About this interview
This is one of two interviews by different writers that Peter Kennedy has given on the subject of his early video work – a medium he first worked with in 1971 – making these works the earliest examples of video art in Australia. Recorded on Akai ¼” black and white magnetic video recording tape in July 1971 they were digitally restored by Stephen Jones in late 2011.
This interview with *Christopher Meigh-Andrews was recorded before the original two tapes were restored and able to be viewed and so it relies entirely on Peter Kennedy’s memory of the work from the time they were last screened in 1971.
* Christopher Meigh-Andrews is author of A History of Video Art (2nd edition), Bloomsbury, New York, London, New Delhi, Sydney, 2014
CM-A: Did you become aware of video as a potential medium at a certain point?
PK: I think I was aware of video in the late 60s through reading art magazines. I made my first video performance pieces with a colleague in Sydney, Mike Parr, in 1971. That was on 1/4 inch black and white AKAI tape.
CM-A: Does it still play?
PK: Well, there is nothing to play it on.
CM-A: Some of those old 1/2-inch machines are still around, but the 1/4 inch I haven’t seen any for years. So you did that in 71? That is pretty early.
PK: They were performed pieces. We screened them at the artists’ cooperative gallery that we were involved with at that time in Sydney. The gallery was called Inhibodress and is now part of Australian art history. They were the first art videos I had seen.
CM-A: Your own pieces?
PK: There were no video artworks from England, America or Europe being screened in Australia. We had no idea what video art looked like.
CM-A: You knew that they were doing them.
PK: I knew that people like Denis Oppenheim. William Wegman, Vito Acconci, Les Levine, Nam June Paik, to name but a few, were making video works. But I had only seen still images. So it was a mystery. What did those still images actually look like as moving images or when there is something in front of or behind them? It was difficult to imagine the various display contexts.
CM-A: Plus the sound. Artists and art writers don’t mention sound, but most videos had sound of some kind.
PK: This is 1971. We screened the tapes in November and December, 1971. Then Mike Parr and I did an exhibition in the same gallery in 1972. We decided that the AKAI tapes were unreliable or unstable, certainly unpredictable. You never knew what was going to happen from one screening to the next. So we took some of the works that we had done on those ¼ inch tapes and re-performed them in the context of the exhibition – “Idea Demonstrations” – and had them filmed on 16mm. They are extant, on 16 mm film, a copy of which I have. Steven Jones has transferred it to DVD. At the same time, we recorded a number of other performances in the context of that exhibition, which are also featured in that same film. The performances were pretty much spontaneous. Most, if not all, were done in one take and then assembled sequentially – one performance after the other – with the way it was edited suggesting logical connections.
CM-A: Were they the documentation of something that you would have done, or were they done specifically to be recorded either on tape or film?
PK: The prevailing ethos – in the art world – in Sydney at that time was focussed on the idea of conceptual art or the de-materialisation of the art object. Given the ephemeral nature of this work, the impulse was to document. To my way of thinking, performance and documentation were synthesized or, at least interconnected. It seemed you couldn’t have one without the other. One needed this documentary evidence. Video of course was very appealing in this regard because it didn’t have the costs of film.
CM-A: There was something immediate about it. No need to worry about lighting, camera techniques and microphones.
PK: It appeared to demand few skills, or so it seemed at the time. But as time goes by and you gain experience you realize skills are as essential in that context as they are in painting or sculpture.
CM-A: But there was something about the spontaneity of the experience.
PK: Perhaps it was the instant feedback that was the big attraction. You could see immediately what had been done.
CM-A: Your first work was a tape. I know we eventually replaced the ¼ inch with the 16 mm. If we stick with the ¼ inch for a second, were they played in a gallery as an installation?
PK: There were two evening video screenings in the gallery. There was, maybe, an hour and a half of tape. No one had seen video before. People sat and watched. An art writer for the national paper “The Australian”, wrote a story that had the caption “Today I will look at a blank screen”. There was one work that briefly featured a blank screen but that was an intrinsic part of the piece. There was an attitude that regarded this as very much as novelty. We probably had 20 or 30 people on each of those two evenings.
