‘Polytechnic’ developed from a number of conversations between Alex Sainsbury, the director of Raven Row and myself over a couple of years before the gallery opened in 2009. He said he hoped that the programme would look at various and sometimes overlooked expressions of experimental practice, and I mentioned a number of video works made in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s exploring ways of engaging with narrative and content which I had seen through my involvement in The Basement Group in Newcastle. I thought of these – or rather, remembered them – as thrilling. It also seemed to me that there were certain echoes and parallels between the period that the artists were working in and today that were resonant and interesting.
‘Polytechnic’ however is not intended as a historical survey of the period or of the area of engagement. There are many important works and artists that are not shown here. Rather it is a selection shaped by what I saw then – most of the artists showed at The Basement – and what has stayed with me. There is a central focus on video, but there are also practices that use and combine other media. All of these works in their different ways have a central concern to reveal, generate and explore narrative, and this, at the time, put them in contrast or opposition to some of the concepts that had defined experimental work.
The late 1970s in the UK was a period of change and uncertainty. The financial crisis – the Callaghan government called in the International Monetary Fund in 1976 – increasingly undermined the social and political consensus on the role of the state that had maintained since the end of the Second World War. Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative party were victorious over an unpopular and discredited Labour administration and their free market philosophies were to change the fabric of the country through de-industrialisation and increasing mass unemployment.
Wider access by artists to the technologies of visual production and reproduction was becoming possible. The arrival of the portable video camera and later the domestic video cassette recorder allowed radically different engagements with the electronic tools which up to then had been the province of the mainstream media of the state, and the corporations.
‘Progressive’ or ‘experimental’ practices saw themselves as, de facto, alternative and oppositional – be this to the narratives of commodity capitalism or the (still mainstream) practices of sculpture and painting. ‘New media’ and time-based practices – performance, film and video, and installation – were a central focus as they were considered to have the history and expectations of ‘art’ less encoded into their fabric than painting or sculpture. The 1960s and early 1970s saw this field develop to become a discipline with its own dictates, philosophies and histories, many of them informed by the modernist focus on materiality and reduction and its commitment to ‘truth to materials’. In painting and sculpture, ideas formulated by Clement Greenberg regarding post-painterly abstraction, flatness and medium specificity – and his stated desire to purge art of ‘the curse of content’, were playing themselves out in the hyper-essential explorations of minimalism and similar concerns animated much of the work in non-traditional media. John Hilliard’s Camera Recording its Own Condition (1971) documented the progressive darkening of a camera’s recording of its own reflected image as the exposure time was reduced.
The London Film-Makers’ Co-op, founded in 1966, became a significant site for the production and representation of ‘Structural Film’ practice, which was concerned with the materiality of film. The means of production was the content of the production, and ideas of ‘representation’ and narrative were necessarily anathemised. In 1976 Peter Gidal wrote in ‘Theory and Definition of Structural / Materialist Film’: ‘The dialectic of the film is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality that is represented. Consequently a continual attempt to destroy the illusion is necessary.’ David Hall, who established the first time-based arts degree with video as an option in the UK at Maidstone Art School in Kent in 1972, was a pioneer in British video practice. He came from an engagement in minimalist sculpture and explored the materiality of his new medium using operations of cameras and the quirks of magnetic tape as ways to destabilise the suspension of disbelief encouraged by television realism.
These experimental approaches were animated by the modernist belief that avant-garde practice would effect a revolution not only in the realms of art but in the material relationships of mankind. This allowed for the possibility for progressive art practices, no matter how abstruse, to see themselves as agents of a teleological imperative. As Peter Gidal describes in his essay, the focus on materiality and refusal of narrative in Structural Film was a political act against the ‘manipulatory, mystificatory, repressive’ functions of mainstream cinema which ‘maintain the ideological class war and […] the state apparatus in all its fields‘.
However the social and economic developments of the 1970s seemed to talk as much of entropy and disempowerment as possibilities of transformation and in May 1979 the distance and disassociation of progressive agendas and ideals from wider society was starkly demonstrated in the election victory of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party. Soon they were to start dismantling many of the structures and understandings that underpinned the post-war progressive social contract.
Film, video and even photographic darkrooms were difficult for artists to access, but by the late 1970s, in the wake of David Hall’s initiative in Kent, polytechnics and art schools across the country had set up courses in non-traditional media, and arts-labs and other resources were emerging. Funding authorities started to provide grants and bursaries for production and exhibition. The Royal College of Art offered a postgraduate degree in what it arcanely named the ‘Environmental Media’.
The rigorous criteria of structural and material practice of the 1960s and early 1970s helped shape the content of experimental media courses. But increasingly they seemed restrictive and abstracted. Ideas and understandings shaped by feminist discourse, the gay rights movement, the concept that the personal was inherently political, were becoming important. In 1976 Punk exploded, shouting down the abstract complex productions of ‘progressive’ rock with direct expressions of disillusionment and alienation. Punk and post-punk re-animated ideas of atomised non-centralised modes of production, of ‘doing it oneself’.
Technology had become more sophisticated. Recording sound on film in the 1960s had been a fiddly and difficult process but now Super 8 film cassettes were available with sound stripes, audio cassette recorders had become mainstream, video recorders automatically recorded sound as well as image. This militated against a singular focus on the visual and instead favoured polysemous investigations. As Stuart Marshall pointed out, although UK video makers drew attention to the mechanisms that created the illusion of the video image, the tape itself could not be worked on directly, and, as a result, their critique became necessarily ‘embroiled in the practices of signification’.
Outside the visual arts there were new explorations of narrative by experimental practitioners coming into view. The English translation of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino was published in 1974, followed by If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller in 1979, both of which explored – and reveled in – the nature and potential of story telling. In non-popular music, ideas of the syntax of harmony and melody, rejected by modernist composers, were being reanimated by composers such as Philip Glass, whose Einstein on the Beach was performed in 1975. Language, the sign the signifier and media were becoming the raw material of critical engagement, the writings of Barthes were colonising the reading lists of colleges and the bookshelves of artists and students.
Limits were revealed in the approaches that had helped define how artists approached experimental practices and the social and political changes demanded practices that allowed the investigation of lived experience, of social constructions of the self, of the personal, subjective and domestic realms; that addressed the subject and explored language. The works in ‘Polytechnic’ engage with narrative and explore content. In contrast to reductive and materialist dynamics, languages and techniques – the performative, the literary, approaches taken from mainstream media – are combined to generate impure, complex and hybridised works to illuminate the tangled relationships and interactions between the artist, the work, and the rapidly changing social and political worlds in which they operated.
Richard Grayson is an artist, curator and writer based in London. He was a founder member along with John Adams, John Bewley, Ken Gill, John Kippin and Belinda Williams of The Basement Group, a video and live performance, production and exhibition space in Newcastle (1979–84), and he was curator of the 2002 Sydney Biennale. He is represented by Matt’s Gallery, London.