Three seminal 70’s films from the London Film-makers’ Co-op

The girl Chewing Gum
Still from 16 mm film , The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) courtesy of the artist

Tate Britain recently celebrated 50 years of the London Film-makers’ Cooperative with a screening of six films and a display of archive material. I was struck by their manifesto which defined film “as language, as poem, as instrument of passion and logic” but against “the gimmick, the kitsh, the chi-chi, the B-feature worship”.  This gives a flavour of the era when artists’ growing aversion to the dominant pop art movement of the 60’s was leading to a deeper engagement with the world.

John Smith   The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976

This off-the-wall, ground-breaking film was the best thing in this exhibition. It is based on the conceit of passers by in a Hackney street apparently responding to instructions of a mildly hectoring but encouraging film director. “Come on look at me…good”. The commentary takes a more surreal turn as a slightly erratic zoom to a clock face is accompanied by the director calling out “Now the clock to move to jerkily towards me”.  Like all Smith’s work this wryly amusing take also offers deeper insights – in this case into the illusory nature of film. The Tate website includes an In Focus research project exploring the theoretical and historical context of the film authored by a leading moving image art scholar, Dr. Erika Balsom. She argues that, as a film about film-making, it pushes the post modern envelope much further than the popular Truffaut film, La Nuit Americaine, which I remember hugely enjoying as a teenager on its 1974 release. Its opening live action street scene is like an inverse of Smith’s, when it is revealed that the apparently real passers by are in fact extras choreographed by the director.

Malcolm Le Grice   Threshold, 1976

Viewable online this intriguing and visually captivating film uses multiple recycled and distorted versions of a short sequence of activity around a border post. The migrants and guards are presented through red and green filters of different strengths to give a dream-like aura. For me the red/green binary evoked a blood-chlorophyll /stop-go/ death-life symbolism. Its title points to its universal relevance applicable in the U.K.’s current political crisis which is driven by the atavistic fear that boundaries represent, a concept so brilliantly illuminated through the the seminal ethnographic work,  Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas.

Lis Rhodes  Dresden Dynamo, 1971

This startling “optical sound” experience is an experimental abstract 16mm film work that predates the Vasulka’s similar video-generated Machine Vision but has the same visceral impact. Letraset and letratone is directly applied to the celluloid and then fed through filters to produce the final version. The sound track is generated by the film itself and this is uncannily like the drone of WW2 bombers. You feel the phalanx of planes, the cascading of bombs and the snapping of the Dresden firestorm. As Tacita Dean might say “Bring back celluloid. There is something more authentic about it than digital film.”

The Vasulka’s anarchic playground

Still from Noisefields, courtesy of the artists and Vasulka Chamber, the National Gallery of Iceland

Steina and Woody Vasulka – Machine Vision at Raven Row Gallery until 5 June

Unlike most of the youthful video art fans/liggers at this opening who were either new arrivals or merely a distant gleam in their parents’ eyes in the 1970s,  I found this a real nostalgia trip. In 1974 the Vasulkas were exploiting the early “portable” video cameras. I was in my gap year assisting a budding artist keen to make a documentary about my old school. We secured the loan of a Sony Portapak camera from a local teacher training college and as we played with it I had a glimmer of what I would later learn to label “technological fetishisation”. Those were innocent times: the artist argued we should interview the Headmaster dressed in clownsuits.   This element of safe anarchism was all that remained of the intense political  fervour of 1968. It was fun but not likely to change the world.

Steina Vusulka recalls how people detecting the pleasure she gained from her artistic creativity accused her of “just playing”, to which her amused response was to take it as a compliment. Hearing the Vasulkas talk about their pioneering days in the sixties conjours up visions of lunar explorers feeling their way into the darkness of a new medium. Exploration is a serious business but it also involves a childlike daring and curiosity. They were not absolutely sure what their computers and video cameras were doing to their inputs but they were excited by their outputs. As Steina puts it: artists must live on the fringe and not “kiss the ass” of the art establishment. Seen in this context even playful artistic anarchism is political.

The curator has usefully restricted the works in this exhibition to the 1970s, the Stone Age of video art technology, which provides us with a case study of the emergence of a new art form. In any transition like this an experimental approach is unavoidable. Some of these works are like video sketchbooks where the struggle to mould the new technology to artistic ends is presented with post-modern transparency. In Orbital Obsessions (1975-77)  the couple are initially heard discussing the set up for the filming. Steina is seen heaving around a huge monitor to keep pace with a revolving camera that is recording it. The cumbersome equipment and the tangle of power cables add to the sense that knotty problems were being solved on the hoof. When a doorbell rings Steina walks out of the frame to answer it, playtime suspended temporarily.

The most exciting feature of their collaboration is Woody’s engineering expertise melding with the warmth of Steina’s musical sensibility creating some startling sound/image correspondences. In Violin Power (1978) computer manipulation converts the pitch of the note played on Steina’s violin into a visible oscillation of the bow. Noisefields (1974) has reached a certain iconic status with Youtube views exceeding 12,000. Its appeal derives from the frenetic and layered audio track which includes bleeps, squelches and squeaks of differing tempos in lock-step with the eye-popping but schematic video track. The circle in a square is constant but the colouration and flicker vary, leading to thoughts of the big bang, planets, suns,  global warming, black holes and our own extinction. Its relentless energy is not just a prescient metaphor for our current information overload but taps into the atavistic brain restlessness that is a cost of our human consciousness.

Steina’s Machine Vision (1978) is real crowd pleaser: a complex and playful real time closed circuit installation with crazily rotating cameras and mirrors displaying the gallery visitors on multiples screens raising questions of voyeurism and exhibitionism. Peter Campus created several interactive video installations of this type in the 1970’s but their more formal simplicity had certain advantages.

Woody’s Reminiscence (1974) is the most moving of the video works (also viewable here) His footage of a visit to his rural childhood home in Moravia is processed so that the visual signals are degraded to a set of contour lines which we gradually learn to decode like a blind man suddenly having his sight restored. Skittering humps on the ground are farmyard animals. This misty experience so redolent of confused nostalgic visits ends in resolution with warm greetings from two recognisable human figures.

I left this exhibition reflecting on not just the value of play in the artistic process but on its necessity when new technologies present themselves. The challenge of the new technology also seemed to encourage artists to move away from the political activism of the sixties. The less threatening gently subversive approach in the seventies was very evident in the works on show here and in my own experience of being asked to don a clown-suit to video my headteacher .