Terry Flaxton: Hypersight: On Meaning Myth, Media and Technology

Terry Flaxton: Hypersight: On Meaning Myth, Media and Technology

British artist Terry Flaxton works primarily with durational forms of the digital including sound, video, print and installation. Widely recognised as an artist who creates moving image work which is bold and challenging in technique, structure and content, the journey his work has taken charts important moments in the history of video art.

Flaxton has shown work internationally in festivals, museums, galleries and cathedrals worldwide since the 1970s; notable recent exhibitions include In Other People’s Skins and The Intersection of Dreams at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York which both of which were visited by over 1 million people. He began his career as a sound artist before making his first film in 1971 and his first video in 1976. He worked extensively with analogue video during the 1970s before studying Communication Design and working as a cinematographer for more than three decades. He set up CineFest in 2015 and is starting the Somerset International Festival of Media Art in 2020.

His work has won various awards, including both the Montbeliard and Locarno Prix Graphs and the Prix Nike Amsterdam, as well as being held in various collections including Lux London, Video les Beaux Jours Strasbourg, Harris Museum Preston, AICE Milan and the Royal West of England Academy of Art, where he is also a lifetime Academician. A number of his works, including two collections (Flaxton, Landscape Cinemontage and Without Meaning which is shown in this article's main image) are available as limited digital editions on the Sedition platform.

We started our interview with Flaxton by watching the artist’s 1984 work Prisoners; from this starting point a conversation unfolded which took in the evolution of sound and image-making technologies and practices, the interweaving of symbolism, technique and politics, and the future of the moving image.

Could you tell us more about the story behind Prisoners?

Prisoners came about because I was asked by Apple to shoot the making of Ridley Scott’s 1984 Mac launch commercial. I used my own footage that I shot for Apple as ‘found footage’ - it took me a while to edit it because I had to invent a new form. I became angry with the interviewees and ‘crashed’ an edit against something one of them had said (From the Bovver Boots Agency on the commercial who could be hired to be extras, debt collectors, various nefarious activities - they were on Pink Floyd’s The Wall and rioted on that). Scratch editing had just arrived from Australia - derived from Eisenstein’s Montage of Attractions, it collided images very fast (up to one frame repeated edits).

You say "it took me a while to edit it because I had to invent a new form." - could you say more about this form?

So remember that whilst shooting I had become aware of the immensity of what was happening. From the call from Apple - which was amazing to get, to be chosen for this job amongst all the crews in London (we’d done a lot of MTV and early US shoots on what is now the old NTSC system which we joked about as standing for ‘Never The Same Colour’ due to the issue of the USA not having a signal that held together when going through weather (unlike PAL the German system we all used in Europe after it succeeded the EMI 405 line system). So I'd come across Apple Computers in 1978/79 and I knew that Apple was way beyond any other computer because the makers (Steve Jobs really) had an issue about intuitive use. Also he’d originated ‘windows’ which Windows stole (at a later point) and had originated ‘the desktop’ and in fact everything that we now think of a s a useful and useable on a computer. Bill Gates was fascinated with outdoing IBM so he instead was captured by an OS that was not intuitive and that still clunks along.

So I was aware of scratch editing but it was not what we think of it now. It was from Australia and a shattering collision of almost meaningless image collisions - yes it was from Eisenstein’s Montage of Attraction (place images with meanings together to form a third meaning). So I was editing often and coming up with something that wasn’t working until one night I got mad with the neo-nazis and actually collided a scream from the girl that rushes to the tele screen to hurl a hammer at it, to hurl that scream at them… I sank back and thought ‘that’s the route’ and all other edit decisions were scaled around that choice. Plus I’d been steeped in avant garde filmmaking – The Night Cleaners of the Berwick street collective - where image alone, or sound alone with black, or image with the wrong sound formed a documentary put together about the poor working conditions of night cleaners – or Michael Snow’s Wavelength, a 45 minute single shot, or McCall’s Line Describing a Cone our own investigations (I'd been part of VIDA, Latin for ‘see this’ 1976 - 1981). Also we finally had the ability to freeze an image and I used this in several compositions (such as Eurythmics, 1983)

