Nik Houghton 1955 - 2006

By Michael Mazière


With Nik Houghton’s untimely death in April, film and video art has lost one of its most original and prolific voices. Houghton was a gifted writer whose reviews and essays throughout the 1980s and ’90s chronicle the rise of video art and its move toward the mainstream.

Houghton encountered video art in 1984. He was a mature student on the Media course of North East London Polytechnic (N.E.L.P. now the University of East London). Taught by David Parsons, Steve Hawley and John Smith, he produced two striking video works: It is What it Is (1985) and Jump the Gun (1986), which explore paranoia and manipulation the darker side of masculinity. He was then a post-graduate student on the Advanced Fine Art Film and Video Course at St Martins College of Art.

In 1986, Houghton joined the Management Committee of London Video Arts (now part of the Lux). He also began writing in earnest about video art. At the time, artists’ film and video was still a marginal underground practice sustained by a missionary zeal, goodwill, very little money and a strong sense of community. He quickly became a close comrade in arms in the fight for the recognition of such film and video work.

Houghton wrote for a multitude of publications: Independent Video (which later became Independent Media), Artists’ Newsletter, Undercut, Performance, Hybrid, Videographic, D-Tour and Mute amongst others. In the period 1986-96, Houghton’s output was prolific. To this day many a film and video artist’s bibliography contains a published review by him.

He worked as a contributing editor for Independent Media alongside Steven Bode, Sean Cubitt, Philip Hayward, Julia Knight, Pat Sweeney and myself. He edited a number of special publications – a special Video Issue of Performance magazine in 1988 and the Video Positive Festival Catalogue of 1991. Between 1987 and 1989 he sat on the Arts Council Artists’ Film and Video Committee.

Houghton was committed, enthusiastic and dedicated in his beliefs. At a time when the avant-garde was often perceived as dry, unprofessional and dull, he consistently argued for a stylish, entertaining and edgy film and video practice. But he was not seduced by the ‘image tumbling possibilities’ of much video effects technology. He pushed for a more critical, ideas-based practice. Much of his discourse is still valid today:

“Technology should not be allowed to bully ideas and the questioning nature of fine art practice into silence and, before art video drives itself up a cultural cul-de-sac, it is my contention that tape makers, critics and art schools should start to question the production values which now dominate the medium. Trash, after all, may be fun but let’s not forget that really it’s just another word for rubbish.” ‘Joining the Dub Club: Funkers, Scritch and Big Noise’, Undercut Magazine, Number 16 Spring/Summer 1988.

Aside from his articulate, informed and honest approach, Houghton also had a knack for catching the mood of a film, video or performance he was reviewing and injecting it with his sharp wit. He was of the more hard core, post-punk generation the closest video art ever got to an exciting form of Gonzo journalism.

In 1996, Houghton embarked on a new career. He trained as a primary school teacher, specialising in literacy work with Bengali children in the East End of London where he lived. Ever surprising, ever inventing, in recent years the man who loved to dance returned to his affection for performance and created the character John E. Cashmoney. This character, along with his band, The Lonesome Cowboys from Hell, created quite a buzz in the art venues across the East End.

Photo: Nik Houghton in 1986 at the 20 Year celebration of the London Film-Maker’s Co-op. (© Michael Mazière)