Transcript of interview with Judith Goddard: London, Feb, 2005
C.M-A: When and in what circumstances did you first begin to work with video?
J.G: It was when I went to the Royal College. I’d been working with16mm film, and they had the first video equipment that I’d come across.
C.M-A: When was that?
J.G: 1981. I was there between 81-83, in “Environmental Media”, when Peter Kardia was Head of Dept. I was attracted to video because of its reproducibility.
C.M-A: The fact that you could make copies of it easily and quickly?
J.G: Yes, and also because you could see it immediately and you could work with it directly. At that time the equipment was very heavy, so I worked mainly in interior spaces.
C.M-A: Were you working with a portable recorder, or was it literally in the TV studio?
J.G: The first video work I did was using portable equipment and taking it back to the place I was working.
C.M-A: Was this black and white, or colour?
C.M-A: So you started off working in colour.
J.G: Yes, that was one of the reasons why video was attractive to me.
C.M-A: But you weren’t particularly interested in working in B&W?
J.G: Well, I’d been working with B&W film, and when I worked with colour film, I could only afford 3 minutes of stock, and that made a fantastic difference, but I wanted to have more of it. I loved colour and I still do.
C.M-A: So the most important things for you about working with video was the instantaneity, the fact that it could be reproduced instantly, that you could copy the tape and so on. Were you editing tape as well, or were you making recordings in real time?
J.G: I was doing both from the beginning- I didn’t have the structural strictures….the first tape I made that was publicly shown was “Time Spent”, which was literally about that- it was about the time you spend in reverie. I think video is perfect for that because you can use a longer duration. It was about duration- it was about duration in that reverie sense- not in a kind of “structural” sense.
C.M-A: Not in a “concrete” sense.
J.G: Exactly. I was doing things like using an incredibly long focus- the tape was about “looking”. I come out of a background in which the materiality of film was important, and so I started thinking about video in that way- I wasn’t using film. Video had a particular quality, and there was a particular quality of colour that you could get out of it- it was emanating light- it wasn’t projected light.
C.M-A: The quality of the television screen image?
J.G: Yes, the screen has always been important to me, whether its being projected, or on a monitor. The fact that the light was coming out of the screen was always really important. I had always like painters such as Rembrandt where the light had a very particular quality, or Vermeer. It seemed a kind of Dutch thing to me in a way. I started to look at the quality of light in interior spaces quite early on. Colour and painting were always really important to me, and probably more of an influence on me than other video work that was around at the time.
C.M-A: What about other video work. Was there anything that influenced you?
J.G: That was the interesting thing. When I first began working with video I hadn’t seen much other work, because it wasn’t widely shown. It was only when I came to London that I could either “A”, use a video camera, and “B” that I could go to places like the Air Gallery or the film-makers co-op. Not that they showed much video- there was definitely a kind of snobbishness, and video was definitely perceived as a second-class medium. People looked down on video- it wasn’t really considered “proper stuff”.
C.M-A: Yes, that’s true.
J.G: And that carried on for years!! In fact, I think its still there.
C.M-A: Yes, I think you’re right, but then because we now have video projection technology that provides such good pictures, people are transferring things from film to video in order to show them.
J.G: Yes, sure…
C.M-A: Just to stay with the situation that you were in at the beginning of the 1980’s at the RCA, you have begun working with colour video, because of the qualities of the picture, because of the colours emanating from the screen, and you’ve seen a little of the work that was around, but nothing particularly struck you.
J.G: A lot of the video was black and white as well.
C.M-A: You hadn’t seen, for example any of Peter Donebauer’s work. He was at the RCA in the early 1970’s.
C.M-A: Were there other people working with video at the RCA during the time you were there?
J.G: There were, but a lot of them were working in the way that you touched on earlier- in opposition to television. There were a lot of people making political work, feminist work. I felt like an outsider because although I’d come up through the feminist route, and that was important to me, but it wasn’t really what the focus of the work. I had more in common with artists like Holly Warburton or Cerith Wyn-Evans.
C.M-A: Did your film work influence what you tried to do with video?
J.G: The early films I made were about rhythm, though quite visual. When I moved into colour, interestingly, the work was about painting. It was a still life, based on a Cezanne.
C.M-A: What about the fact that you’re working with time? The painterly concerns of light and colour were obviously important- but what about the temporal thing? You have talked about the duration being important in relation to video, breaking the three-minute threshold. What about the fact that you had to think about orchestrating things across time?