CM-A: Sitting looking at a little TV screen?
PK: Yes. I have to say that the 2-1/4 inch tapes that have 10 or 11 performances of mine on them have not seen the day of light since. They remain in little boxes wrapped in plastic.
CM-A: Somebody told me the other day that there is an Australian artist who has managed to sell a tape in a box to one of the museums here in Australia on the strength that it is an artefact. Whether it plays or not, that doesn’t matter. So you might find that there is a possibility they might want yours.
PK: The artifact itself has some value beyond the content.
CM-A: Of course, I mean look if you think about it, this is the first video you ever made, screened way back then, never been played since… That is fantastic. It is an essential bit of work.
PK: It is. I open the box occasionally – and the plastic bag. It still smells new.
CM-A: So there could be something there. There is super limited edition of those things.
Take me back to the performances. Were you doing performances before you started to record them on film and tape? Was your practice, prior to studying lens-based media, live? Why did you do performances? Did it come out of something else?
PK: Yes, to some extent. There was a precursor work. That work was “ But the Fierce Blackman”. It is now regarded as an iconic piece in the context of contemporary Australian art. It recently entered the collection of the University Art Museum at the University of Queensland. I was interested in a range of different expressive possibilities – options other than painting and sculpture. I was like many young artists of my age, 24 or 25, looking at those other possibilities. Painting and sculpture were comfortably accommodated and that was not where one wanted to go. I was also interested in experimental avant-garde music – in John Cage and Cage’s associates like David Tudor, Merce Cunningham, and of course his connection with Robert Rauschenberg and Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T). Also, Nam June Paik and the Fluxus artists. It was through those interests that I became associated with a group of experimental musicians who worked, on occasions, a bit like Cornelius Cardew and his scratch orchestra. There was room for lay musicians, of which I was one. The core group were young professional musicians. They, together with an umbrella ensemble were called AZ Music. The organizer and driving force was a young man – a couple of years younger than me – maybe 22 or 23, named David Ahern. He died, prematurely, many years ago. He had studied under Stockhausen in Darmstadt so he was heavily into the electronic avant-garde. After returning to Australia, AZ’s Sydney audiences were regularly outraged. We did a number of private and public performances. It was during one of these where I responded to something that I picked up off the floor and read – the object being to perform the first words I saw. And what I read was “…but the fierce blackman…”. I did this in the context of an evening get together and playing around with ideas. The phrase struck a chord and I turned it into a loop – a la Steve Reich. I was familiar with Reich’s ‘Come Out’ from 1964 and ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ from 1966. I still have those vinyl recordings. I now play them for my son, who is 16, who finds it interesting.
I had the opportunity to do an exhibition in March, 1971 at Inhibodress. I took the recorded phrase and looped it. I installed an electric fan, a television set, speakers down the middle of the gallery, and did different performances over a period of three weeks. The performances were every half hour, with me saying this phrase while applying some kind of physical stress to my body. At the same time an oscillating fan blew wires onto the television aerials producing a considerable amount of amplified dissonance. Then there were taxicab calls from taxis operating in the nearby Kings Cross area. This real time garbled vocal communication along with accompanying static also became part of the acoustic mix.
These performances happened live in front of an audience. The work was a major breakthrough in terms of introducing new ideas into the Sydney art world. It had an impact at the time, being so new and confronting. There had not been anything like it before.
CM-A: And challenging.
PK: It was challenging, yes.
CM-A: So you had said to me when we were not recording about how there is this feeling of isolation, generally. But in fact what you were doing was connecting right in to things that were going on in other places. It was something new to your sensibility but also it was connected to a wider context.
PK: That is right.
CM-A: So I think it is not as isolated as it might seem.
PK: Possibly the isolation generated a desire for connection – through art of the type we’re discussing. In reference to “But the Fierce Blackman”, I think of it as a kind of pastiche. I wouldn’t necessarily view pastiche in this instance in negative terms. Pastiche tends to be regarded pejoratively but I think this work uses pastiche in a positive sense. It is a genuine, multimedia installation. Not only is it drawing on and feeding back within the installed environment, but it is also bringing in stuff, sonic material, from the outside. In retrospect, 25-30 years later, when we have full-on “postmodernism”, I thought of it as being, probably, an early example of a postmodernist practice given the way the work is responsive to multiple influences and currents and these different streams terminate at this point – in a compelling, enigmatic way. That, like the ¼” video tapes, was in 1971.
