Sue Hall & John Hopkins

Transcript of interview with Sue Hall & John Hopkins: London, Feb 7th, 2005

Hoppy: I was running with a gang of artists who set up a thing called the Institute for Research in Art & Technology in about 1969-70 in a disused factory in Camden, We considered ourselves to be artists. I’ve got the letter head of the institute here, and these are the disciplines: Cinema, electronics cybernetics, exhibitions, music, photographics, printing, music, theatre, video, words, semiotics, the Computer Arts society, London Film-makers Co-op…

Sue: They were a bunch of intellectuals, weren’t they!

Hoppy: We were all doing stuff and took the wider view of what an artist is and in some ways pushing at the envelope in some direction- whether the aesthetic or technical or semantic- living on the edge in some way. So, if you think of yourself as an artist in that sense, the activity that you do is art, so if your doing recording which turns out later to fall into the category of documentary, in my view that would still qualify as art.

C.M-A: Well, look at what’s happening now- take for example the Tate show of Turner nominees this year- Jeremy Deller, or Kutlug Atamann- they’re documentaries.

Sue: I’ve seen some of the stuff they showed there and they are indistinguishable from documentaries such as we used to make, except that they are in colour and made with much better equipment than we used. The production values are therefore better.

C.M-A: Straight from television.

Sue: They may even have better ideas. I’m not saying they do or they don’t. that’s a different question, that I’ll leave for another time….I wonder if you know about the roots of what that grew out of? The New Arts lab as it was called. There was this seething turbulent time- I don’t know, 1965, 1966 and a bit of ’67 when a lot of Americans arrive here because of the Vietnam War. There were draft dodgers and deserters, but there were also people who found, if you like, a legitimate way to dodge the draft. There were several American psychiatrists set up over here who would write letters assigning various kinds of madness to their patients- which were no doubt perfectly true and valid- we are often all made in our own way. These rich Americans would live in communal houses in Stoke Newington and their shrinks would send out for appropriate drugs at regular intervals, and it seemed like, you know, looking at it from the outside as a spectator, rather a pleasant life-style to me. I could perfectly well understand why your average early twenties American Male would rather do that than go to Viet Nam. With these people came a sort of large social and cultural Diaspora. There were really a large number of young Americans living in London for the first time since the second-world war. In those days English popular culture- Rock and roll and that sort of culture was very heavily influenced by America. It was just starting to break out of all of that with the Mods and the Beatles, but nevertheless, the slightly older generation.

Anyway two of these Americans- Jim Haynes and Jack Henry Moore set up a place in Covent Garden called the Arts Lab- as far as I know it was the first arts lab in Europe. It was a place where every type of art occurred, but one of the things they really don’t seem to get credit for, was that they were the first people to start all night cinema in central London. They had an attic room where if you were a young woman you had to be careful not to be groped! It wasn’t always an entirely pleasant experience, because there was little control.

Hoppy: Jack More was gay as well!

Sue: On the whole, when you went there, there were more people using it as a crash pad than as a cinema at one in the morning, but you know there was theatre and all sorts of things. They were not really very technological- probably because there wasn’t any- or very little. But they lasted a couple of years and then they disappeared to Paris.

Hoppy: Jack was the other person who discovered the ‘Portapak’, about the same time as me.

Sue: You can come back to that. I just want to say one more thing about the context out of which this all came. You had the new Arts Lab- nobody had ever heard of one before- there wasn’t a definition, but if you went there to see, there was obviously stuff to do with art- mainly, though there would be a lot of “hairy unwashed”- to use the phrase of the middle class of the time. But one of the principle things that was going on at that time was something called a “happening’, which has been re-invented very recently with the arrival of the flash mob. Ok that’s the end of that.

Hoppy: I was in Italy, co-organising a culture fest- in the snow, in the mountains in the Feb of ’69 and I ran into Jim Haynes and Jack Henry Moore and Jack said to me “video’. He only had to say a couple of sentences to me and I knew what it was. I went back to England, and I went to see Sony, who were the producers, and I borrowed from them a ‘Portapak’ and the necessary equipment to playback (you couldn’t playback a tape without a mains deck) for 6 weeks, experimented with it and then I wrote them a report :

Artists themselves have shown a keen interest and an awareness that video as a medium offers a new range of expression.

