In this insightful article written by Terry Flaxton, the artist delves into the profound journey of assembling a retrospective exhibition that spans his diverse body of work from 1976 to 2023. Flaxton shares his introspective process, emphasizing the exhibition's intent to provide a comprehensive experience, inviting viewers to engage deeply and reflect on the meanings emerging from the ensemble of his works. The article highlights Flaxton's evolution as an artist, his embrace of technological advancements, and the philosophical underpinnings that inform his approach to art. It also touches on his innovative use of video as a medium and his thoughtful consideration of its representational nature in the digital era. Through anecdotes and philosophical musings, Flaxton offers a rich narrative that not only chronicles his artistic journey but also invites readers to ponder the deeper implications of art in the digital age.
Talking Heads, 1997 & Skin Deep, 1999 & Mountain Thunderstorm 2020
Terry Flaxton: When I was first approached to put together an exhibition that was fundamentally a retrospective that would feature many of my works past and present, (effectively from 1976 through to 2023), I decided that the exhibition itself should offer a broad understanding of my work as an experience, where meaning was to be created from traveling through the whole exhibition - where the principle insights generated would surface later.
I’ve had one-man shows and retrospectives before - the first in the late eighties at Mill Valley in San Francisco, then one as a break out from the Rome Film Festival, and several later, a key one being in London in 2010 because that was to draw together some research I’d been doing into the then, new, High Definition video form (we forget just how new this technology is as technological acceptance accompanies any new technology -which was not fully the case in the past).
Each one-man show and to a greater extent, each retrospective, offers an opportunity for reflection on what I’m doing as an artist - but also a retrospective prompts me to offer up something extra than a one-man show, to an audience that goes to see one person's work. So what I’m presenting of myself, and the principle concerns and the work changes over time given that in principle, a retrospective is a history, of a history - so the audience can see themselves reflected back in the works from different decades - with the additional inflection of how I feel about the work as I get older, and as I’m now 70, this is a fairly decisive point in time.
As Hokusai said: “At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”
So when Hokusai wrote this, he still had excitement about his work, and it’s important for the collector to know that the work the artist is just completing is the one they’re most in love with - because that’s what they’re putting everything into at this moment, as they’ve been inspired by something exciting to them. So in constructing a retrospective, thinking that one might resurrect older pieces means that somehow you’ve got to connect to those works as if they were new - and having done that you then have to find a method of placing them next to each other in a meaningful way so that others may be able to read what the artist is saying by that juxtaposition.
One of the positions I take when making work is in recognizing that video as a medium is inherently representational (when approached from the capture route, which always in the past has involved a camera) - but now of course motion capture and any number of stimuli can set the computer a task to create or remake an image - and that in itself is part of the meaning of the digital era. The computer enables us to be able to think of one thing in terms of another (for instance if you capture data about temperature, you can use that to steer effects in the way an image unfolds). You’ll have noticed that contemporary moving image artists, such as Refik Anadol, will always argue that data lies beneath their images and in Anadol’s case actually stimulates its own representation. I take a different stance because what is real and in front of you is nature’s data to be read by your eyes and mind, but crucially all of your bodily senses exist in the material world - so in a sense, it could be argued that it doesn’t need further translation. But of course, there are as many ways to make art as there are artists and each tries to find a different starting point. But given that previously capture via a camera has been a dominant mode of representing the world, then a strategy I’ve used with all the digital abstracted work I’ve made is to create abstract images with organic movement beneath that abstraction: so I take the motion from images of the sea, tall grass registering the movement of the air, a flag moving in the wind, horses galloping - and then distress those same images so that the only thing that’s left from the original is the movement - and I do this mainly because I find most digital movement less convincing than ’real world’ movement - so for me, the real world’s motion is an important part of my palette - take a look at Waterfell for instance (work made in collaboration with Emily Burridge, a cellist, composer, and Sedition Artist) - images of deep space underpinned and perturbed by the movement of water (and their is the sound of water in the soundtrack).
But I also have another rule - which is to not use any footage other than what I’ve shot (no archive, nor ‘found footage’) - as I see it as the artist’s responsibility to create all the images they use - other artists may have different methodologies and myths of production of course, but that’s my rule for myself.
