A Personal Journey Through a New Medium

from Diverse Practices, a Critical Reader on British Video Art, ed. Julia Knight,
1996, University of Luton Press/Arts Council of England


Over the past 25 years or so a body of work has developed known as ‘video art’, with the producers of that work described as ‘video artists’. Although these terms – video art and video artist – seem to have become widely accepted, I have always harboured a deep dislike of them. The word ‘video’ comes from the latin video – ‘I see’ – and thus it would appear perfectly legitimate (despite the apparent reservations of some art critics in the early years) to regard video as a personal art medium equivalent to any other that a person may choose to work with. But whereas, on the whole, we refer to musicians and composers not audio artists, to painting not paint art, to photography not photography art and to film-makers not film artists, video as a medium has had the ‘art’ appendage added to produce an unnecessary and uncomfortable alliance between the two terms.

To make matters worse, in the mid-1970s a small group of practitioners tried to define what constituted this ‘video art’ activity. Typically these practitioners would assert that certain fundamental properties and characteristics constituted ‘Video Art proper … notably those peculiar to the functions (and malfunctions) of the constituent hardware – camera, recorder, monitor – and the artist’s accountability to them’. I could not accept this. I could imagine (and later realised) a live performance of video using synthesised imagery projected for an audience, by-passing all this apparently ‘essential’ constituent hardware. To base a definition around what is actually non-essential equipment surely misses the point – the only essential thing that video cannot exist without is an electrical signal. How it is formed or changed, how it is stored or disseminated and how it is finally displayed are all technically variable; and any definition of video or ‘video art’, if one is needed, must surely refer to the fundamental qualities of the electrical signal.

So whilst the need to define ‘video art’ may have seemed necessary to some artists at the time in order to help evolve a distinctive identity for the way they were working, this early attempt to create a ‘school’ or movement was also, unfortunately, rather restrictive. Given the embryonic nature of both the medium in technical terms and of artists’ emerging access to the equipment after 25 or 30 years of broadcast television history, the term ‘video art’ could have – and ideally, should have – encompassed a diversity of artists’ activities with the medium.

Beginnings: my early work
Unlike many other artists working with video, I was fortunate as a student of film and television at the Royal College of Art in the early 1970s in getting access to an old colour television studio donated by ATV to the College. Working mainly in the engineering control area of the studio, I found that manipulating the complex line-up controls used on older broadcast colour cameras allowed a degree of control over the image denied to producers working in conventional vision and sound mixing galleries. So, in collaboration with electronic music composer/flautist Simon Desorgher, I rapidly developed a style of ‘electronic painting’.

Through earlier work with Simon on a film, I had become interested in the strong emotional impact that sound and music can have on the viewer’s interpretation of a flow of images. To investigate this area more fully I had built a physical transducer that directly connected audio/sound with video/image. I initially explored this a little on film, but it was the wrong medium, so I moved to monochrome video when the College purchased its first portapaks. The addition of colour by working in the studio situation was a key step. The ‘emotional’ impact of colour in the image was suddenly as important an element as the ‘emotional’ impact of the music, and I was precipitated into ‘painterly’ concerns. Visually the work that resulted related back to the traditions of ‘abstract’ or ‘non-representational’ painting and film-making that had developed over the previous 50 years, although I only became fully aware of these traditions after embarking on my own work.

After leaving the College in 1973, an Arts Council grant enabled me to continue developing my ideas, and in 1974 I was commissioned by the BBC to make what was probably the first video tape to be produced by an artist working outside television for national broadcast on UK television. This piece was commissioned by Mark Kidel for an arts programme called Second House (BBC2, 1973-75). He had seen my work at the College degree show and wanted to know if I would be able to produce a similar piece of work to full broadcast technical standards.

We investigated whether this way of working was possible in the main BBC television studios, but found broadcast colour television studios were laid out in a way which did not allow experimental control by an individual: the control areas of the producers and the production team were physically and psychologically separated from the control areas of the engineers and the technical team. My work, however, required simultaneous access to both areas by one individual: to be visually in control of the picture required being in an ‘engineering control’ area but with access to the ‘vision mixing’ aspects of the ‘producer’s’ control area. Needless to say the high cost of using the BBC studios was also a factor in deciding whether or not to try to work there, as was the reluctance to have expensive broadcast cameras mis-aligned for purposes that were not fully understood.

In the end we decided to make the tape at the place I was used to working in, and it was recorded on 2 inch quad tape via an outside broadcast microwave link from the Royal College of Art studio to the BBC Television Centre. As there was no direct line of sight between the College and Television Centre, the signal had to be bounced across London twice via the Crystal Palace transmission tower. I was very struck by the incorporeal nature of this medium such that it could be dematerialised through the air before finding ‘form’ on a tape in the BBC. The medium that I thought was based on an electrical signal was actually or potentially electromagnetic in nature.

