Skip navigation

Stephen Jones interviewed by Ian Howard


The following interview was recorded for an ABC educational programme, sometime after my show Open Processes at Watters Gallery in February 1977. In it I sum up the way I thought about video and communications as a feedback driven two-way communications process.

Ian Howard interviewed Stephen Jones for the Program "Australian Artists - Video Art". [1978]

IH: Stephen what do you think were the achievements of your Open Processes installation at Watter’s Gallery last year?

SJ: It's very hard to gauge the achievements of a show like that. There was very little feedback on the thing from anywhere outside of the immediate video activity. So apart from the fact that we brought a heck of a lot of people together and a lot of things seem to be relating from that now and it seems to have established a certain kind of direction for some of the work and possibly the most important thing was that certain directions or certain kinds of work were established, e.g., multi-camera live mixed with pre-recorded material and things like that.

IH: As well as the output, it made it quite obvious that an awful lot of people in Sydney and Melbourne and in fact throughout Australia were involved in Video Art. Were you aware that there were so many people with these interests?

SJ: Well, yes. Because the Access Network had been set up and it was beginning to be operating effectively by this time. And so there was a journal1 and you know, quite a lot of cross-pollination around the various cities and so you were beginning to be aware of the fact that there were quite a lot of people around. That seemed a good time to try to bring a few people together.

IH: What were the shortcomings of the show, if you're aware of any?

SJ: I think the major problem was just that incredible problem of confrontation with technology, and what we set up in the Gallery was just a large, a very large mass of technology and not apparently coherent in any particular way. It was just all over the place. Massive cables all over the place and things like that, and I think that people tend to get put off by that when they can’t immediately access the actual control points of the system, you know.

IH: And the people involved? Who participated in the Open Processes show?

SJ: Oh, well you got most of the Bush Video people, people from the Access Centre in Melbourne, Bob Weiss, people like that, and Paul Frame. We got a lot of musicians working in experimental areas in music. Basically just a lot of people off the street, well not really off the street, but you know, out of like all sorts of areas that really had had nothing to do with video beforehand.

IH: I know, when I visited the show one evening there was a dance group I think.

SJ: Yes, there was also. I'm very interested in dance. Particularly as a video medium, and…

IH: In your original proposal for setting up the project you suggested that the public, presumably meaning "you people with no video experience" that they might get involved in the creative in the face of the electronics that you’d set up. What did you wish to achieve by this public involvement?

SJ: Well the whole thing about television, which is kind of what video is the other side of, is that people just don't have access to the studios. They don't have access to the medium or the means of production of information programs or anything else you know. From that stems the need to allow people to handle equipment, to get into things and demonstrate that in fact it's not as hard as it appears. Of course what we did unfortunately was probably quite the reverse, It scared most people away, you know, by being quite as open as we were about the thing, you know.

IH: Yes, rather than the public just receiving broadcast television you were trying to …

SJ: Set up the situation in which they could handle it, produce it, and so on. And experiment with it primarily, in whatever sort of ways. I mean, in a sense, that was very successful for a lot of people but they were people who had had some kind of contact with performance or with production of various things of their own, already, beforehand.

IH: To stage an event like Open Processes and indeed I guess to undertake any sizeable video production it requires a fairly extensive list of specialised skills. What kind of working habits and disciplines do you think you need to develop to be working in this field?

SJ: Well, primarily you need to be able to operate the gear and know what programming and production is about. But I mean that's very simple stuff. Ultimately it's very easy to know what that is. The equipment is basically, well again we can draw a distinction between the broadcast television studio and the kind of studios which we're operating here with Open Processes, where it's basically educational and industrial kind of equipment. And it's very easy to operate. Production itself is just like making sure that everything's going and doing all it should do and that. As far as actually installing the show, I engineered the show and I did the installation with a little bit of assistance on particular items of equipment and I also organized all the people and all the financing and everything else.

IH: On financing - what was the total cost of the assembled equipment?

SJ: You're talking about the actual retail cost of going out and buying it? Which is not what we did of course. It would have been perhaps fifty or a hundred thousand dollars worth of gear. Of course what you do is you hire equipment because you only want it for a limited time, two weeks in this case. And so I think it cost us about three and a half thousand dollars to do the show.

