Of Shadows, Shadows, Angelmakers and Cyber Flesh

By Nik Houghton, 10 June 1996

Pandaemonium festival at London's ICA.

In March the ICA in London was home to 'Pandaemonium'; the London Festival of the Moving Image, while at the Hayward 'Spellbound' was on show. Nik Houghton went in search of the fine art of the installation and reports back from a moving image jamboree.

FIRST - Some history... Around 7 years ago Liverpool became home to 'Video Positive', a festival of the electronic image that soon established itself as the UK's key event for video-art, new imaging and installation work. Offering a mix of workshops, lectures and video programmes alongside gallery based art works 'Video Positive', which runs every two years and will next be staged in 1997, is now regarded as an important fixture in the cultural calendar of the moving-image-as-art community.

Colonising the major galleries and art spaces of Liverpool, including the Tate Gallery, the Walker and the Bluecoat, 'Video Positive' is notable too for an outreach programme that, in the past, has seen video artists collaborating with community groups and public spaces given over to video installation projects. (In 1991 'Positive' secured temporary space in a shopping precinct and assisted in the creation of installations produced by local community activists. In the same year Simon Robertshaw, acting as an "animateur", enabled the production of a series of short 'video diaries' that built a composite picture of Liverpool through contributions from local artists, actors and activists).In this way 'Positive' has, to some extent, offered up a model for similar events and provided a much needed focus for the art of the electronic image. In London, meanwhile, it was the London Film Festival which acted as an uneasy vehicle for an annual showcase of experimental film and video until even this platform faded away. In more recent years there has been an ad hoc feel to things: low profile festivals, one-off screenings and a sense of disparity between the aspirations of film/video makers and the public profile for their work. Setting out to redress this imbalance 'Pandaemonium' came into being in 1995 as a satellite project to the work of London Electronic Arts. Conceived as a collaboration between the ICA, LEA and the 'Pandaemonium' organisation itself the event finally evolved into a week long series of screenings and the commissioning of five new installation pieces. Alongside this the festival offered seminars, a 'cyber-cafe' and collaborations with Camerawork/Film and Video Umbrella.

The result has been a festival that was loaded with high expectations and fired by a PR campaign that emphasised the Brit-pack credentials of the show.(All five commissions were awarded to younger artists known less for their aptitude with video based installation than their track record as part of a "new wave" of British art). There have, inevitably, been criticisms of this policy.

At worst some critics of the festival have denounced the installation programme as simply playing the hype game, buying into a myth of Brit-art that excludes older and more experienced artists from the opportunity of creating new work.

It's an easy game to play, this one, generated in part by most artists' curious suspicion of good marketing and the belief that a crowd pulling event is somehow less artistically valid than a few die hard avant-gardists deliberating over a Super-8 projector. Nonetheless, despite the palpable buzz surrounding 'Pandaemonium' and the hard fact that this is a risky initiative made real by hard work and not a little pioneering chutzpah, there have to be very real doubts about an installation programme that relies totally on the young turks of the art world. With artists like George Snow, Judith Godard, Clive Gillman and Tina Keane around it seems curious that not one of the installations were put into their capable hands. Strategically there are, perhaps, reasons for this curatorial agenda but there is some evidence to suggest that one or two "old faces" might have provided a stronger backbone to the ICA exhibition.

AS AN INTRODUCTION to 'Pandaemonium' one could have done worse than visiting the South Bank during the opening week of the festival as, for four nights from March 6, Simon Biggs' 'The Castle' was on show. Created by Biggs and brought to realisation by Camerawork in collaboration with the Film and Video Umbrella 'The Castle' is an impressive piece which suffers slightly from it's promise of "inter-activity". Although radically different the piece is an evolution of 'The Living Room', an inter-active work originally sited at an empty industrial space just off Brick Lane in 1994. Here Biggs had control of the space and the element of inter-activity was both playful and explicit.(By moving around the space one affected the larger-than-life figures projected onto one wall prompting them to shuffle sideways, move and respond to one's presence). At the South-Bank though, visitors were finding it difficult to relate to the "triggers", sophisticated electronic sensors, which created change in the gigantic grouping of toga-clad men and women projected onto the West wall of the Festival Hall. A dramatic disruption of public space 'The Castle' effectively transformed the RFH wall into a giant and ghostly tableau of gesturing figures, fractured text and enigma but without a few pointers it is difficult to see how the public are supposed to tune in to the fact that their movements affect, or interfere, with the piece.

This said it is a strong work which, in the right environment, is bound to generate public interest and an appreciation of its many levels of meaning - architectural and literary references are implicit in the piece and there are puns too on "parsing"/passing the book/buck in the work's title of 'The Castle-Parsing The Book' - but, in its South Bank setting, this was a creative project that was only partially successful.