The piece that resulted was called Entering (1974); it ran for eight minutes in three sections. Its theme was of birth, both in its physical form and as a metaphor for the process of spiritual or creative rebirth.

Artists will use whatever medium or media that they can get hold of and can afford to work with. Their particular choice of medium depends crucially on individual talent and inclination, but some artists are drawn towards the use of new means and new technologies, rather than traditional ones. For a number of artists, including myself, the extraordinary social power of television on contemporary life was a great attraction, as was the challenge that it was not being used on the whole for visual art purposes. Its main claim as an art medium lay, and indeed still lies, in the area of drama.

Broadcast television has always functioned to reinforce a predominant social and metaphysical view of who we are. Like mainstream film, broadcast television is largely concerned with our various forms of social interaction and visually reinforces what we might call our normal state of consciousness. In fact the technologies of photography, film and more recently television have taken up and maintained the trend towards realist representation that was characteristic of most Western art from the introduction of perspective in the Renaissance up to the dawn of the ‘modern’ art movements in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It is quite likely that some of the subsequent modern movements in the visual arts became possible or even necessary because of this ‘take-over’ of realism by such technologies.

However a realist mode of representation is very limiting for an artist interested in exploring the visual possibilities of the video medium. Art traditionally also concerns itself with people’s inner world as well as their outer one. It refers to myth, dream, ritual, religious ecstasy and other states of consciousness, and most of the non-Western world’s art traditions have used stylised forms of representation, rather than purely realist imagery.

Although the broadcast industries, and even our own small ‘video art’ community were thus acting to limit the possibilities, it seemed to me to be worthwhile to explore the medium much further. The problems were daunting: access to equipment to produce work, access to funding in order to work and live, and access to distribution were all key issues.

Access to Equipment
Access to equipment seemed the most fundamental, as nothing could be produced without it, and obviously access to equipment and materials is central to any artistic practice. But, as is evidenced by the experience of making Entering, this kind of work is not just dependent upon access to equipment, but upon access to the appropriate equipment and working environment. Most college-based equipment was monochrome whereas my work required colour; broadcast colour studios were unsuitable for the way I worked; and all the equipment in both places was constantly being redesigned to improve its accuracy of representation. Editing equipment was on the whole quite crude and was designed to mimic established processes of shot-by-shot film-making. Although much ‘video art’ was produced with such equipment, its use seemed to me unnecessarily constraining, as the medium of video is, in terms of its electrical signal, both continuous and instantaneous.

In fact, in its early years, television was an entirely ‘live’ medium, and its nature is very different to film, which requires the delay of processing before one can even see it and invariably needs editing before it makes ‘sense’. Video’s speed of response is that of the movement of electrons, which is approaching the speed of light, and it is thus like other telecommunications technologies in being in tune with the speed of our own nervous systems. For me this suggested that it might be possible to use the technology to produce live video images as a form of light, just as musicians use instruments to produce live music as a form of sound. Again I found a rich, but little known tradition going back to the nineteenth century of people (artists?) building ‘colour organs’ to project coloured light with music in a way equivalent to my ambition with video.

To achieve this, I found myself adopting two parallel approaches, the first involving a working method and the second the design of new equipment. The first was to develop further the way of working that I had started whilst at the College, which involved producing video in a live performance situation with musicians. These performances were recorded live in a television studio, in a manner similar to the way musicians work in a music recording studio, with the best ‘takes’ saved. This method avoided the need for editing altogether. Both video and music performers could see and hear the final image/sound mix as the piece progressed in a way equivalent to musicians playing together.

The images on screen were not of the musicians themselves, but were visual forms that were non-representational, reflecting microscopic/macrocosmic and internalised archetypal imagery. I was concerned with the tension and interpenetration of order and chaos, of nature and creation and man’s and woman’s place within it. As is probably apparent, these concerns had a strong spiritual connection for me, a theme I share with many twentieth-century artists working with ‘abstract’ imagery.

The music was all either electronic, or electronically processed instruments, so that the viewers could not easily form an inner ‘picture’ of the source of the music’s origination. This was intended to leave them free to engage imaginatively with the visual forms on screen. Working mainly with Simon Desorgher, we developed a style of improvising around visual themes and time structures, so that the result, rather like Jazz or Indian music, had elements of both structure and spontaneity. Influenced to some degree by the practices of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and Zen painting, we would plan and contemplate a theme for some weeks, spend two to three days in a studio preparing and then record the performances live for their typical eight to 15 minute length.

