A Form that Accommodates the Mess: Duncan Campbell and the Mediated Archive by George Clark
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A Form that Accommodates the Mess: Duncan Campbell and the Mediated Archive by George Clark

Falls Burn Malone Fiddles, Duncan Campbell, courtesy of LUX

Falls Burns Malone Fiddles, Duncan Campbell, courtesy of LUX

“Television has been attacking us all our lives, now we can attack it back,” Nam June Paik, 1965.

With this statement, video art pioneer Nam June Paik, established the basic conditions for Video Art and the new found ability to respond to the technology of mainstream media. But the wider implications of this statement arguably have only come to pass in recent years when access not only to the technology of mass media, but crucially the media itself has become widely available. Television consists of more than screens, cathode ray tubes, video cameras and broadcast frequencies; it consists of a wealth of audiovisual material collected over years of activity. Power and authority increasingly resides with who controls these invisible bodies of information, the dominance of mainstream media rests with these accumulated archives. As Mark Getty, the chairman of Getty Images, infamously declared, “Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century.”

It is these archives, these collections, rather than the technology, which television and mass media represent and increasingly this is what is being addressed, or ‘attacked’ to use Paik’s terminology, in contemporary artist film and video. A shift can be seen within Video Art from a material/sculptural practice exploring the formal properties of the technology, to an exploration of the hidden recesses of media, the archives and collections.

Fidel Castro In A Mini Skirt

Bernadette (UK, 37 mins, 2009), the new film by Glasgow based artist Duncan Campbell, is as much about the media as it is about its charismatic subject, the notorious Irish political activist Bernadette Devlin. Devlin famously became the youngest ever female member of British parliament when she was notoriously elected in the Northern Ireland general election of 1969 at the age of 21 yet while elected she was also dismissed as ‘Fidel Castro in a mini skirt.’ Campbell has constructed a film exploring Devlin and the media’s handling of her at the time. It is part of a rich body of work exploring how images can be approached and how the legacies of political struggle can be understood in the present.

Bernadette is constructed from “mediated images of her and writings about her” through which Campbell wanted to “to faithfully represent Devlin, to do justice to her legacy.”[1] The film draws on material from a range of sources, including interviews, profiles and documentation of her political career in the 1960s and 70s from television news archives as well as extracts from articles and her own autobiography The Price of my Soul (1969). As Campbell states:

“What I produce can only ever be a selection of these representations, via my own obsessions and my desire to make engaging art of her. I am striving for what Samuel Beckett terms, “a form that accommodates the mess”. I want to broaden the scope of the film to include this space and tension, which is typically excluded or concealed.” [2]

The film is book ended by material shot by Campbell, consisting of semi-abstract sequences, glimpses, details and textures of a room; fugitive glimpses often blurring the line between an image and no image creating a contemporary ambiguous space surrounding the mediated material. The mid section of the film consists of brilliantly re-edited material from television and press archives. By highlighting the perspectives taken by the media, including the false starts, hesitations and preparations usually cut from news footage, the film reveals the construction and manipulation of Devlin’s media image and the prejudice and condescension with which her politics and her very person were treated. A key scene subtly shows the contrivance of news coverage, where we are shown a silent interviewer with a focused expression on his face being filmed in the act of ‘listening’ to later be cut into Devlin’s responses.

Fully aware of the performance required for the political stage, Devlin is revealed as not only a brilliant political speaker but also a shrewd and aware media figure, conscious of the ways the media intervenes in the politics. Through the re-editing and opening up of this material, the balance of power and representation is returned in Devlin’s favour. This portrait explores her political struggle not only through her speeches and protests but also crucially in her challenges to imperialism, patriarchal society and political complacency as manifested by the mainstream British media.

Campbell’s film shares an exploration of the way media participates in and represents dominate political views of the time with the pioneering work of the Black Audio Film Collective and in particular their iconic film Handsworth Songs (UK, 1985) which explores the media through its own channels. “For Black Audio Film Collective,” Reece Auguiste states, “the archive constitutes a privileged terrain of knowledge.”[3] It is this terrain which Handsworth Songs seeks to reclaim through its sonic and visual interrogation of the race riots which took place in the Handsworth suburb of Birmingham in 1985. Critically, the film unpacks the conditions that come with imperial hospitality, and “reflects profoundly the agency of the oppressed; it narrates their stories, not purely from the point of view of the event from which it derives its name, but equally through an archaeology of the visual archive of minoritarian dwelling in Britain.”[4] As the Black Audio Film Collective shows, re-claiming archives and unpacking the tools of representation and oppression is a political as well as aesthetic act.

