts the broadcaster’s priorities in conflict with public funding partners.

angel-mark-wallinger.jpgAngel by Mark Wallinger

The conditions attached to the recent renewal of Channel 4’s licence by the ITC – with an increase of directly commissioned programmes to 60% of output, a greater emphasis on multicultural issues and innovation – offers some ground for optimism. Channel 4’s new digital station C4B, headed by David Brook, will go on air in early 1999. Programmes on the new channel will be pitched at youth culture and underground TV, and it is being promoted as a testing ground for new ideas. It remains to be seen, however, whether this will open a new space for expanded practice and innovation. Even assuming that this may be the case, will this mean that the regular Channel 4 becomes even more entrenched into a safe and wholly conventional commissioning and programme policy?

The general outlook seems highly volatile, with both the Arts Council and BFI redefining their structures and funding strategy. Looking ahead to a second term of Labour Government, the Arts Council is set to combine with the existing Design and Craft Councils to form a new Creativity Council. Having already frozen the funding of the Production Board, the BFI is drifting on a narrow course centred solely on education and film promotion. The Till Report, which largely dismisses the role played by television in keeping the film industry alive through the ‘80s, underlines a determination to re-model the entire British film industry along ‘commercialist’ lines in accordance with the American vertically integrated system where production is led by the priorities of distribution.

The much awaited Alpha Fund, which was to have allocated lottery funding specifically to cultural and non-commercial production, remains in contention. It is far from clear whether that commitment will be honoured, or whether it will be dropped altogether in favour of creating a funding source for the production and exhibition of short films for the cinema. The Report alarmingly fails to distinguish between the need to create a space for cultural and innovative production, as opposed to constructing a ‘nursery slope’ where aspiring feature film directors can learn their craft. These are clearly two very different kinds of priority that the authors of this report fail to understand. What can be expected from a government that appoints a Films Minister whose portfolio includes tourism? In the words of Culture Secretary, Chris Smith addressing the launch of the Creative Industries Task Force last May, our job is ‘to promote everything from Beefeaters to Britpop’.

The Film Policy Review Group’s recommendations will have a significant impact on education. The Department for Education and Employment is undertaking research into the availability and quality of film and media courses in further and higher education. A small portion of the proposed all-industry fund sourced from a levy on production and topped up with lottery money, will be fed into a new Skills Investment Fund. This will be targeted by Skillset (the National Training Organisation for broadcast, film, video and multimedia) to selected practical courses. Eight regional and national media training consortia have already been nominated and others will be announced. The National Film and Television School is identified as the ‘prime centre of excellence’ and it is interesting to note that the DCMS already contributes £2.1m toward the running of the school. The DCMS launched Skillset at BAFTA last year under the slogan: ‘Training is not a cost. It is an investment for growth, an investment for profit’.

Clearly training, and vocational courses in particular will be the principal beneficiaries of these changes. It does not require a crystal ball to see that the emphasis (and funding) will shift away from many of the excellent broadly based educational courses that have been developed in art schools and universities. It is within these institutions that the rich cultural and aesthetic diversity of independent production has been nurtured and continues to flourish. In defending our right to difference, it is important that we focus the debate on the interlinked priorities of production, exhibition and education and that the combined energies within these fields are mobilised against the ruthless onslaught of the dominant ‘commercialist’ agenda.