Tessa Laird interviews Lawrence Macdonald, founder and co-ordinator
of the New Zealand Video Archive. Macdonald is also well known as the
current editor of Illusions magazine, and the curator of Video Down Under
(VDU), a programme of New Zealand video that accompanied the Cultural
Safety show to Germany.
For my own and the readers edification, as the person curating the video
archive, I was wanting to know more about your history.
I've been involved in such things as working for television, making super 8 and
16mm films, writing about film, being involved with film societies, film festivals,
and film publications, and curating film and video programmes. But I don't see
myself as a film maker, probably as a writer more than anything.
In your intro to the VDU catalogue you talk about the paucity of NZ
video. What do you imagine the video archive will reveal? Do you think
you will end up coming to the conclusion that there is a lot of video art
out there after all, at least considering the size of the country?
Well it's a bit like saying there's not much literature in New Zealand when there
are plenty of newspapers. I mean there are plenty of video shops and music videos
being made, but what I am really referring to, and it may be to do with the size
of the population, is that there hasn't been as much video art here as there
has been in Australia and the northern hemisphere. The infrastructure is just
that much more fragile here. I think there is quite a lot of video being made
in terms of our population, but it's still a relatively small practice, especially
in comparison with painting, sculpture, and film.
How will the Video Archive work?
It will be housed in The Film Archive. The Film Archive is an institution built
to deal with the whole of the moving image heritage of New Zealand, that includes
television, home movies, advertisements, film...Video art will take it's place
along side everything else in the archive. As an underfunded organisation which
hasn't been able to devote time to the specific area of video art, the archive
has been quite happy to collaborate with me as an outsider; supported by Creative
New Zealand, to make their resources available, and to act as the place where
the material gets housed and made publicly accessible.
I'm curious about some of the figures in the past of video...In the
introduction to the VDU catalogue you mention that Darcy Lange was a pioneering
I guess if you were to ask me, I wouldn't be able to answer who made the first
video work in New Zealand, it may not be Darcy Lange, but he was one of the first
to get into it in earnest. As a result of going to the UK, he began to use video
extensively. That applies to a number of people who used video back then. The
English art scene at the time was particularly interesting and there were a lot
of people who went over there. Philip Dadson, David Mealing, and Darcy Lange
spent time in the UK, and came back and got into stuff in earnest, including
the use of video.
I don't know anything about David Mealing.
David Mealing was a politically committed artist. His work was close to work
in the UK by Conrad Atkinson and Steve Willatts; art which could be broadly grouped
under the heading of "social purpose." Mealing was a student of painting
who moved out of that because it wasn't relevant to the issues he was interested
in. He found performance, and the use of video and photography to document it,
much more suited his purpose of critiquing art, and at the same time broadening
it out into a community setting.
Are you putting on file video works that are simply documentation of
Yes, because the whole history of video is always tied up with other things,
rather than painting which is a practice with its own unity and integrity. Some
work approximates a purist ideal type but usually it's implicated with other
What exactly is going into the archive?
As much of the video work made by artists since the early 1970s that still exists
in an accessible form. Unfortunately some of this is either lost, has deteriorated
too much, or the artists are no longer contactable. In those instances, the database
entry will simply carry a description of the work.
Does your personal preference ever dictate what gets considered as art?
In order to make the project manageable, I have had to make certain decisions
which, hopefully, are not arbitrary or based too much on personal taste. For
instance, because it's really a separate area in its own right, I will not include
music videos, except when they have been made by video artists whose work is
part of the archive, e.g. Lisa Reihana.
What is your attitude towards archiving student work?
Student work is another difficult area. As it's probably out of the question
to try to include all student work, I'll probably restrict it to graduating works
or works that have been exhibited in some public manner. And certainly in the
case of students who continue to make work after art school, the body of work
they made as students is clearly of interest and importance.
Are there any figures in the past of NZ video who have since moved on
whom you consider to be a great loss?
Although it's a pity many didn't continue, on the other hand what they are doing
now, which is not video art, or not even art at all, is still relevant to the
type of work they did as artists. Some peoples' work leads them to the inevitable
conclusion that art is not going to serve the purposes they want to pursue. Obviously
that applies to David Mealing, and there are others too, particularly the people
who in broad terms are interested in connecting art and life. It's a fruitful
problem that has the potential to lead them on a straight route out of art. It's
hard to say they're a loss because what they are doing now is more satisfying
to them. But there are people who were making more aesthetic based work which
you could see as a loss, now they might be curators or administrators or something.
