Peter Callas Interview: Sydney, 18/10/11
CM-A: What I am interested in is that ﬁrst formative decade or two. When did you pick up video as a medium to work with?
PC: It was in 1979, my second year of art school at Sydney College of the Arts. I had worked at the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) before that as an assistant ﬁlm editor, rather than in video, because they were still working in ﬁlm.ABC management refused to retrain the ﬁlm editors as video editors because video was viewed as a mechanical process which didn’t need the interpretative ﬁnesse of ﬁlm editing. So there was a general embargo on using video in the newsroom. At that stage they were still using 16 mm reversal ﬁlm. I left that after 3 years and went to art school and started off doing printmaking. There was a portapak at the art school and no one to teach it, so I just picked it up and started using it. The comparison I was making was with printmaking speciﬁcally – well screen-printing rather than etching, although I was doing both. I should add that at the same time because I already had a university degree in Fine Arts and History before I went to the ABC, I found out that I could use equipment in another art school that had a post production video studio which allowed A/B rolling, enabling you to combine two streams of video imagery in a variety of ways (chroma and luma keys, dissolves, etc). From the moment I started to use it, I knew that video was going to be the medium for me. The other distinction I was making, apart from comparing video with printmaking, was against my experience at the ABC with the logistical difﬁculties of ﬁlm crews, scripts, and the production line style of working where as a matter of economy every detail had to be on paper before it could be realised on the screen. Video, on the other hand, was a medium where you could literally look at your back in real time. With video it was possible to work solo – you didn’t need to verbalise – it was intuitive in that way. You could feel your way into the work, more like a painter or writer. When the computer came later on, that was more like ﬁlming with the need for rendering, and so on. It reminded me of ﬁlmmaking in the sense that you had to send away footage to a lab to achieve even the simplest dissolve. It wasn’t so immediate.
CM-A: I agree. I feel the same. The ﬁrst work that you made, was it Portapak, non-edited?
PC: Yes. It was a work called ‘Singing Stone’ with a continuous black and white portapak shot of a hand on a grinding stone – grinding pigment. I “colourised” it in the studio though, but only in shades of grey to accentuate the anthropomorphic patterns which were emerging in the pigment. Also to emphasise the graininess of the low quality portapak footage, I made it even scratchier and that somehow related to this scratching sound of the stones – the idea being that this related to the glass screen through which you would be watching the imagery. Coincidently that was the Fairlight colouriser. (Much later I used the Fairlight Computer Video Instrument or CVI.) Colourising was also related to posterization in screen-printing.
At the same time I was working on a two-monitor 3/4 inch u-matic piece called ‘Our Potential Allies’. It was an anti-television statement in the sense that since it had to be shown on two monitors simultaneously it didn’t belong to television. It needed to be shown in some kind of physical public space. I had just returned from a trip to the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). It was a confrontational video. On one screen, I have pigment smeared onto my face, and the other screen is a luma-key and chroma-key collage of various bits of television footage, with the idea that these layers cutting through each other somehow produced meaning by random association – in the same way as when you ﬂip the channels randomly. But I kind of counter-balanced that with an audiotrack of an American voice (Tom Arthur) reading a list of instructions (“Our Potential Allies”) issued by Douglas MacArthur to American soldiers ﬁghting the Japanese in New Guinea in World War II. It instructs the soldiers on how to get “the best service” out of the natives. The other competing sound track was a continuous drum beat recorded in PNG.
CM-A: So there is a political layer, which has been present in all your work?
PC: I think from ‘Our Potential Allies’, nearly everything I subsequently did was political in some sense. But it was always tinged with ambiguity – not party political.
CM-A: There is a well understood notion that one has quite a limited number of things to say and that one keeps saying them, over and over again.
PC: It was just so thrilling to me, at that time on the technical level, to be able to combine two moving images together. It is probably hard to communicate that to anyone who is born after 1980 or something like that.
CM-A: I understand where you are coming from. There was a thrill in being able to control a television image rather than being a passive consumer of it. I certainly felt the same. What I was making was not television. It was not anti-television, but something other. There was this idea that there was something particular about television or video signal, which was signiﬁcant and important as a language to uncover.
