capturing the ephemeral

erkki huhtamo: stephen jones, synthetics: aspects of art and
technology in australia, 1956-1975

Stephen Jones, Synthetics. Aspects of Art and Technology in Australia, 1956-1975

Stephen Jones, Synthetics. Aspects of Art and Technology in Australia, 1956-1975


Being an archaeologically oriented researcher myself, I can imagine what an enormous amount of work, patience and self-denial it has taken just to locate all the sources, to conduct the interviews and to trace countless ephemeral tips. Painstakingly compiling such a massive patchwork of forgotten pieces of information goes against the ‘quick & easy’ spirit of the times. There is life beyond the blogosphere, fortunately.

The title modestly claims that the book presents “aspects” of its topic, but Jones has done much more: he has written a full history to complement the well-known general accounts of art and technology by Burnham, Popper and others, most of which have very little to say about Australia. Jones rolls out a seemingly endless parade of artists, engineers, devices, software and—last but not least—artworks, saving them from oblivion. Ignoring Australian achievements will no longer be possible. This also applies to Australia: Jones notes several times how the field he has reconstructed has been neglected by local art critics and the official art world alike.

Although I have worked on this field for nearly 30 years in Europe and the United States, almost everything in Synthetics is totally new to me. Another book in the Leonardo Series, White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960–1980 (eds Paul Brown, Charlie Gere, Nicholas Lambert, and Catherine Mason, The MIT Press, 2009) serves as a comparison: it covers similar little-known developments in the UK during much the same period. However, there is a difference: White Heat is a heterogeneous collection of documents and approaches, but Jones has single-handedly produced a unified vision. Calling the book Synthetics (the name of a 1998 symposium) is well justified. Himself an electronic engineer and media artist, whose own career started just as the period his book covers was coming to a close, and now an historian, Jones is up to the Herculean task he has undertaken.

Synthetics covers “art that in some manner utilizes technological (and especially electronic) means in its realization.” This includes a huge array of things: computer graphics and animation, kinetic art, technologically enhanced dance, video art, (early) interactive art and even comments on artist-designed posters. Jones chronicles his topic in meticulous detail, to the extent that some readers might find his discourse at times exhausting. However, in this context such meticulousness can be justified, not only because so much has been missing from the history books, but also because the various cultural forms the book discusses were often linked with each other.

Jones has tried to take anything essential into consideration, starting from the general cultural atmosphere within which his chronicle unfolds. It is a story of relative isolation, breached by the arrival of immigrants, travels abroad, occasional exhibitions of foreign works, international art magazines and the enlightened visions of a few perceptive critics, most notably Donald Brook. Thanks to such openings, small but effective, the Australian development unfolded parallel to those in other countries, albeit with occasional asynchronicities that can be explained by local circumstances.

The story that emerges is one of collaboration, between artists and engineers, but also between the artists themselves, who formed influential groups like Optronic Kinetics (formed at the Fine Arts Workshop, aka The Tin Sheds of the University of Sydney) and Bush Video (which Jones himself joined). Alongside such collectives there were staunch individuals pushing ahead despite a lack of widespread public recognition or support. Jones draws impressive profiles of interesting creators like the maverick light artist Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski, an immigrant from Poland.

For a foreign reader the book raises a question about the originality of the Australian contribution: was there something truly extraordinary, something that deserves a special place in the general annals of the field? Jones rarely makes such claims, leaving it to the knowledgeable reader to draw the conclusions. Of course, quite a number of Australian artists have been active internationally on the field of art and technology, but most of them rose to prominence after the period the book covers ended. For example Stelarc, one of the most celebrated international figures using “technological means” in his art, is mentioned in the book only briefly, because he was still at an early stage of his formidable career.

While much of the activity discussed by Jones parallels and often reflects international developments, there are features that stand out. One of them is the frequent use of the Theremin, a pioneering musical instrument, as an interface device in early interactive art projects. Ostoja-Kotkowski was one of the artists who made interesting experiments with it, but perhaps even more intriguing is the work of the dancer Philippa Cullen (1950-75), whose very short career (she died at the age of 25) was packed with intense activity, experimentation and collaboration.

Cullen was determined to reverse the dancer’s normal subordination to music, and turn bodily movements into a source and trigger for sounds (and in some cases, electronic images). This led her to experiment with theremins, pressure-sensitive floors and biofeedback. A grant from the Australia Council for the Arts allowed Cullen to travel abroad, collaborating with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany and learning ethnic dance from a major international figure, although, as Jones indicates, it is uncertain which direction her work might have taken: further toward art and technology or toward community activism.

In the era of Facebook and blogging Jones’ book may be a bit much for some readers to digest. But this should not be considered a problem. It can be read in smaller portions as well. In fact, it contains several intriguing mini-histories, such as the account of the origins of digital computing in Australia (chapter 3). In a way this is a book that had to be written, and it had to be written in meticulous detail. Jones has accomplished the task with exact and balanced discourse, which is totally alien to prohibitive jargon. Even the many discussions of the technology the artists and engineers experimented with are understandable without expert knowledge; for some readers this may be the best part.

All in all, Stephen Jones should be congratulated for what he has achieved. He has written a substantial book that is both one and many. It will no doubt become the standard work about its topic. Now it is up to others to draw the links with later Australian developments and to continue the discussion about parallel developments, connections and communications.

Stephen Jones, Synthetics. Aspects of Art and Technology in Australia, 1956-1975, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011

RealTime issue #107 Feb-March 2012 pg. 27

© Erkki Huhtamo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

21 February 2012