If you ask those people they would probably say what they are doing does relate
in some way to their art.
Like Greg Burke? It would be very useful for people of my age to have
a family tree drawn up.
Well, I'm considering doing that. And certainly Greg would occupy an important
place on it.
In the VDU intro you come off as quite damning of NZ short film. Are
you in the "NZ short film is the new pottery" camp?
I read that in a local newspaper - a Wellington actor who had made a short film
called Prickle said it as a positive thing...'isn't it great, you know, short
film makers springing up on every corner...short film is the new pottery.' A
lot of people have taken this as proof that short film in NZ is a trivial thing.
I think if you provide incentives with networks and funding, you set up a situation
where someone makes a short film and then suddenly they're travelling to Tokyo
to introduce it. If you've spent the previous ten years writing plays which ten
people came to, obviously you are going to be attracted to the possibility of
instant fame with a ten minute film. Other areas which have inadequate funding
and no air of prestige are going to suffer and people are going to feel neglected
and then want to get into short film. But is that a good reason to get into short
We use this phrase "short film," but there are a lot of different kinds
of film that fall into this category. One of them is the personal or diaristic
film. Another is the area known as avant garde, underground, experimental or
independent film, and one of the things that I think is unfortunate about short
films in NZ in recent years is that they have not been from that line of film
making - they are simply not experimental or challenging works. I'm generalising
here obviously, amd there are some exceptions, but in general that isn't the
model that's been encouraged by funding bodies. When people think of short film
they think of mini narrative pastiche almost in the manner of a music video...
Or a Fernleaf butter ad...
A better comparison. The emphasis isn't on the quality of imagery or sound, it's
on the input of industry professionals, and other kinds of professionals who
are called actors. It's a very different thing. I guess the point I'm making
is that if there is a body of work being made in the 90s like non-narrative experimental
film, it's something that is being done by video artists. Video art has a heritage
from the past which includes experimental film making, and doesn't include a
conventional narrative line.
VDU payed a special homage to Philip Dadson. How much do you think his
work has reflected global trends? And how much do you think he is offering
something unique to NZ? Does NZ ever come off as a pioneer?
I'd want to say yes. I think Phil has been ahead, or certainly abreast of the
times. I think there is a unique thing in his Intermedia concept, particularly
in the relation between sound, image and performance. I emphasise in the VDU
intro that video is as much if not more an outgrowth of sound technology as of
There is a new generation who see that whole approach as being old-fashioned.
They are more influenced by pastiche and music videos where you pirate
your own music...they're not thinking in terms of sound as a hermetic art
I wouldn't agree with that about everyone working now, Sean Kerr, for example,
is very sound-based.
There are quite a few young practitioners that come from a perspective
that is less overtly experimental. Are we all being corrupted by music
I think there have been a lot of changes in 25 years and that's fine. I think
its okay to appropriate sound or images, not everyone has to be a pure exponent
of experimental video. I don't think anyone should be obliged to be true to any
one school, eg. the Elam school of Intermedia. I was very anxious to make sure
that VDU was a kind of 'Northcape to Bluff' show, that there were people in it
who might never have seen work by Phil Dadson. Because the history of NZ video
is that a lot of things were done in Auckland with Auckland people, I tried to
reflect that but also bring in work from other regions.
As for music video, some video artists are anxious to produce work as far away
from that style as they can get, because there's so much of it and they don't
agree with it, but you can still play with it and not produce bland, bad work.
Given the influence of New Technology, do you think that video is a
I don't think it will become any more a dodo than photography and film will.
As its always been a part of other things it will hang in there. Clearly there
will be changes, the interesting thing about video, which affects my project
quite markedly, is the rapid turnover of formats. In a short space of time, many
are made obsolete, and part of my project is to note, collect and preserve that
work. Film in comparison has been pretty stable, with standard formats. Now what
we're getting is either the interface or the contamination of films, video, and
photography. I'm referring here to the use of digital effects in all three media.
It's clearly affecting everything, but it's not doing away with anything. So