Later in the 1970s, we introduced dancers into these performances, working in particular with the dancer Ernest Burke and his pupils. Although nearly 70 years old Ernest still danced, and, after a lifetime of working with the physical ‘restrictions’ of the body, clothes and three-dimensional space, he found the possibility of using his body and voice control to contribute to the creation of colour and form as an ‘abstract’ activity on screen very liberating. As before, the dancer(s), together with musician(s) and myself, could all see and hear the final image/sound that was produced on screen and could adjust their contributions accordingly.

The second and parallel approach was that I also decided to build a ‘video instrument’ that addressed some of the technical and image control issues mentioned earlier. The original decision to build it was probably inspired when the studio technician at the Royal College of Art, Reg Clough, and I heard that people were building video synthesizers on the West Coast of the USA. And it happened that via the Royal College of Music, where Simon was based, we were using equipment made by EMS, the pioneering producers of electronic music synthesizers in the UK. As Simon’s tutor was in contact with the owner of EMS, I realised that the technical understanding to build synthesizers was present in London!

Many people working within the ‘video art’ area appeared to use the medium without much understanding of its fundamental nature, and often with an incomplete technical understanding of the operation of its principal tools. It is, of course, now often argued that it is unnecessary for ‘artists’ to possess such knowledge, but that has not always been the case. Before commercial paints became widely available, for instance, painters had to mix their own pigments, which put them very closely in touch with the basic elements of their medium. This very direct contact with their medium was something I tried to emulate in some way in the design of the video instrument. The colour control on each channel was separated into the basic components of light – red, green and blue – rather than being kept in the more usual, transmittable ‘composite’ form.

It needed to provide mixing and inlaying of images from colour cameras or other colour sources, if these were available; but if not, it should allow sophisticated colour addition and processing to the monochrome sources that were more widely used. It also needed to be technically self-contained and portable, bringing together all the essential technical functions present in a studio, yet be useful as an instrument, ‘playable’ by an individual.

I managed to build this instrument, the ‘Videokalos Colour Synthesizer’, with the essential help and guidance of an ex-EMS electronic designer, Richard Monkhouse, under a period of video production funded by the British Film Institute in 1975 and 1976. This was not an easy process, as I had no training in or understanding of electronics, but I was driven by a strong inner need to give it physical form. Richard patiently introduced me to the fundamentals of laying out and building circuit boards of components and with a lot of sweat and tears (and occasional blood) I managed with his help to construct a prototype. He designed the electronic functionality of the circuitry according to the design brief outlined above, adding his own contribution to improve it in line with what he knew to be possible. He patiently tested the various stages and I began to learn something of the fundamentals of electronics.

The ‘synthesizer’ was a liberation visually. It was really an image processing instrument as it did not synthesise the forms of the images directly but allowed manipulation and combination of the colour and form of up to five simultaneous video images, giving visual control surpassing anything I had been able to achieve in expensive colour studios. It was possible to produce imagery of unusual complexity and subtlety using it in combination with either my own studio camera equipment, art college television studios where I held workshops or broadcast-type studios like that at the Royal College.

It also allowed us to perform live for audiences rather than in closed-studio situations. Our group VAMP (Video And Music Performers) consisted of a core of Richard and myself on video, with Simon and Laurence Casserley on audio, and others such as Barry Guy and Roger Heaton on electronically processed instruments. These pioneering performances were not sustainable without external funding, and only the largest arts centres such as the ICA in London and Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery could fund it themselves.

Funding and Distribution
Unfortunately, the Arts Council did not see fit to fund further performances at smaller art centres, so we had to stop. However, from 1974 to 1980 I had received support from the Arts Council, the British Film Institute and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, in each case being the first ‘video artist’ to be funded by these respective institutions and thus setting important precedents for other artists seeking funding.

It also became apparent that my synthesizer/image processor would be of value to other artists, so I decided to build a commercial version of it. Building something to professional engineering standards was as much work over again, and required learning new skills of designing (double-sided) circuit boards for professional fabrication. Despite a high price tag, several were built and sold, which generated a modest income, but I realised ‘manufacturing’ was an activity I was not keen to continue.

Whereas I was personally able to solve some of the problems relating to access to equipment and funding, distribution of the finished work was and remains problematic. My earliest pieces had been broadcast, though with negligible financial return. Furthermore, my work did not fit easily into what was becoming the accepted definition of ‘video art’, and so was usually excluded by those promoting the showing of such work in art galleries. Another artist working in an overtly painterly way with the medium, Brian Hoey, held annual exhibitions at that time in Tyne and Wear which did promote a broader range of video and proved very successful. However, my own pieces were made specifically to be watched in a darkened space, and this was the very antithesis of a normal gallery situation. So I was keen to find another means of distribution, preferably one which extended the audience beyond the small self-selecting group of people who attend art galleries, and specifically those attending contemporary shows involving new media.

