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Videotapes from Australia. Report on return. (1980)

1 November 197931 May 1980

IN NORTH AMERICA, November 1979 - March 1980.

In April, 1978, Jorge Glusberg of the Centro de Arte y Communicacion (CAYC) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, visited Sydney and asked me to compile a collection of Australian videotapes to send to Buenos Aires as an exchange project with the CAYC. At that time a major international video festival was being planned in Sydney for early 1979 and this show was to receive from CAYC a collection of video from South America in exchange for the Australian collection. This exchange was to be administered through the Paddington Video Access Centre, and the video festival was to be held at the Paddington Town Hall. Unfortunately, in July 1978 the Paddington Town Hall Centre was liquidated (for a time) and the video centre ceased operation. This situation led to exchange with the CAYC falling through. But, by this time, late 1978, I had already gathered a considerable amount of tape and discussed the project extensively with Bernice Murphy, then of the Australian Gallery Directors Council, who had agreed to help garner support for the show and explore the possibility of sending it to the United States.

We approached the Kitchen Center for Video and Music in New York and they agreed to take the show in November 1979. So with the organisational back-up of the A.G.D.C., Bernice Murphy and I continued to compile the show, offered it to other galleries in the U.S. and prepared a catalogue. The Australian Film Commission provided funding for me to travel to the United States and so I accompanied the show to New York in October 1979.

The major problem encountered at this point lay in the difference in TV standards between Australia and the United States. Since we had 13 hours of material and standards conversion is expensive, we couldn't find the funds to have the material transferred to U.S. standard. (U.S. standard is 525 lines, 30 frames per sec., NTSC colour; Australian/European standard is 625 lines, 25 frames per sec., PAL colour). This restricted the places of exhibition in the United States to those galleries which could find European-standard equipment to play the tapes.

The primary exhibition space was The Kitchen in New York, which has its own European-standard 3/4" videocassette player and PAL monitor. Other gallery spaces which said they could supply PAL equipment were the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the University of Art Museum in Berkeley, California. Later on a most valuable connection was developed with the Video Inn in Vancouver, Canada.

I arrived in New York about a month ahead of the opening date of the show at The Kitchen, giving me time to find accommodation and to adjust to the city. The Kitchen had just lost their video/performance curator, Rose Lee Goldberg, when I arrived, and hadn't yet appointed a replacement, which produced some difficulties in the day-to-day running of the show. I divided the exhibition up into categories of performance, documentation and image-processing, providing seven sets of programs approximately two hours long, and rotated these programs through the period of the show. The show ran three weeks at The Kitchen, from November 3-24, 1979, was seen by a considerable number of people, and was generally well received. Good connections with several video critics were developed through Anna Canepa, (Video Distribution Inc.) to whom I remain very grateful for support, and without whom the show might have been considerably less successful (see the reviews by Victor Ancona and Nancy Legge and the notice 'Voice Choice' by Ann Wooster; see also the program and press release put out by The Kitchen).

Also running in New York over November, at the Franklin Furnace, was the Australian Artists’ Bookworks show, brought to the United States by Jill Scott, an Australian artist currently resident in San Francisco. The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art asked for both the tape show and the Artists Bookworks show for a combined presentation at LAICA in December/January. So with the finish of the shows in New York we shipped all the material to L.A. and set up at LAICA. The show would have gone very well except for the fact that the company supplying the video equipment supplied a monitor which turned out to be a SECAM (French colour standard) monitor, which meant that we could only show the tapes in black and white. I spent several days searching for a PAL monitor in Los Angeles but couldn't find one that could be extracted from an in-house set up. The show ran from December 15, 1979 - January 18, 1980, and although I didn't stay in Los Angeles for the period I believe it went well (see the review by Bruce Yonemoto in Artweek).

After the Los Angeles showing the tapes were shipped up to San Francisco to await dates for the showing at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California. Unfortunately, after sitting around San Francisco for some seven weeks, David Ross, the museum's director informed me that they wouldn't be showing the tapes at all. It appears that the collection didn't fit in with his rather narrow personal view of what should be considered video art. Consequently, I resorted to organising a small showing elsewhere. Conversations with Joanne Kelly and Skip Sweeney of Video Free America brought out their interest and they offered a one-day showing at VFA if I could organise some PAL equipment. I spoke to the Goethe Institute who have PAL equipment for showing German work and they offered me the use of their equipment in their auditorium in San Francisco. So we had a one-day showing in which about half the tapes were presented. I am very grateful to Joanne Kelly of VFA and Peter Grune of the Goethe Institute for their help in this.

While in San Francisco, on learning of the University Art Museum's refusal to take the show, I felt that I should try and take it to Canada to be shown there. I phoned the Video Inn and Western Front in Vancouver and they both indicated considerable interest. But, yet again, the problem of PAL video equipment surfaced. It turned out that the Vancouver Art Gallery had the necessary equipment and were willing to lend it to the Video Inn for some three weeks, so a showing of the tapes in Vancouver became possible. I think this situation points up an extraordinary difference in the way video exhibitions develop in the States as compared with Canada. The co-operative attitude between the official gallery network and the alternative gallery and video networks (as exists in Canada) seems totally lacking in the U.S.

Video Inn showed the tapes from March 4-25, 1980. I was booked to return to Australia on March 9th so I could attend the show only for the first three days. This enabled me to set up the show, introduce it on the opening night and talk about the Australian video scene to people there. I would recommend that anyone who wishes to extend their contact to overseas video-makers would do well to write to the Video Inn. I should especially thank Shawn Preus at the Video Inn, Kate Craig at the Western Front and Joanne Birnie-Danzka at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The Video scene in the United States seems to me to be very fragmented. Production and exhibition facilities are quite distinctly divided between documentary makers and artists using video, with the video-synthesis and image-processing work off in a world of its own.

