Transcript of recorded Interview with Peter Donebauer: London, March 8th, 2000
P.D: In ’74 I came out of the Royal College of Art and then I was unemployed for a bit and I applied to do photography with Minor White at MIT. He accepted me, but I didn’t have funding, but the Arts Council gave me funding to continue the work I was doing at the Royal College. At around the same time the BBC got interested in me making a piece to be broadcast on BBC 2 on “Second House “, which Mark Kidel had seen at the RCA degree show. At that time I also wrote an article called “Electronic Painting”. (Video and Audio-Visual Review, March 1975.)
C.M-A: Did you make analogies to painting with the work at that time, or was it a way of describing your approach to the work?
P.D. It was David Kirk, the editor of Video and Audio-Visual Review, that published the article, who coined the term. I was working with the flautist/composer Simon Desorgher who was at the Royal College of Music, with whom I formed a collaborative partnership that lasted for several years. I liked the term because I was in a way painting on the television screen and I was drawing on ideas from electronic music, working with an EMS analogue sound synthesiser. In trying to work with abstract forms the model I drew on was music- because of the fact that there is an abstraction extending through time. I wasn’t aware of the abstract film-makers who had been working in the States or Europe- not having had an art training. So I was discovering how to give an underlying structure to an abstract piece that unfolded in time.
C.M-A: Why did you choose to work with video?
P.D: I started in film; there was no video when I first arrived at the Royal College- it didn’t exist until my 2nd year. My starting point was an interest in music, because I noticed how film images were completely transformed once a soundtrack was added. I thought it would be interesting to bring that emotional aspect further up the film production chain.
At first I thought about this very literally- could music be interpreted visually? So I built a little device (I don’t know where the idea for that came from) – to vibrate a thin film of water over a loudspeaker. At first I filmed it, but this was both slow and expensive. Working with a black and white portapack allowed me to experiment and get immediate feedback of the results.
C.M-A: What kind of music did you use for the B&W sketches?
P.D.: It was just stuff I had on record in my collection.
C.M-A: Did you manipulate the images you made with the portapak at all?
P.D: I was just curious actually, because different music created different patterns. Bach created a much more ordered pattern, whereas with African drumming, for example, you were more aware of the beat. This is called “Cymatics” There had been an exhibition at the ICA, something to do with pattern on water. Theodore Schwenk, “Sensitive Chaos”- the way you can get pattern in water, or the way water patterns itself into eddies and circles.
I recorded these water vibrations in my back room with a black & white “portapak” – and that was my second year work at the Royal College. During that year they installed an old colour TV studio that Lew Grade had given them from ATV, which brings us on to another one of your themes , which is access to technology.
C.M-A: Yes, specifically how access to particular electronic imaging technology influenced the kind of work you made. It sounds as if the portapak came along just at the point when you were asking yourself how to move the music, as you said, “up the film chain”.
P.D.: Yes, I wanted a more “live” response. The great thing about it was that I did all my work in a few days- it was quite an intense period. Looking back it was a bit like black & white sketches for what I later did in colour. Once people at the RCA saw what I had been doing, (it was the technicians as much as the tutors) it was suggested that I should work in the colour studio.
C.M-A: So the original stuff was in B&W, and someone saw it and suggested that you apply colour to it?
P.D.: Yes, I think it was the technician there. They wanted people to use the studio, and the fact that this was an opportunity to use it experimentally appealed to them hugely- because it was a conventional broadcast studio. So I did, and essentially that was my 3rd year work.
C.M-A; So, as you say in your article (“Video Art & Technical Innovation”) you were using the studio as a very expensive colour mixing box.
P.D.: Yes, it was really. We were exploring these parallels between electronic music and electronic colour in technical, intellectual and emotional terms.
C.M-A: So right from the start you wanted to work with abstraction- you weren’t interested in pointing the camera at recognisable objects, or at least you wanted to transform those objects into something that was more appropriate to the relationship between music and colour.
P.D. Yes, I had started to think more deeply about these ideas. I recognised that music was an abstract language. There is a level of deep satisfaction derived from music. It’s so immersive. You end up somewhere else, and its very rare for that to happen so deeply with a painting. Someone once said “all art aspires to the condition of music”.
C.M-A: Did you see the relationship between the music and the picture as one of equality, or was the image an accompaniment-perhaps not exactly illustrating it, but doing something that was intended to exist in relation to the music?
P.D. There was interactivity right from the start. Having realised how much the image was emotively changed by the music- one couldn’t then just do it the other way round, that would have been too much. Right from the start we set up a structure (referred to in the diagram in previously cited article) where there is a feedback mechanism between the musician and the video artist. This structure was part of the original conception -it was an equal thing, and the process was very much intended to be based on improvisation.
I realised very early that neither the image nor the music should predominate- that neither should be the point of inspiration for the other. We improvised around a common theme or process that was an inspiration or point of departure for us both. What I learned from music was the kinds of ways abstraction had been handled in a time-based medium. I always refused to visualise to any pre-existing pieces of music despite many offers- it misses the point- the most real artistic endeavour for me is a response to life, not a response to art.
C.M-A: Can you say a little more about the influence of ideas from fluid dynamics and Chaos theory?
P.D: Yes. This was especially from nature. The major theme that emerged from working in the studio was the whole notion of the feedback process. We discovered video feedback. I may at the time have become the world expert on video feedback!
