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Early Video Art as Private Performance

Mike Leggett

Paper for Re:live Media Art History, Science and Technology conference, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Abstract: The adoption of video by artists responded to the affordance of immediacy and portability for the making of a motion picture recording. In the early 1970s in England, the potential of this facility was as novel as it was without precedent in the photo-time-based arts and collaborative work between artists generated a range of approaches to working with the new media of the day.

This paper draws on two sets of detailed notes the author made in 1973, now held in the British Artists' Film & Video Study
Collection in London and the Rewind archives in Dundee, that record his reflections on the creative
potential of the Portapak video recorder and Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) systems. The making
of The Heart Cycle during 1973 commenced as a series of experiments with a roll of 16mm film and a
CCTV system, recording a series of procedures and adjustments made to the system during experiments
and ërehearsalsí. With references to the work of Donald Schön (1983), contemporary VJ and digital
video culture, the paper reappraises the creative process for framing and making the artwork. The
conclusions reached at the time about synthesising the videotapeís final form as private performance are
explored in the context of contemporary motion pictures and the expanded public contexts for reception.
The Heart Cycle has been selected for the Rewind/LUX DVD boxed set, An Anthology of Early British
Video Art, 1972-82.
video art, performance, archiving


This paper addresses an immediate concern of the Re:live conference by seeking to record a firsthand
account of working with electronic media at its early inception. As Simon Biggs has recently observed:
ìÖwhilst the subject of intensive historical study, [research] is nevertheless typified by incomplete
documentation and hazy recollections of events that were either not documented or which, in their
mediality, could not be documented appropriately with the tools of the day.î (Biggs 2009)
The paper draws on two sets of documents on paper, now held in the British Artistsí Film & Video Study
Collection in the University of the Arts, London and the Rewind archives at the Visual Research Centre
in the University of Dundee. They record my reflections on the creative potential of the Portapak video
recorder and a Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) system, shortly after the technologies became available in
the early 1970s to artists and other researchers. Together with case-study notes on the videotape The Heart
Cycle (1972), the material will form the basis of a critical reappraisal.
At this time many film and visual artists were averse to the ënon-materialityí of the electronic image and
the restricted range of acuity the bandwidth could support. The materiality of the film image was much
debated throughout the 1970s, less so the video image. The non-materiality of the video image arises from
a perceptual paradigm: light emitted from the video monitor is an asynchronous rendition of electronic
information stored on the surface of the videotape. This is in contradistinction to the image on the filmstrip
in the gate of the film projector, which is in synchronous relation to the image reflected from the screen.
The illusiveness of the material base for the video image became one of the themes of experimental work
produced from this point onwards.
A poster, ëVideo + Video/Film ñ Some Possibilities Suggested by Some Experience,í prepared during
1973 and exhibited at the Experimental and Avant-Garde Film Festival at the National Film Theatre in
June of that year, recorded the process and outcomes of six exploratory projects pursued during 1971 and
1972 (Leggett 1973). The projects included various CCTV configurations: in 1971 for Ian Breakwellís
ONE event at the Angela Flowers Gallery; the Moving Wallpaper in the Television Lounge project at the
Somerset College of Art (1972); the Whittingham Hospital performance, The Institution (1971) with Kevin
Coyne at Art Spectrum exhibition, Alexandra Palace (Fig 2); and the Artistsí Placement Group (APG)
exhibition (1971) at the Hayward Gallery (Leggett 1973/2005).
As performances, the events established their asynchronous materiality through the presence of cameras,
Re:live Media Art Histories 2009 conference proceedings 96
cables, monitors and the general paraphernalia of the CCTV video studio, where the formation of the image
and its reception happened in the same physical space. The series was an approach taken in the spirit of
what Duncan White identifies as ì..Expanded Cinemaís principle concern with context and the social spaces
of receptionî (White 2008).
Several of my completed films set out to make available to the audience the means, the forms and the
materials that constructed the filmic phenomena as experience. In an encounter with ëfilm as phenomenaí,
as film ëabstractedí, an opening-up of the spaces between its component parts is created. This is in
contradistinction to the narrative conventions of Cinema, intent on concealing the many joins that hold the
illusion in place. The problematics of cinema were addressed using this framework through a problemsetting
process of a conceptual, substantive (material) and procedural kind. This is in contrast to traditional
problem-solving approaches intent on delivering outcomes as product for a market place. My initial
approaches to experimenting with video were similar, with the additional aim of developing skills with the
new medium and understanding the aesthetic principles emergent from practice.
