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Australian explorations and innovations in audiovisual motion graphics
“The most compelling form of art for some artists is one that manipulates the senses playfully, by combing sound with visual, tactile and kinetic components.”
– Gail Priest, “Electronic Music in Australia”
Although little known in conventional artistic circles, many important and creative innovations have taken place at the hands of Australian multimedia artists and musicians, primarily in underground and experimental grassroots art scenes.
These artists, with their interest in experimental ‘sensory media mixtures’ – now often known as New Media Art – made a significant contribution to the rise of visuals (“motion graphics”) becoming synonymous with music.
“Sound makes us see the image differently, and then this new image makes us hear the sound differently, which in turn makes us see something else in the image, which makes us hear different things in the sound”
– Walter Murch
I was lucky enough to be personally involved with one of the pioneering groups of audiovisual mixing in the 1990’s, Clan Analogue, and although at that time I was not producing audiovisual works, my husband Adam was – as were many of our friends.
The creative innovations and directions taken during this period have had a profound influence on my career and directions as an artist, as well as shaping much of my thinking about New Media as an art form.
The development of multimedia is inextricably linked to available technologies. When the technology is not yet capable of achieving specific effects, innovation takes the form of repurposing what is available and pushing its use far beyond the original application.
Early audiovisual experimentation was driven by the concept of Visual Music – the transformation of music to visual form such as colours, light and shape.
Some of the technologies used to create Visual Music included;
One of the earliest practitioners of Visual Music was experimental NZ filmmaker Len Lye, who pioneered visual collaborations in the 1930’s with one of Australia’s earliest pioneers in electronic music, Jack Ellitt.
As a student, Lye became convinced that motion could be part of the language of art, leading him to early experiments with kinetic sculpture, as well as a desire to make film.
Lye’s artistic output encompassed;
A Colour Box
Made with the then very new Dufaycolour system invented in 1931 (1935, 35mm)
A three minute film made in only five days of creative intensity (1936, 35 mm)
Animated film made by scratching directly into film
The Ubu Film Collective (AlbieThoms, David Perry, Aggy Read and John Clarke) was an important experimental film-making collective in Sydney from 1965 to around 1970, that explored the intersection of experimental film and live sound in the area of expanded cinema.
Ubu’s flirtations with lightshows and live music often involved experimenting with coloured light, oil-lamp and film projections while psychedelic bands such as TamamShud, Tully and the Nutwood Rug Band played live on stage.
Ubu explore many themes over their existence;
Ubu became famous for their lightshow environments in November 1969 ,when they hosted the First Intergalactic Festival Lightshow Concert at the Cellblock Theatre, featuring live improvisation by The Id and Nutwood Rug.
Through their lightshows and the underground dances they put on, they created a tangible space for an underground scene to exist, as well as the ‘new counter-cultural ethos of pulsating psychedelic environments of light and sound.’
In an interview from 2003, Thoms reflected on the lightshows as “vehicles for expression of the spirit of the time”.
Their performances were vital influences on the imaginings of later artists.
Adelaide artist Josef StanislavOstoja-Kotkowski was quite possible Australia’s first true multimedia artist. Ostoja was prolific and multi-talented, working in a diverse range of mediums that included painting, filmmaking, theatre design, fabric design, kinetic and static sculpture, stained glass, computer graphics and laser art.
“... I'd like to [...] create an aurora which involves not only a three-dimensional but a more-dimensional space in which time is involved.
It seemed to me that you could achieve this by using light as a tool and that the closest thing to the source of light we know and can handle confidently is electronics.“
– Ostoja, 1968
Ostoja is best known for his ground-breaking work in chromasonics, laser kinetics and 'sound and image' productions. This was dramatically demonstrated with his 37-metre high public light sculpture, Chromasonic Tower (1970)
He developed a chromasonic laser unit: splitting the frequency of sound into 12 bandwidths that he could control via different aspects of projection using motorised mirrors to make a complex audio kinetic device. He demonstrated this in a collaborative performance Synchronos 72 with composer Don Banks (1972)
Ostoja’s pioneering work in laser sound and image technology earned him international recognition.
“I’m getting closer and closer’, he says, his face lighting up, ‘to intertwining sound and shape and color. I feel a bit like a caveman who discovered a bit of charcoal and realised I could draw on walls. I can imagine a day in the near future when the sky is the artist’s canvas.”
- Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski talking to Sandra McGrath, ‘From the way out’, Art, Australian, 9 June 1979
“I am not seeking to obscure art with technology as some of my critics claim but I am trying to free the imagination from the impediments of traditional media. I believe that new methods of making images can lead to a more immediate articulation of visual ideas in art that is relevant to the culture of advanced technology countries.”
- JS Ostoja-Kotkowski
“... I admired the work of J.S. Ostoja-Kotkowski [...] I was highly influenced by his use of technology, of searching for an alternate aesthetic that wasn't based in the traditional media.”
