An Underground Cultural Resurgence: the Eighties

During the Eighties artists continued to experiment with video but these works were shown almost exclusively in galleries. There was also a waning community video movement which included the survivors of the Seventies workshop movement who had not been absorbed by TV[1] and some newcomers like Despite TV which was established in the East End of London in 1983 by Mark Saunders and others.[2]

Cinema audiences had been falling with the saturation of colour TV ownership and had reached the nadir of their decline around 1984. The home video recorder introduced in 1981 was owned by c70% of UK/US households by 1991.[3] The introduction of the VHS video cassette, video rental shops and the growth of a diverse 'take away' food industry helped to revive an ailing feature film industry and launched a new commodity, the pop video.[4]

At the same time there arose a new underground youth culture in the new field of electronically generated music. This was the advent of the home studio. Sophisticated sounds could be created in a spare room or garage and the first forms of this music, known as 'Garage', emanated from Chicago. Britain soon developed her own strain known initially as Techno. By the end of the Eighties the new dance music had achieved world-wide dominance leaving the major record companies standing. It bypassed the music industry with self-organised giant raves at which the 'tunes' would be played by highly skilled DJs direct to thousands of ravers via unlicensed warehouse parties coordinated on the day by mobile phone. This potent DIY music culture inspired other art forms to revitalise themselves from the grass roots.[5] The Cooltan Arts initiative in which Exploding Cinema began was within this context.

As the Nineties unfolded the raves were gradually institutionalised and brought to heel by a new licensed club scene. Some of these, like the 'Ministry of Sound', became big players in the global music business. But remarkably the music was only partly commercialised. The autonomous productive base of the home computer and the direct patterns of production and consumption established in the early stage still support a mass of home produced music.

The rave scene did support some cinematic activity. The need for optical stimulation at raves gave rise to a renewed interest in light shows. An expanded market which produced a video jockey or 'VJ' who would mix two video streams into a single projected image. Some clubs also played cult movies and found footage and caused some of the younger audience to get interested in the by now mythic US Underground Films of the Sixties. What home computers could do for sound by the mid to late Eighties (using Midi) they could not do for video and film until the late Nineties.[6]

I face an epistemic problem here. The history of film tends to be told as a specialised and almost hermetic practice. This may be the reality on the industrial level, imposed by division of labour and the need for specialisation, but it is not true on the level of popular consumption/ production. The underground is, if anything, a holistic culture which caters for all the senses, each of which correspond and are often in flux.

In order to understand what happened to film in the Eighties we have to take a wider view of culture. At the same time that raves were sweeping the country there was a revival of live performance particularly in the area of stand-up comedy. This resurgence of live urban culture had a direct influence on the Exploding Cinema format. This can be traced through the activity of a single filmmaker - David Leister.



[1] The Albany Video Catalogue of 1986 (Deptford London) lists over 100 titles with a clear shift towards 'identity' politics. See also, 'How Not to Disappear from that Choice: four corners 1972-1985' by Carla Mitchell, Filmwaves 4, (Spring 1998 p10-13), for an account of a London based collective that survived.


[2] One of these 'video artists' who was wryly 'political' and sought a mass audience was Ian Breakwell. His Diaries were published by Pluto Press (1986) and broadcast at various times in the late 1980s by Channel 4 TV. They were serialised on Radio 3 in 1990. See also his recent book Derby Days (RGAP Derby 2001)


[3] Maltby (1994) & Docherty et al. (1986)


[4] For the commercial rise of the pop video via MTV see Rocking Around the Clock: music television, postmodernism and consumer culture by E. Ann Kaplan (Methuen 1987)


[5] See Sarah Thornton, Club Culture: music media and sub cultural capital (Polity Press 1995)


[6] See also George Barber on Scratch Video in Phillip Hayward's Culture, Technology and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century (John Libbey, Luton 1991). For a more detailed theoretical consideration of underground music making in the early Nineties, see 'Post Media Operators' by Howard Slater (Break/Flow 28.01.97)