One of the things I observed when I travelled overseas – I left Sydney at the beginning of 73 – was that when I looked at art in England and America, I realized that there were some things I had not fully understood. For example, here was a form of painting that was regarded as being cutting edge before a few of us appeared on the scene doing what we were doing. It was described locally as hard edge painting and was centred on a gallery in Sydney, Central Street Gallery. The gallery had a formidable reputation from the mid-60s until about 69-70. When you look at those paintings you notice the artists had used masking tape and the works had these very precisely delineated shapes. Overseas I saw the actual works that were the models for what was produced in Australia. I could see the canvas and the amount of bleed. Those stars of the international art world apparently didn’t use masking tape at all. Their work was not nearly as precise. This distortion occurred through the shrinking of these paintings for reproduction and it was the distorted reality of reproduction that constituted the received wisdom here.
CM-A: Painting is especially a problem, isn’t it? Now student painters are looking at stuff on the Internet rather than going to the gallery. A painting is not an image- It is an object. If you are looking at an image on the Internet, first of all the colour is wrong, the scale distorted. This is interesting. This has to do with distance again.
PK: Then you introduce the temporal, durational aspect. You are not seeing that. You see still frames taken from a video monitor. What might that introduce into the work that we are not experiencing? Always in the back of my mind when doing this work here, was the possibility that there might be a kind of distortion occurring without knowing its exact nature.
So when I saw for the first time that video work overseas I was probably comforted by the fact that it wasn’t a lot different – both in terms of the production standards and the quality of the ideas being expressed – to my 1971 video pieces. My efforts were not that far off the mark. I think “But The Fierce Blackman” were the only live performances I did that weren’t recorded on video or film. I have a lot of still photographs from it. It was not until we did live performance in front of an audience in 1972 that we recorded on 16 mm film. After that, I became less interested in performance as an expressive form.
CM-A: Was that a transitional thing? Was the documentation of performance work a transitional thing? And did you find yourself thinking about the medium in terms of what it could be capable of or what it might allow you to do which is different to film or live performance, or sound? Did that emerge as an issue for you?
PK: It didn’t at that time. I think I became somewhat less enamoured of video as a medium because of the problems I mentioned earlier, the lack of predictability and stability. I was more attracted to 16mm film because of that. There was greater stability. So in 1973-74 when I was travelling overseas filming the artists I mentioned – that, I did, on 16mm film. On my return to Australia I began a project titled “Introductions” where I met and interacted with people – members of four, quite diverse, recreational groups or clubs – in different parts of Sydney to make an interactive work on their respective collective interests and ideals. Part of that project, in its initial stage, involved using ½ inch videotape, which I recorded and edited with various interested club members. The project’s aim was to produce idealised representations of their activities as social groups. I worked on this project from 1974 to 1976. The project was a concentration of those interactions that I had with numerous members of each group, and they in turn, with each other. This was documented on 16mm film. But that film version was, in turn, put on ½ inch videocassette and became an element of the artwork in the context of an installation.
CM-A: So when you say installation, you are talking in a gallery situation?
PK: Yes, in a gallery, which included painted portrait images of those with whom I’d worked and, in the context of the installation, a video monitor and sofas and chairs for people to view the video. The set-up was something between a gallery and a living room.
CM-A: Was video for you a way of displaying rather than necessarily a production medium?
PK: I think it was everything. It was about the process of documentation, because the process was in a way a substantial part of the project and was, in fact, integral to the aesthetic of the work. I think I felt that only 16 mm colour film could achieve the aesthetic standard that I was seeking at that point. I felt that video would not deliver the level of quality that I was after.
CM-A: So you were after a particular look?
