Interview with Rod Stoneman
This interview was recorded by Michael Mazière to provide background to the paper INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT FOR ARTISTS' FILM AND VIDEO IN ENGLAND 1966 - 2003 for the British Artists' Film and Video Study Collection. It has been tidied-up but not edited. It may not be quoted without the interviewee's permission. To seek this contact email@example.com
MM: I suppose the first question would be, what was your first involvement with artists film and video as a funder, producer or commission editor.
RS: Yes more as a funder and commissioning editor not really as a producer in that direct sense. And obviously, in a way, the term producer is rarely applicable to the artisanal mode of production from which experimental work comes. After coming across experimental stuff - I was literally doing English at University of Kent at Canterbury where there were bits of film studies going on there and there was a regional theatre financed by the BFI that I was involved in. And there was a students' film society as well and I remember we had some money left at the end of the year so we used to trawl through the London Filmmakers Co-op - rather than picking up an anthology of stuff to show we thought it was better to get a person and show their stuff in depth. I think it was Malcolm Le Grice himself who trundled down to Canterbury in something like 1975 and from there on out there were various things happening like the famous Bristol conference, like an NFT season and all in the mid 70s, if I remember rightly. And I then did two postgrad years at the Slade - film studies at the Slade - which had a very mixed menu and some of it, I'm glad to say, looked at visually based work or avant-garde work. I mean I can't remember the exact shape of the course.
MM: You were studying there?
RS: Yes studying there. And there would be Simon Field talking about Brakhage and Tony Rayns talking about Kenneth Anger - you know the Co-op trundling along in the background. I got to know Mike Leggett because he was down in Devon where I came from. And that whole boiling - that very intense and powerful period - where there was a constellation of work which had a kind of critical mass - I think like most of these clusters, people move out in different directions afterwards. But clearly there was a connection and an energy in the second half of the 70s around independent film in general and around visually based or non-narrative work within that. And as you were asking about funding, I was involved in South West Arts which was a regional arts association with a film section. Chris Rodrigues was the Film Officer and we were on the panel and published the South West Film Directory which was worth doing. And again that was independent film broadly but with a proper interest in and space for experimental work as an integrated part of that. And although I did other things in the meantime, like making one or two documentaries and work for SEFT or for Screen actually, it was quite easy following that trajectory through into the edge of Channel 4. Because Channel 4 obviously as a whole had a remit to push the boundaries of British broadcasting and within that remit, independent film and video had a particularly strong and sharp version of putting stuff on British television which absolutely was not available elsewhere. And being candid about it, in some manifestations, there was a kind of oedipal mischief at play where I would almost be trying to think what can we put on that really no one would watch. And I actually failed very spectacularly and comprehensively because I remember showing some black and white video interviews with Jacques Lacan a very heavy duty French psychoanalysis and theory, and these were put out about 1.30 in the morning and still, you know, 250-300,000 people watched them. You know there's nothing you can do to stop people watching, I found.
MM: When you were at Channel 4, were you involved with the BFI at any point?
RS: Colin McArthur once said
to me, 'Somewhere at the BFI there's a chair with your name on the back'
- I'm glad to say I've never found it.
MM: What about the BFI catalogue?
RS: Oh yes I did the Production
Board catalogue. [The New Social Function of Cinema Catalogue: British
Film Institute Productions '79/80 BFI ,1982]
MM: I think the most leftist
catalogue the BFI ever did.
RS: Heaven forbid, Michael.
MM: Very fascinating - if you
look at it now, you would not believe that this publication was ever
made - considering where the Film Council is now.
RS: The Film Council is indeed
a very long way away from that now isn't it.
RS: The one with the red wedge
cover; and it's quite thick and discursive in the ways of those times.
I'd been involved in organising the South West Film Tour which was a
good and thorough encounter with independent film and, as I keep saying,
avant-garde film was an integral part of that. And that led through
to the BFI catalogue - Hilary Thompson was working in the BFI Production
Department and asked me to do that with her. And it wasn't funding but
it was still working with different bits of the sector - artists working
at the leading edge of all that. Just to finish on the Channel 4, the
kind of Oedipal play was also there in say doing an anthology like Midnight
Underground, which again, in general terms, found audiences which
were small in terms of television ratings probably but huge in terms
of the audiences which that work had ever reached before.
