Richard Monkhouse

Transcript of Interview with Richard Monkhouse, Hillingdon, London: 23/5/2000

C.M-A: When and how did you first get involved with video?

R.M.: As far as I can remember, it was in 1973, after I had been working at EMS (Electronic Music Studios) for about 6 months. There was rather a lull, and I’d been given this project to design some circuits for a visual spectrum display for a digital audio filter analysis bank for Peter Zinovieff’s studio. This piece of equipment, nominally called “Show Me” would allow the display of audio spectra over time.

C.M-A: EMS were basically in the business of building audio synthesisers?

R.M: Yes, they were working around the same time as Moog, and were popular because bands like Pink Floyd used the EMS synths for special effects on their records.

C.M-A: So EMS, who built these syths, was owned by Peter Zinovieff?

R.M: Yes, EMS was based over a D.I.Y. shop in Cricklewood, and Zinovieff’s sound studio was in Putney. David Cockrell was the chief designer at EMS who ran the place that I initially worked at. Cockrell designed a lot of equipment for Zinovieff’s studio, including the VCS 3, which had a patch-panel rather than the more cumbersome jack field necessary with the Moog. EMS built a special machine which pulled together three VCS 3s with a keyboard and a sequencer called the Synthi 100.

C.M-A: So you moved over from this sound engineering activity and got involved with the video project?

R.M: Yes. Nobody else at EMS had much expertise in video and I was, if you like, a promising newcomer/ slave. I was given the job of designing some video sync. circuitry. So I got a colour video monitor and a sync circuit and I started to plug direct RGB video signals from the digital timing circuit into the colour monitor. I suddenly realised how amazing pure colour video imagery actually is. In fact I got so excited by the pure colours that I was getting that I damaged the Trinitron monitor feeding in stronger and stronger colours, I heated up and bent the masks!!

These images and colours intrigued and excited me and led me to design some circuits which did more than generate stripes and squares. Shortly after that the director of EMS asked me if I would be interested in showing my prototype at a trade fair in Germany. So I put my “bread-box” circuitry into a box, and took this opportunity to further my research.

C.M-A: What did your prototype machine do?

R.M: It basically had what I thought were the principle elements required- you could feed in a video camera and colourise the image- it had an 8 level colouriser. There was a digital control of the two axes of a colour circle- basically a brightness control.

C.M-A: Was the output of this machine recordable?

R.M: Initially the output from this machine was just RGB, then as part of the promotion, and with the enlightened self-interest of Peter Zinovieff, the machine was taken around and demonstrated at various studios in the UK and abroad, and as a result of this the German TV company ZDF wanted to use it to generate the background for some rather dreadful “Opportunity Knocks” type TV programme. In order to make this possible I had to build a colour encoder for it. (The ZDF engineers were prepared to help when it didn’t work very well- they were less bureaucratic than the engineers at the BBC.) We got that together in the back of a trailer somewhere in Zurich I think…

C.M-A: So the original intention of this machine was for the pure generation of images in the same way as the audio synth.

R.M: Yes. I thought, “the Video Synth,- what a concept. I’ve never heard of that before. Let me see if I can make one..”

C.M-A: In terms of the model for the video synth, it was clearly modelled on the audio synth?

R.M: Very much so..I used the concept of the way they (EMS) had managed to allow many routing possibilities without resorting to an enormous patch field of jacks by using a pin-based patch board.

C.M-A: So there was an input and an output patch board?

R.M: Well, an electronic synth. consists basically of 3 types of modules:
1: Modules which are signal sources, which have outputs only.
2: Modifiers with possibly several inputs and outputs- perhaps a signal input and a modification input.
3: Pure output channels which only have inputs, this being the final destination of your signal to the outside world- the monitor or the loudspeaker.

The lovely thing about a patch panel is that the rows become outputs of devices and the columns become inputs to devices. Some devices which have inputs and outputs are modifiers. In the audio world an example would be a voltage control filter. The inputs would appear on the columns of the patch field and their outputs would re-route themselves to a row on the panel. This means that there is absolutely no combination of re-routing that you can’t get by putting pins into a patch panel.

C.M-A: So did all this come about as result of wanting to make video work, or were you interested in the machine for its own sake?

