In Dependence

“In the mid-1990s in Britain there is no independent film and video culture. None – at least none of the kind so clearly identifiable 15 years ago, and none with any significant presence. No independent film avant-garde, no independent video art production…..this is a state which we might – cautiously – celebrate.”

John Wyver -Producer with Illuminations the company responsible for the TV compilations of independent film and video : Ghosts In The Machine and White Noise.
From ‘What You See Is What You Get : Catalogue Essay for the 3rd ICA Biennial of Independent Film and Video 1995’.

‘Unlike traditional funders, however, the LFVDA undertakes activity itself. It could be argued that this approach is setting the LFVDA in competition with the independent sector it is there to fund. The problem with this argument is that it assumes there is still such a thing as a coherent ‘independent sector’, with its own agenda and plans . There isn’t. Perhaps there never was.”

Steve McIntyre -Chief Executive of the London Film and Video Development Agency. From ‘The Very Model Of A Modern Funding Agency’ Vertigo 1996

Quoted above are articles by two of the leading administrators of ‘Independent’ media and together they articulate a stunning ideological manoeuvre.

In ‘What You See Is What You Get’ John Wyver argues that there is no longer an ‘Independent’ film/video culture because ‘Independent’ production has become totally dependent upon and entwined with the television industry. There is no longer an ‘Independent’ sector, all that remains is an ‘Independent tradition’ which now exists within the structures and screens of TV. But…”Maybe, however, in the interstices of the Internet will flourish a new independent image culture.”

In ‘The Very Model Of A Modern Funding Agency’ Steve McIntyre considers the function of the LFVDA as London’s advisory body on National Lottery film and video funding and argues that since Lottery funding can only go to individual applications and since there is no longer a coherent ‘Independent’ Sector “….the notion of Independence can only be saved by rigorously attaching it to work and not to institutions.”

And so, two respected professionals pronounce the death of their own profession but temper their grief with the hope of it’s imminent transformation and rebirth. But what is it that has died and what do these alchemists want to replace it with? Well, to understand the sheer nerve of this manoeuvre you’ve got to get to grips with the implicit meaning of the term ‘Independent ‘ in this context, they’re not talking about a sector that is free from all outside authority, a sector that is not financially dependent on an executive agency, both Wyver and McIntyre use the term ‘Independent” to refer to the specific cultural industry which evolved out of London in the mid ’60’s and developed and expanded throughout the ’70’s and early eighties.Wyver and McIntyre define the sector even as they negate it. Firstly they suggest that the now defunct “Independent ” project was once, in some vague way, politically radical and subversive, that there was once a media strategy for social change but that this radicalism is no longer possible in the new realism and technology of the ’90’s. As McIntyre says…”Much has been lost but much has been gained. The point now is to find ways (the plural is crucial) of making sense of and exploiting new opportunities. Of developing an approach which might be designated ‘principled opportunism’.”

The second crucial definition that both writers share is that the ‘Independent Sector’ defined itself as a network of state funded organisations and state funded film/video makers. This would include the funding agencies themselves (eg. the British Film Institute, the Arts Council, the Regional Arts Boards), distribution agencies (eg. Film and Video Umbrella ), workshops and production organisations (eg. the London Film Makers Co-Op and London Electronic Arts), cinemas and art centres (eg. the ICA and the Regional Film Theatres), festivals (eg. the ICA Biennial and Viva 8 ) and journals (eg. Vertigo and Coil).

It is this model of an “Independent” sector that Wyver and McIntyre believe to be dead, and I agree with them, but what is remarkable is that they’ve only just realised because, to no budget underground film/video makers, it was obvious five years ago.

For twenty eight years

the EXPLODING CINEMA and the other groups in the English NO WAVE have been staging shows in pubs, clubs, cafes, squats, old schools, disused factories and any other room with walls and electricity, this rapid and widespread evolution of no budget exhibition is the most dynamic development in alternative media since the underground film movement of the ’60’s and yet it has been completely and deliberately ignored by the established so-called ‘Independent’ sector, there has been no acknowledgement in any of it’s journals, there has been no encouragement from any of it’s agencies and no attempt has been made to represent the no wave in any of it’s festivals : for instance at the Pandemonium London Festival Of Moving Images held at the ICA, at the Co-Op Viva 8 festival in East London and at the ’95 ICA Biennial curated by Wyver, where out of the 26 works shown only 2 were not directly funded by a state agency or TV channel. Now I’m not saying this is a bad thing, an influx of professional media scouts hellbent on appropriation and recoupment would probably be the kiss of death for the no wave cinema scene, what I am saying is that something weird is going on.

