The late 1960s were a good time to be studying painting at Saint Martin’s. At the end of the year, studios were cleared for the big concert by Soft Machine accompanied by the spectacular lightshows of artist Mark Boyle. During the all night “sit-ins” at Hornsey College of Art I first saw American underground films: Warhol, Anger and Harry Smith as well as work from England like John Latham’s amazing short of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

At Saint Martin’s, the film facility comprised one Super 8 and one l6mm camera, a couple of projectors and a pic sync housed in a cupboard in one of the painting studios. But the lack of resources didn’t stop some great films getting made such as Gill Eatherely’s two screen Hand Grenade for example. It was a time for experimentation where ideas were the driving force rather than preoccupations with style – or the desire to simply put dazzling images onto the movie screen.

My paintings at the time involved lifting traces from a range of natural phenomena. The series of Wave Prints were made by spilling thinly mixed oil paint onto the sea and taking the trace of breaking waves onto large sheets of paper. The Tree Print Series worked like photographic time-exposures. Tree trunks were wrapped in canvas soaked in organic dyes. After 6 months of weathering and exposure to sunlight, the canvas was removed to reveal a permanent coloured texture of the tree imprinted on its surface. That was the starting point for making a series of time-lapse films of different landscapes. Some of those early experiments involved multi-screen projection, such as Skyfilm (for 4 screens) and the double-screen River Yar.

In 1972 when the London Film Co-op moved to the Dairy in Prince of Wales Crescent, I took part in running the film workshop. The Film Co-op was unique in that it combined production facilities, a cinema and distribution. We were committed to expanding the film circuit to ensure that the films being made got shown to wider audiences. There were two key festivals of underground cinema at the NFT in 1970 and 1973 which really helped to build the momentum. Much of the work used multi-screen projection, installation and performance some of which was better suited to being shown in the gallery context rather than film theatres. In 1973 I did the first performance of 2’45”. It needed to be performed over several consecutive days, so festivals were the best venue. On the first day, I projected an empty screen with no film running through the projector. From the back of the cinema I filmed the screen with the audience silhouetted in the foreground. A microphone at the front recorded their responses. After developing the film to black and white negative, I projected it the following day and repeated the filming onto another 100 feet of film. Sometimes the audience got irritated by the minimalism of this piece and their reactions were recorded again, but with each successive performance, the image (and sound) became ever more complex, forming a receeding perspective of screens within screens, negative and positive. The film was always only 2’45” in duration no matter how many times it was performed and so was a variation on the time-lapse principle condensing the sum of all previous performances within the space of the single projected image of the present.

As part of the FILMAKTION group, I did a series of shows at Gallery House in London, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and the Edinburgh Festival. This interest in alternative projection culminated in the First Festival of Expanded Cinema at the ICA in 1976. Despite the fact that film was a central part ot the European avant-garde in the 1920s, it needed shows like the Landscape Film series at theTate Gallery (1975) and the Film as Film exhibition at the Hayward (1979) to ensure its recognition as an accepted form of contemporary art practice. It was also from this time that film became a legitimate study within the art school curriculum but it has taken 20 years for a video artist to breach the art establishment by winning the Turner Prize.

The Film Co-op played a big part in establishing a regular distribution circuit, largely through college & university film societies. Following a film tour of North America in 1976 I set up FILMMAKERS’ EUROPE bulletin with Clyde Steiner. As well as serving as a newsheet, we listed all the principle venues in Europe and North America where filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic could present their work. It was an effective form of information exchange and ran largely by subscription to 20 issues before losing steam in 1980. That film distribution infrastructure has been largely lost to television (with a consequent though limited opening of a television audience by way of return)...

Full article published in Filmwaves - Issue 4, Spring 1998. Subscribe now!