- Australian performance artist, Stelarc
Described as a ‘sound sculptor’, Warren Burt began teaching audio and video synthesis in the electronic music course at La Trobe after moving to Australia in 1975.
“[Burt’s early video pieces] have a sense of process ... each one would have a scenario, a structure. This set up parameters but it [was] not quite under control ... coming out of a Cagean experimental aesthetic.”
- John Gilles, artist and academic
In 1976, the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, linked to La Trobe, was established by Ron Nagorcka, Warren Burt and John Campbell. Artists around the centre explored media fusions, including Ros Brandt and Phillip Brophy.
In 1977, Burt curated a concert series with KiraPerov called Video Spectrum that brought together artists working with video. Many of the pieces explored the performative potential of video and incorporated real-time manipulation and live video feeds.
Australia’s isolation has allowed Australian artists to explore technology and its applications in a variety of unique ways, often breaking new ground and developing pioneering commercial products along the way, such as the Fairlight CMI (Computer Music Instrument, 1979) and the CVI (Computer Video Instrument, 1984-85).
The ultimate challenge was to make the visual stream as live and playable as the audio element. Film was a pre-recorded medium, but video offered the potential for a truly responsive form.
However equipment was extremely expensive, which is why development was driven by artists devising their own technological processes.
Adam Wolter and Tim Gruchy experimented with synchronising electronic music and computer-generated imagery using the first generation of Amiga computers in the late 1980’s.
Guchy’s multimedia work uses very complex sequences of hand-painted slides, usually accompanied by performances on his synthesizers and samplers. A typical performance was Fine Fragments (April 1987), an hour long performance featuring over 600 hand-painted slides, music and dance.
In 1987, Wolter and sound artist Gary Warner collaborated in an experimental art showcase called ‘Music for three computers’ (Peter Bellas Gallery, Brisbane). They used three Amiga computers and commercially available synthesis and sampling software in unconventional ways. In April 1989, Wolter wrote his own software to construct Brownian noise fractals in a solo computer sound and graphics show at the Queensland Art Gallery.
Stephen Jones is best known for his live video system. His video synthesizer was a combination of a 8 x 8 switching matrix – four external video inputs and four internal oscillator inputs – with a Serge Modular synthesizer and a Fairlight colouriser which allowed him to create real-time effects in combination with pre-recorded and live material.
“[The Bush Video Collective was] a constant video theatre environment ... there was a notion that we could develop a language that somehow involved a different communication ... a communication of process not of products and objects.”
- Jones, heavily influenced by anarchic group The Bush Video Collective (1973-74)
Jones first collaborated with Severed Heads (Tom Ellard, Garry Bradbury and Simon Knuckley) – who had already been performing with their own visuals consisting of slides and film - in 1982. Their partnership was so successful, that he joined the band permanently in 1983.
With Ellard contributing Amiga animations and Jones continuing to create video and interactive systems, Severed Heads went on to earn an international reputation for their equally innovative music and visuals.
Severed Heads was at the forefront of the increasing interest in mixing live visuals and alternative music, and by the early 1990’s, the VJ was an essential element to dance party and rave culture.
“Having visuals at raves and dance parties started as an extension to the lighting and decor but soon became a main part of them. It later became so much of a fixture that VJs were often listed on fliers in the line-up.”
- Jasper Russell, “The 5000 Fingers of Dr.T.”
VJ’s of the 1990’s;
Clan Analogue is Australia’s largest electronic arts collective, founded in 1992 by a small group looking to create ways of collaborating and sharing knowledge. Early adopters in exploring the potential of any new multimedia technology, grassroots innovation is a hallmark of Clan Analogue collaborations.
“[the mix of visuals and electronic music] influenced more than just the sum of two parts and brought large diverse social groups together. Each worked with the other in the sense of finished work coming together, with tweaks and keying, manual and digital, done at the event”
– Emile Rasheed
“... the visuals were mainly inspired by the music. Having some form of visuals for electronic music meant it could be played on TV music video shows to widen the audience of electronic music.”
- Jasper Russell
Audiovisual fusion forays:
“In 1997, I hosted weekly images on a website and had people from around the world send me a short sound loop in response to the image which I used to form compositions around.”
– Toby Kazumichi Grime
Clan Analogue duo The 5000 Fingers of Dr.T. (Adam Pierce and Jasper Russell, 1994-2002) earned themselves a cult underground reputation for their mix of unique electronic music and visual performances, home-made analogue synthesizers, sound equipment and software for visual effects .
The Fingers’ interest in visuals began with a project to design "the ultimate trip video". They spent many weekends creating psychedelic visuals in the living room, ending up as the famous (infamous?) Om Video (1994, collaboration with Steve Anderson), which made it into Reachin' Records before their music.