By any semantic definition of the term ‘Independent’ the no wave scene and it’s hundreds of film/video makers, represents a new totally independent industry, financially self sufficient with a rapidly expanding audience. And gradually networks and circuits are developing amongst the various groups involved. But Wyver and McIntyre seem oblivious to this and have chosen this moment of unprecedented revival to read the last rites on the “Independent” sector. Now, it could be argued that the no wave has no core politic or shared aesthetic and so does not constitute a ‘sector’ or a ‘project’ but such an argument would betray a basic misunderstanding of the nature and history of independent film and video. Which brings me to the question : What was the original usage of the term ‘Independent’? And how did it get wrenched so far from it’s true meaning that it began to denote it’s exact opposite ?

Essentially ‘Independent’ rose to dominance in the early seventies as an aggregate term to describe a diversity of politically radical movements, organisations, practises and projects that had emerged out of the ’60’s counter culture, including avant garde/experimental film centred around the LFMC (1966) and the agit-prop documentary groups such as the Berwick Street Collective (1972), the London Womens Film Group (1972), Four Corners Films (1973) and the Newsreel Collective (1974). The LFMC originally subscribed to the term ‘Underground Film’ and initially functioned as a cinema which screened imported American work, as their membership expanded and they began to produce their own work the term Underground was dropped and replaced by ‘avant-garde’. In those early days the term ‘independent’ was used to mean separate from, and in opposition to, mainstream commercial TV and Cinema which was viewed as nothing more than an enervating drug, a bourgeois image factory that maintained the hegemony of the ruling class. The original Independent project was to construct an alternative media with organisations, practises and techniques capable of subverting and dismantling the mainstream at every level. The trouble with this naive conception of popular culture was that it failed to confront the vital problem of exhibition and distribution…publicity, box office success, and popular entertainment were considered to be bourgeois concerns and this together with a preoccupation on artisanal process and production led to an ever increasing reliance on state funding as the only means of finance. So it was that when the Independent Film-makers Association formed in 1974 to represent the diverse strands of the sector its prime function was to lobby the state funding organisations for broader and more comprehensive funding schemes including the provision of wages in allocated production funding and in the early ’80’s to the appointment of a Commissioning Editor for Independent Film and Video at Channel 4.

Which brings me back to the theoretical manipulations of Wyver and McIntyre. Essentially the ‘Independent’ sector conspired in its own dissolution, what began as a diverse autonomous movement gradually devolved into a homogenised professional state institution, and when the industrial and structural stage of this liquidation was complete all that remained was to dismantle and discredit the theoretical base. Up until now of course this wasn’t necessary, the funded sector had its career structure of mutual justification, it had its canon of visionary ‘cutting edge’ film/video makers and it’s TV co-productions, it could dismiss criticism as the sour grapes of an embittered maker who didn’t make the shortlist or as a lobbying tactic by a desperate workshop. And it was desirable to have ‘Independence’ as an ideological concept with its nostalgic overtones of opposition and alternativity. But with the advent of the no wave cinema scene and increasing hostility from independent pressure groups like the London Film and Video Forum it must have became ever more tempting to declare the ‘Independent’ sector dead and gone. The beauty of this manoeuvre is that it places all opposition to it’s veracity in a semantic limbo. You can’t challenge the end of ‘Independent Film Culture’ by insisting that there are still hundreds of independent film/video makers or that there is a thriving independent no budget cinema scene because Wyver and McIntyre don’t mean independent, they mean “INDEPENDENT” : the state funded sector of which they are two key representatives. You cannot demand representation in a sector that no longer exists and you cannot demand accountability from a sector that does not acknowledge that you exist. They have removed the word ‘independence’ from debate and sealed the doors with mirrors, now when we seek access to the halls of the institution we shall be met with our own reflections.

