Transcript of interview with John Gillies: Sydney, Oct 17th, 2011.
CM-A: Could you tell me when you first encountered video- where and when ?
JG: I first encountered video probably in about 1976, when I was 16. I had a friend who was a bit of tech head and he had a video camera. We plugged it into something. I thought it was interesting. I had seen tape recorders before. That is when I first encountered video. Then going to art school I had the very good fortune that an artist filmmaker called David Perry, who was a member of the Ubu Film Group, had just come back to Australia. He had been teaching in the UK. He came back to set up a video facility with the university in Brisbane and then got a job in teaching in Toowoomba where I was a student. He set up a video studio there. Plus I was studying experimental music with a student of Alvin Lucier’s and was involved in experimental theatre. He set up this video facility. So my work in video directly came from that.
CM-A: Can you remember if you have seen any work by any other artists using video?
JG: Yes, when I was a school kid, I would have come to the Sydney Biennial in 1976. I saw lots of work- one of the artists was Les Levine. I didn’t really understand his work, but I thought it was intriguing. There was also Ant Farm. I was also aware of Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman who had been in Sydney for a couple of months doing work at the college where I now teach. Some of the students followed them around and Stephen (Jones) was involved with that and it was a very seminal influence on him, I think. He is a little bit older than me. I was still at school in Queensland. Paik and Moorman went to Guadalcanal, to make “Guadalcanal Requiem”. A lot of people followed on. Apparently there is a lot of stuff floating around here. That was one of the art collector John Kaldor ‘s first initiatives. His new wing of the gallery has recently opened up in Sydney. The first project he did was Christo’s and Jean Claude’s “Wrapped Coast” in 1969. It was their first big project. He met them in New York. He also brought out Gilbert and George and then in ‘76 or ’77 he brought out Charlotte Moorman and Paik who traveled all around Australia.
CM-A: You have already said a little bit about what attracted you to the medium, and that was related to the immediacy of the medium. Was that immediacy paramount ?
JG: Yes. It was there and I could use it. I understood sound technology. In fact as a teenager I had been a composer for a pilot project to develop a youth theatre in Australia. Which was after the (Jerzy)Grotowski (1933, Poland- 1999, Italy) tour. Things came out of that tour. People had new ideas for theatre and ways of connecting to the community. Out of that came a space in Sydney called “ Performance space”, which still exists. It has been really important to my work. It is a key space, a place where people develop work that was based in performance, but in a different kind of way to other spaces.
CM-A: In what way- sound and images?
JG: Not so much. It was more based on the body and physicality. It always had a visual arts theme and a theatrical theme but they were merged together. There were cross -overs with dance, and my work comes out of that. Even though I was trained as a visual artist and originally started off as a painter.
CM-A: I had a question about that. Did your work with video supplement work in other media, for example, in film. When you picked up video had you already been working with sound and film?
JG: Yes. One work might be in sound, the other in film, the other video. Then I started using film as an acquisition means and editing on video. That was easier because you could edit it down.
CM-A: That is interesting. It is like reversing the normal process.
JG: That is why David had set up editing suites. The technology was a real incentive for me to start.
CM-A: But this must have been a bit later.
JG: Yes this is about ‘79.
CM-A: When it became possible to work with U-matic?
CM-A: Who was influential? You told me about some of the things you saw. Who were the key influential artists in terms of the attitude or in terms of the way they were working with the medium? I am trying to keep it about video, although obviously you have skills across a number of media. I was wondering whether there were any artists who were influential on the way you used video for example, or the way you saw and understood what video was?
JG: I remember being blown out by what Warren Burt was doing, because he came and did a workshop. I wasn’t interested in the results, but more in his approach. His work was kind of “old hippy” art, but I really respected that and I respected his knowledge and where he was coming from.
I think magazines and images as well. Peter Callas has written about the Australian experience being “second-hand”, experiencing things through reproduction.
CM-A: That has come up. Somebody else has mentioned that. It could have been Peter (Callas). He mentioned the use of stills in video.
JG: Exactly, that is what his thesis is about. Why video was important and why did it appropriate imagery. Which is very important in Australia. It is a culture of reproduction- of seeing things, because we are so geographically isolated.