J.G: Well that was, and still is fascinating. But going back to the 16mm still life film, it animates the objects from the still life painting. So it’s playing with the idea that it’s a still life that’s not still, and it’s very much about being aware of the picture frame.
C.M-A: What about the sound?
J.G: A lot of my sound is quite ambient. It’s about locating the image in some way- where the image is in relation to the screen or the space, and I’ve also used it emotively, quite consciously
C.M-A: You’ve said that you used video in relation to other media rather than exclusively- could say a little more about that?
J.G: Video has the advantage of sound an image together with the durational aspect. One of the things that I’ve talked a lot about in the past is my interest in visual narrative, and when I started working with video I was looking for models and I looked at a lot of medieval art, which is still a love of mine. This was an art from a culture that was not literate, and was developed before the printing press. I felt that video was rather suited to that kind of approach. I’m currently working on something that uses language, literally telling stories, but within my framework.
C.M-A: Many people have observed that video is much better at detail, at intimacy than for example, landscape, or large-scale subjects. Even if its projected, the problem is that it doesn’t resolve expansive images- but its very good in close-up. Images of talking heads- that sort of thing.
J.G: I think with the early work it was something that I did because I was fascinated by macro shots. I did use that a lot. Especially in the first piece, “Time Spent’, I was looking at a lot of close-up images and I was editing them so that I took away the normal reference points. The viewer had to experience the image in close-up. It’s something I’ve used on and off, and it does still interest me.
C. M-A: Is the feminist context or agenda relevant to your work?
J.G: It was a question that I used to get asked a lot 20 years ago!
C.M-A: Remember that I’m writing historically.
J.G: I remember getting criticised because I wasn’t making feminist work in the early days.
C.M-A: So if you were a woman it was somehow assumed that you had to make feminist work?
J.G: There was a kind of pressure.
C.M-A: Did that kind of attitude make you react against it?
J.G: No, because I saw myself as a feminist. It was political with a small ‘p”. It just wasn’t leading the work. The work was lead by other interests such as visual narrative, duration, close-up, and the influence of painting. I was interested in working with things that perhaps men weren’t so interested in working with.
C.M-A: For example?
J.G: Well, I think interiority for example, which wasn’t seen as being appropriate subject matter. People were interested in the oppositional practice, whereas my first work used the kitchen table as the main location of the mis-en-scene.
C.M-A: So there was a deliberate focus on the domestic space?
J.G: Yes. I saw that as kind of political, but it wasn’t seen as being important at the time.
C.M-A: Does you mean that your work was sidelined in a way that you weren’t happy about?
J.G: No, I think I was probably an outsider when I initially started with video, and I think that position is part of my character in a way, because even when my work was supported, I was always slightly outside of whatever the mainstream was, and that does seem to be my place. One of the things that’s interesting about all the work is the place of either the artist or where the action is happening is part of the work. This is very important. Also I think that the distance between the camera and the subject is important.
C.M-A: One thing that Cate Elwes, for example, talks about her approach in her early work is this idea of the “female gaze”- the idea that the spectator might become aware of the woman behind the camera. Was there a sense in your mind when you were making these early pieces that people would become aware, either because of something in the tape, or in the approach to the work, that it was the work of a woman.
J.G: In a few of the early tapes I actually use an image of myself, and I think a part of those early works which is a kind of self-portraiture. So there’s an exploration of the self and there’s an exploration of the projection of the image of the self. There is a point at which I stopped using an image of myself- about 1984, so I only used an image of myself for a few years in my work. I stopped doing it because I thought I was actually making myself too vulnerable- because of the way I was using myself. There are other artists who use themselves in their work all the time and its nothing to do with vulnerability. But I felt that I was exposing something. I think from then on I probably coded what that was about.
C.M-A: We talked about the influence from painting. Were there any critics or writers or theorists who influenced you?
J.G: It’s an interesting question. I went to Reading University to do my fine art degree and had a very good art historical background, but it wasn’t in critical theory at all. We did have people like Caroline Tisdal, who lectured about Beuys, and we had Neil McGregor, (Spelling??) teaching there, and they were fantastic. There was also Petrie (?) on Hawksmoor.
C.M-A: Right! So you had a really strong background in the almost classical art historical training.
J.G: Yes, which I really appreciate, and perhaps it shows in my work.
C.M-A: I think it does.