PC: I remember the other thing that I used to say around that time, when I was asked “what is this video art, then?” I used to say: “Television is always about something, but video art is something”. It is not necessarily a documentary or a “window to the world”.
CM-A: Yes. That it was an object in itself. That is an interesting way of putting it. You are covering a lot of the things that I want to tease out. Was the work that you made with video supplementary to other medium?
CM-A: In fact, so far, of the people I have spoken to, you are unique. Most of the others seem to have been using video in relation to something else.
PC: No, I more or less abandoned everything else. There were transitional pieces such as ‘1979 Animals’ where I did large pastel drawings of animals and then made a video combining the different parts of the various animals onto the video. I exhibited the drawings and the video together. I still thought of video as an extension of painting, but essentially I was seeing myself as – a video artist. That was a somewhat difﬁcult position to take since it was not really a welcome term in Australia at the time. It seemed something of a provocation to put the two words in close proximity to each other – as though strong anti-magnetic forces were in play.
CM-A: It was exactly the same in the UK. Very interesting parallels, because you and I were working at exactly the same time, saw some of the same works. We thought there was something about that medium which was particular. What youare saying actually chimes with me.
PC: There were a network of Video Access Centres that had been set up with government money based on the Canadian Challenge For Change programme which was utlising video to facilitate community conversations in antipathetic situations (mining towns, etc). In Sydney video was seen as a tool and there was outright hostility to using it as an art form. The little press video art received was also overwhelmingly negative. When I went to Japan in 1982, it was the opposite reaction. There was curiosity; there was a sense of openness about it.
CM-A: Yet ironically there was very little going on in Japan…
PC: No, there was already Video Gallery SCAN by that stage and there were regular screenings by Japanese video artists.
CM-A: Yes I was aware of that. I am just thinking about how long it seemed to take. I am also aware of Michael Goldberg’s influence.
PC: Did you know Michael in Canada?
CM-A: No, I met him in Tokyo last year. I am also aware of Video Hiroba.
PC: When Michael ﬁrst went to Japan in the 1970s he expected to ﬁnd a community there because of all the equipment coming out of there. However at that stage there was nothing. He introduced the idea of video art to Japan!
CM-A: Yes, and it was corroborated by others I met in Japan. It absolutely seems to be the case. Many of the people I spoke to in Japan said I ought to interview Michael. Bill Viola and Gary Hill were also role models for Japanese artists, giving them a sense that it was possible to make video art about Japanese culture.
PC: By the time I got there in 1982, Fujiko Nakaya’s SCAN gallery had been going for couple of years at least, because Bill Viola had shown there in 1980. There were regular weekly screenings at SCAN.
CM-A: You’re right, because there seems to be, around 1970, the expo Osaka, which seems to be quite important. Then quite soon after that is Video Hiroba. So pre-1970 there wasn’t much other than Takahiko Iimura.
PC: You know him?
CM-A: Yes- a little. He was making ﬁlms, but later began working with video. He was doing things with live cameras and projectors. He seems to be quite an early practitioner in Japan.
PC: Before 70?
CM-A: Yes, around 1968.
PC: When did Nam June Paik make the famous Sony portapak piece in New York?
CM-A: That was apparently in ‘65. But, it is a bit of nonsense. Steina told me that she challenged Paik on this because she said to him “how did you get portapak in ‘65, they weren’t available until 68?” He said oh “ it was a mains machine”. Well “how did you power it?”. He said plugged it into the cigar lighter in the cab. She thought that would have been highly unlikely.
PC: You will never change that fact, because it is in so many books!
CM-A: Well, the way I wrote about it in my book was to say that it was a bit of a myth. So anyway, we are talking ‘65/ 66.
PC: I have somehow forgotten that it was that early. I guess 1979 is a long time afterwards!
CM-A: Things happen rather slowly. When I was in Montreal, I was working in a school in ‘72. They had a 1-inch IVC onto which we played pre- recorded things to the kids and showed it on TV. In the summer I had to go to the Instructional Materials Centre and they had a portapack in 1972. I know that the National Film Board was part of the Challenge for Change programme and developed a video editing system using a portapak as a feed-in machine to a 1/2 inch mains deck.
PC: Anyway, Michael might have dropped the seed. Fujiko Nakaya and Katsuhiro Yamaguchi picked the ball and ran with it.
