David Hall

Transcript of Interview with David Hall, Great Chart, Kent: 30/8/2000.

C.M-A: Your move away from sculpture towards video seems a political move? Was it as clear as that?

D.H: I think it was even clearer! In working with sculpture I began to get, well, this is the irony now because I think that the showing of art has come full circle through a whole period of virtual revolution in terms of where art should be and how it should be seen and how it should be regarded. We’ve come full circle to the point where everything is very much gallery and dealer oriented. The whole experimental sense of putting art out into the world as distinct from in an insular elite gallery.

One of the principle reasons was that I got interested in using film and video, or more specifically television, was because they seemed to be the media of ‘now’. Its a very very crude analogy, but if you look at, say, the renaissance, and the renaissance work, a lot of that art had meaning because of the context which it was in. It wasn’t just painted to be in a salon, in some kind esoteric or private elitist scene. It was actually put into a context which had great significance to people at the time, which was say, the Church.

C.M-A: It had a social function.

D.H: Yeah. In my book what was happening with art since the mid- nineteenth century was that it was becoming, although very exciting in many respects in what it was trying to do, it was very much kind of closeted. It was annexed- it had less and less social relevance in many respects. Things like radio and cinema, and latterly television were really the things that people looked at. And so I became more and more frustrated. For example. I did a show in about 1968 at a place called the Royal Institute Gallery, opposite the Royal Academy, which is now defunct. It was a very big space, and I did these gigantic floor pieces between ’66 and Jan 68. which were about 20-30 ft across. The significant thing about this show for me was this one guy who was the doorman who said to me ” I like the way these things affect the floor.” He got something out of them which was noting to do with the kind of art critical ambience of the time. He actually got an immediate perceptual reaction which seemed to me to cut very deep. It had a kind if significance for him that other ‘modern art’ hadn’t had. I thought that on the whole art had very little social significance and was really kept in its sort of annex. It was just for the initiated.

D.H: I wanted to try and push outside of that, and it seemed to me that using film. i.e. like cinema, and using video, like television, or better still on television, seemed to me to be a much more appropriate place to be as an artist. That is really simply what happened. I worked with film for a couple of years and then I think the big thing was doing those films for Scottish Television. By this time, there was this feeling around among other people that work ought to be positioned outside of the gallery confine in a more relevant sense to the world. This guy called Alistair Macintosh was a curator at the Scottish Arts Council and they wanted to do this show for the ’71 Edinburgh Festival whereby artists were invited to do things anywhere but in a gallery. They did things in shop windows, hanging in the street, or whatever. They asked me what I wanted to do, and with no knowledge of what anyone else had done. This is another thing. One is always referred across: “so and so did something six months earlier in Germany”. I wasn’t aware of any of that- I was a sculptor, I was doing these things, I was doing a bit of film and it occurred to me that TV would really be the ultimate place ’cause everybody had a TV, and thats what they were keen to look at- they weren’t keen to go to a gallery. Some people went to galleries, but everybody looked at television, and this was significant.

C.M-A: So you weren’t looking at television as if it were a special kind of space. You know, a kind of forerunner of ‘virtual space’. I’m thinking about McLuhun, were any of his ideas important? When I look at some of the stuff you wrote in the early days when you were trying to define ‘Video art’ as opposed to ‘artist’s video’, they sound quite like they’ve come through from a Mcluhanesque notion about television- you know, that idea of television as ‘tactile’..

D.H: Well, yeah, I was kind of aware of it. But I think any thoughts had grown out of my thinking about sculpture, or about working as an artist, and the placing of it. Its to do with position- audience. This idea about the artists who bang on about “I don’t care about the world and an audience, I just want to do my thing”- I just don’t believe it. It seemed to me that whatever you are doing you’re trying to communicate something, and you want to communicate as widely as possible. You don’t want constrictions of any set of circumstances which in a way a gallery, or a dealer prescribes. There’s all sorts of prescriptions that go on- always have done. By moving into a realm that is less specific (its very specific in its own right- i.e. television programming and so on) but to take art into it where it hadn’t been before.