J.G: I love Hawksmoor. I love Joseph Beuys, and Neil McGregor was a very inspiring teacher. So that was the kind of background that I had, rather than critical theory. I did read a bit of Merleau-Ponty and some Bachelard, and some of the other things that were around at the time. This was all part of a base that was art-historical rather than oriented towards critical theory.
C.M-A: Yes, and when you read Merleau-Ponty, he’s theorising about art from the position of the painter. You were in Environmental Media at the RCA, as opposed to the film school…
J.G: I actually attached myself to the film school, quite early on. I discovered that they had these ex-BBC TV studio cameras, and two-inch tape, and I began working with video using A & B rolls and mixing. I think I was the only person from Environmental Media who did that. It meant that you had to get on with the technicians! So I had a route into that place and was doing things that people said were very “painterly”- it was very much to do with the image and what you could do, and what an artist was.
C.M-A: So you superimposed those things onto the technology that you could access. You weren’t fazed by the technology the way some people were.
J.G: I loved it!
C.M-A: So you were quite comfortable with 2-inch machines, studio TV cameras and “A/B rolls”?
J.G: As long as there were technicians in control of the machines. My job was to get along with the technicians to enable me to get what I wanted.
C.M-A: That’s unusual I think. Not just amongst women- I don’t want to put people into compartments- I think lots of men are the same about it- they don’t want to get too bogged down in the technology.
J.G: I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t like to think that the work will become dated by the technology. Sometimes of course it is, because I suppose it is of its time. But I think there’s a difference being of its time and dated by the technology, and it’s an important difference. The other thing that I’m interested in and I always was interested in was the idea of the contemporary. So although I have an absolute love of art history and of painting and cinema, I’ve always believed that there was no point in doing something that was about a century out of date. To me one of the exciting things about that technology was that it was contemporary- that it was “now”. It meant that I could be working with something that in my mind was influenced by mediaeval painting, but I was doing it with 20th Century technology and I was always interested in making connections in all sorts of ways.
C.M-A: So did you want the work to have a certain kind of “look”?
J.G: There was a kind of luminescence that I saw in video which was again to do with the TV screen that I always associated, rather romantically, with stained glass. One of my earliest aesthetic experiences was sitting in a freezing Norman church at the age of ten, seeing the light coming through a stained glass window.
C.M-A: That’s interesting. Film-makers like Brakhage….
J.G: I didn’t have enough access to Brakhage. I didn’t see any of that when I was at Reading. I didn’t see any of his work until I came to London. But he didn’t make his colour work till a lot later did he/
C.M-A: The direct painting on to film, yes, but I was thinking about some of his earlier stuff in which he is celebrating light. “Window Water Baby Moving”, “Dog Star Man”…
J.G: Yes, I saw that at the film co-op. But I didn’t see that until I was at the RCA. But I didn’t see any of that kind of work till I was on post-grad. I also loved Kenneth Anger, and Derek Jarman, as well. I felt more of an affinity to those who had rather a camp aesthetic- but it was a very visual aesthetic.
C.M-A: The New Romantic approach. Which I guess had come through Anger, I suppose, amongst others.
J.G: I’m still a big Anger fan…the over-the-top use of sound. It was such a refreshing thing to hear somebody using….
C.M-A: All that pop music!
J.G: And the classical music- Vivaldi in “Eaux d’artifice” for example, which I have a real soft spot for. It’s completely over the top, which I think is kind of necessary sometimes.
C.M-A: And playful…Let me go on to ask you about installations. How would you characterise the difference between making installations and the screen-based durational work we have been discussing so far?
J.G: The first piece that I made that wasn’t single screen was Celestial light and Monstrous Races which came out of a fantastic book that I haven’t seen for years called “Mediaeval Art and Literature and Monstrous Races” which had images of Cyclops and all sorts of fantastic creatures that came from the mediaeval lexicon of “the other” that fear that people had. In “Celestial Light”- the quote at the beginning of the tape comes from Milton. That tape was multi screen rather than installation.
C.M-A: How many screens was that?
C.M-A: So you were quite ambitious- you went from single screen to six.