IH: Three and a half thousand dollars. How does one go about financing such a project?

SJ: Well I got finance from the Visual Arts Board and the Australian Film Commission, and the rest of it came out of my own pocket.

IH: Hm, Is there any sort of financial return on such a …

SJ: Oh, it will be in tape sales, that’s all.

IH: The visual language that’s sort of the end product. I wonder if we could talk about that for a while? What would you see as the relationship between the process of making a tape and the end product?

SJ: Well, the end product demonstrates little of the actual production processes. The end product is sort of a discrete object which really belies the production process itself. I mean, in a sense the world is a process situation and it is processes that we need to be conscious of to understand the operation of the world. And the language, the verbal language, English and most Western languages don’t supply us with a means of coming to grips with that kind of thing. So that the concept of the Open Processes show was one in which we are trying to open up a situation for exploration of process itself into, eventually, the aim that one perhaps can develop a process language.

IH: Clearly here the important time of the work was when the Open Processes show opened for the duration of the exhibition. … Any tapes that…

SJ: The tapes are merely artefact. It's like going out and digging up bits of gold in the graves in Columbia.

IH: Yes, right, of course. Okay, So what about if we can just talk about that product a little? What about aesthetics of the final tapes? Where does the visual grammar come from?

SJ: Well, it's very largely undeveloped as yet. Again, we are in a process situation. Even with the artefacts that derive from a show like this. The language does not yet exist and what we're doing is exploring the possibility of the medium, the nature of the syntax, the grammar of arrangements between pieces of equipment, of arrangements or relationships between sets of activities and sets of images, and so the idea is that perhaps one can come to grips with, or get some kind of development in a visual language or a process language, out of that.

IH: Hm, Do you feel at this stage it's in its infancy?

SJ: Oh, completely. It’s… the thing about processes is, one really doesn’t purport to have a solution or an endpoint anyway.

IH: [What about a] grammar?

SJ: There's a grammar of relationship and interaction and extensions and so on. There is nothing like the idea of ‘stop point’ or ‘finish’, which is ungrammatical.

IH: Right, yes. And of course you also have, with video, you also have a sound element. Is there any direct relationship between sound and the image? Are they for instance electronically linked?

SJ: We tried some rudimentary forms of that and it’s perfectly possible to get into totally electronically linked or technically linked sound and vision. And there are several attempts at this being developed now. But at that point, in Open Processes we used some basic elementary systems like oscilloscope waveforms of the sound that was going on, and mixing that with camera images of the people producing the sound, for example in the music pieces.

IH: And I read that you have been experimenting with dancers who actually dictated the sound by movements of their bodies.2

SJ: Still only at a conceptual stage. We will be, I mean, I am working on that right at this period. But it's a long job. Developing systems like that takes years.

IH: Of course. Going back to Open Processes, you brought together a multiplicity of inputs to be mixed and edited together. Does this technique derive from collage work in more traditional painting?

SJ: I don't know. I mean it’s all a matter for art historians to come along and decide, you know, as far as I’m concerned. I've got no art background in terms of art school or painting or anything like that anyway, so it doesn’t for me. It just comes out of the medium itself, this kind of activity, the way the media itself dictates or sort of introduces you to relationships between images and things like that.

IH: How did you get for instance, the images of cars driving along streets and I think there was an anteater…

SJ: Well, I didn't get those images, other people went out and got those images on tape and then came in and did the mixing themselves.

IH: On portable tape?

SJ: Yes, on Portapak. They went out and shot stuff in the city, they were out in the National Park on Portapak. Brought it back in, put it through the Open Processes system. And by using the system by themselves coming… This is the important point about the Open Processes thing; it wasn’t just Stephen Jones at the helm all the time. It was other people coming in or going out, getting the material, bringing material in, putting it through the system and doing the operations themselves.

IH: Just on that point. I heard you say before that video is a particularly collective medium.

