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David Critchley - Profile

By Clive Gilman

1.

The work of David Critchley occupies a very particular place in the hearts and minds of those who grow up with the early phase of British video art at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s.

In many ways, the first sight of this energetic and telegenic man, playing conceptual games with the camera in his performance and video works reminded many of us that video art could be both smart and edgy. Revisiting these pieces, most of which were created in the infancy of the artform, it's perhaps a surprise that so many of them continue to resonate, but there does remain a very strong sense of new ideas evolving in front of the camera as many video-specific concepts of creation, recording and replaying are proclaimed and expounded. It's also hard to divorce the man from the moment as Critchley's career tracks closely the emergence of the medium of video art in the UK. Firstly as one of those who had early use of the technology while emerging through art school, but also through being closely involved in the early testing of models of distribution and exhibition that led to the creation of organisations such as London Video Arts.

Critchley graduated from the Fine Art course at Newcastle Polytechnic in 1975 where he was one of the first generation of video artists to develop their skills within the evolving ethos of media arts. At that time the course was led by the influential (and late lamented) Stuart Marshall and was positioned in a context which saw other artists based in the north-east of England beginning to explore ideas in this new medium and develop some of the first group shows of work. After finishing at Newcastle Critchley left for London to take up a place on the three-year MA course at the Royal College of Art and arrived fresh from already having just taken part in a landmark exhibition. This show - 'The Video Show' - took place at the Serpentine Gallery in London in May 1975, and is now widely credited with being the early marker for video art in the UK. It was a wide ranging show organised by a small group including Peter Bloch, Sue Grayson, David Hall, Stuart Hood and Clive Scollay. The show featured installations, performances and single screen works by a range of British artists including Roger Barnard, David Hall, Tamara Krikorian, Brian Hoey, Steve Partridge, Stuart Marshall, Alex Meigh, Liz Rhodes, Reindeer Werk, Steve James, Mike Leggett, Peter Livingstone, Tony Sinden and David Critchley. It was out of this group that many of the threads of the subsequent development of British video art emerged.

2.

For the Serpentine show Critchley exhibited a three-channel work entitled Yet Another Triangle.

This work, which was re-made specifically for the show (due to technical incompatibilities between the original production equipment and the exhibition equipment used for the show) has been described by Critchley as his first specific video piece. Prior to this he was actively using video, but usually as an adjunct to the performance work that remained a parallel thread in his practice. Working directly with the functionality of the videotape recorder and the relative restrictions upon editing that characterised the technology of the time, this work demonstrates some of the first explorations of an approach that he later describes in the catalogue for the 'Video Art 78' show at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry ; "In videotape I found the ideal medium to alter time structures, easily being able to recall a previous action and pose it in relation to a subsequent related or unrelated action, which would alter the meaning of either statement. It also allows an action to be reprocessed by the medium to point properties or anomalies inherent in the medium. In a sense, my work with straightforward tape making has been mechanical and didactic, looking at the medium for the properties that differentiate it from other media and from 'life'".

The record-stop-rewind-replay mechanism that lies at the heart of all videotape recording formed an instrumental motif for much of the early work of Critchley, often layering visual imagery and spoken text in the same way that earlier experiments in audio had allowed the concept of multi-tracking to evolve. This layering formed the core around which a systematic analysis of the materiality of the medium was played out. In the piece Static Acceleration from 1976, the artist's head snaps from side to side across the screen in a slowly accelerating rhythm. The original videotaped sequence is then re-shot from a monitor screen a number of (times, while each time being played back in the crude slow-motion of the time, progressively decelerating the movement into a series of blurs. David Hall, writing in Studio International in 1977 describes this piece as a work which "simply, yet admirably, combines and manipulates time and fundamental aspects of the process in a carefully considered work only possible in, and about, video."

3.

Further works attempted to extend the frame of the video monitor by adding further layers, augmenting the earlier approach by replaying videotapes simultaneously across a number of screens and extending the space of the camera frame to record all of these screens.

This approach culminated in the piece Trialogue (1977) in which a carefully choreographed performance by Critchley is constructed and delivered in order to transmit a statement about the nature of the process he is depicting. In his own words this represented a marked progression, "with Trialogue I was beginning to want to work in a more controlled way, trying to use video across multiple monitors and multiple layers of recording to explore ideas that went beyond looking at the nature of the medium. The piece layers three parts of a single narrative across three monitors contained within a single tape. I think it was the first time I had used words in a narrative sense in a video tape - as distinct from words as numbers or as incidental to an action. There was also an element of accepting and following the logic of the necessity of the performance action, rather than fitting the action to the medium. It was not 'entertainment', - more it was the analysis of a proposition. However, by default perhaps, in this piece a poetic element emerges, especially in the first layer, then to a lesser extent in the second, and finally is lost with the addition of the third layer that completes the statement and removes any space for interpretation or creative contribution from a viewer."

