Brisbane Video Access Centre, Video Feedback and 1970s stuff like that – Interview with Stephen Jones Artist, Writer, Curator & VJ
Artist, Writer, Curator & VJ
Stephen Jones has been directly involved in video art as an artist, engineer, researcher and curator since 1974. One of Australia’s pioneers of video art, his work has been shown in several important group exhibitions in which video art has featured. As one of the earliest Australian researchers in the field of video art, he co-curated the Videotapes From Australia collection that toured North America, Australia and the Venice Biennial in 1979-80.
Jones received his BSc from the Australian National University in Canberra in 1974. He spent much of 1974 living and working at Bush Video where he learnt the basics of video production. In 1975-76 he worked as a research assistant in the Psychology Department at the University of Queensland, and ran a video workshop for architecture students from UQ and the then QIT. The research job and the workshop both proved formative for Jones who, in March 1976 returned to Sydney with new intellectual interests and a fascination for the challenging possibilities presented by new approaches to art, technology, and the broader influence of counter-culture and progressive politics.
Interview with Stephen Jones, Alexandria, Sydney 30 November
Part One (draft in progress)
I = Interviewer: Artist Paul Andrew
R = Respondent: Artist Stephen Jones
I: Stephen good to see you, hi. We’ve been talking about independent, D.I.Y artist led initiatives for a number of years and recently about artist-run activities in Brisbane in the 1970s and the 1980s and in particular about your involvement in independent art, architecture, video and technology practices in Brisbane, video making at the Brisbane Video Access Centre at Edward Street (then Brisbane Community Arts Centre and now Metro Arts, now the only remaining place in a historic building in the 4000 postcode for independent and D.I.Y arts and culture perhaps) and more specifically electronic art a little earlier in the 1970s in Brisbane at UQ Music and Architecture faculties. We have also been talking about your family background and the extensive travelling during your childhood that has been influential in your art career? Wow and look at your library now.
R: I have the best library of materials on electronic arts in Australia.
I: Is your book Synthetics here too?
R: yeah it’s in there right in front of you.
I: I should have brought, have you got copies? I should have brought some cash so …can I buy one? Can I just put some….
R: no I’ve only got two and that’s it.
I: Okay no worries.
R: You’ll have to talk to MRT. I’m trying to find more copies so I can provide them to people but I believe they’ve become fairly scarce.
I: Yeah no worries, no worries at all. Where would you like to sit?
R: Well we’ll sit over there. Also what you may be interested in this Australia ’75 poster
I: Oh yes terrific. Lets talk about that too. Well I’m just going to turn on my Tascam and …alright. And perhaps kindly keep in mind that a lot of young people, artists, musicians, VJs, you know don’t even know who you are, as I’m sure you have experienced for quite some time now. Laughs In your life. So tell me about you Steven Jones, artist, musician.
R: Not a musician.
I: Not a musician?
R: No I worked with a band Severed Heads, but I was the video, I’m probably the first VJ in the country. But we’ll get to that.
I: Okay so let’s start with something a little bit familial when we spoke on the phone recently you were telling me about your dad. And just now you’ve just reminded me that you know you sort of grew up around the world so you’re an international citizen.
R: I grew up all over the world. Well I’m a naval brat, or a military brat basically. My father was in the navy, he joined the navy on a scholarship to go to the naval college in Cerberus in Victoria on the Mornington Peninsula, can’t remember the name of the town. And Flinders maybe? Anyway, it was, the place was, the navy place was called Cerberus, HMAS Cerberus. So anyway he went there and then my father was posted to sea as a midshipman and he was on the HMAS Sydney when it was working but not thankfully when it was sunk. And he was one of the catapult pullers and if you’ve ever noticed an aircraft carrier, they have nets all the way around the outside of the deck? It’s because the sailors get thrown off the deck by the catapults and they want to catch them before they fall into the sea. Because if you fall into the sea you’ve got to face days, I think turning the ship around and finding them. So, they’d rather catch you before you went. Anyway, he never got thrown off the deck apparently.
So, he was an engineer when we were posted in Victoria, I went to Britain…he was posted to Britain while I was in my mother’s womb. And she had to, when she had me, he wasn’t here, and she had to bring me up alone and then that was in 1951. I was always told that I was born in a thunderstorm, a massive thunderstorm over Sydney like we had not so long ago here just a couple of days ago. And you know I was in the, I was born in the Royal North Shore Hospital and many years later I was doing some work on CIRAC not you know about CIRAC reading and researching the history of the first computer in Australia. Which was called the CSIRO or the CSIR Automatic computer, automatic calculator. And it was one of the reasons that they had to make that machine was to do all the data reduction that would come from massive surveys of things like meteorological work and rain drops. They were doing work on the nature of rain you know all of that sort of stuff. And they’d send up a DC3 which was the most stable aircraft you could ever possibly want into the thunderstorm the night I was born. And the data that came from that night over Sydney was it was basically the data …the sort of data that would have been worked with on CIRAC when they built it. Because they built that in ’51 as well so I’ve lived my life in the period you know the time of computers in Australia.