The outcome of this practise-base was a body of artworks in several media exhibited both nationally and
internationally during the 1970s. The focus here will be on one of the video works, The Heart Cycle, for
two reasons: firstly it has been curated into the Rewind/Lux DVD, An Anthology of Early British Video
Art 1972-1982 (to appear 2009); secondly, a detailed typescript account of the making of the video was
ërediscoveredí on the Rewind online database (Leggett 1973). The level of detail in the notes indicates they
must have been made soon after the events they record. Some [editing] has been applied to improve syntax,
as well as adding explanation and comment on the now obsolete technology and the affordance it provided
in the process of making art with Video.
My initial encounters as a filmmaker with the Portapak (Fig 3) were revelatory. I found: ì..on playback, after
each attempt, that additions and alterations become quickly apparent.î(Leggett 1973). In the contemporary
context this may seem mundane, but in the early 1970s the potential of this facility, as others have noted,
was as novel as it was without precedent (Frampton 1974, Marshall 1996, Donebauer 1996, Elwes 1996,
Critchley 2006).
The opening sentence of the notes made in July 1973 evoke the spontaneity the technology made possible:
ìDriving home with the Portapak in the back ñ stop at the bridge and walk to the stream and set-up tripod
in water ñ the idea, the location.î By beginning a process of recording the scene in front of the camera and
then determining where this decision would lead, brought the conceptual framework for commencing the
making of a motion picture recording into closer proximity than had previously been possible. While these
experiments were proceeding, forays into the studio occurred to explore the possibilities of working with
CCTV using three studio cameras connected through a vision mixer to the Portapak.
The Heart Cycle: selected annotated notes
ìSet-up the studio to look at some film ñ added another camera to relay off the monitor through mix box;
[vision mixer] Öî (Fig 4) The intention was clearly to explore the relationship between the film image and
the video image when the film image was used as a source to make a video image using a film projector and
video camera. ëTo relay offí the monitor meant that another camera was pointed at the monitor capturing
the image coming from the film projector, a ëfeedback loopí connected through the vision mixer.
My first time encounter with the vision mixer required me to understand the various effects selectable by
combining knobs, faders and buttons. ì.. became confused by mix box; the temptation being to ëuseí the
various effects [and thus] making even simple switching obscure after a while ñ went back to beginning
and tried again, forgetting the FX! [effects] î The pre-set effects for combining camera outputs with various
graphical shapes tended to ape the effects with which we had become familiar on television. These visual
devices ñ wipes, irises, boxes, etc - had evolved from silent cinema traditions; the adjustable matte (Key)
effect however, was worthy of further investigation.
Re:live Media Art Histories 2009 conference proceedings 97
“Came to ëfeelí the [vision mixer] box, the mix, superimpose and cutting ñ introduced third camera
through Key channel and got to know the box with this very seductive FX ñ finally found the Key image
which seemed to work the best, being simple in area and rhythmic in action - this was the film spool on the
projector, which after a while was lit with a small spot to improve the outline of the white to black areas.
This was controllable using a Key Control knob, such that the area affected by the white key could be
altered from zero ñ a blank screen - to maximum, which produced a distorted image of the spool.”
Experimenting with the relation between the object in front of the video camera ñ the film spool turning on
the projector ñ and the real-time control of the keyed white and black areas, produced a rhythmic device
upon which to build the composition. The feedback loop created with one of the cameras and a monitor, was
controlled through the use of the sliding faders on the mixer. The zoom lens (framing) and focus controls on
each of the cameras added further variables in the system. During my interaction with each of these control
surfaces, a shape and order began to emerge.
“Finally all the elements were combined on the final monitor. The combined images were of great interest,
the only problem being where - in terms of start and finish - the [duration of the] combined [images] might
exist. A series of takes [recordings] were made onto the P[ortapak] and again played back at the end of each
The facility of the system being developed to show immediate results was quite unlike the experience of
making a film, when there is the inevitable delay between exposing the image to film and being able to see
the result as a motion picture image. The feedback from the video system encouraged spontaneity similar to
making music, drawing, or writing: working with the system was something plastic and responsive.
“The [vision mixer] box proved difficult again but gradually on watching playbacks bits were noticed and
technically improved by rehearsing certain box manipulations. Work on [a] short piece [at a time] ñ record
then playback. Ö Finally something had sedimented out which needed final structuring - the backend of
the film seemed to provide the most sympathetic images. The [use of the] Key was to start the piece with a
white line on black; there would be a cut to feedback [from the camera facing the monitor] plus [the] key
image [of the rotating film spool, which was] also white on black; then the introduction of the [images from
the] film; then the reintroduction of the Key into the image.”