That then brings up the issue of image-based AI which is about creating images using language prompts (you need several words to describe to the system what kind of image you want) and of course that is then limited to the mind’s grasp of words and also the library of images that are used to generate the new AI images - to me that is a derivative act and the only question for the artist there, is can they find a route to go beyond what has already been seen, even if merged to try to form something new? So far, for me, I’ve yet to see an AI image that speaks about something truly new. One sobering fact about AI is that since its beginning a few years ago, it has already created more images than all of the photographs produced by humans.
So my rule to only generate my images has led to a set of other strategies I use to disrupt the medium. If you depict a chair for instance, the question arises (as Magritte noted) is that a chair, or a picture of a chair? And as he concludes “Ceci n'est pas une pipe” so an image of a thing is not the thing - it is an image of the thing. In many installations many artists project onto walls & floors - but around 2006 it occurred to me that we should take the screen off the wall and in so doing perhaps even project the thing we are looking at, back onto itself. In 2003 I resurrected and shot a dinner party from above and projected that back down onto a table and placed a tablecloth some white plates and some candles on the surface of the table which then had the images of the dinner party I previously shot, projected onto it and the audience was encouraged to sit at that table.
Most modern art is not to be touched but I thought that touch might be the extra and important sense that would connect the audience with the work - as this would then push the sense of representation such that if you were seated at that table when other people’s hands emerged on the table - as if from your stomach area - you might then experience a response of both shock and pleasure - because you might ask yourself before you realize that it is not real: “how could this be happening?” - and then relax into the pleasure of the conceit that you were now taking part in - especially if you had started chatting to the real people sitting with you - which often many people did.
So there are always a set of issues at play in my approach to making art - and now because I’d been asked to create a map, a palimpsest effectively, of all of my work where I intended that written beneath all the pieces in the conceptual design of the architecture they then appear within (and the definition of a palimpsest is that there is underwriting and here the meaning of why I made those images is what is written beneath them. So effectively I’m saying that what is not seen in the work, even though it is representational, is almost as important as what is seen (the buried messages of the medium).
So with all the above in mind, I initially decided to find out what the building I was to place my work within offered - and then map the propositions of my work onto its architecture, with all of its meanings implicit in the space of exhibition. And that’s what curation is about - if there isn’t a secondary meaning to an exhibition that produces a ‘deep’ experience of the art, then the curator is not doing their job.
So I visited the new Roseberry Studios, a gallery in Bath, which is situated by the river in a part of Bath that had suddenly caught the developers' eye and they were now putting up new apartments around the studio incredibly fast which gave an immediate audience. So I walked into the space - which was a building of three stories with an ancillary floor between the two upper floors - and initially simply walked around feeling how the building worked. And then a plan began to form in my mind (as if I were being dictated to). I then knew that the exhibition was to be structured as a journey through my Development over 50 years of making Video Art. This was to be revealed in an upward movement through three and a half floors with a series of facets of my work revealed on each floor - such that eventually over 50 works of art were either shown fully or in part.
Here’s how I conceptualized the space:
GROUND FLOOR: THE HUMAN FORM
3 LARGE Screens forming part of an arc - 11 works, 2012 - 2023
Day of the Dead, 2020 & Carnival, 2015 & Portraits of Beijing, 2010
The Human Form was situated on the ground floor and was intended to take our physical and mental state as a metaphor for our relationship to 'reality'. My proposition was that we look inward, to then take a measure of the world outwardly. Shown across three screens were sets of portraits of people from around the world are presented as a means of gauging the nature of what is inside us, looking out. These portraits were a lot term project I worked on where I asked the subjects to stand looking at the camera for a minute, as a gesture towards the long 19th-century exposure times of early film and as a gesture to 18th and 19th-century portraiture they should carry something that tells us the audience what they do or are interested in that motivates them.
A note - when people entered the environment that displayed ‘The Human Form’ what they saw was essentially set up as an installation where different elements of each of the works appeared on each of the 3 screens. People spent quite a long time here - often around 45 minutes - which as you’ll know is a long time to spend with an installation.
