Remote Sensing in Context
by Josephine Lanyon
11th November 2009

Josephine Lanyon, co-commissioner of the Remote Sensing project looks at the history of artists' film.

Remote Sensing: outlook + observation is a package of three new single screen artists' films. The loose commissioning theme hints at human perception and a sense of location. Upside Down, Minutiae by George Barber, Magnificent Ray by Sarah Miles and The Chase by Monika Oechsler are diverse works that have been (temporarily) compiled onto a single video tape for distribution purposes. Remote Sensing was devised to be exhibited as a large-scale projection to audiences in, primarily, a gallery context but also cinema and festival contexts.

It is perhaps no surprise that these three projects, which were selected from a national open submission, would be so heterogeneous given the breadth of the artists' film and video field. There are also some commonalities between the works, prompted by the Remote Sensing theme, and also in the creative processes. All three artists take us to a location: the running track (Oechsler), the suburban road (Barber), the small town (Miles), which forms the backdrop for ordinary people to sense the extraordinary. In each project there is a genus of a storyline in the director's mind and eye, but the performers become collaborators rather than pre-scripted characters. These collaborators were recruited from adverts in papers and found through chance encounters. In Oeshsler's work the professional male and female athletes produce a tense, sexually charged chase in reaction being physically and emotionally cajoled; whereas Barber's three subjects are forced to view the world and themselves in minutiae whilst hung upside down from a scaffolding rig on the back of the truck. Miles teases out the "glamour cowgirl/cowboy" in teenage girls through music and costume as they adventure through a rich Wild West landscape.

Artists' film or artists' film and video is a discrete form of cultural practice allied to painting or sculpture with a history that can be tracked back at least as far as the surrealist and abstract film of the 1920's. Artists have also been involved in cinema's history from the outset, both by making their own innovative works and supplying ideas to the feature film industry. The 1960s and 1970s are benchmark decades: artists' work in film, video, electronic and digital art profiled. Factions and specialist groups were established whose reasons for difference were based on technology, gender, race, geography, craft, politics or distribution.

The groundbreaking Filmmakers Co-operative in London and its exponents such as Malcolm Le Grice used a home-made printing machine and "took up direct film-making in the craft ethos of the art schools from which most of its film-makers came." The Co-op's main fields of exhibition were film clubs and a burgeoning international festival circuit. Video activity ranged from counter television culture community access programmes, which were broadcast, to video art, centred on the television monitor that was shown in galleries. The US based Korean artist Nam June Paik influenced the video movement, and his slogan "television has been attacking us all our lives, we now can attack it back" became emblematic (1).

In England a number of significant gallery exhibitions on "artists' film" and "video art" were held in the 1970s. the Visual Arts Department at the Arts Council of Great Britain organised A Perspective on British Avant-Garde Film in 1976 and Film as Film in 1979 both at the Hayward Gallery (London). The video art movement represented by an exhibition held at the Serpentine (London) in 1975 entitled The Video Show and a smaller exhibition held at the Tate Gallery (London) in 1976 which included a good breadth of video art work from installations and performance to single screen work (2).

In the 1980's the barriers broke down between the film and video movement and artists' work was extensively packaged and toured by curators and critics (3). Themed exhibitions such as Spellbound: Art and Film at the Hayward Gallery and Scream and Scream Again at the Meseum of Modern Art in Oxford were organised as part of the centenary of cinema. High profile American video artists such as Bruce Nauman, Gary Hill, Bill Viola and Tony Oursler, were also shown in influential exhibitions in the UK.

The 1990s saw a resurgence of emerging artists who chose film and video as their medium and came from outside the recognised paths of "experimental film" and "video art" production. Unlike earlier practitioners the technology "in its self" was not an issue. Video's ease and versatility as well as its relevance to popular and domestic culture offered an immediacy and intimacy that the plastic arts and cinema struggled to establish. The artist Douglas Gordon who produced the artwork 24-hour Psycho explained "Cinema is young, only a hundred years old, but for us it's already dead. We've grown up with the video recorder, perhaps it's as simple as that!" This comment reflects an irreverent and active interpretation of the history of the moving image (4).

New graduates from colleges such as Goldsmiths (including the generation branded young British artists such as Gillian Wearing and Sam Taylor Wood) set their sights on and were accepted by public and private galleries. Art dealers were able to find private markets for film and video works, and public collections, such as that the Arts Council of England, also began to acquire and preserve works in earnest. It has been argued that during this period it was easier to market a certain kind of non-narrative low-budget film if you called yourself an artist rather than a film-maker, due to the diminishing funding and exhibition opportunities for what used to be called "independent film making."

In the new millennium a proliferation of lottery funding has enabled increased resources for the visual arts sector resulting in refurbished spaces, audience development programmes and access to audio-visual facilities such as video projection. In addition gallery programmers have embraced a broader definition of the visual arts to include art forms such as design, architecture and film. The critic Chris Drake argues that "the gallery might be seen as having become an alternative site, something of a refuge that resists the speed, flux and technological blur of the spectacular world surrounding it, a still centre in the image-storm." (5)

The gallery retains a high art status that sanctifies or places increased value on culture. Galleries are not appropriate or comfortable venues for all viewers or types of work. Contemporary artists and film-makers (what ever they choose to call themselves) find commissioning or exhibition opportunities relevant to the kinds of films they wish to make and audiences they wish to reach, and enjoy the proliferation of platforms for film and video works. George Barber, Sarah Miles and Monika Oechsler have all produced work for the gallery sector prior to Remote Sensing. Monika Oechsler in particular works in the "video art" tradition designing large-scale installations that demand architectural space. However, Oechsler will also distribute and show work in a festival and cinema environment. George Barber and Sarah Miles, both interested in the narrative and feature film-making, have received commissions from the British Film Institute and Channel 4.

The three artists are similarly eclectic in their reference points and draw on art, popular culture and cinema's history to produce accomplished works. In Magnificent Ray, Sarah Miles weaves personal memory, literary extracts from Richard Brautigan's Hawkline Monster with Western film grammar and the cinematic panorama. Monika Oechsler follows in a tradition performance based video art works by artists such as Bruce Nauman in which drama is built through repetition and endurance; and George Barber , once dubbed the "Henry Ford of independent video", re-employs the device of hanging people upside down that has used in pop videos to make as artist's film (6).

1, Quotations cited by A L Rees, in his invaluable History of Experimental Film and Video, BFI (1999)
2, See The British Avant-Garde Film 1926 - 1995, An Anthology of Writings, edited by Michael O'Pray, and Diverse Practice, A Critical Reader of British Video Art both published by University Of East London / Arts Council of England (1995)
3, Tours were organised by London Electronic Arts (Formerly London Video Arts, and now part of the Lux Centre) and Film and Video Umbrella
4, Douglas Gordon cited by Chris Darke in Light Readings: Film Criticism and Screen Acts, Wallflower Publishing (2000)
5, Chris Drake, ibid
6, Stephen Bode, Bracknell Independent Video Magazine , (1993)


Josephine Lanyon is Director of Picture This Moving Image, a production and commissioning agency based in Bristol.

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