J.G: Well there were several reasons for moving to more than one screen. One was quite pragmatic. I didn’t like the festival circuit, I didn’t feel I fitted in, and in those days the festivals were mainly film screens with video as a bit of a sideline, and it couldn’t compete with film because it didn’t have the same photographic quality, so from about 1984 onwards I saw myself as locating my work in a gallery context. This was a problem because most galleries didn’t want to screen single screen work and so I started thinking about the monitor in a sculptural sense, or about repetition of an image that was taking up space, even though I didn’t have access to equipment that would allow me to synchronise the tapes. I was using repetition so I was editing with the knowledge that a particular movement would repeat over a number of monitors and you would get that kind of “rush” across the monitors. Sometimes it would work better than others- it was a limited way of working when compared with actually synching up a sequence, but when it worked the images would travel across the screens. It was the first time I began to think about the possibility of the image leaving the screen in some sense- or at least appearing to leave the screen and move across onto other screens. The movement wasn’t just contained within one rectangle, it was moving across a sequence of rectangles. This was very much to do with wanting to locate within the physical space. I didn’t want people to have to sit down in a kind of cinema. So it was a combination of not wanting to be in the context of film because it was doing something different.
C.M-A: It was about scale.
J.G: Yes. The audience wasn’t fixed to one viewing position, or one duration either. I was working with quite short durations and was quite happy for somebody to watch the work twice. This was more important than sitting through a 15 minute section of something.
C.M-A: Did the work have a beginning and end or could you come in at any point and leave at any point?
J.G: Most of the work at that point had a beginning and end, but it was also cyclical, and I was quite interested in the idea of cycles Things did have a beginning a middle and an end, but they weren’t completely story bound.
C.M-A: How was that different from “Expanded Cinema”?
J.G: Well, the first time I’d seen any expanded cinema was at the Hayward show.
C.M-A: “Film as Film”- 1979.
J.G: Yeah. That was the first time I’d seen film laid out in that way, and I did really like “Shore Line” (Welsby)
C.M-A: So did you consciously adopt those kinds ideas into video? Was that kind of work an influence?
J.G: I don’t think it was. The fantastic thing that Welsby did was to make one landscape; I couldn’t really do that at the time because of not having a synching device. I did that later, but I didn’t do it in that very early work because it just wasn’t possible. Also I think there was something about the monitor and the frame. It is a sculptural object as well, as everybody always talks about, so I was and still am very conscious of the frame in everything I do. I sometimes give talks “My work in Relation to the Frame”, or “The Frame and the Space”. I talk a lot about the screen space. I’m interested in the screen and perspective, and screen space, and that does have a relationship- although it was less conscious when I was working on those early things- but the box was a container and a frame. So I was always conscious that I was breaking away from the frame, although not able to do the sort of thing that Chris Welsby did in “Shore Line” because he didn’t have a frame, and I did- and I was very conscious of that. So I was deliberately doing things to break through the frame, like “Descry”, which was the first piece that I think really worked, because I had a proper synch.
C.M-A: Well let’s come on to “Television Circle”. Was that the first time that you’d made a sculptural installation, as opposed to a multi screen piece?
J.G: “Television Circle” was ’87. The project was a TWSA 3D commission, set up by Television South West, and James Lingwood. It was an open submission for site-specific works. I had had a conversation with James Lingwood at an opening at Matt’s Gallery and he asked me if I’d put in an application, and I said “no”- because the only site that interested me was on Dartmoor, and there are no plugs on Dartmoor. I thought about it and decided that I shouldn’t let that stop me, that I could get a generator and put something in the forest.
C.M-A: Could you talk about some of the issues relating to setting up an outdoor video piece?
J.G: I put a proposal in for a piece that was going to use a generator. They loved the idea which was to put a circle of 7 monitors in this forest in Dartmoor, and we went through the logistics of the generator and the petrol and all that sort of stuff. I made a trip down there to look at the site. Originally I thought it would be great to have the monitors actually out on the tor, but because of the brightness levels I though it would be better to have them in the forest. I found a site n the forest where there was enough of a clearing to site the monitors. It was quite near to a stone circle- the whole place is littered with stone circles, and also very near a stream. Because it was such a long trip to Dartmoor, I went to Stanfords (Covent Garden Map shop) and bought an OS map of the area and saw that there were all these features. I love maps anyway. It’s another way of dealing with space. I looked at all these stone circles and the stream, and I pretty much found my site from the map. When I went to see it was just right! It also turned out to be 300 metres from a Forestry Commission hut that had an electric spur in it. They asked me if I could use that as my power source. We had some health and safety discussions and I was told that if I used 16mm armoured cable, I could use the electricity supply from the hut.
