The recent exhibition at Focal Point Gallery in Southend-on-Sea was the first UK gallery showing of Gábor Bódy’s extraordinary ‘video-cassette magazine’ project, INFERMENTAL (1981–91). A magazine about video produced on video-cassettes, INFERMENTAL spanned ten years and 11 editions, each of which comprised between 50 and 100 contributions, or around four to seven hours. Each issue was guest-edited by different artists, and the project aimed – like a portable festival or live magazine – to present the ‘new’ in film and video that year or the exploration of a chosen topic. Though it billed itself as a magazine, INFERMENTAL was close to a fanzine in ethos and style: egalitarian, informal (many of its editors took the liberty of cutting down the works shown) and invested in the idea of distribution rather than uniqueness.
Bódy, a Hungarian video artist and filmmaker, conceived of the project as a means to build an ‘Encyclopaedia of Recorded Imagery’, and INFERMENTAL forms part of his belief in the universalist potential of video and television to provide a forum for shared discussion across different countries and contexts. The first edition, edited by Bódy and artist Astrid Heibach and produced in 1982, addressed the theme of East and West. Indeed, over the years the project grew from a Western European project to one with an international scope, with editions being produced in Vancouver, Tokyo and Buffalo in upstate New York. The magazines were sold or hired out to institutions at a time when video art had limited acceptance or distribution in film festivals and, to a lesser extent, museums. Most importantly, INFERMENTAL’s actual form took part in the rhetoric of immediacy and universality surrounding video art at the time: the format allowed a convergence between documentation of new work and its actual presentation – rather than the presentation of work through the sorry words and stills you have here – that mimicked the synthesis of reality and its presentation, and of instantaneous playback, that video afforded.
At Focal Point, curators George Clark and Dan Kidner showed four issues – INFERMENTAL #1 (Berlin, 1982), #4 (Lyon, 1985), #8 (Tokyo, 1988) and a special feature on ‘Cross-Cultural Television’ (1987) – in structures designed by the London-based artist James Richards. As is often the case in Richards’ work, there was in these viewing platforms a tension between private and public, in that the structure’s function as a viewing platform was hidden from general view. The platforms provided mediation between what could have been a problematic exhibition of work which had been intended as a collective social experience, as to watch the videos one is forced to climb onto the platforms and sit, or to enter a small constructed room, re-creating a private-sphere experience while remaining within the public gallery.
The material is absorbing as a historical document, both for its inclusion of well-known figures – such as Joan Jonas, Ute Meta Bauer and Tony Oursler – and for the host of contributors whose names have dropped off survey indexes. What are understood to be core concerns of video in the 1980s – semiotics, identity, sexual politics – are here in full measure, but there are also more surprising finds, such as Ute Aurand’s beautiful Silently Absorbed in Conversation (1981), shown on INFERMENTAL #1, which calls to mind Maya Deren’s later work.
A key argument of the exhibition was the possibility of looking at INFERMENTAL as a technological ‘what if’: it was a collectively organized UbuWeb before its time, a user-generated magazine that went to lengths to document and internationally distribute – something that is now so simple to do on the Internet. Focal Point’s well-judged exhibition of the project, which framed INFERMENTAL explicitly as ‘a historical archive and a live project’, not only mapped the contents of the magazines but also retrospectively highlighted the changing fortunes of video exhibition, distribution and rhetoric in the face of other technological innovations since.