Lisa Haskel on Thu, 29 Jan 1998 20:57:50 +0100 (MET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> "Independent Media" in the UK

This is a slightly expanded version of a talk written for the 
"Interstanding 2" conference in Tallinn, Estonia that took place
in October 1997.  The theme of the event was "Freedom"
and it was curated by Eric Kluitenberg.  The full conference
proceedings and exhibition catalogue will be published by SCCA 
Estonia later this year.  Details from

This text cross-posted from Syndicate.  Comments welcome.

Lisa Haskel

Relative Freedoms: Some Retrospections on "Independent Media" 
Production in the UK.

This talk is specifically about the notion of politically and 
socially engaged so-called "independent" media practice in the UK
and how this has changed and developed over the past twenty years or 
so. What I liked about the programme for "Interstanding 2", with this 
theme of "Freedom", was the attention the programme has paid to taking 
a retrospective view of artists' use of media, and how this, to some 
extent provides a context for the emerging practices with new media. 
Therefore I wish to mirror this, and offer a short, condensed and 
admittedly highly subjective and partial narrative about so-called 
"Independent" film and video practice in the UK.  This category been 
characterised by an aspiration to use media as, if not exactly a site of 
"free" expression, then certainly one that runs counter to dominant 
forms, representations and production processes of "mainstream" media.  
At the end I will try to draw out some questions that seem to me to be 
relevant to new developments in media art practice with new technologies.

I'll concentrate in particular on the relationship of theory to practice, 
and the structures that have supported the practice. I mainly want to
highlight the ways in which media production activity which is expressly 
politically "oppositional" to government, and which is related to 
political movements for social change, has taken place within a system 
of public support for production and media institutions, and to ask what 
the possibilities and limitations are for this necessarily ambiguous 

As an introduction I will show three short extracts of recent video 
productions.  As explorations of issues related to race, gender, 
sexuality and disability - issues of identity related to the body -  
they show different treatments of concerns that have dominated 
independent media practice. However, as you will see, they also use a 
number of different styles and approaches and have different levels of 
"production values". I use them therefore as examples, that are in no way 
representative of the broader field, except in their very diversity.

1.	Keith Piper - "Trade Winds" (1992)  56" extract from tapes 
	for a 9 monitor installation.

2.	Mike Stubbs - "Man Act" (1996): 2' extract from 4' 30" tape 
	for the Arts Council of England / BBC 2 Television series 
	"Dance for the Camera".

3.	Ruth Lingford - "What She Wants" (1996): 1' 30" extract from 
	4' 30" Arts Council of England / Channel 4 Television "Animate" 

4.	Jo Pearson - "Freak-Fucking Basics" (1996): 2'18" extract from
	13' film. Funded by Arts Council of England artists' Film and 
	Video production awards.

The clips I've chosen deal in different ways with issues of race, 
sexuality gender, and - indirectly - social class.  (I'll say more on 
this later). This gives a pretty full picture of social and political 
discourses that underly most debates and arguments in the UK, be they 
about crime, healthcare, education, immigration, housing or employment.  

The Conservative government of the 1980's and 90's refused to acknowlege 
DIFFERENCE within British society, promoting a view of the UK, and 
tailoring its policies towards an idea of the country as a unified nation 
of white, middle-class (or aspiring to be so), heterosexual, "able-bodied", 
nuclear families.  Clearly in a post-colonial, post-1960's, and 
continuously class-divided society, this view of a homogeneous nation is 
was and remains a fiction.  Overt government censorship was not usually 
the issue at stake, except in the media coverage of the conflict in 
Northern Ireland and for the short duration of the "Falklands War" in 1982 
(both of which require more complex analysis than I can deal with here). 
However the questions of who is representing whom, to whom and in whose 
interest was a major cause for concern in exploring the social and 
political effects of a mass media system that represented itself as 

Of course, issues of race, class, gender and sexuality are very much 
about the construction of identities, and how such identities aquire 
meaning for the individual subject and are played out in the social field.  
Representation is fundamental to the construction of our subjectivity,
our understanding of "others", and the relationships in between.  During 
the late 1970's and 1980's, the UK produced a body of cultural theory 
that provided critiques of the role of the mass media in constructing 
identities, and described their role in reinforcing dominant ideologies.  
Examples of major  figures were:  Stuart Hall, who wrote primarily on the 
subject of the  representation of race within the mass media, The Glasgow 
Media Group who researched the representation of social class within 
television news  with specific  reference to industrial disputes and 
Trade Unions, and Angela McRobbie who wrote about magazines for teenage 

These cultural theorists worked by looking at how media is produced, and 
how it produces meanings in a number of different ways: by looking at 
patterns of ownership of media insitutions (eg. James Curran), by studying 
processes of media production and editorial decision-making (eg. John
Schlessinger), by analysing individual texts and mainstream media forms 
using (mainly) linguistic based semiotic theories (many!), by researching 
audience responses (eg. David Morley), and by considering the effect
of the  context of reception of media, especially the domestic setting of
the television set (eg. Colin McArthur).

