The Pioneering Video Works of Peter Donebauer
“It is very easy to produce interesting graphic effects via the television medium, as it is very easy for most people to learn to draw. But it is the attempt to mould those effects into a meaningful whole that is the challenge.” (Donebauer, 1975 – Video and Audio-Visual Review)
When Peter Donebauer first began to explore the expressive and aesthetic potential of video in the early 1970’s, the notion that it might be possible to create works of art to be displayed on a television screen was a radical and challenging concept. Although it was arguably feasible to create “artistic ‘ imagery with a television camera, there were a number of very considerable barriers to overcome, some simply technical, but more significantly there were cultural challenges too.
Television had been developed initially without any clear social application and had evolved into a one- way entertainment, information and communication channel. Perceived initially as an extension of radio, presenting low-resolution moving pictures to accompany the all-important verbal information, by the early 1970’s the television receiver had become a ubiquitous domestic fixture in most households. Television programmes were piped into the home in a continuous flow, perceived in much the same way as the electricity, gas or water supply. This constant stream of packaged entertainment and news was there “on tap” when it was wanted, and even when it wasn’t; so how could such a thing have anything to do with “art”? Of course, there were programmes about art, mainly worthy presentations of the “talking head” variety in which various experts and authoritative personalities discussed the merits of painting or sculpture, literature or music, with strategic visual inserts of the art under scrutiny or in question.
Of course the creative fusion of sound and picture did already have an important precedent- cinema had always been welcomed into the artistic cannon, proclaimed by some as the “seventh art” (attributed to Ricciotto Canudo). Television, however, was the poor relation – not perceived to be worthy of similar consideration, it was merely utilitarian, lacking any potential for poetry.
However, Donebauer understood that television, or rather the technical means of production behind it, did present a unique property that could be explored and developed. His fascination with video was linked to the medium’s potential to create “live” imagery. Unlike film, which required processing after exposure, and therefore a delay between the act of shooting and the playback of any visual material, television provided a ‘live” picture; the camera image could be monitored directly on the studio display. Furthermore, video offered the instantaneous playback of any subsequent recording. These two related technical possibilities offered Donebauer the opportunity to develop an innovative approach to working in the television studio environment. In collaboration with the musician and composer Simon Desorgher and at times other live performers, he devised an interactive improvisational approach. Writing about his collaborative working methods for “Entering” (1974), the earliest work to be featured in this exhibition, Donebauer described their approach and theme:
“We decide on some structure for the piece to be produced, usually in a visualised form. Our last complet- ed piece was around the theme of the experience of a foetus inside a mother’s womb. This moves forward by a series of contractions or expansions to the experience of birth, followed by a period of acquiescence dying back to sleep… A basic piece of electronic music was then created…as a starting point for the work. The sound was fed through a physical transducer of my own design and construction to create a visual pattern depending on the frequency and amplitude of the sound. The basic pattern is video taped with a monochrome video camera. So we have a basic sound and a basic pattern.”
This early work was the first of a series Donebauer was later to designate as “The Creation Cycle”. Three of these seven related videotapes – “Entering” (1974), “Circling” (1975) and “Dawn Creation” (1976) are featured in this current exhibition, and were developed using similar working methods and approach.
At the time these innovative works were made, there was no ideal method of dissemination or presenta- tion, although broadcast television seemed to offer an opportunity. Although perhaps Donebauer and a small number of other visionary artists had hoped that their work might reach new audiences via television, opportunities to air video work of this kind were extremely unusual. Although “Entering” (1974) was commis- sioned and broadcast by BBC television, this was to prove a rare and special event and only “Struggling” of the subsequent works in “The Creation Cycle” was ever transmitted. There were a number of important cultural reasons for this, but the typical passive mode of engagement encouraged or expected of TV view- ers was certainly a factor. At the time, broadcasters feared that television audiences encountering this type of work would have to be prepared or pre-warned of the challenges to come, and if disturbed by a deviation from the norm, they might be motivated to switch channels or opt out altogether and simply switch off!
Aside from the concerns that innovative programme content might prove too much for the average viewer, Donebauer’s videotapes raised deeper issues. “Entering” and the subsequent works in “The Creation Cycle” did not contain representational imagery or present a narrative story line, and composer Simon Desorgher’s experimental music tracks were also deeply challenging. “Entering”, “Circling” and “Dawn Creation” were abstract works, related more closely to painting or music and there was little or no precedent for this kind of content on television. These complex and sophisticated works prompted, perhaps required, multiple viewings – the shifting colours, fluid layering and the gradual unfolding of sound and image required a different order of attention and concentration, and were technologically much better suited to the present age, with its large flat screen presentation, high picture definition, subtle colour displays and multiple and repeat replay. Back in the early 1970’s these innovations were still only available in the fantasy world of science fiction novels – there were only very limited means to create either an immersive experience or a reflective one.
To some extent Donebauer was aware of the challenging nature of his work and its unsuitability to networked broadcasting of the time. Anticipating the need for a more contemplative viewing attitude, he attempted to engage the viewer’s attention, prompting them to modify their normal viewing conditions. For example, prior to the screening of “Entering” on “Second House” (BBC Two, 1974), Melvyn Bragg, the programme’s presenter, announced on air that: “the artist suggests that the work is best viewed with the room lights dimmed .”
Of course this was just a start, as Donebauer had correctly anticipated the need for specialised screening conditions very different from the average living room of the day, but for the time being, a more sophisticated and finely focused attitude to this pioneering work and its ideal viewing conditions would have to wait….
Chris Meigh-Andrews 2015
Chris is an artist, curator and writer who has written extensively on the history and context of artists’ video in his book “A History of Video Art” (Bloomsbury, London & Sangensha, Tokyo, 2013). He is Emeritus Professor of Electronic & Digital Art, University of Central Lancashire and Visiting Professor at the Centre of Moving Image research at the University of the West of England.