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Towards a History of Australian Video

January 1986

Bernice Murphy talks about the early development of video art and how the Australian art scene responded. (1986)

by Bernice Murphy


Below appear three texts about video. Presented here in lieu of a summarising overview, they are put forward as themselves expressive of a fragmentary situation. They exist somewhere in a territory of critical consciousness about experimental video's development in Australia, marked by discontinuity and erasure as much as by achievements. They touch upon abbreviated views and sketched in issues. Some important names and works are caught or indexed momentarily; others, equally important, are not yet even mentioned. The texts below are offered partly as an apologia, partly to re-set an agenda.

The first is a reprint of a short essay I wrote for a quite large round-up of Australian video work in 1980 (a project exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales of work that had already travelled abroad to the United States and Canada, co-curated with Stephen Jones, who travelled to North America with the show). The second is another reprint, excerpted from a general entry on contemporary art for the 1983 edition of The Australian Encyclopaedia. The third section of text presents some notes put together for the present Video Festival catalogue.

These pieces are simply "working tools" for more detailed and reflective work that is yet to be done - in combination with others' efforts, not leastly the video artists involved - in order to produce a more thorough and critical examination of the development of video in Australia. They exist therefore only as items "towards a history of Australian video" - one yet to be constructed.

I. Notes from 19801

"The TV image is not a still shot. It is not a photo in any sense, but a ceaselessly forming contour of things limned by the scanning-finger. The resulting plastic contour appears by light through, not light on, and the image so formed has the quality of sculpture and icon, rather than of picture. The TV image transmits some 3 million dots per second to the receiver. From these he accepts only a few dozen each instant, from which to make an image!'

(Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964.)

"The long-suffering TV public who have invested a thousand dollars on the most complex piece of instrumentation in their home should have access to many forms of information, rather than ... [imported] programmes. But who needs an imported culture when we have a unique one of our own which demands vigorous expression and all you have to do is to feed back on it for it to become tangible and take its rightful place as the soul of the nation!'

(Australian video artist, Ariel, City Video National Resource Centre, Report 1974-75, Sydney, 1975.)

"The miracle of instantaneity ... is a miracle with no equivalent in the history of art. Never before has an artist been able to summon instantaneously an image which reconstitutes itself ceaselessly before our eyes, at a prodigious speed!'

(German video artist, Rene Bauermeister, in Studio International, London, May-June 1976.)

". . . objectivity is a non-existent linguistic illusion . . . I'm interested in the failure of language ... [and] non-physical systems!'

(Australian video artist, Stephen Jones, interviewed in Videography, New York, February 1980.)

Despite the ubiquitous presence of broadcast television in our lives, the sense of what is experimentally possible in the "video space" that is projected on a monitor's screen is still little appreciated.

The spontaneous realism, immediacy and vast audience potential of television made it ideally suited to mass cultural occasions and macro-cultural information. One of the first public broadcasts of a mass cultural event occurred with the live transmission of the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 (although Britain was engaged in experimental television broadcasts a decade earlier). Significantly it was a later Olympic occasion - the Games in Melbourne in 1956 - that brought television to the public in Australia.

The simultaneity and "real-time" nature of television, its automatic synchronisation of image and sound, and especially its veracity and easy accommodation to the everyday, domestic and urban environment, survive as the medium's most innate and insistent characteristics. The transmission of an electronic signal to display monitors subverted much of the apparatus of film. Instead of chemicals and spliced strips, the abstraction of time and disembodied group of eyes in the dark essential to the film medium, television emerged into the bright randomised environment of daily life, as familiar as refrigerators.

Television's inherent realism caused its early co-option to the modes of news reportage, documentary, drama, feature and live show - all modes that were served by narrative, linear and verbally-based presentation. Meanwhile the more visually abstract, laterally-structured, expressive and exploratory potential of the new medium of video was neglected. Television quickly spawned an industry dedicated largely to mass cultural entertainment and commodity marketing, and only partially concerned with enquiry and information. Involving enormously expensive equipment, centralised resources and personnel, television long remained beyond the reach of artists and of those who wished to explore its potential to democratise information on a vast scale and to be an agent of heightened social awareness and change.

A revolutionary transition in the potential of video occurred in the late 1960s, with - as is often the case - a major technological development emerging through a military machine. Out of American aerial surveillance technology developed for use in Vietnam came the affordable Portapak 1/2-inch video equipment. This expanded the "heliscan" and took video out of the high-tech, 2-inch broadcast studios, making it accessible to artists, social activists and technological tinkers in a host of far-flung environments.

Yet for all the developments in experimental video in the 1960s and 1970s, the economics and politics of broadcast control are such that "video art" remains generally ghetto-ised. It is relegated to the margins of our culture.

