Revisiting Scratch Video
Additional scratch video work available at the following link: https://vimeo.com/channels/1271374
Author: Nick Cope
Format: Video Art
Published: September 2017
Video art history, video art, media practice, ‘Platform research’ meaning ‘research into the aesthetic affects of new production technologies’ (Dovey, 2009).
‘Amen: Survive the Coming Hard Times’ was a short Scratch video made by Nick Cope in 1984 and featured in the first curated gallery screenings of Scratch Video in 1985 at the ICA, London and in a subsequent Film and Video Umbrella touring programme the same year, following screenings of this and other work at the Fridge nightclub in Brixton around this time. It became the first part of a trilogy of Scratch pieces made by Cope, followed up by ‘Friendly Fires’ and ‘Suffer Bomb Disease’. [Available online at the link above]
Recent screenings of a programme of Scratch video work, including these pieces, as part of 2016’s Art Sheffield Festival revealed on ongoing prescience in the overt political questioning at the heart of much Scratch work. Originally produced in the midst of the Thatcher/Reagan era of cold war politics and nuclear nightmares, messages and dynamics in the work resonate once again in an increasingly polarized and fractious contemporary global political environment.
Nick Cope completed a PhD by existing or creative published work in 2012, Northern Industrial Scratch: The history and contexts of a visual music practice, which set out to examine and explore the history and contexts of a body of work produced over three decades and originating with work produced as one of the original generation of Scratch video artists. At the time of commencing this work the examining and supervising team recognised that there was limited extant research on Scratch video, and that the author’s position and experience could offer new knowledge and insight to that already existing.
This work in turn has led to further invitations to screen some of the original 1980s Scratch material as well as conference presentations and papers arising from the research undertaken for the PhD.
‘Amen: Survive the Coming Hard Times’ in conjunction with the subsequent research is proposed as a submission for the ScreenWorks call for screen-based practice-research work that engages with the themes of radicalism, as an exemplar of one particular genre and form of radical media practice; and also as a case study of how a practice output can be reflected upon and further research contexts drawn from and engaged in through critically examining the practice.
Specifically research questions with regards to this submission for ScreenWorks, include:
– What are the contexts the work engages with, informs, and is informed by?
– In revisiting the work almost three decades after it was made, what are the epistemological regimes the work can be seen to operate in?
– What framework(s) arise for understanding the work through documentation, critical contextualisation and reflection upon it?
This final question is informed by Professor Des Bell’s writing on practice as research, and the following quote which helped steer my thinking and research stands at the top of the preface of the PhD,
- There is little doubt that the artist/researcher if they commit themselves to the task of documentation and critical contextualisation and reflection on their work, can, in collaboration with like-minded others, produce an inter-subjective framework for understanding the work they produce … Indeed we might want to give the name research to this hermeneutical activity of arriving at communicable knowledge of art practice (Bell, D. 2006, p. 99).
The full PhD and links to all the video material covered are available online at: http://www.nickcopefilm.com
The emergence of Scratch video in the early 1980s represents a new generation of video artists challenging the status quo of existing video art culture at the time. The ready availability of VHS domestic video recorders introduced into Britain in 1978 became more affordable, technically sophisticated and widespread by the early 1980s and facilitated the easy and cheap recording of off-air broadcast television footage. Re-editing and recontextualising this footage was the modus operandi of Scratch. Both praised and criticized at the time, Scratch has come in for re-evaluations in recent years, being recognized as a profound and radical exemplar in innovative sound and image compositional practice. It anticipated Internet developments to come and the explosion in creative possibilities forged by emergent, convergent, digital media, as well as sampling and remix technologies and practices. Fundamental issues surrounding the ‘pirated’ use of imagery and ‘the inherent challenge to copyright law’ that Scratch raised, anticipated important debates that would develop around sampling technologies/plunderphonics/online mash-up culture and file sharing. Overt political positioning in a politically polarized time, Scratch stands as a ‘Carnival of resistance’ (Evans, 2005), and with other independent video practices of the time, subsequently dubbed by Sean Cubitt as ‘the one true British Avant-Garde of the twentieth century’.
Many of the key texts on British video art document the challenges in mapping a history of a medium whose very basis has been a succession of emerging and quickly obsolescent formats, and diverse practices exploring both the medium and an engagement with medium specific, moving image and fine art contexts. Dependant on documentation of events, screenings, installations and performances, this history can only be pieced together from the fragments of documentation that survive or from texts written by practitioners, curators and reviewers where these exist. The lack of research and critical and contextual writing on early video art has become an issue noted in texts that have emerged during the past couple of decades. The fragility and degeneration of actual works before they are accounted for in historical archives and research, the invisibility of historic performances and screenings over time, and the necessity to collect, preserve and record these histories and practices before they are lost has been acknowledged in recent years by projects such as the University of Dundee based, AHRC funded Rewind: Artists’ Video in the 70s and 80s, and the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection housed at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design.