So those were the critiques.  Not surprisingly, the conditions that 
produced these critiques also created a desire among some media 
practitioners and political activists to create an "alternative" practice,
working within "alternative" structures, to produce "alternative" images.
And so the notion of "independence" evolved: meaning "independence" from
mass media institutions (whether in public or private ownership), and the 
forms of representation that these institutions create to serve dominant 
ideological purposes.

Independent production, therefore, was interested in re-configuring two 
key sets of relationships: between aesthetics, process and politics, and 
between maker, subject-matter and viewer.  "Conventional" documentary form, 
therefore, was a particular focus of critique and makers wished to make 
much greater emphasis on self-expression and self-representation by 
individuals or communities of interest who wished to comment upon, or 
take a position in relation to, matters of political concern.  Throughout 
the late 70's and early 80's therefore, there were a number of experiments 
with processes of production which aimed to break down the division between 
maker and subject and in so doing tell "different" stories, differently.
Among many examples are the work of Steel Bank, Amber and Open Eye Film 
Workshops, Albany Video, WITCH - Womens Independent Cinema House, and
Black Audio Film Collective. "Empowerment" of individuals and communities, 
the airing of "marginal voices" and enabling "self-representation" were 
key concepts.  

It is here that "alternative" media practice found its overlap with 
particular areas of art practice; especially the work of film and 
increasingly video makers working loosely within the traditions of the 
avant-garde, who were interested in formal experimentation with the 
conventions of both art and mass media. Examples would range from "Video 
Art" pioneer David Hall to the anti-copyright "Scratch Video" of the 
mid- 1980's by artists such as George Barber and Gorilla Tapes. There
were convergences also with visual artists, especially feminist artists, 
whose political projects involved taking apart and re-building systems 
of representation, and performers for whom the presence of the body 
was indicative of a direct and subjective approach to communication 
(for example work by Kate Elwes, Stuart Marshall, Jayne Parker). A 
coalition of cultural practices began to form that stretched across 
visual art, media production using film, video and to an extent print
media and radio, performance, community work and agit-prop.  
Increasingly, video became the common technology and the most easily 
identified unifying factor within this very diverse and very often uneasy 
alliance. A small number of journals, festivals, critics, academics and
exhibition programmes unified this "sector".

This late 1970's and early 1980's period coincided with the availability
of public subsidy for media culture through some local authorities, and 
in particular, the governing bodies for the major metropolitan areas, 
such as so-called Greater London with its "Greater London Council" (GLC).  
Many local authorities and all of the metropolitan councils were controlled 
by Labour Party politicians whose own policies concurred with the aims 
and objectives of media practice that sought to promote greater public
understanding of social issues - especially those concerning 
"minority" groups - and sought to involve communities in a wider range
of cultural practices.  A number of "independent" production facilities
were set up, often in collaboration with government money distributed
by the Arts Council of Great Britain the British Film Institute and its 
regional equivalents. These, though having a more ambivalent relationship 
to government, had some autonomy and a remit to both encourage
experimentation in the arts, and broaden public "access" to culture in all 
its forms.  Distribution and exhibition were less well supported, but 
nevertheless, for a moment at least, independent media production 
flourished amid dreams of a parallel media system of production, 
distribution and exhibition: enabled by state funding but autonomous 
from state institutions, with affordable video systems as the underpinning 
technology.  Television, with its mass audiences, was the big brother, 
rejected but nevertheless regarded with jealousy.