The performance itself is a feedback situation between people, and when you point the camera at a monitor you get these feedback patterns visually. I became very interested in the fact that the resulting images from video feedback were structurally very similar to natural forms. They were organic-spirals, eddies, etc.- the Fibbonacci series is the mathematical description of the phenomenon which creates shells, galaxies, etc. Through this process I was suddenly thrown back into my earlier fascination with nature. Here I was, using some of the most advanced technical equipment available to an artist at the time anywhere in the world, and suddenly I realised these electronic processes were mimicking the forces at work within nature.
C.M-A: Were they mimicking them, or do you think there is a relationship?
P.D: This has all been unravelled since. This was before all the Chaos and Complexity theorists. They were working late 70’s-early 80’s and onwards. Video feedback is a complex process exactly like all those others they write about now.
C.M-A: Is this because of the electromagnetic forces that are part of the video technology?
P.D. Yes and no, what you get with video, and why I like working with it, is because its instantaneous- you’ve got this immediacy. These video feedback processes happen extremely fast, but they are no different from the forces that create a spiral nebula. Literally some of my tapes, Circling (1975) for example is completely galactic. You can see them microscopically or galactically, but it is the same force emerging.
The nature of video is that it happens so fast- the feedback process happens so fast, but it mimics a process in nature that might take millions of years in the case of galaxies, years in the case of a shell, I don’t know how long in the case of something internal to ourselves- foetuses have the same early shape as they begin to form.
I was working with chaos theory in an artistic and visual sense, before it was articulated by scientists. I was profoundly impacted by the realisation that the video image that forms through the feedback process is the same as that which forms in nature. I recognised nature occurring within this advanced technical medium. This was very interesting of course, because a lot of people often have an idea of technology as completely anti-nature.
C.M-A: Can you tell me a little bit more about your choice of the video medium for the purposes of making art?
P.D: It’s curious really, because I was never particularly concerned about “art”. I was at the Royal College of Art because I wanted to do creative work and be an independent film maker- I didn’t really see it as “art” necessarily, except in retrospect. Compared with film of course, there’s the immediacy of video – you don’t have to wait 24 hours or more to have your film rushes developed…..Who would ever have learned to play the guitar if you had to wait 24 hours to find out what your fingers and ears had done? Literally, how would you ever learn to play a musical instrument if you had to wait to hear it! Where would we be in musical terms? What sort of fumbling early stages would music have reached? This is the major difference between film and video as far as I’m concerned…Film people would kill me but…
C.M-A. So it was that instant relationship..
P.D: It’s such a profound difference, and it was virgin territory at that time- completely unexplored, whilst film had 70-80 years of past history.
C.M-A: This connects straight to the video feedback, and to the development of the Videokalos Image Processor. It seems to be tied in to the accessibility and the speed of the medium.
P.D. I was lucky with that particular studio. (RCA) It was working at the same speed as my nervous system- like we’re talking now.
You’re reacting as fast as I’m talking, which is normal, really.
C.M-A: Were you inspired by other artists working with video?
P.D. No. I got to know quite a few over the seven or eight year period that I was very active, but it was music which was my main influence, working with Simon (Desorgher) for example. Nature was hugely influential, as well as images of it by both scientists and artists.
C.M-A: How did the making and building of the Videokalos affect the kind of work you made with it?
P.D: The main thing it gave me was control. It was designed as a live performance instrument. It allowed great “real time” control- much better than I’d had in the studio. The colour mixing was better, much more precise. The control of the feedback was better too. Previously I was having to use a (vision) mixer upstairs at the Royal College. It wasn’t even in the same room- someone else had to operate it. With the VK I could do it all myself. Of course it also allowed the possibility of live performances- not that I did many of them.
C.M-A: Was that what you’d primarily intended the VK for?
P.D. Well no. Not specifically for a live audience. I’m not really a good performer-I’m probably not extrovert enough. All my work was performed, but largely for tape. That may have been a mistake in retrospect. If I’d been more outgoing I might have tried harder to do more live audience work, but the finances were dreadful…It was terribly difficult.
I think people quite enjoyed going, when we did do them, though I’m not sure how long it would have lasted. I don’t know whether people came to see it because it was so innovative, or whether they really enjoyed what they experienced. I never quite found out the answer to that one- I didn’t perform long enough.
C.M-A: Did the VK redefine your work in any sense?
P.D: Not directly, but it did enable the work to be made in other places. It didn’t really affect the work very profoundly, though curiously enough it affected the way I was able to teach.
C.M-A: Did you expect it to affect the work?
P.D: No. I thought it would simply allow me to continue to make the work. I thought that I would run out of sources of money and be unable to use the studio, and it seemed wrong to only be able to make the work in one place. The VK was also a commercial and professional piece of kit which I could sell and therefore promote the work and allow other people to do similar work- I felt I was pioneering a route for others.
C.M-A: I read that Dan Sandin gave away the plans for his image processor so that other people could build their own machines.
P.D: I’d never heard that…I guess in a sense the VK was one of the few ways that I could make a bit of money to continue with the work. The circuitry was extremely complex and it did not occur to me that others would want to build their own versions. I wonder how many others took up Dan Sandin’s challenge?
C.M-A: Do you think there is a connection between your interest in an abstract visual language and abstract visual forms, and your engagement within the circuitry itself?
P.D: I’m not sure- I suppose I’m at ease with abstract thought. The original intentions were numerous. Firstly to liberate me from the TV studio. Literally to try to find out if it was possible to get the same level of control as in the studio, through a simpler means. For example it was quite important to be able to use black and white cameras rather than colour ones. Another was a slightly romantic notion about the fact that many great painters had mixed their own paint rather than squeezed it out of a tube, and I believe that they said that this gave them a more profound relationship to their medium. I felt that getting involved with the integrated circuits, chips and transistors and all the rest of it , would get me closer to the heart of the medium. I think that the electrical signal is the heart of the medium, as I’ve written.
