Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 1 - Video
Log 1 - Video

No Dodo
Lawrence Macdonald interviewed by Tessa Laird


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 figure.

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 performances?

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 things.

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 film?

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 visual sources.

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 form.

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 videos?

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 dodo?

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 dodo no.



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room