Resisting Taxonomy: Dialogue with Malcolm LeGrice

Jackie Hatfield

Printed in MFJ No. 45/46 (Fall 2006) Hybrids

This is an extract of a four hour interview with Malcolm LeGrice conducted in March 2005 for the research project REWIND: Artists' Video in the '70s and '80s, University of Dundee, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of Great Britain. REWIND aims for a wider understanding of the pioneering moving-image artworks of this period, addressing the gap in knowledge of the evolution of electronic media arts and reflecting the diversity of practices by artists. An edited transcript of the complete interview is available on the REWIND on-line database:

As artistic practice has become increasingly removed from the production of objects, it is sometimes difficult to see beyond the residues, which often take the form of some kind of polemical discourse, by the artist or by their supporters (or detractors), in books or journals. This is particularly the case with time-based works, materially hybrid, ephemeral and not reproducible even in the mind's eye. It is easier to fixate on a text, rather than to search out the artwork, which, originally in a cinema or a gallery, now sits motionless on the shelf in the artist's studio as elements extracted from their context, along with documentation stills, the artist statement, and the technology required to run it, the instruments of its moment—the space, the artist, the audience, and the machinery. The text, then, is all we might have to remind us of the existence of this artwork, but it will inevitably distort our reading of it, and perhaps also the objectives of this artist. For this art, a synaesthetic, sensuous, experiential, live, time-based thing, presence is central to its becoming. A single moment, never to be repeated, and in its complete form it will resonate only in the memory of its audience. How does this work get written into history? How does an historian map this perceptual, intangible language?

Cinematic artworks are by nature ephemeral. Although in the late 60s and 70s published debates around, and artists' philosophical preoccupations with, materiality extended the life of the film or video beyond the live event, and theoretical considerations propelled the works themselves into an uncertain future of possible reinterpretation. In a post-material era of fleeting technologies and emergent mergers, film becomes a transitory moment in this short history of the moving-image. Cinema, not the cinema, is to do with consciousness, as an overwhelming and accentuated perception, an aural, visual alchemy unbounded by medium. For expanded cinema in particular this has always been the case, since it is an art of latent images and hybrid forms, incomplete outside the live event. It is possible to see a shift from a time where the material components of the cinematic could be isolated and theorized and a specific moment when the edges started to blur.

Video is entangled in hybridity. Whether in performance, dance, architecture or sculpture, as theatre, television, or computer, fusion of forms and languages has been central to experimentation in this field. Artists, coming from other media and disciplines, laid open video's intertextualities, resisting traditional definitions of material specificity. Video technologies were incarnated during a post-modern shift, whereby more than half a century later, artistic ideas conceptualized early in the twentieth century were actually made manifest, that is, for the first time since the Futurists wrote their manifestos and proclaimed the demise of the materially autonomous artwork.

Malcolm LeGrice's practice and philosophical discourse has spanned forty years of technological change. Although earlier in his career he described himself as 'film-maker and artist' his work has spanned media, from film to video to computer-based image production, and his published writing across three decades is testimony to a rigorous interrogation of the technologies of the moving-image, led by his diverse artistic output. LeGrice has been committed to the use of digital technologies since the early eighties, and experimented with computers in the mid seventies incorporating some of this in his film works (Threshold, 1972; Your Lips, 1970) and with CCTV video installation in the late 1960s (Drama in a Wide Media Environment, 1968; After Leonardo, 1974). He has been instrumental in establishing debate around the technologies of his practice, publishing philosophical discourse exploring the polemics of changing media and the languages of these emergent technological processes.

*   *   *

JH: Malcolm, can you talk about the shift in your philosophy and the changing processes of your practice from pure film to the fusion of film, video, and digital? 

MLG: I started as a painter, but just as I was leaving the Slade in 1964, I started to break out of strictly painting and into other forms of working. I became interested in art and technology in a general sense, and I lead up and worked with a number of people who were likeminded. I made contact with the music group AMM, and I became one of the first members of the Computer Art Society in around 1966. When I started teaching at St. Martin's in 1964 or '65 I thought I'd like to do something with film and I started some 8-millimetre work and raided the dustbins of Soho. I'm not quite sure why but it was part of a general tendency to work in different ways from painting. I also got a job at Goldsmiths where there was a very interesting new video department in the educational section. They had a big deck system, it was one inch I think but not Portapak—reel-to-reel, black-and-white, and nicely set up and run sympathetically to experimentation. I went in there and did a number of experiments including re-videoing off the screen some of the work that I did on Castle II. In 1967 or '68, I did an event at the Arts Laboratory in Drury Lane. It was two weeks working with a group of people including Mike Dunford, some actors and performers.

