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Stuart Marshall

By Ian White

1.

In Screen ('Video: Technology and Practice,' Vol. 20, no. 1, Spring 1979) Stuart Marshall points to the lack of a 'legitimising history' for the then nascent practice of video art, while making video art himself and generously attempting to document the work of others. To write about his work is as much to write about the state of video art then. It is ultimately a caustic irony and an ironic testament to his project that his videos, like his sound, installation and live works, have nonetheless shamefully remained outside of an authoritative international canon.

Marshall's article maps an evolving practice, from Nam June Paik's first use of the Sony portapak in 1965 to video's intersection with the Women's Movement (in works by Lynda Benglis, Joan Jonas and Hermin Freed on sexual difference). Just as notably, the article describes its limited British economy. In 1979 there was no commercial gallery infrastructure for video works in the UK, commercial distribution was unsustainable and broadcast was in the exclusive grip of a closed 'duopoloy' between the institutions of BBC and ITV. My proposal is that this latter - television - became Marshall's particular and specific, culturally reflective concern, one that found its apotheosis in his 1984 broadcast Bright Eyes. It was a concern to which he was theoretically and practically bound, and that accounts for his work as a special kind of intervention, distinct from artists' film in the late 1960s and 1970s and politically challenging to the visual arts in general. In his own words, the televisual offered "the greatest potential as a critical avant-garde."

2.

This is but one line of enquiry running through a body of work that also included multi-monitor installations and environments that performed important examinations of perception, time and space, in other still-developing media that were - and are - themselves as equally uncharted and as much in need, still, of a more significant historical reassessment than the one standard art history currently provides.

Rosalind Krauss's essay 'Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism' was published three years before Marshall's article in Screen in the American journal October (Vol. 1, Spring 1976). Krauss focusses on video works that utilise (feature, figure) the body of the artist or incorporate the body of the spectator, combined with some kind of actual or implied feedback mechanism (aural, visual or temporal, actual in real time or re-presented). She replaces what in modernist criticism would be the self-reflexive, physical characteristics of the art object (such as paint on a canvas for example) with those of a (self-reflexive) psychological situation, such that narcissism becomes the medium of video, over and above any material characteristics of production or exhibition apparatus.

In certain works of Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman, Linda Benglis, Joan Jonas and Peter Campus, Krauss describes the monitor screen as various kinds of mirrors, reflecting the artist or the spectator into the feedback loops that they variously exploit, "the very terms of which are to withdraw attention from an external object - an Other - and invest it in the Self." At one point Krauss connects this instant replay mechanism to the artworld's general Pop-art inherited excitement at communication via the mass-media, or "between the institution of a self formed by a video feedback and the real situation that exists in the artworld from which the makers of video come." [emphases in this and the following quotations are mine] Regardless of how the artworld had, according to Krauss been so "disastrously affected by its relation to mass-media," video art was implicitly like the mass-medium television and this kind of television was uniquely, perfectly related to the cultural and economic climate of the (predominantly New York) artworld in America in the 1970s.

3.

Without denying his own significant interest in psychoanalysis, Stuart Marshall proposed a different response to different works (notably by artists that have not since been canonised in/by the artworld) based more upon contradiction than theoretical cohesion. In 'Video: From Art to Independence - a short history of a new technology' (Screen, Winter 1984/5) Marshall accedes video (art)'s initial need to be understood within the modernist tradition. It had to not only claim a place within the visual arts generally, but would, by "being recognised in its specificity" strategically "guarantee the survival of the current means of production [that in the UK was primarily within educational institutions] and the future support of the state funding bodies."

What disrupted the relationship between video and modernism for Marshall is what serves its psychological situation for Krauss:

The video image only comes into being at the moment of playback. As a stored image its materiality consists of a complex pattern of invisible electromagnetic charges on a reel of magnetic tape. Modernist work in film involved a direct working upon the image/acetate surface.

