Bush Video were the main group of people using video as an experimental art form in the early 1970s in Australia. It was set up by the experimental filmmaker Mick Glasheen, who had been using video since 1968. He was approached by the organisers of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival – to be held in the May university holidays of 1973 – to document the festival and provide video access to festival participants. Glasheen and another filmmaker, Joseph el Khourey, joined forces with the Australian Union of Students, producers of the Nimbin festival, and applied for funding to build a cable network through the town of Nimbin to set up a video centre. The idea was to record festival events and distribute them via cable to the many gathering places throughout the town, and the Festival grounds, for other participants to watch at a later time. This was the very first experiment in cable television in Australia.
Bush Video gathered a large group of like-minded artists, filmmakers and technologists to help realise the project. When they returned to Sydney, they moved into the studio Glasheen had already established in Ultimo, and this became the gathering place for all members of the group. More people got involved including a young electronics enthusiast known as Ariel. It was a loose, collective organisation built on the spirit of collaboration and explored most of the areas in which video has been used since.
Glasheen had already been working with colour video and recognised its electronic potential in the glowing flows of video feedback. He had also been recording small pieces of computer animation to film, which were made with the assistance of Doug Richardson, who built a computer graphics facility based on a DEC PDP-8 minicomputer at the University of Sydney. Once Bush Video returned from Nimbin the electronic project took off. A wall of TV monitors and a video-mixing capability was established in the studio, with cameras for recording everything from dance and music performances to video feedback and Lissajous figures on oscilloscopes.
The equipment Bush Video used to make the video ranged from an early computer graphics system built by Doug Richardson, to images made with oscilloscopes, or produced with modified monitors and video feedback. To create video feedback a camera is pointed at a monitor and played back into the monitor so it is looking at itself. This produces a loop of video signal with a delay caused by the time it takes to get the monitor to display the image – not very long really.
Glasheen describes the attraction this electronic video art held for him: ‘I was drawn to the organic nature of it’ it seemed to me that video and electronic art is really an image of’ energy! It’s live light energy! Electromagnetic fields that are made visible. You know, there’s this glowing cathode tube with an image there that was alive. So I just felt that there’s life there, this new life-form, that could be felt when you’re doing video feedback.’
The studio process often involved nights of live mixdowns with as many videotapes and electronic-image-generation devices as possible, brought into play over a period of recording. These sessions could get pretty wild and lots of interesting images were produced, though few coherent finished works were made. One of the more finished works, MetaVideo Programming, was commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia for its collection of experimental art. This and several other pieces were shown by Bush Video at the Computers and Electronics in the Arts exhibition in Canberra.
Like all other participants in the exhibition, Bush Video were invited to contribute by Doug Richardson. They had a van for their equipment and a Geodesic Dome Glasheen built, which they lived in while travelling. The Dome was set up by the lake in Commonwealth Park as accommodation for the core members who went to Canberra for Australia 75.
The Bush Video installation took form as a wall of monitors on which all the video work, tape playbacks of Bush Video pieces and live performances mixed either by Bush Video or though John Hansen’s video synthesiser, were shown to the public. The exhibition opened as colour television was launched in Australia, so for many members of the public it was their first experience of it. They kept up an almost continuous stream of wildly abstract video for the audience.
This was a period of high experimentation – artists working with electronics did not know what the possibilities were. They had access to the smallest details of the technology; every single op amp, if in the analogue, and AND gate, if in the digital, or writing one’s own assembler code if working directly with a microprocessor.
Video was also highly experimental. The technology available to artists was still new, very primitive and unstable. The kinds of images that were being generated were often a result of quirks in the equipment and could be very difficult to record.
For the Bush Video artists, the use of video feedback was a representation of the way in which technology might become a ‘living thing’. This could be seen in the way video feedback became self-sustaining, and often quite uniform in spiraling forms that inevitably led to comparison with the illustrations of D’Arcy Thompson in his book On Growth and Form. The slightest change of lighting, camera setting, or the images it was mixed with, could trigger the feedback off into new forms.
Using wipes and luminance keys the mixer could take layers of images – oscilloscope displays, Lissajous figures, animated wire-frame geometric drawings done on Doug Richardson’s computer, and the streaming echoes of visual feedback – and combine them into collections of images redolent with ideas about the geometry of space and consciousness. They were searching for a new language for the new ideas that came with cybernetics, geodesic domes, Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan, and of course, the newly accessible electronic technologies.
Here video is not just a narrative tool but an attempt to create a new language with images as coherent living ideas. These images influenced ways of thinking about consciousness and memory and new approaches to metaphysics (this was after all the 70s, when everyone was starting to think differently thanks to the ground work of the hippies in the 60s). It was felt that somehow the images being produced were a direct emulation of flow of consciousness and the deeper understanding achieved through meditation and other spiritual activities (and, of course, LSD). This was a period of what we might think of as ‘spiritual technology’.
^ Conversation with Mick Glasheen recorded on 14 May 2005 at Palm Beach