MM: Well that's a lot of impact
- I mean you wouldn't believe the amount of people who are now interested
- I mean young people who say, 'When I was 15 I saw Midnight Underground
and now I'm studying experimental film or doing film studies.'
RS: That's interesting. Perhaps
as a footnote, one should say that there was quite a conscious selectivity
going on in terms of taking avant-garde work through transmission to
a wider audience, through television. Apart from the selectivity - to
do with what we thought was the strongest or best work (which of course
is always arguable as any kind of curatorial selection is) there was
another thing happening. This was to do with the fact that certain kinds
of avant-garde work was left out simply because it wouldn't work in
a television context. Obviously something like expanded work is self-sufficient
and is clearly excluded but I'd go further. If you come towards a piece
which actually moves quite carefully, quite slowly and plays with duration,
my view would be (and that's contestable) that that is destroyed on
television and misuses the opportunity of broadcasting. Whereas stuff,
whatever it is, pushing of other boundaries - like maybe there's no
narrative in sight or those things that people expect from television
sets or cinema screens - if it had things like speed, colour, music,
energy - it could work fantastically well on television.
MM: Well, that's why Animate!-
animation - is still going.
RS: I mean of course, at its
worse end you end up on MTV which is just a bit of fizz and speed but
completely without seriousness or substance or sustainability but hopefully
we stopped well short of that. But it seems to that there has to be
some negotiation with the expectations of what was possible when you
switched on the television set that meant you could encounter material
that could exploit that space yet take it elsewhere. I mean joking about
the oedipal motive aside
MM: What do you mean by the
RS: Like doing things which
would surprise and shock - you know fulfilling our bounden duty to do
that which in a certain way the institution expected, I would say.
MM: There's one thing which
is buying work which already existed and then there's another which
was commissioning works. In your experience did you think that that
required a shift in the way artists work, in terms of having to produce
scripts and produce certain amounts of material which wasn't usual for
them. Did you think that the process of adapting their ideas for television
was successful or not or just depended?
RS: It's probably difficult
to generalise and possibly your latter phrase about it just depended
or mixed is most accurate because buying stuff which was made was clear
because you knew what it was and how it would function - its limitations
were that there was a certain distance about something that had been
made in a different time and place probably. Working with practitioners
on specific new material was a more dangerous and interesting adventure.
I mean firstly, I think you touched on it, there had to be some sense
of engagement with television. If the filmmaker says I'm doing a series
of work and if you like you can put money into opus 125 which stands
between 124 and 126, unless what they were doing was already so relevant,
it would be less interesting to me than someone who said ah here's an
opportunity - I do this kind of stuff now how can I articulate or renew
or play with this kind of stuff in the specific space of television.
That was always more interesting than in someone who said I am very
separate in my solipsistic ivory tower. You know I suppose someone like
Brakhage would be like that but if their stuff was so amazing then it
was good to put on. But certainly in terms of the British artists and
filmmakers that we were working with, the ones who were interesting
were the ones who could - whatever angle they took - focus on playing
into the specific space. And actually just going back to that earlier
thing about selectivity around colour and movement, speed etc, I'll
give you one little epiphany that I had. I was involved with Derek Jarman
doing The Garden - it was finished and was being transmitted
and having seen a couple of rough cuts, I was probably led towards bad
viewing behaviour and The Garden was being shown on Channel 4
and I was zapping across various channels and watching the news and
whatever was on the other channels. You know that's not really a sensible
or reasonable way to look at Derek or anyones work but the epiphany
for me was that The Garden held up against this other stuff.
Even seen end to end, it has no narrative to talk of
but the images,
the sounds and music and the work that Derek made is so extraordinary,
so strong that it actually manages to hold its own.
MM: Yes and for me that happened
with David Larcher's work - there's a lot of artists' work I wouldn't
want to watch on television because I didn't think that they would try
to even place themselves into the medium or even just achieve the right
level of intensity - but when I put David Larcher's work on, David's
work actually seemed to compromise and yet still work.