And its very liberating for Wyver and McIntyre, because if ‘Independence’ no longer exists then there’s no longer any political or cultural obligation to seek out collectives, Co-Ops or film/video makers who function outside of the established media industry and work can be subjectively judged purely on content or on whether or not it lies within the “Independent tradition”… whatever that is. In fact it seems from McIntyre’s article that the LFVDA is dispensing with funding application procedure altogether and is now simply functioning as a state financed production company. What is most disturbing however is McIntyre’s description of how the LFVDA and the other funding bodies will serve a “gatekeeping function” for applications for over £70 million of National Lottery film finance from now to the year 2000. Applications for low budget, non-mainstream and short film will go to an advisory panel of regional funding administrators and TV executives convened by the LFVDA. So, having appropriated the independent project, having reduced it’s radical social aspirations to product styling, having failed to develop a means of exhibition/distribution for short film, having excluded all but a privileged elite from its institutions and finally having declared itself non-existent, the unelected unaccountable professional administrators of the ‘Independent’ non sector are now going to get a cash injection of £70 million from a spectacular scam that feeds on the desperation of the poor and the disenfranchised. This is presumably what McIntyre means by “principled opportunism”.

As for the vision of a new age of a digital Internet ‘Independence’, this is nothing more than a cynical escape clause allowing the funded sector to abandon the failure and chaos of the present for a bright cyber future. To this end recent funding initiatives and conferences have abandoned the old rhetoric of ‘Representation and Identity’ for a new jargon o ‘Innovation, Interaction and the Cutting Edge’. This digital ‘Independence’ is not a reformation of the funded sector, it is the funded sector in the process of compounding its mechanisms of elitism, nepotism and unaccountability with a technology led vanguard which legitimates itself simply on the sophistication and modernity of its production. Since ‘state of the art’ technology is institutionally inaccessible, financially prohibitive and requires a high degree of technical knowledge this vanguard will exclude all unfunded makers who cannot afford the time and money to invest in the new technology, and all those who choose to work with the diversity of “older” technologies, from Super 8 to video camcorder.

Since 1979 the Tory / Labour state has destroyed the trade union movement, crushed student activism, introduced the Criminal Justice Bill, the most oppressive infringement on civil liberty this century and they are in the process of introducing ‘workfare’ to force those who will not or cannot find waged employment into low paid drudgery. The ‘Independent’ sector should have been at the forefront of resistance and opposition to these assaults but at best it merely documented them and at worst the sector was used as a safe enclave where radical media could be contained and diffused.

If I sound angry it’s because I am, its time we got angry. For years now makers have been discussing the erosion and appropriation of the independent media and their usual conclusion was …”If you know how the system works then use it, network, get yourself known, talk to the right people….we all know the system’s corrupt but it is still possible to get funding for radical oppositional projects and if you rock the boat you’ll never get funded.” We should have braced our feet against the hull and rocked the boat stupid.

But what goes around comes around. In the last five years a new underground counter culture has emerged from the ashes of the ’60’s :…. DIY culture, Anarchy, the Anti-Road Movement, the squatters movement, the rave scene, the small press, the Animal Rights movement, the situationist revival, the free festivals, Eco tribalism. And this counter culture has studied the mistakes of it’s predecessors. The no wave cinema scene is part of this culture and also a direct descendent of the first wave of underground filmmakers.

The term ‘Independence‘ has been rendered meaningless, but its only a term, like ‘Underground’, ‘Counter Cinema’, ‘Alternative’, ‘Parallel’ or ‘Oppositional’. And the technology doesn’t matter either, Super 8, VHS, 16mm, CD Rom it doesn’t matter. What matters is the project which found its potential in the cine clubs of the 30’s and ’40’s, which began with the LFMC in the back room of a bookshop on Charring Cross Road, which returned with the Exploding Cinema and the no wave cinema scene. And this project mutates, expands and retracts but always continues in some obscure pocket in spite of the cynicism of professionals and the disenchantment of it’s activists: The project is the total liberation and democratisation of the media….

To replace:

  • …industrial hierarchies with free association and collective collaboration.
  • …elite professionalism with open access and uncensored expression.
  • …private property with common ownership.
  • …passive consumption with active participation.
  • …And to construct and organise subversion of the oppressive British state and its media industry

Now you can configure this project anyway you want, you maybe a Marxist, a liberal, an anarchist or an enlightened capitalist, because the project was always a coalition and the idea of a coherent ‘Independent’ sector with a central agenda and plans is basically a contradiction in terms and only ever existed in the offices of the funding administrators. What I’m saying is there’s no absolutes, the project has to be flexible and diverse enough to locate and construct itself in any set of circumstances. So maybe when hell freezes over the funding agencies will finance a nationwide circuit of open access radical no budget collective media centres in which case maybe the underground project will make use of them. But until then an integral task of the radical media project will be to expose, subvert and supersede the funded film and video industry formerly known as “Independent”.

Duncan Reekie, 1996.