C.M-A: This is what I was trying to get at in one of my earlier questions. It seems to me that once you’d built the VK you were in a position where you understood what was going on at a much deeper level.
P.D. It was not so obviously conscious…Probably the most profound thing that happened in relation to the medium was back when I made Entering (1974). It was done as an O.B. by the BBC from the RCA studio. I’d been to the BBC and found I couldn’t use their studios- all the various bits that I needed were hundreds of yards apart. We realised that it had to be done at the Royal College studio and so they (the BBC) brought an OB truck. We did it. (I could tell lots of stories, but it got done..) They didn’t record it on site, because the BBC didn’t have portable video recorders. So it was microwaved to White City, but it couldn’t be sent directly -the signal had to be bounced across via Crystal Palace and into the basement studio at White City where it was recorded. A couple of days later I went to see it, and it completely blew my mind because it was so much better quality than I’d ever seen it- even compared to seeing it “live” on my monitors. It was startlingly better because of it’s technical quality- and yet it had been through the ether! It was the disembodied quality of the medium that struck me. Putting the signal down a wire somehow seems logical, but having it disembodied before it was recorded and then transmitting it back and forth across eight million people profoundly affected my sense of the medium.
C.M-A: Do you think that there is a connection between this experience and your subsequent decision to build the VK?
P.D: On reflection, yes it probably did. I think that it made me realise that the signal was everything. The signal is completely ethereal. It has no substance. No one really knows how it happens. It’s not molecular, its not like sound. One atom doesn’t bash the next- it’s a deeply mystical thing. It’s not even the signal- There’s some capacity we have to encode things at a very abstract level. We can talk about the signal, it’s slightly more tangible. So the fact that it’s transmittable is a very peculiar aspect. Getting closer to that was probably important.
C.M-A: You have sort of answered this one. Did the making of the VK have an effect on your concept of the relationship between nature and technology?
P.D: I really see two questions in that one. The first is between nature and technology and the second between art and technology. I see technology as latent within nature, and mankind’s capacity to both imitate and extend nature with “new” inventions is to me a natural process. Man may see himself (excuse the gender) as different or separate but never really is. Nor do I accept any distinction between art and technology. Mixing paints and putting them on canvas is a technology. A guitar or a violin is a technology. There was a time when instruments were considered to be the work of the devil, because the sound they produced was not the human voice. Technology has always been in the service of art. Almost everything we do in art requires a technology. People seem to think that a more complicated electronic technology is somehow different.
C.M-A: Perhaps it has to do with the level of mediation-the distance between the material and the human being.
P.D: I guess that’s true. In the case of photography there was a greater level of mediation. The “mystical hand of the artist ” was missing. Perhaps the problem arises if the technology doesn’t allow enough individual expression to come through. (Which is controversial in some ways.) Somehow we’re slightly more comfortable with a complicated plate camera or a complicated SLR producing art, than we are with a “Kodak”, because it requires a greater expression of sensibility, or whatever.
C.M-A: In an article you wrote, (“Video Art & Technical Innovation” , Educational Broadcasting International, Sept. 1980) you contrasted the philosophy of an electronic engineer with your own as an artist because of the fact that you began with the issue of what you wanted to achieve with the image, rather than what it was possible to achieve with this image. The open-endedness of the VK was the result of this approach. Do you feel this is typical of artist-designed tools?
P.D: I don’t know about many other artist-designed tools actually-
I haven’t got many other points of reference, but I suspect it is.
At Diverse (Production) now we are designing some interesting new internet software “Zone Ware”, and being a content-based company gave us an edge in relation to it’s development when compared with a technology-based company, because we are coming at it from a content point of view.
C.M-A: Has your view about the relationship between video art and technology changed since the period when you were working with the VK?
P.D: I wouldn’t have thought so. Because I’m not, in a literal sense, practising as an artist in anything like the same way now. But as I said before, I didn’t see any distinction in that I see any technology as being capable of being used for artistic intent.
C.M-A: My perspective is that the technology available is very influential on what you can make.
P.D: Yes, That’s certainly true, but surely it affects the forms produced rather than the underlying intent.
C.M-A: But you tackled this from another point of view. You said :
“What’s available isn’t what I want- it doesn’t do what I want it to do, so I’m going to have to rethink it”, and you came up with something that was an adaptation of a machine or instrument from another medium (the audio synthesiser) and so I’m interested in what this implies about your view on the relationship between technology and form.
P.D: Yes, well I guess its pretty different from most people’s in that sense. I ran out of time, money, or energy because I could think of lots more instruments that needed building. I half-built another one, which again, was inspired by something Richard (Monkhouse) was doing. It was based around oscilloscope patterns, but allowed much more control so that it would allow the user to create certain fundamental forms using tone generation. (You can do it much better using computers now..)
C.M-A: Do you feel there is a fundamental relationship between the medium you have chosen, and your aesthetic sensibility?
P.D: I think this is always true of artists. I was drawn towards film initially because of it’s richness- it had drama, movement, music, it has a strong cultural impact. I wasn’t drawn to the video medium initially- I didn’t know its power. It was only when I discovered that it could do so much more than what I saw at home on TV. It was the realisation that it was possible to use it’s speed and internal complexity to mimic and recreate nature that was the breakthrough for me. That was the real connection- that feedback allowed nature and advanced technology to be one. These weren’t different processes. This is why I don’t accept this nature- art-technology dialectic. I’ve seen nature recreated on the screen in front of my eyes.