So, at 18 months mum and I were taken back to Britain where dad was stationed, we lived there till I was about 4 years old and a bit and I had my fifth birthday on the ship coming back. And then we moved, we stayed with some naval family friends in Chatswood here in Sydney. And then dad and then we moved into Wollstonecraft and dad, we were renting a place and we moved in next door to a builder. And dad sat down with the builder and designed a house for us because they’d just bought a block of land in Longueville. They paid 6 hundred pounds for it, God knows what that would translate into in contemporary terms. And they built this house which dad designed. Yes, we built the place in Longueville and then I went to primary school and started going to high school. I never went to the same school more than two years. Went to the States when I was, we moved to Melbourne for a year when I was in primary school and yes, was about ten, not Melbourne but dad was re-stationed at Cerberus so we moved too. And the Flinders Naval Depot and then we moved to Summers, so I lived in Summers for a year. Which was kind of nice you know running around on a beach and walks in the forest and stuff. And then came back to Sydney, so I went back to the primary school here and then went to high school in North Sydney Technical High School.
We traveled to the States with my family when I was fourteen, thirteen or fourteen, ’64, ’65 I think. Yeah ’64, ’65. So I spent a year in Virginia Beach on the East Coast and then a year in Michigan. And the reason for that was the Australian Navy had bought three frigates from the Americans and they were building them at the time. So, dad was the chief engineer on one of them. And so, he had to be there to learn all about its systems and things like that. And then so we were there and being in the States was pretty fun. And then came back in ’66 I went back to North Sydney Technical in ’66 and ’67 and ’68 they were moved again, and dad was stationed in Canberra. But they decided that they shouldn’t move me because this was my final year at school, and I had to do my Higher School Certificate and all of that. So, they put me in a boarding school called Cranbrook. And that was fairly, that had it’s… sometimes it was, some of it was good and some of it was hellish. And you know kids in those sorts of schools can be pretty nasty. Some of them were, I mean you know there’s always great people in there as well so…and I had a good housemaster and things like that so that was all quite, it worked out reasonably nicely.
And I got a scholarship from there and went to ANU and started in ’69 and started a degree in psychology. And then went… the problem with psychology they were teaching it in those days was that it was learning the theory. Stimulus response theory just didn’t have any relation to humans’ sort of things. Socialist themes and personalities and humans in general and all of that. But I did do some neuro physiology so that was useful. And so, somebody one of, I kept having trouble with my lecturers and things because they were not teaching me what I wanted to know. And one of them finally said “Look what you need is to read this book called General Systems Theory by a man named Fred Emory”. And it was perfect. Decades later like forty years later I discovered when my dad died, we were going through his library in his office in the house, in the study in the house and there was the same book. So, I did General Systems Theory and basically that’s been the way I think about the world. I’m a systems theorist.
R: And systems theory relates to, it’s not just about computing systems or electronic systems it’s about biological systems, ecologies, social worlds, social systems all that sort of stuff. As well as being about you know human biology and human systems and stuff. So, I did biochemistry. And biochemistry is about all those things of course. And it is a systems-based framework that it uses to understand how things hang together and the relations the relational processes that take place between cells. At that stage they didn’t really understand how the communications occurred. Though they pretty much knew that each cell you know would express various genes that it had in it and make chemicals which it then put out to…and sent around. And they got into the blood and they were sent around to other cells. And the other cells some of them would be able to respond to it and some of them wouldn’t depending on what their particular molecules were, were being sent around. And then you know so everything was nicely targeted for the appropriate time, internal hardware. And so that created, that sort of formed the basis for my way of thinking about the world.
One of the important aspects of systems and biological systems is that there is a great deal of what is known as ‘feedback’ operating between the target of the communication and the source of the communication. In other words, if you put it in terms of people talking to each other somebody asks, says something and stuff or talks to somebody and then they respond and talk back. That’s feedback from what was originally said. And then the person who was the original source then feeds more back into the other person. And then it turns into this loop, so all conversation is a feedback structure. So basically, feedback is how the thing, how we communicate. It’s the main process of what makes us social and biological systems, things because if you…if a cell doesn’t respond in the appropriate way then the feedback that comes back…I mean for example. It’s like glucose metabolism when you …if you don’t have the sugar in your system your system demands that you eat and make …ingest sugars. And if you get too much then that the insulin is expressed and that you know soaks up the excess sugar and things like that. So, the insulin is of course important in metabolising the sugar in the first place and turning it into something that the liver can deal with too and make energy for your body and your brain. And your brain is of course is a massive feedback structure you know interconnected feedback structure. So, all those sorts of things.