That was my take on it. My view of what video was that it was a new communications medium. This was my meta programme- my overview. When sue and I started working together in late 1973, she also shared that view.

Sue: I came from Shannon and Weaver and Cybernetics. Mathematic and communication theory, none of which I claim to have fully understood. I was being a squatter, educating myself, having travelled around the world rather than gone to university, when I’d had the choice- very sensibly I feel now in my late middle age! I think that was better for me than three years at uni. would have been. I wasn’t thinking about art at all. “Art- what’s that?” – I knew what rock n’ roll was. But gradually I came to see as a kind of communications sub-set. So instead of working with photography and working with gangs of other clever but questionable people, who may or may not have been artists- some of whom certainly were., I came from a younger and more mixed milieu where art was seen largely as rock and roll and pop music.

C.M-A: It seems that there was an interdisciplinary aspect to all of this in that you both seem to have seen video as something that had the power to bring together a lot of other approaches and disciplines.

Hoppy: Yes, I think I speak for us both in saying that we saw it as a generalised tool which could be used by various people for various means. If I look at my Sony report again. I called them “use categories”: the arts, pop music, TV companies, news reportage, film-makers, local TV and other assorted stuff- an open ended set if you like. That early experience produced a proposal for a community video project which we published through the institute, and art is mentioned in it but only as one of a number of aspects. We took a general systems view of what we were doing.

C.M-A: I’m interested in your definition, we could debate that one, but we won’t. I see art as a way of thinking rather than communication per se.

Sue: That’s OK. I can encompass that within my own overview. You can say that all human disciplines are systems of thinking: art, science, technology, housework….

C.M-A: That’s an interesting one!!

Sue: They’re all ways of re-conceptualising the world in a more specific manner. One of things that most interested us was the theories that in the most general form would apply across all these areas –that’s what Hoppy was trying to say. It’s not that we rejected the validity or importance of the self-conceptual universe as it were. What we wanted to know where if there were any general rules like relativity theory.

Hoppy: The general theory of communications…

Sue: We were into this as expressed mathematically by Claude W. Shannon of Bell Labs in 1948-49 as an equation, out of which the international telephone network was constructed- the fact that you could pick up that computer now and plug it in is actually dependent on the fact that those equations work.

Hoppy: I’ve got one thing to slot into that, which is a so-called piece of research that we published identified a thing called the interface, which is a completely general concept.

CM-A: Who is “we”.

Hoppy; We called ourselves TVX.

C.M-A: Who was in the group?

Hoppy: There was a half a dozen of us. There was German friend called Till (?) a New York friend called Joe Bear, and then the next generation was Cliff Evans, Steve Herman, John Kirk, and myself, and a whole lot of other people who plugged in from time to time, contributing ideas, energy and money.

C.M-A: This was the multi-disciplinary group that you identified at the beginning. You did things as a group?

Sue: It was a sub set of IRAT, which the umbrella group that provided the charity status.

Hoppy: As an entity we had two front doors, if you like- two conceptual front doors. One was TVX- the reckless experimental group the video people. The other front door was the “Centre for Advanced TV Studies”.

C.M-A: What was the difference between these organisations?

Hoppy; The Centre for Advanced TV studies tried to make an interface with the formal world- organisations like the Institute of mass communications research, colleges, universities, the importing and selling of publications. We got a commission from the Home office to write a report about the use of video in community development, which became at the a standard work.

Sue: Because he wrote that, people said, “Oh you’re not an artist- you’re into community video”. The fact that you write a book about something doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not doing it.

C.M-A: That’s right- it’s not the only hat you can wear. People often find it difficult to accept it when individuals move between categories, it makes it hard to pin them down.

Sue: Perhaps I should say something about when we started working together. We started under the title “Graft-on”. This was taken from the name of the political word that we were squatting in was Grafton, and when it came time to fill in the forms to apply for an electricity supply, they weren’t giving it to individuals unless you put down a hefty deposit, which I didn’t have, so I turned myself into an imaginary organisation- Graft-on, which meant a sort of rip-off. So, in 1973, I’d done most of my round the world travelling and I was ready to settle down, but I didn’t know what to do, but I thought that the squatters could do with- how can I put it? Structured bureaucracy would aid their cause quite a lot…

Hoppy: When you say “their”- you really mean “our”.