The other thing I did partly through the Computer Art Society and partly through meeting someone who had a grant from the Science Research Council and who got me access to the computer at the Atomic Energy Establishment in Didcott, I had to learn to programme, sitting and typing things onto auto punch cards. It was a very, very lengthy process. After nine months of working on this and I produced about 8 seconds of black-and-white very low resolution ellipses. What I was excited by in film was the vibrant pace, scale and audio and visual experience, which I couldn't get at that time from video or the computer. Now there's no distinction. Though there is still this film purist attitude. A lot of people are saying to me 'why aren't you making film?' Because of my early work with the materials of film, they tend to attach me with that camp of the materiality of film. While in truth, it's not something fundamental. It's fundamental in that in any one point, you're working with the reality of the medium, and the reality of the way in which that is experienced by the audience is its reality and so the medium is important in that respect, and remains so, but it's not for any intrinsic qualities of the carrier.

JH: You've made work where you've used whatever technologies were available, and have woven an imaging texture throughout. The current digital technologies are more sophisticated than film has ever been in terms of imaging capacity.

MLG: Yes I agree. There's a range available to you in it that is not available to you in film, except by enormously roundabout methods. You could just about simulate it in film.

JH: But that's where the digital technology is interesting beyond the filmic.

MLG: Well it is, but in a sense I wouldn't want to put the rationale for using one medium rather than another into the technological territory that it opens up. I mean I still think there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to produce as interesting a piece of art work using match sticks as using 35 millimetre film. I know it's a ridiculous argument but the point that I'm making is that in the end you can't define the value and quality of the work by the novelty of the devices that you use. I use certain sorts of devices but I only use the devices that suit my artistic purpose. I recently made a piece called Digital Aberration, it was like a self-punishment piece because my dogma was that to do anything with the digital you have to be able to program and generate all the material and transformations yourself otherwise you're just carrying forward the creativity that's embodied in the development of the technology by the scientists. So I decided I would make a piece where I used all of the cheap effects, or every cheap transitional effect. I made the sound track by using a piece of software I found on a Cornflakes packet. It was a piece of free music software. It was actually a sequencer, but set up really for kids or teenagers to use. It was very, very cheap and not sophisticated, so I decided I'd make the soundtrack using it. It was completely off the shelf sort of stuff, the absolute opposite to my dogma. Unless the piece does something interesting artistically you can't say that there's any struggle in the kind of issues of how you produced the images. The technology, in a way, is absolutely unimportant. In the end it's only what you do with it and whether you make something interesting, enjoyable and engaging. Regarding the question of the technology, I'm stimulated by some of the things you can do with the new technology that you couldn't do with the previous technology, but I'm also very resistant when I do it in that I ask myself at the end of it, 'Does that do something that actually is artistically interesting?'

Film to cinema

Like the technologies of the moving image—i.e. film, video, computer augmented and digital imaging—and the many audio formats, artists have complex histories, their processes of artistic exploration often involving various mediums or forms. There is no one history of moving-image; film experiment being a small part of a massive cinematic history that sometimes pre-figured video and digital imaging, but largely, happened in parallel. I am not trying to say that experiment with pure film has come to some kind of conclusion. A film installation or expanded film has special qualities that a digital moving-image artwork does not have—the flickering image, the noise of the projector, tactility etc. An experience of an Anthony McCall film sculpture is necessarily different when transferred to a digitally-based medium. Film installations by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler have surface and presence that the digital image does not have; Guy Sherwin or Rob Gawthrop's film performances involve a temporality that the digital and its potentially never-ending loop, does not have; namely the end point, the enforced resolution at the end of the leader. However, recent artists' experiments with the moving image unanchored in material form, offer a potential for philosophical analysis different from the polemics of the 70's and undercut the arguments for delineation of media. LeGrice has notated this material transformation through his artistic exploration and critical writing. He is an artist whose work embodies the paradigm shifts from the indexical to the latent. Emanating from the practical experiment, his position on film materiality (Abstract Film and Beyond, 1977) was resonant with its time, and LeGrice has been prolific in his production and critical writing ever since (see: Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age, 2001).