And I went to Nimbin Festival in ’73 and I met, I’d already known a couple of them, but I met up with the people who were about to become Bush Video. And that was interesting but then when that finished, I went back to uni. I’d been hanging around with the art world before then because of being at Cranbrook it was an art, you know it was known to have several artists who were important you know or who later became, several students who later became important artists. Or who had already been involved in and were important artists or teachers of art and stuff like that. I used to go to the Art Gallery of NSW and galleries in Sydney like that when I was still at high school. Like I went to the Duchamp exhibition that happened here and I got to know a guy called Daniel Thomas and I have a suspicion it’s because my grandmother had something to do with the art gallery and may have worked with him, I’m not sure. But I’ve not been able to prove or track down that. But there was, I got some kind of impression that that was the case from her I think but she died many years ago now so I can’t ask. And anyway, so I was well involved with the arts and of course being at Cranbrook you were involved with art-oriented people anyway. Because that was the you know it was the school that of all the GPS schools it wasn’t strictly a GPS school, but of all the private boarding schools it was the one that was most oriented into that arts sort of scene.
And so that meant that when I came and finished uni I came back, I actually went up to in ’74 I finished uni at the end of ’73 and I went up to Nimbin in ’74 and lived up there for about maybe six months I’m not quite sure how long. And then I came back to Sydney and went and stayed with the people who were Bush Video. I’d been visiting the Bush Video people from Canberra, I used to hitchhike up on the weekends to Sydney because there was more happening here than there was in Canberra at the time. And so that was …and you know I knew people up here and stuff so I kind of got to know them then in ’73. And then so I went and stayed with them and that got me involved with the Video Access Centres because they were pretty much right across the road from each other. And I did an apprenticeship with the engineering people at the Video Access Centre.
And to edit and to do studio post production, studio management, studio operation and some technical but not much. Just enough to make sure that I knew how to use the machines and things like that. I mean when I say technical, I mean maintenance technical not, I knew plenty of technical in the sense of being able to use the machines and know how to use a mixer and you know had like the video signals and the video mixing required and all that sort of stuff. In terms of signal timing and so on. And so, I ran the studio for well I went no…hang on. So, I was involved with Bush Video in ’74 and I got to know the people at Paddington Video Access Centre ( later it was Metro TV, then Metroscreen). The end of ’74 Bush Video pretty much broke up, I needed a job and I applied for and because I had a degree in psychology I applied for a job as a psychology research assistant at the University of Queensland. And they said yes, we’ll see you on the first of January and this was like you know two weeks away.
So up I went and found a place to rent you know a student house, a hole and rented a room in there and got involved in all of that. And because I, by this stage, was reasonably fluent with video I was, I ended up running video workshops with architecture students in the architecture department at Queensland University.. And I chanced to come back through the music department one day from the Student union office after lunch one day and there was this big truck unloading this big piece of equipment and I said, “Oh what’s that”? And they said, “It’s a synthesiser” and I helped them move it in and locate it into the music department. And I said can I come and play with this and they said sure why not. So, I got involved with the music department and playing their synthesisers. They had two VCS 3s and a Synthi 100. Synthi 100 is a serious machine, and you know what a VCS 3 is? It’s the L shaped thing you know that looks like a standard sort of console thing and it’s quite small. About that wide and probably that sort of tall or about 3 oscillators and a low frequency oscillator. The Synthi 100 had about twelve oscillators in it, I’m not sure exactly how many there were. And a lot of other stuff.
So, I sort of started playing with that but what …and I also started running this workshop for architecture students and eventually what happened was that we did a combined…and there were some people from the human movement studies group that I was also working with or interested in what they were doing. Because while I was at high school, I’d been doing jazz ballet in Sydney and even when I was at Cranbrook, I didn’t do sport. I came out on Saturday afternoons, my housemaster let me come out and do jazz ballet classes you know. Which is a pretty radical thing. I had, that’s why I got hell for that from the other students. I got really bullied and, but you know I stuck it out. So, I knew about dance and stuff like that so I …we ended up that year of ’75 doing a big combined performance event because there was a music improvisation group in the music department and the synthesisers.
They had this fabulous auditorium which was below, and the electronic music studio was above the auditorium like you could look out the glass and down into the auditorium. And the video students, so what happened was that the video students and the dance students and the musicians we worked out this general idea of doing this big improvisation performance thing. And videotaped it and I provided sort of electronic sounds for it and stuff like that. And that wasn’t my first video production piece, but it was probably the biggest video production that I’d been involved in. I’d also previously, when I was in Sydney still at Bush Video done video recordings with Philippa Cullen who was a dancer who was using electronics, Theremins to make sounds from her movement.