Whilst more has been written about and by the predominantly London based artists, commissioners, critics and historians documenting the earliest video art practices arising out of the medium’s arrival in the UK in the late 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s would see major developments and advances in the capability, affordability and accessibility of the technologies of production, screening and distribution. Video and its attendant technologies traversed an analogue to digital basis and new generations of artists, practitioners and communities were able to access, utilize and explore developing media. Facilitating a wider and broader practitioner base, beyond practices existing in the capital and the various organizations who had established creative moving image production, screening, documentation and discussion in emergent networks such as the London Film makers Co-op, London Video Arts, and the predominantly London based (Arts Council) funded, gallery situated shows during the 1960s and 1970s. Very London centric, and narrowly determined parameters of video art have meant that some practices could slip below the radar of historic and critical record.
In the following thirty years a small but steadily increasing number of texts have addressed the impact of the short-lived/ brief Scratch movement amidst an ongoing re-evaluation of its impact and importance with the benefit of historical distance and growing critical context. Scratch has been acknowledged in a number of histories of (UK) video art by way of token paragraphs, sub-sections or full chapters. In 2008/09 the Rewind project curated a screening at Dundee Contemporary Arts and an installation of Scratch works at Street Level Photoworks Gallery, Glasgow. Scratch artists George Barber and Jon Dovey have written pieces on aspects of Scratch over the years, and the Duvet Brothers website hosts some further contexts. As I embarked on my PhD, it was clear that there still remained much more that can be added to the contexts and history of Scratch, and that my own engagement and practice presented a pertinent perspective from which to add to these discourses.
Re-editing and recontextualising off-air footage was the modus operandi of Scratch, sometimes using image processors to affect the colour, texture, size, shape and montage; often, as Al Rees notes ‘to create parody’, with ‘Reagan, Thatcher and the “military industrial complex” as main targets’. Scratch video was ‘politically astute and sharply cut (often to rock soundtracks)’ (Rees, 1999, p.96). The radical implications of these new technologies recognized by Andy Birtwistle writing in his significant text Cinesonica in 2010,
- For the first time ever, the sounds and images of broadcast television became permanently available to almost anyone who wanted to record them. This not only provided scratch artists with the material content of their work, but also signaled a change in the relationship between the producers and consumers of television. In short, the VCR prompted and supported a culture of audiovisual appropriation that found its most immediate manifestation in scratch (Birtwistle, 2010, p.244-245).
Scratch video artist George Barber credits journalist Pat Sweeney with coining the term Scratch Video in 1984 (Barber, 1990, p.116), ‘comparing it to New York’s Hip Hop scene’, which by 1982 was well established and making in roads into UK club and music culture. Scratch was pioneering the use of sampled music and sound in conjunction with video sampling and mixing, which would lead into the ‘dance music generation of the early 1990s’. Significantly, new edit suite hardware that could facilitate video editing accuracy to within 1/5 of a second or more was becoming cheaper, easier to use and more accessible, in particular via community video workshops and art colleges. Barber writing in 1990 that ‘Editing was central to Scratch…The first wave of ‘decent’ technology did indeed help delineate an aesthetic and make achievable the first truly edit based video form’ (Barber, 1990, p.115).
Initial criticisms (1984-86) appearing in the specialist media art magazines Independent Video and Undercut were rooted in an avant-garde position still very much informed by the strict formalism and critical and political contexts of the generation of artists coming through from the 1970s. There was a questioning of video art engaging with populist tendencies (Welsh, 1984; Houghton, 1988), of the dangers of techno-centric practices (Hawley, 1988), of boys playing with their toys (Elwes, 1985) – ‘the shiny toys of Thatcher’s children’ in Jez Welsh’s words (Welsh, 1992). Art Historian John Walker, writing in 1987, cites Elwes’ criticisms from her Independent Media article ‘Through Deconstruction to Reconstruction’ (Elwes, 1985) noting that at the heart of these critiques is the politics of pleasure;
- The minimal and conceptual video of the 1960s and 1970s conspicuously lacked the kind of entertainment-value of mass culture and only reached a tiny audience. If video-makers want to communicate with a wider public, then visual pleasure had to be used – as it is in advertising – firstly to attract attention and secondly to sugar the ideological pill. (Walker, 1987, p.157)
Walker questioned Elwes’ assertion that in viewing left wing agit-prop Scratch that combined images of unemployment with techno dance music ‘we are left wondering whether to debate the evils of unemployment or get up and dance’ with the admonishment that entertainment and education are not mutually exclusive.
By 2005 Elwes had re-appraised her own views on Scratch to some degree, and in one of a growing number of video art histories to be published in the new millennium (Elwes, Meigh-Andrews, Rees, Curtis, Comer, Hatfield, Reekie, Dickinson) she addresses Scratch at some length and recognizes its importance politically, ‘scratch must take the credit for being the last UK video movement that was allied to a collective social and political consciousness before the 1990s made the selling of the artist the central purpose of art’ (Elwes, 2005, p.116). Elwes also credits Scratch as signifying the beginnings of a paradigm shift in the principal point of reference for contemporary art by reflecting ‘the relocation of artistic creation to the broader cultural sphere and anticipates the convergence of art and popular culture in the 1990s’.
