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Across great divides

Keith Gallasch

John Gillies, Armada John Gillies, Armada
The history of video art is closely allied to developments in performance and as an art form in itself video has made a strong investment in performativity. Visual artists turned away from canvas to their own bodies in the 60s through performance art, cross artform collaborations and other means to regain a sense of integrity outside the marketplace: video was to become one such tool observing everyday performance, performance artists and dancers, and video artists themselves in the frame.

John Gillies is a mainstay of and inspiration to the Sydney experimental arts scene as video-maker, sound artist, musician and teacher (College of Fine Arts, UNSW) with a long association with Performance Space where a retrospective of his video works is about to be held (April 16-May 13). His new work, the deeply engaging and politically suggestive Divide will premiere later this year.

Youth theatre in Queensland, says Gillies, kindled his interest in performance. At Darling Downs College of Advanced Education from 1978 to 1980 he studied film and video with David Perry of UBU fame. As well as creating sculptures and installations he also worked as a musician and sound designer, composing for theatre productions of plays by Peter Weiss and Bertolt Brecht. He also studied Balinese and experimental music.

Were you making videos as a student?

Little projects, some of them performance-based videos which turned into the first works I showed in Sydney in the early 1980s. One involves me with a microphone feeding back, looking for resonant frequencies in a room. They’re formalist experiments in the style of 70s performance video.

When you arrived in Sydney did you find a network of like-minded artists?

I came to Sydney in 1980 because I had a show at Watters Gallery. It was quite an exciting time. There was a performance scene and artists like Mike Parr and a lot of music. I got involved with alternative spaces and people like [sound artist] Rik Rue and started doing tape cut-up works and live sound and releasing audio compilation cut ups—the whole cassette boom. By then I was also a student at Sydney College of the Arts making performances and some video work: still very much formalist performance art works, often looking at found gestures, and also making formalist, experimental sound works.

What about the synthesis of sound and video which is characteristic of your work?

In the early work the sound piece came first, then the video. In editing and constructing videos you’re actually playing with musical form. All that shaping and flow and repetition that I use a lot always echo musical structure.

Once you’d settled in Sydney, how long before you started sending videos out?

From the beginning. In 1980 I started showing work in Japan.

What screen culture was there here in the 80s?

The Film-makers Co-op, the Super-8 Film Group and art-based video-makers like myself, Jill Scott, Peter Callas, Kathy Vogan (who’s just returned to Australia. She’s been living in France for the last 20 years). And Roslyn Oxley was showing art video in her gallery. Video seemed a thing you could possibly do.

How did you survive as an artist?


Do you feel this has helped or hindered your artistic career?

Both. It’s allowed me to keep working. And remember technology was much more expensive then. The only way to access it was through institutions. It’s allowed me to really research and develop my ideas through the process of supervising and teaching. I get a lot from my students as well.

You’re still teaching though you’ve had 2 years out with a New Media Arts Fellowship.

I’ve had bits of time out all over the place but I’m still a full-time lecturer.

You’ve weathered the storms of change in the tertiary education system and to your 4D Studies Department.

In the early 90s it was particularly strong. There are still interesting people coming out of it all the time. It’s still potentially fantastic, the intersection between fine art practice and time-based forms that no one else is really doing on that scale. I think it was really important historically in terms of what happened with the creation of the New Media Arts Fund of the Australia Council. There was a bit of synchronicity there. A lot of the graduates got grants to create works right away. There’s a lot more university pressure now to produce more “packaged” work and to be more commercial...But I’m not pessimistic at all because I still see fantastic work from students.

You consistently work with Sydney’s performance community.

That’s one of the reasons I live in Sydney. There continues to be a fantastically interesting performance scene here. People work and co-operate with each other, see and build on each other’s work. And I don’t know if this really happens in the music or in visual arts in the same way.

What is it about those performers? In your work they often appear to be in a state of being which is transcendent or trance-like. At other times they look like they might have been clipped from an Eisenstein film.

