This is a Sentence CD-ROM - Stephen Partridge and David Cunningham
Stephen Partridge and David Cunningham met at Maidstone College of Art in the mid-70s. Partridge was in the middle of his Fine Art degree course, Cunningham was a Foundation student. Rob Gawthrop and Jane Rigby were there at the same time, making video, film, sound and installation work in a new department recently set up, in 1974, by former sculptor and now film and video maker David Hall. With him were Paul Gillieron and Tony Sinden. Over the next decade the tutors included Stuart Marshall, Tamara Krikorian, Bruce McLean, Roger Barnard and (via the painting studios) Michael Upton. Hall and Sinden had just finished a series of five experimental films and had embarked on gallery pieces like '60 TV Sets' (1972 Gallery House) and '101 TV Sets' (1974 Serpentine), in which the receivers were randomly tuned or detuned to broadcast TV (all three channels of it).
It would have happened anyway, but ... the seal of the collaboration celebrated and expanded on this CD was set in the climate which Hall generated at Maidstone in his campaign for 'time based media.' This climate was, roughly speaking, both conceptual and confrontational - laidback enough for experiment to flourish, but braced up for debate and critique. In this sometimes entrenched centre of video art, Hall was carving out space between the then-dominant avant-garde film tradition and the increasing use of new media by gallery artists. For him - even though he still had a foot in both these camps - the video medium was unexplored territory for artists, its codes yet uncracked. He argued that video art was integral to television and not just its technical by-product. TV - and its subversion - was where video's vital core was located, well beyond the ghettoes of film co-ops, arts labs and art galleries. This view opened an unusual space, somewhere between high art formalism (which it resembled) and the mass arts (which it didn’t). Anti-aesthetic and anti-populist - conceptual art with a looser, dada streak - the sinews of this approach led outwards to the European heartland of hardline, politicized, video post-avantgardisme, especially to Germany, Poland and Yugoslavia.
The tone of the seventies, including the now quaint but then furious stand-offs between film and video makers over the artistic claims of their chosen media, had a long underground incubation. In retrospect, it forms a distant background to this disc and its ambience. At that time, the art schools - some, like Maidstone, still 'free-standing' outside the larger polytechnics and universities - made room for composers as well as visual artists: Gavin Bryars, Brian Eno, Michael Nyman, Cornelius Cardew and Michael Parsons taught variously at Portsmouth, Nottingham and Maidstone. Structural film had rooted in the colleges, by way of systems art and post-painting, and was to peak at the end of the decade, somewhere between the rise of punk and the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979. Concept art promoted 'ideas' over 'objects' (why make more of them when there are so many in the world?). Language in art ceased to be a dirty word. Perhaps above all, the ethos was collaborative rather than individualist, and many strong egos were thus tempered in a form of group practice which had been first tried out, astringently so, by Peter Kardia and his sculpture school associates (including Hall) at St Martin's. More democratically, young video makers showed work in public alongside their tutors, on equal terms, as had Malcolm Le Grice's 'Film Aktion' group in London a few years earlier, in 1973.
From Maidstone, Partridge went on to Peter Kardia's own mixed-media department at the Royal College of Art. He stayed for an ultimately frustrating year and then left, in 1976, to make his own way. Teaching at Coventry, he pioneered video-based art at a time of rapid technological expansion. Cunningham, meanwhile, had stayed on at Maidstone to take his fine art degree. His final show consisted entirely of work in sound, a happy way to graduate from a visual arts college. He was also keeping up his collaborative work with his former fellow-student. This grew rather than diminished after Partridge moved to effectively found the media and digital arts courses which he now heads at Duncan of Jordanstone College. Cunningham by then was a leading figure in the burgeoning world of new music, working with Michael Nyman and Peter Greenaway, Peter Gordon, John Greaves and - as he still does - composing music for feature films and soundtracks for artists such as William Raban, Sam Taylor-Wood and Gillian Wearing. His installation 'The Listening Room' (1993 onwards, most recently featured at the 1998 Biennale of Sydney), is a mimimalist sound sculpture in a large space, activated by its audience.
It’s an unusual collaboration, not just because it covers almost twenty-five years but because of its particular character. Most artistic duos are just that - Fischli & Weiss and Gilbert & George, for example - so that the tandem defines both the work and its joint authorship. This CD and its contents are a different case, in which the two individuals also work independently of each other, as solo artists, and with many others. Partridge and Cunningham are far from yoked together, and aren’t even neighbours. Most of the work on this disc was made while one lived in Dundee and the other in various bits of London. Their creative partnership is thus not exclusive, which gives the work they do make together a special edge. As on this CD, in fact especially so here, the work doesn’t break down into a neat division of sound by one and image by the other. Or rather, and more unusually in our moving-image culture where sound is added and dubbed to the dominant picture at a late stage, Cunningham's sound and Partridge's images often swap the conventions and merge the roles. Looking at the sections from Soundtapes, for example, the viewer would be hard pressed to detect whether it is the sound-impulse or the image-shift which generates and cues the montage. Which comes first? Is it either? It’s a small but effective challenge to the standard media hierarchy of the eye and the ear, and an icon for the equalising of audio-visual space in their work as a whole.