RS: Exactly - there's a particular
moment at the end of EETC which for me is so marvellous where
the discursive rambling, visuals, sounds, ideas etc towards the end
suddenly begin to disintegrate and the screen's falling apart and the
sound track collapsing - maybe it's that oedipal motive again - but,
you know, it was brilliant to put that on television where the whole
thing came apart at the seams - ie that's not what the television signal
is meant to do, not never ever. So seeing EETC fragment and disintegrate
towards the end was a very good thing to put onto television. Actually
David's work, because of its multiple layers working - you know that
he'd shoot some stuff and then put it through a bath and then do an
optical printer and then play with it on video - had that richness and
intensity to hold its own just as Derek Jarman's work did. But you know
they're two of the strongest examples and you say how did work - and
there were many that didn't work but that's inevitably the risk that
you're taking when you're commissioning new work.
MM: But you always had the
option not to broadcast?
RS: I don't remember really
using that option although you could probably give me examples.
MM: I think there were pieces
that were never broadcast. I don't mean that it was a problem but I
meant that you could take more risks in the sense that you could commission
work and if it didn't work on Channel 4 then you didn't show it but
it would still be commissioned.
RS: That approach still seems
to me relevant to all this because last July at the Irish Film Board
we announced something called Digital Development and the notion is
very simple. It's just that we were spending 30,000-70,000 euros on
people banging away on word processors getting scripts right so I thought
why don't we spend equivalent amounts of money on people who are developing
projects in a camera - why does it have to be printed and word processed
onto paper, why can't it be in a camera? And the big, bright possibility
of something like Digital Development is to say to filmmakers, "Look
if it doesn't work it's ok" - because we're doing that all the
time with scripts. In fact, people say in a highly professional approach
you need to write off huge sums in script development like Hollywood
in Europe too. But why not have that same embracing of risk with people
making images directly.
MM: Well that's how artists
work - certainly how I work especially now with digital work - you work
at home, you've got your system - you can do that labour which is the
script labour but do it with visual images.
RS: And because it's artisanal,
you can accomplish, if it works, a finished piece for much less than
the (quote unquote) industry cost would be.
MM: But what did happen was
the opposite at one point . Artists who had previously made work which
was fairly non-narrative and which wasn't scripted ended up getting
script development money and spent years writing scripts with five or
ten thousand from the BFI and the works never got made. So what they
ended up doing was learning how to write scripts which I suppose is
an example, for me, of a non- productive form of funding. It's trying
to fit a square peg in a round hole - it doesn't work.
RS: Luckily because of the
cost and scale of quite a lot of experimental work, you know you can
create an openly high risk space for it to play in and if it doesn't
then writing it off is not a huge problem or pressure. No one is going
to turn up and try to take your furniture away because you haven't given
us a commodity for it. Actually, I should say one thing Michael, I wouldn't
be pretending that either Channel 4 or my personal engagement with the
funding of independent artists making work for television, was some
notion of diverting money from inside the television structure to a
good cause which is artists. There's a nuance here - my mentality was
and is that this is what is needed on television and it needs to be
paid for properly. I've never liked NGO charitable aid approach to the
Third World - I've never liked the notion that artists should be funded
because they deserve it. I don't think it's a happy or healthy basis
for exchange - the point is if you're in a commissioning position you
have access to money which you can deploy for certain work. It's an
exchange and needs to be more dignified than "Ah well I think you're
an artist and I think it would be nice to give you some money".
It's more like you make work that we want, and we have money that you
want, so let's exchange.
MM: Yes I think that's a healthy
attitude. I think one way of solving that as well is through purchasing
and that's the way a lot of artists make work - painters, sculptures
- they make work then they sell it - it's an exchange not a grant.
RS: There can be a very unhealthy
side to the whole subsidy mentality and grant stuff. Luckily in television
it's a more simple exchange because television is quite a lucrative
enterprise - the amounts of money that television pays to buy something
that's been made, in that terrain it is quite useful large-scale dosh.
MM: The other thing I was wondering
is at the moment what we're talking about is a period when there was
some form of purism within broadcasting, particularly within Channel
4. The position now is very different and the space into which artists
have moved is very much in the gallery - as opposed to broadcast or
even the film, cinema context. What's your view on this?