There are echoes of Eisenstein’s imagery. There’s lots of references. I see it all the time. I don’t even know that I’m necessarily doing it.

Your video works have a cinematic quality although they’re from a very different tradition.

I’m interested in cinema, in building a cinema. You can build it on texts and plays and books as in a narrative, naturalistic kind of cinema which seems problematic in Australia. But then there is another tradition here. My project is to build some kind of cinema based on that milieu. There’s a cinema language that can be explored a bit more. In the film Techno Dumb Show with the Sydney Front, there’s the idea of silent cinema—there are still possibilities within that form.

Your montage dynamic is very pulse-based.

That comes from music. The editing there is mixing. It’s me physically switching between visual sources or, as in the last section with Nigel Kellaway of Techno Dumb Show, I’m literally playing the image of Kellaway on the keyboard of a tape-recorder. What you see is like take number 20.

That’s one of my favourite sequences, a gestural dance. Even though the sequencing of repeated and rewound gestures has since become a familiar device it’s still very powerful in your work. Initially it looks like Kellaway’s conducting, then like he’s gradually going off the air and, at the end, he’s thinking “where have I been?”

In that piece I tried to “flip-flop” all the way through. There’s pathos, there’s comedy. You’re watching the process of backwards-and-forwards. There’s no certainty. Nothing is pinned down.

Other bits look quite cinematic—the reverse field shots of Clare Grant at the phone—and others have a stranger sense of artifice: the performers running on the spot.

It’s actually a shot from a train, going in reverse. So it’s a contradiction again. They’re running in the opposite direction. It’s an impossibility. They’re trapped in this state. So yes, I use bits of cinematic shot construction. And that’s probably what makes my video art a bit different.

It’s video art with highly integrated cinematic referencing which is not there just for its own sake...

It’s another language.

How was Techno Dumb Show put together?

From various Sydney Front shows. It was conceived as a catalogue, a couple of pages, a list of gestures. So it had no other structure. There were various takes so the performers could see themselves, look at the takes. It’s one of the great things about video. Or I’d suggest things, or heighten it a bit more so that they were performing for the camera rather than for a live audience...I’m really interested in the translation between mediums. I don’t want the work to be a representation of performance. I want it to be performative on the screen and some sort of essence of what the artists’ work is about.

In the enigmatic De Quincey Tapes there’s an opening rustling in bushes and in the next sequence some kind of tussle going on, until Tess De Quincey emerges in an intense whirling and eventually evaporates into the dark.

Yes, it’s Tess wrestling with herself. That’s a purely improvisatory work. We went to a studio for a number of nights over a month and I’d suggest things, she’d bring things along. It’s like a give and take, a kind of play between us. That’s something you learn from music, the ability to play with other people, listening and watching each other, picking up on each other.

What about Armada which is more like watching a visual art work unfolding?

A moving painting. That’s very much an installation. It’s not something you would sit in a cinema and watch. I tried to have no performers, but a sense of people absent, perhaps of ghosts. That was the starting point for the work that came after, of people not as complete, more as ciphers, holders of character but shifting and unstable. My new work explores that a lot.

Armada is full of iconic imagery and sounds. On the one hand, you have black and white footage of Armada ships vis a vis the intended Spanish invasion of England in the late 16th century. But on the other hand you have overlaid rotating and counter-rotating images of a Union Jack and of a 19th century train wheel alternating with pages from the Old Testament flicking backwards with a terrible tearing sound. How does that tally with this notion of absence you’re talking about?

I’m throwing all those images up as a painter might, even though I’m working with time. The images are pregnant with possibility rather than having any literal meaning. I’m trying to touch on something about Australian history and British colonialism.

With the Old Testament text is there a sense of prophecy and predestination?

When I showed it in Brazil it evoked connections with British colonialism which was very strong there in the 19th century. The imagery in my work is like ink-blot tests, sometimes indistinct and may be degraded in some of the really early work. That allows a space for a kind of reading from the audience which is more open. I hope the work is evocative.