It was an amazing project to work on. I think being young and naive probably helped, because I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for. I had incredible backup from the people working at TV south west. I also had support from the Forestry Commission, who laid the cable, the electricity board come and put a junction box on a tree. TV south west arranged all of this. Meanwhile I was up in London making a tape to be installed in the circle, and I also designed 7 steel boxes to support and contain the monitors. They had to be weatherproof, vandal proof, and they were made of 3mm mild steel in the East End. I went to visit Toshiba who had agreed to sponsor it. They a factory in Plymouth, probably still do, the production director was very helpful, and gave me the dimensions of the monitors, and I had the boxes built to a scale that was appropriate to the monitor. The boxes had “lexan” (spelling??) screens, which is the material that they make riot shields with- which was very expensive, but it worked. So I took all these boxes down in a van, put it all together on site.
C.M-A: Were the video players in the boxes too?
J.G: This was in the pre-synch days, so I only used one VHS player. It was the top of the range Toshiba of its time. At this time they players did not have auto repeat programme, but the production director had the player altered so it would. He was an enthusiast who knew the insides of his machines, so I was really lucky.
Not only did I have to site the boxes, but I had to make concrete bases. We had top dig big holes in the soil, and a trench to put in the waterproof tubing for the cables. It was pouring with rain whilst we were doing this, and we were working against deadlines, and it was quite something. But at the end of the day, it was actually incredibly successful, because it worked. There were a few things. For example there was a big storm and the power went out at one point. But it was on for 6 weeks and it could have run for a lot longer.
C.M-A: So the video player didn’t suffer from the damp?
J.G: I put great wadges of silica gel in the boxes. The boxes were also sealed with silicone, so they were all dry. Nobody could quite believe it, but it ran for 6 weeks continuously, nobody vandalised anything. I did have spare copies of the tape, but in the end the tape kept running, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
C.M-A: I’m surprised that it didn’t get vandalised.
J.G: That was incredible. But then I don’t know, it was in the middle of nowhere- you would have to have gone out intentionally to vandalise it. I think that people found it quite amusing. It was in a very beautiful part of the country, and some of the reactions of people who didn’t expect to come across any contemporary art in the middle of the forest. TV South West interviewed people who said that it was a bit like putting a motorway in the middle of the forest, but then other people thought it was wonderful to come across. This was 1987 when people really hadn’t been exposed to video within an art context at all. One of the things that was interesting for me was the haunting quality of the soundtrack, which could be heard from a distance before you saw the work, and there was this slightly other worldly quality of it that really fitted. Then you’d come across this TV circle, instead of a stone circle. There lots of layers to the work, but it was a kind of memorial. I think that was one of the reasons why people didn’t touch it- there was a kind of respect that it seemed to command. At one point I came to see it and found people having a picnic in the middle of it. Perhaps it was the comfort of television or something- it took them back into the domestic.
C.M-A: How big was the circle?
J.G: (Judith, could you write an approx distance in here??) In terms of its placing- there was something intimate but at the same time there was enough distance to view each screen. This was partly because there was one tree that had been chopped down. There was a natural clearing that used the space of the tree that wasn’t there any more.
C.M-A: Was there ever any opportunity to make it permanent?
J.G: No, I think the Forestry Commission thought it was fine for that period of time, but I think there would have been health and Safety issues if it had carried on longer term.
C.M-A: Have you ever considered doing something more permanent?
JG: I wanted to do something in Brixton, South London, where I was living. I wanted to do one monitor, in the middle of Brixton, and have a looped image of a diamond going around- a bit like those ones you see in Jewellers windows, but of course nobody ever gave me the money to do it, and everybody thought it was ridiculous to try to do something like that in Brixton. I think we had just had the last riot.
C.M-A: What about the broadcast context. Is this of any relevance to you as an artist? Did you make work that either reacted to that context or challenged it?
J.G: I did one work that was made directly in relation to television. It used a bit of that “Paint along with Nancy” programme. Its not my favourite tape.
C.M-A: What was it called?