SJ: Well in video it takes a lot of people to operate it. If you want to run a full studio you need perhaps ten people: camera operators, cable guides, vision mixers, director, tape operators, you know. I mean you can run it with a minimum of maybe three or four people, if you don’t want to do something really complex. And people can kind of swap roles and things. I mean one swaps roles all the time. There were no set roles inside Open Processes. People just took up what they wanted to do at the time and we [called] for production [people] coming up to production time. When there was a performance to happen I would just sort of say: Whoever is around would you like to take a Camera or something? And people would take cameras and so, like half the time, camera operators had never handled cameras before anyway. But it is very, very collective. And one is dependent on what the camera operators produce in the way of image for what one can then mix with, and so on, you know.

IH: Back to the final tape images again. Are they only relevant to this present era, or do you think they'll transcend in time, as other works?

SJ: That depends on how successfully the language itself is developed. I mean the point about it, a transcendent piece of work, is that it’s established a mythic framework or a language framework within which it is viewed over time and basically remains reasonably constant in terms of its meaning and things. Tape itself is very ephemeral. The stuff breaks down over ten or fifteen years anyway, so you probably can't play the stuff again, you know. I mean, the actual stuff we produce won’t last maybe fifteen twenty years in toto.

IH: It couldn't be re-copied in twenty years time?

SJ: Ah well, in twenty years time, the tape will be so broken down anyway that it would be impossible. But maybe in five years time you could take a copy and then store that and then, I mean if you particularly want to, and one doesn't really consider it to be very important you know. The important thing, if there is anything important in it at all is the actual development of new ways of understanding the processes that are the world. If we can develop those languages, then I think we'll have some kind of transcendence. If we can't, if we’re barking up the wrong tree, well then you know, it doesn’t matter, because the stuff vanishes anyway. It’s wasted a bit of time.

IH: You think of time as an experiential thing rather than…

SJ: Well that’s where we’re trying to get to, you know, rather than “stop the world, let's keep things exactly as they are because we're scared to go on”. The thing is that we just have to develop ways of handling the changes that are taking place.

IH: What problems do video artists face that may be unique to their medium? as compared say to the problems of a painter?

SJ: Well it’s damned expensive, primarily. It would be perhaps the most expensive medium available in that… if, well the Open Processes show, as I said cost only 3½ thousand dollars, for the two-week event. Now that, in a sense is probably very, very cheap in terms of normal production costs. If you want to go to a production studio you're paying anything up from four hundred bucks a day.

IH: This is for a broadcast type?

SJ: Well, no, even if it’s below broadcast quality production. It depends what you want to do. I mean for Portapak work, they're cheap. The tape, You know, might cost you twenty or thirty bucks a day to go out and produce something if all you're doing is working with a Portapak and the people you're working with are happy to work with you.

IH: What about the availability of tapes? If someone was interested in seeing some Video Art how would they go about viewing it? They obviously don't go to an Art Gallery and see it hanging on a wall.

SJ: Oh well, at this stage probably the only solution is to go to one of the Video Access Centres, like Paddington Video Access at the Paddington Town Hall and have a look at some of their material in their library. Or there is the Resource Centre in Carlton in Melbourne and they also have a good library of stuff and they can probably show you that. It’s at 93 Drummond Street, in Melbourne.

IH: And what role do these media access centres play?

SJ: Well they’re probably the major source of equipment for people to produce tapes. Where they all have Portapaks, ½” black and white editing, and then some of them, like the Melbourne and the Sydney (the Paddington Access Centre) also have colour production equipment and editing facilities.

IH: Are these commercial ventures or are they publicly…

SJ: Well, they’re publicly funded by the Australian Film Commission. They’re designed for community access to the means of production of television programs. It's a matter of some contention as to whether or not they’re broadcast quality and ‘television’ in terms of their production [and technical quality]. I mean it's possible, it's certainly possible to broadcast the material produced from ½” and ¾”. Whether or not the ABC or any of the commercial stations wish to broadcast this, that’s another question. And usually they invoke technical reasons for not broadcasting it, which are usually in fact, complete lies, excuse me out there. But the thing is that these places provide the means for the production of programs and hopefully then will provide - as this sort of thing grows - the means for distribution and exhibition of these programs.