CM-A: Its good to hear it from those angles because you’ve got quite a strong Japanese connection.
PC: Yes and I was there for a long time. I was there in 82 until 83 and then I went back again in 85 to 87, but kept visiting on an annual basis for a number of years after that. The ﬁrst time I was there, I was still carrying a u-matic portapak around trying to do stuff that way. I did an installation in a rental gallery. The second time I went there, I had just purchased one of the very ﬁrst Fairlight CVIs, and I took it with me to Japan. Michael saw what I was doing when he was teaching at the Nihon Denshi Senmon Daigaku (The Japanese Specialised Electronic College) near Shinjuku. He let me use the editing system there to do some stuff. Then he introduced me to Youichi Kajima who had just begun managing a studio for Marui department store in Shibuya, making video material for one of the very ﬁrst large colour outdoor screens. There was a small team of people producing art works for that screen (and other screens in the Marui stores in Shibuya). Kajima san invited me to join the team. I also trained a couple of the others on the Fairlight CVI. That was a really very important period for me. The glass-walled video studio was alongside the large screen situated above the main entrance of the department store. People looking up at the screen could see the production crew working. Some VJ events went out live but most of the work produced was shown later. The point was that people in the street could see where the material on view was made. At the beginning virtually none of the material was advertising- it was mainly art and graphic work put to music. (The studio had a resident musician called RA.)
CM-A: It is interesting in Japan this tradition of showing art in department stores.
PC: That was a really signiﬁcant thing, particularly the Seibu Ikebukuro branch because they had a museum at the top of the store. We are talking about department stores and not shopping centres. At the time Seibu were getting major shows of the calibre of Magritte or Van Gogh and Egyptian antiquities in that museum rather than in the state-owned galleries. Other department stores started to pick up on these cultural ideas. My take is that Marui’s thing was: “Okay, we are not going to show artworks on the walls. We are actually going to use video screens to project our contemporary culture into the street and throughout our stores.” I am hoping that is what they were doing. I can’t think of any other reason why – given the initial lack of advertising content.
CM-A: But they never went into that kind of detail about their intentions with you?
PC: I never spoke to the Marui people directly. My only contact with the department store people is when I went early in the morning and I’d see all the staff lining up, getting the daily motivational lecture. I also don’t know on what level Kajima san was speaking to them about that. The deliberate disappearance of advertising inside a commercial space seemed extraordinary in itself. Of course as time went by, advertising did come in, but not at the outset – for the ﬁrst year or so. My brief in that context was to produce one work a month and I achieved that for all of the 12 months I was there. Quite a few of those works such as ‘Kinema no Yoru’, ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’, ‘Bon Voyage’, and ‘Double Trouble’ continued the play for several years later in other cities at various festivals and so on and on television in Australia. It was a really productive year for me. Being there was such a powerful event in my life.
CM-A: It sounds really unique as well. I can’t think of many artists that I have spoken or I have knowledge of who had such a particular application, quite a speciﬁc and open brief in a sense.
CM-A: I am wondering about the kind of imagery you made. How did that work?
PC: I was ‘reverse-appropriating’ Japanese popular imagery, redrawing and decontextualising it. The model was what I was observing on Japanese television at the time with the appropriation of western iconography and the sense of rapid-paced timing (the ﬁrst 15 second ads began to appear around that time) punctuated with pithy little emblems and logos.
CM-A: Were you going out and recording on location?
PC: No, it was all studio based. I only used a camera to ‘scan’ materials into the CVI.
CM-A: So it was all generated using the Fairlight and images?
PC: Yes. My ﬁrst use of this imagery was in a tape called ‘Kinema no Yoru’ (Film Night). The images came from my father-in-law’s collection of menko cards from the 1920s and 30s. On one side of each card were intensely coloured war scenes of triumph and terror, and on the other were cute cartoon characters -many appropriated from Disney and others more local, like “Boken Dankichi”(Dankichi the Adventurer). “Boken Dankichi” served propagandistic purposes since he travelled to Paciﬁc Islands where he helped release the natives from the yoke of western imperialism. (Japan was rapidly colonising Formosa, Korea and Manchukuo during that period.)
CM-A: So you worked with these images. You scanned them in?