J.G: “Go to Your Fridge”, which is a quote from something she said in the programme. It was on daytime TV at the time and it combined my interest in painting and television. My original idea was to use the duration of the TV programme, which was I think about 20 mins. I planned to use that as the framework and I was going to make interventions, which I did pretty much, but I deviated. My interventions used the medium. I used the introductory music and the end credits, but in between her painting with a palette knife, which is pretty kitsch and quite trite, there are shots of the Royal College TV studio, where I made it. I mixed images of a bowl of still life from two cameras. I mixed images of Cerith Wyn-Evans drawing an orange of the image of a real orange. There were also deliberately psychedelic mixed images of lemons and oranges, pinks and greens and blues and yellows. It was really over the top. I mixed all this into this painting programme. For me it was flawed right from the beginning. I had a terrible time editing it- I hated editing it, partly because I hated her. I had a real battle with her in terms of TV presence which I think she won actually. I decided that I couldn’t really compete in that way. I would never try to do anything like that again. It makes me cringe, but its got some great bits in it. I’m not in the business of re-editing old work that’s been in the public arena, but if I was, I’d reduce it to about 4 minutes.
C.M-A: So you were very conscious of the relationship between television, art and the medium that you had chosen to work with. I know that you have made a piece using the Quantel “Paint-box”.
J.G: That was much later. But can I just mention two other things. Because I did actually 2 two commissions for television- one was “Luminous Portrait” which was a one-minute piece, in about 1989, for BBC 2, which drew on my interest in the Medieval again, which used a portrait that I’d seen in the Musee des Beaux -Arts in Brussels. The painting was part of an alter piece- a triptych. I used the image of a student of mine, whose face fitted. This was the first time I’d used “paint-box”, which was quite early-ish in its development. I made that in Dundee, with Steve Partridge operating. It’s a playful piece- to me, the “paint-box’ is well described- it was quite a playful tool. There was something quite childlike about what I did with it, and yet it had a momento-mori skull, and a dismantling of an East-End landscape- Garden street was completely derelict, not a garden in site. I was interested in trying to encapsulate quite a complex narrative through time, though history, through tradition- breaking with the conventions.
C.M-A: When you were making it, did you know ahead of time what you would be able to do with the paint-box?
J.G: I knew exactly what I was going to do, and did it. I didn’t know what the paint-box could do, but I guessed that it could do it. I did know a certain amount, and I don’t think it was that complicated. Maybe there was more that I could have done.
C.M-A: Would you have made it differently had it not been made for TV?
J.G: One of the things that did interest me, (although this doesn’t quite answer the question in a straight kind of way) was that I was making something that was only going to last a minute. I thought for a long time about the way that I was going to construct it, by watching adverts and seeing how many cuts were in an advert. The biggest influence on me was the time slot that I had been given, and how much you could do within the time- how much can be condensed into a minute.
C.M-A: It’s back to the 3-minute colour film roll that you mentioned at the beginning.
J.G: Kind of…I always hope that there is a kind of economy in my work, but it was interesting for me because I was thinking about the time scale, of the bits “in between” television. I looked at the slots that make up regular television, and thought about my one minute very much in relation to advertising. I think they only showed it once or twice on the BBC, but ZDF in Germany bought it several times on its own, separate from the other commissions- and broadcast it, but I don’t know what they did with it- you never see that.
C.M-A: When you were making it did you think much about the fact that you were working for a different kind of audience to, say, the gallery audience of your video installation work?
J.G: No, I had gone back into the theme of the medieval- the waning of the middle ages. It was quite early a decade before the new millennium, and I was living in a very derelict part of East London at the time in a house that was semi-derelict and the house next door had fallen down, and there was a tower block overhead. “The Waning of the Middle Ages” seemed like an appropriate book to be reading. The tape does have some of that in it- the construction out of dereliction- the taking apart and the building back up.
C.M-A: So the themes in that piece are a continuation of the themes in previous work. It was as if you had suddenly jumped to another approach because it was for broadcast.
J.G: I’m probably rather single-minded in that way. As with earlier work, the frame was important, the renaissance perspective is not there, although it on a TV screen I use a mediaeval perspective. There is a frame behind the figure in the foreground and the action that takes place beyond- the clouds moving, or the car going past is in layers, which I thought would probably suit the paint-box, and this in turn fitted the medieval stepping of physical space rather than perspective.
C.M-A: So is that the first time you’d worked digitally?
J.G: Yes. It’s a collage. I’ve been making collages since I was tiny. I think of collage of the making of a world within a frame.
C.M-A: This framing of things is really important to the way you think and the way you work with video and I can see that there’s a specific idea about video and the kind of frame that it gives you, which as you say parallels your interest in medieval painting of story-telling and its also particular to the way you use the TV screen. Not so much as an object, but a particular kind of frame, and the availability of that frame in all sorts of contexts.