*   *   *

JH: Coming back to the idea of purist film, it was similar for artists using video in the 70s. There was a drive toward definition of material and there was much dialogue among artists around that at the time— but in their practice artists were in actual fact exploring many approaches to materiality through a range of languages. With convergent moving-image technologies does medium specificity matter? Although you started with film, you are saying that it doesn't really matter to you now, which technology you use, whether it's film or video, as long as you can make what you need to make, and that digital technology is now close enough to what you need. Can you talk about when you started making video works and when the technology had moved to the point where, as images, it was acceptable for you as an artist?

MLG: I think it was around 1983 or 1984 when the Sony Video 8 camera became available. A large part of what I did as a filmmaker—I did the printing and processing—meant spending very long periods in dark spaces. I spent a long time and used a fairly high level of resources to do sound mixing, picture control and editing on the Steenbeck. With video I had the opportunity to work with a medium where the relationship between the making of the image and the seeing of the image was much closer. It satisfied something for me in bringing my making practice closer to the way I was living my life. There was a big separation in film between the making of the film and the other conditions of your life. Now I was beginning to get interested, not in my life as an autobiographical thing, but in there not being that hard separation between what it was that was going on in my mind and what was going on in my vision and in my normal passage through life, and what I was thinking about doing with the art work. What was interesting to me was not the production process itself but the experience at the point of viewing the work. It was the condition, the moment of the spectatorship that interested me. So the minute that the image from the video had a chance of working with the sort of quality and resolution that you could get with film, I found myself more interested in the video.  I was very tired of the alienation that I had experienced through the processing of film. When I looked back at the work that I'd done previously and looked at the earlier pieces like Berlin Horse and thought, 'Actually I was right to be going in that direction'—video linked up with that question—it allowed me to think much more small scale, much more without dependence on any external funding. There was a real possibility of having the whole making process under my own control with my own equipment. At the same time the digital began to become more popular—and it was almost at the same time when I had got my Atari computer and started to be able to do things with the computer in a visually and audio engaged way, that for me, matched my idea of the cinematic and I could do that at low cost. 

Even though it was analogue video that I was producing with a Video 8, in fact it was already going through a digital frame store, so the digital was already there. A lot of the things that interested me about image transformation, which I was doing in film through printing processes, I could take up and in some ways take further using digital processes. Gradually the issue of image transformation became less interesting for me, but at that moment I did find that I could do with video everything that I was interested in doing with film, and I found that I could do it more easily and much more quickly.

JH: I'm thinking about how we experience film, electronic media and sound in expanded form as installation or multi-screen, and I find definitions of these works often difficult, especially as an artist who makes hybrid moving-things, where the words that describe them might become a reason to misunderstand the intention behind them. For instance when I say 'cinema' I am describing something more perceptual than an object or thing. I suppose I take it for granted that the languages of experimental cinema needn't be fixed in a specific technology. Cinematic experiment alongside technological experiment can be traced throughout the twentieth century, and materials of cinema have been constantly in flux. How do you define the cinematic?

MLG: I clearly distinguish between the Cinema as an institution, which for me means Hollywood—the cinema industry—which is an institution where films are shown in cinemas; they have narratives and they fit into a certain kind of psyche. Then there is film or the medium of cinema, or media that used to be film then became electronic, video, and is now moving increasingly towards being entirely digital. For me the cinematic resides in the relationship to the kind of experience, the way in which the audience relates to the moving image. It is a kind of experience connected with movement, it's to do with the passage of time and duration, it's to do with scale and the way in which we become engaged through the senses, with the visual and audio experience.  For me it doesn't matter whether it's carried on DVD or videotape or film. That is not the major question for me. It is influenced by the institution—the cinema and television are institutions, and they have institutional expectations, or if you're showing in the art world, in galleries or museums, that institutional context will have an effect. But, there is something continuous in the kind of engagement that the audience, the user, the spectator has with the image and its passage which is not determined entirely by the institution. It is almost like there is a cinematic desire in us, a desire for a kind of involvement that is encompassing, spectacular, engaging. We have a desire for that and particularly the rate and passage of time—the rate at which images are changing seems to be quite important in this and even in the other non-cinematic media. I'm thinking of the internet and so on, they seem to be aspiring to the experience of the cinematic. So a lot of the issues that have been of interest to me, connected with spectators placing themselves, or being placed within the representation, seem to me to survive either the medium or the institution, which are not, in the end, the entirely dominating factors of what I would think of as the cinematic.