C.M-A: In what sense did you perceive the VK as a live instrument, and did its potential for live collaborations appeal to you more than the production of studio pieces?
P.D: The VK was completely central to the ability to perform live. As I’ve said already I’m not particularly extrovert, and didn’t particularly enjoy applause or need the accolade of the live performance. It was also very stressful because of the amount of technology that could go wrong. We didn’t have the technical backup- any one of tens of thousands of components or wires could let us down. We were very under-resourced at that level. Whereas in the studio, if something goes down you just go and have a cup of tea while the engineer sorts it out.
C.M-A: Did you always strive to produce a work out of a single “best” take?
P.D: Yes, I always went for a “live” take- even in the studio, but it might mean three days in the studio to get it.
C.M-A: So all of the tapes that you made were produced in that way?
P.D: To be honest, for the BBC broadcast piece, (1976) they had to do a mix somewhere in the middle in order to hit the time frame- but that was because of their requirement rather than mine.
C.M-A: So this “liveness” is an essential aspect of the work.
P.D: Yes, its a key part of the aesthetic. I don’t quite know why. It evolved partly out of the fact that I didn’t have access to an expensive edit suite. But later I saw the live single best take approach as a strength, much like very early television which was always live and had an interesting quality because of it. This relates to my interest in music and also the oriental and Zen influence.
C.M-A: Tell me a bit about that.
P.D: Zen painting is very gestural. Zen painters spend all their time training their minds -learning to meditate and concentrate on what it is they are going to paint. The actual painting itself takes place quite quickly. As far as I’m aware, this sort of approach to painting didn’t have any impact in the West until Jackson Pollock came along- although I’m unsure whether he related it to oriental approaches- he just did it. I only found out about Pollock after I’d started my work, but I immediately recognised a kindred spirit.
Turner was trying to do it at another level, because he was trying to paint light which is difficult to pin down, but Pollock really tried to do it because the work became a performance- this is the same approach that Simon & I developed- the work is simply the record of a performance. He (Pollock) got himself into a kind of mental state- like a musician would, or like a Zen painter would, and like I did. (When performing) we went in there, we concentrated on certain themes and structures to help us to perform together.
C.M-A: Can we connect this back to your use of the technology for a moment? I saw one of the live performances that you did with “VAMP” . (Video and Music Performances) There was a lot of technical equipment which presumably you had to set up beforehand. Did this setting-up become part of your mental preparation prior to the performance?
P.D: No, that was stress! It was very complicated and there was too much to go wrong.
C.M-A: Yes, but there must have been some kind of influence. Using that kind of equipment, the way it was configured and wired together, etc..
P.D: Yes, you can’t take all that for granted- we just had to do it. It was like a band without “roadies” really. It was fine to do it at one level, but it meant that we were not able to concentrate quite so much on the performance.
C.M-A: I was thinking that the kind of work you were doing and the themes that you were focusing on must have been influenced by the arrangement and functioning of the technological apparatus.
P.D: I must say that in the live performance situation I saw it as a negative thing at the time. We couldn’t make sure we got our cues right. When you are doing improvisation together, you need certain cues- we didn’t have much time to rehearse.
C.M-A: But you have said that you chose to work with “state of the art” equipment which meant getting involved with a lot of unreliable technology. Wasn’t that part of the “territory”?
P.D: Perhaps. One learned to adapt one’s work to the means available. Various conventionally viewed technical “mistakes” or “errors” opened up new possibilities to great effect. The territory that we tried to explore with the live work, – which we had tried to explore with the tapes before, was to use live musicians (four of them- two acoustic and two electronic) to link different aspects of these instruments back into the imagery, so it wasn’t simply linked by their musical interpretation. I don’t think we succeeded terribly well- I think we ran out of time. But we were interested in making a direct parallel linkage of sound waves to visual events.
C.M-A: How did you decide on the themes you worked with?
P.D: Now we get into deep water! If we go back to the studio work, I’ve mentioned feedback. Feedback became a central part. As I’ve said, I became something of an expert on feedback. I worked with it an awful lot -in many situations. Feedback established a link with the natural world for me. I suddenly began to see the limits of understanding in the macro scale and the micro scale. They were actually appearing on my screen, and I began to work with them, and to explore them. I had a science training anyway, and I was interested. I found I was able to play with the further reaches of scientific imaging. I found that I could recreate them. So the themes became those of nature and science itself- the images and ideas of science as it sought to analyse and “explain” nature.
Because of the way the music was being jointly created, and perhaps more consciously than many composers, we had to find common themes that we could give some structure and understanding to prior to performing. So, for example Entering (1974) is about birth. Its in 3 phases. The amniotic fluid and the warmth of the womb, then the contraction period- the sudden burst into a totally, startlingly, amazingly, difficult, wonderful , and breathtaking situation. It then ends with a calm sequence. This is quite good because it takes a natural process- birth, and condenses it into an artistic theme or piece, but with the benefit that we can structure it out. The first time we did it at the RCA it was about 20 mins. The BBC asked us for an 8 minute version using the same structure, which I think ended up better in some ways.
When we did Dawn Creation (1976) for the BFI, Peter Sainsbury said “but it’s a day in the life of the universe!”. I didn’t quite see it that way, but it certainly looks like a star being born…
This is also apparent in an earlier piece, called Struggling (1974) . You’ll notice that they all end in “ing” because I saw them as processes- referring to and reflecting on processes that occur in the natural world.
C.M-A: So the images are not necessarily natural forms, but rather a representation of natural processes – that might include forms.
