After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation, Erika Balsom
Art Monthly (UK) no.412, December 2017
It might come as a surprise to some (it certainly did to me) that at the end of Tacita Dean’s commission for the Turbine hall, FILM, in 2011 – in her words both an act of mourning of film as a medium and an argument for its preservation – the series of 35mm prints (created at £8000 a piece) were shredded. Although the master copy remained, the destruction of such valuable work, which might have been re-used in a number of ways (for further exhibition, or as a resource for scholars at least) seems completely at odds with Dean’s passionate plea to preserve such material. I assume this was not a nihilistic ritual of destruction, but a means of inflating the financial and cultural value of the surviving internegative. This kind of ‘secret life’ of the moving image, and the peculiar networks they circulate within, is the subject of Erika Balsom’s fascinating study.
In place of the usual focus on masterpieces and maestros, ‘After Uniqueness’ foregrounds the infrastructures of distribution and the trajectories of circulation that moving image work has historically taken; processes that Balsom argues are fundamental to the production of meaning and value in the field. The stress here is on the intersubjective network, rather than the individual artwork. Crucially, this involves a theoretical reappraisal of the moving image; one which emphasises its reproducibility. The ability to copy film and video - potentially infinitely - is seen to produce a tension that plays across history and formats; either harbouring a utopian promise of democratic, universal access, or posing a grave threat to artistic and authorial control, ‘a dangerous inauthenticity’ and a beast to be tamed. Balsom follows these two differing responses by charting the histories of particular distribution models, and providing novel readings of works that stand within or against such networks. In the first half of the book we look at examples that embrace - for better or for worse - ‘the promise of the copy’. Balsom addresses the desire of a generation of North American experimental filmmakers in the 1960s to create a domestic market of their work in compressed 8 mm prints, just as this gauge was emerging on the market and home projectors were becoming affordable. Rather than the stereotypical image of modernist purists, jealous and guarded about their work, Balsom uncovers a more generous moment where these visionary filmmakers were still trying to figure out what they were doing, and what kind of public their films were for.
We then embark on two accounts of more contemporary moving image work; Josiah McElheny’s The past was a mirage I’d left far behind, (Whitechapel Gallery, 2011), and Eileen Simpson and Ben White’s Struggle in Jerash (2009). McElheny’s work is seen as a symptom of a certain hippy-anarcho position towards the possibilities of digital piracy, and comes under criticism for its appropriation of canonical avant-garde films sourced through the website Ubuweb. When these unauthorised, ‘poor’ digital copies are shifted into a gallery context, McElheny and the curators have a responsibility to respect the moral rights of the artists whose work they appropriate. A more critical and creative response to issues of intellectual copyright is found in Struggle in Jerash (2009), a relic from Jordan’s early film history rescued by White and Simpson, reanimated by the addition of a cunning series of voiceovers and distributed through Jordan’s prolific pirate DVD market.
In the second half of the book we move onto examples of distribution models and artistic strategies that seek to curtail the copy, a ‘reinvestment in various forms of rarity’ in the face of unqualified reproduction and access. Paolo Cherchi Usai’s Passio (2007), of which only a small number of prints are in circulation and can only be shown under particular circumstances, and Gregory Markoupoulos’s posthumously realised Temenos project, a screening-as-pilgrimage that takes place in a remote field in Greece every 4 years, both demonstrate the potency of cinema as a live, singular, event; perhaps not so reproducible after all.
In an expansive chapter on the limited edition Balsom traces how artists and gallerists have responded to the development of new copying technologies across history, seeing an echo between the creation of markets for reproducible prints and brass casts in the 19 th century, and attempts in the second half of the 20 th century to develop a market for limited editions of film and video work. Only following massive institutional support for the moving image in the late 1980s and early 90s, itself the result of economic and technological shifts in the sector, did such an opportunity present itself (developments in projector technologies meant that moving image work could provide monumental displays in new cavernous museums for a modest price at a moment where the opportunity cost was low). The limited edition comes with a legal contract between artist and collector detailing the way in which a particular work can be exhibited, and constrains the number of copies that can be made. On the one hand this ensures artistic control over the legacy of a work and an income, on the other hand this artificial scarcity seems antithetical both to the nature of the medium, and the democratic principles that many associate with it. Whatever one’s position, there remains a sense of absurdity in the manipulation of authenticity for private gain; for Balsom, ‘conventions. agreed upon by market actors, that possess a certain truth despite their status as historical constructs’.
It is an unresolved question how we develop audiences for moving image work, protect artist’s rights and create financial viability for those involved. It seems that something always has to give, and perhaps that is inevitable. Are there any convincing new models emerging? Balsom leaves some plot lines unresolved: ideas ripe for re-imagination. Whatever they
might be, the future of artists moving image lies in the many small workshops, labs, and institutions who create the conditions for experimentation, not in the success of any one artist working in the medium. This innovative and rigorous exploration of a spectrum of distributive models and artistic strategies provides an important foundation from which to develop such a project.
Erika Balsom, After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video Art in Circulation
Columbia University Press, 2017, 9780231176934
Seth Pimlott is an artist and filmmaker based in London.