PK: Yes. Then my view changes again because whilst I was working on the “Introductions” project in 1975, a major political event happened in Australia. That was when the Queen’s representative, the Governor-General, sacked the elected government, a Labour government and the prime minister of the time, Gough Whitlam. This was a huge political event that divided the nation. There were people who supported what was called the coup, and there were those like myself who were opposed to it. It appeared as if various powerful vested interests had conspired against the interests of ordinary people. It was a time to demonstrate one’s opposition and become politically active. I had this idea of making a film about the event. But, because, as a subject, it was so political, it was impossible to get funding. Even for some time after the antagonisms resonated. Funding was never available because as an issue, it remained too highly charged.
Then, in 1978, I was invited to exhibit in the 1979 Bienniale of Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This was the 3rd Sydney Bienniale at the time. There was some money available. I had already done the rounds of the television stations and collected news footage – now historic! I worked with John Hughes on this project. John is a documentary filmmaker and I had moved to Melbourne at this point. My suggestion to John was that rather than doing a film, why not use all this news footage, synthesize it in some way, work it up as an avant-garde piece, a visual montage, montaged soundtrack, etc…. So I planned to paint a very large political banner – for the installation – and did an outline of how I saw the video. We went through all the material. John and another friend produced this 20 min piece called “November Eleven – No. 1”. That work is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The gallery recently reformatted this work from u-matic to DVD. For that, John and I were asked to write a synopsis of the work. What you have there is our approved, official description.
That piece you said is done on 1/2 inch, but it is coloured, isn’t it? (It was originally u-matic – I’ve changed my comment above. – PK)
It is coloured and the original was ¾” U-matic.
CM-A: I think I have seen the next part of that. It has some highly colourized footage. How did you do that?
PK: You would have to ask John about that. John handed it over to John Hansen. I think he is mentioned in Steven Jones’ book. Steven sees him regularly. They are electronic freaks with much to talk about – no doubt.
CM-A: What was the idea? Was it to abstract it?
PK: We wanted to make political video art. That was the object. We wanted to take it out of the realm of the newsreel and conventional television reportage, away from documentary cinema, imbue it with an avant garde aesthetic, and drop it into this other public gallery, international exhibition, context.
CM-A: It is like a collage, isn’t it? You talked about the sound you used.
PK: There is a high-pitched sound, I think, which may be connected to the bit you are thinking of? The video has a dense, layered sound track.
CM-A: You have got a powerful connection to sound and music. The manipulation of pictures seems to be connected to ideas about how you might work with sound.
PK: ‘But the Fierce Blackman’ was a sound piece as well as a performance piece. There were sound works that I had done with AZ music and other sound pieces, independently, in 1971 and 1972. I thought artists could bring to sound an approach that was different from that of musicians and composers.
CM-A: Like Steve Reich? Reich abandoned tape quite quickly. I remember him saying something about tape loops being simply a gimmick, and that if he couldn’t turn the gimmick into something musical then he wasn’t interested in it. He said that he had to apply what he had learnt using electronics back into something that live musicians could perform otherwise, he was not interested.
Anyway, this seems to me to be a key idea. You made this piece. The political event had happened in 75, yet by the time you made the tape and showed it, it was ‘79. So things have been resolved politically but this work becomes a comment on something that brought out quite a lot of controversy for Australia in terms of its democracy. What did you do with it when you made it? Was it shown in a gallery? This was always a question that was around that time, when I started.
PK: It was shown a lot. In fact this piece and its companion piece ‘November Eleven, No 2’, were both shown at the ICA in 1982. It toured widely in galleries around Australia and it went to Japan. Lucy Lippard wrote about it in ‘ The Village Voice’. The article was about art and left politics and titled “Out of Control: Australian Art on the Left” (Village Voice, October, 1982). A witty take on it!
CM-A: Was it shown as part of a programme of Australian art?
PK: Yes. The exhibition title was “Eureka! Artists from Australia”. Sandy Nairne was then the director of the ICA.
CM-A: What is the date of the exhibition?
PK: April, 1982.
CM-A: Was the show only video?
PK: No it was not. There was a companion exhibition at the same time at the Serpentine Gallery. The ICA exhibition was a mixture of works as was the Serpentine.
