Interview with Director of Film and Video Umbrella Steven Bode

Steven Bode has been the Director of Film and Video Umbrella for 20 years. Formed in the very early days of moving image artworks, the company has played an important role in promoting moving image as an art form. Film and Video Umbrella have produced nearly 200 different artists projects, ranging from ambitious multi-screen installations to shorter film and video pieces, as well as numerous online commissions. This September they celebrate their 25th anniversary with 25 Frames, an ongoing programme of screenings and special events in which stand-out pieces from the organisation’s past are re-staged and re-evaluated for the present. Aesthetica speaks to Bode about his 20 years at the company and the increase of moving art.

A: Looking back over your time at Film and Video Umbrella, can you name a particular highlight?
SB: I’ve been Director of Film and Video Umbrella for over 20 years now, and in that time I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with so many talented and fascinating people that it’s really difficult to single out any one project, or artist, from the 200 or so we have commissioned. We have a line we often use within the organisation that the best and the most exciting project is always the one you’re currently developing, because it’s still absolutely full of unrealised potential. That’s still the same now, and especially so with so many new things in the pipeline and stretching ahead of us. For me, the fact that that tingle of anticipation has been so constant and undiminished over those two decades is perhaps the real highlight of my time here.

A: What do you think is unique about artists’ film and video? Why should people be interested in it?
SB: Film and video shape and define the common language and experience of contemporary existence – they are the sea we swim in. Because moving images are all around us on a daily basis – on television, in cinema, and ever increasingly over the internet – we can hardly fail to note them, or have some kind of interest in them, or purchase on them. What I think is so distinctive and special about artists’ use of, and relation to, moving images is the different angle of expression, the different voice, they create in amongst this everyday hubbub of images. Art isn’t just something that should move us, or touch us, or entertain us. It should also make us see the world differently. Because moving images are so much part of our everyday vocabulary, having different innovative, imaginative, personal perspectives that allow us to expand, or question, the way we see the world around us seems to me to be paramount.

A: In September you are launching 25 Frames, an ongoing programme highlighting 25 key works from your numerous commissions. How did you choose the artists involved?
SB: We are looking at the programme being a representative sample rather a definitive survey of our commissions. We are not choosing a piece from every year, nor are we simply elevating and promoting the “best” works, by bigger-name “headline” artists, since those criteria are often subjective. What we are aiming for, if you like, is a cross-section from that wider spectrum of projects that will give people an idea of what Film and Video Umbrella has done over that period, and how the artists’ film and video area in general has evolved in parallel over that time. There will be a chance to look back at iconic works by key practitioners like Gillian Wearing, Johan Grimonprez, Isaac Julien or Tacita Dean, but also a focus on pieces that were less celebrated at the time but whose prescience or influence now seem greater in retrospect.

A: As well as that roll-call of established, better-known artists are there any emerging names that you think audiences should be looking out for?
SB: It’s worth noting perhaps that Film and Video Umbrella tends to work mostly with early- to mid-career artists. It’s where we feel we can best give our support and expertise as an organisation, and we pride ourselves on being involved on what feel like, or later come to be seen as, step-change pieces by those artists. Ori Gersht’s film piece The Forest or Cory Arcangel’s a couple thousand short films about Glenn Gould are stand-out examples of this. By investing in those projects at a moment when many of the artists weren’t so well known, we were very much declaring our faith in them, and their future, so it’s particularly satisfying to see the continuing impact that so many of those artists have had subsequently. By that token, the 25 Frames programme will, I guess, tend to be drawn from artists who were ‘emerging’ but are now much more “established”. Elsewhere, though, across Film and Video Umbrella’s activities, we will continue to spotlight and nurture emerging talents. It’s what we are known for, and what we do. If there was a follow-up to 25 Frames twenty-five years hence, I’d like to think some of the people featuring in it would be artists we are currently working with on developing other projects, particularly those names coming through from initiatives like the Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella Awards: artists like Ed Atkins and Naheed Raza, or in the new group of recent awardees, Lucy Clout, Kate Cooper, Anne Haaning and Marianna Simnett.

A: Aside from a celebration of film and video art, what do you want audiences to get out of this event?
SB: The idea with 25 Frames is that we don’t simply re-show 25 key works but re-appraise them, either through new pieces of writing, or through related panel discussions/in-person presentations following a screening etc. In this way, we hope to be able to set each piece within the context of the history of artists’ film and video, and for some of that wider history to emerge through an engagement with each individual work. Film and Video Umbrella actually began very much as a curatorial rather than commissioning organisation, programming and promoting existing artists’ films and videos rather than producing new ones, so that educational, audience-engagement ethos has always been part of our remit. That mission to engage, and explain, was always there before we started commissioning in earnest in 1993, and many of the first and most influential of Film and Video Umbrella’s early touring programmes, introducing and promoting the work of seminal experimental figures like Andy Warhol or Jan Svankmajer for example, date from before the organisation was officially constituted as a company in 1988. It’s fitting perhaps that we are now taking a similar curatorial, ‘packaging’ approach to the body of work that we have ourselves commissioned over that span of time.

A: The company began when artists’ film and video was relatively unknown. Why do you think it continues to be important to promote this kind of art and these artists?
SB: You’re right, Film and Video Umbrella was instituted primarily to give audiences an opportunity to see, and find more about, an area of experimental, “underground” film that was all too rarely shown in cinemas and to demonstrate its points of connection with other forms of cinema and visual culture. The first incarnation of Film and Video Umbrella, spearheaded by Mike O’Pray and Jeremy Welsh, really helped to popularise avant-garde film and early video art, and establish a critical context for them. Now, of course, you can buy compilation DVDs of Kenneth Anger or box-sets of Bill Viola, and certain artists’ place in the historical canon are well documented. The story goes on, though. While moving-image work, from single-channel films to multi-screen installations, has become a staple of contemporary art scene, its aesthetic continues to develop and expand. It is a rich area, with a rich history, but it is one of those forms that are always evolving. I think that the ever-changing nature of technology has a lot to do with this. Even after 20 or so years at Film and Video Umbrella, I feel there are new and exciting horizons in front of us.

A: If someone was new to artists’ film and video and wanted to understand more about it, in terms of watching rather than creating, what video/film should they watch first?
SB: Good question! Again, I’d have to say that artists’ film and video is now so multi-faceted that I don’t think any one work can encapsulate it. Any one of the works in 25 Frames would be a good place to start! My hope is that people would like it enough to give another one a go; something that would likely be very different but just as engaging…

A: What can we expect from Film and Video Umbrella in the future?
SB: Well, we aim to keep on going! There’s a huge pool of talented artists out there, a no let-up, or tailing-off, in the breadth and ambition of their ideas. Digital technology is really starting to change the way that people produce and consume moving images, and it’s going to be fascinating to channel some of that potential in the coming years. It’s nice to look back, as is the case with 25 Frames. But, as we’ve done throughout our history, we’ll continue to spend most of our time looking forward… As I said earlier, and without wanting to repeat myself, or go back over old ground (!), it’s always the next project that the most exciting!

25 Frames opens in September, for more info visit

1. GILLIAN WEARING, Family History, 2006, Commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and Artists in the City, Reading Borough Council, in association with Ikon Gallery. Funded by Arts Council England, with additional support from Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.