Prisoners, Terry Flaxton, 1984

So the revealing of technology was also the revealing of aesthetics - what I had to do with Prisoners was allow what we’d shot to enable my own sensibilities to innovate with the technology - and that also meant to me that I should find a way to distort the inventions of the manufacturers (a few years later I became artist in residence at Complete Video where they let me use all the new equipment - plus I had access to the Framestore too and to kit like the Quantel Harry and so on was freely given by them - in one edit in ‘88 we had 1000 pounds of kit per hour tied in to an edit of The World Within Us which won prizes at Montbeliard and Locarno festivals: This last was a homage to Andrei Tarkovsky and John Cowper Powys - plus a friend of mine had died of cancer all of which stimulated this piece (I asked Jonathan Price to do the voice and that started a working with people like Tilda Swinton, Billie Whitelaw and others)

With Prisoners, it's interesting to see the process of making a commercial - the activity, organization and materials (dry ice, projections, hair and makeup) required to make an advertisement and also to sustain Apple's journey to ubiquity. To see documentation of this process woven into something removed from advertising reveals the techniques used in advertising but also, due to the apple referencing the George Orwell novel in the advert, is a layered commentary on control disguised as freedom (large corporations with access to daily lives of billions). Did you read the work in this way when you made it?

Yes - but I was also aware that Orwell’s 1984 was situated in Thatcher’s 1983, Ridley Scott’s aesthetic very near to Blade Runner was working with American corporate thinking as revealed within the advertising process which was only to show this commercial once in the middle of the Super Bowl whilst using my footage as the ubiquitous in discos and on smaller news stations (I believe as many people saw our footage as the commercial as it pimped for the commercial to be shown in many broadcasts). Plus there were 150 neo nazis on set - and the UK film workers who instead of graffiti in the toilets used graphic scribbles, maths, working out their overtime on the toilet walls…and inside all of that was the anarchist video crew.

Prisoners (Skin Ritz), 1984 - image via Lux

We enabled Videomakers to exist in Soho - the first video outfit. We welcomed the independent artists to come use the kit. We made documentaries and art works as well, working for the commercial industry - we were not a ‘film workshop’ that was funded to exist, we created the means to produce and at the same time sat inside the belly of the beast which enabled us an unusually frank exchange with ‘the system’ (later I made a doc on video art called In the Belly of the Beast for ITV). For instance we were European stringers for MTV in the early days (shooting the Stones, the Who, Police, Def Leppard, Yes ) we shot every major rock band at the same time as working for The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and had 25 unions funding our enquiry into press freedom and bias in the news. (Making News 1983).

We’d discovered some malpractice at the BBC who wanted it submerged. Because it was so hot we had visits and were told to drop this by our unions and also threatened by them that we’d lose our newly won broadcast tickets. But we went ahead anyway. Years later the BBC used this very tape to train new journalists about media bias - an irony. But no - we were completely reflexive in our making (Vida 1976 - 1980, Triple Vision 1981 - 1992).

Another thing I noticed about the video is the dissonance I felt when watching the actors laughing and chatting between scenes while dressed in riot gear. Then later in the work the interviews reveal the violent politics some of the actors in the advert (the Bovver Boots Agency) are attached to. I'm interested in whether the frequency of, and people's attitude to, these images of violence has changed between the early 80s and now. And in how this change in relationship to images has accompanied change in the shape of violent acts changed - has the increased production of games and movies corresponded with a reduction in physical action? Or is it more the case that the physical protest and violence emerges in different ways and different places but with no less frequency?

There certainly has been a casualisation of violence in moving images - but games if you think of it one way is the age old standing on the corner of a group of young men (and women) looking for some trouble/fun. If you get together on the online street corner, hang out, plan and go rumble against another group of people who empathetically you’re disconnected to and then go conquer them - that’s not dissimilar to what’s been happening for millennia. But with the eye/brain system being a feedback mechanism as well as everything else that it is - then people become inured to violence - look at the growth in horror movies as a leisure activity. But the eye brain system is way more complicated than just cause and effect.

There’s brilliant book by Merlin Donald called The Origins of the Modern Mind. So I wanted to understand materialism. I wanted to look at its construct, and in this book we have a compendium of beliefs from anthropologists through to cognitive neuroscientists as the writer tells the narrative as believed in by ‘materialists’. It’s very good, very convincing - but it, like every other thought system we have, comes to the conclusion in a gnostic sense that all matter will evolve into spirit. It’s quite complex but in the end it argues that we are placing our knowledge into ‘exograms’ which are external memory holders. Basically that’s initially, standing stones, codex’s, books, computers and eventually when the quantum arrives we will be able to access that external information storage method by our minds. The work’s already being done such that you will shortly be able to think and activate changes in the world (neural lattice works, remote 3D printers). It starts with Siri and then ‘you’ get stored anywhere but in yourself - in their terms it’s a reconstruct of the matrix, in Christian terms its the logos. I got in touch with him to discuss his propositions (he’s about 90 now, an ex-academic). Donald doesn’t of course claim all of this, they’re logical conclusions - one simply reads what he says and realise his and other Cognitive Neuroscientists discourse is not neutral - like all human discourses.

