Filmmaker, writer and influential teacher Peter Gidal gives a personal overview of A Century of Artists’ Film in Britain, showing at Tate Britain until April 2004 and including some of his own work.
Imagine the opportunity to study at leisure 170 film works by 130 artists, showing as four day-long sequences, each replaying (digitally) every day for three months. then programme two, then three, then four… throughout the year. This exhibition is in search of lost time – the process of time being at the core of experimental and avant-garde film in Britain, particularly in works from the late 1960s to the late 1980s from the London Filmmakers Co-operative.
The extraordinary resurgence of interest in such works has seen many screenings, mostly in 16mm, in Britain and abroad attended with seriousness and excitement in equal measure. The Shoot Shoot Shoot programme which started its world tour at Tate Modern last year is just one important element here, among dozens of others curated independently from Hackney to Kitakyushu in Japan.
Sometimes these are major events accompanied by catalogues and critiques; or they may be one-nighters given only email publicity, but each show is packed out by more than 100 viewers – and 100 people for such work in one place at one time is a lot, since viewing is very different from consuming.
The notion of the viewer as inseparable from the viewed – the act itself as an active viewing rather than a voyeuristic consumption – separates such work both practically as well as theoretically and philosophically from so much work made then and the work often made now by non-film artists (artists who are not filmmakers).
Temporality is the basis of viewing film works in which process is so important a part of their making and their projection (the concept of film-as projected is essential), and that means time regained – for you, for me, for the work. At the same time, the demands of such a viewing process are inseparable from the power and beauty and involvement for the viewer viewing.
This concept may be hard to grasp. It is certainly in contrast with other film works viewed in other contexts, where time is obliterated, suppressed or repressed - particularly when you file by quickly on the way to the next momentary intake, or are on an escalator going up, whether at Bloomingdales, Selfridges or Tate Modern, past some photograph-as-art, where the image equals the recognised equals the consumed: one more atomic element of time’s obliteration. The viewer is given just that little bit of superiority over the work, via the illusion of coherent understanding, making him or her into a consumer who is in the know.
Opposed to this is an attempt at nonnarrative, or anti-narrative, filmmaking – as instigated by the best of the films in these programmes at Tate – in which the process of viewing is always tentative, not knowing. The viewer is inside a process of aesthetic struggle – however abstract or concrete - made by a particular film’s moment-to-moment struggles with representation. That is to say, each film is at one and the same time attempting to represent but neither giving the viewer the illusion of representation’s adequacy, nor positioning the viewer within an illusion of being in the know. Yet each film remains entirely specific and precise, engaged with the complexities that make one work different from another.
These film programmes include many themes such as docklands, structure and space, still life, the street, empire and its shadows, conceptual film, memory and identity, digital visions, body and performance, land art, animated figures, the lens, metaphor and so on. In short, a true confusion of categories, leading to some wonderful inclusions: the beautiful abstract narrative of Alia Syed’s Fatimah’s Letter, Lis Rhodes’s now classic experimental Light Reading, Kenneth McPherson’s and HDs Wingbeat 1927, Nicky Hamlyn’s intense Guesswork, Len Lye’s Musical Poster No.1, David Dye’s Two Cameras, Malcolm LeGrice’s Berlin Horse.
Equally, there are some truly horrible inclusions which, to me, make no sense, especially in terms of the shortness of most films included. The content of the 31-minute programme devoted to structure/space, in particular, is an insult to the seriousness of that project over a 20-year period by a dozen filmmakers in Britain, especially when elsewhere there are works of 15 or 25 or 55 minutes that simply have no substance.
The lens should have been an extraordinarily stimulating category, exploring how filmmakers engage consciously and unconsciously their intense involvement in the filmmaking process, its very physicalness, its materiality - the obliterations and clarifications of light and dark, erasure and presence, the philosophical and concrete paradoxes of seeing, of knowing, of recognition and unrecognition, of the attempt and impossibility of structuring the world, apprehending its fragilities. Yet there are just three films, for a total of 27 minutes - excluding about a dozen truly exciting, fabulously challenging, works. I find this incomprehensible. Uncomprehensive.
A 100-year retrospective of British artists films could equally show the attempts of representation to be durable and unendurable. Time will tell.
This article originally appeared in Tate Magazine, issue 6