Sue: Well, yeah, I’ve already said I was squatting in the same place…Hoppy was already in West Kentish town because IRAT was re-housed there by Camden Council after the first premises on Roberts street was demolished. Camden was empty out that part of north London- they had this wonderful vision of nothing but tower blocks for square mile after square mile, and they were about a fifth or a quarter of their way into emptying out the population to destroy it all and to build new London, which luckily they were never allowed to finish. We moved into this milieu in which people were being moved out of houses that though they didn’t have fitted kitchens and beautiful bathrooms, they still worked as houses and that was enough. Squatting was very easy in those days, so there was a lot of us squatting, as well as what was known as “short-life housing”.

So I had started “Graft-on”, and had a bank account in that name and I got together with some friends one of whom was a town planner, and some students from the Architectural Association who were also squatting in the same area and formed a group called Counter Plan, against the council’s plan to demolish all our houses and build tower blocks. Actually the street were we were living Prince of Wales Crescent was the last crescent to be demolished in North London. They couldn’t give in to the squatters because we had all the mass media appeal of terrorists now.

But in this area there were about 6 different groups using video “Portapaks” on the street. So whenever I went out of my front door there was somebody shooting video. I knew Hoppy and the other TVX people quite well socially, and at some point some people moved out of the top floor of my house and Hoppy moved in. in the spring of 1973 TVX got a GLAA Thames TV bursary which gave them two JVC low density Portapaks on loan for 6 months, plus some cash, so now the video was not just on the streets, it was in my house. I picked it up and asked how it worked. You don’t have to be an artists- you just have to be averagely curious. So the first video I shot was on a swing in my sitting room! That was the only form of movement I could devise. I became very curious and we talked and so the upshot of it was that we decided to work together to make a video about the squatters forming a residents association.

Hoppy: We used video very carefully and methodically to do this. Following the practices of a guy called George Stoney (?) who worked with the National Film Board of Canada and on the American East coast.

C.M-A: What were his ideas?

Hoppy: Video could be used to engage people in issues that concerned them which they hadn’t vocalised.

Sue: Basically you go and shoot video in a community where they would raise issues and concerns fairly randomly. Then you’d play bits of it back to them- cause there was no editing, and then you asked people questions about those bits, and from that usually people would find people who would focus: “what we want to do is this, or what we want to do about that.” You would then video them saying that and then you would try to get them to outline how it was going to work, so for example they might say “we’d like to paint all the houses, so they’d look nice, we’d like to clean up the streets”.

C.M-A: So you’d use video as a kind of catalyst-

Hoppy: For social action.

C.M-A: But to go back to the way you were using video within this social context- you were exploiting the fact that it was instant, that you had sound and picture together.

Sue: Yes, the question was sometimes asked, why were we doing this and not Liberation Films? The answer was because 16 mm film was so expensive. If you want to talk about technology and form. This is fundamental to how we worked- the relatively low running costs and the re-usability of the video tape

CM-A: One of the things that you did was to create a kind of bridge, you created an editing resource which gave access to a wide range of people with different interests and from different disciplines who wanted to work with video- the community groups that you yourselves worked with and then there were artists like Tina Keane and Stuart Marshall.

Sue: And there was ICI and the National Westminster Bank.

Hoppy; I think the leading concept of that was access.

CM-A: When did you set that up?

Sue: Nov. 1974. It was only one reel-to-reel mains machine- A Sony AV3670- people had to bring their own “Portapak”.

Hoppy: There was a modification made by a guy called Robert Fourget for the National Film Board of Canada, who made a modification so that two 3670 machines would roll back together, under the control by an external device, but we didn’t have access to that. There was a guy in the north of England called Roy Maddron who made an English version.

Sue: But the one we were hiring out in our own place was a single deck and an audio mixer. You had to roll the tape back to a recognisable point, which had to be more than 10 seconds back from the point you wanted to cut.

Hoppy: It was a manual process and very time consuming.

C.M-A: Once you had access to this kit, how did it affect the way you thought about what you could do?