And that was really interesting stuff too. So, I sort of and Phillippa lived, she was part of the Bush…she lived with the Bush Video crowd at that stage at the end of ’74 probably about the second half of ’74. I then went to Brisbane in March ’75 I think it was March. There was this thing in Canberra called Australia 75. Now having this family in Canberra and knowledge of Canberra my new girlfriend in Queensland and I went to Canberra for Australia 75 and Bush Video was there too, Phillippa Cullen was there and there was this mob of us. There was a couple of computer graphics people, one from ANU one from Sydney University or one group from Sydney University and one group from ANU. And a new music group called…. what were they called? Something new music…. New Music Society or something like that, that’s not quite the right name. I’ve got the documentation on it all there. There was a new synthesiser from a guy at University of NSW called the tambron and so there was this massive strange interesting thing going on inside this one part of Australia 75. The rest of Australia 75 I didn’t get to see, I was down there for a week but the actual thing I just stayed in because this was the most interesting place to be.
I videoed Phillippa’s performances and a bit of the Bush Video stuff and a couple of other people’s things. And I’ve got some video that I’m desperately trying to find a machine to play it with because it’s a very rare and obscure machine. And it was made by one of the people who was there. There was a guy called John Hansen who built the first video synthesiser in Australia and that was a computer patched driven machine that had lots of, you know it had a bunch of oscillators in it and things like that. You know made patterns and so on. And there was also another guy there called Stanislaw Kreichi who had been using Theremins to make as part of his work with what he described as sound and image performance.
So, Australia 75 was really a very significant event which has pretty much been completely forgotten by everybody. I’m about to, I’m trying to work up a website now, I haven’t done anything on it for a couple of days where I’ll have all that stuff in it. And eventually I’ll publicise it you know putting it on Facebook and say go and look at this, really interesting event.
There were bits of other things going on as well. So, then I went back to Brisbane and you know did all of that and did the performance thing at the music department and in the music department’s auditorium. And then in ’76 the coup happened in November ’75. During 1975-1976 I worked with the group of people, artists running Brisbane’s Video Access Centre, They were 12 video access centres around the country in 1975-1976.
In ’76 Fraser and what was then known as the Razor Gang cut funding for interdisciplinary grants for universities because they couldn’t see any point in them, so I lost my job. So, I came back to Sydney. I drove back to Sydney in a Mini Moke and drove it all around Sydney a bit and what happened in ’76?
I must have gone…. anyway, somewhere in ’76-’77 I ended up back in the house that my parents had in Longueville because they still owned the house, so I rented it off them. You know they were pretty generous about it so that was good. And there was you know it became a kind of group household. It was four or five bedrooms in there and you know it was a nice big house and a beautiful location. So, I did all that and worked there and stuff. And somewhere along the line that place got stripped by somebody who had been living there and I lost a huge amount of really important stuff.
I eventually moved, I got offered a room in the about to happen artist-run space in Sydney called Side Effects, it had been an old Marist Brothers high school in Darlinghurst on top of the hill and on the ridge at Darlinghurst. That the Catholic Education system had more or less abandoned and were going to sell off eventually. But meanwhile there was no one there and they opened it up to people you know somebody went and figured out how to get them to you know give it to, open it up for a bunch of artists.
So that was 78-79-80. I moved in there with other artists I built electronics, started learning electronics well I’d already started learning electronics. But it was at Side Effects where I built my first synthesisers. Did some video through there and used to go to all the new music things and stuff around and eventually met Tom Ellard of Severed Heads, which would have been in 1980. And there was a guy called Ian Harshly who had a place, a thing going called the Institute of Contemporary Events which by that stage was in Darlinghurst. Down near, it wasn’t on Riley Street it was on one of the cross streets between Riley and Yurong I think or maybe between Riley and Crown, I can’t quite remember now. And so that …and then I had my first show, an exhibition , because I went back to Paddington Video Access Centre and I started working at Paddington in ’76. I helped them build the video recording studio, pull all the cables into the studio and things like that in early ’76.
Video artist Nam June Paik was coming with cellist Charlotte Moorman was coming to Australia in the thing at the Art Gallery of NSW part of John Kaldor’s art piece, art things, events whatever they are. I was asked to be the technical attendant there which of course I grabbed like a you know,like a shot. Basically, that was perfect. So, I hung out there with them for ten days and that was really amazing. And then I went back to Paddington and did most of the studio operation for various people making things in the studio at Paddington Video. Paddington Video (later Metro TV, and then Metro Screen) is in the Paddington Town Hall and so I was the technical director in there. Which basically meant that I lined up the cameras and ran the video mixer and you know made sure that the sound was being recorded. And did the lighting and well more or less did the lighting. Sometimes other people had a bit more knowledge about lighting and came in for things because they had you know because the people who were using the studio had them as friends or something. So, there was you know various, all kinds of interesting electronic and video collaborations going on in there.