D.H: They were not prepared for it, or there was no kind of status-quo, no kind of expectation, no sort of prescription. To just inject- intervene seemed to me great because you weren’t working with any set of expectations. In fact, you were opposing expectations in the viewing of it. But in terms of the programmers and so on it was just fate, really. The guy we found in Scottish television, had no idea what I was going to do, he just accepted it. There wasn’t the kind of contextual definition that there is, however open-ended the gallery people say they are about what goes on in a gallery. In fact I think there are tremendous prescriptions at work, whether consciously or not.

To inject something into television was certainly an alien thing for art, certainly then, and it seemed to me to be really great. The pieces just appeared unannounced, they weren’t contextualised either, within an arts context. There had been, of course, arts features. Television was always treating art as a subject from outside. Art was outside, like gardening was outside. People’s problems, or politics. They were brought in, documented and shown as television. But the idea that art could actually be television, could actually start to question the values which they used to depict external things to themselves- they hadn’t encountered, they hadn’t had to consider. So in a way this raised questions I think, about that. I think it was, and still is crucial, really. I think that the idea of any context being kind of finite or enclosed through institutional or other organised decision making, however subconsciously. It seems to me that art has got to have a crack at that. I think that is crucial to what art is about.

What I’m trying to say is that its gone backwards now. Because what it does, no matter how ‘disgusting’ and difficult’ or whatever, (and of course art has always tried to do that- and we’ve got a whole spate of that now) that’s fine, but its carefully contained within a context- an atmosphere from which you can endlessly have complaints from the outside, but its always knowing that its within it’s capsule- whether its the Tate Modern, or Joe Blogg’s gallery down the road- its still contained. The idea that work has escaped or got out of control, got into the ‘system’ or other systems which weren’t normally devised to carry those sorts of ideas seems to me to be much more exciting. That seems to be lost- its not possible, now. The doors are closing for all sorts of reasons Whether its a ‘dumbing down’ or not people have caught on that these artists are up to something.

C.M-A: Television has become just another frame.

D.H: Yes, but its also that the doors are closed. There was an opportunity for a kind of experimentation. First of all there was a kind of unknowing, ‘have-a-go’ thing in the very early days. The TV controller at Scottish TV didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t talk about ‘experimental video’ or anything. I just said “look I’m an artist and I want to do these little things”. He’d got a bit of space, because he was a bit short of commercial time, and showed it. There wasn’t any grand intellectual discussion about what this was going to do if it appeared. What did happen when it appeared was rather interesting in some cases where I was able to see the reaction. But that was the beginning and end of it. Subsequently there have then been things which have been contained within the context of an arts documentary. Even when we did this thing in ’76 (Arena: Art & Design) The producer said, “look we need to do this programme- stuff needs to be seen”. I said yes, I’ll do a piece, but at least I want it to open the show with no credits or anything. We did half the Richard Baker thing so at least there was an element of surprise at the start of that. But since then -Wyver and others, Anna Ridley, etc., have done things on Channel 4, which have, on the whole, been contained within an arts feature context, so that you go to it rather like you go to a gallery. You say: “What’s on? Ah, I’m into that , I’ll watch that. Joe Bloggs will watch the football instead. With my interventions of ’71 these could have been interrupting the football as much as they could have been on an arts feature. That is a critical difference. Now, as far as I can see, even well-contextualised documentation are few and far between.

C.M-A: How did This is a Television Monitor (1974) evolve, and what are the principle differences between it and This is a Television Receiver (1976) ?

D.H: Receiver was a replication of the Monitor piece for television. When I did Monitor, I had no knowledge that two years later I would have the opportunity to do the Arena programme. There are a number of differences. One is that Monitor uses Anna Ridley as the face to camera, and is an unknown. Whereas when it came to Receiver, we used Richard Baker, who was extremely well known as a news reader. This had another degree of importance, or significance, I think.

C.M-A: It gave it considerable power.