IH: Yes, now they've solved the production problem…

SJ: Well it's not solved, but there are solutions…

IH: in sight at least. What's the situation like in the distribution…

SJ: Well, very poor at the moment, it's very, very difficult to get anybody to take your tape. Very, very few people even know that it's there in the first place. A lot of the tape that's produced is primarily community stuff, designed for small-scale instances in discrete situations.

IH: Is this Access Television?

SJ: Yes, this is Access Video.

IH: Right. Could you just elaborate a little more on what’s involved in the concept of Access Television?

SJ: Well I suppose the paradigm is that one is perhaps working within some kind of community or semi-political or some other situation and one needs to, for various reasons, perhaps problems of communication between the group, between the organization and its, the people with whom it’s sort of in confrontation… Communication between the group and other organization, who are also involved in the same area of activity.

IH: How would this communication occur? Is it by getting the people to come to a cinema to watch a television show…

SJ: Well no, what one does, using Portapak technology and ½” shooting and things like that, one can produce almost on site a tape about the situation. One can talk to the people involved and then you can make up a tape and you can take a half-inch replay deck and a monitor, television monitor, across to sort of wherever people are gathering, wherever the situation is, and play it back. And then people can see that and address themselves to it and so you can theoretically engender some sort of interaction between both or the various parties involved in this situation.

IH: Right. So clearly a gallery situation isn’t necessarily the ideal one.

SJ: God No! The Gallery is probably the wrongest situation that one could achieve, because one just gathers a certain class of people and that’s it. There are much more viable situations, I am sure, and most of them would be in the streets, in the back of a truck, down in Martin Place or somewhere like that or wondering through Collins Street or Swanston Street or somewhere.

IH: People working in video appear to have developed their own almost global philosophy, which is somehow derivative of television processes themselves. Could you discuss your ideas on, for example, the various levels of feedback in our lives?

SJ: As for the global village philosophy that's a wrongness that was set up by McLuhan’s analysis of a structure without any analysis of the nature of the content going through that structure, only trying to bring out the local village concept, so that everybody would then be orally related to all other beings on the planet and I think that is… I think it's just ridiculous because the nature of the medium is such that it’s not intended to communicate to anybody anyway. The major television medium is just intended to manipulate and form information or inform within people certain kinds of mythic frameworks and structures which control the culture, control the movement of information in the culture.

IH: So you’re saying in fact it’s not Mass Communication at all.

SJ: Not at all! Communication is the wrong word; it's mass manipulation… but the thing that has developed out of it is that there is a great deal - within people who are becoming directly involved in the access kind of stuff or small-scale video or video art or any of these sort of areas - some sort of development of the concept of feedback in the nature of the interaction between beings communicating and I think that once you hit that concept you can then get into the whole question of interactions, inter-relationships. The nature of one’s being is that one is not an isolated object in the universe discrete and sort of complete within oneself. One is, in fact defined by some totality of one’s relationships with all others. It's a synergetic thing. In a sense not… how will I express this? It's not that we're real discrete objects in the world. It's that we are in fact simply the synergy of the inter-relationships that we have with all other relating activities in the world, you know. And that’s the thing that’s important. I mean the difficult thing about the languages that we have; the English language, Western language particularly, but probably all languages on the planet ultimately, is that they don’t provide the facility to discuss this kind of situation, recognising the nature of feedback in relationships, and the way in which this contributes to how one is set up as an individual.

IH: And what about the concepts of meta-reality?

SJ: Well that's a sort of funny idea. I think the other one, if you want to talk about it here, which is probably slightly more important at this stage, is the concept of negentropy. The idea that, for most of the physics with which we’re currently familiar, the concept of the universe breaking down slowly into a heat thing, is the concept of entropy and the idea is that life is a negentropic situation in which we are by our sort of information activities and so on, we are generating a kind of…

IH: that form is in fact negentropy and chaos is entropy,

SJ: Oh well, yes, chaos is entropy, and form is negentropy. Life in itself or information of any kind is negentropy because what it’s doing is reversing the process of the breakdown of order.