Meanwhile, back at the ICA, there were five new installations to see. First up is Keith Tyson's strange and unsettling 'Angelmaker', part submarine, part living room and part visionary machine. With its computer screens and red lights, hangman imagery and quirky humour Tyson's walk-through installation suggests random tragedy and an unnerving sense of science gone strange, but despite its mood of clinical doom one is left feeling a little disappointed by the piece. More intimate is 'Fistula' created by Michael Curran in collaboration with Osnat Haber. Comprising a darkened room, like something from an unfinished house or a store room, and a short B/W video projected onto one wall 'Fistula' is ostensibly about the relationship between 'Sissy', the shaven headed woman featured in the video, and the narrator. It is an oblique and elliptical piece, episodic in construction and disconcerting in its play on ideas of an obsessive sexual relationship, hidden desires and our public and private personaes.

Perhaps my only reservation about 'Fistula' is whether it warrants the title "installation". The suggestion is that the viewer, in entering this dingy, makeshift space is in some way entering someone else's world and 'Fistula's constant references to domestic film projection underline this, but one wonders just how important this context is at the end of the day.

And so to Gillian Weaving's three screen video work, 'The Unholy Three'. Sited in the ICA's upper gallery 'Three' uses a triptych of three large video screens set beside each other to introduce us to three characters who will, ultimately, come together in a pub. Echoing the style of 'video nation' or the 'fly-on-the-wall' documentaries that Wearing claims as an influence, each of the characters is shown at home talking, briefly, about themselves and what they expect from the pub meeting.

One character is a semi-psychotic weirdo given to kicking blankets around his room. Another is seen drinking gallons of tea and the third, a blonde woman with aspirations to a sort of 'Playboy' sensuality, is shown cavorting alone on her bed and snapping off Polaroids of "sexy" poses.

Inevitably the meeting of these three misfits is a social disaster, a 'Blind Date' from hell, as each character finds only confirmation of his/her own prejudices.

The tone of the piece is bathetic, downbeat and pedestrian and yet it doesn't quite gel despite the suggestion that we live in strange times and that the extra-ordinary resides in the everyday. Comparisons with Ian Bourn, a tape maker who has been exploring similar territory for more than a decade, are inevitable here in terms of the style of the work, its focus on characters at the edges of society and its mood of mundane tragedy.

The difference is that Bourn's tapes have an awkward edge to them, a disconcerting resonance, that is not evident in 'The Unholy Three'. No one is suggesting that Bourn has territorial rights on the lopsided world of the outsider, but Wearing's piece overplays the oddity and, finally, doesn't gain much through big screen projection.

A relative oasis of quiet, slightly sinister atmospherics is to be found in the other 'upper gallery' installation with 'Losing Doris' by Jaki Irvine. It is a brooding, sparse piece using two photographs minimally animated through video yet oddly effective as, in the larger image, a woman looks out at the viewer from a living room with the tiniest motion indicating something more than the fixed image of an archive photograph.

Mark Wallinger's installation, sited in the corridor space of the ICA, is, frankly, disappointing. The piece consists of three wall mounted monitors each showing a brief clip of slightly muddy Super-8 film giving a "hare's-eye-view' of a dog track chase. Wallinger's idea, that the mechanical hare presents a set of ironies - it is never caught and the greyhound never achieves its goal in an echo of the gambling instinct - is a strong one but the piece itself is visually weak and less an installation than a good idea unresolved.

Wallinger's installation is, in some senses, somehow symptomatic of both the failings and strengths of the installation programme as young artists are given the space to take risks and yet this needs to be balanced by the caveat that there is little real innovation here. With the minor exception of Tyson's 'Angelmaker' the electronic image remains restricted and contained by boxes and screens despite the medium's potential to transcend this.

In this context it is telling to read the catalogue essay by one of the show's curators, Gregor Muir. In 'Shot In Britain' Muir is so keen to connect artists with the breathlessly glam world of pop music that the reader might well be forgiven for thinking that not much happened before 1992 in terms of experimental film-or-video. Invoking the buzz words of Blur and Damien Hirst Muir's text is an odd echo of a similar video art-meets-pop promo interface which took place in the mid 80's with the Duvet Brothers, John Maybury and Derek Jarman.

To focus wholly on the installations is, though, to misrepresent the festival's full range and diversity. In the ICA cinema a rolling programme of film/video delivered some thirty packages of work while the 'cyber-cafe', run by Cyberia, introduced CD-ROM art to many hundreds of participants.

Side-stepping a seminar/discussion programme that saw some speakers lost in techno-babble perhaps the high point of the cinema programme was the 'Superheros And Sorcerers' screening. Bizarre and eclectic, this was a seventy minute programme that included the punky animation film by Emily Breer, titled 'Superhero', and the warped distortions of a Portuguese film, 'Fading World'. Other treats included 'Bearer Of The Wound' by Jeff Walker, a disjointed but beautifully choreographed story of aliens, other lives and time travel full of striking images and skilful effects.