JH: Might it not be large-scale though? Peep shows weren't large-scale but still I would argue, they're cinematic.

MLG: It doesn't have to be any one of those qualities. It can have a number of qualities without the others but even with the peep show you have got to get in close, and it fills your optical field.

JH: But it's different if you are enclosed within a space because you're moving up to an image. You're looking at a visual thing rather than being in a physical environment, where you are smaller than the image. You're bigger than the image when you're staring into it in a peep show. I suppose I'm trying to gain a sense here of how video, the electronic image—which historically has tended to be written around the conceptual, and the non imagistic—can be defined as cinematic. I would argue that video installation has a cinematic element to it—it doesn't have to be large-scale and it doesn't have to be projection—it could be monitor-based.

MLG: My definition isn't strict, is a set of intercepting qualities. What's difficult for me is that during a certain period of my own work I was attempting to break the lure of the illusion in cinema. I talked a lot about a Brechtian alienation factor and the attempt to switch to a form where the spectator became self-conscious, the spectators became aware of themselves in a space separate from the experience of the film or experience of the cinematic, and it was in opposition to the kind of dominant illusionistic cinema that fully engaged the audience in a way that they had no separation from. It is difficult because that level of engagement as well as the non-engagement is a very important part, for me, in the cinema.  It is more the kind and level of the engagement and it is to do with something that occupies your visual field, so that you become part of the image, it occupies your audio field, so that, it's like you move into a dream environment. You move into the space that's been, in a way, stolen by narrative, the diegetic space. Even if I want devices which bring you out of it, make you aware of the fact that you are different from it, that your life is not the life that you are engaging in, in the work, I still feel that the cinematic lure is to do with that pleasure that you get when you become engaged as if you are in something approaching the dream world.  I'm ambivalent about it because I don't want that to be an oppressive relationship.  In the early period of my work, I was quite insistent about saying the experience of the cinema is the here and now of that experience and not the there and then of the image or the there and then of the narrative.  On the other side, the experience of the here and now can be a highly sensual, sensory, sensuous experience as it is with classical modern art, for instance, Matisse. When you see a Matisse, the image occupies your visual field, but it doesn't represent something behind the picture, it represents something that you are in the presence of. You are there because you are part of the presence. I'm trying to have it both ways—the immersiveness is a very important part of the cinematic.

The monitor period of video art, which actually looks very out of date now, more out-of-date than the period of projected cinema, is built around a transient stage of a technology when only cathode ray tubes could reproduce pictures electronically. One of the reasons it worked for Baldessari and Richard Serra and those people who did conceptual works for the monitor, was because the monitor could handle an idea but it was very difficult for it to handle an immersive experience. Some artists, such as Nam June Paik or David Hall got over it by creating the immersive experience through multiplication. Taking a large number of monitors, they actually made a physical sculptural experience, which was immersive.


In a material sense, video is a latent image, its materiality in flux, necessitating continual theoretical or philosophical review. Video is and always has been a technology of combination, and in its current guise, a chameleon-like element, one of many in the array of constantly changing digital 'new media'. A philosophy based upon video's materiality therefore would be built upon shifting-sands. The practical history of experimental video typifies the formulation of post-material paradigms. Similar to the digital, the technology itself resists definition on the basis of analysis of its material constituents. For example in the late 1960s to 70s, the apparatus of videotape production and playback consisted of definable objects, i.e. a portapak, a monitor, the conduit of broadcast, but ultimately, video, its changeability and potential for amalgamation with other art forms and contexts, is a challenge to any medium specific rhetoric. In the gallery, the line of demarcation between the architectural and the image are blurred, the audience moving physically around the space, semi-immersed in the event of the artwork. This is a totally different experience from the cinema theatre with its proscenium arch and the audience sitting facing the screens. What better a technology for this than film where the virtual is so directly dependent on real physical constituents? In the interview Malcolm went into detail about the real and the virtual, the complexities of how, as spectators, we bring the experiential, our memories and dreams, to our reading of these notions. He has also written about this in his essay 'Virtual Reality—Tautological Oxymoron'1, but it is at the point at which he talks about film relative to video as an immersive experience and the inclusion of the spectator as part of an event, in particular the issue of pre-recorded time relative to real time that is key to understanding how video experiment of the 70s prefigured the participatory processes we are familiar with in the digital domain.