The continual confinement of experimental video, and its almost total pre-emption by the “frightful parent" medium of broadcast television (to borrow David Antin's term), remains a distinctive irony of our contemporary culture - for video is the most expressive medium of contemporary culture. Bertolt Brecht's percipient vision of the socially fluent and reflexive possibilities of radio, as an ever more transparent medium that could be transformed by in-put from audiences as well as broadcasts to them, has been well-advanced already in such exciting radio ventures as the ABC's Broadband programs (in pre-budget-cut days). But the even more interesting possibilities of multivalency in broadcast video remain tantalising phantasms of the future in Australia.

The irony of video's position is sharpened when one realises that - unlike the wide functional and syntactical gap that separates Super-8 experimental film and cast-and-crew professional movies - TV and video are experienced by the viewer through the same technological vehicle. They both compete for the same monitor, with television (as far as air-time goes) winning all the way.

Reference to the broad cultural context of television is therefore significant as a means of approach to the special conditions and aspects of video. Video cannot wholly be understood without regard to the social and technological conditions of its production and operation.

As the visual medium that most strikingly emulates human sensory capacities, video is also a complex time-image machine. It modifies our sense of the world, and of reality, just as the development of photography did earlier. (In a post-photographic age we can never again have quite that Pygmalionesque sense of wonder at the veracity of earlier painted objects, which seem more readily to be read as artifacts than as belief-teasing illusions.)

Striking for its immediate and informal delivery of naturalistic images in "real time", video also permits the most abstract kinds of conceptualising and image-making. It is an immaterial medium, like film, that vanquishes earlier associations of art objects with physicality: facture, surface, patina, mass, weight and tactile qualities are irrelevant to the reception of images generated by the dots and lines scanned on a video screen. However unlike film, video does not consist in the mobilisation of a sequential, chain-like structure of image-frames that can be separated and analysed as discrete units. Video images are realised in an electronic gestalt context, in which optical and auditory information are translated simultaneously into electronic signals and “produced" on a video monitor.

The production and display of images on a video screen therefore offers a closer analogy to human vision and consciousness than any other, antecedent visual medium. It does not involve translation through an intermediary language (words) or vehicle (paint or drawn line). Meanwhile the images are immediately apparent to a viewer, who may - through video's unique capacity for instant feed-back - be the producer/viewer simultaneously.

The closed-loop experience of video is unique to its technology and expressive possibilities. The situation in which an image is recorded by a camera and transferred to a monitor, from which it may be picked up and reacted to by a producer/viewer, perhaps causing a modification in his or her behaviour, may be described functionally as a triangular configuration. Video is peculiarly suited to behavioural reflex through its incorporation of "real time" and its natural tautology of set-up.

The term "experimental video" embraces a wide range of videotapes - usually circulated or sold as 3/4-inch copies from original tapes - which cover a broad territory of experimentation with the medium, pressing out beyond the confining conventions of television. The present selection of videotapes made recently in Australia [i.e. in 1980] covers the spectrum of video work evident in other countries: from socially and politically oriented tapes to documentation of performance art and related activities, and to the more electronically preoccupied area of image-processing and synthesising.

It is important to realise, however, that the diverse production of experimental video in the 1960s and 1970s occurred not through any linking factor of convergent ideas related to the medium of video, so much as it developed within a common shift by many artists away from more traditional kinds of art activity. Experimental video really emerged strongly out of the environment that produced conceptual art.

II. Notes from 19832

Video. Michael Glasheen's striking video-film Teleological Telecast from Spaceship Earth: On board with Buckminster Fuller (1970) heralded the importance that the relatively new medium of portable video was to play in the ensuing decade. In 1973 Glasheen co-founded Bush Video, a seminal video collective in Sydney. A number of early videotape makers came out of this group - among them, Ariel, Joseph EI Khouri, Stephen Jones and Jeune Pritchard.

The range of Australian artists' videotapes produced during the 1970s filled out a wide spectrum of emphasis in video work. There were socially and politically oriented tapes: Peter Kennedy's November 11 (1979ff); and Jeune Pritchard/Luce Pellissier's Queensland Dossier (1977). There were documentations of performance art and related activities: Mike Parr's Cathartic Action/Social Gesture, 5 (1979) and his earlier performance/conceptual works; Ken Unsworth's Five Secular Settings for Ritual and Burial (1975); Stelarc's electronic body probes and Suspension Events; and Marr Grounds' various installations and performance works involving video (1976ff). There were also tapes made in the more electronically preoccupied area of image processing and synthesising: in particular, various works by Stephen Jones and Warren Burt. There were also some beautifully conceived, pure uses of the medium's reflexiveness and “real-time": Sam Schoenbaum's Still Life: Breakfast Piece and Peelin an Oran e [sic] of 1976, and David Perry's small classic, Interior with Views, also of 1976. Michael Glasheen's second major work in video, seven years after Teleological Telecast ..., was again a complex and sophisticated work, this time using video technology to deal with the mythic material and dimension of the Aboriginal Dreamtime: Uluru (1977).

