Hilary Lawson is a philosopher, filmmaker, and video artist. Known for his theory of Closure, he is Director of the Institute of Art and Ideas, founder of the Artscape Project and a director of TVF Media.
Hilary Lawson was born and grew up in Bristol, England, the only son of Harold Lawson and his wife Norma (née Gear). He was awarded a scholarship whilst an undergraduate at Balliol College Oxford and went on to take a first in PPE. As a student he became interested in problems of self-reference and began a DPhil on The Reflexivity of Discourse. This later became the basis for his first philosophical book Reflexivity: The Post-Modern Predicament.
Schooled in analytic philosophy, his approach increasingly diverged from the mainstream having more in common with the American philosopher Richard Rorty and the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. In the late seventies, disenchanted with the philosophical environment of Oxford, he began a career in television journalism and documentary film.
Lawson quickly became a producer, and then editor, of his own prime time series, Where There's Life, which ran on ITV for a number of years with a weekly audience in excess of ten million. At 28, he was recruited as Editor of Programmes and later Deputy Chief Executive at the new breakfast channel Good Morning Britain. Media interest in the channel was such that his appointment as Deputy Chief Executive and his resignation from the channel was carried on the national news and in the national press.
Meanwhile he continued to develop his philosophical thinking and had initial sketches of the theory later to become Closure. In addition, his interests in self-reference and continental philosophy had become more fashionable. As a result he was asked to write a book for a series on modern European thought, Reflexivity: The Post-Modern Predicament, published in 1985.
In the late eighties he founded the production company TVF Media which made documentary and current affairs programming, and was the editor of The World This Week, a weekly international current affairs programme with its own strong editorial line which ran on Channel Four for five years. The programme predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the war in Yugoslavia and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
In the nineties, he focused on writing Closure. It took a decade to complete and was published in 2001.
Applying the framework of openness and closure to the visual medium, he created the first video paintings in 2001 with the aim of escaping narrative closure. He went on to found the Artscape Project in 2003, which brought a collective of artists together to develop the new medium.
Lawson's theory 'Closure' proposes that the human condition is to find ourselves on the cusp of openness and closure. The world is open and we, along with other living organisms, are able to apprehend and make sense of it through the process of closure. The theory, described by Don Cupitt as the first attempt to offer a non-realist metaphysics shifts the focus of philosophy away from language and towards an exploration of the relationship between openness and closure. An important element of the theory of closure is its own self-referential character.
One of the consequences of the theory is that philosophical oppositions, between language and the world, fact and value, are no longer regarded as oppositions and instead are seen as part of the spectrum of openness and closure. As a result, science is not in opposition to art and religion but in a different relationship to openness and closure. Lawson proposes that science is 'driven by the search for closure'. The pursuit of closure cannot however succeed and as a consequence uncovers openness. Art in contrast is described as 'the pursuit of openness'  which in turn is seen to entail aspects of closure.
Lawson began his philosophical development at Oxford University and thus at one of the primary centres of the analytic school. While still an undergraduate he became convinced that problems of self-reference undermined the analytic project. His trajectory to this conclusion started with the reflexive problems of relativism which were explored with the political theorist, Steven Lukes; continued with an examination of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, with the translator BF McGuiness; and were cemented in conversation with Alan Montefiore who had close links with Jacques Derrida and who was aware of similarities of argument and approach.
Lawson's subsequent work can be seen as a response to the writings of Rorty and Derrida, and an attempt to move forward the post-analytic project. Rorty endorsed his film Science...fiction? which argued that "science is not powerful because it is true, but true because it is powerful" and took part in a subsequent documentary film of his on Plato entitled The First World. Rorty also contributed to a collection edited by Hilary Lawson: Dismantling Truth: Science in Post-modern times
- Primary Works
- Reflexivity: the post-modern predicament
- In this book Lawson argued that self-reference was central to contemporary philosophy. Using Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida as the main examples, he sought to show that reflexivity was the primary motor of their work. It was implicit that similar arguments could be applied to Wittgenstein and the analytic tradition.