Hoppy: Yeah, fundamentally.

Sue: Oh yes, absolutely, It was one of the most crucial things for me. Because when I first worked with video it was all new to me. When I looked at the first stuff I’d shot, the thing
that occurred to me was that most of it was boring. I wanted to keep the good bits- I didn’t know that was called editing. I did try to shoot only the things I wanted in real time with the trigger on the camera. There was no run up or pre-roll, everything was cut tight, in the camera. We were basically working in situations where things were not within our control- people would repeat things for the camera. The sort of things we were doing things were very hard to predict, so it was very hard to get it right on camera.

Hoppy: To go back a bit. In the beginning there was no editing at all. If you wanted to cut something, you had to use scissors and sticky tape- which I’ve done a number of times in 69-70 on half inch video tape. The problem was that you ran quite a high risk of damaging the heads. Later on we got a grant from GLAA to research user requirements for an automated half-inch editing system. By then the first U-matic equipment had become available and so we figured out something called “Trigger Happy”, which enabled you do virtually frame accurate editing from 1/2 inch open reel onto U-matic. This was viable for several years until people could afford U-matic suites. Trigger Happy was designed by us and built by Richard Monkhouse, who was a brilliant electronic engineer, a sub set of his activities was in video. He also built us a thing called a proc-amp, which was a free-standing box that you could feed these low gauge signals through, to adjust the pedestal, gain, chroma-delay and brightness.

C.M-A: You used that to make the “Slow Scan Video”. When did you make that piece?

Sue: 1979. That was the most ‘arty” tape we ever made. -that was definitely video art in every way. That was what we thought we were doing at the time- along with the other people we were working with. However you define it, the fact is we got the money to do it from art sources. This was art because of the form it took- the way we designed it.

C.M-A: Who was involved with making it?

Sue: We made it but we brought a large number of people in to work with us including David Graham who later set up “Diverse Productions” with Peter Donebauer, Cosmo (Richard Monkhouse) another electronics engineer friend of ours called Fergus Vietch (?) John Cotts (?) The tape was a collection of short pieces, each piece was designed by a sub set of the 8 or 9. We assembled these people in the back studio at Fantasy Factory over a couple of weekends. This is the tape we lodged with LVA (London Video Arts) when they going, but I don’t think it got much distribution. But the thing is after 1976 we didn’t have anything to do with distribution. In that year we did a report for the Arts Council of Great Britain on the future of distribution and we did a tour of the country with tapes from a range of different people- not just our own tapes, but things we thought would have wide-spread appeal- not just art, but for the sort of people that hung out in regional film theatres with generally cultural interests.

CM-A: Can I bring you back to something else that I wanted to talk about, which is the relationship to broadcast TV. I think there is this strange relationship
that people in the independent sector had.

Hoppy: Well, I think its and rather than or. For example in 1969-70 as well as doing non-broadcast stuff like the rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park and stuff around Notting Hill, we were approached by the BBC to come and do an experimental pilot called “Video Space.” This lead on to us making what you would now call promos- they called them “visualisations”, as a result of their interest in experimental programming. They were made in the BBC studios and they were broadcast, although the pilot- “Video Space” wasn’t. It seemed to us at the time that it was the natural thing to happen to that video,. Although it was on 2 inch tape, we had 8mm and 16mm film loops running in the studio. We also had some 1/2 inch tape that was taken in on a studio camera- an optical dub if you like. All of these elements were free running in this “video happening’ which was recorded onto 2inch tape. All of that seemed to be no problem and the “natural’ thing to do.

In 1970 we had a police drugs raid at the Arts Lab one weekday in the evening. We had our video recorders there and we recorded this bust, with people up against the wall. We were able to get it broadcast on a BBC 2 programme called “Late Night Line-Up” as an alternative news item that same night. This seemed to us to be eminently suitable and natural. We had the idea that if we had something appropriate it could be broadcast, but no such luck! It turned out that there was a very big stumbling block- the ACTT (Association of Cinematic and Television Technicians) an organisation that we fought against, sometimes bitterly to get access to broadcast. They were the technical and union gate-keepers to what material was allowed to be broadcast, and only in exceptional circumstances did they allow this to happen. The only stuff we were able to get broadcast during the 1970’s was news-type footage about squatting evictions as they happened. There were one or two very well know ones. One was called “Dr. John’s Eviction’ which we shot in the morning and we got about 10 mins. of footage on the local BBC 6 o’clock news. Then ”Open Door” (BBC) encouraged to make some alternative commercials that could be put into their programming as if they were commercials. I’m thinking about 1973.