By the end of the decade, the free Video Access Centres set up in the early years of the Whitlarn Government had been dismantled and a lot of video work that could not be sheltered by tertiary educational facilities dried up for want of support. However the foundations for a more critical and reflective kind of video making had already been laid, and more sophisticated work (in its general concepts and structure) was emerging by 1980: notably Robert Randall/Frank Bendinelli's co-produced tapes in Melbourne (Video as Art, 1980) and Peter Callas's culturally analytical tapes in Sydney (especially Our Potential Allies, 1980). An Australian programme of videotapes was shown in the United States and Canada in 1979, and was subsequently presented by Anna Canepa, of Video Distribution Inc., New York, as a part of the Architecture section of the Biennale of Venice in 1980.

Ill. Notes from 1986

1. "Video art" is still a ghetto activity. Its relationship to the production and distribution system of broadcast television is still peripheral and fugitive. Very little experimental art video has managed to hit the broadcast TV circuit of public consumption, partly because of its technological flaws, partly because of its formal alienness and non-narrative structure, partly as a result of simple incompetence.

2. The centre-field strength of 3/4-inch video (for both making and circulation) has been overtaken by commercial developments in VHS. Experimental video art might look to the video rental libraries as one way out of the ghetto. Perhaps special video libraries, or sections of libraries, as well as distribution networks need to be organised.

3. During the last decade, the quality of rock video clips has steadily soared, entirely colonising and saturating the space that video art might earlier have sought to occupy in the broadcast sphere. The whole gamut of FX video may be seen in a single session of Countdown. The latest computer graphics may appear introducing an item as unexperimental as the evening news.

4. A huge public is in fact consuming aspects of the developmental potential in "experimental video", but it is receiving this from large-scale cultural producers and the entertainment industry, not from video artists. The language-shifts in commercial video have been myriad, quixotic and extensive, subliminally adjusted to by an audience that has never heard of feedback or Chroma-key, but is quick to register boredom and discriminate by switching channels. The general public produced by television is geared up to an ever-unfolding, layered delivery of mobile imagery. This audience is involuntarily speedier in its connecting and dis-connecting, less tolerant of the "slowness" of the static images normally produced in the name of art.

5. Programming of video in commercial galleries and contemporary exhibitions remains hazardous, hugely expensive (in comparison with the general economics of presenting exhibitions) and difficult. Not much has changed in this regard. Video is invariably a casualty when presented in large, mixed exhibitions. Its special needs need to be thought out and accommodated by special arrangements and conditions.

6. Curatorship of video (in relation to permanent collections) remains sluggish or non-existent. A lot of work needs to be subjected to harsh critical judgement and perhaps left in a restricted category of "study collection only". But there has been a small trickle of very good works produced and these deserve to be reproduced, circulated, collected, and communicated to a wider audience as significant works of visual art.

7. Video art in Australia can now claim a 16-year history, but new work seems often innocent of any genealogical relationship to that history. As works emerge now from younger artists, often unaware that they are following in the erased tracks of their predecessors, I am struck afresh by the continual amnesia that bedevils contemporary art developments in Australia (and indeed elsewhere). There seems to be such a dispersal of energies and wastage of resources by default when we have a large institutional infrastructure (art schools, public galleries and contemporary art spaces) geared to the production of more and more young artists and new work, but insufficient focus, concentration or follow-through of criticism such as to produce a discriminating climate of analysis, historical revision and modification of goals. There seem to be repeated gaps in transmission, not only from one generation to another, but from one quarter-generation to another, and from one region to another.

8. To produce a detailed critical and historical study of the development of video art and its objects would seem an important project for the next few years. It should assist examination of achievements and failures, and some appraisals on which to project further development of resources (human and technological).

9. Video work does not claim the attentions of a wide variety of artists now as it did in the 1970s, when Porta-paks were thick onthe ground. Nevertheless, it has cleared the field in other respects, disclosing more clearly the strength of work of those who stay with video because it is the medium that is most vital to them for both content and structure of the work they wish to produce. Most of these artists have tended naturally to evolve video-installations, their work taking up a more considered spatial/sculptural position in the various environments in which contemporary art may be located.

Bernice Murphy

  • 1. Reprint, with minor corrections, of catalogue essay: Bernice Murphy, Project 30: Some Recent Australian Videotapes, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 22 May-8 June 1980.
  • 2. From "ART, CONTEMPORARY" (Bernice Murphy), entry in The Australian Encyclopaedia, 4th edition, 12 vols., Sydney, Grolier, 1983.