The process of investigating the convergence of these various elements gradually improved not only my
skills of interacting with the various control surfaces but also the outcomes delivered as a live composition.
The investigative activity shifted away from learning the system to understanding how the different
components were determining the shape of the composition and the images it contained. The appearance
of the film spool had been abstracted by use of the Key: the rounded shapes of the spool accentuated by the
Key giving the visual impression of an electronically generated image, the source of which is not ërevealedí
until the very end of the tape - a treated electronic image of a real object”.
The Heart Cycle therefore developed from the manipulation of primary elements contained by the video
system, with the images in the emulsion on the acetate of the film occupying a secondary position within
the structure. The next question was how to fit the elements of the composition so far constructed into an
overall time span.
“It was noticed during one of the final takes that the film spool would speed up imperceptibly as the film
came closer and closer to the centre [of the spool]. such that The rate was noticeable frenetic before the film
would actually run-off and suddenly stop the spool [rotating] dead. It was decided that this would complete
the cycle.”
Problem solved, the duration of the performed procedures with the video system would match the length of
the found footage on the projector. The experimental stages had consolidated the procedures to arrive at a
series of ërehearsalsí peaking as a final unedited performance, the extent recording of The Heart Cycle.
The recording ended with a coda, where the physical elements of the performance are revealed using a
zoom out and track: the spool and the projector, the cameras and monitors, the vision mixer and Portapak,
Re:live Media Art Histories 2009 conference proceedings 98
and then the artist entering left to sit at the mixer and move a fader to take the image to black and the end of
the recording.
“Three takes were needed to get the acceptable one Ö the obvious joy was the making of the tape as much
as the collision of its various elements. To ëperformí the tape each time was the obvious ideal ñ here
anyway was the recording of one of these performances.”
The observation that the ideal would be to ëperformí the procedure ëeach timeí to a live audience was a
realisation that the black and white ëlow-bandí video recording delivered with a large television monitor,
tended to undermine aesthetic value. Rather than expecting an audience to focus their attention on a
television set styled in the domestic taste of the day, what was envisaged was something more expansive.
This would share the spontaneity and ëlivenessí of the proceedings with an audience responsive to the
presence of the artist and the workís development, a response in part, to the audienceís material presence:
incorporation, feedback and looping becoming the key to performance of the workís elements.
Though the Notes presciently anticipate the live performances of contemporary VJs and the dynamic
architectures of digital video, analogue video had strict limitations when it came to the live performance
involving complex manipulations. Though video experimentation pursued during this greyscale era could
expand into gallery spaces as CCTV or prepared tape installations using multiple monitors, the restraints
were nonetheless severe compared to film: by the low resolution of the image, lack of colour, imprecise
editing options, random interference from poor quality recording tape, etc. When scale, colour and acuity of
the image was necessary for a project and if the considerable costs associated with the alternative could be
covered, film remained the medium of choice for single and multiple-screen presentation.
It is in the nature of experiments to be unclear about direction and the time needed to pursue them. The
approach described here for making art with video is echoed in the work of Donald Schön and his analysis
of professional practice, based not on problem solving but problem setting. The artist or researcher makes
and tests ì.. new models of the situation Ö to function as transforming moves and exploratory probes.î
(Schön 1983) In the case of The Heart Cycle a point was reached in the investigations where the identified
elements, emergent from the working procedures, were brought into states of proximity with one another ñ
as images, as durations ñ and gradually incorporated into the process of composition, sustained for a finite
period. As the series of procedures converge on the durational and physical end point of the film, abstraction
seeks to undermine the ëauthorityí of the instructional documentary, creating a durational space through
which the dialectic develops between the representation and its antithesis.
Liveness, Performance and Video
The making of The Heart Cycle was a series of live real-time performances, live in the sense of performed
iterations proceeding toward the workís final completed duration. The ëtransforming moves and exploratory
probesí employed in performing the medium is reflected in the heuristic production of evidence in viewing
the completed art work; light as abstract movement, with synchronous/asynchronous sound, as image of
place and surface, as image of presence and agency, interrogated within a continuous present. Kacunko
describes the performative state as of ì..a kind of highly unstable entity [where] liveness should be regarded
as an authenticity guaranteeÖî(Kacunko 2009). This is in the face of traditional archivists (or anyone
else for that matter), who regard the recording, (as a storage medium), as the authentic artefact. From
ëperforming the mediumí the tendency developed in the following years towards the medium framing
performance, and as the technology became more ëfilm-likeí in handling and image appearance, encouraged
the use of video for the hermeneutic ends of producing meaning from performance through interpretation.
