Friday, October 19, 2007

Subversion


Last night went to the Horse Hospital for the launch of Duncan Reekie’s new book Subversion –The definitive History of Underground Cinema. Less your usual drinks and canapés book launch this was more of a screening programmed by Duncan with as one might expect contributions by Exploding Cinema stalwarts.

But what of the book itself? Well in these quarters the publication has been much anticipated as an alternative to the recent wave of books by those working inside the artists film & video sector. Whilst not without their merits as Duncan points out the publications by Al Rees and David Curtis do suffer from an "adopted objectivity". When talking of key UK films & videos they often omit to mention that it was they who through stewardship of the awarding committees ensured that these films were made in the first place. Now nobody would fund work which they thought to be of poor quality but subsequently to publish critiques which endorse and celebrate such work is a little like writing your own children’s school reports. Reekie in contrast as something of an outsider brings to bear a different perspective (if not quite objectivity) and this is refreshing.

But is this the definitive history? Well maybe not – Duncan is rather enamoured with the  radicalism of the low or no budget underground cinema. Spending taxpayer’s money does confer upon the recipients a responsibility to spend that money in an accountable and for want of a better phrase a democratic manner; something, which the established film & video sector has always shied away from. It does not necessarily follow however that because one funds one's own productions or organises screenings on a collective basis as the Exploding Cinema has done for a number of years that one can always adopt the higher moral ground. An open screening/access policy and collective decision making meetings do not always ensure the objective they purport to support. Indeed for many years the LFMC had such a policy and this actually did little more than perpetuate the distribution of work by just a handful of filmmakers such as Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal.

The self-conscious radicalism of Duncan's prose can also veer into indignation, especially when talking of the failed Lux project. The demise of the Lux was a tragedy and should not have been allowed to happen but the £4.5 million spent is by Lottery standards rather small beer. Indeed that the Lux was allowed to collapse for such relatively small sums shows the establishment’s lack of commitment to artists film & video at the time. One might recall that the Royal Opera House gets some 27 Million every year for its minority art form from the Arts Council and one wouldn’t even want to start adding up the Lottery millions the Film Council has wasted on trying to kick start the UK film industry. Alongside the lost money one might bemoan the hours of low and no paid work put into the project by staff and board at the LFMC particularly in the ten year run up to the opening of the Lux. When I worked there for about 8 months in 1997 most of the staff were being paid 15 thousand a year and putting in a 50-hour week. The LFMC at the time was getting roughly £46,000 a year from the funders. Compare this with the AHRC award of £148,000 given in the last three years to simply establish a database of key documents and narrative chronologies of artists’ film and video distributors.

Nonetheless despite these caveats Duncan’s book does contain many fresh and distinctive insights and is a very welcome addition to the literature on the sector.

6 comments:

Steven Ball said...

An End to Histories

I'm starting to think that we should soon be reaching the end of these histories, not in a Fukuyama 'end of history' kind of way, but the end of the imperative in artists' (or whatever) film and video, towards producing 'a' or 'the' (or whatever) history. As though historical, loosely chronological analysis, overview, whatever, is likely to provide much in the way of an understanding beyond establishing, reiterating, debunking, asserting, redressing, claims to perceived 'importance' by being written into a or the 'history' (to be continued... maybe)...

ps said...

Well Artist Film & Video as defined by Curtis, Gidal, Hamlyn etc and yes even Reekie is quiet a narrow seam. Subversion does recognise this and goes some way in attempting an anlysis and contextualisation beyond the usual confines but there is far more that can be done.

Steven Ball said...

Well notwithstanding not having read the Dr of Underground Film's tome I can't help feeling that the scene is getting very 'umdrum, 'umdrum, you know. Not everybody's study is an 'istory (Gidal's, Hamlyn's and Elwes's aren't for example) but the default mode tends towards historical or historiographical. An anthropological approach (just for example) would be as, if not more, illuminating, or how about something more spatial, a geographical study. For a collection of generic forms that are broadly supposed to be variously 'avant-garde', oppositional, radical, transgressive, experimental, underground, etc, the approach to writing about them is often highly conventional and normative. Nothing has come close to a kind of comparative or relational approach such as might be the case with literature, thinking perhaps of a writer like Edward Said (but of course there are many others), who would be considered pretty mainstream in the literary world but whose development of critique has yet to be matched in the experimental film and video world. Unless of course Dr Reekie is it!?

ps said...

Well I would agree that a wider perspective woudl be helpful- indeed this is what I was hinting at in my last comment when talking about "an anlysis and contextualisation beyond the usual confines". Duncan's book is not such a tome; indeed I woudl say he ironically probably spends too long on the LFMC. However its scope is wider that the rather inward looking books by the others mentionned above (whcih whilst not always histories often accept or project an implied history and reflect levels of importance in keeping with such a history).

Steven Ball said...

totally agree boy, so the only solution is an end to such histories!

ps said...

or a beginning to new ones?