In one of the most recent and significant reappraisals of Scratch, Andy Birtwistle recognises a profound and radical exemplar in innovative sound and image compositional practice, and an equally radical challenge to its critics.
- While scratch represents a highly productive encounter between music and the audiovisual, that in some senses realizes earlier radical visions of both an art of organized sound and an art of visual music, the musical dimensions of scratch proved problematic for those trying to situate its audiovisuality within existing political frames of reference. Central to its politically problematic status was the issue of how sensation and affect might be situated within radical modes of audiovisual practice. Scratch is intimately linked with music, which not only forms one of its key constituent elements, but also provides the primary formal model for its mode of articulation (Birtwistle, 2010, p.241).
Birtwistle places Scratch in new and emerging contexts of affective cinema and audiovisuality, what he defines as cinesonics. Maintaining that Scratch was pioneering forms of audiovisual practice ahead of critical discourse,
- What we see and hear in the case of scratch is the point at which the dominant modernist formulations of sound-image relations are challenged by other radical conceptual models of the cinesonic (ibid, p.248).
- What we see in this moment is the emergence of an affective or sensory turn, arising before the vocabulary was in place to deal with it. For the critics of the time, scratch simply did not make sense; they were unable to situate the affective and sensational dimensions of the form’s audiovisuality within existing critical and theoretical frameworks. All the critics of scratch could see were insufficiencies, and it has taken more than two decades for this moment to be affirmed as a radical departure from the critical and creative agenda set in motion by the linguistic turn of structuralism (ibid, p.272).
Rees in 2007 would acknowledge that the ‘short-lived but very effective’ movement, ‘was also the most explicitly political video art in ten years’. Sean Cubitt (2009) in a webcast at the retrospective installation Scratch Video, at Glasgow’s Street Level Gallery, in March 2009, would declare that ‘video and video art became for that brief period the one true British Avant-Garde of the twentieth century’ and later noting (Cubitt, 2012, p.73) the poetic nostalgia in Scratch ‘for a vanguardist cause that might make the work of video genuinely public, not merely gallery art’.
Writer and journalist, Andy Lipman, had been the first to publicise and champion Scratch Video in his cover article ‘Scratch and Run’ for London listings magazine City Limits in October 1984, having made it his business as editor of the magazine’s weekly video column to get to know all the artists involved in the first screenings of work at The Fridge nightclub in Brixton.
- Hip-hop video, image break-dancing: television does a body pop. Broadcast TV is scoured for arresting images and fed into video editing systems like shredding machines. The fusion of funk rhythms and visuals on collision course crumble original context. Reassurance and sweet reason, television’s facade disintegrate before your bombarded eyes … Video scratching is an interactive response to the one-way arrogance of broadcast television. …If television is our shop window on the world, scratch has just chucked a brick through it and is busy looting 30 years of goodies, with abandon (Lipman, 1984, pp.18-19).
Lipman would go on to list a diverse collection of individuals and groups working with video, drawing reference to underlying themes of political oppositional practices, strategies of questioning and subverting broadcast television, and an alliance of alternative music and ‘industrial music’ practices and practitioners, video artists, arts organisations and pop cultural remixing. Specifically naming work by Nocturnal Emissions, Duvet Brothers, Kim Flitcroft and Sandra Goldbacher, Paul Maben/Protein Video, George Barber, Derek Jarman, Cerith Wynn Evans, Richard Heslop, The Anti Group, Psychic TV/Genesis P-Orridge, Doublevision and IKON, Clive Gillman, Graham Young, Steve Hawley, Jez Welsh and Nick Cope/391.
Whilst the earliest screenings of Scratch were outside of any gallery contexts, Lipman and Bruno De Florence would curate the first gallery screening of this work, Scratch Television: Watch This Space, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in December1984. Soon followed by the recently formed Arts Council funded Film and Video Umbrella’s second touring programme – Subverting Television curated by Mark Wilcox and Michael O’Pray, and a further programme of Scratch works curated by O’Pray and Tina Keane in the 1985 show at the Tate Gallery, London, ‘The New Pluralism: British Film and Video 1980-85’.
With George Barber compiling for independent distribution a two volume collection The Greatest Hits of Scratch Video on VHS, a canon of Scratch video works was emerging. Whilst The Duvet Brothers toured their Live Multiscreen Scratch multi-monitor show nationally and internationally for three years between 1984 and 1987, Scratch was very much a short lived phenomenon, with most of the key artists moving on to other work and projects, and no further significant screenings following the Film and Video Umbrella tour of 1985, until 2008.
The work derives from and contributes to contexts of video art. The practice itself drew upon media production fields and Scratch informed subsequent developments of TV Industry practice as well as video art. The research endeavours to contribute to media and art histories.