CM-A: This is because most of the stuff didn’t travel very well. How would you have seen it? It wouldn’t have been broadcast on television. You couldn’t have seen it in the gallery unless it was an unusual event. So you ended up seeing a frame from something, in some magazine. So there were things that you had seen like that and you constructed imaginary notions….
JG: You get the concept they were dealing with or the process. You get an understanding of the work and you didn’t necessarily see it unless you travelled overseas. You might see one or two works in a biennial or something. So it was very much a very limited amount of information. But it produced certain kind of work. With that sort of distance you couldn’t just hop off to Venice Biennial.
CM-A: Not that they were showing much video work at that time either. You would have to go to The Kitchen or somewhere similar.
CM-A: What about the theoretical side of things? Was there anything that you were reading?
JG: I can remember reading Stuart Marshall. There was all that whole 70s film studies stuff everywhere. I was aware of that. There was a kind of quite full on film theoretical debates around images in Australia particularly in Sydney and Melbourne in the 1970s. Places in Sydney you would get post-structuralism and French theory.
CM-A: While you were a student??
JG: Yes, because some of the first translations of that stuff were done by Australians like Paul Patten. I was doing senior classes on Nietzsche via to post-structuralism, in 1979.
CM-A: Was Marshall McLuhan still important at that point?
JG: I remember reading McLuhan but, to me, it felt old. But I still thought it was interesting. I was influenced by that but via process art and composers like Alvin Lucier. I kind of rejected that later on in the 80s. But that was American experimental music- post-Cage music.
CM-A: So where did you first show your video work in Australia?
JG: I first showed video work in the Watters gallery in Sydney in 1980. Then I had a show over the next year of the year after that in SCAN gallery in Tokyo.
CM-A: So quite quickly you were showing your work internationally.
JG: Peter Callas curated that show. He was a really important curator back then, as well as an artist. There were various video festivals happening in Melbourne and Sydney where Gary Willis’ work, Peter’s work, and Jill Scott’s work was shown.
Steven Jones curated a show that went to The Kitchen and Los Angeles, Toronto, and the Venice biennial in 1979-1980. That is called ‘Video Tapes from Australia’. The idea of that was to catalogue work that had been done in the ‘60’s and 70s and it does it quite well. It has this other kinds of work, which focused on the political uses of video.
There weren’t a lot of curators. There were events- artist- run things that were put on. But there was a big exclusion of video out of the film world.
CM-A: Did video have its own galleries and access workshops?
JG: Yes, based on the Canadian model there were Video Access Centres all over Australia. There was the Paddington Video Access. There was one in Western Sydney and Melbourne. If you look at the credit on video art works you can see they were made in those facilities. Steven was the technician at the one in Paddington here, which still exists as a government subsidised production centre called Metro Television. The idea through the Whitlam government was to democratise video.
There was 25 years of conservative rule in Australia. Australia was involved in the Vietnam War. I was a bit too young for that, thank God. Then that government was thrown out and the Whitlam government took over which was a very progressive- almost left wing government.
Things had been rumbling with the conservatives. With Whitlam was the beginning of the arts funding ad he was trying to democratise society. He sent someone to Canada (that is probably in Steven’s book) to look at the access centres that were set up there.
CM-A: What dates are we talking?
JG: Early 70s.
CM-A: When did they set up the video workshops?
JG: That must have been 72, or 73.
CM-A: I haven’t heard about people showing and making work in those centres- it hasn’t come up so far.
JG: There were things, definitely. There were artists showing and interesting programmes, dance video, some electronic image processing, and there would be community action video. That kind of work and these little festivals were happening.
CM-A: So there were quite a lot of people getting their hands on kit and making things. Was there a distribution network connected to it?
JG: People talked about it, but there wasn’t. I mean there were guest artists. There were experimental artists from other spaces in Adelaide or Brisbane. My first solo exhibition was at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) in Brisbane in 1982 or 1983..
CM-A: Was it all tape work or did you also show installations?
JG: It was dual channel tape work, and photographs, and we had a video projector. The curator was Margriet Bonnin. She was curating my work in the early 80s. She was based in Queensland. She was the person who built the collection in Griffith University in Brisbane.
CM-A: Was there cable TV in Australia?