P.D. That’s absolutely right, and video is such a powerful medium for exploring process with artistic intent. So for example, Circling (1975) is very much about the astronomical imagery, and why do galaxies form these amazing spirals? Its very easy with video to create this galactic imagery and show the dynamism of the process that underlie the frozen astronomical pictures that we are more used to seeing (at least until computer imaging came of age).
C.M-A: I was just thinking about your earlier reference to Minor White. I recall that he was interested in the “equivalent” (from Alfred Steiglitz), and this seems to connect to the idea of metaphor and further (through White’s practice) to connect to Zen ideas. I was thinking that your tapes from this period were a kind of “equivalent”- they aren’t really representations. They suggest poetic relationships to natural processes.
P.D: Again, thats absolutely right. Strangely, I recall that the very first film I made, that got me into the RCA, was a pure visual poem. I was particularly influenced by Indian music, although I never did an Indian piece. (To my shame actually, as my mentor in Wolverhampton was an Indian painter. He was a great expert on Indian music. )
The Ragas are very classical forms, but they relate to times of the day, or to mood. But I interpret them more as processes. They will take you through dawn, for example, – the piece may be intended to be played at dawn, and has some of those qualities to it. Dawn is a process- not an instantaneous event, and nor is the piece of music. The Indians don’t tend to talk about music as a process or a length of time, but I definitely saw my pieces that way.
C.M-A: So process for you is very important. Not only is the live performance a process, but the finished tape is the documentation of that process. Then there’s the building of the Videokalos, and the process of making that was involved. Did you view the process of making the VK as part of your process of making art, or was it the means to an end? In other words, do you see the making of the VK as an “art activity”?
P.D: Without any question it was a very creative activity, and extremely fulfilling. I wouldn’t personally classify it as an art activity. It was very interesting. It was very difficult. Testing, expensive, hard, challenging -a bit like running a business. A colleague recently suggested to me that for him Diverse (Production, my current company) is a big installation. It isn’t in any conventional sense, -but it depends on one’s viewpoint. Where do you draw the line?
C.M-A: Well, there is a notion that Modernism can be seen as a process of bringing art and life together. For example John Cage indicated that you weren’t meant to stop listening when you left the concert hall. This happened before Cage as well, obviously Duchamp, for example. The idea that there could be a kind of convergence between art and life which could be seen to characterise the modernist approach to art.
P.D: These are on the one hand very profound questions, and on the other hand state what is now obvious to us. Art should no more be separate from life than religion or spirituality should be. People find it odd that I was literally a fine artist working with video for 8 years, then I suddenly stopped to run Diverse. Is this a different activity? Well, yes it is. It is extremely creative, but I wouldn’t personally see it as art. But all my sensibilities are here. I know I run this company in an unusual way, and this is well recognised by people here, and elsewhere. I’m just not a very “normal” business person, or company owner. Diverse is a hugely creative company- full of innovation. We don’t make a lot of money, so it’s not very successful in purely business terms, yet people see it as successful because of it’s output, and because of the quality of creative life within it.
C.M-A: But if one defines art as process, then its conceivable that not only could any medium be used to make art, but that any activity could also conceivably be used to make art. It’s a way of looking at the world- a system of thinking.
P.D: In that sense one could see Diverse as a complex installation. But then you could see EMI, or a country as work of art. Perhaps it could be linked to the level of personal control and then to personal intent? I’m certainly more comfortable now that I can control Diverse- I bought out the other director/shareholders in 1997. Though its not heavy handed- there’s a lot of individual creativity going on, but I can guide it to things or approaches that are most expressive of my deepest intent.
C.M-A: The building of the VK could be seen as a desire to take control of the medium that you chose to work with. Perhaps Diverse is the same impulse on a larger scale.
P.D: There are analogies. It’s comforting to me to think that I haven’t entirely stopped being an artist. Can one ever? If anything, my sensibilities have improved with age, – not been lost. Right in the middle of running this business, I made a 40 minute video Manadala (1991) , bits of which I’m as pleased and satisfied with – and as moved by, as the things I was doing in the ’70’s. One section in particular- I remember saying that “I’ll die a happier man having done that bit”. I don’t know why, but I got something out that moved me and shared it with the world.
C.M-A: Do you have any plans to make more work that you might define as “art”?
P.D: No immediate plans- I’m too busy trying to expand diverse into an interactive and convergent future- but its hard for me to believe that I won’t at some point.
After Merging-Emerging (1978), I felt that there was a huge danger that I would keep repeating myself, which I think, without being unkind, a lot of artists tend to do. I’d reached a point where I been able to make a statement that was as close to a lot of my thinking as I could get. Manadala (1991) , 13 years later was on the surface rather different, but I feel the sensibility comes across as the same after the intervening years. I suspect I could have carried on making work that looked extremely similar. It’s a bit like Turner’s painting. I’m a huge admirer of Turner, but I feel that all his great paintings are saying much the same essential thing about the nature of energy and light.
C.M-A: Presumably he was trying to “get it right”.
P.D: Yes, of course, and trying to earn a living. These prosaic matters come into it. I couldn’t earn a living from what I was doing other than teaching, and I thought I’d got it as “right” as I was going to get it at that particular moment, and so I was ripe for a change anyway.
C.M-A: This seems good. It’s an open-ended thing. I think the more we are able to focus, the more would come out.
P.D: I think the thing that hasn’t come out in our discussion really is the influence of oriental religion. There’s a very strong theme which is not very easy to express. It’s to do with spontaneity, improvisation and gestrual things. It’s less constructed and less rational..
