Visual Art and the Moving Image

By James Swinson


In Britain in the 1990s there has been an unprecedented expansion of visual art practice, evidenced in media terms in the high profile of young British artists at home and increasingly overseas. On the ground, this shift is registered in the growing networks of studios, new galleries, artist-run exhibition spaces and events. At the same time an increasing number of visual artists are using time-based media from film and video to new possibilities offered by digital technologies.  

The historic avant-garde movements at the beginning of this century seized on film as the medium that offered the greatest possibilities of engaging with modern, urban existence, and at the same time, challenging the elitist institutional structures of the visual arts. Throughout the century, film and subsequently video have figured strongly, where artists and film-makers have sought to emulate the historic avant-garde and offer a critique of contemporary life. The sustained connection between avant-garde filmmaking and visual arts and the influence on mainstream cinema was marginalised in the formalism and media essentialism of modernist theory and practice. Much of ‘60s and ‘70s film theory from structuralism to psychoanalytical theory focused on mainstream cinema, and to a lesser degree European Art Cinema, as an oppositional force, ignoring the diverse range of experimental practices that refused any easy definition.


In the context of post-war consumer society, the media eclecticism of pop art and conceptual art in the ‘60s and ‘70s re-examined the issues raised by the historic avant-garde movements. Painting and sculpture as the defining media of the visual arts were again challenged by performance, installation, photographic and text-based practices. The advent of video technology opened up new possibilities for experimental moving image production. The portable video camera and recorder made low-cost moving image production available to both visual artists and community activists. These two broad constituents formed the basis of a counter-culture defined by a critical relationship with mainstream TV. In avant-garde and experimental single-screen production a fierce demarcation arose between video makers and filmmakers and the new electronic medium created its own institutions, facilities, festivals, distribution networks.

Prior to the advent of video, experimentation with the exhibition possibilities of time-based media was limited by the cost and unreliability of unsupervised film projection. Expanded cinema was based on the one-off event or performance rather than on the longer-term state of an installation. The availability of affordable video technology opened up the possibilities of time-based installation but was still limited until the late 80s by the restrictions imposed by the monitor, and to a lesser degree by the image quality of video technologies available on a low budget.


Ironically in the early 80s the cross-media experimentation was overshadowed by a revival of the traditional high-art media of painting and sculpture in a number of prominent international exhibitions. This tendency coincided with a crisis articulated by post-modern cultural theory questioning the formalism of late modernism. In cinema in the 80s there was also a growing fascination with painting and painters, and the tableau vivant was a prominent feature in European cinema from Godard and Rivette to Jarman and Greenaway. This phenomenon has been seen as a symptom of the deep anxieties about cinema’s survival in the face of digital technologies.  

In the 90s the advent of the portable video projector and the impact of digital technologies have opened up the possibilities of time based installation. American video artist Bill Viola’s Unseen Images exhibition at the Whitechapel in 1993, introduced British artists and critics to the creative potential of video projection in a gallery installation. Despite the moving image technologies on display, from TV monitors to whole range of different video projectors, the eight titled pieces evoked a far stronger reference to the conventions of fine art than to those of the moving image. Viola’s installations explored the sculptural, 3-D properties of the monitor or the painterly pictorial properties of the projected image, creating a tension between the modernity of the technology and conservative fine art conventions of presentation and content.

By the mid-90s video projection was becoming increasingly available in the UK. Scream & Scream Again, MOMA Oxford 1996, gave an opportunity to assess the use of video projection by British artists and filmmakers. The show included works by Isaac Julien and Douglas Gordon that were originated on film, leading the curator Chrissie Iles to argue for electronic media as the nemesis of the cinema and that the gallery would be the new site for the filmic in art. Isaac Julien’s Trussed clearly had a link with the concerns of his films and videos exploring gay sexuality and the body, but he was encouraged to deploy in a visual art context, a non-narrative minimalist aesthetic using two screens to re-configure the audiences relationship with the screened image. Douglas Gordon’s Black and White used free-standing screens, exploiting the ease with which the projector can be used to play with image scale, space and the position of the spectator. Rather than Iles’ technological determinism, it was more an indication that moving image commissions in the visual arts offered more opportunities for experimentation and creative freedom than sources of funding for single-screen film and video.  

Spellbound at the Hayward Gallery, celebrating a hundred years of cinema history, might have been expected to provide a rigorous examination of the relationship between the various time-based media and the visual arts. This opportunity was sadly ignored in favour of a promotional package commissioning ten contributors on the arbitrary basis of gaining a high press profile than on any critical or historical grounds. The overall effect of the various installations resembled a high-tech trade fair equating creative achievement with market success, providing a chilling premonition of the proposals for the Millennium Dome. Damien Hirst’s inclusion in the show was highlighted in the publicity by direct comparison to Andy Warhol’s experiments with film. The absurdity of this historical conceit was evidenced by his contribution, Hanging Around, an appropriation of the conventions of popular TV, presented at set times in a mock cinema auditorium, lacking any of the ironic and subversive attributes of Warhol’s engagement with popular culture.  

Douglas Gordon and Steve McQueen were the only artists to explore the current state of the relationship between art and cinema. Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho provided an ironic and compelling allusion to the domination of film theory by psychoanalysis by offering a frame-by-frame presentation of a favourite paradigm. McQueen is one of a number of artists who chose to project the video image from floor to ceiling, as if one wall had been removed to reveal the world outside, displacing the metaphor of the cinema screen as ‘the window on the world’ and evoking Duchamp’s gallery without walls. No seats were provided and the luminous image provides a shadowless backdrop to the spectators who move in the space of the image. In Stage the gestural fragments of narrative cinema are appropriated in an encounter between a black man (McQueen himself) and a white woman, reinforced by the monochrome image. McQueen’s work deploys a minimalist strategy derived from a visual art practice referenced to the history and codes of cinema, creating the possibility of complex multiple meanings.  