- The introduction to Closure, referred to as the Prologue, extends the arguments put forward in Reflexivity to the philosophical tradition. It argues that issues of self-reference undermine currently available philosophical positions.
- The main body of the book describes the process of closure and the means by which we can intervene in the world and seemingly understand it. In doing so it seeks to demonstrate that meaning and understanding are not dependent on notions of reference and truth, arguing that although there is nothing in common between closure and openness this does not limit our ability to intervene successfully in the world.
Documentary film and Factual Television
The BFI (British Film Institute) lists more than 200 credits as producer, director, writer or presenter. In the late eighties and nineties Lawson developed a reputation for investigative programming that challenged conventional wisdom.
His documentary films include: Your Own Worst Enemy, writer and producer, (ITV); Science … fiction?, written and directed (BBC); Broken Images, written and directed (BBC); The First World, written and directed (Channel 4); The Man, the Myth, and The Maker, produced and presented (Channel 4); DNA in the Dock, written and directed (Channel 4); The Greenhouse Conspiracy, written, directed and presented (Channel 4); Incredible Evidence (90mins), written and directed (Channel 4).
His current affairs output includes: The World This Week (1hr, weekly 1988-93), Editor (Channel 4); Cooking the Books, written and directed (Channel 4); South Africa: After Apartheid, produced and presented (Channel 4); Patent on Life, written and directed (Channel 4); For Queen or Country, written and directed (Channel 4).
Lawson shot the first video paintings, Orange and Grey, and Cusp in 2001 and 2002. He founded the Artscape Project in 2003 consisting of a collective of artists, including William Raban, Sarah Turner, Sanchita Islam and Isabelle Inghillieri, whose aim was to develop and explore the medium of the video painting. The Artscape Project is now represented by Open Gallery.
The video painting flows from his philosophical outlook and constitutes a break from the film-making narratives that had been his focus for more than a decade. Hilary sees video paintings as a means to encourage the viewer to escape everyday closures and approach openness, or what Heidegger would have called Being.
In 2003 he was instrumental in developing a technology with computer scientists which enabled video paintings to be stored and played in such a manner that their order did not repeat but was also not random. The software and technology (known as Laluna) were created in order to allow video paintings to be integrated and put together so that they could constitute collections of work that never repeated or recapitulated, and yet had structure.
His video painting work has been exhibited at: the Hayward Gallery (2006); Sketch (2007), the ICA (2007), and The Globe at Hay gallery (2008). Now Revisited, performed at Shunt, London in 2009, was a video painting installation in five acts in which the audience found themselves the subject of the work.
Palme D'Argent Monte Carlo, 1992
The Emily Award, American Film and Video Festival, 1991
Documentary of the Year, Encyclopædia Britannica.
The Amnesty International Award, Best Documentary, 1995
Gold Award, New York TV and Film Festival, 1989
Royal Television Society Award Nomination, 2000
British Academy Award Nomination, 2000-1
Television And Film Productions Plc, TVF Limited (http://www.tvf.co.uk/), TVF Productions Limited TVF Properties Limited, Typedown Limited, On Line Editing Limited, Sage Properties Limited, Clifton Hotels Limited Westbourne Residences Limited
- HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 21 November 1985
- BFI National Library and BFI National Archive, JICTAR Weekly Audience TV Reports (1981)
- Mair, John (17 January 2008). "Waking up to a new era". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 4 May 2010.
- Observer Review, Sunday, 29 January 1984, pg 49
- Closure: A Story of Everything; Routledge (2001)
- Closure: A Story of Everything; Routledge (2002 edition), page 328
- Closure: A Story of Everything; Routledge (2002 edition), page 144
- A Story of Everything; Routledge (2002 edition), page 206
- Horizon, BBC, tx 17th February 1986
- BFI National Library and BFI National Archive, London
- "Search results". Searchable Awards Database. British Academy of Film and Television Arts. 2001. Retrieved 2009-06-17.