Broadcast television, which would have been the obvious and ideal medium for showing such work to a much wider audience, was on the whole not interested at that time. ‘Television’ combines ‘video’ with the Greek tele – far or distant – and is essentially a transmission medium for disseminating images and sounds to a mass of disparate people at a distance. However, broadcasters are socially or commercially funded and play important social and commercial roles. My video work was in complete opposition to both their conscious modes of practice and their subconsciously conditioned role. An example of this was my attempt at the time of the transmission of Entering to get the BBC, via the presenter, Melvyn Bragg, to ask the audience to switch off their room lights. This request disappeared for some time up the BBC hierarchy, and my understanding was that they were concerned about asking for ‘action’ from the normally ‘passive’ audience. Perhaps they thought that, once aroused, people might switch off and engage in some other activity; or even worse, might switch channels (this was before the days of remote control). In the end it was agreed that Melvyn should say something like ‘the artist suggests that the work is best viewed with the room lights dimmed …’

Although the whole history of ‘video art’ can be characterised by this uneasy relationship with broadcast TV, it did seem possible that it might be resolved by the introduction of retail sell-through video tape, video cassette or video disc. And in 1981 I was commissioned by Thorn EMI to produce their first video album for video disc release. This was an expensive 50 minute production, and it seemed to augur well for a broadening of the commercial possibilities for artists using video, just as there had been for musicians on disc – not much popular or experimental music would have happened if it had all had to be commissioned by BBC radio! The piece I made was with more mainstream musicians and used extensive realistic imagery around an ecological theme. Unfortunately video discs on the VHD format, which Thorn-EMI were backing, were not released in this country for commercial reasons, and nor was this video.

Although VHS as a distribution medium has, of course, enjoyed considerable success, there was some naïveté in the belief that the distribution of artists’ work independent of broadcast could be a saving grace. For this option to be commercially viable, the artist’s work must have reasonably broad popular appeal. Serious marketing efforts must also be put behind the work to make people aware of its existence, and get it into the retail outlets or mail order catalogues where they would be able to purchase it. My most recent work Mandala (1991) has in fact been taken up by two mail order companies, first by Revision and recently by Alternative View, but this form of distribution does not guarantee an informed or eager audience and it has yet to provide a decent living for the producer!

However, as the newer distribution media develop, such as satellite broadcasting, digital publishing on CD or CD-ROM and the emergent digital superhighway, there may well be more scope for the viable commercial distribution of work of (relatively) minor interest. Terrestrial network broadcasters are not really concerned with audiences below 250,000 people, yet satellite can work commercially with audiences of around 50,000. The developing information superhighway could in theory work with even smaller and more fragmented audiences using a pay-per-view system.

A Look Forward
Looking back, it is immediately obvious that many of the issues relating to access for artists working with video appear to have persisted into the 1990s. Grant-aid or television commissions for such work remain limited. And in both cases artists remain subject to the subconscious biases of those with the power to award grants and commissions. The integrity of the artist is thus potentially – even inevitably – compromised, although probably no more so than most art produced via patronage over the centuries.

That said, however, access to and supply of equipment has undoubtedly been revolutionised through the relatively low-cost domestic colour cameras, editing equipment and effects technology now available. This equipment is still designed for a purpose that is some way off my own visual concerns, and it remains very difficult to be an electronic ‘painter’ manipulating the electrical signal and image in a conscious way to form content that goes beyond what has become accepted as the ‘norm’. So far as I am concerned, video has as much potential today as it did in the 1970s. The medium is still alive and under-explored, and increasing access to it via the emerging lower cost digital technologies will allow artists to explore more fully the wealth of forms and contents that are possible.

1. David Hall, ‘Using video and Video Art: some notes’, Video Art 78, Coventry, Video Art 78 Committee, 1978, p. 6.

2. David Hall’s 1971 TV Interruptions preceded Entering by three years and have been considered a formative moment in British video art (although Hall does describe them specifically as TV works), but they were made on 16mm film rather than through utilising video technology.

3. It was also Mark Kidel who gave Anna Ridley the go-ahead when she approached him with the idea of producing the Arena video art special which was broadcast two years later on BBC2.

4. For a discussion of this, see A.B. Klein, Colour-Music: The Art of Light, London, Crosby, Lockwood & Son, 2nd edition, 1930.

5. Artists Video – An Alternative Use of the Medium, curated by Brian Hoey and Wendy Brown and held annually in Washington, Tyne and Wear from 1976 to 1980.

6. See, for instance, `Artists and Broadcast: a never-ending story?’ in this volume for a discussion of this.