C.M-A: Does that make it less compatible with technology?
P.D: No, I think that technology can be used in any way you want. You need to ask me another question about technology really…
Transcript of 2nd Interview with Peter Donebauer, London: 18/7/00
C.M-A: Do you feel that there are fundamental relationships between the medium you chose and your aesthetic sensibility?
P.D: Well, only in part. I’m sure I’d have to say yes- I think all artists gravitate towards the medium which suits some aspects of their personality. That’s not to say that other mediums wouldn’t suit other aspects of my personality. For instance, I love the stillness, and the Zen quality that you can get through still photography- the fact that it can capture a moment in an instant. The striping away of colour- the black and white allows a great simplicity. There is a strong level of abstraction in black and white photography.
The thing about video that I loved (which I think we talked about before) was simply its speed. You can work with it, and perform with it, as fast as one’s nervous system reacts.
There are aspects of the medium that I don’t like- it can get very frantic, but that’s a positive and a negative thing. I like photography for it’s simplicity and it’s quietude. Video is at the opposite end of that spectrum- I like it because it’s dynamic, colourful, improvisational, very highly energised. The screens- there’s a lot of buzz literally in a television studio- a lot of electronic movement going on. Being in a control room is a bit like being in the engine room of a battle ship- there’s a lot of energy around- its a very high energy medium, I think.
C.M-A: Did the experience of making the VK have an effect on your concept of the relationship between art & technology? In what sense did the experience of building and working with the VK change you as an artist? It seems to have something to do with the way you wanted to take control of the video medium. In order to do that, you had to get “beneath the skin” of the medium. My question has to do with the level of control you sought. How did the gaining of this new level of technical and creative control affect your perception of the medium and how did it affect the kind of work you made? For example, you have spoken about your perception of the video signal which came about as a result of the experience of broadcasting your work. This experience pre-dated the building of the Videokalos. You had to get your “hands dirty”!
P.D. I think the seminal moments were earlier. I think the experiences in the TV studio were the stronger insights. What I did later was to analyse what was going on in those earlier performances, and I realised that it was wrong to be trapped into one particular studio situation. The VK was built to liberate me from having to work in one place. I felt that I (& other people) should be able to control the means of performance other than in the studio environment. It was an attempt to take it out of the studio environment into colleges, etc.
So the building of the VK was more to do with making the medium more accessible, both for myself to use in other situations, and for other artists to work with. Being able to work in the studio at the RCA was an unusual situation- to have access to that kind of facility- especially an old, complicated TV studio facility like that, which allowed such a degree of control. That particular studio inspired my realisation that there were certain things you could do. The VK allowed a certain level of additional complexity- I could make more complex overlaid images, there were 3 levels of keying and two mixer banks.
C.M-A: The line I’m taking with this thesis is that there is a crucial and significant relationship for video art with the kind of technology that was available. You and a handful of others did something particular with what was available- you pushed the boundaries. Having had the experience of working in the studio, working at the technical boundaries, using the equipment in a way that it was not designed to be used. You saw that there was something else that television could be, which was quite liberating, but in order to do it, you had to learn enough about how the technology worked to take charge of it.
P.D: Well the way I would tackle that question is to come at it from a completely different angle- to do with consciousness. The experiences that one gets in life, especially in the sixties- some of those drug experiences (of which I didn’t have many, but I did have some.) and indeed the history of contemporary art. We can talk about Turner or Pollock, or various people who have influenced me at some point. (and experiences which happen for example in meditation, or extreme situations.) They point to the fact that our normal everyday consciousness is just that- it’s our normal everyday consciousness. Television is totally uninspiring because all it does is reflect back the same level of consciousness to you and reinforces the fact that this is “right” and normal and everyone should live like this. TV is completely on one plane in consciousness terms. OK you get some TV that is a bit better than other TV-but broadcast TV is a completely literary experience in consciousness terms, whereas in the art world, or indeed these other states- dreaming, or drug-induced experiences or whatever, point to a lot of other levels of consciousness that we can experience, and I was very much a part of that group of artists who felt that their work was about those other levels of consciousness, other than the normal every day one.
So the attraction was that this was a very powerful medium for creating an abstract, symbolic archetypal imagery which touched onto those other areas. For example, Jordan Belson, who is not that well-known, studied yoga and made abstract film in the 1950’s & 60’s. For me, they were pretty profound pieces, and they talked of things that somehow moved me. I was more moved by artists who delved into that other level of consciousness- religious experience, for example. There were various ways of trying to talk about it.
The attraction of video is that it’s a very good medium for creating abstract visual imagery which changes in time. (I have a book about people working at the turn of the century who were building colour organs – trying to project colour, often to go with symphonic music -, they were played a bit like a keyboard.) There was a movement of people who were trying to create an abstract visual language of colour which unfolds in time much like music does. You could say that dance and theatre was part of this. I just thought that video was a fantastic medium for this and I realised that one important control was available through the use of the colour studio- the studio was the key- the clue to that fact that colour could be used in this way.
By being able to experiment in the studio I was able to realise that you could create this abstract language with video. The television studio didn’t have to be used as it’s normally done. Everything had been set up in a controlled manner for accurate reproduction- we’ve talked about that. Most technology- the whole march of imaging technology from the beginnings of photography has been getting better and better at reproduction, more natural and more accurate reproduction of what’s on the other side of the lens in nature. Plenty of artists have tried to subvert that. For example Minor White in photography- very abstract forms and imagery. There’s a history of people in film, and now there’s a history of people in video. They tend to be in a minority, because in a sense it’s a specialised interest, but we’ve certainly seen a lot of it in 20th century art, and I’m very firmly in that tradition.