Much of this work was produced from within a creative milieu of individuals exploring video and performance within their own practice while also trying to construct the mechanisms that might support the production and exhibition of this work. Critchley found himself at the heart of the 2B studio group, operating out of Butlers Wharf in the heart of pre-News International Wapping, running a space with the Isle of Man ex-pats Alison Winckle, Martin Hearne, Mick Duckworth and Kevin Atherton. Out of this space ran a wide variety of events and exhibitions, with cross-overs between film, video and performance art being fed by an analytical approach to the medium that allowed a dialogue across these forms. As Michael O'Pray commented in 1988, "In many ways, the early British video movement was akin to the avant-garde film sector based at the London Film-makers' Co-operative where formalist, or structuralist, aesthetics predominated; self-reflexivity in the medium was central, as was its oppositional stance". At this time Critchley was moving within a core network which linked the Air Gallery, ACME, London Film-makers Co-op and 2B. It was out of this network that the concept for a single organisation, clustered around the artist David Hall, and dedicated to supporting artists working with video began to grow. Although many people were involved with the birth of this organisation - christened London Video Arts (LVA) in 1976 - it was Critchley who established a key role within the early days after becoming its professional manager between 1981 and 1986.

4.

But despite being very central to the development of video art in the UK, for many people the work of David Critchley is coloured by an interesting spin, with mythologies of rejection and destruction of his original works informing broader understanding, especially in the current climate of excavating these still recent histories.

No-where is this more resonant than in the consideration of Critchley's most well known work, the 1979 piece, Pieces I Never Did.

This work was originally developed as a three-channel installation, using the new resources of U-Matic colour video editing that were now accessible at the RCA. The work, developed over a lengthy period in 1978 remains a complex and engaging work allowing readings on many levels, but is perhaps dominated by the artist's own perception that the work was made 'as a testament to my involvement with performance, with film and with video from a principled perspective which I no longer maintain in relation to these media'. In the piece the artist talks directly to camera about a whole series of works that he has conceived, but never made, while on the other monitors these works are played out for the camera. The piece is exceptionally entertaining, and even daring, for a video work of this era, but at its heart there remains a compelling glimpse into the mind of an artist wrestling with the core of his practice. In the single channel version of the piece - and the one that most people will experience today - the monologue is intercut with the repeated elements of one of the pieces he never did - the artist stripped to the waist screaming the words 'shut up' until he is hoarse and unable to emit more than a squeak. As the work evolves this voice returns again and again as a manifestation of the challenge he is presenting to himself to find meaning in the reflexive, structural analysis of his form. The presentation of so many actions, each of which could so easily have formed individual works, as non-actions, lays open the predicament of an artist who has discovered little value in the domain of his success and seeks to find another corner to turn. The 16 individual pieces - the shouting, the throwing oneself against a wall until it crumbles, the running away from a camera that keeps catching up, the onanism, the standing in corners, each individually speak of a challenge to find the 'principle' inherent in a formal interrogation, but collectively portray an artist in command of his medium, yet approaching a conclusion of rejection.

5.

That the rejection came shortly after the completion of this work is now a matter of personal - and anecdotal - histories.

Critchley actually admits to having burnt all his paper and documentary photographic work in 1983 and disposing of all his videotapes, including the masters in his possession, in black bin bags outside LVA in Tisbury Court on Wardour Street for collection by the Soho bin men.

Prior to this Critchley wrote to David Curtis (then leading the development of funding structures for artists film & video at the Arts Council of Great Britain) in November of 1980 to express concerns about the future direction of video art practice in the UK. In this letter he reflects upon what he perceives as a need to expand the notion of what constitutes the parameters of video art and notes that, "these seem to have been laid down some time ago by a very few... artist(s) with a personal notion of what video art should be, the things it should be concerned with and the way in which artists should approach these subjects. I find it interesting that these same people should now be floundering around looking for new bottles for old wine".

From this point on, Critchley shifted direction quite profoundly, continuing to work in support of LVA and the broad swathe of artists working with video in the UK, but channelling his own efforts into working on small-scale charitable documentary production activity and adding no new titles to his artists CV until the late 1990s, when he appears to have finally reconciled his own dilemmas over the balance of form and content to return with some new installation works, most commissioned for very specific contexts. While these more recent works may demonstrate little in the way of apparent continuity with the early pieces, they clearly connect with the earnestness of the intent demonstrated in the 1970s, except that now Critchley is often working collaboratively, fulfilling a brief to create works that have a popular edge, exploring themes such as society's relationship with pharmaceuticals in locations like the Wellcome Trust Gallery. Currently Critchley is content that the largest and most widely experienced work he has created to date is the 'Cradle to Grave' piece created in collaboration with Pharmacopoeia and currently on permanent show at the British Museum in London.

Clive Gillman is an artist and Director of Dundee Contemporary Arts

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