“There were basically 2 ways of doing visuals back then - through video mixers and video effects processors or with an Amiga Computer. These could be combined for even crazier results.
Video mixers/processors were expensive hardware. [We used] traditional analogue video editing techniques, with two VCR’s running through a video mixer to a final output: cutting, mixing with built-in effects between them.
We produced The Om Video this way by looping the output back into the input thus creating a video feedback loop. Throw in a couple of simple computer generated animations and some effects processors and a totally crazy trippy video was produced.”
- Jasper Russell
The Fingers designed visuals to accompany their live music performances , including the Blob Generator software (designed and created by Adam). They were instrumental in contributing to creating the unique mixed media atmosphere of events like Frigid and Freaky Loops.
“... the 5000 Fingers of Dr T video clip 'Barbecued Crickets‘ ... put together by band members Jasper and Adam, along with Selena Seifert ... I'd go so far as to say it's one of the most inventive and memorable of Australian electronic music videos."
- Andrez Bergen, Zebra/Inpress, Melbourne
The move towards New Media Art
“Sound and image fuse into new, tightly articulated wholes; they are cross-wired, cut or molded into blocks or something like raw sensation’”
– Theorist Mitchell Whitelaw
While innovative technical process is still important, technology has advanced so far that there is no longer a need to ‘hack’ or create systems; the role of technology is less important, freeing artists up and allowing time to focus on conceptual and aesthetic explorations. Multimedia artists are moving into new areas, exploring interaction and methods for creating audio and visual together as integrated artworks.
“Interaction is actually about a conversation. It’s about feedback and modulation ... The most interesting model of interaction is where the machine is actively engaged in the conversation and it is speaking a language that you are able to become familiar with.”
– Stephen Jones, referring to the Severed Heads installation Chasing Skirt(Biennale of Sydney, 1988), in which visitors could trigger both sound and visual material in an interactive audiovisual environment
Tesseract Research Laboratories (CindiDrennan and Justin Maynard) were visual architects, known for their site specific audiovisual installations, distinctive and original live performances involving image projection and experimental screen sculptures, creating immersive environments and live performance interaction.
“VJing is a temporal and interactive art form which we combine with spatial elements of structure, installation, interaction, and information architecture. We research and develop new forms of artistic expression and communication in time and space.
[Electronic music and visual fusion] was an environment that allowed experimentation, combining technology and creativity, exploring what audiences would respond to. The role of an artist working with the medium is to push boundaries. ”
Artists exploring interactive audiovisual scapes:
Multimedia and interactive audiovisual events and festivals:
Octapod was founded as an informal collective in 1996 by a group of artists and students who liked the idea of a public access media space - where people could create and browse interesting and unusual, non-mainstream media.
Octapod is responsible for overseeing the management of Newcastle's annual This Is Not ArtFestival (October), which incorporates Electrofringe.
Electrofringe is a festival of digital, electronic and new media arts, with a focus on emergent forms and techniques within media based arts practice.
Because it takes place outside of academic institutions, Electrofringe enables practical exchange of information, techniques and concepts, peer to peer mentoring and active participation for a diverse range of emerging and established media artists.
Many of the artists presented here have gone on to become recognized multimedia practitioners; working in the fields of motion graphics, 3D animation or film and TV, starting up commercial companies, lecturing in interactive multimedia, attaining New Media fellowships with the Australia Council for the Arts and holding events and festivals to promote and further new media practice.
Experimental mixed media practices came out of a grassroots interest in the potential of new technologies and converging art forms, and led to the creation of meaningful communities, important responses to changing cultural and technological landscapes and a range of innovative, adaptive and multi-disciplinary ways of approaching multimedia art.
The development and forms of these mixed media explorations have mostly gone on outside galleries and museums, and many Australian practitioners, despite earning growing international reputations for their work, often remain largely unknown and unrecognised for their talents and contributions in shaping both Motion Graphics and New Media as art forms.
“Experimental Music: audio explorations in Australia”, Chapter 10: Sounding Sight, Space and Bodies – a survey of mixed media explorations. Gail Priest, UNSW Press, 2009.
ArtsHub: Len Lye at ACMI, 5th August 2009
Len Lye: Wikipedia
Ubu Films: Wikipedia
Ubu Films and Underground Music
Joseph Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski: Wikipedia
Light Becomes the MediumArticle on Ostoja by Stephen Jones
Australian Music Centre: Warren Burt
“Live Electronics”, Peter Nelson & Stephen Montague
Video Combustion: Intentional (mis)use of AV technology
Electronic Media Arts in Australia
The 5000 Fingers of Dr.T. – biography
“Plug In Switch On”Clan Analogue documentary, 2008
In Repertoire – a Guide to Australian New Media Arts
The Australia Council for the Arts