C.M-A: Would you say that there’s something about video which makes it particularly suitable for this kind of approach? You mentioned film-makers like Jordan Belson. Why didn’t you choose to make films? Why video?
P.D: In most of those films the relationship to music is incredibly poor. There’s usually music with them, but the relationship of the image to music is so arbitrary.
People seem to think that music is a direct viewfinder into man’s soul. It is extraordinary to think how abstract it is and yet people accept it as perfectly normal. If you produce abstract images people think you’re a bit funny. Play some notes on a guitar, which is a completely abstract thing, and people accept that as completely normal! I think that abstract visual form should be the norm, much as in music. I’m trying to represent consciousness, rather than what the eye sees.
C.M-A: Is there some compatibility, some kind of fundamental relationship between an electronic signal like video, and consciousness?
P.D: Well, one can wonder. Yes, I would say, because they’re both moving. It’s hard to talk about consciousness, but you can talk about the way the body functions, the way the brain functions- the speed of the nervous system. The same sorts of signals, in some way, speeding along our nervous system and speeding through these television wires. They have a particular form because they need to be displayed on a television screen, but those electronic and magnetic signals seem to me to have similar properties to some fundamental processes that are similar to how we operate.
C.M-A: This ties in to the topic of gesture- is there any kind of correspondence for you, between the gestural Zen calligraphy and the instantaneousness of video? There’s no other visual way of recording something in time which is so purely “of the moment ” as video.
P.D: Yes, there’s kind of strange interface between art forms which leave a permanent residue of performance. The conflict people have between a theatrical performance and film. A film of a theatrical performance is never quite “right”. These are both aspects of the art world really, one is more related to performance- something which is “of the moment” and then gone, (OK, you can keep some kind of record of it, but it’s never the same.) and trying to produce works where the record of the thing that you’ve done is the same.
I would say that the record of the performances we’ve done do sum up the peak moments of what these people achieved, and their target was to leave a residue. I think there’s an intent here -a painter wants to create a finished work, on the whole, whereas a performance artist, or someone making an installation, wants to create something that’s an experience, and gone.
C.M-A: You are somewhere between the two, as a video artist making a recording of something which was a moment.
P.D: Yes, I think that it is an attempt to combine the two. It is an improvisation to some extent, but it’s structured. As a performer, you are trying to raise your level of performance, (or your consciousness, or whatever word you care to use ) to do the “best” .
I’m not sure whether its appropriate to talk about this. It’s very interesting…sometimes drugs can give you heightened experience or a very altered awareness of everyday things around you which can or can’t be beneficial. I once watched some of my tapes after taking some marijuana. It was the one thing that I concentrated on hard whilst in that condition, and not seen anything other than what I had produced at the time! I think that the state I reached to perform these tapes was as deep as my consciousness or concentration could get me.
C.M-A: I’d like to pull this back into your relationship with the technology. We’ve talked about this idea of focusing, either through meditation or through concentration, or whatever. I wonder if working with the technology at the deep level that you did was a form of concentration which gave you a sense of understanding or engagement with the medium you were using. A way of focusing on it as precisely as possible.
P.D: It certainly taxed me, to build the VK there was blood and sweat.
C.M-A: But it’s not very physical. Working with video is not like working with film. With video you pull a lever, or press a button. Especially if someone else has set it up. You talked about working in a conventional TV studio-when something goes wrong, the engineer fixes it whilst the director goes and has a cup of tea! But you deliberately turned yourself into the engineer….There’s a sense in which you imposed that on yourself as part of the discipline.
P.D: It was purely because the instruments didn’t exist. If you are a musician, you don’t have to go and design a guitar. There was literally no way to control this medium at the level that I understood it. (That level was fortuitous- it was through the experience at the RCA. ) I understood that you could do something, and I realised that it needed to be pulled together under a control mechanism that would allow live performance. The VK is a live performance instrument- it feels quite nice. The knobs and controls have a viscosity and resistance to them- as much as I could afford to do that. It was to do with control. Trying to build something which had a better tactility than what you’d just described. I couldn’t really succeed because there was a limited supply of electronics. To get really nice viscosity you’d have to build something the size of a battleship to give you some physical resistance. We were interested in human control mechanisms. There were a lot of people thinking about that control interface between people and machines. Some were very gestural- for example the Theramin.
C.M-A: I hadn’t thought much about the idea of making video physically tactile by working with aspects of the physical engagement with the machine that produced or altered the resultant images. That’s a line of enquiry that needs pursuing..
P.D: Yes, for instance when you’re trying to change the colour, you don’t want something that’s got “step” on it. The whole idea of the VK is that it’s an analogue instrument. If you are trying to tune into the rhythm of the music for instance, you want to be able to “play” the thing- it wants to be like an instrument. I don’t think I succeeded in that respect. Instruments have evolved over a long period of time, built by craftsmen. But there was certainly that intent.
C.M-A: Do you think there is a connection between your interest in abstract visual language-the idea that there is something which is akin to music- but visual, and your eventual involvement in the design and circuitry? In looking at the circuits for the VK there’s a symmetry and pattern- there are abstract visual qualities to the machine itself. When you began, you had to learn a new language- new “connections” were formed in your mind, and those new connections have an effect on the way you perceive the world and feed back into who you are and what you do. Here was a whole new experience which was particular to the medium you had chosen which was both technical and aesthetic, and there must have been a connection with the kind of images on the screen- these macroscopic and microscopic worlds that you were creating using video feedback, which were analogous to nature.
