This is Now: Post Punk Film and Video in China

William Fowler, curator of Artists' Moving Image at the British Film Institute, was invited to China to give a series of talks on the BFI/LUX This is Now touring programme. He tells us more about the trip and about the appetite for artists' moving image in China.

The films the BFI National Archive restored for the project This is Now: Film and Video After Punk had rarely been seen since their very first screenings in the early 1980s when they appeared on home release VHSs and were presented in alternative cinema spaces and clubs.  They had almost certainly never been presented in China prior to my visit to Nanjing and Guangzhou in late 2018.

The punk era is primarily known for the music and the attitude but it triggered a whole new wave of bold, often confrontational creativity in multiple fields, and very often those different areas overlapped.  Super 8 films featured friends acting and performing and music was also key, with tapes being played with the works, or in the case of John Maybury’s Court of Miracles (1982), Siouxsie Sioux (of Banshees fame) actually appeared, along with Body Map fashion designer David Holah.

At the same time there was an explosion of activity in film and video and domestic formats such as Super 8, or even the older 8mm (as used by Grayson Perry) brought a powerful yet cheap DIY directness to films that questioned issues around gender, race politics and the symbolism of the image and its currency and flow in the early 1980s UK.  The meaning and consequences of access to cheap technology was explored in playful and political fashion by scratch video artists who cut and juxtaposed everything from mundane Hollywood movies to news footage.  The Greatest Hits of Scratch Video Volume 1 was compiled and released by artist George Barber in 1984 and reviewed in The Times and the music press.

Following a research period tracing the works and speaking with filmmakers, the BFI National Archive digitally scanned and restored twenty Super 8 and 16mm films made between 1979 and 1984. Organised into seven programmes that premiered at BFI Southbank in London, this broad range of work went on tour to multiple countries courtesy of artist moving image agency LUX and, in the case of China, the British Council.

The screenings in China were organised as a way of sharing this almost entirely unseen material and I gave two separate illustrated talks in Nanjing and Guangzhou as a way of providing some kind of context.  Artist film occupies a slippery place in the UK, increasingly moving fluidly between the cinema and the gallery, productively problematizing both spheres as a resistant form, and the same appeared to be true in China.  Both screenings were linked to galleries, but the talks themselves occurred in cinemas spaces.

Two programmes from This Is Now were presented in long loops in the Nanjing University of the Arts gallery and my talk took place in a classroom/cinema space hybrid that was quite different to the standard lecture auditorium one might expect. The space was wider than it was long and film posters hung from the walls above display cases containing other forms of cinema memorabilia.  I was welcomed by Professor Wang Yamin and his students Jiang Yuhang and Jia Zhenhai who graciously looked after me while I was there and it was exciting to be in a space that treasured and foregrounded the materials of cinema history.  My powerpoint presentation included examples of posters and programme publicity from the punk era in the UK and they took on unexpected dialogues with the film materials physically present in the room.  

I had stressed in my talk the subversive, interventionist approach to filmmaking that artists such as Akiko Hada, Jill Westwood and Isaac Julien had undertaken in the early 1980s and reflected on the inherent tension that comes with restoring and re-presenting this kind of charged, underground work.  Some of the students appeared to be unfamiliar with punk and I was asked to explain it and put it into context. 

When I went to The Times Museum in Guangzhou, these themes were again highlighted and questioned and I became engaged with two members of the audience who asked about the processes of re-presentation in the context of the writings of British sociologist and theorist Stuart Hall who commented on subversion and its assimilation.  The Times Museum presents large scale moving image works in its gallery space but also hosts something called The Other Cinema, named after the UK independent cinema founded in 1970, and this space is also used to screen films and present talks; The Times Museum showcases the full rich complexity of creative moving image practice and its history.

It was a brilliant opportunity to present this powerful British art and its tensions and richness remain - and were manifest - through the substance of these conversations and the audience responses in both Nanjing and Guangzhou.  Ultimately I cannot stand in for these works or their makers but my research has given me certain types of insight and I am pleased that many of the artists represented through their films in the programme have also been able offer thoughts over the course of the tour, not least from Vanda Carter and Judith Goddard who had visited The Times Museum only a few months earlier.  The conversations and thoughts about this rich, collage-like work continue - as does the tour.

William Fowler, Curator of Artists' Moving Image, British Film Institute

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