RS: Well I think it's sad and
ridiculous and depressing and a defeat. And I hope that this tide can't
continue to keep coming up the beach - maybe it's got to go back again
and things change and I have to say in the twenty years since those
IFA days, ten years at Channel 4 and ten years at the Irish Film Board,
I think the climate change has continued to deteriorate. I can't really
offer any analytical insights into what happened in public service broadcasting
in Britain - I'm appalled - other than clearly, with a broad brush stroke,
it's not a happy situation. I mean actually a more considered account
of it, alongside the essay I wrote for the Mike O'Pray book 'Incursions
and Inclusions: The Avant-Garde on Channel Four 1983-93' [in Avant-Garde
Film 1926-1995], would be 'Sins of Commission' a Screen magazine
article written at a point when we'd reached a certain kind of threshold
where I thought this is now coming to an end. Or else it was Margaret
Dickenson who anthologised it in Rogue Reels - the full thing
is in Screen magazine in about 1992 or something like that. And
you know, too many distant and complex factors led to what's happened
in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. And now working for a national film
agency over the ten years since then I suppose I've now got a different
sense of the same phenomenon which is that across along period of time,
the power of the incursion of American cinema has eventually affected
taste which makes it more difficult to find any kind of exhibition space
or critical mass of audience to show slightly different, let alone experimental
work to and therefore artist film-makers entirely retreat to the gallery.
Now I had a dialectical exchange with my friend Keith Griffiths where
he said, 'I don't know what you're getting worked up about Rod - it
was always thus, it was always going to be thus.' But I want to say
clearly that my formative context was one where I came out of the IFA
as independent film began to consolidate and get out to audiences and
then I went into Channel 4 and tried to take it further through television.
Others may see this as a ridiculous fantasy but what I was interested
in was the notion of taking this form of film to, I wouldn't say a mass
audience, but to a wider audience and so therefore the way in which
this has been pushed back and the audience has actually diminished -
I mean I think it's still there in a kind of obscure niche but it hasn't
grown, clearly from my perspective is a big move backwards.
MM: It interests me that you
say the retreat to the gallery - there's a whole question around the
value of exhibiting work in a gallery over two months and maybe to thousands
RS: But it's not really thousands
of people and they're a limited and tiny fragment of the social echelon
(I saw this when I worked in the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol - I was
working in the cinema there).
MM: From an artist's point
of view, what the feedback is in terms of showing a piece of your work
at midnight on Channel 4 or having a show at the Hayward - what I'm
saying is that they're different contexts in terms of value. I don't
think necessarily a retreat but maybe a change.
RS: Well I think it's a change
for the worse, perhaps that's the value judgement and cultural framework
that I'm imposing on it - your disagreement is fine!
MM: No I'm not disagreeing
- I just think there's been a retreat from cinema but I don't think
that putting work in a gallery is necessarily a retreat.
RS: I'm not trying to disparage
that space and dismiss galleries - I just think that galleries are very
limited because 90% of the people would never think - I mean they might
find themselves in the café, but that's often by mistake. I'll
give examples of two exhibitions of when I was at the Arnolfini in Bristol
- one exhibition of Tony Cragg's work in about 1980 and I thought this
is well ahead of the game - Tony Cragg is an interesting and significant
artist but I sort of thought why exhibit it in a heated space? It could
be in a loft because there's just a tiny tiny specialist interest in
this artist - which includes me by the way - it doesn't need to be in
a publicly funded gallery. It's great significant stuff, but let's be
honest, it inevitably appeals to a very small group of people. There
was another exhibition that Lewis Biggs, the curator at the Arnolfini,
organised called Women's Images of Men - different kinds of art,
all by different artists. Of course the shit hit the fan because some
of it was rude and some of it was feminist and a good lot of people
flowed through the gallery in those six weeks and that's what a gallery
is for - doing something which isn't just kitsch or crap - significant
interesting brave work but that it has the potential to connect with
a wider audience. It's not an absolute or objective value but my frame,
for whatever reason, is the notion of engaging the body politik or some
significant chunk of it is crucial and that's why I hold onto the aspiration
of pushing the boundaries out into television and cinemas and the shortfall
there at the present is something which I describe as a defeat. But
clearly I respect the position which says you're mad to think that it
would work and anyway why worry about it.
MM: I think it did and it worked
for a while. I don't look at it and think of it as a defeat - I say
that's what happened then and now we're in a different situation and
what are the strategies that people are using in order to produce work
- are there other ones that can be developed. I think working between
the gallery context and the film context I think that there was a black
hole there where experimental film had placed itself and it never really
kind of sat in either. And although that gave it strength in terms of
underground culture, I think it also suffered from that - that it wasn't
quite film, cinema but it also wasn't art. And a lot of the work I've
done is trying to connect these two worlds but in terms of the support
for that work and getting it to a wider audience, that was your agenda.