And then in November I was asked to be the technical attendant on the 2nd Biennale of Sydney. And that ran for six weeks at the Art Gallery of NSW and I basically set up everybody’s …all the video and audio electronic you know pieces that used electronics for that. And I was, I describe it as I was the auto rewind mechanism because of course there weren’t any auto rewind machines in those days they would run to the end and that was it, your tape would roll off. You know because it was half inch open reel and stuff. So, I was the person who would run around every thirty minutes and go and restart all the machines. And you know for six weeks to that was, and seven days a week for six weeks.
So I got to know most of the people involved and that was kind of fun. And then from there I went back to Paddington and worked at Paddington Video Access over the next year or couple of years. Mostly through to ’78 and 79 and I was pretty heavily involved in Paddington as it grew and expanded.
The Australia Council or the AFC at that point because the Australia Council they were in film and television more and handed the video access network to the AFC under, because of you know Malcolm Fraser’s Razor Gang behaviour. And they so I was working there and working at you know doing stuff at the Side Effects artist-run space and just generally learning electronics and building stuff. So, I built the video synthesisers at Side Effects or the first two I think maybe the third one as well I don’t know where did I build that? I can’t remember. Anyway, there was a series of three video synthesisers. The first one was seriously primitive. The second one was the one that went that we went on tour with, with Severed Heads. And there was a series of instruments that had been had produced in about while Paddington was still operating. Paddington was pretty much closed down in ’78 and made to become Metro TV. And that looked positive well it didn’t look positive it looked like there was going to be a continuation. But that turned out to be, there was a lot of internal politics over all of that.
And I basically just walked away from it. And so, you know that happened and I started just doing you know I wasn’t really producing anything until I started getting… I mean I made a few pieces. I must have gone to England in ’78 because I made the Stonehenge piece, I made three video art pieces in ’78 at Paddington. Well they would have been shot in…I know, I shot and went to England in ’76, shot some stuff on Super 8 then came back to Australia and took me a while to get around to doing stuff with them. But eventually that…and I’d also shot a whole heap of stuff on, because I built the TV Buddha for Pike the version, I mean it wasn’t a trivial process for me you know but it wasn’t as though I had to go in and change the electronics or anything. I just had to add the necessary bits and pieces to interface it. And so that led to working with others, I did a piece with SPK put the video synth into theirs, the first video synth into their rehearsal studio for an afternoon. And played a bunch of songs and brought a camera in and did lots of video feedback with it and the synthesiser and sound compositions. And that’s a pretty hard-edged tape, that’s a really interesting piece that tape. And then I took it up to Paddington a little bit later, a few months later and I colourised sections of it and stuff. With the colourising,lots of great effects.
In ’77 because I was working with Paddington and generally kind of involved in the arts scene and knew a lot of the people, I was then able to, I proposed a show for Watter’s Gallery in February ’77. It was the first show for the year because that gave the option for opportunity for me to spend ten days or something like that setting up a studio in the gallery. So, I set up a video studio in the Watter’s gallery and we just recorded all kinds of performances and all sorts of stuff by many artists. Sadly, I was very much over enthusiastic with the colouriser and basically ruined all the video from that exhibition, a great pity. I think by being a bit more cautious and thoughtful and we would have had some really good video out of it. Some of it is okay but most of it is pretty hard to watch. Anyway, so there was lots of video, lots of colouriser stuff and feedback and all of that sort of thing.
Video feedback is the primary thing that’s what you know when I was doing this stuff with Bush Video in ’74, ‘73 and you know coming up and we were doing lots of feedback stuff. And then in ’74 I got involved with them in doing feedback stuff with them and things as well. So, feedback was the kind of crucial thing. And of course, that’s why I started by talking about general systems theory and the whole role of feedback in the way things hang together. Biological systems and conscious systems and so on, social systems, ecologies.
And so anyway all of that happened and then I got involved with Tom Ellard, I was mentioning Ian Hartley’s studio of Contemporary Events, they, Tom and a first performance I saw of Severed Heads was in there. With Gary Bradbury and Simon Narke and there was going to be a…event at Paddington which was called the Future Image or something like that. The name that I …one of those names that I could look up, but I don’t remember exactly what it’s called now. And anyway, it was about electronic imaging and stuff like that. And so, I said to them “Look why don’t I just bring this band in and bring my synthesiser in and we use the studio and make some pieces”? So, they put us in there for the afternoon and we did just that. And that made the show this was by this stage this was Metro TV not Paddington Video Access. So that’s where the three pieces that come under the moniker Live at Metro were made. So that was the first three things that we did together.