With some thirty six separate programmes, the bulk of them curated by 'Pandaemonium' director Abina Manning, the festival presented an ambitious overview of international activity. "I think we showed that there is an audience for this sort of work", said Manning:" The ICA will be showing some of the programmes again this year and we're hopeful that 'Pandaemonium' will become a regular event".

As to the CD-ROM aspect of the ICA show I found myself, as ever, a little disappointed. Most exciting of the ROM-works was 'Cyberflesh Girlmonster' by Linda Dement, a feminist porn fantasy complete with mutating vaginas and horror stories of rape, revenge and a drugged out nihilism.

IN A LARGER FRAMEWORK perhaps what is important about this festival is that here, at last, is a high profile event that introduces new audiences to a different sort of moving image culture. Brought to realisation through hard work one can only hope that in the coming years the installation programme will be as adventurous and balanced as the film/video screenings.

What we might also hope for is a curatorial flair that accounts for the more hi-tech art forms around and attempts to push the moving image beyond the gallery context of the ICA itself.

WALK ACROSS THE THAMES and ten minutes walk from the ICA the 'Spellbound' show at the Hayward offered a different, though complimentary, experience with an varied and visionary exhibition curated by Phillip Dodd, editor of 'Sight And Sound'.

With big budget heft and BFI involvement 'Spellbound: Art Into Film, Film Into Art' showed great verve in exploring the two-way interaction between the visual arts and film making. Vital, intriguing and entertaining 'Spellbound offered a complex trip through a cine-zone where the mechanics of film making collided with fantasy, theatricality and a sense of cinema as mythology made all the more poignant by our experience of cinema as simultaneously personal and collective.

As to individual pieces it is, undoubtedly, Peter Greenaway's impressive mix of props, mise-en-scene, actors and sound effects which prompts the greatest praise. Never a fan of Greenaway's coolly clever films I am, nonetheless, forced to admit that his elegant, intelligent and complex exploration of film language, production and narrative is remarkable and involving. What gives the piece its particular power is its open ended quality and the idea that, as visitors, it is our own imaginations which define the piece.

This is a quality shared, to some extent, by Eduardo Paolozzi's 'Jesus Workroom', a huge space packed with figurines, junk and toys that Paolozzi sees as "an attempt to describe an indescribable film". The invitation here is for the visitor to create a film epic out of their own imagination.

Giving the viewer rather more to go on is Terry Gillam's 'Twelve Monkeys' installation. Faced by a huge wall of filing cabinets viewers are obliged to open drawers in order to sift through the jokes and tricks of Gillam's piece which is, essentially, an absurdist account of the film making process as it relates to his Hollywood project, 'Twelve Monkeys'.

What is presented here is a sort of hands on inter-activity made all the more exciting by Gillam's playful exposure of the mechanics of film making. In one drawer, by example, the snooper is faced by his/her own image caught by a tiny video camera while applause deteriorates into cat calls and slow clapping.(The image is also relayed directly to the foyer of the Hayward, incidentally, in an update of Andy Warhol's famous dictum). More cerebral pleasures are to be found with both Fiona Banner and Douglas Gordon. Banner's simple work, a hand written scene-by-scene account of 'Apocalypse Now', takes up a wall and uses written language to create a sort of looped logic.(Moving images start with the word and return to the word). A strangely similar experience is located in Douglas Gordon's '24 Hour Psycho'. Here again simplicity is the key as Gordon slows Hitchcock's classic to a dreamy, barely animated pace where the image takes on the quality of a slow-motion painting and each small gesture or grimace becomes invested with a significance informed by our intimate knowledge of the film.

Other pleasures include Boyd Webb's jokey yet highly sophisticated animation film, 'Love Story', and the art school surrealism of Damien Hirst's 20 minute film 'Hanging Around'.(The script, with its off hand violence, spatial games and bizarre characters is the kind of thing most male film students come up with in their 2nd Year . The difference here is that Hirst has been given the means to achieve his project and is able to draft in Keith Allen as a weirdhead and Eddie Izzard as a sinister psychiatrist). As to the Steve McQueen film, 'Stage', this was an odd piece of semi-experimental film making made slightly disappointing in the light of the Sunday Times comment that McQueen is 'the great British hope' of art film.

Beyond the specifics of 'Spellbound', though, what is so strong about the exhibition is the very real sense in which 'high art' and the mass culture of cinema feed off of one another. The suggestion is that there is now a fruitful and beneficial two-way flow of ideas, techniques and imagery and this is something which both 'Spellbound' and 'Pandaemonium' highlight despite their widely divergent agendas.

Nik Houghton

'Pandaemonium' can be contacted on 0171 424 0411. Dates have yet to be set for screenings of selected 'Pandaemonium' film/video programmes.

For details of the Simon Biggs projection piece call the Film and Video Umbrella on 0171 831 7753.

A CD-ROM of Simon Biggs work, titled Book Of Shadows is now available at a cost of £15 from Ellipsis Publishing. Call 0171 739 3157. (Book Of Shadows will be reviewed in these pages shortly).