RS: Yes - I mean some compromises
remained as I mentioned like how one selected a certain part of the
spectrum but certain other sorts of compromises were not contemplated.
For example, one would never be involved in showing extracts - it was
always the whole work and if there was any hanky panky going on it would
be overt - like we showed Philip Brophy's Salt, Saliva, Sperm and
Sweat (1987) and you can see what had been cut from the black boxes
in the frame. And actually a more relevant example to British artists'
work would be Anna Thew's Cling Film - she participated in the
preparation of a version which could be transmittable and the crucial
thing was that that version showed what it wasn't showing, as it were.
So a range of accommodations stopped short of chopping it into small
bits and turning it into an MTV production.
RS: Clearly David's work could
have been just purchase and transmitted - like Mare's Tale -
but much more interesting was trying to complete EETC. And then
there was another piece which was done under one of the schemes that
was more electronically based VideOvoid - I think there were
three pieces in all.
MM: There was Granny's Is
that was done through the BFI and then there was EETC.
RS: Working with David was
of course not easy because in a complex way, there was an anachronistic
and romantic idea of the artist in his self-image, in my view. And taking
those films through to television involved a lot of manipulation - a
combination of inducing, bullying, cajoling and begging. David's girlfriend
at the time - Sadie Chowen - used to come into the editing suit and
take the bottle out of David's hand. I talked before about the layering
and intensity of the visual layering in David's work - his work also
seemed very much to do with some version of the artist as homo ludens,
someone who plays. And of course there is no necessary end to it - the
process of manipulating, changing and reconfiguring material. It's a
long time ago now but if I remember rightly some of the process of taking
David's stuff through involved setting specific limits to say this is
the amount of time in the edit suit and then it's finished. There was
an element of infant boundary definition and the whole thing had some
funny psychological edges because when I left Channel 4, in a completely
crazy way he wrote me this totally aggressive and accusatory letter.
In some mad moment, probably in the middle of the night, he wanted to
say 'if you think you've helped me to make work well actually you're
just a bureaucrat'. I remember one of his phrases "The most productive
thing you've done is to have children and you didn't even do that yourself"
- maybe that's oedipal madness from the artist; actually I think he'd
just had a new project turned down and that's always difficult to take.
But the truth is that David made the work and we acted as a midwife
to get it out.
MM: I think that David has
always worked under the umbrella of support - after the BFI and Channel
4, he went to [CNCV Montbelliard] in France and did some horrific stuff
there - smashed up the canteen furniture there.
RS: Yes I went there to see
him - I remember that. Actually all this madness reminds me of a line
from Lenin about the British Labour party , but Lenin's quote is very
true in terms of the relationship with some artists - he said about
the Labour Party - 'We support them the way the rope supports the hanged
MM: I think he always has benefited
from an environment which was a mentoring environment. Ben Gibson said
that when they had to cut Granny's Is down to 47 minutes, that
David said to him, "Look I'm closing my eyes and you press the
RS: But I would say something
slightly different along these lines - if you look at this material
- at almost any frames from David Larcher's work or Le Grice's work,
visual material that we're talking about - from an artist's film or
video - that the 'normal' interaction that a financier or a funder has
with the narrative rough cut, whether it's documentary or fiction piece,
is not really available. If you're looking at someone's documentary
you might just say "Fine but is it clear where that bit comes from?"
or "You seem to have three endings - which would you like to choose?"
or if you're looking at a feature film, you might say "Maybe it
sags in the middle?" or "Is that the right music?" or
"Can we reduce the role of that character because it didn't really
work?". I mean those are the sort of characteristic things you
might be saying - not through any illusion of being a superior maker
- it's about bringing distance to the process - you're acting like a
kind of viewer although maybe a more precise and sophisticated viewer
- but that's what you are. The filmmakers' head is right in the work
and you come from outside and say "How?" and "Why not?"
and "What if?" with a lightness of touch hopefully. Now when
you're talking to David or Malcolm or Peter Gidal or yourself or any
artist doing this sort of work, there's of course a degree of shaping
the activity because this has to be within certain boundaries of time
and motion and budget, but the same degree of specific input is rarely
possible because the material is not amenable to that sort of input
in the same way. We did an abstract piece with a guy in Belfast called
Glen Marshall called Butterfly recently, and there's a middle
section with mandalas and symmetrical patterns going on in an animation
which became very grey and repetitive so I did dare to say "Is
that section too long?" But that's about as far as it goes because
you can't have the same kind of involvement with the material as you
would have with something which is organised on a more narrative logical
basis. There may be some degree of editorial input but, given the nature
of the activity, it's not really the same as in other areas of film
MM: You think it's less?