Did you layer the images digitally?

No. It’s all done in video post-production. Everything in that video is appropriated imagery, even the boats. They’re models. Miniatures. It’s compositing. And all that work starts off in drawing. The work comes out of that. That’s quite important.

Speaking of place, I’ve been watching The Mary Stuart Tapes with Clare Grant as Mary Stuart wandering the city streets at night, a 16th century figure in a post-colonial site.

You can’t look at the history of Australia in isolation. The history of contemporary Australia goes back 60,000 years here. But it also goes back to other places.

To a dead Catholic English queen as interpreted by Schiller?

(Laughs) Which is part of the body of Australia in a way. I was interested in the idea that she’s a possibility that could be buried inside the state of Australia. What if Australia was a Catholic state rather than the pseudo-Anglican state which it’s attempting to be at the moment?


Divide, your new 30 minute video work, is the most cinematic of your output in terms of the framing, shooting and narrative construction, even though it remains quite unpredictable. Did you storyboard it?

Sections are storyboarded. It started off as a list. Then cards and then juggling them around. Then I wrote a treatment, like a film scenario. That’s like a work in itself. Then I set about trying to realise it. Then shooting it was a matter of trying to reproduce that treatment which, of course, had to be different. Even though I say I storyboarded parts of it—and I’ve storyboarded stuff before—I wanted to shoot in an open kind of way, open to chance, to accident, to improvisation, to being in a location and having that seep in to the performers and the action. It would be crazy to go to a location, to have it all planned out and then actually miss the best things that were possibly there.

In a way, video is a process, a way of doing. If I had to shoot with film it would have been a very different thing and not as good. That goes for all the video work. That’s one reason I’m using video.

What kind of equipment were you using?

Just DV (digital video), but I did a lot of post-production all the way through. All the imagery in my work going back 20 years is highly processed. I was originally interested in painting but by using analogue and digital techniques I can explore ideas of surface and image and I can manipulate the image. Cinematographers talk about painting with light. It’s the same kind of thing.

Of all your work this one looks the most naturalistic.

I wanted it to be naturalistic ‘looking.’

As in the traditions of filmmakers like Kurosawa or others shooting in nature you give us time—

—to look.

To see nature, to be part of the density of the trees, to see the light coming down. And some of the darkest shots are the most beautiful.

A lot of it was shot after the sun had gone down which is usually a real no-no with video.

The sense of post-production is not so strong in Divide.

I want to make it invisible.

The strangest thing about it—and this comes back to the idea of pulse—people don’t seem to be quite moving in real time. There’s that slightly pixilated feel.

It’s slightly uncanny. That’s what I want the performance to be as well.

You’re already dealing with performers Ari Ehrlich, Denis Beaubois, Lee Wilson, Shu Fengshan who are very good conveying that sense of otherness.

The central problem with making any kind of work is actually finding a sense of movement in the centre of the work. That goes for any kind of time-based work. It could be a piece of animation or even a straight drama. How do the people move? How does the movement work throughout the piece, not just the people but how the sense of movement flows through the whole work. When you’ve got that, you’ve kind of got the work...

Although we hear the sounds of movement of horses and people and water running and stones chipping beneath hooves, this is essentially a silent film, I mean it’s without dialogue, as if witnessed by a silent observer.

Every sound is post-produced. So with each piece I do there’s a technical as well as a conceptual experiment. It makes the process very slow but then I see the whole work, even though it appears to be naturalistic, as being like a concrete sound piece.

There’s a prevalent third person point of view but there are also quite a few subjective moments like the surprise encounter in the bush with a Peking Opera artist, where you feel you’re either with these men or looking over their shoulders. There’s a kind of in and out in the visual pulse.

I didn’t want the audience to be too close to these characters. And I didn’t want to use the classic techniques for suturing the viewer into the narrative. I still wanted them to be distanced from it, which could be alienating. Who are these men they are watching, what are they?