JG: No. The media was very controlled by the government. Television came late around 56. So they introduced two systems. One that is government broadcasting, and one that is commercial. So they introduced a British model and an American model at the same time and that has continued. Whitlam government looked into the Canadian model. Tom Zebriskey ‘s father Yertzi was sent to Canada to look at multiculturalism. That became the official policy in the 70s 80s. Then in the 80s when the Labour party came into power again, their policy about the media was the new media. CD-ROMs were going to replace the books.
Books don’t have an operating system, which is the good thing about them. Only paper and ink. The focus of government policy and funding in the 90s was towards new media. Pure video was sidelined. Steven’s and Darren Tofts’ idea, that they wanted to develop, was that new media is a subset of video because it is about screens.
CM-A: Let’s go back to your own work. Which works would you identify as key works?
JG: I have been working for long time across different periods. There is some earlier performance based works with me. That is what I was showing in Japan. After being in New York in the early 1980s, I dropped all that. Then I was doing work with appropriated imagery, similar but with some differences to what people were doing in Britain. I was aware of what was happening in the US.
CM-A: Could you give me some titles?
JG: There is a work called ‘Hymn’, which was shown in Roslyn Oxley Gallery and at ECO in Melbourne, which showed contemporary Australian video installation. It was in 85 or 86.
CM-A: So that was an installation?
JG: It occupies space in a different kind of way. I’ve actually have got a background in sculpture. Jill Scott and the Rendalli’s were also in that show.
CM-A: Gary Willis also spoke to me about them.
JG: Yes they had a big influence on Gary’s work.
CM-A: Because Gary (Willis) was doing the sort of TV intervention thing?
JG: And they were working at Open Channel, which is one of those video centres. I always think the look of Melbourne video in that era was very much influenced by the Rendalli’s. I am not a big fan of their work, but they were very important. There were texts as well. There was also Philip Brophy’s work, Gary Willis, Eva Schramm.
CM-A: And Bush Video?
JG: Bush Video was a Sydney thing. Steven was involved in that and other people as well. That was a kind of a counter-culture thing. That goes back to the Aquarius festival.
CM-A: That came up as well. I am keen to bring you back to give me some of your key works as titles.
JG: The important stuff started in the early 90s. “Techno/ Dumb/ Show” and “Test”.
CM-A: That was 1991?
JG: Yes. It was shot couple of years before that. That is the mature work of mine but the other earlier body of work was shown a lot. So I moved from making work out of other people’s images to making my own. So it is kind of transitional
CM-A: The collage stuff was in the 80s. Would you ever consider yourself influenced by “Scratch video” , for example?
JG: I was certainly aware of it in the 1980s. Jill Scott and some other people set up the Video Festival in Sydney and that was a key festival for video. So 86 would have been the first one, and that went on until 92 or 93 until it lost its funding with the rise of interest in new media. That might be a bit simplistic.
CM-A: Were there any particular venues?
JG: Yes there were about 5 or 6 venues. The Art Gallery of New South Wales, The performance space, The Ivan Dougherty gallery, which is attached to the art school where I work now, the Australian Centre for Photography. John Hanhardt was there. They’d all be bringing people in. It would be part of a festival circuit. Bill Viola or Gary Hill would show an installation. It was a fantastic festival.
CM-A: So you would have seen all this stuff. But then you yourself would have been an established artist by then . It wasn’t like ‘wow look what those guys are doing’. You were part of it.
JG: Yes, so for example “Techno/ Dumb/ Show” was premiered here at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 10 or 15 thousand people saw it here. It was shown as a loop projected in a gallery.
CM-A: So it was projected. Were you ever part of the purist school that didn’t want things projected?
JG: No, that was never an issue. I do believe you have to understand the medium so you can do things with it. Actually in 1992 I saw that work projected in Tokyo in the Spiral Hall on a new High Definition projector that Sony had just developed. They had done this thing with Peter Greenaway’s “Prospero’s Books”.
So that was at SCAN gallery, run by Fujiko Nakaya. She did one of her first big fog commissions here in the New Australian National Gallery in the 70s. Then she did one in The Domain, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 69 or 79 biennial. I can’t remember. She ran SCAN gallery. She was also a video artist.
Cathy Vogen, who composed ‘Fearless’ with Dominik Barbier, would have made some of their work. She was part of the scene here in the 80’s. Dominik Barbier came to one of those festivals, and that is how they got together. They made works together.
CM-A: What about the technical changes of video, have they affected the way you work?
JG: Yes, profoundly.
