It was with a great deal of shock and sadness that I recently learnt of the death in October this year of David Hall: A pioneering video artist and teacher who is often referred to as the ‘God Father’ of UK Video Art.
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As a former student of David’s in the early 1980’s on the analogue-based, pioneering Fine Art: Film,Video and Sound course which he’d created in the backwaters of Maidstone College of Art in the now UKIP-heartlands of Kent, I soon discovered – just like all his students – that David didn’t so much tell us how we could become Artists (as is the case on many career-orientated Fine Art courses these days) but instead both led by example and showed us how we too could embrace film and the new and emerging medium of video ourselves as artists and creative practitioners. Back in the early-Thatcherite 1980s there were very few film schools in the UK – in fact there wasn’t much of a film industry left come to think of it – and the opportunities that did exist in such places were either reserved for the cream of Oxbridge or treated like exclusive finishing schools for rich kids with more money than talent or common sense. As for the medium we all call Television it was – as it still is – a medium run and controlled by a North London elite who believe in a society in which people are meant to ‘know their place’ in the class-sense and accept their role as a passive audience who are delivered to advertisers and controlled by politicians. In such a repressive and austere cultural, economic and social climate as the one that existed in the early 1980s, the whole idea of even getting your hands on film cameras and the new means of electronic (re)production like video, let alone be given both the time and space to experiment with them in an art school environment was in itself ground-breaking. And when that access was coupled together with the fact that we were living through the tail end of punk with its inspiring DIY ethos and that a few kids from under-class/disenfranchised backgrounds and council estates could still get a grant – even under Thatcher – to get into art schools, it all became – well, potentially, revolutionary.
David never really taught us how to be creative or what we had to do to become geniuses or the kind of ruthless career artists who are prevalent in todays art world; Instead what he did do was provide an environment that encouraged and nurtured creativity and individuality, by pretty much leaving us to it to learn to survive and discover things about art and life for ourselves and find our own visions and voices through a process of failure, self-discovery and exposure to all manner of weird, wonderful and at times boring experimental and avant-garde films, books, ideas and artworks – many of which ranged from the inspiring to the awful. The one pedagogical thing he did however seem to relish was placing obstacles in our paths (often in collusion with the departmental technician Colin Smith) setting often draconian rules and restrictions on the use and abuse of departmental equipment in the hope that we may break them, rather than just break film and video equipment – which many of us had set about teaching ourselves to use through blood, sweat and toil; while also adopting a process of peer-to-peer co-operation, support and collaboration on each others projects, rather than the ‘generation-me’ competitiveness of the 1980’s which elsewhere would lead to the rise of the Yuppie, the New Romantic and Professional Video industry.
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Interruption piece from TV Interventions (7 TV Pieces)
Commissioned as part of the Scottish Arts Council’s Locations Edinburgh event, 1971
In his own work David always regarded what he did with film and video as being an extension of sculpture rather than as a part of any Hollywood or British film-making tradition. Neither did he align himself with, or encourage us to adopt the kind of boring, structuralist film-making or feeble and dysfunctional politically correct ideas that could be found in institutions such as the Royal College of Art or in the more trendy London Art schools (who were at the time giving birth to the New Romantics) and better equipped Polytechnics found north of Watford, where style was everything. And it’s probably because of all the reasons I’ve mentioned here that neither Maidstone nor David’s maverick and pioneering course has ever really got the full recognition they deserve in the art-world or in academia. I do however think that history – now that it’s being rediscovered again after it ended back in 1995 – will be much kinder to David Hall; An Artist and an analogue video pioneer, who let his students experiment and do their own thing to find themselves in what they did not just as artists but also as people. And even if only a few of his alumni still get a name-check in REWIND or remain active in the cliques, overtly academic and sterile world of Artist Video many others have gone-on to become film-makers or have found themselves working in the very inaccessible medium which many of us still have a love/hate affair with because of David Hall: Television. He always said that he never believed in genius only in hard-work and perhaps that’s his lasting legacy to all those who passed through his course at Maidstone College of Art – along with his own body of work, whose clarity and in many cases simplicity still stands a full head-and-shoulders above much of the re-appropriated/recycled art-world digital-noise which now fills contemporary art galleries (the recent Generation spectacle in Scotland comes to mind here)
In the end the mark of a really great teacher – not just in art but in anything we may decide to do in our lives – has nothing to do with teaching bad science or a success formula, or training the next generation of art-workers for the Creative Industries, but instead in his or her ability to provoke and challenge and help us find the confidence needed to change ourselves and the way we think, make and look at things – which in the end I guess is what an Art education should really be all about as well as allowing us to pursue our dreams and go out and change the world.
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