PC: Yes. I discovered I could use the CVI to layer still images via a ﬂoating stencil plane above a pre-recorded video tape. I ‘animated’ the still images not just by moving them across a 2D plane but also by drawing on them with colours which could then be cycled. Menko is a children’s game. It dates back as far as the Edo period and it is still played to some extent now with different kinds of cards. In the game the cards are won and lost via imprinted symbols based on Jan-ken-pon (a ‘ﬁst-game’ known as, rock, paper, scissors in English-speaking countries but dating back as far as 200 BCE in China). I worked with this idea of winning and losing in terms of the rapid appearance and disappearance of imagery in the video. Someone sorted them into a particular order or something. One way of playing is to throw the cards down so that they collide with each other. From that I had this idea of these cards producing some kind of friction as they rubbed up against each other. I was also seeing parallels between that and the Japanese electronics industry at the time. Around that time screens were appearing everywhere in public spaces. You’d be walking in a small alley, turn a corner, and be faced with a bank ofmonitors. The ﬁnal point of absurdity was that the utility poles in Shibuya had TVs embedded. There were places in Tokyo were you couldn’t look in any direction without seeing some kind of screen.
CM-A: I have been to Tokyo, though not as early as you did. I think it was Bill Viola who said that Tokyo was the world’s largest video installation.
PC: Video installations usually have some kind of intended meaning. The intent of this phenomenon was hard to ﬁgure. Tokyo is often thought of as a city without a horizon – though there are a few days around new year when the industry stops you can see its original feng shui-style logic of placement between a mountain (Fuji san) and a river (Sumida – take your pick) of the genesis of Edo (Tokyo’s pre- modern name). Time speeds up when you can’t see a horizon and, since much of the imagery on Tokyo’s screens is seasonal; views of nature, I’ve often wondered if the screens did in fact have a (somewhat perverse) function: to slow down time. The electronic horizon.
CM-A: So you were working with this technology and imagery and making it for a Japanese audience. You were bringing an Australian western sensibility to play on this whole mesh- I am quite curious about that. Were the pieces silent?
PC: No, all had music. It was an important break for me from the “video art” mode where music was something of a no-no at the time. I worked with RA at Marui (Marui Koendori Television – MKT) on several pieces including ‘Double Trouble’, ‘Visions’ and ‘Ambient Alphabet (Sea of meaning)’ and also did music video pieces for Sandii and the Sunsetz (‘East Meets West’), Tim Donohue (‘Image Music’), Haruomi Hosono (‘Bon Voyage’ – which was originally part of a theatre production, the premier event at Seed Hall but which subsequently played on the Marui screen) and Yukihiro Takahashi of Yellow Magic Orchestra. I was also using the CVI at live events such as Ink Stick nightclub in Roppongi with jazz trumpeter Jun Miyake. At the time I very much cut to the music. Later on I worked the other way around and asked musicians to write to the images and then readjusted the sequencing after they have done that.
CM-A: Later on- that is when you came back to Australia?
CM-A: So this was over a two-year period?
PC: This lasted a year…
CM-A: And you made 12 works? that were all using this kind of music?
PC: A lot of them were but I experimented with other things and other ways of animating in Fairlight.
CM-A: So you were an animator, in almost the traditional sense of the word.
PC: No, not in the traditional sense. I don’t think an animator would think I was much of an animator. For example one of the other ways I used the Fairlight in ‘Double Trouble’, was a quick and easy two frame animation technique. If you divided the stencil plane of the CVI into a checkerboard pattern and stamped an image onto the positive checks, and another image onto the negative checks and then rapidly interchanged them, you’d get a two frame animation. This tended to emphasise the formalism of some Japanese gestures. With any of the Fairlight effects you were limited to a 2D plane, but an inﬁnite 2D plane which just kept scrolling over and over. So you could go in any direction and the image that left the top of the screen will reappear in the bottom and then move up again.
CM-A: Did the Fairlight have some kind of a memory store?