CM-A: Could you say a little about that? I can’t think of any other medium that has had so many changes in such a short span of time; If you think about painting or even sound or filmmaking, they have been fairly stable, in a sense. There is a transition between analogue and digital, which we mentioned earlier. Even prior to that if you think about not being able to edit, then being able to, then colour, then digital effects, all of that within the last 2 or 3 decades.
JG: So I guess one of the reasons why I was doing that weird thing of shooting on film and then transferring it, because I was shooting it off the wall with a video camera and then rescanning it. The distortions that were brought into the image were making suggestive hypnotic images. Then we were able to use the electronic to make cuts and edits.
CM-A: Did you get involved with image processing?
JG: Yes. That is why I ‘m interested in analogue video work now. It is because of the certain qualities you can get when processing with analogue that you can’t do with digital. Also the immediacy of video was important, because I also did VJ work as well. So being able to switch things, and know your delay. Certainly you can do that with digital means, but there is something fundamental about running in real time. I use that as an editing technique as well. Cutting in real time. A lot of the production techniques are laborious. But they have another kind of quality, which is a considered kind of image.
CM-A: Where you working frame by frame with digital?
JG: Yes. It reminds me of cooking, because you put something in the oven and then you go and come back in an hour.
CM-A: Yes, you get involved with the pixels in a way but with the analogue signal we were interested in the fluid- continuous flow of it, like perception. We are not taking it to bits and sticking it back together.
JG: I think one of the most revolutionary things was the Sony U-matic player, which had a loop function. I have got one up there.
CM-A: I know what you mean- the ‘rewind and replay’.
JG: I also think when VHS technology became more prevalent museums and galleries started getting that and most of the machines, unless it was the really expensive one, didn’t have the loop function. How many times in the 90s would you walk into a gallery and there is no one to rewind the tape. For that reason, my theory is that video art died in the 90s. Partly because of this factor as well as the rise of new media.
CM-A: Did it affect the way you made work?
JG: Yes. I had access to equipment because I had been teaching a lot. So I have been lucky in that sense. I would definitely be exploring the possibility of a certain kind of technology in different ways. Every work I do explores a different kind of technical set up. I don’t think it would be the same technique. Still there is a sense of a system or an apparatus that is almost like going back to process work. Setting up an apparatus that would produce and set up rules to that piece.
CM-A: That is the way you still work?
CM-A: Do you think that came out of your early experience with the medium?
JG: Yes certainly, setting up rules and limitations. This is what this piece is going to be using these ideas, and this technical process.
CM-A: This is something that Structural-Materialist filmmakers talk about a lot. I think it came from P. Adams Sitney- “the procedure determines the form”. For example, the film maker Chris Welsby. He’d set up a series of technological and mechanical constraints and then watch how that affected the film making process. You step back and observe the product of the procedure.
JG: It is like a trajectory.
CM-A: I suppose it is like what we were talking about in the car. One sets one’s self limits in order to explore the edges of things and see what they give you.
JG: I think when I was 20 my favourite work was “Come Out”. It was my favourite work on all kinds of levels, because it suggested all kinds of things.
CM-A: It is a wonderful piece. I went to a concert in London where they were playing and it was being broadcast live on BBC Radio Three. So there was a tape recorder on a table on the stage and the audience is sitting there. Almost at the crescendo, someone in the audience shouted out “ What a lot of fucking shit”. This was in the 90s. I was surprised that anyone who would have gone to a Steve Reich concert would not have been expecting that kind of music.
JG: But that is also part of the work I think. It is like the Cage concerts. I am interested in the way they let the work lead you to situations you could not predict. This happens with some of my works. In shooting situations where I was using surveillance cameras, things appear that you least expect.
CM-A: We have a lot in common because with a lot of what I do I allows chance to come in. That attitude came out of minimal and experimental music. It really predates the video. That sensibility, as you say, has come out of Cage, and then was re-examined by filmmaking. I guess that is part of the inheritance. I consider myself second-generation video artist. I guess you do as well.
JG: In Australia I see myself as second generation. I would say David Perry is first generation.
CM-A: Would Warren (Burt) also be first generation?
JG: Yes sort of. David was born 1930. And another person of that generation is Joan Brassil , who was born in the 1920s.
CM-A: When where they making work?
JG: Joan died in the 90s. She was born in 1922 or something like that. She didn’t make video work until late 70s or 80s.
There is another generation that is younger. They feel a little bit in-between. I taught a lot of those. There is Angelica Mesiti and Shaun Gladwell.
CM-A: This is the next group?
JG: Yes. They are in their 30s now. There is another lot coming up.
CM-A: Although of course they don’t specifically consider themselves to be working in video, do they? There is a thirty-year span of what we might consider to be artists’ video and then it stops around 1988-90 because of convergence and the shift in technology.
JG: That is interesting though because still, some one like Shaun Gladwell. He is very much spoken about in the media and is famous for being a video artist.
CM-A: And he uses the term?
JG: Yes. It is used for Bill Viola and it is also used for Shaun Gladwell. So it is used selectively. Someone like Tracey Moffatt-has she come up in your research?
CM-A: Her name has come up. I thought she was based in the States.
JG: She is probably in Brisbane. I think she left New York, but I could be wrong. She is a really important artist. She is someone who works in film. She is not called a video artist, but she makes video work, although photography is really her main thing. She has also made a lot of narrative film. She is in Michael Rush’s book. It doesn’t make sense actually. It is great work, but it doesn’t make sense.
Tracy Moffat still makes those cut up videos for Gary Hillberg. They get shown in biennials and festivals. They work with a theme. There is this one called ‘Artist’, which is more like Hollywood films.
CM-A: So was video as a medium for art readily accepted in Australia or was there some kind of resistance to it?
JG: I guess there weren’t any curators in the state museums, which we spoke about before. I met Barbara London when I was in New York. I met Christine Van Assche in Paris. People were starting collecting back then but it wasn’t happening here. That was always a big frustration. It was a part of the Sydney biennial. The Sydney Biennial was a transformative kind of event, starting in the 70s. There were often video works in Biennials. The video festival around the 80s and 90s was an amazing event, but it was always subject to policies and policies change and funding….
CM-A: Could you apply for funding to make a particular work?
CM-A: And that was through the Australian Arts Council or equivalent?
JG: Australia had a film industry early on in the 1910s and 1920s but that died because cinema chains were brought over by American companies. That is part of the story. Then few bits and pieces were made in the 60s including Ubu films. They were making underground films or personal films and out of them came this fund called Experimental Film and Television Fund. It wasn’t the Australia council, which is like the British council but a separate thing called the Australian Film Commission. That still exists in a sense. The Australian Film Commission funded some experimental films right up until quite recently. Something like “Techno/ Dumb/ Show” was funded through that.
CM-A: Did you have to apply through a script or with some kind of proposal?
JG: Yes, and you might be asked to go to a meeting where they would rip you to shreds. They got to a stage more recently where they would say: ‘This is visual art. This is not what we want’. There has always been this real tension, anti-art tension in Australia.
CM-A: So it was a film and video or film and television funding. Could you go to arts funding with a video projects?
JG: Yes, to the Visual Arts Board. Yes, but the film commissions policies, a lot of Gill Scott’s work came out of that. Peter Callas’ work as well. The work was made in Australia. They hide it now because they are kind of embarrassed by the experimental. So they have indigenous filmmakers, who have really been amazing, the features and television stuff… But the experimental stuff they have hidden away. It is like they don’t want to let out their dirty secrets. So they don’t acknowledge that history from Ubu films on, that have funded experimental cinema and video art. But you could look at Australian video through the 70s and the 80s as related to the funding policies. Rendalli’s work, Peter’s work…
CM-A: This is the Australian Film Commission?
JG: Yes, but there was also the Experimental Film and Television Fund.
CM-A: So when you had plans to make work, you might consider going to the Visual Arts Board as well as to the Experimental film and Television fund? Would you submit to both? Did things sometimes fall between two?
JG:Yes, sometimes they fell. Sometimes you’d go there and then they go the other way. But with Visual Arts Board, the good thing for me is that they had studios around the world. I would spend time in the Barcelona Studios. They had studios in New York. Because there is always the sense that Australia is geographically isolated. They would send artists there. They still do. So that was very helpful. They were trying to internationalise art. I guess video in the late 70s and 80s was a fantastic medium because it was international. So I had a distributor in Paris and Peter was really connected with Japan and showing work in South America. Whereas for painters and sculptors and filmmakers, it is very hard for your work to ever get outside of Australia.
CM-A: That is true.
JG: In a way we were international.
CM-A: You just put the tape in the post.
CM-A: It is interesting because in my experience, there was a downside to that. You never had the experience of anyone ever seeing it. I used to get a letter from LVA saying: ‘Your work was shown in Brazil’. After that I got thinking, I have got no idea whether it was shown in the bathroom of a club or whether there was any kind of audience there or whether there was any audience response. It was just like sending a ‘message in a bottle’.
JG: That is how I feel. But it was magnified because everything was so far away. It has changed now because travel is now cheaper. But that was one of the reasons driving us, possibly, to use that medium too, because it was international.
CM-A: That is really interesting. No one I have spoken to here has mentioned that.
JG: Peter will talk about that. Peter has written about that media condition. He curated a show called “An Eccentric Orbit: Video Art in Australia” in 1993. So there was the one that Steven Jones and Bernice Murphy did in 1979-80, and there is this one that Peter did in 1993. It was John Hanhardt’s idea because he has been here and thought there is this amazing video that people don’t know about. So he said, why don’t you put together a show and I will get it through the American Federation of Arts. It was at the Museum of Modern Art in 1993 or 1994. Peter writes a lot about this mediated condition. We are receiving images. We are looking at things in magazines- single images- but then we can be international by sending out tapes, rather than being outsiders. And as you know in Australia there is a whole art history here, “white art”. The whole landscape thing and modernism, but it is very much contained within because it does not travel very much. So video was a means of breaking out of that as well.
CM-A: But the influence is going in both directions, because you know of course that work could also be easily sent here, so you could see it. That is why I am curious about why it was only experienced as stills when the work was actually so portable.
JG: That is why people started video festivals, but that was one thing.
CM-A: Here is another example of this technological determinism again. Now with the Internet, you can now go online. I could probably find some of your work on-line.
JG: Part of it.
CM-A: Somebody was telling me the other day, that an artist, it may have been Peter, not knowing that some of his works were available on line because he doesn’t do the Internet. There is stuff out there that you do not have control over.
JG: Peter Kennedy and Mike Parr, they were a bit of a precursor , in the sense that they were swapping work with artists in Canada and France. Some of Peter’s work ended up in the Pompidou collection, not under his name, because no one knows whom it belongs to.
It was a little funny. He turned on this programme on Channel 4. I think it was called “What is Contemporary Art?”, and there is his face on one of the idea demonstration works, which is a printed tape over, and the work is not credited. It is part of a discussion about Fluxus or something like that.
CM-A: Is there anything he can do about that?
JG: I don’t know- but he was shocked that his work is in the Pompidou collection and not credited to him.
CM-A: Someone sold it to them?
JG: It ended up there somehow.
CM-A: This is another layer to the issue, in terms of how our work might be made available or experienced. You don’t even know who is looking at your work. So that is even worse than the ‘message in a bottle’ situation when you get a letter telling you that you work has been shown somewhere.
JG: This is what happened in “Techno/ Dumb/ Show”. I would bump into somebody and they would say “Oh I was in a dance floor in Milan and they were playing your videos”.
CM-A: I can see how it could work in that context.
JG: Yes, but it was different music. It was like DJ stuff. That is interesting. Where it pops up you never know. I think the Internet is a heightened thing. I think that was already happening back then.
CM-A I guess it was, but it just opened it out in an odd way, because of course you end up with work that is fragmented and de-contextualised. You are not going to get the complete work unfolding in the way it was intended.
JG:I guess another thing to say about the 80s in Sydney was that Roslyn Oxley gallery was showing artists’ video. She had a dedicated room for video. I showed there in 82 or 83.
CM-A: So if you wanted to see what was going on with other video artists you would go there?
Yes- Peter Callas, me, Jill Scott, John Bra, were the main artists showing there.
CM-A: Did you earn money from doing that?
JG: I did sell some work, but not very much.
CM-A: Who bought it?
JG: The National Gallery. They bought some but very little, but Roslyn Oxley was really important.
CM-A: Let me ask you one more thing. Are or were there any unique aspects to Australian video that you would say differ from what was being done in Canada, US, Germany or Britain? Is there something that you would identify as distinctively Australian, be it in the way of working, the look , or the attitude to it?
It maybe an impossible question to ask. But I don’t know. I just wonder if there is an attitude to video. You have seen a lot of work from a lot of places and you are really aware of the Australian scene.
JG: I guess we are talking about different periods in time too. The work changes too. The work is responding to different things. I mean a lot of the work in the 70s was very much responding to the political situation in Australia.
CM-A: Do you think that work travelled less well?
JG: Yes. Mike Parr, who Peter Kennedy used to work with, said that what he was doing was because of the Vietnam War. The kind of radicalism that came out of that was very particular.
CM-A: The late 60’s was a time of upheaval. The Vietnam War did affect more places that those that were fighting in it. There were big protests in lots of European cities for example as well as here and in the States.
Then there was a kind of optimism that came out of the end of that, and the kind of radical attitude to art making especially in a new medium like video. I think what is interesting about video in the international sense, is that it was a new medium with new possibilities. Feminists and disenfranchised groups got hold of it too because they didn’t have a contend with a lot of other cultural baggage.
JG: It was relatively accessible to people. They didn’t have videos on their phones or whatever.
CM-A: I suppose it is inversely related, because it’s more accessible now, but more contained by the companies that provide you with the technology.
JG: I guess in the 1970s, the political situation, the milieu in which people were working, was a determinant. That probably extends to the 80s. Peter Callas has written about that. He would say it was the circulation of images and Australia as a second-degree country that is highly mediatised. For Peter, Australia is a place that consumes images and new technology and knows about the rest of the world through media images.
CM-A: Do you think that Australians, by and large consider themselves “second degree”?
JG: I guess that comes from (Roland) Barthes.
CM-A: So they didn’t see themselves as the people responsible for it, so they saw themselves as consumers of it- that is interesting.
JG: And then you could spew it back in interesting ways. The Brazilians have a more interesting idea proposed by modernists in the 20s and 30s. I’ve forgoten the term. They base it on a story of a French monk who went to Brazil in the 16th century and got eaten. So they took on that term of eating European culture and spitting it back. It is a different kind of modernity. It is the modernity of the periphery. So back in the 80s we would see it that way, and also as non-indigenous art, which is another category. In a sense we don’t have legitimate roots because we are migrants in a stolen land. Therefore our world and reality is even more mediatised.
CM-A: I know where you are coming from, but at some level every nation on earth has that problem in a sense. In a sense we have all come from somewhere else.
JG: Coming to terms with that and with the trauma of it all only really happened from the 70s onwards and it is still going on. So it was something that was very much in the air. I think in the 80s this was another way why non-indigenous artist felt like they were dealing with mages that are not rooted in the same kind of way. They are in a mediascape.
CM-A: There seems to be a dearth of Australian video artists leading with the landscape.
JG: There is a very good reason for that, because it is an illegitimate project. Why is Australian art built on landscape imagery? Someone would argue it is about owning it and excluding other people from owning it. So in the 70s there was a sense of that being an illegitimate project. Which is very contradictory because Australian cinema was playing on landscape a lot. So it is quite strange that video is coming out of this counter current to cinema.
CM-A: That, I think, is quite distinctively an Australian experience or response to a particular situation, which is quite intriguing.
JG: It is not the same now. It is different. I am thinking about that time. I guess the other thing that is particular to me, and maybe to other people, is that shows like “Techno/ Dumb/ Show” is coming out of a specific performance culture, which is different to other places in the way that it is conceived and theorised. It is a melding of Asian training. This was happening everywhere. It is not performance art per se, but it is kind of a meshing of dance and Suzuki acting training and other things into this milieu that existed in Sydney at that time in the late 80’s and 90’s. That is where my work was coming and still comes from. That is still a tradition or a cultural space. Few people have spoken about this recently. In the early 80’s in Sydney, people were exhausting the language of performance and live art, saying how do we make our work, rather than ordinary, extraordinary. So it was about taking on technique. So the technique was used as a way of breaking through that. There has always been a tradition going back to the 60’s, of looking at Asian culture. We are close to these incredible traditions of dance in India, Japan and China. People travel a lot and come across these other traditions. When I was a student, I was studying musicology. I spent my time video taping south Indian music, Peking Opera, all kind of things. I was also studying Indonesian music.
CM-A: I went to a Gamelan concert recently in Edinburgh and they had one piece where there was also a dancer. The dance was incredible. It seemed to have transformed the music for me- the music was much more interesting because of the dancer – her presence added a dimension.