This part of the exhibition was comprised of:
A selection of 6 Portrait Projects compiled to the music of Handle 2008 - 2017, 7 minutes
Portraits of Beijing, Cannaregio & London 2008 - 2017, 26 minutes
Carnival of Light 2012 - 2013, 7 minutes
Day of the Dead 2020, 6 minutes
Portraits of Glastonbury, New York & UoB Bristol 2010, 26 minutes
The Intersection of Dreams 2010 - 2017, 14 minutes
Hearts of Oak 2011 - 2023, 12 minutes (to be released on sedition in April 2024 together with Mexico Landscapes of the Heart and Un Tempo Una Volta)
Signs and Symbols of the Human Condition 2017, 10 minutes
So there was a series of 6 portraiture works of varied communities which progressed in their complexity of idea - for instance moving on from life-sized full-length portraits, in Day of the Dead I set my elf a rule on entering the yearly Mexican Celebration in Los Angeles in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. That rule was to only show the face (even though the costumes themselves were potent), to set the camera phone to shoot black and white, which also turned the background to white and I then said to myself “I accept exactly what the camera sees - and I shall do no further adjustment of the image - save to zoom into each slowly”. My instruction to the subjects who I came upon randomly was to look through the camera to where they might imagine I was - because if we two could connect, then their imagine would be rendered without effect and they would be revealed. I hope you’ll see from these portraits the subject is laid bare, in fact, the makeup they wear, which forms a kind of mask, reveals them more fully were they without makeup.
After a series of increasingly complex propositions about what we are and what reality is, as an extension of ourselves, the 2-hour sequence was completed by Signs and Symbols of the Human Condition - and through image-based metaphor, the participation of carnival and circus people who like ‘to play at the edge’, and the use of a symphonic musical composition by myself, was placed in a such a position to each other to reveal how we inhabit our world and how our differing motivations have created an undesired effect on the planet - and this is to be examined and reflected upon by the audience at a deep level (that insight may arise after leaving the exhibition space and people have assured me that was what they experienced) and that necessarily revealed a darker side of ourselves. One person had to leave the space because of the feelings the entirety of the works revealed… And incidentally, some people only viewed that floor and left and I heard they had returned at a later date to take in the rest of the exhibition.
Eventually, people climbed up to the first floor to find a set of two installations in front of them: One was a 6-meter screen hanging at a 45-degree angle under which some people had relaxed enough to lie down beneath it; to its right was a large table laid for 12 people where people are sitting talking to each other whilst watching images play out on its surface. As you entered the space you would notice to the right is an additional area with a large screen inset two meters back and people are seated in front of that screen with their backs to the large screen and the table:
FIRST FLOOR: Landscapes and Installations - 13 works, 2008 - 2021
In Re Ansel Adams, 2008 & ReImagining Venice, 2019 & Parachronon, 2021
FIRST FLOOR: LANDSCAPES
Landscapes situated into the inset were a loop of around 50 minutes which again provides the audience with a way of interpreting their response to the work they are now to experience - the audience was being asked to do more than consume. This choice of works was intended to be a way to map ourselves in an unfamiliar way, building on the insights provided by initially looking at the human form - now instead of looking inward to look outward, the audience was encouraged to consider what it means to look outward to a landscape to consider what that meant to one’s ‘internal psychological landscape - in other words, to look outward, to look inward.
For instance, I created In Re Ansel Adams in 2008 to examine whether our new high-definition technologies could deliver the impact of the far higher-resolution photographic technology that Adams used. Naturally, as this was to be a moving image piece I had to change strategy as I couldn’t rely on a direct view of the landscape so before getting to Yosemite I decided to hire the largest zoom lens then available, an Anginieux 24 to 297 (which would have cost $100,000 to buy) to take to Tunnel View (in Yosemite) where Adams stood, to zoom in fully, hold my breath for 30 seconds and then slowly zoom out.