However interested video artists were with exposing the technology they were using, they were snared in a vicious circle of only ever re-presenting its (visual) effects, rather than its (invisible) physical material: "there was an inevitable and constant confrontation with illusionism and representation" [SM]. And representation for Marshall was precisely the stuff of television. In Marshall's notes on 'Video: Technology and Practice' (Screen, Vol. 20, no. 1, Spring 1979) television is "the site of production of representations - as both an industry and a signifying practice." Remarkably different from the language of art, television is the medium from which the language of video derives (for both makers and viewers) : "[all] televisual 'literacy' was established and is controlled by the television industry." To make images from the effects of its technology, video art inevitably challenged television's "dominant modes of representation." Marshall embraced this radical contradiction if not as the medium of video art then as a reassessment of video's relationship to modernism, "At the heart of [which] lay the seeds of a new oppositional practice."

4.

Video art is oppositional. It frustrates modernism and in so doing opposes many things including Krauss's "artworld." Marshall's early video works Go Through the Motions (1975) and Arcanum (1976) look like they might adhere to Krauss's medium. Each features the close up of a mouth. Respectively, the mouth is in- and out-of-synch, with a man's voice heard on the soundtrack repeating the self-reflexive pun (and pun on self-reflexivity) "go through the motions of saying one thing and meaning another"; the mouth is entirely out-of-synch with an initial heard sentence and gradually revealed as being in-synch with a second sentence that is increasingly intercut until we only hear this second sentence and the order of things is restored. What these works reveal is not a psychoanalytic situation per se, but the televisual construction of authority through the otherwise direct, synchronised relationship between what we hear and the lips that we assume speak it.

Moreover, the organisation that Marshall co-founded in 1976, London Video Arts (a "pressure group" for distribution, exhibition and production) took its precedents from collective and co-operative structures, including the London Filmmakers Co-op amongst others, while remaining separate from it. Marshall located his (history of) video art alongside counter-cultural activism, of groups such as Radical Software in New York, or TVX, based at the Arts Lab in London in 1968, and others exhibiting in alternative London gallery spaces such as Acme or AIR. Given such an alternative social-political context video art's relationship to the art world seems simultaneously to be the sum and the least of Marshall's concerns.

5.

There are two aspects of television in Britain during the 1970s to note in relation to Stuart Marshall's work: that broadcast remained impenetrably terrestrial, closed to artists, disinterested in experiment, effectively authoritarian and that it was also preparing for imminent, significant change determined by a unique combination of the demand for diversity and (eventually) the machinations of the free market that we inherit in the form of Channel 4. The first and only British pirate television station NeTWork 21 did not make their short range broadcasts, once a week from undisclosed locations in south London, until 1986. Before then intervention by artists was rather cultural and critical, performed not within broadcast schedules but by extracting material from them, making a 'reading' of it into a video work and representing it to expose its prejudices, its formal construction, the illusions of its authority. The system itself could then be re-read, the intervention as much about literacy as any actual insertion into the medium. In Screen in 1979 Marshall cites Tamara Krikorian's Vanitas (1977) that combines images of 17th century paintings with television news reports as an example. It antecedes the explicitly political, alternative 'news' services of what came to be known as Scratch Video in the mid 1980s in works by Duvet Brothers and Gorilla Tapes. But my point is that this idea of intervention as literacy is key to Marshall's own works.

Distinct, The Streets of... and the three parts of The Love Show (all 1979) are like skeletons of the television genres that they critique. Each is divided into a series of sections that omit entertainment, and often deliberately refute visual pleasure by turning a spare analysis of television into content. The works' elliptical scripts are meta-conversations - commentaries - on the production conditions and visual and economic regulations that ordinarily define industrial television. They reveal constructed sets and fake news, standardised procedures and frustrated creative expression that makes them comparable to the work of filmmaker Owen Land, or David Lamelas's The Desert People (1974) that exposes the prejudice of televisual pseudo-anthropological documentary (albeit with a pastiche Hollywood ending). What is uniquely difficult in these three works by Marshall is that their means are also their content - they are televisual assays on the televisual. The more thorough they are in their deconstruction of this experience the less experience we are left with.

6.