It’s like they’re in the wrong place.

Most of the incidents in the work are in a sense historically accurate. These are 1840s sheep in an Australian forest—the first European animals here. And the forest’s not the right place for them. So it’s a different image from the one we have of sheep and their landscape now.

The characters look kind of historical but not.

It’s ambiguous. I want it to be open to some kind of reading about the present as well.

You have a young voice narrating the story of Abraham. Are you drawing an analogy between the Israelites’ destruction of the Canaanites...

That’s very literal...

...vis a vis the current plight of the Palestinians, vis a vis European arrival in this landscape and the destruction of Aboriginal culture, even though the Aboriginal presence is not visible in the video? Is the child reader Indigenous?

It’s [performer] Dalia Pigrum who’s about 25.

Of course, most people wouldn’t know it’s an Indigenous voice.

Some will pick it up.

But because of the way you begin with the Abraham story, repeat it and enlarge it, it must play a potent symbolic role. Then there’s the parallel image of the pages from the Bible being torn out and thrown away, beautifully shot and wafting through the air and in water. Is that manipulated post-production?

Nothing is slowed down in the whole thing. We spent a day throwing bits of paper around.

I think back to Armada and the sense of the colonialist belief in predestination which we so totally doubt now.

It’s there. It’s buried and it keeps coming back. And we’ve seen that so strongly in the last 5 years here. I tear my hair out. And it’s particularly the Bible, especially the Old Testament, which is obsessed with who’s worthy, who’s unworthy, who’s saved and who’s not, who belongs to the land and who doesn’t. All these dualities are set out in that text and it’s obviously the basis for Islam and Judaism—who God will bless and not bless. So it’s not like he’ll bless everyone. It’s the chosen. And it’s interesting to think about Australia in that paradigm and the forming of nations and the idea of the chosen nation.

By the end the imagery becomes stranger and richer, there’s a lamb and a burning tree—even more suggestive and more complex.

It can be anything. By the end of the piece the men are in cleared land. They’ve passed a threshold. After the credits it’s land which has no vegetation at all. And after the closing shot of the sheep, it’s just cracked ground. It’s the most literal thing I’ve done.

There’s a density of iconic imagery but it doesn’t feel forced because the rhythms are so easy.

It should feel natural. It belongs, it is of the place and it’s not a representation. I’m trying to tap threads or undercurrents.

How did you work with the performers?

Partly by putting the performers in that space, living in it and chasing after sheep up and down hillsides and rebuilding fences, and blocking off the rest of the world totally.

When we see the encounter with the Peking Opera performer it’s as if these European herdsmen arrive and find that Australia’s part of Asia.

People tell me stories about how something like that could have happened, or did. Someone told me about a burning tree. I’m trying to dredge up things that people will be able to add their stories to. It’s like a sub-current.

Open-ended symbolism.

Symbolism can be heavy-handed and some of these images are very literal but others are ambiguous, like tearing up the Bible. Are the men tearing it up to plant it like seeds all the way through the landscape?

How important were the performers to you?

The work is inspired by the performers. This is an important point. I see them doing things and that sparks an idea. The Mary Stuart Tapes, it’s Clare Grant that sparked that idea. And Divide was sparked very much from Denis Beaubois and Ari Ehrlich.

But they didn’t have any conceptual input initially. It’s your response to who you could work with.

The images float around in my head and because their performance is open and the images they create are open, you can see them in all kinds of contexts or tailored in a particular way. I find that really interesting.

So what happens to Divide now?

I’ll be submitting it to video and film festivals. There’s an installation version as well which has 2 screens. On one screen is the video as you’ve seen it. On the other are sheep watching it. And the audience is in the middle.

John Gillies, Video Works 1982-2001, Performance Space, April 16-May 13

John Gillies is one of the facilitators for the hybrid arts laboratory Time_Place_Space 3 in Adelaide, July.

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 22-

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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