And then so I started working with them and set up Heuristic Video. I’d taken by 1980 maybe ’81 the need for a job had arisen again and I went, and I got a job with a mob who did video games for you know pinball parlours and things like that. Called Leisure and Allied Industries, so I worked there as a maintenance tech on their equipment, on those machines, the video, mostly games like Space Invaders and various things like that.
But the table top we had a TV and a table, and you had a couple of joy sticks to drive things around and that stuff you know. And it was usually a pair of you working against each other you know competing. And so, I worked there and that got me an understanding of digital electronics which was very useful. And what happened then? Oh yeah out of that I met a guy called, one of the other people there who was the sort of factory manager, was a guy called Geoff Cook. And he’d also been involved with setting up community or trying to set up community television at Paddington at Metro TV, Channel 31. Which had all been hijacked by another individual who totally fucked it up. And that Geoff and I actually no, it was I think it might have been because of Geoff that I got offered the job at Leisure and Allied. But anyway, he was getting jack of Leisure and Allied, Leisure and Allied were doing well actually the owner of Leisure and Allied at the time was a very wealthy man who basically lost his fortune on using cocaine. Terrible waste. And had a beautiful house, fabulous cars all of that and he just blew it all.
And he so we set up Heuristic Video. We found this place in Kippax Street in Surrey Hills on the top of a knitting mill, they’d you know had a flat concrete roof and it must have been something intended to have been like the staff canteen or something like that. It was a five storey, six storey building, we were on the sixth floor, so it was a five-storey building interior. And we set up Heuristic Video in there, so I built a studio for that and went around all the auction houses. At that stage the ABC was selling off lots of gear so I bought pneumatics and I bought a fabulous vision mixing desk that was actually I think could well have been the first colour vision mixer in Australia. It was imported from Canada and it was made by a company called Richmond Hill.
And of course, there was this place a video program series called Neighbours which took place in a suburb called Richmond Hill. And I’m blowed if I …I reckon that it was named after the vision mixer because the vision mixer had been owned by Video Tape Corporation who were in probably where they were one of the very first colour vision facilities in the country. And they were probably where the TV series Neighbours had been post produced you know. So, I don’t know I’ve got no proof of any of that it’s just my surmise given the similar, you know the constancy of the name.
Anyway, so Heuristic Video was set up, we made all the Severed Heads stuff in there you know it ran for nine years. Eight years really. And made lots of other people’s videos in there. Because I was really dissatisfied with what was happening at Metro, I just felt I had to create a facility that artists could use because Metro was totally dedicated to this process of trying to set up community television. And which was turning into a total mess. And so, they I just…and they weren’t servicing the arts people at all. They had this fabulous studio, but they weren’t going to use it. And so, I created Heuristic Video to provide a facility which artists could use and stuff. And we had to keep the prices down as much as possible, but we managed. And people you know grants were available at times and things like that, not to Heuristic but to the artists and so on. I don’t think we had any, we never got any funding or support at all as Heuristic Video.
I: Brian’s (Doherty) early work, now so let’s just start with that briefly. So Brian was telling me two things. He was talking about an exhibition Barbara Campbell organised and curated at the Watters Gallery (Guttersnipers March 1985) and told me a bit more about the Watters Gallery. So I wanted to pick up on relation to that time in Sydney. I wanted to unpack a little bit more about the sort of Side Effects artist-run that you were talking about. And that sort of the zeit geisty stuff then. So I’m just going to flag these, so that’s something …and the second thing was a little bit about Frank Watters because that was such an incredible and experimental you know a lovely confluence of experimental and commercial gallery. That I think is a really unique in a city institution and Frank has just retired. It’s really interesting thing to talk about. But can we…
R: No I just saw him last week.
I: Yeah that’s right and I just walked past there just before I came here and I was like “Oh I might ask you about Watters because I think that’s a lovely blend”. You know at a time when there’s so much experimentation happening. But let’s start with feedback. So Brian was telling me a great story about you being the tutor and he was one of your students at the UQ Department of Architecture …
R: Oh was he?
I: Yep he was one of them. And he was telling me a great, and he’s told this story a few times to me over the years, about setting up the videos and doing feedback. And he remembers you being quite impressed by it. And so I just wanted to pick up on the Brisbane years and how the share house that you were in, UQ, what you were doing at QIT that it was then before it became QUT. The Video Access Centre in Brisbane and some of those things you flagged in your little letter of support.
I: Is that too much?