IH: Information…

SJ: Information, and so that living things basically are islands of order or organisation in a continuing process of breakdown so that really what you’ve got going on is nothing like a continuing process of break-down at all. You've got a sort of ebb and flow of organization inherent in particles of the Universe.

IH: Yes. These ideas in fact have become inherent too through real-time feedback… then

SJ: The thing about feedback is that it exists at one level in the video system itself, or the level within the access kind of concepts of one feeding back the information that one generates to others and so one's relationship is responsive in that…

IH: On the concept of negentropy and layers of feedback. Did you actually obtain those from television processes, that is, that the real time feedback mechanism of television alerted you to these ideas or… ?

SJ: No, not specifically, I mean they come… there’s a great deal of work being done in a great many areas from anthropology through to cybernetics and all that kind of stuff. And a great deal of analysis of language taking place these days, for example, in the semiotics work of Roland Barthes and the understanding of mythology and all that sort of thing. But the thing is that it’s about video. I mean one stresses video, rather than television, because television is strictly one way, just about. In television as we understand it, namely that we can broadcast over the air in a pretty much strictly one-way procedure whereas the concepts that we are trying to get to here are that communication is not a process of “I talk to you and you understand", it is a process of "I talk to you and you respond" with something which provides feedback to me, from which I can then gauge my further response to you and we're in an on-going situation and we're having a conversation. Right? So that that's the process we’re talking about, where there is first a sort of feed forward, you know, we make an action and then the environment, or people in the environment or whatever, is going to respond and that guides our further response to the situation and so we have a sort of converging or diverging, but interactive, situation going on. I mean this is a function that is being demonstrated in a number of areas. The point about video is that we feel that we can to a certain extent demonstrate these processes of consciousness using the video equipment as a sort of analogue for consciousness. In other words the nature of the feedback that is set up, we can demonstrate or sort of use it as an analogue or a model of conscious processes…

IH: Right, and the Open Processes installation was almost a physical set-up to demonstrate those very processes.

SJ: No, Open Processes was set up to in fact not make any particular strictures on what was going to go on. I wasn't proposing that we would go for that particular thing. A lot of this developed out of Open Processes, but a lot of it was already developed before Open Processes as well. But the thing that happened there was that I couldn’t sit down and say: This is what we will do during the show. This is what the show itself will do. We will develop these ideas or things like that. All one could do was to say: Right we'll throw up this context and see what occurs. And its meaning so much depended on context anyway.

IH: Getting back to the hardware involved, Television technology is upgrading itself almost every day. What directions will equipment developments take in the near future? And how will these affect your art?

SJ: Well, to really keep up with the thing one has to be pretty technically familiar with what video is and the nature of the engineering of television; the systems, how things run, and what is going on. Then one has to become familiar with how this stuff is produced, the kind of actual processes which take place within the equipment to make television work. The developments that have taken place in television now are that it is becoming digitised, in other words it is becoming more like computer communications and that sort of stuff.

IH: But how does this relate to the image then?

SJ: What happens is that eventually, as we get into a situation where we have very large-scale real-time digital storage, we will be able to manipulate any point on the screen that we please, in any way that we please in real time.

IH: What? manipulate in colour?

SJ: Colour, then shape, form, the whole thing. We will be able to take this point on the screen and up to screen size or go anywhere else, take a screen right down to ¼-screen size and do a whole lot of other stuff at the same time. You will be able to take any information coming in and lay it on to that television scan and make it do things with it, you know. You'll just have vastly more control over the picture image.

IH: Right. In relation then to getting your material across to the public, or rather the extended concept of getting the public and the material and yourself involved in some sort of synergetic process, what future do you see for Public Access, say in the next five years?

SJ: Well, that depends on where the rest of the thing goes. In the way the rest of the culture that we operate in these days goes, and if things go as they're going, I don't see much future at all.

IH: The ‘rest of the culture’ meaning?

SJ: Politics and the media and the police and who is contriving information.

IH: Do they really affect your video art?

SJ: Oh, they might not affect my video art, they’re certainly affecting the nature of access to the means of production and all that kind of information.