RS: Oh yes very much less -
it's bound to be.
MM: But then you talked about
having to place boundaries?
RS: But that's just to put
a shape on the work and contain it so that it finishes.
MM: I mean maybe less is more
in comparison to other areas?
RS: Yes that's probably true.
MM: You can't come to any conclusions
about this, but is there any way in which you see things moving forward
now or would you see that as a moment - successful in part for supporting
that work at a time when it was possible or are you able to continue
some of that legacy in your work now?
RS: In a different way, some
of it can go on within a national film agency like the Irish Film Board
but clearly if someone were foolish enough to give us space within a
British television channel at the moment, you could of course use that
space, not to show the same stuff but approach it from a new angle and
show equivalent or new material which is challenging, brave, intelligent,
ironic, imaginative. But at this time, it's that much more difficult
because the surrounding cultural environment is much further from that
endeavour - more locked into consumable narratives.
MM: There has a revival of
underground culture - a kind of nostalgia or mythologizing. There was
a big piece in Dazed and Confused - a six page spread on the
RS: Fantastic - was there anything
about it on television?
MM: No, not on television.
But Tate Modern did the big event. But my concern is that it's about
RS: It's in a nice contained
space - it's not got cobwebs on it but it is almost archaeological.
And it doesn't have that power and vibrancy of something which is proximate
and being made in a contemporary domain. Look at the work of Godard
- he continues at the edge to make his startling explorations - you
know things shown at the edge of French television or a feature done
which is shown in festivals. This is fine and valid but if you wind
the tape back to the point where you know something like Pierrot
Le Fou or even Passion was being shown to considerable audiences
through art house cinema and on television (on subtitled arty spots)
- but that just doesn't exist any more. No one running a cinema would
run a new Godard film for a week let alone for three.
MM: Yes but do you think it's
also related to the technology of production now which allows you to
basically produce work on your own - even encourages it - you don't
even need the collective environment of say the Film Co-op. You just
have a computer - it's almost like writing in a way.
RS: Well I think that's a pity
- now that technology is cheaply and easily available - that's great
but I think it's a pity that the audiences are removed from the process
because I think the audience is what saves the work from solipsism.
I think there are problems with solipsistic activity.
MM: Absolutely. I mean Godard's
last film - Eloge De L'Amour - did quite well. It ran in London
and is out on DVD in Virgin Records. I think he's still actually there
- I think he picked up his audience again that he'd lost for quite a
RS: When I was at that conference
last summer, we saw a piece which he made for MOMA which I found fascinating
- about art - and which is never going to be shown because it's owned
MM: Was that the sort of autobiographical
RS: It was about painting and
art but it was obviously semi-autobiographical.
MM: As it always is.
RS: Well, without treading
over the same old ground, the colour of the glasses with which you view
the contemporary situation depends a lot on where you are coming from.
I don't know them but the younger generation that's encountering stuff
and doing Shoot, Shoot, Shoot are grabbing something from history
and throwing it in the face of the present and that's an optimistic
form of activity. For someone who's actually been through the process
of taking that stuff through TV to a position where it's sort of opened
out but in a sense, been driven back. I mean you must forgive me for
a little bit more of a pessimistic view of it all.
MM: Well I actually agree.
I mean I think there's been an incredible backlash. What shocks me is
the level of Channel 4 - the level of the backlash seems to be in direct
proportion with the level of its alternativeness. It's as if it's trying
to make up for having been so different that it's become so crass.
