A European Pioneer

by Gabriele Tosi and Umberto Tosi


(In chapter on) Video Art – Musical / Structural


We begin discussing Musical and Structural Video Art by analysing in more detail the work of Peter Donebauer. Born in 1947, he was twenty-three in the early ’70s when he started studying at the Royal College of Art, obtaining an artistic education, rather than a musical one. In the early 70’s he turned his attention to Video Art. In 1974, he had a meeting with an eclectic character, whom we have already mentioned, that will mark a turning point in his artistic career: Richard Monkhouse. Born in 1950, a self-taught engineer, Richard worked in those years to create a video image synthesiser, the Spectron, which was released in 1974. To understand this invention one should refer to a precursor, the Moog synthesiser, used to accompany much music of those years . The Moog synthesiser allowed the generation of sound according to the artist’s imagination that used it, from bass to treble, with a tone that could be varied at will. Richard’s idea was to do something like that in the visual field, working with colours, brightness, contrast and other pattern generation parameters. Richard managed to realise something equivalent with the Spectron, built and sold by EMS in London. In 1974, Peter Donebauer contacted him to collaborate on an electronic instrument that responded to his particular specifications. The collaboration lead to the birth of the Videokalos Colour Synthesiser, created, essentially then, on a personal basis.

Having reached this technical goal, Donebauer’s artistic video production was transformed by the use of Videokalos. It creates almost an addiction towards the medium, but mixed with various personal instances.  Among these, particular attention should be given to the improvisatory quality of all his early videos – they result in live recordings, without subsequent editing. It is important to note that the improvised interpretations were transmitted instantaneously by Donebauer performing “live” with Videokalos as an instrument. The actors (or other artists) engaged in the scene and saw their performance as it was being changed by the synthesiser, adapting their performance to the transformations taking place. Merging-Emerging (1978) is the emblem of this canon: two dancers, two musicians, and the author himself took part in it.

To understand Donebauer’s work, which is far more extensive than what has been described here, and insert it into one of the three groups mentioned above […], it helps to quote from an article written by him at that time, currently also published on his website:

The condition of music is that it is the live production of organised sounds that extend in time and affect our inner selves without the necessity of mediation through verbal or conceptual structures. The condition of video is that it is the live production of organised images that extend in time and affect our inner selves without the necessity of mediation through verbal or conceptual structures.

He constructs a parallel, where music and sounds of the first sentence are replaced by videos and images in the second. This mindset is observable throughout Donebauer’s artworks. As he himself wrote:

As one plays a musical instrument the result is an immediate feedback through the ear of what the body and mind has created. As one plays a video instrument the result is an immediate feedback through the eye of what the body and mind has created.
Video is the visual equivalent of music.  

It is easy to classify this artist within a more musical matrix, although he himself was not a musician. His early period gave birth to a partnership of several years with Simon Desorgher, the musician who was in charge of the sound part of his performances.

The analysis of Peter Donebauer’s work deserves further study. It should be noted, first, that he has an autobiographical website where interesting ideas can be found. The website is based on a circular design that can be found in many of his recent pieces. The website is itself perhaps a work of Video Art.

In the section ‘Early works’ it is possible to find descriptions and commentary, as well as brief video excerpts repeated in loops, of some of his early works.

Among these is Entering, 1974, which – as stated in the website – was the first fully abstract independent videotape to be commissioned and broadcast by British national television. It is an interesting work that deserves to be seen, and the website provides much useful information. We learn that it was in fact realised by Donebauer and Desorgher, performing live, using equipment from the Royal College of Art in Kensington, before the existence of the Videokalos. There is an interesting description of the theme of the work, referring to it firstly as an allegory of the birth of physical experience, and then as a creative revival in the metaphysical sense. The structure is divided into three parts, separated by black screen interludes: the first section suggests the safety of the womb, the second section develops through a series of contractions that lead to the expansion of childbirth, the third part suggests acquiescence, rest, and sleep. All this is told through the coordination of musical sounds and totally abstract images, with a result that is a good example of the classification described here.

In the section ‘ Later Works ‘ you can find information about the video Brewing, 1984 , and it states:

Brewing is a “documentary” to the degree that it documents the process of the brew, yet it is “poetic” in its sensibility of inspiration and enactment.

Donebauer has produced, in the great majority of his video works, abstract images. This use of real images (albeit only partially related to the representation of the real) is strongly connected to a theoretical piece of Malcolm Le Grice who, in the 1970’s, postulated that real images can be used for the creation of abstract art.

It is also interesting to note that Donebauer often turned to fascinating and challenging themes. To understand the depth of these, it is useful to note that the origins of his artistic thinking can be found in Dante, where he introduces the idea of “the formative virtue.” This, according to the description given, is the principle that the conception of man regulates the development until adult age (the ‘genetic code’ we would say today). The aforementioned principle, described in the XXV Song of Purgatory (in the words of Statius), resides in the soul, which at death is separated from the body. The principle, however, remains active, but not having material on which to act, works on the air surrounding the soul, shaping it in the guise of the deceased man’s body. The incorporeal result retains all the characteristics of being material, and it is explained that it can endure the same suffering here in Purgatory, so that the souls here suffer, for example, hunger to expiate the sins of gluttony.

We are thus faced with an abstract code, or more exactly with the primary elements and determinants, at the root of man himself.

In an Aristotelian sense, this formative virtue is the human form. These considerations lead us to an interview given in 2000 by Donebauer to Meigh Chris Andrews (video artist and essayist) in which – speaking of his activities of 70’s – Donebauer described his discovery of video feedback. It is a phenomenon that takes place by pointing the camera at monitor displaying the live output of the camera, thus creating a continuous loop. This is similar to microphones, where a microphone is positioned in front of a loudspeaker that amplifies it (creating, usually, a shrill whistle). As we shall see, the resulting images, when combined with other techniques, were thus, according to Donebauer, “natural forms.”  The new technology of the 70’s allows for video feedback, with results similar to what happens with objects positioned between two opposing mirrors: it has an infinite number of images that bounce from one screen to the other. A different angle allows for more geometrical images, and typical of Donebauer’s thinking, he observes

I was very interested in the fact that the result of images stemming from video feedback were natural forms. They were organic spirals, swirls, obviously related to the events that create the shells, galaxies etc .. ( … ) I realised that these electronic processes mimic the forces at work in nature.

We are thus faced with an artist who tries to investigate the higher-order ideas that govern the realisation of the things of the world, or to put it in Platonic terms “The principles”, similar to “the formative virtue” in Dante or that which Donebauer himself calls ‘forces at work in nature,’ the forces that govern and shape the universe. Putting these issues at the centre of his art is in itself a significant act. Succeeding in representing them in the form of images is a very major artistic achievement that allows us to understand what Video Art wants to represent and where it wants to lead the spectator.

from Knowing Video Art – between Experimental Cinema and Avantgarde in Modern Art, by Gabriele and Umberto Tosi, Pietro Macchione Editore, 2015