Meigh–Andrews (2006) recognizes that a combination of political, ideological, technical and social forces were at play in the arising of Scratch with the development of two basic tendencies – a graphical/optical approach exploring repetition and abstraction enhanced by the ‘new palette of visual effects developed by Sony and others’ (Elwes, 2005, p.112) – and an ‘agit-prop’ tendency who’s ‘skilful deployment and montaging of “found” images’ has much in common with photomontage. Whilst noting that work by the Duvet Brothers spanned both sub-divisions of the genre, Meigh-Andrews suggests that their work may be as much about the pleasure of manipulating images and sounds as it is about politics. An observation I would suggest that has a broader application across the scope of Scratch artists and practices. Meigh-Andrews quotes Jez Welsh as suggesting that the agit-prop branch of Scratch derives from community video rather than art school, with Gorilla Tapes’ work coming through the Luton community video project. I would suggest that the real picture is one of greater ambiguity, Gorilla Tapes work also combines both a heavily worked graphical/textual exploration of Scratch techniques in the service of ‘agit-prop’ work, and my own purely Scratch pieces (Amen…, Suffer Bomb Disease and Friendly Fires), would all fall firmly into the agit-prop sub genre whilst coming from an art school backdrop. Equally my earlier work View From Hear, picked up by Andy Lipman as an exemplar of Scratch in his City Limits article, is a work of various hybrid practices and forms, exploring the manipulation of image and sounds, with perhaps less overtly agitational political themes as my other Scratch works.
Amen: Survive the Coming Hard Times (1984) solely reworks off-air video footage, deliberately unsubtle and affective in its edit content and style. Taking its title from a video clip recorded from a news broadcast about right-wing US Christian fundamentalist survivalists, who had taken up residence as a quasi-military community in the Ozark mountains and saw it is their mission to ‘train for the end of the world’ and to ‘survive the coming hard times’. The work not only sampled the sound but also the video. Footage also included NASA scientists at the control panels of the Apollo 11 Moon shot, the 1968 Czechoslovakian uprising and Russian troops and tanks entering Prague, miners scrabbling for coal on slag heaps in the 1930s, and sailors battling to control tallship sails in a storm. A subtitled clip reads ‘whose evil hand is controlling them’ intercut with the NASA footage, intended to convey images of anonymous controlling male figures pressing buttons and viewing computer screens.
The second half of the piece includes another subtitled clip reading ‘We’ve been treated like dirt for too long now’ whilst more oppositional images of resistance to the Russian military presence in Prague are seen. The piece ends with the famous soundbite of Ronald Reagan joking off-air during a sound test ‘[today I have passed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever] We begin bombing in 5 minutes’, over a static shot of a world war one military cemetery. Panning shots and movements in frame complimenting the sweeping drones in the music, flashing lights in the night and pointing fingers and hands matching rhythmic drum clashes. Ronald Reagan had come to power in the US on the back of a growing tide of right wing Christian fundamentalism, and with Margaret Thatcher’s British Government supporting the presence of US Nuclear weapons on British soil, the 1980s were dominated politically by a nuclear apocalyptic air in tandem with an authoritarian tone and austere economic management. Amen: Survive the Coming Hard Times was made as a reaction to and questioning of some of these pervading attitudes. This piece utilised emerging sound sampling and sequencing technologies in the construction of its soundtrack combining these with similarly sampled off-air footage, bringing together sampled sound and picture in the opening sequences of the ‘survive the coming hard times’ sound bite refrain. The soundtrack was produced in collaboration with musicians Martin King and Simon Mundey.
All three of the trilogy of Scratch pieces are constructed solely from off-air, overtly representational footage, the pictures are deliberately cut to their soundtracks in such a way that the movement of image through and within frame, the juxtaposition of shots and rhythm of cuts, would interact with the soundtrack in a visual flow. With the mood and tone of the music informing, complementing and counterpoising the mood, content and flow of the visuals and vice versa. Through this fusing of sound and image, deconstructions of the off-air footage and original broadcast messages are re-contextualised into overtly oppositional politically driven counter messages to the original broadcast contexts of the footage. The picture and sound combinations becoming distinct new works in their own right, with their own message, mood and dynamic to the original constituent audio and visual sources.
The historical and cultural conditions arising through the post punk milieu and political and cultural contexts of the late 1970s and early 1980s form the backdrop to the generation and performance of my practice. Practically my work has explored and experimented with the application of changing and emerging media technologies. Political contexts of the work arise from the post-punk milieu that I was engaged in at this time, Reynolds’ (2005, xviii) ‘ransacking of twentieth-century art and literature’ meeting a bohemian non-conformism and dissident, alternative aesthetics and infrastructures to the right-leaning UK and US mainstream; influenced by Situationist oppositional politics and critique of ‘the society of the spectacle’, Dadaist confrontational and agitational artistic practices filtered through industrial music perspectives. The work sought to deliberately subvert the coherence of broadcast TV, and rational, coherent narrative structures through both re-contextualising off air footage, and in constructing dreamlike, surreal, unfolding, visual flows akin to Rogers’ analysis of Viola’s video works, ‘a move from broadcast coherence into a subconscious fiction devoid of narrative logic and realist parameters, a nightmare world that is paradoxically more real than our current, superficial simulacrum’ (Rogers, 2010, p.190).
