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Video Screenings
An article on Ian Breakwell by Sarah Kent


For nearly a decade, visual artist Ian Breakwell has been recording bizarre incidents in his daily life in a 'continuous diary'. Sarah Kent anticipates some of the results, screened in a series ofshort programmes.

21st April 1980: Smithfield Gardens, London EC1 2.2Opm.
A blue-rinsed woman brings her giant poodle into the gardens. She carries a bag of bread for the birds. She scatters the bread cubes upon the ground. The birds hover overhead squawking and twittering while the poodle greedily eats up the bread. The woman stands with her feet apart, vainly pointing her finger and shouting, 'Heel Jason! Heel!' Jason gobbles all the bread and shits on the daffodils.

19th September 1975: London, a public lavatory, Theobalds Road.
In the lavatory bowl: a used piece of sandpaper.

Not the kind of events that would hit the headlines, make the nine o'clock news or receive the 'balanced' coverage of a 'Newsnight' discussion, but the sort of incident that intrigues one in daily life and which artist Ian Breakwell has been noticing and recording in his diaries ever since 1965. These started as a drawing a day, but soon expanded to include writing and photographs - and still continue, though less obsessively. Some have been turned into books, others made into exhibition panels and now we have 'Ian Breakwell's Continuous Diary', a series of mini television programmes lasting anything from 3-11 minutes, dotted over a six-week period and culminating in his birthday party. It's not the stuff that history is made of but of far more genuine interest to the average viewer, argues Breakwell than, say, the space shuttle which recently took up ten minutes of news time. 'It's the idiosyncratic view of everyday life - a celebration of the ordinary rather than the exotic - the opposite of 'Whicker's World'.

Some incidents, like a bag lady polishing the marble columns of Barclays Bank with a kleenex, have been re-enacted for the cameras. The performance was so convincing that a passerby offered the actress 5Op! Others, like the lady and her giant poodle, are read by the artist, himself a compelling performer, and in some cases we see his original artwork. There's 'the Walking Man', for example, whom Breakwell first noticed in 1975 from the window of his flat overlooking Smithfield Market. He walked continuously on a circuitous route around the market, always dressed in a heavy overcoat, thick trousers and boots. Sometimes he would stop for half an hour, frozen to the spot, then abruptly set off again. Breakwell began making a note and taking photographs each time he caught sight of the familiar figure. The man disappeared for a whole year, turning up again in May '78 only to vanish, for good, a few months later. We see the photographs Breakwell made as a kind of tribute to the man and his incessant wanderings.


But not all the programmes come from existing dairy entries. The artist is especially interested, for instance, in the current mania for physical fitness which he describes as an almost religious obsession: 'jogging to death, a mortification of the flesh'. The London Marathon happens to go past his studio in Wapping and Breakwell will be there with a camera crew recording his own personal version of the event - guaranteed, with Breakwell's gentle, ironic humour, to be refreshingly different from the official coverage. Breakwell's diaries are the first of a series of programmes made by artists instead of about them, which producer Anna Ridley hopes will be shown on Channel 4. Her plans include videos by David Hall who has worked for many years with the medium, and Rose Garrard, who uses video in her performance. Paul Richards and composer Michael Nyman, of 'The Draughtsman's Contract' fame, plan to create an 'opera' titled 'The Kiss' based on Richards' paintings. He'll be using the Quantel paintbox, a new wonder gadget that makes images electronically, stores them on floppy discs and allows you to play with them, altering the colour and scale of all or part of the picture and feeding in other images - painting by computer, in other words.


Equipment like this opens up exciting possibilities for television if only creative people will be allowed to explore and exploit it - not just in terms of interesting visual effects within the existing framework, but of totally new concepts for television. Until now that has been virtually impossible with programmes geared to content rather than form - visual radio, if you like - artists kept well away from the studios and only 'cosmetic' experiments, such as amusing credits, allowed.

But now that Channel 4 has opened its doors to experimental ideas and artists are being given access to studio equipment, I optimistically forecast that once we see what they can do with the medium, those dreary arts programmes that explain their subjects to death will soon be superseded by the real, live thing. And who knows, even the news may eventually look better.

'The Continuous Diary ' will be shown on April 17 at 12.O5am, on April 18 at 12.35am, on April 19 at 12 midnight, on April 24 at 12.l5am, on April 25 at 12.00pm and on April 26 at 12.15am.

Sarah Kent is visual arts editor of 'Time Out' magazine. She is currently editing a book of essays 'The Artist and Her Models', soon to be published by Writers and Readers.

Sarah Kent
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