PC: At that stage most people were using the Fairlight for live effects. It had 99 preset effects, which became so easily recognizable they were, for me, unusable. I used the preset buttons to transition between one prepared effect and another. It had a graphics pad on which you could draw with a stylus. It also had a series of sliders which could be used to transform effects such as colour cycling, etc. The earliest model had no keyboard – so it didn’t really feel like a “computer” per se. I found the strongest feature its the ability to store images on the stencil plane. These captured or drawn images could be saved via bar-code output onto VHS tape. It took about 15 minutes to save an image and another 15 minutes to recall it. All the thousands of images that I used were saved in that way. It was tedious but I had no other process to compare it to at the time. Once you’d loaded an image back into the Fairlight you could move it in a variety of ways over a prepared background.
CM-A: How were you identifying what you cut out?
PC: That was mainly determined by cutting out the foreground – just as in paper collage.
CM-A: That was quite technically advanced for the time.
PC: It was. In Japan when I was working at Marui, I had an A/B roll studio so I built the layers up that way. The front layer was Fairlight itself and the other layers were pre-recorded from the Fairlight on tape. When I got back to Australia I bought another Fairlight and borrowed one from the company. So, I had three Fairlights sitting on top of the other to get the layers. Then I could just mix things up by swapping the inputs and the outputs.
CM-A: Were there any works by any artists that were inﬂuential on what you were doing? Or did you feel you were completely in fresh territory?
PC: Not really. There was a friend of mine, Alfred Birnbaum introduced me to books by Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio. Virilio, I remember (in an interview with Chris Dercon – who Alfred and I both met in ’89 when I was at PS1 in New York) was putting out this challenge about who was going to be the Bach of the electronic age. I thought- “I’ll have a go.” (Laughter)
CM-A: So Birnbaum was bringing up this stuff, or were you having dialogues about it?
PC: We became friends. I don’t remember if we talked about it much, but he was suggesting “you should read this one”. I didn’t try to illustrate the ideas, I was more informed and enlightened by them because they seemed very real in the face of what I was seeing emerge in Tokyo at the time. Of course ‘The Aesthetics of Disappearance’ is a Virilio phrase.
CM-A: In those days it seemed very important that one understood what was going on theoretically and was able to frame the work.
PC: It was essential; otherwise you wouldn’t get out of the thing alive. I remember one panel I did at the ICA in London where I was in a panel, and this someone got up and accused me of being a racist about, the things I was saying about Japan. I mean Anglo-Saxon audiences can be quite merciless. (laughter)
CM-A: When was that?
PC: It was a show called ‘Alphabyte Cities: the Videos of Peter Callas’ in 1990.
CM-A: So when did you ﬁrst show work in Australia? What was the ﬁrst work that you showed?
PC: It was ‘Singing Stone’ and ‘Our Potential Allies’.
CM-A: Where and when was that?
PC: In 1981. The Australia Council, which became such a signiﬁcant source of funding for art in general and video art (along with the Australian Film Commission), set up a gallery and performance venue called The Sydney Studio. It didn’t last more than a year. I was one of the ﬁrst shows there. I showed those works.
CM-A: On monitors?
PC: Yes, projectors were not really an option in those days. I haven’t got any photographs of that event. In the same year, the ﬁrst Australian Perspecta was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales here in Sydney. It was based on the idea of the Sydney Biennale but with Australian artists. It was curated by Bernice Murphy, who was the most important ﬁgure in encouraging video art in Sydney-one of the few. She was the curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales at the time, and later on she was instrumental in setting up the Museum of Contemporary Art in Circular Quay.
CM-A: So she was championing artists’ video, or video as a medium for artists?
PC: She was one of the few that were actively encouraging both. It was a really big thing for me to be picked up for that because I was still in art school at the time. They were the ﬁrst works I’d made in video. Then ‘Our Potential Allies’ won an award in Kobe and Michael, who I never met or heard of at the stage, was on the panel and he subsequently told me that they had to invent a category for the work, so they called it “ The most socially relevant video art”. (laughter)
CM-A: Fantastic! They wanted to give you an award but had to ﬁgure out what to call it.
PC: Yes, it didn’t ﬁt any of the other categories. On that basis I got to go to Japan. I got funding to make a companion piece to “Our Potential Allies”.
CM-A: What was the title?
PC: “Kiru Umi No Yoni” (Cutting Like the Ocean). It was primarily an installation piece, but there was also a documentary about the installation. That was shown in Japan at a rental gallery in Kyobashi.
CM-A: Which gallery was that?