I knew that on my return I’d go into a high-level post-production house in Soho London and in the 30 seconds of close up I would further zoom in to pixels of the water of the Bridal Veils Waterfall and zoom back digitally to meet the beginning of the optical zoom which I’d already executed at Yosemite. What this achieved was to create a zoom from what was effectively 6 meters - back another 6 miles, which then revealed Ansel Adam's wonderful composition.
In further landscape pieces in this loop of works, I cut images of different locations into a cubist representation (which also echoed David Hockney when he did his polaroid work of California) which was of course stimulated initially by Picasso and Braque. Further on I distressed this treatment to produce abstractions of New York, Venice, and Istanbul until I fully transformed the real landscape into a landscape of the mind in works such as Metamir and Parachronon which were both inspired by Primo Levi.
In Re Ansel Adams 2008 (90 seconds x 2), 3 minutes
(Re) Imagining Venice 2019, 4 minutes
(Re) Imagining New York 2019, 3 minutes 30 secs
Sanctus 2018, 6 minutes
Lancashire (Commission) extract 2020, 1 minute
(Re) Imaging Istanbul (Cartouche) 2020, 5 minutes 40 secs
Metamir 2020, 4 minutes 30 secs
Parachronon 2021, 3 minutes 30 secs
Dance Floor 2008 - 2017 & In Other People’s Skins 1993 - 2015
FIRST FLOOR: Installations
A principal installation to be found here opposite the Landscape Loop was In Other People's Skins which was initially exhibited in 8 UK Cathedrals (including Bath Abbey), and a series of countries including China, Italy, and Sweden, and this finally arrived for two six month runs at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York playing to around 2.4 million visitors. Its sister installation, The Intersection of Dreams also shown in New York, is re-presented on the first floor and invokes Dalis Crucifixion of St John.
In Other People’s Skins began life in 1993 when after a successful exhibition of a work called The Colour Trilogy (partially commissioned by Channel 4 and the Arts Council of Great Britain) at the Bonne Biennale which I mentioned above. And as I mentioned this work took on another life as it was invited to the Cathedral of St John the Divine three times - twice for six-month runs each time. Each of these shows clocked up around 1.2 million visitors and conservatively around 800,000 people sat at the table itself.
Dance on Water was installed next to In Other People’s Skins and a 6-meter screen was hung at a 45-degree angle above seating and laying area where people could look up to see what the average gondolier would see whilst working: the buildings of Venice. I created this in 2008 and it’s shown in quite a few venues in a similar fashion to the way it was shown here - but this time I also added elements of other installations to enhance the experience.
Presentiments 1977 & Zagorsk 1992 & One Second to Midnight 2006
INTERMEDIATE FLOOR: Early Work from 1977 - 2010
I felt at this point the audience needed a pause in the ideas of looking both inward and outward, so on traveling half a flight of stairs upwards Early Work steps back in time and is an attempt to throw my current work into relief. This provides a stopping-off point to reflect. This work charts my development from discovering film in 1971 as a medium of expression, via Analogue Video from 1976.
There is work represented here from 1983 when I was working for Apple and I found myself being asked to cover the making of Ridley Scott’s famous commercial which was shown only once in the middle of the 1984 Super Bowl to celebrate the release of the first Macintosh Computer. This work was called Prisoners. After this, I shot a variety of white well know bands, such as Eurythmics and I made work from my footage as if it were found footage.
As time passed, I started a company called Triple Vision that made documentaries for Channel 4 and I also worked for the BBC on a variety of series including Building Sites where two of my works are represented on BBC iPlayer: D10 The Boots Wets Building with Iwona Blaszwick who was the Director of the Whitechapel Gallery for many years, and The Lloyds Building which I made with Michael Craig Martin. During this period I also shot the 3rd ever electronically captured Movie which was then released on film for the BFI and Channel 4.
In the 90s I made various pieces such as Zagorsk, which was shot in Moscow and Leningrad, then I created a variety of works that went through to the beginnings of High Definition (I had first come upon HD in its analog form in 1n 1990 and worked with it through to 2010 when this period of my work ended). So this is a selection of 12 projects created between 1977 and 2010.