P.D: To some extent. I think I should make it absolutely clear that I collaborated to build the VK with Richard Monkhouse, who was an electronic engineer. I did not design the circuitry. I understood the functionality of what I was trying to build. I told him what I wanted to do, he told me what he thought was possible- there was a dialogue. Then he designed the circuitry to perform those functions. He had had experience of doing this at EMS. He then said: “build it”. I said “how” ? Richard said, well, you get a little piece of variboard like this, these are all the bits-you need to go out and buy more and then you have to work out where to put them. So I started building it from scratch onto the variboard. Richard was designing the actual electronic circuitry in a symbolic sense, I was actually building it in a practical sense. Then we built the prototype, which you are familiar with, and then I decided that I wanted to build it properly- commercially, in metal, with “proper’ circuitry. So then I had to learn another skill which was how design double-sided printed circuit boards, designed to take components we knew would work. Visually my circuits are quite different to Richard’s. His are quite angular, like Los Angeles- mine are more like San Francisco. They still have a lot of symmetry because there’s a lot of replication of switch panels, but mine are more fluid. It’s hard to say whether that experience ever came back into the work. I wouldn’t have though so. I’m not really aware of pushing the boundaries of my aesthetic through the design of those circuit boards.
C.M-A: Did this experience of making the VK have any effect on your concept of the relationship between art and technology?
P.D: Technologies, even complex ones, are in the service of human intent. Desire, intent, consciousness- what you are trying to do is very central. Art is an artificial form itself, it very seldom happens by accident- there’s a lot of work involved. People are driven to create things, experiences, performances. Technologies are literally at the service of this. You can use technology for other purposes- to stay warm , or to entertain yourself, or to kill people. You can use simple technologies to kill someone, or you can use incredibly complex ones. Art is exactly the same- you can use a pencil…
C.M-A: Which you chose not to- which is what I’m interested in.
P.D: Yes, well it’s partly a reaction to the fact that we live in a technological age. It seems more appropriate. Television is a very powerful medium though, (as I said before) very one-dimensional. One is drawn to it partly because you sense the power. I was touched of the power of it very much when working in the studio. It was incredibly tempting to discover a whole area; an art form that’s not been touched appealed to me. I’m not very good at sitting at the feet of a master and reproducing what he or she does for 20 years in the hopes of doing something better in my later years. I wanted to be breaking new ground. And this was reinforced when this amazing medium then started producing forms from nature- both microscopic and macroscopic, which linked back to science. So video was coming up with natural forms, and indeed mimicking forms of nature as they were observed by other pieces of technology- telescopes and microscopes. The whole thing just became very reinforcing.
C.M-A: Is this because the technology imposes certain forms on our perception of nature?
P.D: I think its because the medium allowed a very fast exploration of abstract forms. By manipulating this technology to obtain feedback in certain ways, you created these forms which were recognisable. This was a form which could be used to create nature itself- eddies of water, gasses or astronomical forms. You recognise those forms either because you’ve seen them before through scientific imagery, or because you recognise them in nature- in the whirls of a shell or something. Or perhaps they are strong, symbolic archetypes- certain shapes which touch deeply inside our past consciousness.
So the technology is in the service of art. I was in an art institution at the time, and I had decided that I wanted in some way to explore that world of art. My particular interest was in the exploration of consciousness and archetypal forms. Video was a very fast way to do it. Other mediums had explored it- photography for example. I think it was the fact that video was obviously an unexplored form. A new technology had allowed a new form to emerge.
C.M-A: Is there any sense in which the “look” and feel of your work reflects the strengths or the limitations of the Videokalos? Were you conscious of working within limitations that were creatively important?
P.D: There are always limitations, and there are always mistakes. Certainly huge progress is made by mistakes. One day when I was working in the studio at the Royal College, the cameras lost focus. I was transfixed. My whole world was changed- I never shot anything in focus ever again! When the cameras are severely out of focus, it creates a wonderful immediate form of abstraction. All these devices are so controlled to provide an accurate reproduction of what’s in front of them, suddenly to have that thrown off gives a huge burst of inspiration. Errors and mistakes and recognising them gives you a huge way forward.
It is very important to recognise that the VK is only a part of what I used. The cameras and the feedback loops are very, important. The VK is the controlling centre of it, but it’s not a synthesiser, it’s an image processor- it doesn’t produce images. The images are produced by other devices- people dancing or whatever. The VK is the controlling heart. It’s a much bigger thing which is taking place, which involves other people and their consciousness. It’s the feedback loop and the actual creation of external imagery as it comes into the VK where you get a lot of these things happening. I’ve probably been more inspired by feedback between a camera and a monitor than ever I was by the VK , which simply allowed better control of those processes. The VK was the centre I needed to control a much bigger theme, and it was the inspiration and limitations- all the things I’ve been talking about, that were actually occurring outside the VK. We mustn’t put too much emphasis on the VK of itself.
C.M-A: Yes, it’s a bit like talking about the video recorder- claiming that what’s central to our practice is that we can record this stuff, when in fact, it’s obviously what you record onto the tape- the elements you bring together. Maybe at some level that’s a given, but it is important to bring it out.
P.D: Yes, a lot of the time you’ve been asking me about the VK, whereas actually, a lot of the answers lie further out.
C.M-A: There’s an important collaborative element to all your work, the work is about this dynamic. Perhaps that’s the best way to characterise your work- to say that you created a dialogue with the technology. You organised a set of relationships within the framework of a number of compatible technologies,- deliberately set up a series of technological and human interactions.