I: laughter Just talk about Brisbane, let’s just talk about Brisbane. So go back, the share house you were in?…
R: It was in St Lucia on the main street that runs up from Toowong towards the university. It was a big old ramshackle you know wasn’t exactly a Queenslander in the real sense but I remember the first few weeks it was so fucking hot that I would come home on, if I wasn’t going to work I would just have to lie on the bed in the veranda where I had my bedroom, sweating. You know it was horrible and thankfully the university of course was air conditioned so I could you know get to work and work okay on the week days. I got involved with the Video Access Centre in Paddington, in Brisbane in Edward Street and there were Bronwyn Barwell was running it, there was a woman called Jane Gruchy who was Tim Gruchy’s sister and somebody else. And there was a bit of a feminist coterie there which was Jane and Rossie Innis, Bronwyn but not so much because she wasn’t a Brisbane woman. And a bunch of other Brisbane women. And I sort of was you know quite well accepted by all that crowd. Then you know so because I was a reasonably decent sort of bloke and I was always helping, providing technical support and things like that. So you know it was always a good, there was never any issues there. And so I basically just spent the first few months doing bits and pieces at the video centre. And then otherwise working at the university and that was really, and then that slowly, I think the workshops started at about mid-year, maybe just after mid-year. And ran for the rest of that year. And that was because I’d met Tim through Jane, he was at QIT and was sort of interested in media and stuff. Jane was involved at the Video Access Centre which is where I met her. She was one of the staff there you know liaison people you know. And so I sort of, I mean for a large part of it, it was all boys. But there was you know there was sort of not really much of an artist run scene there yet. There was hints of it starting to happen and there was stuff in West End. Was there a cinema in West End that everybody used to hang out at? Well not hang out at but go to regularly. Something anyway it was some place at West End that people used to go to. And so there was lots of general sort of stuff but really we would just get together one day a week and spend the afternoon pointing cameras at monitors and each other. Or pictures that people had brought in because they wanted to you know do something make effects on them and stuff like that. I don’t know whether anything terribly important apart from the piece that was the joint collaboration between all of the people who were involved you know. I mean basically having started that process it sort of grew a little you know slowly and people were becoming interested in what we were doing. And the dance people were sort of interested and so on. Well I encouraged them to be interested because I knew about you know was involved in dancing beforehand. And dancers make great subjects for video cameras. And so you know it was all basically that kind of stuff. So we would just gather and set up some monitors in the auditorium. And the camera, porta pack camera I think we used to actually …didn’t take very long. I think maybe after the first or second or third one we got the TV department that university you know the educational television people there who were shooting lectures and things like that. And got to be able to borrow gear from them. Somewhere I probably still have the old camera that I borrowed from them or bought from them. Total mess now but I hadn’t even thought about turning it on, I wouldn’t dare not without recapping it and all. And so I ….you know we basically just played with the stuff. And because we were interested in various levels of music and stuff there was lots of you know because it was in the music department there were people that were involved in the improvisation scene and stuff like that. And you know so there was a great range of influences and ideas floating around in there and things. And really it was more just a way of convening a kind of chattery around the equipment. You know. And you know it was playtime basically.
I: And such great technology to play with.
R: Oh well you know it was, I mean I couldn’t get people get them to, I mean the music department were quite happy for me to play the things but they weren’t too happy with having a bunch of people playing with the things. So we didn’t go upstairs we tended to stay downstairs. But that was just because they wanted to be able to keep using it and not find it sort of suddenly totally screwed by some accident or you know something. And you know so we just did that and then finished up with that performance and I think that closed the season.
I: thanks Stephen. The Video Access Centre let’s finish on that today because it’s five fifteen, is that okay? Video Access Centre with Jane Gruchy, you talked about the sort of feminist coterie that was really instrumental in running that. In Edward Street from my memory it was located downstairs near the basement.
R: No it was on the ground floor.
I: Ground floor. Can you tell me a bit about what you remember about the Video Access Centre in Edward Street which became in turn Metro Arts as it’s known today. In the seventies it was around ’76 or ’75 it was the Community Arts Centre as it was known for many years. Can you talk a little bit…
R: Well no we’re talking ’75 when I was there and it wasn’t till well after that that things changed. So and that was after Bronwyn was, had come back to Sydney. So I don’t know what the procedure and what the process was there. Basically it was you know a long ground floor and the you know there was an office and then there was a room with video equipment and people hanging around. I mean it was called the Brisbane Community Access Video was the name of the place. So that’s probably where you might be getting it called you know getting that notion of the community centre yeah. And so that is really just like you know you needed to borrow some equipment for a project that’s where you went. And there was a lot of, because it was Bjelke-Petersen days and stuff there was a huge amount of activism going on and most of the people who were involved were activists in one way or another. And you know so you would get the first you know the early marchers and you know things like that. There was an marcher…what was the one where Bjelke Petersen banned the marches.. it was uranium mining or something like that. And then Bjelke-Petersen banned marches after that I think. And there was that incredibly corrupt police chief at the time who then got busted for it later on. And you know lo and behold we’re doing the same thing again now with Donald Trump and you know what’s happening in NSW and what’s happening, I don’t know what’s happening in Queensland but it’s pretty poor unfortunately the notion that, I mean that we hadn’t the climate change issue hadn’t really made its impact at that time. We were taught about the climate change problem when I was at university in 1970. It was known, everybody knew, people who had proper science backgrounds knew about that business. Knew what it meant and all of that and the implications. But you couldn’t get anybody in the politics or in the rest of the community to acknowledge it you know and now we’re paying for that. And basically question is going to burn.