CM-A: So there was two parts to this piece?
PK: Yes, Part 1 and Part 2. Part 2 is more speculative, poetic and more preoccupied with aesthetics and politics in terms of left – right debate and contested terrain. It was, as well, more theoretical.
CM-A: I want to ask about the theoretical and critical context of your work at this time. When you were working with political video, were there any particular ideas, thinkers, theoreticians or ideologies that were really fundamental to the way you were thinking and working, and that you can identify?
CM-A: At that time, it seems to me, there was a more clearly left wing attitude to working – the notion that Art could be transformative for society – a catalyst for change.
PK: I think so. Political or socially engaged art was produced in the belief that there was a possible transformational outcome. As it turns out we were mistaken. But at that time, or ten years earlier, anything seemed possible. The left was very influential at that point, leftist ideas were ubiquitous, believable and socially attractive. It seemed social change could only move in that direction – it couldn’t retreat. Our limited experience meant we didn’t really understand history.
CM-A: I suppose you are right. There was a positive and euphoric feeling about what I could do as well. I was listening to Andrew Pickering, who was keynote speaker at the ‘Rewire’ conference where I met Steve (Jones) in Liverpool. Pickering was talking about Alexander Trocchi, who said that you can’t overthrow things with a violent revolution and that he felt it that what was required was a silent revolution, that a million minds together would be required to make a change. It won’t be an overthrowing violent change, but it could be something that could be lead by artists. Some of his ideas resonated with John Latham who later formed the Artists’ Placement Group (APG), which was partly a by-product of ideas developed which included the London Anti-university.
There was an idea about artists being at the centre of some kind of revolution, and that working with new media such as film, video, performance was somehow fundamental to this potential for political and aesthetic change. I think that carried a lot of weight from the late 60s to the late 70s. By the time we get to the 80s we get the Thatcher/Reagan period and the rise of a New Right. With it there was cynicism about art and this notion that everything could be collectable and purchased. The sort of idea- as we were saying earlier, that you can take a videotape and put it in a box and sell it as an art object. It is a triumph of form over content in a way. Because content, whether revolutionary or not, can be packaged up and thus becomes somehow neutralized. I think the work that you were doing was part of that really positive idea about a new form of possibility that had radical potential for a cultural uprising.
PK: I can recall in lectures to students – which I no longer do – saying to them, 25 or 30 years ago, that I didn’t think art, in and of itself, will change things. But my view, as an artist, is that art can connect conceptually with other progressive social impulses, or movements and, if it does, it might then contribute to something transformational. I don’t think our society is geared to revolutionary change, and I’m not sure I would have unreservedly subscribed to that romanticised view of social change 40 years ago; it is more likely to be gradual and that was how I conceptualized it at the time. But then there is the other issue of theory and practice. That was a big issue here – particularly in Melbourne. If one’s practice did not correspond with the radical theory of the day, you were found wanting – praxis was the name of the game! Some artists aligned themselves with the trade union movement designing pamphlets, posters and publications. Some, as a result, ceased being artists and some may regret having taken that path. I was always aware that in a way there has to be a poetic or aesthetic dimension that refutes the purely quotidian, pragmatic, expressive option. If you lose that, you’ve kind of lost the plot.
CM-A: When I was in film school in the late 70s, there was that feeling that we were supposed to take those ideas/ theories and make a film that is based on those kinds of concepts. I always felt that that was like making a film that was an illustration of ideas already worked through, through words or a particular thinking process. I used to shout in class that I was not interested in making work that was an interpretation, or that was based on an interpretation of those ideas
But, To go back to you and what you were doing, that piece sounds as though it was bringing together some aesthetic concerns and political concerns into quite an important balance.
PK: That is true. And that was the express intention.
CM-A: So “But the Fierce Blackman’” is a key work?
PK: It would be one of the key works.