R.M: I wanted to build the machine because I was fascinated with it’s potential, not in a technical way, but because of what it could do.

C.M-A: Were you interested in the relationship between sound and the visual patterns you were producing?

R.M: Yes, there was and there still is a particular problem with this, and I don’t think the problem has really been solved yet. It’s something that people have tried to do without getting their hands dirty.

C.M-A: Given the depth of your knowledge about the technology behind these images, what kind of things were you interested in exploring with your machine?

R.M: I was interested to explore what it could do within its limitations, and to explore what I thought its powers were- given the limitations of what I had available to me. I wasn’t in an art college, and I didn’t have access to a lot of colour cameras. I only had the resources that I got from EMS. (When I left, I did, in fact replicate those facilities.)

What I was lacking was a reliable system for recording the output in order to assemble edit my own pieces. I did get into making my own pieces and that led later to the EMI video disk.

The way I worked was with one machine assemble editing. There was only minimal room for error- you couldn’t really go back and drop in anything if you made a mistake. What I did was to lay down an audio track and work to that, setting up very different effects using a combination of video synth and camera, and a feedback loop. Later on when I left EMS and worked here (in the studio) I used film loops of computer graphics displays as well.

C.M-A: What sort of artistic or creative model were you drawing on? Were you drawing on experimental film work that you’d seen, or abstract painting, or music? Who were your influences?

R.M: I was influenced right back at the beginning by the work of the Witneys. That was my first exposure to abstract film. I heard a lecture by John Witney jr., who at that time (1971) had received a grant from IBM to reconstruct the early film work by John (Snr.) and James Witney which had been originally done on pieces of card and then animated on 16mm film.

C.M-A: So seeing these abstract films by the Witneys was inspirational. Were you inspired because you saw the potential for a more direct relationship between the image generating potential of video?

R.M: Well, there’s a lot you can do with film animation that you can’t do with direct video. I’ve been waiting for technology to catch up, which it nearly has, but there’s a factor of perhaps 1000- i.e. the electronics needs to get 1000 times faster for what I was doing with video using very specific shapes that the circuitry could generate easily. There is now the possibility to generate moving abstract imagery in real time using electronics. In the specialised industry of 3D computer games this is now available.

C.M-A: But you were using the technology of the day. The limitations were that though you could get real time recording with instantaneous playback, (which was the advantage over film) what you couldn’t get was real time animation.

R.M: You could get real time animation of the effect. You could change the structured abstract pictures which were composed out of elements generated by the video synth. So, for example, in a picture of a circle, the circle size voltage control can be made to change as fast or as slow as you like, likewise it was also possible to change the position of the objects. If you combined this with feedback then the whole structure of what we now see as a factual image could be changed.

C.M-A: So you were using video feedback as well?

R.M: Yes.

C.M-A: Take me through the progression. When did you decide that you wanted to work with video?

R.M: The idea to work with video didn’t occur until later when I’d made the encoder for the Austrian TV programme. Around that time cheaper video recorders were also becoming available.

C.M-A: But it was the potential to work with video that interested you.

R.M: The moment that I plugged a wire in and some red stripes appeared on the screen and I put it through a few logic gates and I got other stripes appearing horizontally in amazing colours which I could change instantly, then I could see that there was something very powerful in a system that responds instantaneously to your change.

C.M-A: How aware were you of other artist/engineers?

R.M: I met Tom Dewitt when he came to visit EMS. He came in and saw what I was doing with my synth and video feedback, and suggested tilting the camera. I’d got spiral galaxies by tilting the camera slightly, but his technique enabled the creation of triangular and four-fold symmetric patterns which then became static and mutated and reflected- it was a whole new realm!

C.M-A: Was he influential on you?

R.M: Yes , because he made me see the possibilities of what I was doing. Also we were very much on the same wavelength because of our backgrounds- a mixture of engineering/ electronics knowledge, but with an interest in the artistic and creative side of things.

C.M-A: How and when did you meet Peter Donebauer?

R.M: Peter was interested in what I was doing with my video synth and he came to visit me at EMS in Cricklewood in late 1973 or early ’74.

C.M-A: How did you get involved with the design of the Videokalos Image Processor?