C.M-A: When you made that, were you consciously trying to make something that looked different from other things that were going out on the box?

Sue: Well, there wasn’t really any choice- with a half inch Portapak it was different. I think we didn’t know how different what we were doing was. It took years. Let Hoppy continue his point, but I’ve got something quite illuminating to say about how the BBC perceived what we did.

Hoppy: Jump to about 1978. During this period there were various exposures of low gage video on broadcast, and under our auspices Steve Herman wrote a report for us and the ACTT about the broadcasting of low gage video. In 1978 we were commissioned by LWT (London weekend Television) to make a 10 minute commercial for their version of “Open Door” about “ConCom”.

Sue: It was to propagate the aims of the Community Communications Group which was a nationwide coalition of community arts media and broadcasting organisations that wanted to open up the airwaves to a whole lot of radio and TV stations. There were a lot of broadcast media people in this organisation including Mike Dunn (?) from Thames TV, Paul Bonner (?) who did “Open Door”, but there were also people like us and others from radio.

Hoppy. That marked a turning point, because along came Channel 4, and then gradually the constraints on what was allowed to be broadcast were removed until the stuff you see today that is broadcast- on videophones from war zones, stuff that has been shot as if it is community video- which is all wobbly which is held in some quarters to be fashionable “youth TV”, shot on such a low bandwidth that really you could record it on a piece of string with knots, all the technical criteria have been swept away!

CM-A: because they were originally using them as away of preventing you from getting in.

Hoppy: Because they were safeguarding the work for their members.

Sue: I would say that there is another factor that is just as significant, which is that there were technical difficulties in getting 1/2 inch open reel stuff to play. Once the Sony Rover existed , it became a little bit more reliable but you have to remember that there were several formats before that and most of them were incredibly unreliable and unpredictable. There were actually a number of different formats. The first was 405 line, then there something called the CV 2500 which had no capstan servo- no two were alike. A tape made on one had to be re-engineered to get it to play back on another, and it never worked very well. There were quite a lot of those. What era was that?

Hoppy: The 2500 was 70-73, then the Sony Rover came in ’73.

Sue: The other format that was around before the Sony “Rover” was Low Density which was launched by JVC and Shibaden. Then there was the 1/4 inch Akai. Which was a nightmare.

The point is that you wouldn’t have wanted to use these things everyday if you were working at the BBC. To get them to play for broadcasting you needed something called a time base corrector or else you needed to take what was known as an optical dub- pointing a camera at a screen, which was obviously a bit unsatisfactory. I recall that the first time base correctors that actually worked didn’t arrive until about 1973-74.

A lot of people think that Sony developed the “Portapak” for Artists and community groups, but nothing could be further from the truth! They were actually developed for the American military to use in their planes during the Vietnam war. The first Portapaks were entirely in the hands of the military and they were basically to check where their napalm or bombs had gone. Like virtually everything in our society the driving force is actually conquest. Whether it’s successful, or as in this case, happily unsuccessful.

CM-A: When did they become available in the UK?

Hoppy: 1969. Yes and they had appeared about a year before that in America. The 525 line version never had a tape format change in the whole of the 1/2 inch history in the States.

Sue: They took it further in the R&D stage at the beginning.

Hoppy: so many of our video friends came over with their 525 line Portapaks over the years, and so a sub set of our tape collection is 525 tapes.

CM-A: Can we talk about how your ideas about communication theory influenced the way you went about making your video tapes?

Hoppy: Can I go into Communication theory a little? There is a very useful set of distinctions which Shannon and Weaver made. Levels A, B & C. Level A is the technical level. In answer to the question about how well are the symbols of transmission being communicated and received- which we were concerned with quite a lot. So doing a technical fix to improve the inadequacies in order to achieve better communication. Level B is semantic, which is characterised by the question: How well is the message getting across? This is the content level and includes aesthetic considerations.