PC: I don’t know if it exists anymore. It was called Kaneko Art G1 in Kyobashi, Tokyo. A typical rental gallery in a basement, but with some interesting shows in the 80s.
CM-A: You said very eloquently that what was attractive about video is that it is gestural. Were there any other Australian artists working with video that were important to you, to counterpoint what you were doing or you felt were sympathetic?
PC: The Randellis were a signiﬁcant inﬂuence. They wrote a manifesto which they published about the rules by which they worked and what distinguished video from ﬁlm. Some of them were very hard to go by. I think one was no camera movement, for instance.
CM-A: Really? How intriguing.
PC: I think so.
CM-A: So there were quite tight rules. In England around that time David Hall was saying that there was “artists’ video” and “video as art”. He tried to deﬁne it quite rigorously.
PC: But that must have been later on, right?
CM-A: No, it was around 76/ 77 – maybe even 1975.
PC: In the end, the artists who were using video won, didn’t they? The art world in general has no interest in ‘craft’ especially in the last 20 or 30 years. At the end of the day I think video art was a craft.
CM-A: That’s interesting- Okay. I’ll have to digest that one.
PC: In my case it was so complicated to learn how to do that stuff. It required a fair bit of technical knowledge as well. Whereas these days, anyone can pick up a phone and point the projector from the ceiling to the ﬂoor, and you can call that an installation. It bears very little relationship to what I think of as video art.
CM-A: I am with you. I agree and I want to draw the line somewhere and say we are not in the same territory anymore, for those very reasons.
PC: In addition artists’ use of video became so ubiquitous. I am really surprised that everyone hasn’t become sick of it again. But the logistics for continuing to use it in events such biennials, etc are – quite apart from the content – still with video. It is so easy to use, it no longer costs much money or requires a great deal of maintenance, and it ﬁlls up a space very easily.
CM-A: And it is quite reliable, whereas before of course it wasn’t.
PC: No, it wasn’t. Museums couldn’t even cope with a slide projector in the 70s and 80s…. or the fuse would blow. (laughter)
CM-A: You talked about curators. I asked whether there are any particular curators, galleries, venues that were instrumental in showing artists’ video in Australia.
PC: The other one was Roslyn Oxley in the commercial gallery scene. She opened a gallery in the same space where The Sydney Studio was. She had a special room dedicated to video. No one else was doing that at the time.
CM-A: When was that??
PC: That was from 1981.
CM-A: For a number of years?
PC: Yes, still doing it. They moved to a different location. They don’t just use it only for video now, but in those days it was just mainly for video.
CM-A: And would they discriminate between video and ﬁlm, for example?
PC: I can’t recall ever seeing any ﬁlm. Film had its problems as a medium in the gallery context. Who wants to rewind the ﬁlm or maintain the loop and all that? Roslyn was very important in Sydney in the early 80s. When I returned to Sydney in 87, it was quite different. The attitude had changed to some extent.
CM-A: For the better?
PC: Yes. There were commissions to be had here and I did a couple; one for the Australian Bicentennial Traveling Exhibition that went all the way around Australia during the bicentenary year. I made a video for that (‘If Pigs Could Fly – The Media Machine)’, and also a synchronised 4 monitor piece on laser disc for the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. (On the other hand, I made ‘Night’s High Noon’ as a personal reaction to the Bicentennial – to say my piece about the 200th anniversary of the founding of the British colony.) So it was a bit easier then. Prior to that it was dire. Also the Australian Video Festival had already started when I got back in 87. I think it was in its second year by then. Of course that focused a lot of things and brought a lot of international artists video artists and writers to Sydney including Woody and Steina Vasulka, Gene Youngblood, Ulrike Rosenbach, and Erkki Huhtamo, amongst many others. I don’t think Bill Viola ever came to that festival, although he subsequently came to Australia a few times.
CM-A: I want to ask you about broadcast. I know we said to each other earlier on, that video is not very broadcast-able, but were there any broadcast in Australia of artists’ video that were in any way signiﬁcant at all?
