Stuart Marshall, The Love Show (parts 1–3), 1980, still from a color video transferred to DVD. From “Polytechnic.”

Stuart Marshall, The Love Show (parts 1–3), 1980, still from a color video transferred to DVD. From “Polytechnic.”


Raven Row

Stuart Marshall, The Love Show (parts 1–3), 1980, still from a color video transferred to DVD. From “Polytechnic.”

In the 1980s, a handful of unabashedly politicized fine art BA courses emerged in the UK. Their titles tended to include the word critical—Saint Martins School of Art in London, for example, instituted a “fine art and critical studies” program. For those who took such courses at the time (myself included), curator Richard Grayson’s exhibition “Polytechnic” will have sparked flashes of recognition. Comprising video and mixed-media works from the later 1970s and early ’80s, Grayson’s show was not a historical survey but a personal selection showcasing some of the approaches to narrative being explored (partly in reaction to the constraints of “structural” film) by British video artists at the time. Many works on display hinted at soliloquy, but this reflects the doctrine that the personal is political; in varying ways the artists probe questions of class, gender, and sexuality. Indeed, media historian Sean Cubitt (discussing the DVD REWIND + PLAY, a 2009 selection of early British video art compiled by Lux and including many of the pieces in “Polytechnic”) views these artists as making up a bona fide avant-garde movement with a “strongly shared political ethos . . . feminist, antiracist, pro-socialist.” Movement or not, it was to these works and their ilk that we “critical” students back then were referred as creative models.

Reencountering them two decades on inevitably leads to reassessments. Now as then, one admires their purposeful analytical intelligence. Take, for instance, the fiendishly self-reflexive sound track to Susan Hiller’s installation Monument, 1980–81, in which viewers are invited to sit on a park bench, don headphones, and listen to the artist’s meditations on a photographic display of Victorian memorial plaques. Each commemorates a heroic death incurred through trying to save another’s life; the work weaves a dense pattern of riddles about fate, mortality, memory, and identity. Back then, though, my enthusiasm was tempered by a dislike of certain pieces’ apparent didacticism. Stuart Marshall’s 1980 video The Love Show (parts 1–3), a deconstruction of the coercive tactics of both television and patriarchal sexual relations, was a prime offender at the time. Today, however, the reflexively ironic intention behind the patronizing, plummy, schoolteacherish personae who deliver Marshall’s lesson in gender politics seems much clearer; more sinister, too, since his actors so closely echo the Thatcherite presentational style that was to be inflicted on British citizens across the entire subsequent decade.

Less explicitly theory-driven, less confrontational works are by no means necessarily less clever. In his video Pieces I Never Did, 1979, David Critchley describes a series of supposedly unrealized performances. Simultaneously, though, we see him enacting them on the work’s three TV monitors. Shrieking, “Shut up!” repeatedly until unable to do more than croak, or smashing a plaster wall by hurling himself at it, Critchley performs actions that have an abrasive, Naumanesque energy, but their imagery (which also includes sweeping up and standing in a corner as if undergoing a school punishment) also seems subtly to pose a question at the level of class, as to who may be authorized to articulate him- or herself through art and who not. An unstable class polemic also pervades Ian Bourn’s brilliant, apparently improvised but actually tightly scripted monologue Lenny’s Documentary, 1978. Bourn’s Lenny sits and muses on the shabby suburb of Leytonstone, “land of a thousand fuckers . . . the urethra of London.” Mildly drunk but gifted with a perverse, foulmouthed eloquence, Lenny seems a not-so-distant relative of the Fall’s Mark E. Smith. His alienation builds into an implicit critique of celebratory representations of working-class identity, a theme that has certainly dropped off many present-day critical agendas, though (as Grayson’s catalogue essay suggests) parallels between the UK’s present politico-economic scene and that of the time revisited by “Polytechnic” look very likely to reinstitute such subject matter.

—Rachel Withers