M.O.M.A's Australian Video Art

Haley Smorgon talks with An Eccentric Orbit producer, artist Ross Harley

HS How did the exhibition An Eccentric Orbit eventuate? How did you become the producer of the show?

RH Basically through a trip that John Hanhardt made to Australia in the mid to late eighties. He was the curator for film and video at the Whitney Museum in New York and saw a lot of really interesting work in Australia and thought it would be great if some of it could be shown in America. As a result he has been encouraging a number of people to get a show together and helping to get it touring America. I didn’t want to do it personally but thought it would be a great idea, so I approached the Australian Film Commission. We came up with Peter Callas who is a very well known video maker in Australia and has an international reputation. He has curated quite a few shows of this kind. I became producer because of my contact with both John Hanhardt and the American Federation Of Arts which is a touring organisation. The show will tour America, Europe, Latin America, and possibly Australia. It’s designed for an American and European audience who have not seen this work before.

HS What were the criteria for choosing the artists?

RH Basically to put together three programs that would present a coherent view of the sort of work that is made in Australia. The image of Australia overseas is quite different from what we experience in a cultural sense. We did not want landscape video or the sort of work that might be expected to come from Australia. We wanted to do something that was indicative of what has been happening here. Some works go back ten years while others have been recently completed.

HS Do you see the term “video art” as restrictive or misleading?

RH These days people make videos in different ways using digital video, using computers to make animation. It’s a combination of forms. You can’t talk about pure video. People are making laser discs or CD-ROMs or computer animations that do not use cameras at all but their output is video. Does that make them video? We actually wanted to call it “New Media” but the Americans thought that “New Media” sounded like fax machines and beepers. The term “video art” is misleading but it sort of works. They need a category that their audience will understand. “Video art” is a term that has to incorporate all the developments happening in video and film technology. It is still an emerging form and that is why it is difficult.

HS Your video Immortelle which is part of An Eccentric Orbit comes under the heading of “The Diminished Paradise”. Ross Gibson has suggested that from an Aboriginal and Islander point of view paradise has been truly diminished. How does the theme “the Lost Paradise” refer to your work Immortelle?

RH Ross Gibson’s work on “the Diminished Paradise” deals with the way Australia has been imagined as this paradisiacal place where the closer we get to it the further it recedes from our view amidst the interior of a threatening, wild landscape. We have taken this view to its endpoint where this paradisiacal view of the world is no longer an issue – it has gone completely. Although my work does not necessarily illustrate this, it fits well with a number of other works which are about how we deal with our sense of place, taking into account the cultures of indigenous peoples, science fiction and cyber-punk .

HS With reference to your current exhibition, The Digital Garden, at the Contemporary Centre for Photography for EXPERIMENTA, what does the garden signify in this technological age?

RH The garden is a great place to think about ourselves, nature and the way in which we arrange nature. Classically, we do this through our technologies. The garden is a place where we can reflect on the cycles of growth, geometry, order and patterning, not to mention the naked beauty of the garden as seen through electronic and mediatised eyes. We look at it through the filter or the lens of our time, the time of TV, video, computers etc.

HS Why has the wilderness an illusory sacred quality?

RH The wilderness is a construction of the twentieth century. We had to construct it in order to save it. We’ve also had to create parks and gardens in order to maintain a certain view of nature. Whether my work is essentially about that I am not sure. My point is simple that there is no such thing as a natural environment. Why didn’t we have a concept of the wilderness in the seventeenth century?

HS Why is it important for the viewer to interact with the computer monitor to move selected images, to navigate their own path?

RH For me it has to do with the idea of trying to make connections visually through inner space so that there is a series of repeated images which are themselves based on some simple geometry. I am interested to see what happens when you start with a few elements and then you multiply them out in space and over time. The touch screen is a data base of possibilities. There are various levels of interaction. I am interested in the relationships between images that have been grouped and patterned and constantly move in certain ways on very simple geometric principles.

HS What do the organic shapes and materials symbolise?

RH They are like electronic life forms. They are created very simply using video and computer feedback.

HS Viewing the Taj Mahal it appears as a travel video. Why the Taj Mahal? What is its significance?

RH You put your finger on it. All the gardens are well known and tourist sites. Taj Mahal, Versailles, Hyde Park, all have strong spatial geometry and a singular access which leads you along the perspectival site line towards its ultimate point. The Taj Mahal ‘lakes’ lead you to the mausoleum which is also a place of love, whilst in contrast, with Versailles, you look away from the palace over the domain of Paris, France, the world, limited only by the horizon. The garden is organised to extend that view. These places are ordered visually. My piece on one hand is a representational space but on the other hand it’s also real space, you move through it, you don’t sit down in one seat and experience it.

HS Your image of the haystacks resemble a Monet painting, your flowers, Warhol. Was this deliberate?

RH Absolutely. These are all the different ways we view nature through representation so it’s quite important that there are art historical references. The image of forest greenery composed of moving rectangular intersecting panels, representing the substance of nature in solid planes of colour also make reference to the modernist works of Mondrian and Van Doesberg.

HS In Leo Marx’s book The Machine In The Garden he describes a garden as a “miniature middle landscape”. He goes on to say that it “is as attractive for what it excludes as for what it contains.” Marx views the garden as a ‘constructure’, a place of mediated nature, a place to resolve the dichotomy of nature and culture.

RH I agree. Leo Marx put his finger on a lot of things when he wrote The Machine In The Garden.

HS Do you see technology and the way it effects the natural world as positive or as alienating?

RH Both. People have an ambivalent relationship to technology and to nature. I do as well. We see the world through the eyes of our time but we should also keep ourselves open to new possibilities. I don’t believe that our lives are overrun by technology. It doesn’t overtly concern me because I believe in chaos. We are saved by chaos in the end, the fallibility of all systems. Things don’t work the way they should which leads to the unpredictable. It’s not like Demolition Man or Jurassic Park.

An Eccentric Orbit – Video Art in Australia, organised by The American Federation of Arts, includes works by Destiny Deacon, Stephen Duke, Chris Caines, John Conomos, Peter Callas, The Brothers Gruchy, Jill Scott, John Gillies, Cathy Vogan, Michael Hill, Troy Innocent, Phillip Brophy, Ian Haig, Linda Dement, Bill Seaman, John McCormack, Michael Strum, Randelli, Faye Maxwell and Jane Parks

RealTime issue #4 Dec-Jan 1994 pg. 26

© Haley Smorgon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1994