The halcyon days drew to a close in 1985 with the abolition by the 
Conservative Government of Metropolitan councils in the UK, predated by 
the mixed blessing of the launch of Channel Four television in 1982.  
Channel Four television shifted the notion and definition of independence 
lastingly and profoundly.  It set out to be a new kind of broadcasting 
institution that would operate as a commissioner and scheduler of programmes 
only.  All its content would be produced by seperate production companies, 
largely with the aim of increasing the diversity of programmes and voices 
represented on television.  This principle raised tremendous expectation, 
and initially some important support for community based and politically 
engaged media production. Indeed, the independent media scene was a vocal
advocate for Channel Four at its inception, and what was seen as an victory 
was won with the ACTT (broadcasting trade union) "Workshop Declaration" 
which aimed to allow community-based production for broadcast to take 
place without eroding professional livlihoods. However, very quickly, the 
imperitive for productions to reach "professional" technical standards, 
and for broadcasters to reach a target percentage of the national television 
audience (partly to sell advertising, partly to maintain government favour)
meant that, by the late 1980's and early 1990's, Channel Four's support 
for the subsidised, community, locality or politically based production 
resources had all but dried up.  Arts funding was becoming a dwindling 
resource within the Conservative political regime that preferred to make 
tax cuts and rely on private sector finance than to support any area of 
public service.  The funding of local councils, especially those which 
remained controlled by Labour.  In the meantime, every small scale, 
professional television production company became an "independent" - 
whatever their output or political position.

Meanwhile, during the '90's, the use of video within contemporary art 
practice in the UK has moved into the fashionable, mainstream artworld a 
way that could never have been predicted by the old "Independent Video
Sector".  Tapes by artists such as Gillian Wearing and Douglas Gordon are 
winning contemporary art prizes and their work is being bought at a high 
price by public and private collections visual art collections.  The work 
tends to be narrative based, or relient on a single irony or conceit.
Usually it is simple, single screen or single projection work.  For this 
group, video is just another addition to the artists' palette of media. 
Their work is a long way from either the content-heavy, critical and 
socially engaged practice of "alternative" media, or from media art within 
the modernist, avant-garde tradition of reflexivity on form, material and 

In the 1990's, the "independent" media scene has been faced with a series 
of choices and each organisation has been faced with the necessity to 
re-invent and re-position  themselves within a new insitutional, funding 
and cultural context.   With reduced funding for infrastructure and on-going 
running costs, a number of organisations have closed, or scaled down to 
work on a project-by-project basis.  Alliances between practitioners became 
less formalised and organisation-based, with more film-makers working as 
individuals and in looser groups convening over particular projects, and 
having to adopt highly pragmatic approaches to funding and institutional 
support. Some organisations are becoming more closely indentified with the 
fashionable contemporary visual art, world, and others are taking a more 
technology led approach: focussing their  cultural programmes on new media 
and new technologies. The idea of the label "video artist" or an indentifible
"video sector" - however fragmentary these notions have always been - are
now completely obsolete and untenable. Some organisations have managed to 
maintain an area of their programme that maintains links with their local 
communities and enables collaborative projects between community or issue-
based groups and professional artists.  Examples are the Collaboration 
Programme run by FACT as part of the Video Positive programme and some of 
the work of the artist-run group, Hull Time Based Arts.  While the 
objectives of these programmes are generally considered worthy, their 
outcomes fight to be valued by critics and curators and exhibited on a 
equal footing with work by established artists.

The response of the funding system has also been to become more pragmatic.
The relationship with television is still key, but the emphasis is now
on collaboration rather than on creating alternative structures.  Public 
support for film and video now operates within a "mixed-economy" of 
collaborative schemes with broadcasting companies, production schemes
that are not tied to broadcast (but may be sold), plus funding for 
installation works that may be either site-specific or gallery based.  

So, the clips I have just shown are a kind of current manifestation of 
this short history.  They can be seen as working within the tradition of 
this kind of "independence", but in a contemporary context  They illustrate 
a  variety of approaches in their  representational and communicative 
strategies. The first, from Keith Piper, is tapes from an installation 
shown within an art gallery context. The second two examples were made 
under the auspices of collaborative schemes between the Arts Council of 
England and the national broadcasters: BBC 2 and Channel Four.  The last 
clip: from Jo Pearson's "Freak-Fucking Basics" was funded through an Arts 
Council Production award.  Although its funding was not dependent on a 
television broadcast it was, in fact, shown on the BBC, very late at night, 
re-titled but largely un-cut.  These extracts are indicative of an important 
an laudable opportunity for artists; to access significant resources to make 
work that is innovative in form and content, and to reach, potentially, a mass 
audience through television.  Of course absences and limitations are less 
easy to illustrate and are necessarily in the realm of speculation, but all
funding and collaboration comes with invisible strings attached.  Seen in a
retrospective context, in recent funded productions, one can't help noticing 
the scarcity of work that deals directly and challengingly with social class, 
or that is engaged with indicative local issues, or politics beyond exploring 
identity and subjectivity.  Meanwhile, television engages in "looks" and
even "forms" that are reminicent of the avant-garde.  It has been argued - 
most vociferously by John Wyver in his argument for "doing away with video 
art" - that  television has benefitted more than artists use of the medium 
than vice versa, even to the point where television now innovates more 
effectively. (I agree with the first part of the argument, but certainly 
not the second!).