PC: In 1989 SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) had a show called ‘Eat Carpet’. It was an eclectic show produced by Annette Shun Wah. She showed nearly everything I made. My works also had quite a lot of international TV exposure (including ‘Video Wave’ on Manhattan Cable, New York, and ‘New Television’ on WGBH, Boston in 1989; ‘Media Art Museum’ on NHK Satellite, Tokyo, ‘10 To 11’ on RTL, Luxembourg, ‘Stunde Der Filmemacher’, SAT1, Köln, ‘Art Of Video’, Atanor, Madrid. (Worldwide Release.) (all in 1989); ‘Métròpolis’, Television Española, Madrid, Canal+ Television, Paris, ‘Lusitania Express’, RTP, Lisbon and ‘White Noise’, BBC2, London all in 1990; ‘Art Paradise: The Museum of Ecstasy’, Space Shower Satellite, Tokyo in 1992; and ‘Biennale Arte TV’, RAI-SAT, Rome, 1999.)
CM-A: Did the Eat Carpet programme package it up, and say “this is video art”?
PC: No. No interviews.
CM-A: Were the video pieces ever presented out of context, so you suddenly got a particualr work coming up without warning or prior explination?
PC: Yes, because I heard all the time “Ah I saw your work. I saw your name”. But I don’t recall they would ever be packaged as “video art” per se.
CM-A: Do you think that this was inﬂuential in opening up people’s sensibility to video?
PC: Yes, massively.
CM-A: So when was “Eat Carpet” broadcast?
PC: It ran from 1989–2005. I had also been approached around that time from the 7.30 Report, which is the major news review after the main news bulletin on ABC TV. They were all excited about me doing new titles, but some how that never happened. I never heard from them again. There were those kind of things.
CM-A: But they were kind off on a tangent to your work as an artist?
PC: No. I was really keen to do things as long as I had creative power over it. Sometimes there were niggling restrictions as with the bicentenary where I couldn’t put an image of anyone smoking a cigarette and should aim at equal representation of men and women. That’s why in my own work ‘Night’s High Noon: An Anti-Terrain’ you’ll see kookaburras smoking cigarettes, etc.
CM-A: You worked in video across a period when there have been massive changes in the technology. I don’t think there is any other medium, that one could identify, that shifted so much across a period. I wondered in what way that has affected your work? Starting with portapack and then getting your hands on a Fairlight.
PC: Even before that I was trained on a Moviola and then a ﬂatbed Steenback (16mm ﬁlm editing devices) at the ABC. I visited the ABC few years after that, and the Moviola was already in the museum. With the Fairlight, on days I was scheduled to arrive in the early hours at the Marui studio, I used to feel so much joy that I could strap the CVI to the back of my pushbike and ride to the train station. (Lucky it was rugged.) It was a fairly robust sort of kit.
CM-A: Do you think those technological changes effected the work you made? The thesis for the book is that video art evolved as a result of the things that artists got their hands on. The look of video art and artist video shifted as things became more available.
PC: That brings to mind a Japanese video effects device, by Akai I believe, that came out in the late 80s or early 90s that had a “Video Art” switch. This was just a colouriser – but at least it indicated, however clichéd the thinking, that video art had penetrated as a concept to the hardware manufacturers. They (thought) they knew what it looked like. In my own case, it is a little bit of both, really. I always insisted, particularly when I got into the computer era, that video art work wasn’t (shouldn’t be) about the software. Teachers in art schools should not just be there to illustrate what the software does. You’ve got to go beyond that. On the other hand, when I think about what I did with the Fairlight, it was so tied into what that technology was, that it is hard to separate myself from it. What I tried to do with it is to think of my work not only in terms of its means of production but also in terms of its presentation – like the glass screen of the tv set, the cathode ray gun shooting out at you, the chunky pixels of the early outdoor colour screens, etc.
CM-A: The fact that it is a light-emitting source.
PC: Yes, and to integrate that into things that technology was making available.
CM-A: Like I was saying. It is about ﬁnding the language. Identifying it.
PC: It is also important to know, that it is actually a good thing to have limits. The problem with computers is that they don’t provide any limits other than how much storage space you’ve got or how much time something takes to render. Those are the kinds of things that matter those days – computer power etc. But in terms of content and what you imagine you might be able to do, it is seems limitless. Whereas with those earlier devices such as the CVI you knew what the limitations were and you found a way to work within those. And often at the edge of it, pushing against the boundaries and limitations. Playing them up.
CM-A: Do you think there are any unique aspects to Australian video that would identify it as different or distinct?