At the end of the work a text reads 'one simple voiceover cannot regain the ground lost'. It’s interesting to think about this in relation to Apple - one company underlies so much work, thought and social interaction, enabling it but conditionally. At the same time it is interesting to relate it to the small groups - whatever their cause - who fight in opposition to prevailing norms. In both cases, simple messaging is both effective, and limiting. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on simple messages as ideological devices and how these devices link to new technologies for image-making.

Now you’ve got to get into engrams as well as the external exograms (they are claimed to be situated as memory sites within the brain, unlike exograms which are outside – but they're as yet unproven to exist). But the overarching framework is that culture happens within the zeitgeist, that sits within the current paradigm - the cognitive neuroscientific position is that you and I, as humans, are cognitive distributive nodes (all people are units - cognitive nodes - but some are more active and are therefore distributive nodes). Antonio Tapes says the artist is the shaman of the tribe – he or she catches the lightning of intuition and makes higher truths available – it’s not dissimilar to the neuroscientific distributive node position.

By now you may gather that I like ‘narratives’. I like comparing narratives. People like Merlin Donald argue we are exporting our knowledge of the world back into the world (by using exograms, external memory sites) to become accessible and easily extractable on demand, but also in terms of technicity, to change both the world and ourselves. There are various propositions he may have such as an engram which is an idea concretely held in the brain, in a place, which are unproven though. Annie Besant the theosophist and early trade unionist, as well as Alice Bailey and HP Blavatsky would argue that an engram is a ‘thought form’ an existent idea separate from the thinker and therefore having a life of its own and is therefore transferable. Emanuel Swedenborg, the 16th Century philosopher (who was William Blake’s inspiration), said that angels were virtues or vices, that when they passed over the populace they influence the feelings and thoughts of those they passed over – that’s like a huge thoughtform, a zeitgeist – and the zeitgeist is said to be what we’re all involved in thinking and feeling together. The paradigm is that but a much longer period (in which various zeitgeists exist within), an ocean as opposed to an inland sea. …And in the long term we have paradigm shifts - one age to another.

Couple that with the idea of ‘technicity’, where we create a tool to affect and manipulate the world - which in turn manipulates ourselves and affects our cortical epigenetic development (actually physically changes our brains) – compared with that ideologies are small beer. For instance: it is argued that from two million years ago we started using tools like flints. But it is also argued that we took 1.8 million years to knock off not just one side, but a second side. So we had a scraper and could scrape at stuff like skins for 1.8 million years, and then we learned to make a knife and cut stuff more more precisely. Over the last two hundred thousand years we ramp up development. The cognitive neuroscientists argue we travelled through the mimetic age where we learnt by to copying each other, via pantomime and later prosody we made early humming sounds; then the mythic age where we gained the elements of language by making staccato sounds out of humming prosody, then words formed and pantomime in ritual form stories of how the world is were elaborated - and then the theoretic age began 10,000 years ago (when prosody and humming become very refined staccato with very specific word blocks (meaning blocks) writing and reading where we theorise our world and some casts gain influence by becoming specialists, like the protestly or warrior castes). The theoretic (or the analogue) was from 10,000 till now, a moment or two prior to the digital…

Still from Without Meaning 4: Extrapolations in Virtual Space

So the exogramatic move to place our knowledge outside of ourselves has been helped by the digital but it’s also ‘velocitizes’ our behaviour (you’re on the motorway being competent at 80 miles per hour and you have to slow down to come off the off-ramp and then be competent at 30 miles per hour) – so that change of gear is velocitizing into different competencies and is about to very quickly switch speeds of engagement with different ideas. I wrote to Donald and said “your book ends with the theoretic – what’s next?” He said “I’m 90 years old - someone else has to do the thinking”. I wrote back and proposed velocitization as the next stage. He said: “Sounds about right”, and of course what’s next in that competency exchange with quantum technologies is where you access the quantum via the digital (due to Heisenbergs uncertainty principle that you affect the outcome by observing, so you have to be one part distant) – and the quantum doesn't compute like the abacus on steroids that is the digital. The Quantum uses calculations that arises from entanglement and superpositional dualities that enable annealing for instance. When that happens then things will change so massively in a few years, we’ll realise what is happening now, is simply the paleo-digital, aka: the stone age quantum”. See how velocitised this period is?