C.M-A: How it’s shot and framed, what camera angles you would use, etc.

Hoppy: Yeah. Level C is where it joins up with the social aspects. To answer the question. How well are the objectives being achieved in the external world? Or, if you like, in terms of social change: What is the effectiveness of the product (or the activity) we’ve made in achieving the external objectives?

CM-A: That’s where it gets interesting. So for example when you said that you conceived the “Slow Scan” video for an art audience, and another- say the Video Space or the ConComm for a broadcast audience, and another as being for a community audience, you were always reflecting back and asking: Who is the audience for this and how do we approach that audience?

Sue: It soon became apparent with video that once it existed it would have audiences that it wasn’t intended for. And thank goodness!

C.M-A: Because people were interested in the medium, regardless of the content?

Sue: But because you make, say a documentation of a series of events with the squatters who were intimately involved in the event to start with and then it would turn out that one of hem was news and it would be picked up by a TV company. That’s not something that you could have predicted in advance. That meant that instead of 500 squatters at a meeting in north London looking at it (or peering from a distance at a rather small black and white TV) you got whatever the audience was for the South east at 6.

Hoppy: When you show works, or programmes to audiences that it wasn’t particularly designed for that’s where you stand to gain the richest feedback.

Sue: People perceive it in a way that you couldn’t have imagined. When you worked on it and some, lets call them artists, feel offended by some of these perceptions, but we always thought whether they were critical or adulatory or in between, that was the most fascinating part- that was where we could learn.

Hoppy: Yeah, meaning is cumulative. You start off with your invited audience- you’ve got your intentions if you like, but the more people you show it to, the more feedback you get, eventually from the originator’s point of view, the more it adds to the meaning, and the meaning is a sort of open ended set of reactions.

Sue: I just want to go back to the squatting eviction video that was broadcast. It was shot at about 9 in the morning. We were alerted to the fact that the people next door were about to be evicted and the bailiffs had arrived. …We ended up with about 40 mins of material of this event. A news director at the BBC looked at it to appraise it for use on the 6 o’clock news. He told us that he would use about 20seconds of it, but that we’d be much better taking it to “South East at 6”, who would probably use a lot more. But all the BBC people who looked at what Hoppy had shot and the way he was shooting, which was to keep the camera on and moving it around said “Oh so much hose-piping!, oh, why did you do all this hose-piping?” This is an example of how actually this affected what we made and how it was seen both by us and by others but if you look at what’s on TV now, what news people themselves shoot now, and for the last 15-20 years absolutely full of hose-piping. Hose-piping is seen as a valid way of capturing the action-

Hoppy: It comes back to the aesthetic being defined by the medium.

Sue: We were told at the time that this was the sign of an extreme amateur, which Hoppy wasn’t! the only way that the ACTT would let that be transmitted was with a caption saying “amateur recording”.

The other thing that I can remember from the early days of video that we had a friend called Mike Legget who got hold of a “Portapak” from his college- he was a lecturer rather than a student.

CM-A: He was a film-maker, wasn’t he?

Hoppy; Film & video- both.

Sue: He was very good- he had a good camera technique. Hoppy was average,

Hoppy: That’s true!

Sue: And I was rubbish! I was learning from these people- I was very young then. What I saw Mike Legget do was to put a very wide angle lens on his hand-held camera and to go right up to the faces of the people he was shooting. I’d never seen anybody do that before. And when I saw the result- (he and Hoppy worked on a programme for the Chile solidarity campaign) I thought it was really very, very good. You could see very clearly what people’s faces were doing. If you cast your mind back to black and white television with low resolution, it was actually quite hard to see. This extreme close-up at a funny angle so that he wasn’t locking the person’s eye line with whatever it was they were trying to look at, it produced a particular gestalt that was never seen outside of the milieu. You see it everywhere now.

C.M-A: So you think that these sorts of techniques where really introduced into the language by this sort of equipment.

Sue: Yes, they were introduced by the nature of the medium, by the fact that it was low resolution, by the fact that it was running constantly, by the fact that there wasn’t another camera to cover the missing bits.

C.M-A: It’s like using the camera as if it were an extension of the microphone.