The Fashion Show 1977, 5 min 40 secs
Towards Intuition: An American Landscape 1980, 45 mins extract 9 mins
Circumstantial Evidence 1981, 20 mins extract 4 mins
The Gap 1983, 13 mins extract 4 mins
Eurythmics 1983, 20 mins extract 12 mins
Prisoners 1984, 16 minutes
The World Within Us 1987, 16 minutes
Building Sights, D10 The Boots Wets Building '89, 9 minutes
Zagorsk, 4 minutes
Skin Deep 1999, 26 mins extract 16 minutes
One Second to Midnight 2005, 4 minutes 20 secs
Postcards from Beijing 2010, 9 minutes
As I mentioned I became aware of High Definition in the early 90's and this in turn affected my work during the lead-up to the arrival of Digital Cinematography in the late 90’s/early 00’s. I tested this new high-resolution form for both Sony and Panasonic and started to use it in my work in earnest in 2006. By 2008 I was capturing work on 4k when I became a senior research fellow at the University of Bristol (until 2012). In 2013 I became a Professor of Cinematography and Director of the Centre of Moving Image Research At the University of the West of England until 2017 and I was an observer on the Academy of Motion Pictures Science and Technology Committee where the experiments a group of us conducted at both UoB and UWE lead to the introduction of HDR in todays Television screens.
THIRD FLOOR, Into the Void: 2023 and Beyond, 3 collections - 18 works, 2021 - 2023
Anthropocene, Consumed by the Sun 2018 - 2020 & Immeasurable Heaven, Gravity Waves 2020 - 2021 & Entangled: The Human Gaze in an Age of Quantum Entanglement Universal Colloquium 2021 - 2022
The loop of work that played on this floor is a summation of my work from 2018 - 2023 which consists of 3 multi-part collections of works which are all on Sedition Art. These are:
The first collection, Anthropocene, is a response to The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. This was created by myself and Canadian Composer Sean Bell between 2018 - 2020, it is comprised of 5 parts, these are:
The second collection called Immeasurable Heaven or The Laniakean Paradigm (Laniakea is what Hawaiians call the immeasurable heavens and then taken by Astronomers) and was created 2020 - 2021 and is also a 5 part work, with sonic landscapes by Shawn Bell, myself for the three middle tracks and Composer Alan Lethbridge for the last track - and this reflects on astronomers (todays version of 14th century mapmakers) who’ve mapped the new world of Laniakea, a Hawaiian word to describe the immensity of Heaven, because this is the largest tract of nearby space ever mapped. it is comprised of 5 parts - These are:
Finally Entangled: The Human Gaze in an Age of Quantum Entanglement proposes that what we invent is simply an extension of our potential future state. It is a response to the advent of Quantum Computing. It is comprised of 8 parts and lasts 38 minutes. I created all the sonic landscapes. 2021 - 2022.
A note on The Human Gaze in an Age of Quantum Entanglement: In his book Origins of the Modern Mind the neuroscientist Merlin Donald proposes that in our prehistory we began exporting knowledge into the environment via sacred trees and megaliths, then learned to write and placed that knowledge in scrolls, papyri, codex, then books - and then lately in TV and Radio and now digital computers. So quantum knowledge is the next step of exporting that knowledge out of our physical frame and into the environment we inhabit. Theosophists speak about this as "the involution and evolution of spirit into and out of matter”. So I created the eight-part work Entangled: The Human Gaze in an Age of Quantum Entanglement and within its shape and form I intend to ask ourselves to reflect on how it is that we make tools to manipulate the world, but that these in turn affect and manipulate our experience of the world.
So this concluding act of the retrospective which takes place in a narrow and low ceilinged area such that the audience must sit on chairs or on the cushions provided and the intention here sir to sort out those people that, after all they’ve yet seen and been asked to consider, will go that extra mile to think on what my propositions are for the future. This loop is made of 18 shorter parts and a total running time of just over 100 minutes was not for the faint-hearted. To my delight, very occasionally people either had spent the day here and watched this whole set of works - or I’d been told that one or two had gone away and come back to ‘do’ the last floor. And on the last day in the last hours, a young woman was viewing these works intently - and I count that a huge compliment.