Anti-hierarchy was built in from the start. Partridge was one of the first younger video artists to take up this medium directly. If the film bug (or fetish) bit him, it doesn’t show. Electronic video not only led logically to digital art, it provoked a new understanding of the audio-visual realm. While sound is always added to film, and is technically a distinct process from shooting the picture, video records sound and image in the same electronic stream, on equal terms. Unlike the pictorialist film tradition, with its 'camera-eye' privilege of vision, video is neutral in the word-and-image war; on the monitor, text and picture hold the same status. Perhaps it was an advantage to explore this by ingenuity in the age before edit-suites (and when all video-pictures were grey and visibly 'degraded'), as Partridge did in the image-word pulsing of 'Easy Piece', 1974. Again, video's real-time recording and instant playback - which most evidently made it not film - impelled the still stunning manipulations of 'Monitor', 1975, with its seemingly infinite regress of angled TVs in a sequence of chinese boxes, frames within frames.
Editing opened new options when it arrived. For most video-artists this didn’t happen until the early 1980s, but by 1979 Partridge was making montage video in, for example, 'Red Shirt' and 'Black Skirt' with their denotative titles. Cutting the image down into rhythmic clusters, isolating the fragment from its original real-time context and remixing it, Partridge pushed against the time barrier which he further broke in such large scale pieces as 'Interrun', 1989. In some ways, he was in parallel with Cunningham's own route to a remix culture, from The Flying Lizards to the fusion of live and recorded sound, devising ways of sampling long before the technology was available or even named.
'Interrun' itself defies sampling; it is a 34 monitor video wall (in this case with sound by Lei Cox), in which angles and planes of the Scottish landscape sometimes make up a whole image dispersed over all the monitors, and at other times break down into successive distinct shots and sub-grids. In one sense, and akin to the cut-up videos of the later-seventies and beyond, this piece takes up the complex language of film montage, recalling Eisenstein's notion of 'montage within the frame' as well as his rapid-cutting, but here in a new media context.
As a pure example of 'landscape video' in Partridge's output, 'Interrun' is in the larger tradition of landscape art - and on the grand scale. It also shares the radical revisioning of landscape pioneered by such structural filmmakers as Chris Welsby and William Raban, but is more specifically preceded by a Partridge-Cunningham landscape video made with singer and performer Mary Phillips, 'Vide Voce', 1986. Coincidentally, structuralists like Raban and Welsby also took up a more questioning ecologically-driven politique of landscape in the 1980s, beyond pure observation; just as this videowall does in its 'eye-scaping' challenge to neutral vision. The logistics of structure are also key to the Partridge-Cunningham 'Soundtapes', 1982, but more abstractly so. Apart from its intriguing link back to procedural or systems film, these elegant pieces transform human voices into soundworks. Speech as metaphor for communication in Partridge's earlier videos here becomes used as song and system. But for all their formal poise - musical (rail) tracks, an endless staircase, a multi-monitor portrait - the tapes allow endless variation, as this CD version reveals. Their sense holds even when the shots go into random sequencing, as they do.
Speech returns, still manipulated, in Partridge's tour-de-force '1001 Boy's Games', 1984, a video-vision of John Yearden's chanted poem where text, drawing and image counterpose each other. The tellingly titled 'Dialogue for Two Players', 1984, moves into quasi-dramatic space, in which the seemingly spontaneous reactions of the actors are revealed not just as a construct but also as a complex puzzle. It implicitly comments on the 'confessional' mode of video and its illusion of real presence. All these strands unite in 'The Sounds of These Words', 1990, a piece made - and shown - for tv broadcast as an 'intervention', but which demands repeated viewing. Its portrait head is 'a speaking likeness' in the realist tradition, but streams of text and sampled sound are used to digitally rescore the typographic revolution of the early modernists, from Marinetti to Cage and concept art, for the age of audiovisual technology and semiotics.
Some of these ideas are drawn out in their purest form by the 'Sentences' series, 1988-93, in various languages and formats. The hints of linguistic philosophy, its word-games and facticity, which permeate the earlier works, are here centred on screen. The sentences in the cycle are self-referential, near-complete propositions which encompass all their elements - including graphic signs such as full stops. The digital play of letters is complemented by a pop-mix soundtrack, so that the austerity of the printed word enters a more demotic sound-space. Taking up the word-play format of post-Fluxus artists like Paul Sharits and Michael Snow, but stripped down to bare statements rather than expanded by word association, the 'Sentences' ramify out in later pieces. The format of this CD is founded on them, as the user will discover when clicking along the on-screen text. Some of these hot-spots eventually lead to Cunningham's 'This Moment', 1993, a one-minute TV work, in which shifting sounds and letter-forms in the phonetic alphabet finally spell out the title of the work as an index of its own duration.
The CD is a free anthology of much of this diverse video and sound work, interspersed with quotes, games, shouts, remixes, out-takes and variants. The collaborators have themselves collaborated, so that a variety of voices - some identifiable, many not - can be heard on the soundtrack. At this level, it does what CDs do best, which is to access information. Along another strand, it presents its contents directly as art in a new format, notably when its clips are played in programmed time so that the user becomes - again - a viewer. It’s at these points, when the clip plays without interference, that the CD becomes an independent art work. Cut against this insistence on the time-base is the user's freedom to move through overlapping paths, to reach the last sentence - if there is one. Open movement in a semi-closed system.
click here for:
This is a sentence
Stephen Partridge home page link
Stephen Partridge -notes on the collaboration
David Cunningham -notes on the collaboration
David Cunningham information
© 1998 A.L.Rees