Documentary and other independent video production is largely directed towards Public Broadcasting (PBS) and, to a lesser extent, cable TV. PBS is a loose network of non-commercial TV channels funded by federal grants and by large corporations such as Mobil Oil and Exxon. Program material is distributed on 3 major and 1 minor (for independent productions) satellite channels (transponders). WNET Channel 13 in New York and WGBH in Boston also help independents with grants for production facilities, particularly 2" CMX editing, for some documentary work, as well as areas of art video. But in documentary they do expect to have considerable control over the content of the program. The major source of funds for independent production will be the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) set up by the U.S. Government under a new broadcasting act, the Telecommunications Financing Act, 1978, which attempts to guarantee the independent voice access to the air-waves, based on the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. CPB and PBS are currently battling it out over access to federal funds and independent production will probably be the loser. But otherwise the potential is there for a considerable amount of air-time.

From the producers' end, Global Village is probably a good example. These people have been working in documentary production and exhibition since the late Sixties. They put on regular showings of people's tapes and are themselves engaged in documentary production in a number of areas from environmental concerns to women's issues. They have BW editing facilities (broadcast 3/4”) and colour portapak. Most of the use of the facility is by the small group directly associated with Global Village.

The Kitchen acts entirely as a library and exhibition space, mostly of artists' video, though with Tom Bowse now in the curatorial role this should open up further to more narrative-type work, which is beginning to emerge in New York. The Kitchen has two viewing rooms, one used for regular scheduled programmes, the other for more random access and for viewing tapes from their extensive library. They also have a small gallery for multi-media installation work. Equipment available consists of a number of colour monitors and replay decks, plus editing, all 3/4”, all NTSC; and most important they have a PAL standard deck and monitor. Their exhibition programme, including a lot of European work, focuses on artists' video and installation as well as a lot of new music, new dance and performance work. A busy and interesting place to visit when in New York.

The Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum also run a regular program of video, usually in the form of one tape played continuously for a week, or some sort of installation. There are also a number of other alternative arts-spaces which show video occasionally. The other video/film space worth mentioning is Anthology Film Archives, run by Shigeko Kubota, which was not operating while I was there because it was acquiring a new building and establishing a whole new program.

Video distribution is largely handled by Electronic Arts Intermix, run by Howard Wise. EAI have a considerable catalogue of independent video tapes dating back to very early works. Howard Wise saw the Australian show and expressed interest in some of the tapes.

The most interesting video production in the non-documentary areas comes from Bill Viola and John Sanborn & Kit Fitzgerald. Bill Viola works with perceptual illusion within the landscape, while Sanborn & Fitzgerald are exploring the video illusion directly by acts of replacement of real images by video-mediated images.

Probably the most important work on the East Coast is coming from a loose network of video establishments within the universities and museums in upstate New York. These include the Everson Museum, Synapse Video Centre in Syracuse, Media Studies in Buffalo, the Experimental TV Center in Binghamton and an electronic music facility at RPI in Troy. A considerable amount of experimental tape and installation work (from, for example, Gary Hill in Buffalo and Tom DeWitt and Vibeke Sorenson in Troy) is being produced, as well as most of the general production work not directly handled by WNET.

While in New York I met Dan Sandine from Chicago, who has developed the Sandine Image Processor and is a leader in video image-processing tape work as well as computer graphics. I also met Suzanne Brittan from Toronto, Canada, and saw some of her excellent work of a semi-punk narrative-political style.

There appears to be very little independent video work in Los Angeles other than that coming from the L.A. Women's Video Center, some of which has been touring Australia. I guess Hollywood is rather overpowering. Unfortunately I didn't stay in L.A. long enough to investigate the accuracy of this statement.

In San Francisco there are several small independent production groups including Video Free America, Demystavision, and Target Video. Each of these groups have 3/4” production facilities. VFA produces a mix of documentaries and experimental and performance work. Demystavision is primarily involved in the documentation of theatre and dance performance in San Francisco, while Target Video, led by Joe Reese, has, over five years or so, developed an outstanding library of videotapes on the punk/new-wave music scene in San Francisco. I also spent a couple of days talking with Bill Etra about his recent projects, including a pipeline-computer digital video-processing system called VMS, as well as his device for synthesising 3-D TV now being developed for the Channel 9 network in Australia.

Though I only spent five days in Vancouver, Canada, I feel that the most valuable contact (in terms of usefulness and interest for Australian independent producers) made in North America was with the Video Inn. Video Inn is primarily a video library/archive, established by Michael Goldberg in the late 60's, and has an extraordinary amount of video from all over the world that is readily available for viewing to anyone who cares to wander in and ask about it. They are most interested in developing further contact with Australian tapemakers. They publish the International Video Exchange Directory, which is a very useful listing of independent video people and organisations throughout the world.

I suggest, in review of the recent tour of Australian videotapes in North America, that a follow-up show, more tightly selected and shorter in total duration, be planned for one or two years' hence. The good contacts made deserve a follow-on, in order to bring Australian work before a wider audience.

Meanwhile Videotapes from Australia has been scheduled for a brief showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on its return to Australia (22 May - 8 June 1980) and, at the time of writing, informal reports suggest that the program is to be officially invited to be shown at Venice at the end of May, as an event associated with the 1980 Biennale of Venice.

Stephen Jones

Sydney, May 1980.