I came down from there and sat at the table and the very last people to come sit at my table installation were a mother with her daughter and a young son. It turned out that the young woman had just finished at the University of the Arts London and was, like me, some 40-plus years ago, wondering just what to do next. I told her a few things about continuing practice and as I was speaking to her my background hum was of this very moment where I presented to the world my years of activity in making moving image art - so I settled back into that and reflected on what I was doing in advising someone who has her whole future in front of her as an artist.
In the end, I said to the young woman, (because she was true and honest - and I remembered that I’d seen her sitting alone a couple of weeks before in the highest room where my most recent work was showing): Find some people like yourself, form a collective, support each other, make and show your work. If you need money, get work in an associated field, curation, making moving image art or if need be, anyhow you can, but simply keep making - keep the practice going - and although everyone around will be saying "See my work" and the voices will grow to huge proportions, and you may feel inundated - do not give up. In persevering you will be successful but do not expect anyone to tell you that you are successful, that's reserved for a few who are necessary for society to see itself reflected in and you cannot determine how or what that will be - so, be patient and contribute to the mix - and as a friend told me recently, all you can do is make and give the work as if it’s a donation to human growth, and in the end a donation to ‘reality’ itself.
Towards Intuition: An American Landscape 1980/1981, Zagorsk 1992, Entangled 2023
So to conclude the act and conceptualization of creating a retrospective of over 50 works derived from my 50 years of making moving images I’d like to note that when young I painted and drew - and then was subsequently invited to join Wimbledon College of Art's Foundation course in 1971 (at 18), where I discovered sculpture, photography, stained glass, etching and other disciplines and then I made my first sound piece, my first film (and later my first video in 1976). The years went by and I threw in my lot with the making of moving images latterly I became a professor of cinematography and gained a Ph.D. in high-resolution imaging. So - some 50 years after entering this course, in my mind, this retrospective represented a conversation, if not a negotiation, between myself and the audience about the nature of making art at a transitional stage of human history where I have asked both myself and others: can art affect an improvement in how we relate to our world?
I’ve written before about the proliferation of technological solutions to the creation of words and images and how that has placed an intellectual bomb within the human culture (and that is without even considering the ecological downsides, which are huge) - plus today AI has arrived where the idea that words alone can make images, sounds, shapes and so on, neglects some crucial trajectories that we have been on as a species for millennia. For instance, the opposable thumb which sits at the basis of grasping tools like a paintbrush or a chisel and making marks with materials is threatened - but that it started a century ago with Duchamp's questioning of what lay at the basis of the creation of art - acts or ideas? But now these ideas have become crucial to any thinking artist who attempts to make a meaningful piece of art.
My medium has previously been looked down upon in some artistic quarters and yet the public has embraced it as an art form - as has the Royal Academy who have appointed two old friends who practice this discipline to their number - and it should be noted that one of them places his works here on sedition and proudly I note that the other has collected some of my works. Concerning Moving Image Art - where no images move at all but an interplay by rapidly played-back still images creates movement with the help of our eye-brain systems - something, somewhere has shifted in human consciousness. And this is not to denigrate the plastic arts - sole images and shapes can still have currency, but the line is now drawn about the idea of the self-identification of the artist - and now the issue must be for any artist: to prove yourself as an artist with staying power, before you simply use the term 'artist' for your acts.
I first took that step when there were far fewer artists and now we are beyond number. So all I wanted to do with my retrospective- and this is not my first retrospective, so I've traveled along the road where different stages of the exhibition have different meanings to a person - so this retrospective was about asking two things of any visitor after having experienced what I have to say in my work:
1) look upon my works and consider my maintenance of practice over 50 years and if you can see an evolution and some consistency and a through line then let's come to some agreement about what this all means.
2) As a body of work, does it answer the only meaningful question any artist can ask (in contemporary parlance): have I added to or subtracted from 'the mix' of human culture? If we can both answer yes, then we've both benefited.
Now you as a reader cannot see my retrospective but if you look through my works published on sedition you can get a very good idea of what I’ve tried to challenge the audience with.
Talking Heads, 1997 & Skin Deep, 1999 & Mountain Thunderstorm 2020