*   *   *

JH: What about participatory video? Because that was something that film couldn't be.

MLG: That was a different matter, where the exploration in video was about video as a feedback system as in some of Dan Graham's work and Video Corridor by Bruce Nauman, where the spectators saw themselves as they passed through on a live video or on a loop delay video. What was happening was not to do with the image but to do with the system and to do with video as something where the spectator was reflected back into the work. Those works tended to be sculptural works with video as a component within that sculptural experience. They weren't about immersion in the image; the immersiveness was in the sculpture and in the experience of the system. I thought they were much more interesting works and in fact the works that I did with video, were much more like them. They weren't videotapes, none of the works that I did with video were videotapes, they were video set-ups. It was interesting also that this problematic was something that fed back into film: particularly with William Raban's 2 Minutes 45 Seconds where he used film as if it were a video feedback system. In my own re-filming from the screen works, which was quite a number of them: White Field Duration, After Leonardo, and Don't Say, which I don't show any more, these were films where the video experience of the feeding back, bringing one time into another, not documentation—as a document—became a problematic in the cinema. It was curious in the cinema because the cinema wasn't a one-to-one instant feedback. It was a feedback that was always separated by some time process of developing, printing, re-showing, re-filming, it is like it stretched that video process out, and that was very influenced by that capacity of video to feed back into the live experience.  I didn't get interested in single-track video until it was easily accessible high quality, relatively high-resolution, colour images, which would take blowing up to large scale. It was only when video became a kind of equivalent for the level of immersion and quality that you could get with film that I became interested in single-track. Now, I don't care. I happily make things on mini DV or DV cam, because the resolution level, the fact that you can blow it up onto a screen, that's an experience you can get from film. It's working as the equivalent of film and I don't see a big difference, a lot of people do but I don't. 

*   *   *

For artists working with moving image in the early twenty-first century, the past forty years of technological innovation has revolutionized the possibilities for experiment and exhibition.  Not since the invention of film has there been such a critical period of major change in the imaging technologies accessible to artists. Far from being fixed within one form or another, experimental moving-image pioneers of the twentieth century have worked fluidly across mediums and languages, and their artworks have often been an amalgamation of materials and processes. Consider the image labyrinths, tones and cadences of David Larcher's multi-layered vertically edited works. These intuitively produced imaginary structures are made possible only in electronic space (Etc, 1986; Granny's Is, 1990; VideOvoid, 1994; Ich Tank), although Larcher's earlier works (Mares Tail, 1969 and Monkey's Birthday, 1975) were made using film. Or through his obsessive picking apart of software and imaging technologies Steve Littman's multi-screen visual music and editing extravaganzas (Predator Cat, Selfish Diva, 1998; Digital Boogie Woogie, 1998); in the 1980's Littman spent ten years documenting and re-processing theatre and live art; and has made work for broadcast TV (Big Time/The House, 1990), gallery (In the Name of the Gun, 1987, Reflective Surface Vale, 1999/2000) and theatre (Surfing on the Short Waves, 1985; Overseen, Overheard, Overlooked, 1987). Tina Keane started as a painter in the 70s (Tina's Light Theatre) and has worked with film (Shadow of a Journey, 1980; Hey Mack, 1982; Deviant Beauty, 1995), video (Escalator, 1979; Faded Wallpaper, 1984; Transposition, 1995; Ghost Train, 2002), performance (She, 1978), and sculptural materials (The Swing, 1978; Playpen, 1979; Demolition/Escape, 1983). She has dipped in and out of processes that incorporated film and video, sound, installation, sculpture, and performance—things that move in time and space, as gallery installation, or single and multi-screen projection in the cinema theatre.

This period of moving-image innovation, and its plasticity in the exhibition context, has enabled artists to explore and make manifest some of the radical art concerns of the twentieth century, incorporating the sculptural, painterly, cinematic and interactive, towards a total art, i.e. gesamtkuntswerk. The practical history of this experiment is liquid and amorphous, since in exhibition, these artworks have no fixed form, and remain as elusive as a fleeting moment in the mind of the viewer. The medium matters less and less in our cinematic encounters; that is, as long as the spell isn't broken and our senses can remain mesmerised without interruption, then the pleasure can endure regardless of the carrier of the image.


1. ^New Screen Media, Cinema/Art/Narrative, Eds Martin Rieser/Andrea Zapp, pp. 227-236