J.G: for me having “The Garden of Early Delights” as part of a collage show was the perfect context. That’s where I don’t feel like a video person- it is absolutely using the medium, but it is about collage.
C.M-A: Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik worked in collage, and John Handhart argues that their first video works are colleges. There is a strong link between that approach and the sort of thing that Paik was doing- such as “Merce-by-Merce-by Paik”, where he builds up layers of imaging using chroma-key, luminance keying, etc.- the stuff he did at WGBH Television workshop. So I think its true to say that there is something about collage and video art which is very significant.
This of course extends to the influence of Fluxus which as a movement, included collage and live events, and includes sound collage too.
J.G: Most of my soundtracks are collage. I can’t think of one that isn’t.
C.M-A: What kind of work are you making now, and how does it compare to the earlier work?
J.G: Well, that’s a big jump! After I made “The Garden of Early Delights”, which was kind of a special piece for me, I wanted to do something quite different. It is a really complicated piece to talk about. I did “Descry” after that because I wanted to go back out into the physical space. I went back into the gallery and was editing across the frame, which I think was partly in reaction to having done these pieces that were so contained.
C.M-A: Because the layers were imaginary layers inside a single frame-
J.G: The colour bled into the room. There was a white carpet in a white room- it was a reference to Keats’ complaint about scientific ideas destroying the rainbow. In that piece I was thinking quite consciously about Newton and optics, which relates to your questions about the relationship with technology. I wanted to make a rainbow which was generated from the computer- I was generating my idea of red, orange, yellow, green, indigo, blue, violet. The mantra is the Japanese song: sacaro, sacaro (spelling??) which is almost their national anthem- it’s actually a naturalist national anthem about viewing the Cherry blossoms in the full moon. So there’s this terribly romantic connection to nature that the Japanese have- this is my layering. All the technology I was using was Japanese. I was thinking about the relationship of all this to my Western tradition, coming out of the Age of Enlightenment, from Newton, and out of the Romantic tradition as embodied by Keats. So far me there was this interest in the complicated relationship between nature and technology and urbanism.
C.M-A: You’re building layers of ideas here, as well as layers of images.
J.G: Yes, it was a bit of both, there’s one shot in which a fish appears to swim into the centre. There’s a very famous problem housing block that in the bottom of that shot which at the Elephant and Castle (I took my life into my hands when I went and got that shot alone one night!) and then fish sequence comes from the London Aquarium. But you’re right, I think that’s a pretty fair observation in a way- the layers are not all apparent. They are there for me and that’s what constructed that piece. In some sense you can read it and just appreciate the colour and the relationship of the technology.
C.M-A: I think that’s the thing about a dense work like that. There are lots of layers that you can encounter it on, but in many ways people don’t get past the first few layers- the physicality and so on, to the other layers.
J.G: I’ve been criticised for this sometimes. For me all of my work is heavily layered, or coded sometimes, and I’ve never minded that people will only get some of it.
C.M-A: Well, its there if people want to dig. I wanted to throw this thing in about Newton seeing himself first and foremost as an alchemist. I was thinking about the paradoxical aspect of that. We have him dissecting the rainbow- taking way the mystery of it, when in fact he was tackling some the most weird, the most mysterious and esoteric ideas.
J.G: Absolutely! Well, the mysterious and esoteric has always been a line through my work. It’s been a part of the work however banal- there’s always something else going on beyond it. To briefly go on to the next piece, because it does connect, when I made “Reservoir” I had a Windhurst Generator made to my specifications. This interest in electricity goes back to the images in the tape I made for “Television Circle”, which is called “Electron”. Because form me, it was the stuff that made up television. Electrons are what makes up the image. This connects to the view I have of the world as being pretty magical. It is an amazing thing that there is an electron which can make this incredible image. There are two other things- one is the relationship to language- the extra-ordinary power of language and poetic as well. I looked at the definition of electron and electricity and then went into the physics a bit.
C.M-A: There was an interesting programme on Radio 4 on In Our Time about electricity- apparently the original term for electricity was “electrickery”….
J.G: Really? Well of course the word Electron comes from the Greek for amber. Which is why I was using images of amber. You rub it together and you get a spark of electricity. So for me there was not only that, but also the thing about Electra, and myths are a very important part of my work and code pretty much everything that I do. The myth of Electra was very much in the background, so I won’t go into that now. The tape has lots of literal connections in terms of lots of parallels.
C.M-A: Were you able to make things like the cables in the ground in the installation apparent?