PC: I wrote an essay on this in 1983.
CM-A: I understand that you identiﬁed the use of still images, for example. I think John Gillies mentioned it to me. He had said that you had written about the Australian experience of seeing stuff from the outside. There is a sense of getting things second hand, or have I misconstrued?
PC: Yes, that was the gist of it. One of my teachers as Sydney College was Imants Tillers. He is very important person in terms of contextualising the Australian art scene. He paints painting boards and then makes huge grids of them to make enormous images. He appropriates other artists’ works simultaneously into the same image. Referring to Australia’s largely second-hand reception of international art works primarily (at that time) via publications, he had a big thing about looking at images and not really knowing what scale or colour they were. I remember one of his ﬁrst works that caught the public attention was made with the Iris printer. Hans Heysen is an early mid 20th century landscape painter of gum trees – something you used to see in every suburban house. He took two separate publications of the same painting and printed them to the same scale with the Iris printer. He blew them up to huge proportions and then exhibited them side-by- side. The result was both visually powerful and humorous in a very Australian way. I remember in high school having to write essays about Renaissance paintings. Often you couldn’t even see what the image was on the roneographed sheets that were handed out. They had been copied so many times the ﬁgures just seemed like blotches. These days with the internet it is different. Some school kids even go to Italy now, but then it was unheard of. No one (including the teachers) had seen the original paintings. I guess those essays, about things you couldn’t see both literally and ﬁguratively, became highly speculative. I kind of played that up a lot I guess in my video work. Japanese people have sometimes commented to me that my re-drawings of Japanese costume, for example, seem error-ridden. (Though to me that was often intentional since I saw the results of Japanese attempts to mimic western culture.)
CM-A: So, would you say that one of things that characterises Australian artists’ video is the way they would be referencing?
PC: That is me. I don’t really know.
CM-A: Maybe there is no answer to that.
PC: Why should there be? Other than the sense of humour – In my work it was important to have a sense of humour, because I found a lot of video art was completely dry and humourless.
CM-A:Yes, absolutely true.
PC: On the other hand the Randellis had some humour in their work. Philip Brophy certainly did. Maria Kozic did. However I can’t say that that is a particular trait that distinguishes Australian video art. I mean, you need some way of singling out Australian stuff, I guess.
CM-A: That will come out in the process of sifting through all of things I have got, and all the people I have spoken to. Everyone has a different answer to that.
PC: I guess the other aspect is the colonial thing.
CM-A: Talking about that… what I am ﬁnding is this sort of ambivalence, for example, there is a sort of guilt thing about the aboriginal thing, which I wasn’t expecting. You don’t get that in North America, for example.
PC: In America, I remember seeing the Macy’s Day Parade and they had the model of an American Indian canoe with a Daniel Boone type ﬁgure being “rowed” by a bunch of “Indians”. I simply can’t imagine the equivalent of that happening in Australia!
CM-A: It is all part of the heritage. It might be a bit reverential. Peter Campus was quite interested in some of the sacred places in the USA. And some of his installations are based on his interest in the sacred spaces of religious ceremony.
PC: Even the earlier work??
CM-A: Yes. Not in the single screen works such as “Three Transitions”, but the installation pieces. You know the live CCTV camera installations such as “Kiva” where you see yourself upside down, or from behind. The kind of electronic spaces he was playing around with were also referencing religious spaces, which is extraordinary because I hadn’t made any of those connections or understood the references when I ﬁrst saw them.
PC: Maybe he didn’t really telescope that, because I think at that time it probably wasn’t….
CM-A: It was sort of later.
PC: I mean it wasn’t fashionable at that time?
CM-A: I think not.
PC: Although you have Robert Smithson, and Jack Burnham- the critic who was interested in Shamanism.
CM-A: But, going back to the Australian thing. There is this feeling of guilt, of living in “stolen” land, but it doesn’t go far enough to say that you will give it back. We’re here – but we don’t feel comfortable about being here, but this is where we are. Then there is this business about feeling disconnected and isolated. I hadn’t expected to encounter either of those things. So in your work you very much had to think about how the audience would read these images and ideas.
PC: To some extent yes, but video audiences are so diverse. An ideal audience would be like preaching to the converted (to end on a cliche).