RS: But it's lost any kind
of commitment to radical pluralism. You watch something like Celebrity
Big Brother and it isn't the speciousness of that whole nonsense
- it's that there's nothing else around it. Because Channel 4 has always
done some stuff - I remember Women of Substance - which is more
middle of the road, but it had a very mixed diet in the early years,
which enabled it to push the boat out in the ways we've been talking
about and doesn't seem to be there any more. BBC4, in public service
broadcasting terms, has clearly got a more Guardian audience but seems
to be under pressure and not picking up a lot of viewers.
MM: It's good though.
RS: It sounds like it but it's
still very much generalist in its approach. It's not about art - you
don't see much artists work on it. Talking about artists work, you need
to remember Blue - showing Derek Jarman's Blue - now that
was an extraordinary moment wasn't it! You had Radio 3 doing a simulcast
so you could hear it on stereo if you put your speakers around the television.
MM: That's an example of using
the media that you're working with.
RS: And because of Derek's
tragic situation - losing his sight - there was the concept that even
mainstream broadcasters could go after Caravaggio and The
Tempest. Derek's quality as a filmmaker was established and there
was a certain emotion about the fact that he was losing his sight so
that was very specific and particular and enabled Channel 4 and Radio
3 to take that brave step (although Alan Yentob rang the next day and
said. "Don't ever collaborate with Channel 4 in this way again"
- but that's probably just competitiveness between broadcasters). But
it was also the climate of the times - I mean Isaacs put Shoah
on - I mean that's eight hours of serious documentary across the weekend
- and that's brave enough and then he had to take the advertisements
out because they worked out that you can't be showing advertisements
in the middle of the Holocaust. Today, leading from the front would
be much more difficult to do now I'd say - and not just here - speak
to people in Germany, France or Italy - it's bigger than the both of
us Michael - a kind of climate change in television overall. But I don't
think one should see it as being all over forever - the point is that
things change and mutate and if you are actually looking for a little
bit of a gleam of light, I would say that the possibility of having
a global niche audience is something that we have to head for. So that,
for example, the very, very obscure niche field of David Larcher is
available to someone from Sydney because they dial it up and give their
visa card and look at it - and that's how we can connect the tiny audiences
but on a much larger scale. But the difference in the past, let's just
say, is that the London Video Arts site, which is where you get David's
work, is very difficult to find because the shop window is in front
of the Miramax site. But if you can find your way around to Better Books
(quite an obscure bookshop you know) then maybe you could find this
kind of audio-visual material.
MM: There's a sense in which
some of those works could, in fact, be closer to a book economy now
that DVDs are available. So you could buy them and look at them - you
might not look at the whole thing - you may just look at a half an hour
of them and then look again - if properly marketed, there are other
RS: Exactly - again it's a
question of the frame and expectation that you bring to the scale. This
is an impressive and neat looking book and no one would say that it's
a problem that it's not out in Penguin and choice of the week because
it has its place within the niche book economy which is viable. What
do you think would be the right place for new film and TV work?
MM: The moment of utopia declared
by John Wyver in 1990 with reference to TV has really not materialised.
RS: He said it was the end
of video art as TV was the most wonderful pluralistic space. I don't
think he believes that anymore.
MM: I don't look at it negatively.
RS: You're right not to look
at it negatively - a few people are interested in it and manage to get
modest stipends curating it, looking at it, writing about it and making
it even. It's about accommodating, understanding and coping with significant
changes in expectations and we've mapped that trajectory a bit. Actually,
it's interesting because the piece I wrote for the Michael O'Pray book
['Incursions and Inclusions: The Avant-Garde on Channel Four 1983-93'
in Avant Garde Film 1926 - 1995] - how the Channel Four encounter
with experimental work worked - represents an assessment of how experimental
work has moved into contact with its audience and shifted and changed
the potential for that work; both in terms of production and distribution.
Maybe the whole digital thing has the potential to transform it again.
RS: And that's great. I was
at a digital rights management conference recently dealing with how
to control, limit, seize, possess all the rights to original material
- which is total bullshit. It's totally disingenuous at best because
it's the middle men and the corporations who benefit and we all know
that the actual cost of a CD is something like £1! I mean the
new Massive Attack CD 'costs' £20 but how much do Massive Attack
get out of that really? No wonder the kids rip it off - there's a lot
of pompous morality about copyright. If people could live, one way or
another, with it actually - like in the article in Undercut Reader
- you know, let's forget about copyright. Let's actually get it out
to as many people who are interested in looking at it.
Revised 8 February 04