All of my video work has music as a key constituent element and looks to music for models and modes of organization and audio-visual articulation. As Rogers (2010, pp.62-63) observes, by elevating music to a rival narrational system to mainstream theatrical narrative filmmaking ‘a disintegration of established viewing hierarchies is initiated… liberating soundtrack from its redundant position as visual enhancement’. Such work ‘diverges from the primacy of vision as the dominant perceptual sense: from the other side of representation, the images, with their reconfigured “dream-aura”, require a method of viewing more akin to listening than seeing’ (ibid, p.184). The exploration of the abstractions which occur when visual movement is dictated by the logic and temporality of music becomes a key theme to much of my work, and the subsequent operation of a ‘type of synaesthesia, whereby an input in one sensory mode excites an involuntary response in another, constructing meaning as the film progresses, rather than reproducing it’ (ibid, p.37).
Professor Des Bell’s (2006) overview of the academic debates around practice and research which have ensued in British media higher education proved very useful. Bell outlines and critiques a number of strategies taken, and proposes David Davies (2004) analysis of Art as Performance as a useful model for addressing lens based work. Bell and Davies’ suggest the embodied and historically situated performance of production; the specific media and artistic means of the practice and the specific historical conditions that have given rise to its creative intentions in the generative act of making the work, all can be looked to in establishing a framework for the objects of knowledge that practice contributes to. These histories and contexts themselves constitute an arena in which the work itself can be seen to contribute new knowledge to, and through which the originality of the work can be evaluated.
It is hoped that by presenting both the original practice and the subsequent exploration and examination of the research contexts of the work, this can be seen as one example of how practice based research can be addressed.
The work is informed by and challenges codes and structures arising through film and video art histories and the epistemologies that have emerged, and are emerging; specifically offering new insights into the history of Scratch video. Relevant contexts also pertain to expanded cinematic practices, music video and more recent analyses of visual music and audiovisual practices that can be seen to engage in a ‘synaesthetic interplay and communicative interpenetration of music with vision’ (Williams, 2003, p.13). Relatively recent recognition of an inadequacy in film studies’ significatory and logocentric perspectives in addressing embodied, affective and sensation based experience of audiovisual practice is also of significance. Throughout these analyses a number of commentators, who attempt to redress this imbalance, have recognized a bias towards the visual at the expense of addressing the role and importance of the sonic and the aural in audiovisual criticism.
Key themes of affect and sensation operating in an audiovisual/visual music practice are central in focusing on reflection on my work, and I hope both my practice and the wider reflection can contribute to what Carol Vernalis (2013) refers to as ‘new audiovisual aesthetics’. Birtwistle sees in Scratch video an exemplar practice of affective moving image,
- When scratch video switches on the material potential of a moving image or a recorded sound, it switches on not only the potential to create meaning, but also its affective potential. Releasing the latent kinaesthetic and synaesthetic power of its source material, scratch video follows the imperatives of music, disengaging with linguistic models of meaning in favour of an intensification of affect. (Birtwistle, 2010, p.265)
Birtwistle’s analyses of the audiovisual, cinesonic functioning of moving image works and his linking of Scratch practices with kinaesthetic, synaesthetic, affective moving image practices forms a particularly resonant context in which my own practice has functioned and operated, from its earliest pre-Scratch manifestations, through its engagement in the emergence of Scratch to live music/expanded cinematic practices in the 1990s and the more recent Electroacoustic Movies work.
The work was self-funded.
Amen: Survive the Coming Hard Times, 3’18” (1984)
Video Lounge; The Fridge, Brixton, 1984.
Scratch Television; ICA London, December 1984.
School of Art, Amsterdam, May 1985.
Institute of Film Studies, Enschede, Holland, May 1985.
‘Subverting Television – Deconstruction; British Video Art Engages with Mainstream Film and Television’- Arts Council Film and Video Umbrella Programme; Time Based Arts, Amsterdam, March 1985.
Die Fabrik, Eindhoven, Holland, March 1985.
Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, June 1985.
Watershed, Bristol, April 1985.
Metro Cinema, Derby, April 1985.
Zap Club, Brighton, June 1985.
Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, September 1985.
Brighton Festival, Brighton, October 1985.
Part of ‘The Problem of Perspective: Alternative Film and Video in Northern England’ a series of screenings illuminating a distinctly northern perspective on the history of artists’ moving image in England curated by Pavilion Arts, Leeds, January- March 2017. http://www.pavilion.org.uk/events/2016/perspective/
Institute of Contemporary Arts, Video Library, London.
Arts Council Film and Video Umbrella Collection, London.
Suffer Bomb Disease – soundtrack: This Heat, 4’04” (1985)
(digital re-master 2007)
‘VRC: Scratch Video’, Dundee Contemporary Arts, April 2008.
Part of ‘Scratch’, projected installation, Streetlevel Gallery, Glasgow, March 2009.
Available on YouTube since 2008 – 33,856 views as of 21.07.2017
Friendly Fires – soundtrack: Section 25, 4’26” (1986)
Available on You Tube since 2008 – 39,926 views as of 21.07.2017
As a trilogy: Amen: Survive the Coming Hard Times (1984), Friendly Fires (1985), Suffer Bomb Disease (1985)
Lunchbytes Seminar; Culture Lab, Newcastle University, October 2008.
‘Journeys in Film’ – Beyond Film, Experimental Film Festival; Gala Theatre and Cinema, Durham, November 2008.
