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David Perry: moving image artist

Danni Zuvela talks to an experimental film pioneer


David Perry, Interior with views David Perry, Interior with views
David Perry is one of Australia’s most significant moving image artists. In a career spanning over 40 years, innovation figures emphatically: in his role in the pioneering avant-garde film group Ubu; teaching video and television techniques and making important video art in the formative days of the medium; and in his continued creation of complex experimental film works.

Perry’s work across various formats illustrates the fluidity and pleasure with which many artists move between media in order to invent new aesthetic expression. Like many moving image artists, he trained in other artforms, exploring painting and developing a technical understanding of photography as a printer.

He honed those skills and experimented with early electronic imaging at the ABC. He describes himself “nevertheless [as] an odd person out in that I was most interested in art—painting, drawing, printmaking—and soon enough, of course, in a kind of filmmaking that left the ABC totally uninterested.”

With other experimental ‘filmers’ [a self-description used by Perry to align filmmakers with painters and writers], Perry faced a prevailing anti-art discourse and obsession with the national narrative cinema. His very early film experiments on Standard 8 in the early 1950s stand out as among the first self-consciously ‘artistic’ films in the nation. However, “that was seen to be just a waste of time...the only thing to do as a filmmaker [was] to make entertainment feature films which told stories in a most conventional way”. Perry’s innovative work is overdue for reconsideration and recognition. He spoke to me on the eve of the release of his DVD entitled Old Films and Videotapes.


What’s on the DVD is all the “experimental” work done between 1953 and 2002 that I could get my hands on. It’s actually a double DVD package with a ‘bonus’ disc containing a few health education productions from the 80s which I included as examples of what an idealistic, “arty” film maker might have to do to support him/herself.

Most of the productions included are just as they were when I finished them (apart from the ravages of time and careless projectionists). I did try to do a little bit of grading on many shots and/or sequences to make contrast, brightness and colour as good as possible for the video screen. In one case only have I done a complete re-cut [of A TV Show, 1975].

Mad Mesh (1968) is one of the first ‘video-graphic’ works in Australian art and significant when compared to similar experiments, such as those of Nam June Paik.

Mad Mesh came about when I was working at the ABC’s Federal Engineering Lab. One day I was shown a faulty Image Orthicon tube—a large and expensive device inside TV cameras of the time which converted optical images into electronic signals. One part consisted of a very fine mesh which played a crucial part in the conversion from optical to electronic images. Normally the mesh was totally invisible, although it was possible, by adjusting the internal focus of the Image Orthicon—not the optical focus of the camera lens—to make the mesh visible on a black-and-white video monitor. With magnetic interference, it was possible to deform the mesh.

I had the idea of recording the monitor image on colour film while we deformed the mesh. The effect of the combinations of red, green and blue images in this case was to create complex and restlessly mobile patterns on the film in varying colours.

How did your filmmaking skills translate into your video work in the UK?

I think my work with the ABC’s Federal Engineering Lab carried some weight in getting me the job because the college [Hornsey College of Art] also had what it called a “television studio.” [It] was in fact a basic video studio, with a control room, lighting grid etc. In those days there was no distinction made between television and video. Of course, we now know that one is a system of distribution, the other a technology of many and varied uses. How these, the system and the technology, have developed and mutated and blended with the older system and technology, both called “film”, is a fascinating story. I was fortunate to have been there, not right at the start, but nevertheless when the story was just beginning to take shape.

When you came to Queensland for your year-long residency at Griffith University [1975-76], your work there in video seemed to fuse painterly concerns with landscape—both grass-tree scrub and domestic views—with experimentation with the high-tech new medium of video.

The title Interior With Views was chosen quite deliberately to make a connection with painting and art history. There was something highly appealing to me about the way that those really very low-tech black-and-white video cameras rendered the landscape I saw through the windows every time I sat down to work. It was something like the effect of soft charcoal on white paper. But the “painterly concerns” are not just to do with the way the images look, they are also about content, which is a way of touching obliquely on politics. I have always been drawn to French painting because of the way it honours the everyday, the egalitarian without polemics, if you like.

What are your feelings about the way in which funding bodies have gone about funding experimental film?

For many kinds of unconventional films the use of the word ‘script’ is entirely inappropriate. I don’t want to suggest that planning or preparation for an unconventional film is unnecessary, and I certainly don’t think all the production processes can or should be improvised. But there are many kinds of film where planning for what characters will do and say is entirely irrelevant.

What always amused or amazed me was the requirement for a script as part of the assessment process for so-called experimental films. I seem to remember that after I made Album (1970) the Experimental Film Fund called for applications for grants. When I got the application forms I was flabbergasted to see that the central part of any application was expected to be a script. This told me that the people establishing the funding bureaucracy were not visual artists at all. They were, in fact, all wordsmiths—Philip Adams, Barry Jones and Peter Coleman (Peter Costello’s father-in-law—say no more!).” That committee’s ideas flew in the face of all that I’d learned, which was that the first stage of production—for me—was that I started gathering images. They might be shots on film, stills, or even drawings....after a certain amount of time a structure or pattern would start to appear, to suggest itself to me...The whole process is obviously subjective and fraught with danger for bureaucrats, bankers and so on.

Now, of course, talent is something that can only reveal itself in work already done, which creates a Catch 22 for any young person just starting out—how do you prove your talent if you can’t make a work? Films, even the most basic sort, require a modicum of money and practical skills to become realities. The way I did it was to have a job which gave me a very small amount of money to spend. And to have a job where the means of production were available for use after hours—although I was already in my 30s and had 3 children, so you can imagine there was some juggling to be done. But to get back to the subject of talent, and how one proves to others that one has it (how else will funding flow?), if a person is a visual artist rather than a script-writer, it will take a lot of self-confidence, assertiveness, perhaps even naked aggression, to get that talent recognised.

* * *

Inspirations

Along with critical exposure to American avant-gardist Bruce Conner’s work, Perry recalls the inspiration of films by masters like DW Griffiths, and of classic European art cinema he originally saw at the Sydney Film Festival such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). “The power and intensity of its images, and its editing, have never left me.” Perry’s persistent, pioneering exploration of original moving images recalls Pauline Kael’s famous reference to Dreyer’s cinema as an art which “begins to unfold just at the point where most directors give up.”

Over the last two decades, David Perry’s works have roamed freely across the arts, from documentaries about jazz musicians and artists (maintaining the fascination in Australian alternative cinema with films about artists by artists) to the creation of drawings, collages and paintings, often in residencies which recognise his sustained contribution to Australian art. These artworks continue to develop Perry’s core themes of abstraction (“after all”, he says, “my great love in art is the formal clarity of cubism”) and landscape, featured strongly in both film and video works and with such memorable form in his work during the Griffith residency (he recently visited the Pissarro exhibition at the AGNSW, and says that “the best of Pissarro’s work reminded me of what I was trying to do at Griffith, that is to depict and to honour everyday life”). He’s also been drafting Memoirs of a Dedicated Amateur, “a profusely illustrated account [of his] working life as artist and film maker.”

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 19

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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