IH: Which in the long run…

SJ: is quite anti to the concepts that we're dealing with. We’re really quite adverse to, or the antithesis of, the kinds of kinds of concepts of centralised information control that monopolise the media. They consider that the public is there to be informed, but not to feedback, and so the public gets informed and the idea of ‘informing’ is that one forms in the public’s collective or individual minds certain kinds of attitudes, and the thing that the ‘access’ video and other community access public broadcasting services of all kinds, whether radio or television or whatever, are trying to do is to open up or release a situation where feedback itself and the public’s ability to critically analyse the situation are fostered and of course that is anti-profit.

IH: Stephen, your interest in Communication Theory, where did this originate?

SJ: Well I suppose it originated while I was at university and I was studying Psychology and it seemed to me that they were giving us some very curious kinds of information at various times. Stuff about Conditioning Theory, stimulus and response, learning theory and all that sort of stuff, which is all very linear in some way and probably the major model for why television is one way, anyway. And certainly the model on which the U.S. Army is based. All those mad veterans floating round the place. And so, out of saying to myself "what the hell are they talking about?" and do they really realise the implications, I spent the next four years at university - I was there five years altogether - fighting, no not fighting, but arguing with all my lecturers and tutors, and I developed a fairly critical kind of framework from which I could tackle these kind of problems. I got out of University, I couldn’t hack it any more, “this is ridiculous” and started to work with, this was in 1974, a group called Bush Video. They were dealing with, at that time, a framework which involved a sort of cybernetic analysis of the Universe, coupled with Buckminster Fuller’s analysis of growth and change and form and the concept of synergy, which is that there's more to the whole than to the simple sum of its parts. And that which is the more, is the synergy.3 It makes that sum of cells and blood, molecules and chemicals and whatever is going on inside the human organism, into a human being, or sort of makes the whole world go. And so you come to a question of language and talking to people and communication, all those kinds of things we're about. And it just seems to me that language is like the prime technology. It is that which creates the world in which we live. If we didn't have language we would not be social beings. Humanity, human beings, could not exist without language, some form of language. But we lack the means to discuss synergy and the making of whole systems. I mean we don’t have that kind of understanding in any particular language that we use these days. And obviously it hasn’t been available up till now, well at least in terms of what we know about archaeologically anyway, has not been up to the last five centuries or so. We lack this idea in our language and thus one cannot talk about or deal with anything that one cannot talk about.

IH: So your attraction to television is that a communication system is a communication means, because of a positive motivation or a negative motivation, negative meaning that it was so bad, so one way, similar to your earlier…

SJ: No, no, my attraction to television was purely circumstantial. The whole thing has been circumstantial. I mean, I don't know why I'm here, I’m just being pushed, you know. I’m not interested in what’s pushing me. I don't think there’s anything actually pushing me, it's just a framework of form or a flow going on, within which one can let go and be guided or something and so I happen to end up with Bush Video who happen to be talking a language that was far more useful for expressing certain kinds of concepts and dealing with certain kinds of problems. And from there, well they were working with video equipment and it seemed finally to me, that’s over the last 3 or 4 years since then, that the video medium could well be the medium from which we might derive another way of dealing with information and other forms of communications. A much more process oriented communication form, and if we’re lucky and we can hold things together for long enough and technology doesn't turn out to be the wrong tree anyway, then maybe what I'm doing and maybe what so many of the other people who are involved in video are doing will sort of come off. And we can find ourselves with another language form from which we deal much more creatively with the concepts and the problems which are around, the process kind of orientation.

  • 1. [Note added: 2010] The first of the journals was the news sheet Access Video News which first appeared in August 1975 and was published by the Video Resource Centre, 93 Drummond St., Carlton, VIC [This was the first manifestation of Video Access Network in Melbourne]. The next journal was City Video published by the Paddington Video Resource Centre, Paddington, NSW commencing in May 1976. The two merged and became Access Video in December 1977, which continued publication until Spring 1980.
  • 2. [Note added: 2010]: I had just begun to think about this with the possibility of using small microwave radar systems, but what I didn't know then was that it had been thoroughly explored by Philippa Cullen with her work with theremins in the early 70s.
  • 3. [Note added 2010]: we’d use the term “emergence” these days.