D.H: Well yes, because, well for example my mother- forget the art elite- was absolutely distraught when she saw that piece, because she believed in Richard Baker. He was, and had been, the principal news reader. The one person for whom you could suspend all disbelief was the person reading the news. Someone well-loved and seen for so long. Then when his image began to disintegrate and he started to be critical in a sense, of television indirectly, through what he was saying, that whole deconstruction, floored her whole belief. She wasn’t involved in the intellectual argument behind it, but it was very disturbing to her that her belief in what was coming out of that box had been fragmented and destroyed. So what one was actually saying, of course, was that none of these technological devices can be given the credibility of actuality. Of course we are then into a philosophical argument about where is reality, and so on. But those kind of arguments seem to become even further removed when you get involved in those kinds of technological communication systems that we have because its moved on further from this problematic that we have anyway with existence- the ‘here and now’.

C.M-A: Is that the level at which you want the audience to engage with it?

D. H: Well I think they engage at different levels. Again, if you go to a gallery there is a kind of expectation, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going there already with an intention. The fact that you are going there already puts you into a sort of camp. You may be an avoid critic, or Joe Bloggs, but either way there has to be some motivation to go. With these things coming out of the TV set there’s no motivation to watch them- there may be a motivation to watch television. So instantly they produce varying levels of problematic that seemed again to be much more intriguing. No one went to these works purposely to get any kind of experience.

C.M-A: Watching TV is a passive occupation, going to a gallery is a very active mode of looking. A TV is just “on”. One’s expectations, or even the level of engagement that one is prepared to put into it is different.

D.H. The fact is that the TV is in your home. Its in your context. You are not going to its context. You are not going there to engage in the parameters, when a television is on, in the home, you don’t expect it to be intrusive, it is part of the mould of the place.

C.M-A: You went from making sculptures that were physical things, to making sculptures which were less and less physical, and then you made this jump really into making things which were totally ephemeral, and this was because you wanted to reach a different kind of audience, or you wanted to reach people in a different way. Beyond the venue, beyond how it reaches people. Is all your work since then about television?

D.H: I don’t see how it cannot be. Immediately you engage with another medium I think there are other demands and formal considerations that you can’t avoid. If I was making something in stone (and this takes us back to the old dictum of Henry Moore, or even before Brancusi, or something) this truth to materials thing. there’s a lot to be said for it in anyway. Its also to do, even more importantly, with the context in general. I think when you’re viewing current work there seems not to be much consideration for the context in which its seen. The idea now, which is retrogressive analytically, is that your visual field is now entirely confined to the screen. People walking round, chairs and walls and that kind of thing have no relevance. I can’t accept that. I think, as an artist, the context, and the way in which you regard that context, and your awareness of and the influence of that context, is very significant.

When I was a student at the Royal College in the early sixties, David Sylvester used to discuss Giacometti. Although I’ve never been induced into doing anything like what Giacometti did, I think that he was incredibly significant on what I’ve done subsequently. He was the only sculptor in the 50’s, who made work that actually prescribed its own context. If you focus on one of his sculptures as he would have focused on it when he was modelling it, what you’ll find is that the context in which its in, the background, is out of focus. It disalows you to see the room or gallery or whatever- its surroundings. The issue of context seemed to me to be critical in the making, the placement and the viewing of any work, in whatever medium you chose to use.

C.M-A: So important that it actually becomes part of the content.

D.H” Yeah. Well, not so much part of the content, but in making it there is a recognition that the context influences the reading of it.

C.M-A: So in that case what is the difference between what you were doing with video and what the ‘structuralists’ such as Gidal and Le Grice were doing with film?

D.H: I think they were talking about inside the frame. There are one or two examples of people who were doing things- objects, like McCall (Line Describing a Cone) but generally speaking…I wouldn’t want to engage too much in this discussion., but on the whole I think it wasn’t to do with what I considered the sculptural whole- the environment. What I’m arguing for is the interventionist thing within a broad social context. I don’t think the structural films are about that. I think they were querying what cinema stands for, what cinema might be, and ought to be – shouldn’t have been. That’s quite different. This is to do with intervention and not so much to do with form and structure – although that’s critical to it.