The eye brain system is a coupled system - you can’t have one without the other. And mediation of senses (not just sight) is what’s happening to perturbate our system, We’re on the edge of experimental psychology here and we start getting into theoretical papers which I’m happy to do - but theorems of your question are being left behind. If you ask about ‘ideologies’ these are back inside the zeitgeist, and we’re now talking about the construction of the flow of different paradigms such that human consciousness development is the issue.

This definition of technicity disrupts the idea of the artist as lone creator, both ultimately responsible and remote, to be revered and emulated. Non humans are indisputably involved in making artworks. Could you say more about the non-humans you’ve worked with in the course of your career and what they have taught you?

I think what I’ve said above contextualises this question: every thing one does is a propulsion forward and a change. As for non-humans making artworks - there are techno idealists/techno utopians out there who think the future is technology but that misses the principle of technicity - but really, there’s only human evolution (in this neck of the woods). To materially affect the medium that contains the information also materially affects you. In a medium where it (supposedly) does not affect anyone anymore, it could be argued that it does not affect the artist, but in fact you cannot look at anything without it having been looked at (back to MacLuhan). Jung in fact argued that the witness is the only thing that ever really happens - you can run around trying to materially change things but the act of witnessing is the central material issue. If you look at a painting of a person that stares out of a painting - in fact that person stared at the artist. The two exchange energy. The closeness to that exchange that the artist manages to come to on a craft skill or artistic level will be the potency with which the audience looks back through the meniscus of the canvas and time is eradicated such that they looking through the artists eyes to commune with the subject and vice versa (sitting for an artist is an energetic act). So being a romantic I also believe that the artist channels the energy of all those future audiences to their subject via the act of making. There is an exchange. Artists creating a portrait encode the energy of the sitter - and on a deeper level even if they’re creating an abstract rather than a realist depiction they’re communicating energy directly to the audience. When there’s no subject, the energetic exchange becomes simply one between artist and audience. When you’re looking at my work, you’re looking at directly at me - and I’m looking at directly at you. To paraphrase the old chestnut “The moving hand writes and having written moves on…" or "the Cognitive Distributive Node, having disseminated meaning, moves on”.

There are no failures really.

A last note on technicity and the energetic gaze Marina Abramovic had an exhibition where she has been ‘captured’ through volumetric lens less capture. But she glides around and the eye to eye contact is missing. Extrapolating forward, using the same technology, we will soon control 'at a distance' 3D printers such that your gestures drive what's printed. A gesture will be picked up, a printer will print either within a printing unit – or going forward in time rooms will be equipped with manufacturing kit that can be focussed in a specific area to manufacture something. Stick out your hand and a material object will ‘magically appear there’. Also the gestures of your at-a-distance projected-avatar can also be motion captured such that it can drive those same physical materialisations in that location too. Go one step further – how far away will we be able to do this considering the latency of signals across space: So there's an Indian mathematician who's postulated a Morse-code via quantum entanglement – meaning two units across space time can communicate (the Chinese via their quantum satellite network are proving faster than light communication at the moment) which means that all of the above can be done over interstellar distances. Is this fanciful? Of course. But it's also probable – and it's also a form of technicity where we will exogrammatically place ourselves outside of ourselves – now that’s the logical extension of technicity and there are no no non humans really – just us, using whatever we can lay our hands on to manipulate the universe around us.

How has moving image changed since the early days?

Massively. I used the first time-based corrector that could freeze one line in 1983 (we had whole frames by 1984). I was artist in residence at Complete Video and used the first quantel kit - in fact technology drove the visual invention. I won a big TV Art award in 84 because we developed the ability to have dissolves throughout a project, front to back - we did that by 'live mixing the edit’ - every time we got it wrong we went to the head of the 20 minutes to start the edit again (and remember back in 1977 we were actually cutting the tape and sticking it back together to edit).

Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, 1995, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Copyright Nam June Paik Estate

Today the software programmes have ‘professionalised' the makers. Where in the past you would have to have craft skills to do something, those same skills are now encoded within the programmes - there are a set of arguments that follow: "Is this good or bad? Does it enable greater creativity, or greater derivation of others skills? Do you need to know the history to truly create? Is it better that you don’t know that history so that you’re unencumbered as an artist?" On a different note "Do streaming platforms enable a true exchange of value between artist and collector?” It’s ironic that many of the early makers got into Video through the perverse reasoning and belief in its ubiquity (that nothing was special within a copying environment) an now with streaming it’s both infinitely ubiquitous and also contained via the addition of a watermark.