As such, the relationship of Distinct, The Streets of... or The Love Show to the viewer mirrors the quandary of the subject in ideology, incapable of speaking or operating outside of it, a subject represented by the staged frustrations of Marshall's characters/ciphers in the sit-com specific Distinct on their self-referential, futile quest to work out what there is to say. Marshall's engagement with ideology might share its source - the highly influential writings of Louis Althusser - with another filmmaker, Peter Gidal, but his answer to what there is to say is entirely different. Gidal denounces all sexual representation because he finds it inevitably ideological. Marshall to the contrary chose to make work in the field of representation, specifically about sexual representation, because he found it inevitably ideological, directly aligning his practice with a feminist strategy where "a cultural politics.. would demand interventions at the ideological level in order to deconstruct the fictional worlds constructed by dominant modes of representation." ('Video: From Art to Independence)

Raymond Williams's momentous book Television: Technology and Cultural Form was published in 1974, in the midst of the cultural petitioning that marked television's transition from its 'first phase' in the UK from the 1940s to the 1970s into its 'second' and the introduction of Channel 4 in 1982. Stuart Marshall includes a reading of it in 'Video: From Art to Independence'. Williams attacks prevalent assumptions about the social effects of television by revising the prevalent theory of 'technological determinism'; in which technological development is re-cast from being simplistically asocial and self-generating, negatively impacting society with its results, into a process that is indivisibly connected to and driven by social and cultural development. For Williams television does not affect society in morally corrosive ways, but rather social (and/or state) intent, need and desires affect technological change. Marshall's Bright Eyes is an insertion into this equation, an intervention that functions on an ideological level through its participation in the construction and radical deployment of representations, i.e. it was made for television, broadcast in Channel 4's Eleventh Hour slot.

7.

The work is a counter-attack against the slew of alarmist prejudice that formed the tabloid press's response to the burgeoning AIDS epidemic - a response that collapsed difference between sexuality and the disease (to which Marshall lost his own life in 1993) - and examines the relationships between illness, homosexuality, persecution and representation. It exploits its medium socially and formally, as a public information film, a cultural history and an experiment in disruption that can be understood through another idea in Williams's work - the concept of 'flow'. Flow is the term Williams uses to describe how stations organised their schedules for viewers to stay tuned, so that individual programmes are read in the context of a larger unit, a whole evening's viewing of one programme after another, a flow into which the (unwitting) viewer is monopolised - hooked and carried along. The peculiar structure of Bright Eyes, its juxtapositions and variety of registers emulates the variety of an evening's viewing while staging its own disjunctions as a brilliant seduction into and activation of the viewing experience. There is no single authorising voice-over in the video, connections are powerfully implicit rather than didactically explained. It's various sections wildly but purposefully range wildly from dramatic reconstructions of an AIDS patient being whisked into hospital along corridors that are cleared because of a (misinformed) fear of contamination, to historical dramatisations of (prejudiced) scientific enquiry into the visual signs of illness. Along with art historical analysis, there are sections concerning the Nazi persecution of sexuality, mock confessionals, interviews, literary extracts and an extraordinary collapse of time in a first person account by a homosexual concentration camp 'survivor' spoken in the present by an actor whilst being driven along German motorways. Also included are the talking heads of medical professionals, AIDS experts, charity workers (The Terence Higgins Trust), the London gay and lesbian bookshop Gay's the Word and the video ends with the re-reading of American Michael Callen's epochal anti-AIDS-prejudice speech to Congress, now given from the arboretum at the top of the cruising ground on Hampstead Heath.

8.

Bright Eyes shares some of its material with Marshall's important video installation A Journal of the Plague Year (1984), shown in the unprecedented media installation survey 'Signs of the Times' curated by Chrissie Iles at MOMA Oxford in 1990, and it resonates with the defiant, tongue-in-cheek anti-Clause 28 collaborative video Pedagogue (1988), made with performing artist Neil Bartlett. While 'Signs of the Times' was aptly enough sponsored by Carlton Television, Bright Eyes is not only in and of the televisual (referencing and reconstructing representations) it was literally in and of broadcast television. It continuously evokes and undermines flow as a manifestation of social intent and thus effecting social and cultural reassessment. Its formal endeavour was the resolution of works like Distinct with their Spartan aesthetic and decoding-as-content as well as a political reconstitution of viewing.

Four more works for television followed, Desire, Comrades in Arms, Over Our Dead Bodies and Blue Boys, each equally reassessing (homosexual) social and cultural experience and representation, history and commentary and each commissioned by Channel 4's pioneering gay and lesbian strand 'Out'. Given the importance of the televisual not only as a form that he literally embraced but as a way of understanding Marshall's practice and of reading video art as counter to art history, how we understand these works in relation to the visual arts might be the sum and the least of our concerns.

Ian white is a writer, curator and artist.

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