Artists' practice with new media is emerging into a rapidly transforming
media and technological context, but also into a changing social and
cultural climate in the UK.  Politically, after 17 years of Conservatism 
we have a "labour" government which, finding its choice to occupy centre 
ground and uneasy one, seems if anything, to be more wary of political 
margins and dissonances than its predecessors.  What constitutes "the 
political" is increasingly fragmented, and is played out in multiple sites 
of communication and social organisation.  While media delivery technologies 
are in the process of convergence, services are becoming increasingly 
diversified. The notion of the BBC as a unifying instrument for national 
indentity is gone forever.  In the meantime, the notion of indentifiable 
"commumities" and "interest groups" is losing ground with more attention 
to the diversity, rather than the commonality of groups that were formally 
accepted as "women", "the black community", "the gay community" or "working 
class people".  Artists, or even media artists, as a "community" with any 
kind of homogeneity is an equally untenable notion.  

I, for one, welcome the breaking down of categories that serve to fix 
indentity in totalising and universalising ways, and have the inevitable
outcomes of inclusion and exclusion. Nevertheless, there is a danger that 
this loss of fixity, the challenge of this fragmentation, paralyses 
politically engaged practice, leaving nowhere to go but the subjective
and the personal within a  discourse of individual rights and freedoms.
On the other hand, while the categories between "art", "commercial" and 
"popular" culture are increasingly difficult to sustain, the current 
government seems unaware of these even as problematics. "Art" is seen 
at best as a cradle from which to feed commercial culture with new blood,
and cultural funding seems set to be adjusted accordingly.

The challenge is to embrace the new while learning the lessons of the old.
It would be too easy to either dismiss the independent media project 
as failed experiment, or to wallow in nostalgia for the certainties of
the past and attempt to build a new media practice and infrastructure 
as its mirror image.  My suggestion is that the diversity and inter-
connectedness of the independent media practice, that seemed to be its
downfall was also its great strength.  As a politically engaged project,
its value lay in the attempt - admittedly often far from successful - 
to integrate critical approaches into media practice, and in so doing
devise working methodologies for collaboration and communication with 
care and attention to the details of social context and history. Specific 
media technologies were seen and used within a wide cultural scene. 
Innovation and experimentation not restricted to the world of art, but
"independence" maintained an indentity through its processes and its
objectives.  Diversity only became a weakness in a scenario of scarce 
resources and political pressure, which, instead of encouraging clarity 
of vision about distinctiveness and the relative strengths and weaknesses 
of different approaches, fostered competition and conglomeration.

Use of the net may, temporarily at least, be addressing the question
of "freedom from" and "freedom to", but the question of "freedom for" -
in the sense of for what and for whom - remains just as important,
as much as matter for public policy and just as politically vulnerable. 
In practice, I suggest that this is an extension of the project to take 
a simultaneously critical, experimental and pro-active approach to the 
twin issues of access and representation.  Politically engaged practice 
demands addressing the complex interweaving of the two, and also, critically, 
the relationships of media with eachother and with everyday experience.

Selected Sources

Cubitt, S, "Timeshift - On Video Culture" Routledge, London, 1991

Curtis, D (Ed), "A Directory of British Film and Video Artists", John Libby
Media, Luton, 1996

Knight, J (Ed), "Diverse Practices - A Critical Reader on British Video
Art", University of Luton Press, Luton, 1996

O'Pray, M (Ed) "British Avant-Garde Film - A Reader", University of 
Luton Press, Luton, 1996

Wollen, P, "Arrows of Desire - The Second ICA Biennial of Independent Film
and Video" (Introductory essay), ICA, London 1993

Wyver, J, "What You See is What You Get - The Third ICA Biennial of 
Independent Film and Video" (Introductory essay), ICA, London 1995

Back issues of "Independent Media" magazine, circa. 1985 - 1989

Catalogues from "Video Positive" festivals in 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995 and 1997

Lisa Haskel

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: