Chris Meigh-Andrews: I’ve been trying to get a sense of what happened in the early days of the Japanese experience. How did you get involved?
Michael Goldberg: I was living in Montréal, and in the late 1960’s I would go down to New York once in a while to visit galleries. I went to “the first exhibition of video art “ that Nam June Paik was in. What was the name of the gallery…?
CM-A: The Howard Wise Gallery
MG: Right. Paik had a wrought iron lawn chair with a round glass bottom and a tiny black-and-white TV facing up, that was showing the news. (Do you know this story?) You had to sit on the chair, straddled across, and look down at the newscaster’s face. You felt like you were shitting on the TV. I loved it! I asked the Gallery if they could introduce me to Paik. They called, and he invited me over. I’ve known him on and off since, though I can’t say we were friends.
CM-A: Was that your first encounter with video art?
MG: I guess it would be, yes.
CM-A: You were in Montréal during Expo 67?
MG: Yes, I played guitar for three weeks, entertaining people waiting in lines to get into pavilions. I was the only amateur who was hired, but I had to join the Musicians’ Guild.
CM-A: Expo ’67 was a watershed for me, as it was for a lot of kids of my generation in Montreal. I was 13-14 at the time. My dad bought me an expo passport, so I used to go there a lot. Later I got to know some of the people who worked at the National film board and who’d worked on Labyrinth – the one with the two screens. But I want to concentrate on your experiences of those early days. Can you recall when you first encountered video?
MG: First encountered video? Actually it was before that, when I first went to the UK. I had studied sculpture at Ecole des Beaux Arts de Montréal for a couple of years. There was a phenomenon – if one could call it that – called the Arts Lab, patronised by the royal family. I researched and wrote a report on video special effects, which I knew nothing about. I was asked to write the report. I hated television. My grandmother had it on all the time. I didn’t know there was an “off” button until i was 20. I backed into television. It was this first encounter, one might say, where I learned what could be used in video art; and later I used video delay, for example. I learned about it by studying what was possible, a year or two before I started touching the stuff. So that was my first encounter with video; but it was theoretical.
CM-A: Was this at the Arts Lab in London?
MG: In Cambridge, actually.
CM-A: Did you ever meet David Curtis?
MG: No. I was just passing through.
CM-A: The Arts Lab that I am familiar with, which was the precursor of the Film-maker’s Co-op, was in London. That was where they had a kind of collision of rock music and experimental films, happenings, and performances. So you saw your first video at the Cambridge Arts Lab?
MG: No, I was passing through Cambridge and was asked to write this report. I didn’t see any video art. I wrote a paper about the theoretical applications of the new technology called video art. No, it wasn’t there. It was at the Howard Wise Gallery. That was the first big exhibition of video art, and I happened to run into it.
Nam June Paik’s work was the person who impressed me most at that point. I asked if I could meet him and I did. It was a little TV with news playing. There wasn’t even a story. He had a piece with a large magnet stuck to the side of a TV, distorting the image by attracting the electron beam. Afterward I got involved with EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), and organized a number of events in Montréal which Québecois artists didn’t want to do. There was an EAT group in name only in Montréal. They didn’t want to get involved with the US organisation because they thought it was CIA backed. Somebody, it seems, very high up in EAT had CIA clearance. They figured it was some kind of plot to suck in artists, or something.
So EAT came to Montréal, and I set up a huge event that at McGill University and did a couple of workshops and events. Unfortunately, when I left it all fell apart. That impressed me deeply about how to set up a group. You don’t organise a group by doing things yourself and not involving other people. I met Fujiko Nakaya at “Some More Beginnings” at the Brooklyn museum (Nov 1968 – Jan 1969). It was their second big exhibition. My girlfriend at the time and I each had a piece in that – not video, interactive art. That is how I got to Japan in the end. The connection to video was through the exhibition at the Howard Wise Gallery.
CM-A: So you saw that work and you were turned on by it, and decided you wanted to work with the new medium?
MG: As I said, I backed into video but I didn’t like television. Now I produce things for television. Such is life! Trying to do things that you don’t normally get on television. Whatever, perhaps I have been co-opted.
In 1976 or so, I launched the Video Exchange Directory. On the back cover of the second Directory I put a fake news release about how you could send videos by phone. It wasn’t a prediction. It was just kind of an off-the-wall thing about video in the future, and it is happening now.
CM-A: You came to Japan initially as a visitor?
MG: A visitor from outer space.
CM-A: But you weren’t here to promote video art, were you?
MG: Well I came here thanks to / because of the first Video Exchange Directory. This was before videocassettes. There was only black and white, open-reel video. I was hoping that people would use video as a communications device, not just as a one-way dissemination medium. I had sent out postcards around the world to artists and community groups and actors and dancers and so on, asking them to send me information about the equipment they had, their addresses, and what they are interested in and what they do. It had to be non commercial, that was the bottom line. I received 160 answers or so. The first one included the Black Panthers in Algeria (another story) but no one from Japan. The gear – except Ampex – was all Japanese. I figured my approach had a language problem. The postcard mailout was in English and French. So I thought okay, the Japanese didn’t get it. I had a sculpture grant from the Canada Council. In those days it was easy to get a Travel Grant; you apply if you were invited to an exhibition or something. I requested travel costs even though it wasn’t related to sculpture, and got permission to go to Japan to look for video artists.
CM-A: There weren’t any?
MG: Well, there were two, one in Osaka and one in Fukui. They were doing things on their own; playing with video and enjoying themselves, not connecting with much. Fujiko Nakaya, who later founded SCAN video art gallery, and sculptor Yamaguchi Katsuhiro took me to Sony. The Sony Building in the Ginza had just opened, a multi-floored showroom for which there really wasn’t much content. They said: “Look, there is an international video movement, and we should be part of it.” Sony gave them a budget, and I became the “teacher.” I had just started, but I was a bit more advanced than them. All a teacher needs is a little more knowledge than the students. (I am being facetious!) So I trained people. Portable colour video was being developed, and the cassette was introduced while I was here. A variety of artists got together and did their very first video artwork, and that was the first group video art exhibition – the first formal video art exhibition – in Japan.
CM-A: You were describing when we were going up the escalator that you used half-inch tapes. So the time you first arrived in Japan was the cross-over point between half-inch tape and 3/4-inch cassette tapes? When was that?
MG: I came to Japan in 1971 and the exhibition was in 1972. I avoided Expo 70 (in Osaka), and waited a year before I came to Japan.
CM-A: You ended up staying?
MG: Actually I got invited back after that and ended up staying later on. I was in Japan for 5 months in 1971 – 72. The artists in that exhibition became the “avant-garde” of video art in Japan. They invited me back to judge a competition, then to teach at Tsukuba University for 2 semesters, etc. I got invited back and forth for a time, and ended up getting a teaching job in a technical college (Nippon Electronics College). I went back and forth for a total of about a year and half in Japan, all told, before I actually moved here.
CM-A: I realize that I have missed out some of your chronology. There’s your involvement with “Video Inn” somewhere in all of this as well. So you were in Montréal, then the first contact with video in New York, worked with EAT, and then went to Vancouver to co-found…..
MG: I moved to Vancouver partly because I am a pre-baby boomer.
CM-A: I always think of 1945 as the start of baby boomers. But I suppose if you were born in 1944, then you are, kind of …….
MG: It was just the start of the Baby Boom. The student strike at Ecole des Beaux Arts de Montréal happened after I dropped out. I hung out while that was happening. I didn’t agree with everything that was being taught when I was in art school. I don’t know about you, but when I was in art school, there was a reaction against the commercialisation of art, against the role that critics played, the museum thing, about the fact that the signature is what made the thing valuable and not the thing itself, the artist “on a pedestal,” all that stuff. Rejection of that is one of the reasons I was attracted to video. As you pointed out while we were going up the escalator, video is ephemeral. In Vancouver there was a group called Intermedia – a wonderful group! There were people from all sorts of disciplines working together anonymously, doing really interesting work together- cooperative lifestyle stuff. It was great, and I loved it.
I felt attracted by that. A group called Image Bank was part of the Intermedia phenomenon. Under their auspices, I put out the first “International Video Exchange Directory.” Then in 1973, Trish Hardman and I organised “Matrix,” the first international video conference, non-commercial video conference. There was one in New York State earlier than that, which brought together a few Canadians and up-state New Yorkers. Ours was the first with people from Europe and Japan, America and Canada. The first Video Exchange Directory predated that. A number of people who came to Matrix stayed and founded the Video Inn (now called VIVO) along with me. The Video Inn started at the same time as the Vidéographe in Montreal.
CM-A: I suppose I started messing with video around 1972. I worked with the school board in Montreal and they had this thing called the Instructional Materials Centre. They had a little TV studio, but they also had portapacks and that was my first introduction.
MG: Have you ever seen the “Accessible Portapack Manual”?
MG: Did you know that I did that?
CM-A: I do remember it – I recall that it was a ring-bound publication.
MG: There was a hard cover edition as well.
CM-A: I remember that it had a very nice blue and red cover, I think. It is the sort of thing now, would be worth a bomb if you still got one, a collectors item.
MG: That is why I am in the history books: “Is he alive? Nobody knows but his hairdresser”.
MG: It was hand-written and illustrated.
CM-A: Yes, I do remember. I’ll tell you where there’s maybe a copy in London that I can probably see? Hoppy Hopkins. Do you know him?
MG: I met him when he was connected with the Sony people there. Somehow they really clicked, and he got lots of equipment out of them. He did work for Sony but had lots of other stuff on the go. That is as much as I know about him.
CM-A: Sorry I keep getting side tracked. So you wrote that book. That is brilliant. I hadn’t made the connections, because when I wrote about three Canadian parallels, I was drawing on Peggy Gale’s approach.
MG: There is a standard joke, which you may get. When you ask someone from Canada where they are from, they will say, “I am from the West Coast” or “I am from the Prairies” or “Je suis Quebecois,” or they will say, “I am from the Maritimes.” But when you ask someone from Toronto where they are from, they say “I am Canadian.” So Peggy has a Canadian perspective?
CM-A: Yes she does; and she looks at the early Canadian video work in terms of regions in Canada. I followed that model. There is a sort of west coast and east coast thing. It is not quite as divided as the American scenes.
MG: Yes, there was crossover. I was the first Video Officer of the Canada Council. I speak French, as you know. I said I would only stay there two years. When we were interviewing applicants to replace me, one made the point that video should be only art, and have no social content. I asked, ‘Well, what are you going to do about Quebec?’
CM-A: Yes, it is all like that. I co-curated a show called “Analogue,” with Canadian, British and Polish artists’ video. The Canadian bit was curated by Peggy Gale and Lisa Steele and the entire Quebecois contribution was political, really.
MG: I have been away from Canada too long. I have lived in Japan 30 years.
CM-A: I was going to ask you about that. What I will try and do is put this thing in some sort of context.
MG: There is a word in Japanese called “Gai-atsu,” which means “outside pressure”. We say “nul n’est prophète dans son pays.” You are never recognised in your own country. If you’re Japanese, you go to Paris; you hang out in the arts scene, then you come back. They used me to put pressure on Sony to lend them equipment, give them a budget, and let them start the Japanese scene. So yes, it was outside pressure in a way.
CM-A: So you curated a show?
MG: Not really. I was the catalyst and teacher of sorts. There is an interesting story. There is a story I like about Kawanaka Nobuhiro, who founded Image Forum (the underground film centre). They were showing experimental film and European film, long before he got into video and took part in the DIY exhibition. That’s the title I chose for the Sony show – “Video Communication – Do It Yourself Kit.” Nobody knew what a “Do It Yourself Kit” was in those days, which I found quite interesting.
For Kawanaka-san’s piece, we were in a studio. He held a pen in front of the monitor, and was trying to explain what he wanted to do. The Sony technician did not understand what he was talking about. I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese, but I got it right away. He wanted to record then playback, put a pen in front, play back again and record that, to get layers. That incident became one of the classic stories of the video art scene here.
CM-A: So, there was a miscommunication between the video technician and the artist.
MG: That was my role in a way, to connect…
CM-A: To be the mediator?
MG: A catalyst to help it get started. I couldn’t speak Japanese. Fujiko Nakaya can speak Japanese fluently. One of the few of her generation who went to university in the United States, and comfortable in both cultures. She could speak English like a foreigner and Japanese like a Japanese. That was very lucky for me, because I am too (in English and French). As I said earlier, she and Yamaguchi Katsuhiro were the main people who brought the group together and convinced Sony to get behind the thing. They used me. I am sometimes called “The Godfather of Japanese video art”, but I feel like the Grandfather, even though they are about ten years older than I. Anyway, that is “the connection.” I didn’t really curate or anything. The pieces were chosen by them and the people they were with. Actually the works weren’t chosen – there was nothing to choose. They didn’t curate; they made their first video art.
CM-A: Right there and then; a sort of spontaneous celebration of the possibilities of the medium. Did these artists come from filmmaking?
MG: We all came from different backgrounds. People ask us ‘how did you learn?’ Well, we learned from our mistakes. There were no classes in video those days. Certainly not in video art. Now there are PhDs and professors of video art. We are there now; but not then.
CM-A: No of course not, so they all came from other disciplines?
MG: All sorts of disciplines – film-making or sculpture or literature or poetry, like Intermedia in Vancouver. It was a wonderful amalgam of different disciplines working together.
CM-A: There was something about video as a medium that attracted them away from what they were doing, towards video.
MG: Nowadays, creative people think more about possibilities of the Internet. There really isn’t as strong a movement of video art as there was in those days. Now you can take a tiny video camera that works in high definition and it looks great. Back then video was black and white and you really had to work hard to get something happening. That was part of its attraction. There wasn’t anything; so it was a frontier. At least in my case, and in the case of the people around me, we didn’t like television. So we were doing things in reaction to, or different from television.
CM-A: Part of the counterculture movement?
MG: Yes, counterculture or alternative lifestyle, if you will. Some of it was counterculture – wanting to change the culture. In our mindset there was a large part of society that wasn’t being served by television, and we wanted to work with our community. We wanted the medium to serve our community, be it the artistic community, or the native peoples’ community, or the gay and lesbian community, whatever it happened to be.
CM-A: That was something I was curious about. In North America and Europe there was a lot of interest in the medium by disenfranchised groups – for example feminist artists were attracted to video because it had no history. I get a sense that that isn’t the case in Japan, or it wasn’t.
MG: You are correct. Fujika Nakaya translated the book “Guerilla Television” into Japanese. Her first video project was to follow the Minamata scandal, where the Chisso company had poisoned the waters with mercury compounds. Local people were disabled and dying. There was no coverage of the protests from the side of the victims. All the media were on the side of the company goons and the government; basically, they didn’t want to cover it. So she showed up with the protesters, with a video camera. That was her first piece.
Fujiko Nakaya coined the term Video Sakka. “Sakka” literally means an “author.” If you think of publications, even in Japan, there is a category called “non-fiction.” Why is there “fiction” and “non-fiction?” What about “reality?” What is left out? I am not exactly clear. There is tradition, in Japan as well, of non-fiction, documentary if you will, coverage of subjects that are outside the norm. There always has been this in literature. “Art” (bijutsu) in Japanese is based on the word for beauty, so she coined the term Video Sakka.
Within a few years after the first generation of video creators had done their thing, they became very strong. There was a kind of hiatus after that. Video in Japan eventually became more aesthetic, and it came to be called video art. One would say “I am a video artist” – not a “video creator.”
CM-A: Or a video maker?
MG: Yes, none of that. In Canada we had a government that was supporting experimentation in telecommunications. We had to serve a diverse country; wide and thin population-wise. In the US, the government tended to put a lot of money into few artists, doing very beautiful, interesting things. In Canada video support was more populist. Our idea was to make video accessible, by funding centres and groups all across Canada started by artists, doing it on their own – actually community groups, not all were artists. People could learn the basics of making video there. Very low quality in some ways; low budget as well. So in Canada the schism, if you will, between documentary and art – or political and aesthetic – wasn’t so strong; whereas in Europe there is a big difference between politicised video and the art scene.
CM-A: Not so much in the early days, when you get a much more blurry edge. Hoppy and Sue are good examples. They were doing politically motivated stuff about squats and all that kind of stuff, but they also did the odd arty sort of thing, sort of more visual.
MG: But they weren’t part of the art scene.
CM-A: No, they were a bit on the periphery because they were interested in the potential of the medium outside of the broadcast TV approach.
MG: Which is good. I am not complaining. I was just saying there was a difference in ideology, if you will, between those who did politicised art, or those who were doing work to bring about social change, and those who were artists doing art as a continuation of the tradition of painting and sculpture and so on. Even in the art history of Europe, there have been times when they had been together, and sometimes they weren’t. So, getting back to Japan, your analysis is quite correct. There isn’t a big tradition in Japan, certainly not at the beginning, of documentary stuff. When I was asked to teach video art at Tsukuba University in 1980 for 2 semesters – I asked my students to do only one thing. The subject was free. They had to put people in the video (laughter). One guy showed people disappearing around corners, shadows, you never saw the people. It was a great approach! The thing is students were shooting nature stuff and creating aesthetically interesting video art, and I just wanted to bring back the bit about having people as part of the scene.
CM-A: Was this because – I think you have already said, but I am just trying to get a hold of it – there is a tradition within Japanese culture that is about an admiration for landscape and the natural world, and that seems to fall into the “art category” very comfortably. That is part of the tradition in this country. If you are an artist you are interested in the natural world in some sense and reflecting the relationship to it. So if you make work that is outside of that, it is automatically not art, it is something else, something other than art. Is that a bit of a crude way of looking at it?
MG: How about the woodblock print? It was not accepted as an art form. It was kind of like the comic – the manga of its day. Foreigners again – Gaiatsu – picked it up, and suddenly it became de rigueur. And what about Shunga – pornographic woodblock prints? What about the lack of distinction between the crafts and the arts in Japan? Crafts are considered a high art here.
CM-A: They certainly can elevate things, ceramics and so on.
MG: So it is not all aesthetics. Some of it has applications to society, to human needs and so forth. There have also been people throughout the ages – monks, some of them artists, some of them performers, Kabuki and so on – who were doing social commentary, showing scenes – like some of the painters in Europe – of the lower classes. I was involved in a fabulous project that didn’t get finished, unfortunately. There were two biobu – which is a huge folding screen – done around the same time in Edo, the city of Tokyo before it was named Tokyo. One was commissioned by the aristocracy for the shogun or somebody important – I forget, and the other was commissioned by a merchant. They are two totally different views of what Tokyo was like at the time. So there is that tradition as well. But the official art scene, the museum scene, that tended to be, as you described, more aesthetic, close to nature, and all of that.
CM-A: In the original Video Hiroba group, were there 5 or 6 artists?
MG: I think there were 10 or 12 actually. The core group was 5 or 6, who really worked hard and pulled it together and helped everybody else, but there were probably more who did things.
CM-A: Are those people all still making work?
MG: Not a lot- occasionally, but not much. Well, as I said, now it is the Internet where experimentation is happening a lot.
CM-A: This is the other part of it, which I observed when talking to people in Japan over that last few weeks. There is this feeling – I got it again today when we went and had a look at the collection here at the ICC. In the little booklet that accompanies the exhibition there is a page about video art that is very interesting. What they seem to be suggesting is that video art is proto-media art.
MG: I like that.
CM-A: I am not entirely comfortable with that, but it is very interesting to reflect on.
MG: They have an English text?
MG: Who wrote it?
CM-A: Well- it doesn’t say. (Laughter) Yes, I would like to know too!
MG: By anonymous.
CM-A: (Reading from text) “Video art is the pre-history of media art. Before the media art we have today, the art form using a new media was video art. And video as media, characterized by higher mobility of portable equipment”… (that’s fine) …. “As an alternative medium to film and television, video has been incorporated to art works, Video art originally did not only refer to images in film, edited and created as single works, but to works that incorporated the medium of video technology itself”.
MG: Why not? It is interesting. I love it. It’s interesting. It’s history- it’s been encapsulated.
CM-A: Well that’s what I didn’t like, but I never thought of it like that. I have to say, I suppose the dates for me are right, because when I wrote the book I thought, ‘ok, I’m not going to keep going…I have to stop somewhere. For me, there was a period when video art was a recognizable and distinctive form and that’s between about 1968, roughly, although you could perhaps go a little earlier, to about 1988. After that video is subsumed into something more complicated, and you know, you’ve got the computer coming along which brings film and video together in such a way that the distinction between the two is irrelevant. Student’s say ‘I filmed this, but I’ve got a video of that’ and you know the filming is where they’ve gone out with a video camera and the video is where they’ve got a film that was originally shown in the cinema on a DVD. So the two terms have become, you know, mixed to a large extent. I see the span between the mid to late 1960’s and the late 1980’s as a period where there’s something distinctive about video that’s different from film, and it’s different from television and from so-called “media art”. The practice has to do with, at some level, identifying why the technology is providing a new possible set of languages. (or perhaps at least a dialect!) It is expanding the possibility. It’s like what you said ‘well- it’s not television’. Last night when I made my presentation in Tokyo (at the ICC) I started by saying that when I began messing with video, I thought, what is this thing I’m doing, because it’s not film, it’s not television, it’s not painting or sculpture, I know I like it as a medium, but I don’t know what I can really do with it. I don’t know where (or how) I can show it. I don’t know where I can watch it. I don’t know how an audience will experience it. You know, it doesn’t work in a gallery. I was in this exhibition in 1979 called The New Contemporaries which was a sort of annual thing in London. I showed a video piece that I had made and when I walked into the ICA, there it was on a plinth in the middle of this large gallery space that’s had sculptures, paintings and stuff. It was a half hour piece which of course nobody was watching, and how could they in that kind of context. There was nowhere to stand and watch it, and I thought, I have made this thing, but I hadn’t thought at all about how anybody would engage with it. What am I doing? It made me really stop and realize that basically the medium had problematised for me a particular set of issues, so I knew I liked it…
MG: It’s partly contextual what you were fighting with, the context .
CM-A: Yeah, because you know in “Structural film”, (which in England is called Structuralist/Materialist film), there was a notion about so-called “dominant cinema”. Film maker/theoriticians Malcolm Le Grice and Peter Gidal were saying that avant-garde film is concerned with creating alternatives to the dominant mode of film-making, which was narrative cinema. So I think for British video artists our equivalent to that was broadcast television. We saw broadcast television as the dominant form and so what we were trying to do was to make something other than television.
MG: So did we in Canada. There’s a filmmaker in Canada who’s now a university professor called David Rimmer. He’s one of the people who was involved in Intermedia anonymously. I saw a film of David’s called “Surfacing on the Thames” in a theatre, a cinema in Toronto as part of an experimental film presentation, and I thought it was as boring as shit. It was like you look at the screen and nothing’s going on and there’s a boat very, very slowly moving across the frame, it’s one frame at a time, and I thought, “oh my God”. It was kind of like Warhol, looking at the Empire States building for 24 hours and playing it back. But then I saw it again in Vancouver, at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and it filled the wall. You walked into the room and it filled your whole field of vision. It was a found piece of film that was really dirty and scratched. The boat moves across the surface of the film. Every frame is beautiful and it slowly dissolves one into the other. It is context. If you don’t get it in the right context it might not work.
CM-A: That’s true, and the trouble is as artists we have to also be in control of the context.
MG: We have to, as much as possible. Try and do a silent piece, where would do you get silence?
CM-A: Well yeah, but what I was thinking was that we have to specify, we have to say, “alright, it’s supposed to function like this”. It doesn’t mean we have to be precious, but nevertheless we have to define what it is we’re doing and why it’s the way it is, and that has to be legible as part of the experience.
MG: Or designed for the context so that they follow the design.
CM-A: There’s a couple of works up there (in the ICC Gallery) that are really beautiful and I recommend you go and have a look at. In one, there’s a tiny little train on a track right down on the floor with a little light, and that’s the only light in the room, and this thing is going around. Of course all the things the artist has set up, all these bits of domestic stuff like pegs on a line, a basket and groups and little figures that cast shadows on the wall as it goes around. It’s like shadow play but it’s a high-tech version of it and it’s an installation and it works perfectly. What happens is that it moves through this whole thing and then quickly when it gets to the end it reverses. So it’s a bit like a movie but at the same time its not a movie. It’s a bit like a play, but it’s not play. It defines its own shape…it sets up the terms and they’re decodable by the audience. You can understand why it does what it does, how it’s doing it and what the context is, what the relationships are. So it’s both aesthetic and meaningful and it redirects you to the idea of play and wonder and all those sorts of things, and scale and all of that, and it does that…You don’t have to read the blurb. You know, with some stuff you go and think ‘I don’t know what the fuck that is’.
MG: And the artist doesn’t either.
CM-A: Yeah, but if you’re lucky the critics will make something up…
MG: The artist makes a statement and it’s like ‘oh my god’…
CM-A: There’s an example of something I think from first principles you can go in and decode it, make sense of it and understand its relationship to cinema in a sense, and yet it’s not cinema either. So it’s quite an interesting piece. The text pointed out that it references the magic lantern, which it does. There’s another piece up there, which is elegantly installed. The artist suspended the computer as a piece of sculpture and there’s a huge abstract image projection, there’s some relationship between the sound the computer’s generating and the image it’s then producing, but there’s no way into it. You can just admire it from the outside and think ‘oh yes it’s nice, isn’t it pretty’, but it doesn’t seem possible to understand it. You cannot get to the underlying language of it. You’re just left with this abstract image, which in itself doesn’t give me enough, because I want to understand why it’s the way it is and what it’s doing.
MG: You know what my standard replete to that is? It’s like music, maybe there’s nothing to understand.
CM-A: Yeah, well, OK- maybe. Some abstract films are like that. I recall that the 19th century writer Walter Pater said ‘all art aspires to the condition of music’?
MG: I’ve not heard that before.
CM-A: The idea is that the ideal is something that would work on you emotionally without you necessarily understanding the system.
MG: If you talk to composers they always talk structure. But it’s not mathematics, it’s not education, it’s not one plus one equals two.
CM-A: No it’s not, but they’ll always talk to you about structure and form. So I gave those two examples. I forget apropos why now. I forget where I was going but anyway, we were talking about artists and where they come from. I was thinking you have first generation artists in the UK and in Europe and in the States; most of them had come to video from something else, from film, from literature.
MG: Because video didn’t exist before, so they had to come from somewhere else.
CM-A: That’s right, but second generation video artists often came straight to video direct with no pre-training in anything else. Maybe third generation, because I’m a second generation video artist and I was sort of messing with photography and tape recorders and so when I saw video I thought ‘ah, it’s like a tape recorder and a camera stuck together- that’s for me’. I jumped at it. But I was thinking about where had they come from and what had they brought from their other mediums and how did they applied that to what they were doing.
MG: This is just a gut reaction, I’m not that analytical, but I don’t get the feeling that those who came from other media or other disciplines or other ways of expressing themselves, for example literature, necessarily try to use video to reflect that. Not when I started in the medium, people were trying to understand the intrinsic properties of the media and what that might inspire them to, rather than as an extension of what they were doing previously. I think they kind of went in ‘ok I’m going to stop doing what I was doing previously and try something totally different. But once you’ve seen that, perhaps from an analytical point of view, which you are more than I, you may be able to see the connections between that. I don’t think you can completely erase or ignore your background or your way of seeing.
CM-A: No, I think you bring something with you from the sensibility you developed through any medium you’ve mastered, and you bring that to bear on the new medium, for example, say understanding video through painting. You look at experimental film and you can see that a lot.
MG: I studied sculpture.
CM-A: Right there’s a spatial awareness which you have gained from that.
MG: No, well I’ve done installations, large installations. But the reason I mention that is because for a couple of years I studied pantomime in Montreal, just one day a week, with Paul Buissonneau at Theatre de Quat-Sous, though I never performed. I studied pantomime and I’m very proud of the fact I can do body isolation and I move really smoothly with the camera when doing handheld shooting. I loved to shoot dance in the early days because you’re moving all the time, dancing with the camera and unlike McLuhan, I never thought of the camera as an extension of me, I thought of myself as an extension of the camera. I would move so that the camera would move in interesting ways. Nothing to do with my sculptural training, but by fluke, very close to the skills that I picked up, and the training about “zero” and focus and centering and balance and all that pantomime stuff that I was trained in.
CM-A: You call it a “fluke”, but I suspect it’s not quite so much of a fluke as all that.
MG: Sometimes it’s an option- you may not be where the actual background is, in my case, I think, to a larger extent. I have some installations that I’m proud of but most of the work that I do is documentary style and I think – believe might be a better word – that it doesn’t come out of my sculptural training or my sculptural interests or my sculptural background. It’s not tactile anymore. I used to be able to touch the tape and cut it and make loops and all that. It’s gone. I don’t have that connection; I did to some extent in the early days. Sometimes if you’re seeing that connection, maybe it’s in your mind rather than the artist’s mind.
CM-A: It’s all possible, you’re right. So you come into this scene as a practitioner and somebody who’s enabling others, an animateur. So those two things are parallel. Did you continue to practice as an artist across that whole period or did you find there were periods when you were less involved with making and more involved with facilitating?
MG: Yes, the latter. Most of the energy and time and fundraising and group activities that I did, in the early days, was facilitating others, if you will, and I felt fulfilled by that. I’m kind of a late bloomer in terms of making “works.” I gained some acclaim within a limited circle and that happened later in life, making actual pieces, long pieces, documentary pieces and editing and all of that. So I was more of a facilitator. I liked working in groups; I loved the anonymity, the feedback, and the joy of working with other people.
CM-A: So are there works that exist now, that I could visually see and say that this is an example of that kind of collaborative practice?
MG: Back from the early days? Well there’s a piece- It’s not even a piece. It’s a compendium called “Intermedia Samplers”. I edited it in 1969 or 70. It was some of the earliest pieces of people in Vancouver had done and that’s still available at VIVO in Vancouver. I think it’s still playable, maybe not all of it, but most of it.
CM-A: Did they archive these things?
MG: Well Video In has a section called Video Out, which is distribution. It’s called VIVO now; it’s not called Video Inn anymore. It’s Video In, Video Out. It’s called VIVO.
CM-A: I haven’t been to Vancouver. I was there in 1968- when I was a kid really, so I need to go back there and see this stuff. Is any of it available online?
MG: If you go back to Vancouver, you’ll probably just hang out in nature. It’s so beautiful.
CM-A: Yeah, that’s probably true.
MG: Online? I don’t know. I’ve been away. When I mentioned earlier in our conversation today that having “founded” the Montreal branch of the EAT, Experiment in Art and Technology, well, that started falling apart after I left. When I started the Vancouver group after Matrix, when Video In was founded, the Satellite Video Exchange society, I purposefully went about empowering the other people in the group to do things. One guy kept saying we should do a newspaper. He was an editor of a newspaper at his university, and he never started it. So I did, and then he had to do it and it was his project. So the group that coalesced around after Matrix, 40 years later, Video In, still exists. That was a learning experience for me; the difference between the way I interacted with the people in Montreal which is a very egocentric, individualist kind of society, and Vancouver which is more cooperative. It’s not as group-orientated as Japan, if you will. It’s kind of somewhere in between, but there’s a kind of collaborative, non-ego edge to it that wasn’t there in Montreal. I managed – with everyone else in the group – to build an entity that still exists. It’s gone through a lot of changes, but it still exists and I’m quite proud of that actually.
CM-A: You should be. These are things that you leave as a possible legacy.
MG: Well, that’s the thing about artwork; we have the joy of leaving things behind us, possibly a legacy.
CM-A: God knows where they’ll end up or what form they’ll take. That’s the other thing, recognizing as we were saying when looking at that little booklet, to see it encapsulated in that way and then put on a shelf in a particular section intrigues me.
MG: There was a guy at the Tokyo University of Art – it’s called Geidai here – in Library Science. They were doing a project at the Museum of Photography at Ebisu, and I helped them. it was a video-on-demand thing with Video Art. I gave a workshop in colour bars. Why? The artists were told colour bars were needed at the start of their pieces, and everyone just stuck any old colour bars on the front of the tapes. So I gave a workshop on what colour bars were for. So going back to that piece, he was one of the initiators of that project. There was a huge mainframe computer in Tachikawa, far away from the centre, and people would access it downtown at the Museum of Photography. It was like “you don’t have to pay rights. Video art is dead stock anyways,” he said. That got me riled.
CM-A: That’s interesting- I can imagine…
MG: I mean that’s the worst view-point; having the thing on the shelf. I don’t believe it. In the room was Toshio Matsumoto who did Mona Lisa, one of the earlier icons of video art. It’s a beautiful piece. He came from a film background, and it’s a colourography of the Mona Lisa. It’s really quite pretty and he was in the room. I thought, this is insulting to this guy. It’s a classic piece.
CM-A: Did he respond?
MG: No, no, he let it roll off his back.
CM-A: Yeah, I guess he thought to himself that it may not just be that way- that time would tell…I wanted to ask you if there was any similar work in Japan with artists developing their own image processing tools. That was another interesting phenomenon that happened predominantly in the States. It was taken up by galleries fairly quickly and dropped almost as quickly in favour of another kind of approach. I suppose, a less abstract way of working with video. Was there an abstract kind of group here in Japan? People who worked with image processing, developing technologies…
MG: Not many. It wasn’t that big a scene, just a small group. Later on there was another group called Video Cocktail. There were some people who did that, and there were others who did conceptual stuff, and still others who did performance pieces. Electronic generated or manipulated imagery wasn’t a thing, per se.
CM-A: No, alright. I’m curious about it because one of the sub-strands of my research has been looking at artists who developed their own technology. An interesting anomaly that I came across in my research was an episode in Chris Marker’s film, “Sans Soleil”. There’s a Japanese video artist in that film and he is using the Spectron video synthesiser, which is a British synth designed by Richard Monkhouse. So, I’m fascinated by that and I discovered the fact that Marker still has a Spectron himself. Apparently it doesn’t work anymore, but Richard wants too much money to get it going again. I just love the idea that there’s this Japanese video artist using British technology in a film by a French film-maker. I just like that kind of cross-cultural juxtapositions.
MG: I think that’s great. You were talking a bit earlier about the people who came straight to video without having worked in other disciplines before. Well there was a period when somebody – in each generation – “discovered” feedback. You point the camera at the monitor and spiral light moves of its own volition. “Wow, this is earth-shattering, I’ve never seen anything like it”. So there’s that edge to it, I mean I know there’s nothing new under the sun, but there is that whole bit about you use whatever technology you have – within it’s limitations, that is – and you play with it, nothing wrong with that. I don’t care where it comes from.
CM-A: You’re right. I suppose it’s actually looking at the edge of those limitations, and that is when the most interesting work is done. Where it’s effortless you don’t get very much. One of my early teachers told me that he believed every medium had a grain and that it was important to find the grain of the medium you’re using and understand that grain and follow it, and I guess that’s what the most interesting artists were doing.
MG: Well, the best feedback video is grainy video. (LAUGHTER) When it got really sharp and clear feedback, it wasn’t as beautiful or abstract. It didn’t work as well.
CM-A: So as you were saying, Video Hiroba was quite a small group, and they all knew each other, and the ideas went from one little group to another little group in a sense. The baton was passed on to a new group.
MG: They didn’t pass it on, the new group kind of reacted against the first group that was really powerful, and tried to do things on their own.
CM-A: And were you involved with this second wave?
MG: I wrote monthly video criticism in a magazine that no longer exists called Video Com, video communications.
CM-A: For how long?
MG: Years and years and years. I went every month to a video art exhibition and covered the artists and what they were doing. Back then I pretty well knew everyone, or everybody knew me, and I loved it. I learned a lot. Somebody asked me recently whether I was affected by the way the Japanese use video and I had to think back to those days. I think unconsciously, subconsciously, or whatever, about the ways it was used by so many different Japanese video artists, if you will, or video creators. I think it must have affected me in some ways. It was great. I loved it.
CM-A: Do you think there was an identifiable Japanese attitude? Is there something unique about Japanese artists’ video that’s different from European or American , or is that not really possible?…I know, it’s a $64,000 question maybe, but I just wondered from your perspective since you have been so deeply involved with it.
MG: I honestly don’t know. I tend to think of artists as individual and universal at the same time, wherever they are, whatever they’re doing, and that good art somehow touches you. So I’ve never tried to lump them together. I mean, I’ve organized quite a number of showings, exchange exhibitions, etc, etc – lots. But except for the fact that one corner was art from Canada and the other corner was art from Japan, I wouldn’t, I don’t… I mean, for example Kabuki theatre is so Japanese, but I don’t think of Japanese video art as so blatantly Japanese, not “in your face.”
CM-A: Right. When we were curating “Analogue” in 2006 and comparing British/Polish/Canadian video work, what was really interesting was the differences in approach. For example, if you look at the Polish work, there was a very important political context, first of all because there was martial law during the 1980’s. So for example there was a situation where if one artist had a video camera, s/he was really fortunate, and would probably have smuggled it in to the country in the first place, and if another artist wanted to make a video piece he would borrow that camera and would use it and then pass it on to some other guy…
MG: Sounds like North Korea now.
CM-A: So what you’d end up seeing is… You could see there was a fault on the camera and you were seeing that same fault appearing. You know this artifact, if you like, which became part of the work, and you could see that happening. The other tendency was the fact that in Poland they switched back and forth between film and video quite happily. So most video artists were also filmmakers and vice versa. However in the UK, filmmakers were filmmakers and video makers were video makers. I remember going to a film screening event in the late 1970’s. and turning up at the door to hear P Adams Sitney from the States to talk about the structure of avant-garde/experimental film and the guy at the door said ‘what are you doing here- you’re a video artist?’ At that time they were very separate camps…
MG: It was the same in Canada. Videograph was started as a project of the National Film Board. The film board people hated video. They were into film, large screen, beautiful quality, etc., and a large audience. With the Videographe, there was no precedent. So Robert Forget who started le Videographe, filled in a budget for a film production. He faked it – the producer, the director, and post-production. That’s how he got the budget. I mean everybody knew what it was about, but that was the only form you could fill in. When we produced video, the film festival people wouldn’t touch it. Then we got to the point that video festivals that were happening, and filmmakers started to telecine their stuff and would send their films on videocassette. We were like “Wait a minute. They never accepted us, so what are we going to do?” Now, it’s like nobody gives a shit.
CM-A: So there was a time in Japan when was it like that too, or did filmmakers move back and forth happily? Or was there the “two solitudes” sort of thing?
MG: There was a purist 8mm camp, because you couldn’t develop films here for a while, or it was very expensive. So there was a kind of purist rebound. Just as there was a rebound against video to oil painting in Canada at one point amongst some people at art schools.
CM-A: So there wasn’t that kind of “We’re filmmakers, so we’re not interested in video”?
MG: Maybe, but I didn’t speak Japanese well enough to pick up on it. I don’t know.
CM-A: So not in your perception anyhow. Because I am looking at things that happened in Japan that were different…
MG: You know what was different? The Japanese got ripped off all the time. They were so happy to have their video art pieces shown, they would send them to festivals and never get any money for the screenings. It never occurred to them that they should try and profit a bit. So they got ripped off to a certain extent, I think.
CM-A: What about in terms of subject matter? You talk about how they were trying to learn the language. They were saying, “well there’s something about this medium which is particular and it has it’s own vocabulary, or potential vocabulary, and here we are trying to understand it, so that makes us focus on video as a medium, as distinct from film”. You know, the structuralist kind of approach. And it happened. You know the Modernist tradition was very much, OK, canvas and paint, that’s what I’m dealing with, or bronze, or as you said, the surface of the film. There was that same thing in video and it was really quite purist in England. It manifested itself as- well, as I see it now, as being about the relationship between the viewer and the screen. So we’re talking about that relationship.
MG: The screen being the television…
CM-A: Yeah, exactly- the screen as a physical object. The relationship it set up between the body of the viewer and this box, and there being some correspondence between them. You know the talking head on the screen; one’s identification with the person on the screen. The one-to-one relationship or quasi one-to-one relationship, the intimacy of the scale and so on. If you look at British video, that period, during the 70’s, that’s what you see. That was the tendency and I just wonder in Japan whether there’s anything that we might get hold off or identify as being particularly Japanese.
MG: Keigo Yamamoto is one of the two artists I mentioned who were working independently in video when I arrived. I didn’t meet him then, but he was a high school art teacher in a small town called Fukui. He was doing things on his own, developed a whole thing based on the Japanese concept of a gap, any gap between two things. Gaps are very important in Japan. For example in Sumo, the opponent’s gap in breathing and when you make your move, and there’s a place in the corner of a Japanese room called the tokonoma. The room is beautiful as is, but imbalanced. There’s an alcove, totally out of place, where you put something very special. Then suddenly the room gains its balance. The word is ma, or a gap.
CM-A: Like Takahiko Iimura’s piece about the temple, ‘Ma, Time and Space.’
MG: Keigo Yamamoto did a lot of pieces that were based on ‘ma’, which is very Japanese. At the other extreme there was a fellow in Osaka experimenting on his own doing video art at the time. One of his pieces, I remember, was an open reel tape and he pulls the tape out of the recorder as it’s recording. There’s a camera in the corner of the room. He pulls it out and wraps it between hooks on opposing walls and fills the room with the tape, and then at the end, it’s stuck. And there’s another one where you walk into a room and there’s just a camera there. There’s nothing else for the first half hour. But then after half an hour, he plays back that tape…LAUGHTER…So that is Japanese. Well I don’t know if it’s Japanese. It’s really intriguing.
CM-A: There might be something about this sensibility to this sort of special space, which is almost like an electronic space. It could be represented as an electronic space. There is a piece that was a big deal for me, I saw this in Montreal but it was by Peter Campus. The piece is entitled Transition One, where he cuts the paper and walks through his own image, you know the one?
MG: Ah, yes
CM-A: At the time I thought it was incredible. For many years I wasn’t able to articulate what it was. I knew what he’d done technically- I understood about chroma key and all of that. But what I realized was that he was expressing something about a kind of electronic space, but I didn’t realise that there was a sort of philosophical notion about that kind of space- something sort of sculptural, but invisible. It was pre-virtual space- an early example of virtual space that he was showing it to us. He was saying ‘look, there’s this electronic space which you can inhabit on the television screen, but it exists, as a real possibility here’.
MG: You liked that?
CM-A: I found it fascinating, but I wasn’t able to articulate it like that, but that’s what got me going. So when he came to London recently and I met him and I was able to tell him that was the piece that got me going as an artist myself’. It’s nice to be able to do that.
MG: Your piece about the bridge in Krakow was a bit like that- the ideas around it…
CM-A: The idea for that work centred on the fact that you could now hold a moving image in your hand, which is now commonplace.
MG: But it’s also photographic at the same time, ambivalent. It looks like a Polaroid. Sometimes it’s moving; sometimes it doesn’t seem to move. I like it. I actually like that piece a lot.
CM-A: Thank you, that’s great to know.