J.G: No, because of health and safety it had to be concealed. For me that was perfect in a way to tap into the national grid. That’s something they get me saying in the documentary. In the end that was much more satisfying than it would have been to have had a generator with petrol and hay bales and all that sort of thing.
To go back to “Reservoir”, the installation in which I used the windhurst generator, they were used by Newton’s followers to demonstrate the existence of God, which I thought was fantastic! So that’s why I used it in my work- because it was all about creativity, about the making of the spark of life. So in one half of “Reservoir” there is the windhust generator in a plinth, and there was also a video camera inside facing upwards, and when someone crossed a beam breaker this triggered the windhurst generator, generating a spark that went across the screen. In the second room, there were three tiny monitors with an image of a heartbeat going from one side to the other. On the other screen there were images of a gender re-assignment operation. There was also a steel tray with three drips, lit with a strobe light triggered by the spectator, which caused the drips to appear to travel upwards.
C.M-A: It sounds very complicated!
J.G: It was perhaps too complicated- it was ambitious. But I had moved into a period of working with installation as opposed to single screen., very much working within the physical space. A piece like “Reservoir” actually requires the viewer to complete the work- the work didn’t exist unless there was a viewer in the space. I have never really seen it as “interactive”, but of course on some levels it is. Although it exists without the viewer, but something happens when the viewer is there, that doesn’t happen unless the viewer is in the space. So there was a period of working where the image became less pictorial- the work became de-materialised, and that came from this business of working with the matter, but always in the background there is, for me, a coded mythology that the work is built around.
C.M-A: It is interesting how the image can become secondary in that way in the work of someone who is inspired by the pictorial.
J.G: Yes, well now, the work has gone back the other way, and I’m working much more within the pictorial again. I did a series of works around American landscape. I did a big road trip in America in 1999, so there is a whole series of works connected with the desert landscape, and to me that was very interesting in terms of space again, and the frame, and the screen.
C.M-A: Were these projection pieces, or…
J.G: They are a mixture- a couple of them are projection pieces, one of them is made specifically for screens. At the moment I’m working on something that uses landscape as a framing device, but it is actually using letters- a particular correspondence. So I’ve been working with this desert landscapes, and I’ve been working with text on the screen. Text has an interesting potential in that it can sit on surface of the screen, or you can get it to sit within the screen when you are using perspective- I suppose it is a kind of layering device again, and it is also working linguistically as well.
C.M-A: There is a sense of the possibility of building a visual vocabulary. It is getting to the point where it is possible to begin to articulate a visual language of the moving image.
J.G: There has probably always been a language of the moving image, but people are more conscious, not only of film language, but of avant-garde film language. The idea of the conceptual framework is not pretty much part of the accepted canon isn’t it?
C.M-A: It does seem to be. You can make cultural references within the frame and they can be understood- they are all around us now…But anyway, you are using written texts in your current work. Is Gary Hill relevant here? I was thinking about for example, “Happenstance”, which is referencing the text in Blanchot’s book.
J.G: No, absolutely irrelevant! No, it’s not Blanchot- it really isn’t. I like Gary Hill, and “Happenstance” is a great piece of work, but mine is very different. There are two things that I’ve been doing with the text. One is using words- it’s much more sculptural, the words become much more physical within the screen space. Sometimes its poetic, but quite sparing compared with that very dense textuality that Hill uses.
The piece that I’m working on at the moment is a bit of a departure for me because the story is going to be much more evident. The correspondence that I’m using is actually about an event. Its historical but it is also completely archetypal, it draws on the archetype and something that’s within my own familiar grasp. Pictorially it will use two landscapes, and the correspondence – probably not all of it- I’ll probably edit it. It’s the nearest I’ve come to working with something that is a story. I’m not actually sure how much of a story; I’m still working on it.
C. M-A: So the image text theme is the most important theme for you at the moment.
J.G: Yes, it’s quite a departure for me in some ways.
C.M-A: Are there spoken words as well?
J.G: Not so far, but the one that I’ve just described does tell a story, and it could use spoken language.
C.M-A: This new work has a duration- a beginning, middle and End.
J.G: No, I still plan to make it cyclical, rather than having viewers watch it in a “seated sense”.
C.M-A: It’s not cinema.
J.G: No, I think if I was going to make cinema I probably would have done it twenty years ago, and I would probably use some of the more conventional methods- I would use dramatic narrative- I should imagine.