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Memory, debris and ecstasy

Ned Rossiter on Peter Callas and video art at the Festival of Perth

Ned Rossiter teaches mass communications at Monash University and theory and history of architecture at RMIT University, Melbourne. He is co-editor (with Allen Chun and Brian Shoesmith) of Pop Music in Asia: Cultural Values and Cultural Capital (Curzon/Hawaii University Press, forthcoming).

Peter Callas, Lost in Translation Peter Callas, Lost in Translation
In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx spoke famously of the “tradition of all the dead generations weigh[ing] like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Similarly, there is an overwhelming sense in which the video works of Peter Callas possess an electro-organic force, one so imbued with the archive of mediatised debris of geo-political and popular culture that the ecstasy of an encounter with his video works might lead to meteoric apoplexy in perception on the part of the viewer. This, if you will, is but one constellation of a dialectical imaginary that negotiates the complexities between the premodern and the (post)modern in Callas’ topo-videographic lessons on history.

Peter Callas: Initialising History is a 3-component national touring project centred around Peter Callas, electronic media artist and curator. Produced by dLux media arts, the project features Initialising History, comprising 12 of Callas’ video works 1980–1999; Peripheral Visions, a selection by Callas of contemporary international video art and computer animation; and An Eccentric Orbit, a 3-part survey of Australian video art made during the 1980s and early 90s, curated by Callas and produced by Ross Harley and touring internationally since its launch in 1994 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The short black & white video Singing Stone (1980) holds a curious pivotal position as the opening piece in the Callas retrospective. Prior to embarking into the world of video art, Callas trained at the ABC as an assistant film and then sound editor for TV news and current affairs programs. He then studied printmaking and sculpture at art school in Sydney. Singing Stone seems to translate some of the technical and ideological properties of these otherwise distinct media into the poetics of video art. For almost the entire duration of this work, we hear a harsh scraping discord as we see a hand brushing a stone in a circular motion. The image of the hand and stone literally disintegrates, recomposing as a mutable collage of imaginary terrains anchored by noise which eventually folds over the obliterated image to include a veritable murmur of voices and honking traffic intruding from the street. At least that’s how I heard it.

The layered dimensions of sound and imagery in Singing Stone are made possible by the unstable nature of magnetic tape as a recording surface, yet one assumes these layers are the result of the place of a kinaesthetic between the hand and the stone. As such, a metaphor is created on the dialectic between inscription (or representation) and the contingencies of history. In yet another way, the work can be seen to refuse the fragmented spectacle of TV news images held together in a universal order by the voice-over of a news reader or reporter. The referent seems to speak itself.

In the context of a selected retrospective, Singing Stone can perhaps more crucially be approached as anticipating some of the recurring stylistic motifs and critical concerns Callas’ later works present. First, there is a recognition of the instability of representation: Callas shows that even images unfolding in real-time—that supposedly ‘unmediated’ time not subject to the intervention of the ‘edit’—are, however, subject to the peculiarities of a communication technology and the way historicity is attributed to cultural phenomena. Secondly, is the way a grid of manga warriors or shifting troupe of dancers appears to emerge in the regenerating images of Singing Stone. (Callas himself hinted as much in his introduction to Initialising History at the Festival of Perth’s ART(iculations) symposium, and revealed in the discussion after the screenings that he sees the bearded face of a Chinese man.) An apocryphal dimension attends such a readerly desire to enact order out of chaos. Indeed, Singing Stone invites uncertainty, or rather the certainty of differentiated perception —for both operate as a dialectical trope across the Callas oeuvre.