I: It’s burning now.
R: Well it’s burning now but I mean it’s going to completely burn, it’s going to burn dry. There’s going to be no Queensland. And then it will stretch out. So you know what we basically humanity is committing suicide essentially.
I: so that’s another conversation but on a more positive note despite this climate change stuff do you feel there is more of a collective awareness around it now than in 1970s? Do you feel that is…
R: Well with the kids going on strike I think it’s fantastic, the school kids striking about climate change. It’s basically you know because they’re the ones that are going to lose and they’re fucking and you know we’ve got a government that is refusing to, it’s telling them to study, go back to classes. Because you know you shouldn’t be playing with politics. But you know so I am, I mean that gives me pause for optimism, or reason for optimism if that can happen. But the problem is that we have to basically react so quickly now. Because the tipping point has tipped and it’s, we got probably I mean I’m sorry to be negative about this, but I think the reality is that we actually have about two generations and that’s it.
I: Thank you for a wonderful interview.
R: And that’s all over after that there won’t be any, I mean there’ll be people here but there’ll be only the super wealthy living in the bunkers in the alps. New Zealand is going to split in half in 2030 due to the earthquakes that are coming from the ring of fire. The planet itself is physically expanding which is why the ring of fire is now full of fucking volcanoes and earth quakes. And it’s you know we’re in deep shit.
I: So thank you for that and look in relation to the arts what, as artists, today…
R: Can we do?
R: Kick and scream until we fucking get rid of them basically. We have to get rid of them. You know we have to because they’re killing us, they don’t give a fuck that they hoard the money and you know they (?) money (?) the governments and they’re solely concerned, I mean their sole concern and with AI there’ll be no more work so we’re totally redundant. So as far as they’re concerned we can fuck off and die. You know
I: Alright I’m going to thank you Stephen….
R: I mean I’m sorry to be so negative about it and I suggest you don’t even bother to transcribe this part of it. But that’s what reality is at the moment.
I: Are you happy for this to be included in the interview transcription?
R: Well it’s up to you.
I: No it’s up to you. I really, I’m enjoying listening to your views. Your own views.
R: Well you know it’s probably worth, somebody has got to say it.
I: Well I’ll send you the transcript, let’s finish one thing. Briefly on reflection at SNO when you had your survey show you know Snow simply not objective in Marrickville the survey of you know your work. You know now down the track a little bit reflecting on that, I’d like to finish on this note because it’s an artist run initiative and I think what they’re doing is amazing.
R: Well unfortunately they lost their space.
I: But as an event for you…
R: Oh that was fantastic. Yeah. You know it was the first time I’d been acknowledged that I knew suddenly you know I discovered that people actually thought what I was doing and had been doing over the years had some value. And that was really a total change for me. So and that made a huge difference.
ASPECTS OF ART AND TECHNOLOGY IN AUSTRALIA, 1956-1975
A critical and comprehensive account of the emergence of electronic arts in Australia.
New technologies continually arise, offering repeated opportunities to artists in search of the technologically novel. Stephen Jones calls this phenomenon the “rolling new,” and in Synthetics he describes how artists in Australia used new technologies in their art, from the early days of digital computing in the 1950s to a landmark exhibition in 1975. Jones looks at not only the artists and the artworks they produced but also at the evolution of computing technologies and video displays as these new forms of media developed into tools that artists could use. He also examines the collaborations that sprang up between artists and the technologists who taught them how to use these new devices. The process, he finds, was reciprocal: the offerings of the engineer could inspire the artist as much as the needs of the artist could inspire the engineer.
Jones discusses the constraints imposed by the limitations of new technologies as they developed and shows that different types of output and display technologies made for the production of very different kinds of images. He explores the development of computer graphics, the use by artists of such new conceptual paradigms as post-object art, and the emergence of video art in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By 1975, the art and technology movement in Australia reached something of a watershed. The work itself became established as an art form just as funding dwindled and a popular and supportive left-wing government left office. And yet, Jones writes, the early electronic artists laid the foundation for today’s burgeoning culture of new media art in Australia.