And of course then there’s the whole issue around ‘technicity’ where one definition would be ‘Technicity is the study of toolmaking where the creation of a tool not only enables the tool maker to change their environment, the tool also epigenetically changes the maker themselves” So this is where technicity is a cognitive enabling of change of the material world and we are making technologies that can manipulate ‘reality’ at a very small level, which in turn modifies us…..

Do you think there is a way to define value in relation to video and digital art? Where would you locate the value and how ought it to be defined? Should it be defined at all? Digital media produces a kind of flattening of multiple abstractions - forms are easily replicable, distributed and owned by multiple parties.

If you mean price rather than value (I had a associate who did her PhD on the difference between the two) there is certainly value - even in seeing the work with the watermark - the removal increases the price and consequently the value. Of course then we play the game of editions and creating scarcity through perceived worth - and the in 20 years time or more there’s a reevaluation that promotes some works to be way more valuable than before - then history comes along and changes the game such that the unknown is rediscovered and promoted into even more value. I’m just as susceptible as any artist HAS to be in that I regard what I do as being discoverable within history. There’ a whole star system playing out Kardashian-like with regard those whose work is deemed ‘good’. Most of the biggest names of today will be forgotten. One or two will be lampooned for their and our naivety in celebrating them. Look to the Victorians and their stellar artists are now regarded as gauche (those that didn’t survive). I see myself as bent on a research enquiry where I don’t care about value because the prize is creating that signature work that is later regarded as seminal. I have several of those in my own narrative: In Other People’s Skins which is an installation that is far travelled and when it exhibits it gathers people like you wouldn’t believe it. See this from Xi’an across the cultural border.

In Other People’s Skins, SCAA Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1993

And that same kind of excited gathering happened everywhere it shows. In Malta during the White Nights exhibition a few years ago around 5000 people engaged in that installation in one night. Overall, at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York in two 6 month runs over a million came. Also with the Intersection of Dreams at the same cathedral another million came to two six month runs there - have a look at that too (if you track along the timeline to near the end you’ll see that this work was fully 4k level and the detail of the central image is very high - there’s a whole thing here about resolution and ‘engagement’ which is about 4 times resolution increases engagement but twice the duration - but that’s for another time).

As for the definition of value - in the 1 million that went to either installation (especially I suppose with In Other People’s Skins because people took a meal with invisible guests) I guess the true value is that the work actually gets through - like the gaze of the subject from hundreds of years ago in a portrait - if the essence of the artists work can be communicated directly to the audience then that is the value of the piece. In other words - Priceless.

But we now have the problem of spectacle - do you know the writings of Raoul Van Eigen and Guy Debord who were theorists of the situationists? They created ideas that actually produced physical revolt in the May 1968 riots in Paris? Revolution in Everyday Life and Society of the Spectacle respectively. The Society of the Spectacle talks about the displacement of the individual through being bombarded and confused by hollow messages of consumption - I guess the first talks about strategies of revolt against hollowness of being - but in fact this is the best kind of intellectual terrorism where thinking has an abrasive edge (these books were proscribed in the recent past). They’re talking about the confusing of experience, where you should be nourished but you’re not. The one where the destroyer of the countryside smiles and offers you a timeshare in hell. All the right words - notes - but in the wrong order and you know something’s wrong, but not quite what. "In the Kingdom of Consumption the Consumer is King" - or rather “vassal”.

So in a world where the mediation of experience is about the mediation itself rather than that which is represented - and to coin MacLuhan, ‘the Medium is the Message’ and eventually it’s ‘Massage” - then ‘art’ or its false simulacrum does not nourish, it leeches life from the gaze. So it becomes important for artists to understand that they’re not interior designers (and with recent projection mapping, ‘exterior designers’). I try to make art which in some way nourishes the viewer - or alerts them to the issues before us of propagandization at an infinitely subtle level. One issue with online art is the possible contribution to the dulling down of life by the use of ‘spectacle’. The constantly on, constantly moving image. So I try to hold on to the basic issue that any increase in the world via more images has to be one of nourishment of the individual gaze. And if I’m throwing in a question - as with my recent series Without Meaning (can there be something inhuman that is without meaning?), then I’m attempting to raise that issue of art without meaning which seems to be gushing outward in increasing levels. Of course abstraction can also have a language - but hopefully one that transcends standard terms of meaning.