R.M: Peter explained what he was doing in the studio at the Royal College of Art. We were both interested in smooth video colourisation. At the time, there were real limitations with digital video. With digital colourising you could see the steps- each step in the luminance signal of the B&W camera which would become a colour was quite visible. With an analogue system the blacks would be one colour, the whites another, and there would be a smooth gradation between them. The Videokalos was designed with 5 channels each of which had a smooth analogue colouriser. There was a patchboard and ways of keying images- I think it had three key channels. You could combine the outputs of the different colourisers through the keyer so you ended up with analogue quasi-digital colourisation. The B&W colour input signal gave a smooth gradation in one range between two colours and then switched to something completely different and then proceeded to give a smooth gradation between another two colours.

What I realised at that time was that the moment you have a hard quatisation of colour you lose all the tonal information in that band, whereas if you have an analogue colourisation, you get a lot more information through- so the colours look stunning and you get a lot more information coming through to the eye.

C.M-A: So that was the basic idea with the Videokalos. Was it different from the Spectre?

R.M: Yes, the Videokalos was purely a colour camera processing machine with some features of a normal studio mixer in that it had cross fades and keyers and a wipe generator.

C.M-A: So did you design the circuitry or did you teach Peter how to do it?

R.M: It was a bit of both I think. I didn’t know about designing video mixer circuits, so there was a bit of a learning curve there. We were doing it on a very low budget. Anything you could think of needed an lot of laborious work to turn it into a reality. Peter was prepared to do a bit of learning and soldering and building. He came up with a prototype and I looked at it to see how well it worked. We designed the various elements- the colouriser, the mixer, the keying circuits on the basis that I drew up a circuit, Peter protyped it, and I modified it if necessary. This involved a number of meetings, some at his place and some at mine.

C.M-A: Did Peter’s video work strike a chord with you?

R.M: No, we always had fundamental disagreements about that. I always thought Peter’s stuff was too slow, and he thought mine was far too frenetic! We worked together at one stage, doing a series of live concerts. I built a vector pattern generator specifically for these concerts.

I appreciated Peter’s ideas about making pieces with a continuous morphological change of the image. It was just the pace at which it happened in his work. He was dead against the cut, but I liked it, especially with punchy music.

These differences aside, I designed the vector pattern generator so that by manual control one could cross-fade in this very large dimensional space of patterns and slowly change one thing into another. It was like a kind of journey through a whole lot of changing images and colourisations, with one thing slowly slipping into something else without you noticing it.

C.M-A: Did you have a sense with the imagery you were producing using this technology that it had nothing to do with the world “out there’- nothing to do with the camera. That there was another set of visual possibilities that were being created. Did you have a sense that you were producing something that had nothing to do with visual perception , or was perhaps the beginning of another way of looking?

R.M: I felt quite strongly around that time that the images we were making and the images I was putting onto video tape were analogues for looking at nature. I felt we were making images of what really might be going on at the sub-atomic level.

C.M-A: Like getting below the scale of normal visual reality, but nevertheless conformed to natural laws in some way.

R.M: Yes, but they weren’t direct photographs of images on an oscilloscope screen. The way we were both working was to modify things so much that one was incorporating the charge effects within the vidicon tube in the camera to give time lag -to trail things out, and so it was the final image which had a lot of elements which were to do with the different multiple instruments incorporated together. This could be separated out into form generation, which is what I was doing, and colourisation and mixing, which is what Peter was doing with the image.

C.M-A: Were you using this technology to get at something which underlies the visual world?

R.M: Yes. I think when it got exciting one suddenly realised that we were creating something that looked “real”.

C.M-A: Did you have a visual theory behind what you were doing? For example, in what way did your knowledge of electronics inform the visual work you were making?

R.M: I think it would be pretentious of me to say we were articulating it. The instruments we had available were limited and had the marks of their own capacity to generate an image. There was a concept of synergy- once you linked together several of these electronic image generating instruments they created a very much larger space which could be explored.

C.M-A: So there was something happening that was greater than the sum of the individual elements.

R.M: Yes, especially once you had more than one camera feedback set up and more than one image source. We used equipment in particular combinations- the vector pattern generator, hard line images generated by the spectre synth, and natural forms, which is what Peter was using-slowly moving clouds, water, etc.