Malone Road fiddles while the Falls Road burns

Campbell’s work can be approached and understood in the wider context of the rehabilitation of the documentary form within the context of contemporary art. Some commentators have read this trend solely as a failure of television to accommodate critical voices. Yet in the light of Paik’s statement, this shift continues the development of Video Art, largely enabled by the internet, which has helped to collapse television’s monopoly on broadcast platforms and opened up of media archives to the world. The last ten years has seen a shift within the Visual Arts and increasing presence of artists working with archives for source material and exhibition structures, ranging from Turner nominee Goshka Macuga and Lebanese artist Walid Raad’s Atlas Group, to Campbell’s Glasgow based contemporaries Luke Fowler and Stephen Sutcliffe. Creating new contexts and commentary for images and their presentation is a crucial part of these artists practice.

Campbell’s first film Falls Burns Malone Fiddles[5] (2003) draws its visual material and commentary from the archive of Belfast Exposed and Community Visual Images. The photography and video archive emerged as a by product of Belfast Exposed’s community project, which as Campbell explains aimed “to work with teenagers in West Belfast with the intention to find a different view of their lives.”[6] Paradoxically the project which was set up to “counteract Belfast’s image as seen through the prism of mainstream media”, saw many of the participants contributing directly back into British media as they were often first on the scene with cameras at many of the key ‘events’ of the Troubles.

The circularity of representation is an inherent effect of the media and how dominant ways of making images permeate society. Falls Burns Malone Fiddles attempts to navigate this mediated culture and find a route into these images, and to the youth that produced them and which they attempted to represent. Mark Leckey’s early video Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999), makes an interesting parallel, here a range of material explores the evolution of youth culture through footage from dances, raves and nightclubs. With hypnotic loops, slowed down clips and visible time codes (which assert the materials own temporal nature), the video presents an archaeology of ephemeral youth trends from Northern Soul to Happy Hardcore. Despite its oblique narration and avoidance of branded identity, Campbell’s film is similarly preoccupied with co-opted and transient identity. A disembodied voice in Fiorucci that would not be out of place in Campbell’s film is heard saying, “the world’s just different, it changes everyday.”

The voice-over in both of Campbell’s films is crucial in establishing and complicating our relationship to the images and subjects his films explore, often shifting in tense from first to third person, peppered with revisions, quotations and false starts. Initially inspired by the participants written notes from the material in the archive, the text for Falls Burns Malone Fiddles, evolved into the voice of a self-doubting narrator played by Scottish actor Ewen Bremner. Evoking the spectre of Samuel Beckett in its series of false beginnings and dubious authenticity, the narration is filled with anxiety over finding an appropriate language with which to approach the films images.

It is precisely this anxiety that Campbell’s work thrives upon, the difficulty of naming or fixing an image, a place or a person is what drives his work. His most abstract film O Joan, no… (2006) like an absurdist play, is built from a collection of gasps, squeals and other surprised expressions that accompany the films brief glimpses of imagery. A brilliant and perverse response to abstract films earnestness, this is central to Campbell’s wider project, which while filled with anxious questions and fully aware of the difficulties of approaching the past, strives to achieve new images and new associations more adequate and less deficient than the last. The past requires revision and its images constant modification, and it is exactly this realisation that all images are in flux that fills Campbell’s work with its urgency, relevance and humanity.


[1] Artists statement to accompany exhibition at Hotel, London,  23rd Nov 2008–18th Jan 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Handsworth Songs: Some Background Notes by Reece Auguiste, p159, The Ghosts Of Songs, ed. Kodwo Eshun & Anjalika Sagar, 2007 Liverpool Hope Press and FACT, Liverpool.

[4] Coalition Building: Black Audio Film Collective and Transnational Post-colonialism by Okwui Enwezor, p.120 from The Ghosts Of Songs, ed. Kodwo Eshun & Anjalika Sagar, 2007 Liverpool Hope Press and FACT, Liverpool.

[5] The title is taken from a political slogan from the 1960s, ‘Malone Road fiddles while the Falls Road burns’. The phrase is a criticism of liberals inactivity in Malone Road, a street in Belfast synonymous with middle-class lifestyle, untouched at that time by the troubles then engulfed Catholic working-class areas such as the Falls Road. It was feature in various political posters produced by the People’s Democracy part in late 60s and 70s.

[6] Duncan Campbell from interview with Tobi Moier, ‘History through Peripheries, Mouse magazine p.27 April/May 2009.

About the Author: George Clark is a curator, writer and artist. At the Independent Cinema Office between 2006 and 2008 he managed a range of touring projects including: ‘Essentials: The Secret Masterpieces of Cinema‘, ‘Artists & Icons’ and ‘The Artists Cinema 2006′. Independent curatorial projects include ‘The Unstable States of…’, ‘Without Boundaries: European Artists’ Film and Video’ and the retrospective ‘The Cinema of Miklos Jancso’ [co-curated with Travis Miles]. He has written for Art Monthly, Afterall, Sight & Sound, Senses of Cinema and Vertigo Magazine among other publications. He is currently collaborating with the artist Beatrice Gibson on the script for a film commissioned by the Serpentine Gallery and Camden Council.

Check out the Duncan Campbell slideshow to see stills from the films that George Clark mentions above.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009 | Tagged with , , ,


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