CM-A: What would you identify as your key works in video, as this is the medium that I am trying to address. (I understand that it is only part of what you do. )
PK: A couple of pieces from the 1971 ¼” tapes come to mind – mainly due to their contemporaneity. “Two Body Concerts” and “Parrot” from that 1971 series I can see being quite strong in any re-presentation today. There are innovative, compelling moments too in the two “November Eleven” works and the follow-up “On Sacred Land” made in 1984. The video loop of Stalin’s Land, reconfigured as the wing of an angel, seems to conform to the concept of a key work with its conflation of 20th Century history – in this instance personified by Joseph Stalin – and Walter Benjamin’s construct of the “Angel of History” as it applies to an idea of progress. This last piece is incorporated in the installation “Chorus: The Presence of the Past” – 1993. The loop makes a return here – only it is a video loop on this occasion rather than sound. Like the 1971 pieces, I can see it re-deployed in numerous contemporary contexts.
I think ‘video’ or, as we now refer to it, ‘moving image’ work, has allowed me to bring writing to a cluster of expressive options and this expands the work in interesting ways, aesthetically, politically, poetically. In connection with that, going right back to my early 70s work, video did allow me to push the possibilities of manipulating sounds in ways different to the way musicians work with sound. That, given the right circumstances, had spatial applications. I was talking earlier about spinning off the four parts of a recently finished piece into four different spaces, four different rooms, screens or walls. Threading through all of my work, going right back to late 69-early 70s when I did my first neon exhibitions, has been this desire to work visually within three dimensional space using a range of different media. So whenever I used video it was with a sense of its having a spatial disposition as well.
CM-A: Is that to do with the object of display, the “television set”, or with the image itself? Or both?
PK: I think both are connected and beyond that it is about the encounter – the circumstances that have been established that influence or mediate the nature of that encounter. The actual nature of the installation itself, I suppose.
CM-A: For some artists who work with film and video there is this business about alternative modes of working with a medium that already has a dominant language. In the case of cinema, the dominant form is the idea of narrative film as opposed to anti-narrative. So there is this talk about dominant cinema, being Hollywood. In video, often the oppositional sense was against broadcast television as an institution and a way of limiting what could be done with the electronic image- television as a way of presenting a particular set of ideologies, of preserving the status quo. So I wonder if your use of the moving image also included a thought about this being not television or cinema, but being something else, and whether that was a political act in some way? Or was that not important?
PK: I have always thought of it as being something else. You are correct there. That goes right back to the AKAI 1/4 inch videotapes, and has continued. I think I resolved very early that I would not consider myself a filmmaker as such, and that the work I did, whether using video or film or moving image, would be the work of an artist not a filmmaker.
CM-A: What was the distinguishing element that would mark you out as not a filmmaker but as an artist who uses film and video? What would the difference be between someone who is a filmmaker and someone who is an artist?
PK: My feeling is that difference might be identified as knowledge of tradition – a knowledge of film tradition, in a deep sense. My sense of cinematic tradition would be superficial in comparison with a filmmaker’s.
CM-A: But that is not right at the heart of it. You haven’t said that you are an artist working with video because you are not good enough to be a filmmaker.
PK: Perhaps it’s to do with language. I feel that I have developed my own language, or, if you like, my own syntax. I have done that through constantly reworking my interest in sound, moving image, photography and performance and more recently, in the last 12 or 15 years, writing. It may also be about control, creative autonomy, about efficiency – what I can achieve with the resources available to me, which have always been limited. Certainly I wouldn’t need the same resources a filmmaker requires. If resources are limited, where do you direct the mobilisation of those resources? The resources are limited so the work is not going to be seen in a cinema. What are the distribution points? For me, the distribution points remain within a visual arts context, within galleries. I think the language of the visual artist is a language that is structured in a way that corresponds with the commonly shared experiences and expectations of contemporary art audiences and therein lies the difference. Forms speak in different ways to different audiences and the various expectations of those audiences.
CM-A: It is interesting because one might say that an artist deliberately chooses to restrict his or her palette. We work best at the edges of things. It is like John Cage’s saying “I have nothing to say, and now I am saying it, and that is poetry”.