C.M-A: What were the principle differences between your intentions and/or approach with the video tapes, as opposed to the installations. You are almost describing the television intervention stuff as if it were a special kind of installation. I read an article by an American critic, who in defining what installations are, suggested that the home television viewing situation is simply a very common form of installation.

D.H: I never understood that. Mike O’Pray wrote a thing about me once, (I don’ t remember where it was published) in which he talked about these things being installations. Now, these artists who show single screen things at the Tate Modern, or wherever, talk about their ‘installation’ and all I can think is that they mean literally that the work has been installed in a space. There’s a video projector behind you and this thing on the screen in front of you and you’ve got a kind of black room with this thing in it.

I don’t think this is an installation. An installation is especially concerned with contextual issues. There were are specific contextual issues, I believe, with installation, which are not the same as with single screen work. On the other hand the single screen work, as I’ve said, are installations in as much as even watching television is an installation because the ‘installation’ is your home. But you’ve created your home for specific reasons, there a whole dialogue about the place.

C.M-A: When you made installations, were you looking back at sculptural issues from an informed position of having made tapes for the single screen?

D.H: I didn’t reintroduce the spatial issues, I think the spatial issues have to be considered simultaneously. Again, back to that little piece I wrote in the MOMA catalogue (“Signs of the Times”, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford). I think they’re synonymous. I don’t think you can say “Right! I’m gonna do this… I mean I don’t think I can- a lot of people do. I don’t think I can just make single screen or a multi-screened work- as many people do, and kind of jig-saw them together and say: “This is my installation”. I have to consider it as a total unit in whatever context or configuration it has to be. An good example is The Situation Envisaged: Rite II (1989) because it wasn’t just that it was a statement about turning a television to the wall, (which it was – partly) It wasn’t just about showing the most primitive image of the moon, made from the most primitive machine ever- John Logie Baird’s 30 line scanner. It is the fact that in doing that I also simultaneously recognised that this became a black lump which resembled the monolith in 2001 which had implications in itself. There was also this kind of aurora created which, in a away, signified something ironically about both the domination of world TV and also a beauty, in a sense. Simultaneously the monolith had a kind of unity, it had a kind of containment as well. So there were all these considerations, as I tried to say in my article, where the imagery and the nebulous electronic, ephemeral screen thing accompanied and reacted to and integrated with the sculptural totality, as distinct from what I see in a lot of recent work in which the artist puts a few monitors around, and its what’s on the monitors which concerns them. We’re supposed to ignore the fact that there’s all these boxes lying around and wires- bullshit! I walk in, I see the lot as a kind of significant integrated gestalt. I don’t see how you can not see it that way. People choose not to because fashion dictates that its OK to ignore all that stuff. But thinking in universal timeless terms I think the formal aspect is critical in an installation. This is where I have a slight problem with single screen video- that kind of floating entity, that has no real place, oddly, as distinct from stuff that is made for television, because that has a highly significant context from a social point of view, I think. To intervene, to interject into that seems to be highly significant. To make single screen works (I’ve been argued into the ground about this- but so what, this is what I feel.) I’m less enthusiastic about single screen video works, because they seem to have no place. They are peculiar hybrids. The point is when you are looking at a video tape, as far as I’m concerned, there is inevitably this influence of television on your reading of it. It’s not a pure form. But what is a pure form? Painting of course has grown out of painting- but the thing about video is that its come out of television. The reading of it is incredibly dependant upon, whether the viewer likes it or not, the phenomenology of TV.

C.M-A: Is that true even for the projected video image? Is it to do with the flow of lines and electrons?

