In the 1980s, a handful of unabashedly politicized Fine Art B.A. 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 (introducing the DVD REWIND + PLAY, a 2009 selection of early British video compiled by Lux and including a few* 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.
Re-encountering them two decades on inevitably leads to reassessments. Now as then, one admires their purposeful analytical intelligence. Take, for instance, the fiendishly self-reflexive soundtrack 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, school-teacherish 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.
Works by David Critchley and Ian Bourn are less explicitly theory-driven and more aggressive in their address, but they are by no means less clever. In his video Pieces I Never Did, 1979, 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’s actions have a Naumanesque abrasive energy, but their imagery (including his act of violent self-censorship, or – in the same work – the janitorial activity of sweeping up, or standing facing into a corner as if being ostracized) also seems subtly to pose a question as to who may be authorized to articulate themselves through art and who not.
“Polytechnics’ or ‘polys’ formed the middle rung of the U.K.’s tertiary education system until their 1992 upgrade to university status. Irrespective of the actual quality of their teaching, attendance at a poly was often taken as a marker of lower class status; and an unstable class polemic pervades 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 stereotypic 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.
*In the Artforum print version of this review, an unexpected last-minute editorial change substituted the word “many” at this point in the text. In fact, Polytechnic revisited just three works from Lux’s REWIND + PLAY selection, and in their exhibited form, all three had undergone either minor or major adaptations. The original review’s suggestion of a close identity between Polytechnic and REWIND + PLAY was inaccurate, and unintended — Rachel Withers
Polytechnic showed at Raven Row, London, UK, between September 9 – November 7 2010
Text © Rachel Withers & Artforum International Magazine, Inc. 2011. Images © Ian Bourn.