It is significant that much of the installation work that makes explicit references to cinema is silent, leaving the conventionally mute visual environment of the gallery undisturbed. In Pierre Bismuth’s The Party, The Showroom, 1998, Peter Sellers’ farcical send-up of Hollywood runs silently on one wall juxtaposed at a right angle to another video on which the soundtrack, dialogue and effects are being typed by an imaginary spectator. The misspelling and omissions in the desperate attempt to keep up with the moving image is a performance that is more compelling than any in the film. Ironically in a piece that for once is audio-visual, the only sound we hear is the clicking keyboard.


Mark Lewis is another artist creating gallery-based installation work which engages with the codes and conventions of mainstream cinema. In Upside Down Touch of Evil Lewis re-shoots Orson Welles’ legendary opening shot upside down in the contemporary location of Vancouver using ‘the full commercial cinematic apparatus’. This strategy draws attention to the aesthetic complexities of montage freed from the demands of the narrative. Lewis advances a familiar argument that the deployment of film by visual artists is a new form of practice related to the demise of cinema in the face of digital technologies. He re-evokes Peter Wollen’s attempt to divide avant-garde film into two distinct areas of practice, defined as political and structuralist, and claims the status of a ‘third avant-garde’ for his own film projects and those of other contemporary artists. Wollen’s original construction was highly problematic, doing little to advance an understanding of the diversity of avant-garde and experimental film practices. For Lewis to lay claim to such a distinctive category in the current use of time-based media in the gallery, denies the sophistication of his own practice and does little to make sense of the shifting boundaries between art and film both now and in the past.  

From the Sensations exhibition at the Royal Academy one might deduce that cultural amnesia is a characteristic of contemporary art practice. John Roberts has argued that an important aspect of the new wave of British artists is a return to documentary photography and video practices, by a generation that can now confidently assume rather than argue a relationship between art and popular culture. There are aspects of Roberts’ analysis that I would support but the refusal of historic precedent and complexity undermines his position. Without recourse to history how do we explain the persistence of a minimalist aesthetic in current work, re-appropriated from 70s conceptual art via 80s adverts and returned to the gallery?  

Gillian Wearing, whose video installations brought her the accolade of the 1998 Turner Prize, exemplifies Roberts’ ‘new documentary artist’, recording her day-to-day experiences in the Old Kent Road on her camcorder. The installations themselves and Wearing’s own descriptions of her practice reveal a highly manipulated and constructed aesthetic that has far more to do with the subjective vision of the artist than any kind of sympathy with the subjects she uses in her pieces. The mock sociological aspects of her work owe much to the voyeuristic TV documentary forms popular since the 70s that track the lives of ‘ordinary people’, reinforcing rather than challenging social stereotypes.

Ignoring the lure of video projection, an installation by Swiss artists, Peter Fischli and David WeissSuddenly this Overview – used multiple monitors to explore urban consciousness. When installed in the Serpentine in 1996, monitors were scattered through the East and West Galleries. Spectators were provided with moveable plastic chairs and the monitors were set in such a way that only two or three screens could be viewed from the same position. The structure and order of the ubiquitous grid of banked monitors associated with multi-screen video installation is dismantled, challenging the mastering, surveying gaze of the observer. Each monitor had its own set of tapes, totalling 96 hours of video, documenting journeys that the artists had undertaken. The footage tracks mundane and everyday activities divided between work, leisure and travel. The work challenges spectators to move back and forth between the monitors performing their own disjunctive process of montage and juxtaposition to create meaning from the everyday public activities and spaces on the screens, making their own 'journeys’ in the gallery space. The installation offered a rare glimpse of complexity and multiplicity in time-based work which, whatever its concerns, is still too often in the grips of a minimalist aesthetic that encourages almost instant mastery or consumption and a refusal of the rich history of montage as an organising method.  

Loophole Cinema is a collective of film, video, sound and computer artists specialising in large scale installation and performance work. Loophole’s work combines high and low tech media in creating site-specific work outside of the institutional spaces of either the cinema auditorium or the art gallery. In 1996 they were the hosts for the International Symposium of Shadows in the West India Quay Warehouses, bringing together artists from around Europe whose practices use time-based media in such a way as to place themselves outside forms of production that can be conveniently tailored to the needs of art institutions or commodified for the art market. Similarly Pascal Brannan’s Mr. Madam at the Lux Centre 1997, used performance, video, film, slides and sound to produce a complex montaged mise-en-scène challenging fixed notions of sexual identity and desire. Hopefully such events are omens of a sea-change accompanying the housing of the London Film and Video Makers Co-op and London Electronic Arts in the same building at the Lux Centre.


[1] See Thomas Elsaesser, Rivette and the End of Cinema, Sight and Sound Vol 1, Issue 12, April 1992. 
[2] Catherine Elwes, The Big Screen, Art Monthly no. 199, September 1996  
[3] With TV as directly or indirectly the main source of funding for British film and video in the ‘80s there was an increasing market populism privileging conservative and mainstream narrative forms  
[4] Mark Lewis, Upside Down Touch of Evil, Coil no5 1997  
[5] Peter Wollen’s The Two Avant Gardes, Studio International 1975  
[6] In a Presentation of his work at Central Saint Martins 1996  
[7] John Roberts, Notes on 90s Art, Art Monthly, no. 200 October 1996

James Swinson is a film maker and also teaches at Central St Martins.