PK: It is a bit like that. On the other hand, I have tried to say things! John Cage did in a sense. It was the Zen thing, the holding back, and bringing people into your world. A lot of the work I have done has been an attempt to speak beyond the world of the visual arts. I have this idea that one can speak as an avant-gardist and say something that is relevant or touching, perhaps difficult or confronting and which is also aesthetically engaging or poetic. Perhaps it is looking at something that is common to everyone’s experience but turning it around in a way that introduces the possibility of some fresh insight or feeling generated by the different, dare I say novel, way that it has been expressed. Even though the work is unfamiliar and pushes boundaries, there are sufficient perceptible common elements that makes it accessible to people outside the art world. They can be attracted to it and engage with it. That is my project, when I think about it.
CM-A: That is interesting. David Hall, a sculptor and member of APG, decided that the only way to reach a different audience from those who saw his sculpture was to make things for television. He felt that you have to speak to audience in a medium that is current in some sense. His idea was that if you are always going to work for the gallery, you are always going to reach the same audience. I don’t know if that is true. I am not raising it as an objection.
PK: This was certainly a key issue at the time, going back to the 1970s.
CM-A: But it does seem that the gallery is the sort of place that people do venture to now in a way that they never did in the 70s.
PK: I was saying something similar to somebody a few days ago. I observed this most recently at the Queensland Art Gallery, in Brisbane, and its sister institution GOMA, The Gallery of Modern Art. It is a spectacular building. I went there on a Sunday morning not having visited before. It was packed. I grew up in Brisbane. Very, very few people visited art galleries 50 years ago. They went to the beach, went surfing. Now they are at the gallery! There were kids, the young and elderly. I thought, how has this happened? Perhaps it is a result of postmodernism’s democratisation of the arts – its relationship to mass media and popular culture. I am being speculative here, but is it symptomatic of the move away from formalism or modernism – at the time so connected to cultural elitism and having as it did a demeanour that excluded many people? I think there is a downside as well, because many people probably now go to galleries to be entertained and that influences curatorial practice. There is that risk of dumbing down. Certainly the balance is a fine one.
CM-A: That is true. I observed the same thing. In the early 70s I used to drive with my brother to go to the Tate on Sundays. There was no one in there. We used to wander around. Now, you can’t move. Not even on a weekday- never mind on a Sunday.
So what you are saying is that it is possible to be an artist working in radical challenging ways and reach the public in a way that hadn’t been possible hitherto.
PK: This, essentially, has been the nature of my project. If you have time this afternoon, go to the National Gallery of Victoria. I have a work there. It’s a large piece with four photographs, a neon section and text – a short story. It is a work where the idea is not hard to get. It is accessible to the viewer, if they read the text. The text – the story – and the idea underpinning the work are poetic. It is pleasing to the eye. The work talks about history in an unusual, different, but engaging way. It is a bit like a storyboard. The work is titled “One Long Catastrophe – a short story”.
CM-A: It is interesting that you mention storyboard. I am wondering if working with video, when you did and the way you did, didn’t open something up, because in a way one of the strengths of video is that it is a carrier medium. It is a medium where you can have sound, print, photograph, and moving image all held together. It is a precursor to the digital, I suppose. At its most interesting it enables one to work across and mix all these different channels, I suppose. It seems to me that it might be key, even though you don’t work with video all the time, and that it has opened you up to that idea of multiple channels all held together through some kind of a central core.
PK: I have a sense this is true. The two projects that I showed you the scripts of “Quartet – The Photographs’ Story” and “Small Tales and True”, which is the one I have recently completed as a moving image DVD leaves me with the desire to see it reproduced as a book with stills taken from the DVD and the story streamed underneath. Alternatively, I can see it as a series of illuminated stills running along a wall or walls, with illuminated text – the story – underneath. Or, the text, superimposed, embedded in the stills photographs themselves which are illuminated. The moving image idea, as stills, the story board idea, displayed sequentially.
CM-A: Would you follow a particular order?