As improvements and upgrades were made to the technology throughout the 1970s ñ colour and general
image quality, editing using dual-VCR controllers ñ the affect was to consolidate video being used as
ësubstitute televisioní and as others have observed (Spielmann 2008, Rees 1999), as a documentation
and documentary tool, using a language made increasingly familiar in the 1980s with the expansion of
ëindependentí television production in Britain and throughout the Western world.
The migration process from the analogue version of The Heart Cycle to the digital artefact in 2007,
introduced further interruptions and interferences to those already evident: horizontal white lines flick
Re:live Media Art Histories 2009 conference proceedings 99
across the screen, the sign of decay caused by the metallic oxide dropping off the tape mylar substrate
ñ ëdrop outí. Within the overall schema of the composition this ëvariableí becomes a manifestation of
the rendition of magnetic and electrical fluctuation into digital data, stored on a hard disc or DVD and
asynchronously reproduced on replay through microprocessor array onto the screen.
Duration and extreme duration were outcomes of artistsí work with the new media of analogue video, a
medium specific for delivering to artists for the first time, motion pictures that displayed in ëreal timeí, the
state of a system in synthesis. The Heart Cycle as a record of the synthesis of a performance event, retaining
the finite time span of the artistís film, a singular event when replayed on the screen of a video monitor.
However, in the act of viewing, it retains in the electronic genesis of the black and white DVD image, a
provisional gesture in private performance towards a contemporary present.
Biggs, Simon. 2009. Correspondence with author.
Critchley, David. 2006. Video Works 1973-1983. In Experimental Film and Video: an Anthology, edited
by J. Hatfield. Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey Publishing.
Donebauer, Peter. 1996. A Personal Journey Through a New Medium. In Diverse Practices - a critical
reader on British Video Art, edited by J. Knight. Luton, UK: John Libbey Media.
Elwes, Catherine. 1996. The Pursuit of the Personal in British Video Art. In Diverse Practices, edited by
J. Knight. Luton: John Libbey Media.
Frampton, Hollis. 1974. The Withering Away of the State of the Art. In On the Camera Arts and Consecutive
Matters: the Writings of Hollis Frampton, edited by B. Jenkins. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. Original
edition, Open Circuits: the Future of Television, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
Kacunko, Slavco. 2009. M.A.D.: Media Art Database(s) and the Challenge of Taste, Evaluation and Appraisal.
Leonardo 42 (3):245-250.
Leggett, M. 1973. Video + Video/Film - some possibilities suggested by some Experience. Exeter: Exeter
College of Art & Design.
óóó. 1973/2005. Video+Video/Film: time-based media, the New, and Practice-based Research. In CCS
Reports, edited by A. Johnston. Sydney: University of Technology Sydney.
Leggett, Mike. 1973. An account of working with video and the new Portapak. In Rewind Archive.
Dundee: Duncan of Jordonstone College of Art, University of Dundee.
Marshall, Stuart. 1996. Video: from art to Independence - a short history of a new technology (1983). In
Diverse Practices, edited by J. Knight. Luton: John Libby Media.
Rees, A.L. 1999. A History of Experimental Film and Video. London: British Film Institute.
Schön, Donald. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.
Spielmann, Yvonne. 2008. Video: the Reflexive Medium. Edited by S. Cubitt, Leonardo Books. Cambridge,
Mass. MIT Press.
White, Duncan. 2008. Expanded Cinema in the 1970s: Cinema, Television and the Gallery. In Expanded
Cinema: the Live Record. National Film Theatre, London.
Biographical Note Mike Leggett has been working across the institutions of art, education, cinema and
television with media since the late-60s. He has film and video work in archives and collections in Europe,
Australia, North and South America and practises professionally as an artist, researcher, curator, writer and
teacher. He has a MFA from the University of New South Wales and has recently submitted a PhD to the
University of Technology Sydney on hypervideo and mnemonics. He has curated exhibitions of interactive
multimedia for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, (Burning the Interface<International Artistsí
CD-ROM> also in Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne); the 1996 Brisbane International Film Festival;
the 5th International Documentary Conference; and Videotage Festival of Video Art, Hong Kong. He
contributes to journals (Leonardo