Sichuan University Jinjiang College, Chengdu, China, August 2010.
Media Communications and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) Annual Conference, University of Northumbria, UK, January 2015
Installation and Screening; & Invited Panel Discussion member: ‘Scratch Video’ Art Sheffield International Arts Festival; Sheffield, UK, April – May 2016. http://www.artsheffield.org/2016/programme/156-arundel-street/ Review: http://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/how-sheffield-in-the-80s-became-a-hive-of-musical-and-artistic-experimentation
‘Scratch Video re-visited’ – Paper, Media Communications and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) Annual Conference, University of Northumbria, UK, January 2015
‘Scratch Video re-visited’ – 75 minute curated screening programme, Media Communications and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) Annual Conference, University of Northumbria, UK, January 2015
‘Revisiting Scratch’ Chapter pending approval in ‘The Radical Film Handbook’ ed. Newsinger, J., Wayne, M. & Presence, S. University of Nottingham, pending publication July 2018.
Online documentation and links www.nickcopefilm.com
Full PhD text available online – https://nickcopefilm.com/2013/10/14/northern-industrial-scratch-3/ and https://www.academia.edu/3771947/Northern_Industrial_Scratch_the_history_and_contexts_of_a_visual_music_practice
Screening work at the Fridge nightclub in the nascent days of Scratch and acknowledged by Andy Lipman in his significant coverage of my work in the ground-breaking article for City Limits magazine, ‘Scratch and Run’, that work becomes an exemplar of some of the earliest Scratch practices emerging in the UK, and the foundations on which my further Scratch work was developed. Through their selection for curated shows in key programmes and screenings at national and international art venues Amen, Survive the Coming Hard Times and Suffer Bomb Disease have been recognized in 1984 at the height of Scratch’s emergence as a video art movement, and retrospectively in 2008/9, as constituting exemplary Scratch practices, constituting a key exponent of the canon of Scratch works to emerge at that time. The poster for the AHRC funded, Rewind curated ‘Scratch Video’ retrospective screening, at Dundee Contemporary Arts in 2008, citing ‘the works shown are some of the best examples of this work from British artists’. In the programme notes the curators wrote of Scratch video being ‘generally forgotten about in contemporary culture’ but noting the contemporary relevance of themes in the Scratch work selected, and the pioneering use of sampled music and sound in conjunction with video sampling and mixing, which would lead into the ‘dance music generation of the early 1990s’.
Scratch itself is coming to be recognized as an important video art movement in British video art history. As noted earlier, even the vociferous critic Elwes, re-evaluated her views to acknowledge the significant impact Scratch has had, anticipating ‘the convergence of art and popular culture in the 1990s’.
Sitting on the cusp of the emergence of Music Television, so called ‘youth television’ and the transition from analogue to digital media technologies, working practices examined and explored through Scratch impacted significantly on audio-visual media practices that followed
- I… would cite Scratch as a prime example of where available technology was made the most of, where people just got on the machines and ‘did things’. They jammed, winged it and made it up as they went along. It would take a philistine to say it was ‘just effects’ pure and simple. One only has to look at broadcast television to see its legacy… the grammar of editing and visual language have irredeemably changed, copying over the excitement of the Scratch scene (Barber, 1990, p.123).
- … In extending the control an artist-composer had over their sonic materials, scratch allowed what had already happened in musique concrète, and in hip-hop, to find audiovisual expression (Birtwistle, 2010, p237-240).
- Fast, blatant and heralding the remix culture to come, Scratch Video offended video purists. At the same time, the techniques, and some of the makers themselves, were instantly recuperated by the television industry. The effect on advertising and music videos was immediate and lasting throughout the decade (Rees, 2007, pp.159-160).
Andy Lipman, eulogised in 1985 the impact of Scratch and its pioneering challenge by a new generation of artists in ‘Taking TV Apart’ published in the booklet Video: The State of the Art (Channel 4 Television, 1985) accompanying the September 1985 transmission of Eleventh Hour programmes of contemporary video art works on UK Channel 4 Television (Video 123 and the Ghosts in the Machine series). Lipman acknowledges criticisms of Scratch – its lack of critical analysis, its celebrations of the imagery it sought to undermine, its dependency on received imagery and a failure to pose positive alternatives to the empty values it exposes, noting, however, that the criticism is ‘motivated by a resentment towards the populist appeal of Scratch’ whilst Scratch techniques began to be incorporated into pop video promos and contemporary mainstream media practices. Lipman would not only be a flag-waver of Scratch but also its pallbearer, announcing ‘Scratch: Dead on Arrival?… Scratch video has not only arrived, it’s already mainstream’ (Lipman, 1985b, pp.7-9). This latter announcement itself acknowledging the rapid impact the new styles and techniques of Scratch swiftly had on the limited four channel terrestrial UK broadcast media of the time, and the nascent music video industry.
