Getting It All on Film
TFor the past two years, film and video artists (Isaac Julien and Catherine Yass) have been amongst the nominees for the most important British art prize, the Turner Prize. Even though artists’ film and video practices are popular today and have gained acceptance in the art circles, their work has still received little sustained critical attention, except for that of one journal called Undercut, which was founded by the London Film-makers’ Co-operative. Its publications covered nearly a decade from 1981-1990, and an impressive selection of them have been compiled into the anthology The Undercut Reader: Critical Writings on Artists’ Film and Video.
In the 1970s Screen, the most significant film journal in Britain at the time, changed our perception of mainstream cinema, through applying new theoretical models like Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis to movies by directors such as Hitchcock and Ford and Nouvelle Vague directors such as Godard and Fassbinder. Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, which revolutionised understanding of the construction of women as objects of desire in films, was first published in Screen.
However, whilst Screen focused on establishing mainstream cinema as a critical and subversive art form, the most obviously politically and artistically engaged and challenging media, namely avant-garde and experimental film, video, photography, performance and installation work, barely found a platform for discussion. Despite the success of Screen in redirecting attention to popular film as an art form, avant-garde and experimental film was still regarded as inferior to fine art.
All these ‘missed connections’ and ‘missed encounters’ between theory, film and various avant-gardes were picked up and addressed in the 1980s by Undercut. Dedicating itself to offering space for British film and video artists, Undercut became the major platform for critical appraisal of these art forms. The present book is an anthology offering a wide range of writings in this field. Because artists’ films and videos still do not find thorough critical and theoretical engagement outside of Undercut, this anthology offers a major source of reference in the field.
The anthology seduces the reader with its beautiful cover, and the world unfolding inside it is always interesting and sometimes fascinating. Following the journal’s aim of being an artistic leader, the book is edited by two internationally well-known artists and contributors to the journal, namely the film-maker Nina Danino, and Michael Mazière, whose work spans from film, video, and photography to installation. Danino and Mazière have assembled major contributions to the journal into eight chapters that deal with avant-garde theory, cultural identities, experimental animation, independent cinema and video art.
The Reader successfully combines the range of works presented in the journal. These include “theoretical pieces, critical appraisals of new films and videos by artists, interviews with filmmakers and artists, polemics and critical perspectives, artists’ films and video and photo-pieces especially made by artists for the magazine.” In addition it offers five newly commissioned essays that reflect on Undercut’s critical engagement, also relating it to further developments of film and video practice. There’s also a full index of back issues.
‘The personal as political’ stands in the foreground of Undercut’s agenda. Not only was the journal concerned with the margins of art but it also addressed marginalised politics (especially in the Thatcherite atmosphere of the 1980s), and expressed itself not at least in its support for women filmmakers. The anthology offers a detailed appraisal of a wide range of Undercut’s debates, which were centered around “medium-specific practices [that] were challenged, influenced and changed by a broader experimental spectrum of practices and poetics such as: narrative and representation, feminist perspectives, questions of identity, cultural and issue-based work, gay politics, the new imagination and aesthetics of hybridity.”
Some of the great achievements of Undercut were the collaborations between and contributions of both artists and theorists. In contrast to other journals, where both are positioned on oppositional ends, this boundary is overcome by Undercut. This is reflected in the anthology, which unites artists and theorists who here write alongside each other, creating a space where the two meet and interchange. The anthology represents not only a rich variety of perspectives and topics but also draws artists and theorists closely together, showing that their relationship is not oppositional, but communal.
Essays, interviews and discussion rounds intertwine and present in a single space artists and theorists from different areas and perspectives. Here, interviews with artists such as Chris Welsby and Christine Delphy can be found alongside critical essays by art theorists such as Peter Wollen, who, together with Tom Giles, writes on Tina Keane’s A Shadow of a Journey, asking “What are films but shadows? Shadow-shows.  What are films but journeys?” Alternatively, a discussion round consisting of film theorists and feminists such as Kobena Mercer, Jacqueline Rose, Gayatri Spivak and Angela McRobbie debates, through ethnic and feminist perspectives, the question of ‘cultural identity.’
These writings are illustrated with a wonderful collection of film stills and photographs, such as ‘Documentation in Sand’ by Nick Collins. Two photographs show trails in sand and are commented upon by the artist:
At 2pm on a Sunday a figure, sliding on its stomach, descends a steep incline, and leaving a pink train in the otherwise yellow sand, moves towards a small lake, outside the picture’s edge. At 8.30 on Monday morning, if it has not rained, among the tracks of vehicles, unlike the marks of any machine, the depressions of knees and elbows. For a short time, the figure gives scale to the space, but afterwards, and in the photographs, ignoring the green fields and trees which fringe the place, the abundance of visual fact contains no information and without the evidence of movement, the myriad prints of wheels oscillate in nearness and distance.
This anthology is a dazzling collection of writing on avant-garde visual art. It reflects the range and diversity of artists and theorists represented in Undercut during its heyday in the 1980s. Even though it specifically addresses artists’ film and video it manages to be relevant and educative, through its range of reference and its diversity, to everybody interested in art and cultural practice and theory.