The Moving Image Writes

By Catherine Elwes


The story of Artists’ film and video in Britain is finally told

Dave Curtis may well find that in the next few months, he will enjoy a new freedom from bothersome phone calls. Over the years, innumerable students, artists, curators and researchers (myself included) have sought to draw on his encyclopaedic knowledge of UK artists’ film and video. At last, he has distilled into a single volume his accumulated wisdom gathered during a long career as film curator of the Arts Lab in the 1970s, Arts Council Film Officer from 1977 to 2000 and finally as founder of the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection at Central Saint Martins where he still works. Curtis has probably seen more artists’ moving image work in the UK than any single curator, funder or writer. His passion for structural film prompted the seminal publication, Experimental Cinema in 1971. For the present volume, Curtis has drawn on countless artists’ statements, assimilated as part of his job assessing applications for funding at the Arts Council. As a result, the book is vast in its scope and replete with forgotten gems. In addition, Curtis gives invaluable insights into artists’ own thinking while his own opinions remain modestly expressed.

Curtis’ first-hand knowledge of and involvement in funding policy over the years informs the first section of the book. He begins in the pre-history, and reveals how experimental films were made through a combination of private patronage, courtesy of organisations such as the Film Society in the 1920s and public institutions, including the Post Office in the 1930s and ’40s. These films were characterised by formal innovation combined with a social remit and produced such classics of the public information film as Night Mail (1936), featuring words by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten. Curtis continually returns to these 20th century experimental antecedents and the lineage that he draws from the 1920s to the present day is one of the great strengths of his book.

Discussion of the egalitarian policies and radical products of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op in the 1970s reveals to the reader another area of Curtis’ expertise and, indeed, his enthusiasm. He records with approval that the Co-op sought to “challenge the blanket of invisibility that had bedevilled artists’ film since the beginning”. Structural film, its ideology and its practices are close to Curtis’ heart and in clear and often poetic prose he sets out the problematics of representation that Malcolm LeGrice and Peter Gidal tackled as well as the second-generation’s responses to the anti-narrative stance taken by their elders.

Curtis is excellent on the expanded cinemas of William Raban, Gill Eatherley and Annabel Nicolson, but betrays some of his reservations about the advent of video, which he considers to have been restrictive with “none of the benefits” of film. As a videomaker, I would take issue with this assessment, particularly as a woman for whom the immediacy, portability and ease of distribution was appropriate to the urgency of the feminist project in the late 1970s. In spite of Curtis’ reservations about the medium, he writes with great sensitivity about those who worked with video, particularly as the story moves into the 1990s, when it became the medium of choice for the new generation of gallery artists.

It is possible that the general reader may skip over many of the more detailed discussions of funding and sponsorship in the 1980s and ’90s that, by then, had expanded to include television and private galleries. However, this would mean missing some revealing stories, such as the YBA gallerists’ attempts to sell Arts Council/Channel 4 commissioned works as limited editions when it was possible for anyone to record them off-air when they were broadcast on television.

It would also be a mistake to skate over the sections on landscape, portraiture or politics and identity. Here, the wealth of information and insight includes a meditation on the landscape work of Chris Welsby and William Raban, which Curtis describes as film performances, “even endurance tests, with the complete work their record”. Curtis interprets Michael Curran’s homoerotic video Amami Si Vuoi (1994) as “a dark metaphor for the necessity of risk in all art” and here I suspect lies Curtis’ own philosophy of the experimental moving image, which also informed the risk-taking policies of the film and video panel at ACE while he was in charge.

If I had to find fault with the book, it would amount to amplifying a few minor niggles. The absence of a bibliography is regrettable and Curtis avoids any serious discussion of Scratch video and video artists’ continuing relationship to television. He makes the odd sweeping statement such as berating early experimentalists for a lack of social concern, which was in fact widespread in artists’ work. Much of it he himself documents earlier in the book while leaving out important pieces such as Tina Keane’s video documenting the Greenham Common protestors or the miner’s strike tapes that were made collectively by Mike Stubbs and others in the 1980s. Given the breadth of his vision, Curtis does not have the space to engage in great depth with the debates of each thematic he identifies and for that, the reader should look elsewhere. However, he succinctly and accurately explicates the main features of each era and in any future research, it would be foolish to travel without this book, which, throughout, is lucid, comprehensive and intelligent

A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain by David Curtis (bfi Publishing, 2007).

Catherine Elwes is the author of Video Art, a Guided Tour (I.B.Tauris, 2005).