JG: It is the gesuptkunstwerk . That is what Artaud was responding to and Debusy. So, a lot of people in the 60’s and the 70’s travelled in Asia and saw things. I think that happened all around the world, but it had a particular effect in Australia. An Australian performing group in the 60’s in Melbourne was using Chinese exercises as a basis for their training, but that went to a whole new level in the 80’s. They weren’t afraid of learning techniques.
CM-A: This rubbed off on you whilst you were in art school or was it later?
JG: It was later in my 20’s. There was an opening to that part of the world. It has nothing to do with video but more to with performance. It was spinning off in all different kinds of ways. A lot of younger artists working now are all influenced by that performance culture in Sydney, even Shaun Gladwell. This is a particularly Sydney thing and people don’t necessarily consider it as performance. It is quite specific. It is not the same in Melbourne. It is quite different.
CM-A: One of the things about video is that it is a carrier medium, which is why it does seem for many as the precursor for new media. Each new medium that comes along can contain the previous ones. Video is quite interesting because it is an early example of something you can contain writing, still images and moving images.
JG: Then I as a maker can carry over that gesture into the way I make the videos as well. I was doing performance stuff as well so it comes into video.
CM-A: It is video’s “liveness” and immediacy. One of my first tutors at film school, Peter Donebauer, who built the Videokalos video synthesizer, said that what he liked about video was its immediacy. He asked me: “Can you imagine learning to play a musical instrument where there was a delay between the gesture you made and the sound it produced?” For Peter, making video was like playing a musical instrument , because it had that kind of immediate relationship to the original impulse or gesture.
JG: Which new media doesn’t necessarily have. It is getting there. Everything is morphing and merging. There are different paradigms that shift through media that come from other media. Like we were talking about film and looking at things frame by frame. So those would be two things, but the second one is more specific to my work. But I think that is specific to lots of people working in Sydney since then.
CM-A: Were there indigenous artists who grabbed onto video? Who would the key artists be? That is something that no one has mentioned. I am curious because I do get this feeling that there is something that I have not been able to uncover. Are there any particular names that spring to mind?
JG: In Melbourne, there is Destiny Deacon. She wouldn’t call herself a video artist, I am sure, but she uses video and super 8, as well as photography. She exploits stereotypes and myths. There is this very interesting quirky feel to her work-‘taking the piss’ humour.
CM-A: How early on would she have been working with video?
JG: She had work in the 1993 show at the Museum of Modern Art called “Welcome to my Koori World” which is basically her talking to the camera. Koori is a term for indigenous people, particularly in Melbourne. There are various other single works by other artists. There is Tracey Moffat who doesn’t like to be called an indigenous artist, but she is. Her work deals with experimental film, with an indigenous element to it, in an interesting way. She works with photography as well. She deals with identity. Her photo series ‘Something More’ is one of her key works made in Australia in the early 90s, which is very much about hybrid identity.
CM-A: Video is an interesting medium in this regard, because often people who might be considered as “disenfranchised” have got hold of it, gay and feminist artists, transgender artists and so on. Nobody mentioned that much in the Australian scene, but it was very much there.
JG: I guess someone like Tracey had an advantage because she worked in the film industry and was making music clips. She could conceive her work in that kind of way so she could get funding to shoot, something like, Michael Rush’s book. Her work ‘Night Cries’ was shot by an 8 mm in the studio with a great set designer working on it, a cinematographer and a story boarder. I see it shown as video art in museums.
CM-A: I guess that is the other thing about the term. It has become a very loose term.
JG: “Moving image” is much more used. Now with the convergence of technologies, then what is video and what is film? I do know that film is a very particular thing but these things are so grey.
CM-A: Well, even the term “cinema”. There are certain video pieces that are considered to be cinematic. When it is immersive (in a way that has to do with the way the audience engages with it), then it is “cinema”. There is another cultural sensibility, which comes out of installation- which is not cinematic, but televisual in some way. It seems to be about the relationship between the image and the space that contains it. That is something that most cinema is not about, unless it is “Expanded’ cinema.
One aspect of artists’ video that has particularly influenced contemporary art is that play between the image and the space, like when we started thinking about the position of the television box within the space, and the effect that it has on the way an image was read or experienced.