Callas’ ‘singular style’ developed while living in Tokyo during the ‘bubble economy’ of the mid 80s. In this harmonious correlation between cultural production and imagined economies, video artists were commissioned by department stores, with electronic billboards and shop display windows operating as potential conduits out of urban environments for the passer-by. The staple icon articulating the animated brilliance of Callas’ multi-dimensional work from this period is derived or, as Scott McQuire aptly puts it, “mined” from the ubiquity of manga culture in Japan. The use of techno-hybrids of traditional and popular music as an editing strategy is predominant in these signatory video works. As Callas commented during the Perth screening of Initialising History, the structure of music dictates the editing of images; what distinguishes these works from pop music video clips is the situated resonance of history reconfigured. Callas alleviates a possibile rigidity in the dialectical image by deploying sound to create a fluid dimension for political expression.

Bilderbuch für Ernst Will (Ernst Will’s Picture Book): A Euro Rebus is one of Callas’ last works produced using the Fairlight CVI (Computer Video Instrument)—the primary tool through which Callas honed the complexity of fusing disparate cultural histories into topo-videographic arrangements. Made in Sydney and Tokyo from 1990 to 1993, Bilderbuch für Ernst Will follows Callas’ earlier work and doesn’t conform to any apparent narrative structure. Instead, as Rudolf Frieling suggests, Bilderbuch... is a work of “possible logics of construction and perception that need to be explored through multiple viewings”. Herein lies a paradox of Callas’ video art: while these texts can be seen as a highly aestheticised and at times horrific and sublime pastiche of images referencing a mass of art historical, pop culture, and what Ross Harley astutely calls “ideogrammic objects” of US mediatised culture (Art & Text 28 (1988), p. 78), his texts nonetheless resist the easy digestibility of aesthetics we often associate with recent digital and photomedia artworks. Within this tension between familiarity and abstruse syncretism, the problematic of history and memory is once again foregrounded as a politicised terrain. Moreover, Callas contributes to cultural debate the importance of reconsidering the critical place of aesthetics. And he’s been doing this for some time now.

An attempt to unravel the encyclopedic histories intricated throughout the video work by Callas can only be an interminable one. And herein lies the pleasure of his work. In any case, the program notes by Rachel Kent, read in conjunction with the essays by McQuire and Frieling in the forthcoming monograph, have to be commended for their critical acumen.

I’d like to finish by turning to Callas’ current work in progress, Lost in Translation. During the ART(iculations) symposium, Callas made frequent mention of what he observes as the institutional and commercial outmoding of video art by digital media in many contemporary art festivals. A pressing concern for Callas involves the cultural, social, and memorial implications that come with the excision of one communication technology as it is replaced by another. A fundamental question emerges: what happens when the communicative forms of cultural articulation are ‘exiled’ through instituted means? What is lost (and what is found) within new terrains of expression?

The syncopated “architectronics” emblemised in Callas’ CVI work are extended in Lost in Translation, where smooth transitions in 3-dimensional space envelop 2-dimensional planar images. A considerably slower pulse tracks a refiguring of ‘magic realism’ usually attributed to Latin American writers and photographers—the labyrinthine tales of Borges, epic parables of García Márquez and poignant images of Alvarez Bravo spring most immediately to mind. With claims nowadays that the novel is long dead, and the reality-effect of photography no longer tenable, it is perhaps no surpise that Callas’ translation of Brazillian history through and within the spatio-temporality of digital media evokes questions of ‘truth’ as it pertains to the mode of representation and the position of the observer.

Lost in Translation is by definition a work in progress, as it will always be. This is not to say this current project will remain incomplete. Rather, its purpose is the creation of a fractal universe in which the singularity of the event is registered in the multiple dimensions of a history on Latin America in which the perception of the viewer is folded into its topology.


Peter Callas: Initialising History, commissioned and produced by dLux media arts in association with Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA), Festival of Perth, PICA, February 10 – March 7. Program touring nationally: ACCA (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art), Melbourne until May 2, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, from May 27.

Ned Rossiter teaches mass communications at Monash University and theory and history of architecture at RMIT University, Melbourne. He is co-editor (with Allen Chun and Brian Shoesmith) of Pop Music in Asia: Cultural Values and Cultural Capital (Curzon/Hawaii University Press, forthcoming).

RealTime issue #30 April-May 1999 pg. 22

© Ned Rossiter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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