The All-Consuming: Scratch Video’s Ambivalent Bodies

Curator's Note

While previous posts this week have looked at recent nostalgic returns of video as a medium in works that use (real and fake) found footage, I’d like to look at a short-lived, but no less influential movement that originated techniques for capturing, editing, and manipulating images using videotape.

Scratch Video arose in the UK in the early 1980s somewhere at the intersection of artschools, danceclubs, and postpunk subcultures. Deploying an aesthetic of moving-image appropriation heavily influenced by similar techniques in the work of video artists like Dara Birnbaum as well as American hip-hop and East London soundsystems, Scratch existed somewhere at the nexus of video art and expanded cinema. But it framed itself – and the medium of video more generally – as a response to broadcast television. Armed with home video systems, video synthesizers, and flexible editing platforms to sample, edit, and manipulate images, artists like George Barber, Gorilla Tapes, Sandra Goldbacher and Kim Flitcroft, and other “young video-scratchers” established a style that married mass-media critique and music-video aesthetics.

In Scratch’s hands, videotape gave artists new ways not just to capture images, but to manipulate them as well, and thus served as the medium for a newly dynamic, interactive mode of image-consumption. While this style was often used to lampoon political figures and hack television’s own modes of address – turning Thatcher and Reagan into puppets of political spectacle, policemen into fascist armies; and “average consumers” into hapless robots – its fast, colorful aesthetics also made it suspiciously seductive, ripe for appropriation by commercial media, especially the emerging music video genre. Scratch courted this ambivalence, highlighting the utopian/dystopian paradoxes inherent in a new media landscape marked, for better or worse, by interactivity and participation.

This ambivalence is especially evident in Scratch’s remixing of television’s images of the human body. In Fuh Fuh, by the Duvet Brothers (1984), hungry mouths are fragmented and looped through a kind of visual ingestion and regurgitation. The scratch deforms the image graphically and rhythmically, and the loop entraps the body in a spell, a machinic gesture. Aligning the consumption of images with images of consumption, Fuh Fuh’s critique fuses the consuming body onscreen with the consuming body of the spectator, both mechanized through video remix. But there lies the paradox of found-footage aesthetics: the image becomes irreconcilably an object of critique and a source of fascination, even seduction.

Comments

Shane Denson's picture

Ambivalence from Scratch to Glitch

Great post, Leo, which brings a very different perspective to the week’s discussion. A number of things you point out make Scratch seem very similar to some of the conflicting impulses in more recent digital-based work utilizing datamoshing, databending, and other glitch-type techniques and aesthetics. The “intersection of artschools, danceclubs, and postpunk subcultures” where Scratch arose doesn’t sound too different from glitch art communities, while the quick appropriation by commercial media is a reality here as well (especially as the techniques get reduced to a mere “style” when apps and filters are released that will make any image or video look like it’s glitched). I was wondering if you’d care to say something more about these apparent similarities, as well as perhaps the relevant material/aesthetic/political/phenomenological/etc differences between Scratch and glitch? In keeping with this week’s theme, I’d especially be interested in the role of found footage in each, and the way that it functions in the particular historical context. Thanks again for a great post to wrap up the week!

Leo Goldsmith's picture

Glitch and Scratch

Thanks, Shane!

Yes, there’s absolutely a relationship between Scratch practices and contemporary Glitch, as there is to a whole history of hand-scratching, -painting, -bleeching, etc. (I think this is a point that Evan Meaney has made over INCITE here: http://www.incite-online.net/meaney2a.html … and for more examples of all, I highly recommend Gregory Zinman’s excellent, compendious http://www.handmadecinema.com). I like your point that the sub-cultural origins are very similar too, which points to the last influence of a certain kind of punk aesthetic and its own roots (per Greil Marcus, et al) in 20th C European avant-gardes of many stripes.

Of course the question of commercialization here is for me most interesting. This relationship between the avant-garde and capital (and even state institutions) is one that’s I think is only now being fully addressed (or perhaps admitted to!). For me, Scratch is most interesting because it is in many ways most open about its courting of the commercial: the artist George Barber told me that selling this work on VHS was a way of making money with your art at a time when their was no viable market for selling video art.

As for the found footage dimension, the main source was really broadcast television, and news and advertising most especially. The video here is a remix of an ad, but here again I’m interested in how this aesthetic both critiques the ad and makes it seductive/entrancing in a new way, specifically through a kind of bodily rhythm produced by the scratch and the loop. It’s interesting that so many of our posts this week have addressed this affective or bodily response to watching found footage, especially the way that the aesthetic emphasizes the video medium’s material form — it’s own body, as it were.

Anthony C. Bleach's picture

bodies

Interesting post, Leo. Like Shane, I see similarities, between the political impulses of Scratch and those of collectives like EBM and the BLO. But where I see another similarity is the fascination with bodies in the video mixtapes of TV Carnage, Everything Is Terrible, and (most especially) the Crazy Dave Tapes. Bodies on display, bodies exploding, bodies melting, bodies morphing, and bodies in pain seem to be everywhere in their work. And, like you astutely point out, I think they do paradoxical work there, too.

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