PK: Being narrative, I think it will proceed in a linear way, but each part of the four parts repeatedly loop back to a previous part. So you can enter it at any point, become aware that it flashes back, and pick up the story through the oscillating backwards, forwards, rhythm. I imagine that, should I have the opportunity, I would do the same with my so-called magnum opus “The Photographs’ Story”. Writing, in these instances, is the precursor to development of images. It was this process of developing images to match the voice over narration that I realized I was storyboarding. In a sense, this in some ways identifies a difference between my approach to working with video and how we understand the cinematic creative process. I should say that the impetus to my working this way – the break-through insight – was my early encounter with the writings of W.G. Sebald. Do you know him?
CM-A: No, I don’t.
PK: He died about ten years ago in a car accident in the UK, but he seemed to be everywhere for the last decade of his life. There are several outstanding books, in my view. There is “The Rings of Saturn”, an earlier one, and another, “Austerlitz”, which came out later – maybe 2 years before he died. He was German, just a little bit older than me, having survived the war and bombing. He was a professor of literature at East Anglia University. He writes in English, in a meandering way – lots of digression – like a river slowly flowing and you wonder to where it is you might be drifting. The sentences are long and you float. Every now and then he drops in small photographs or other ephemera. Maybe little pictures of anonymous people or train or theatre tickets picked up in antique shops. These things are fragments from the past and seem to declare themselves tokens for meditations on history. This was the first time I had seen this mode of illustration in novels. The pictures perform as background ghosts and bring a fugitive subtext to the narration. I thought I could reverse the balance of this interaction between verbal and visual. I would scale up the visual imagery and scale down the words – invert the visual/verbal emphasis. This was a mid nineties revelatory moment and it carried me with it. In a way, it took me back to my early video and sound works and in that respect it has been about reconnection and reconfiguration.
CM-A: There is this idea that one says the same thing over and over again.
PK: Yes, we only have five ideas or so.
CM-A: One comes back to something as a way of re-finding it. Maybe in reviewing it we experience it afresh setting in train perceptions not originally apparent. There is something at the core, without necessarily knowing what it is. We want to reach it and so we keep circling, again and again.
PK: When I was giving a talk in Brisbane at the evening of my exhibition opening, someone asked me about my performance work in “But the Fierce Blackman”. The piece was on loan from the University Art Museum of the University of Queensland and exhibited with my neon work from the same period. He asked why I no longer did performance pieces. He asked why I would bother to refabricate neon works from 40 years ago. He asked what it meant to take work from the past and reconfigure it. In one of those infrequent lucid moments when you’re put on the spot, I realised I was doing the same thing as composers and musicians. I am drawing on a personal repertoire. It has much to do with installations and multi-media work being site specific and ephemeral. So this back catalogue, the repertoire, exists in a perpetual state of flux – an on-going condition of potential re-configuration and re-presentation.
CM-A: There are only certain themes there. We are limited by our senses and the way they interact. They give us a particular set of possibilities and we are constantly shuffling them. You know- when you play tricks with cards and you can identify the card that had been picked up by continuing to reconfigure the arrangement of cards. It is like that. You are putting them back in different order and constantly doing that to see if you can get at it.
PK: New things come out of it as well, as a process.
CM-A: Yes, that is true
PK: It would be a mistake to see it as a limitation. Also, it’s a responsibility one has to one’s own work.
CM-A: Provided you can stick with it- like what you said about those people who went off and made posters. Steve Reich in his interview on Radio 3 for his 70th birthday was asked to give advice to his audience and he said, “stick with it”. It was spot on.
PK: That is advice I would give.
CM-A: And you see it with people who give up quite early. It wasn’t because their work wasn’t any good; it was because they didn’t persevere. It is so hard to do that. There are so many other temptations, whether it is the mortgage, or a new car.
PK: The downtimes are so protracted that inevitably the doubts and self-questioning kick in. Have I wasted my time? For me, so much is invested. I can’t now accept the possibility of it all being a waste. For better or worse one has to see it through.
CM-A: It is too late to do anything else.
PK: I couldn’t do anything else.
CM-A: I have got a lot of really interesting things to think about. I really enjoyed talking to you and thanks for giving me this opportunity.
PK: I am probably saying the same things that anyone else would say, in similar circumstances.
CM-A: No, I don’t think that is right. Obviously there is a particular theme that I am trying to explore but there are other things going on too, which really adds to the value of the interview.