John Walker’s book (1987, pp.151-158) was the first to address Scratch, with his chapter ‘Reconstructing Television: Scratch Video’. Citing Paul Kerr’s Guardian Newspaper article of 16th September 1985 Scratch a video and find a phenomenon and recalling a video conference held at the ICA, London in 1985 where ‘the opinion was voiced that the fashion for scratch was over because it had already been recuperated by the mass media.’ With the lessons of scratch absorbed by the mass media in 1985, evidenced by Paul Hardcastle’s pop record and video reaching number one in the UK pop charts, Walker concludes ‘whether or not scratch can recover from these blows and make a critical come-back remains to be seen’.
Subsequently, over the following 30 years a small but steadily increasing number of texts have addressed the impact of Scratch amidst an ongoing re-evaluation of its impact and importance with the benefit of historical distance and growing critical context.
Some commentators have found the close relationship between the source material Scratch artists were drawing on, and a concurrent critique of media through that same material problematic (Elwes, 2005, p.115) and most note that broadcast television was quick to appropriate and recuperate the visual styles of Scratch, albeit loosened of the political bite and agitational attack. Whilst this appropriation is often written of as a flaw and weakness of Scratch, it also evidences the powerful impact that such a small and short-lived video art genre was to have on the look and style of mainstream media. Elwes does however acknowledge that agitational Scratch continued to differ from television-generated parody by way of clear political positioning representing collective opposition to state policies in general and Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s in particular, and that this overt political positioning becomes one of Scratch’s long lasting legacies.
Jez Welsh, writing in 1992, describing Scratch as ‘a form that would irretrievably change the face of Video Art, and in turn shape the development of pop video, youth TV and videographics’ – addressed the early criticism Scratch received;
- Sour faced avant-gardists were keen to dismiss Scratch as ‘decadent’ and ‘ideologically suspect’ or to point out that it was unoriginal… But these criticisms were misdirected and short sighted… Scratch Video, through its impact on MTV, was a significant factor in the ‘paradigm shift’ that not only changed the way television looks, but has even influenced the way Hollywood writes its scripts. (Welsh, 1992, p.136)
Welsh goes on to note that not only was Scratch important from a stylistic viewpoint but also opened areas of discussion in media art that would continue to be important through ushering in a conversance with post-modern theory and countering the epistemologies ‘still under the influence of ideas that pre-dated post-modernism’.
Rees (1999, pp.106-7) makes evident the connections between this generation of filmmakers and their roots in the ‘punk-era revision of the underground’ through the encounters of Ken Russell, Kenneth Anger, Derek Jarman, Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle and William Burroughs. Resulting in a fusing of Jarman and P-Orridge ‘tendencies’ with younger filmmakers ‘drawn to their world of free play, extremist imagery and a hallucinatory “dream-machine” cinema’. A “new punk underground”, who lead a ‘rebellion against the structural avant-garde which preceded it as a distinct aesthetic direction’ (ibid, p.86). Mapping connections too between the scratch artists, low budget promo practices which explored new forms of hybrid editing ‘moving from film to video and back again’, and ‘the largely 8mm film-makers in the “New Romantics” camp’. Rees connects these 1980s practices and an embracing of commercial culture, with the rise of the pop-promo and ‘the new music culture represented by independent labels’; in a ‘volatile cultural economy’ that this avant-garde shifted its interests to, with the music and youth culture leading the market in the consumer boom of the 1980s. Yet, Rees notes, ‘however recuperated in the commercial work they undertook – [these artists] kept a sharp edge to the work’ promoting values beside the commercial, fusing low technologies with advanced politics of the dispossessed and bizarre and extreme iconographies.’ Whilst many of the emerging histories of film and video maintain a separation of address of genres and practices, Rees links these histories recognizing the intertwined networks, practices and cultures at play. The pioneering fusion of film and video in the edit-suite – ‘an anti-purist gesture which was soon commercially exploited… is now standard practice’. Scratch methods ‘were swallowed up by TV advertising and promos with alarming speed, especially after Scratch video was showcased at the 1985 Edinburgh Television Festival and made an immediate impact on the astonished TV executives’ (Rees, 1999, p.106).
With criticism tending to concentrate on the swift recuperation of Scratch techniques by broadcasters and a dismissal of Scratch’s engagement with the new technologies of post-production as empty techno wizardry, Lipman presciently responded that this criticism,
- …misses the point about the practice of scratch, regardless of the end product, which anticipates the inter-active era of electronic networks, where the combination of video and computer promises to allow the exchange and re-processing of information, into new visions to suit individual taste. Unlike the one-way system of current broadcast media, there could be a network resembling the telephone system, where calls, or programmes, or computer software could both be made and received by each individual. Such developments raise fundamental questions about the status of the ‘artist’ and art objects. Scratch takes the broadcast media as its paintbox, the video recorder as its palette, and the TV screen as its canvas (Lipman, 1985a, p.10).