D.H: Well, yes, if its not TV, its cinema. The dominant forms that we have grown with, and are still aware of, I think, it terms of the scale of their scale of importance in our lives, is phenomenal, when compared to art statements. So its the dominant form. (I’m not giving it any credit-it just is.) There is an awareness of that, and that awareness inevitably feeds into your reading, whether you choose it to have been out of the viewing of something on a little box or the Odeon, Leicester Square, or whatever. But that’s OK. That, in away, is why I’m interested in it. Because it is so dominant, because it is these dominant forms that are what people generally are looking at. They don’t look at art works, they look at these dominant forms. They are a way of life- they’re not even something they consider. They are critical of content, but they are not really critical of display. Thats what’s fascinating- that there is this kind of non-critical recognition.

The exciting thing is that one is in the world of dominant media. One is not compromised. I’m not discussing in any way compromising the work in that context. What I’m saying is the insertion of that work into that context seems to be what’s exciting, as distinct from making work which is going to be carefully pigeon-holed, put safely away into a gallery somewhere.

C.M-A: Or equally safely pigeon-holed into a little television slot which is about artist’s work.

D.H: Yes! Thats completely not what its about. In terms of significant interjection, there’s been very little done.

C.M-A: There are also those artists who made tapes, perhaps designed to be seen in a gallery context, perhaps intended to be distributed on cassette, or whatever, who were so keen to get them broadcast that they didn’t spare very much though about that. They didn’t consider what would happen to the work when it was shown on TV. What they would be put up against, how they would be cut about, or who would speak before them and after them, and what kind of context they would be put in.

D.H: And recently (or what I see as recently- it was probably two or three years ago, I can’t remember now)) the YBAs did some things on Channel 4- the Chapman Brothers, Hurst, Amish Kapoor. The Chapman brothers did something that could have been out of the early 70’s. White noise and things. I thought- lets have more, it’s back to where we started, but then they were on- explaining it! Each time this stuff was on, either before (which was worse), or after. There was this kind of “Don’t worry, its only art” thing.

When I did those things in ’71 I actually rang up STV and said “Don’t put a credit on”. (Which I think, was actually quite noble, because its nice to have your name on.) I didn’t want any thing. I didn’t want a title- I just wanted it to appear and go out. Because then it was truly embedded into the context of television. And out of context of what it was doing.

C.M-A: It was much more radical in a sense than what you did later.

D.H: Well, I wasn’t allowed to.

C.M-A: Was that the ideal, or was it a one-off opportunity that could never happen again?

D.H: I think it could happen again. But I think they were more guarded. The word got out. “These artists are up to something!” The protectionist thing in these institutions is phenomenal. “Send them back to the galleries”, in effect. Which is where they are now. Safe- primarily.

C.M-A: Did any of the technical developments in video affect the kind of work you made?

D.H: Well, ironically I’m not that interested in technology, in the way that, quite rightly, a lot of people are. I’m not fascinated with any specific medium. The reasons that I wanted to work with film and TV were not to do with technology, or the medium in its own right.

C.M-A: But you did write quite a lot about an attempt to look at video very specifically in relation to the meaning of the work- its signification.

D.H: Well, you see I did make some statements about the inherent properties of video, but there was a caveat. I talked about the properties of video, but also (which was forgotten) what I was implying was about the reading of video as a phenomenon- and that’s not to do with the technology at all. Its the way in which it is regarded. The language that’s involved and all the rest of it. Its not to do with the technological devices, its concerned with the politics and the phenomenon, which is missed. There’s always this accusation that I must be some video freak.

C.M-A: But you were interested in what it could do. Not for its own sake, but because it provided a kind of language that wasn’t previously available.

D.H: Well, yeah, one was looking for languages, but one would have to look. I was given a language- there was television, and what it had inherited from cinema, and radio. That seemed to me to be kind of limited. So yes, in a way one was looking for other means of construction. Which again is not really to do with the technology, it has to do with montage. Not just putting things together, its actually the objective in terms of narrative and so on. The way in which you create a kind of problematic through the juxtaposition of elements, in a way that you would never experience in conventional television. I was trying to evolve an appropriate language, but one which wasn’t simply toeing the conventional lines of narrative cinema and television. I suppose in a way that related in part to the concerns of structural-materialist film.