Anticipating Internet developments to come and the explosion in creative possibilities forged by emergent, convergent, digital media as well as sampling and remix technologies and practices, Lipman highlighted the fundamental issues surrounding the ‘pirated’ use of imagery and ‘the inherent challenge to copyright law’ that Scratch raised, and which Scratch artist Jon Dovey would later give a personal account of in ‘Copyright as Censorship’ (Dovey, 1986), anticipating important debates that would emerge around sampling technologies/plunderphonics/online mash-up culture and file sharing. The wider exposure of Scratch works (in contrast to its style and techniques) was hindered by the flaunting of copyright laws. Whether Scratch had any impact on more recent developments in the loosening of these restrictions is hard to say, though it is welcome that works by the likes of Cassette Boy can now receive far wider exposure than was ever the case for the Scratch artists in their day. Goldsmith (2015) recognises that ‘practices of sampling and re-use have mutated from radical modernist aesthetic strategies to common activities embedded in our hyper-networked everyday lives’ in his examination of Scratch as an attempt to ‘better understand the recent history and mutation of the aesthetics and practices of appropriation’ and draws attention to Manovich’s paper ‘What Comes After Remix?’ (2007) for a wider analysis of the proliferation and widespread uptake online of remix practices. Manovich significantly notes,
- It is relevant to note here that the revolution in electronic pop music that took place in the second part of the 1980s was paralleled by similar developments in pop visual culture. The introduction of electronic editing equipment such as switcher, keyer, paintbox, and image store made remixing and sampling a common practice in video production towards the end of the decade; first pioneered in music videos, it later took over the whole visual culture of TV. Other software tools such as Photoshop (1989) and After Effects (1993) had the same effect on the fields of graphic design, motion graphics, commercial illustration and photography. And, a few years later, World Wide Web redefined an electronic document as a mix of other documents. Remix culture has arrived. (ibid, 2007)
I think it can be argued that Scratch laid the groundwork for the practices that Manovich credits music videos with pioneering, and Scratch can be seen as a key herald of remix culture and beyond.
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All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement.
Nick Cope’s essay acts as an excellent introduction for contemporary readers to the evolution of academic thinking about 1980’s Scratch Video. He brings together a wide-ranging collection of perspectives on Scratch and his identification of how these perspectives have changed over time is well executed. He correctly identifies that Scratch was dismissed at the time by the video art world. He spots Kate Elwes’ transition from her cynical 1985 statement that ‘we are left wondering whether to debate the evils of unemployment or get up and dance,’ to her 2005, ‘scratch must take the credit for being the last UK video movement that was allied to a collective social and political consciousness before the 1990s made the selling of the artist the central purpose of art.’
Scratch was a massive challenge to the then dominant video art practice which was often difficult, long and slow-moving (for good historical reasons). Scratch was short, brash and, biggest sin of all, popular. Video artists back then were not part of the wider art world of painting, sculpture and conceptual art, perhaps with the exception of Nam Jun Paik. Video art lived in a self-contained world of its own. Whether the cross-over popularity of Scratch and the subsequent arrival of video in the art mainstream are connected is an under-explored area of academic research. Cope quotes Elwes citing Scratch as a signifier of a cultural shift.
I’d like to hear more on why Scratch Video has become of interest to young artists in the last 10 years. Is it that they learn about it in college, is it a political affinity or is it because the arrival of YouTube and effectively free editing software made this fun and easy form of editing attractive again.
Sean Cubbitt’s claim that video art during the Scratch era was the one true British avant-garde of the 20th century seems overblown to me. I’d like to hear some art historians argue that out. But within video art, Scratch Video is the one form that has its own title; everything else is just video art or even, these days, art that uses video. Scratch is a bone- fide movement within video art.
Today we might look at Scratch as “critical making”; it addresses its subject in its very form. It exposes the propaganda in TV imagery through editing and repetition. Cope says that Scratch “anticipated Internet developments to come” which I take to mean the process of answering back; an early challenge to the monolithic and authoritative nature of broadcast media. Andy Lipman presciently wrote about this in City Limits in 1984 before the internet even existed; “Video-scratching is an inter-active response to the one-way arrogance of broadcast television. And perhaps the growing accessability of the medium, both for creating new messages and distributing alternative information, gives some hope.”
Cope rightly recognizes the London-centric skew of video art history, but there’s a further problem that histories of ephemeral art movements coalesce around received wisdoms. Thankfully, this trawl through appraisals and re-appraisals of Scratch goes some way towards preventing a fixed view of this moment from forming.
Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement.
I can’t quite work out what the research project is here. It’s a reframing of a short piece from over 30 years ago that in itself seems like a potentially interesting project but what research is it actually doing ? The submission is prompted by PhD work which ‘set out to examine and explore the history and contexts of a body of work produced over three decades’. I think this aim needs to resolve itself more specifically as a question that is being addressed by the ‘rescreening’ of this historical work. Is this purely an act of historical (self) curation ? Or an act of revisionist art history ( when the text acknowledges that scratch has been ‘accommodated’ now into official histories.) What do we learn now from this revival? Sean Cubitt’s characteristically excessive quote underlines the dangerous nostalgia that underpins this submission.
The context and history in the submission is exemplary; it’s a good summary of some of the key critical issues in the reception of the work. It has as an excellent bibliography in a very specialised niche. I think the context of the world of TV, four channels only, and the rise of music video simultaneously are aspects of context that needs to be included.
However they are minor points – its not yet clear what the research questions are and that addition in the statement would make the work acceptable.