Interview – 10 questions
16 June 2022
1. Tell me something about your life and the educational background.
I originally trained as a zoologist and neuroscientist at the University of Melbourne, Australia, gaining my PhD in 1981. I then did post-doctoral research in pharmacology in the USA for two years before returning to Australia and then to Flinders University, South Australia. There I became internationally recognised for my research on the microscopic organisation of the nerves communicating between the spinal cord and the internal organs and skin, publishing over 100 peer-reviewed papers on the topic.
For twenty years, I was Professor of Anatomy at Flinders University and had a major role in designing, teaching and administering an innovative medical course, the first of its type in Australia. I also was heavily involved in communicating science to the public, and through these activities, developed many links and collaborations with artists. I won several awards for my research, teaching and public science, including an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Göteborg, Sweden. I retired from my academic life in early 2014. While I was studying science as an undergraduate, I was also writing and performing poetry regularly. Although I stopped writing poetry for many years, my interest in experimental and conceptual arts never waned.
I grew up surfing and I have a deep love of the ocean. For many years now I have been windsurfing whenever the conditions are good, which means in big waves (up to 4m!) and strong winds. I was State Wavesailing Champion in my age group for a while.
2. When, how and why started you filming?
My video art came about from the convergence of several previous things I had been doing. Much of my scientific research involved sophisticated microscopy, including electron microscopes and laser scanning confocal microscopes. My colleagues and I were world-leaders in developing multi-colour immunochemical visualisation techniques that required specialised microscopy-based imaging systems. We went digital as soon as we could and so we were using scientific image processing and 3D reconstruction programs long before they were commercially available. For example, I used to write my own routines for automated edge-detection, sharpening, feature counting, and so on.
A key element of this type of science is illustrating what we had found, within the technical, physical and ethical constraints of scientific reporting. My colleagues and I developed a strong reputation for the quality of our scientific images. They often were selected for the covers of journals and were widely used for promoting research at our University to the wider public.
In parallel with my laboratory research, I was developing better ways to teach functional and clinical anatomy to medical students. Ultimately, this involved setting up a complex real-time video system with multiple cameras, roving microphones, and video-conferencing with our remote campuses. I was also making teaching videos adapted from the Powerpoint files I used in lectures. Consequently I became familiar with the core technical aspects of video production.
Through my public science activities, I met many artists working in various domains and began collaborating with some of them. For our first collaborative exhibition, I made some videos as part of a multi-channel mixed media installation. By then I’d begun writing and publishing poetry again and so I started making poetry videos that combined my interests in experimental writing, electronic music and imaging.
It’s worth noting that none of the new microscopy, imaging, or video systems we had ever operated properly from the outset. I spent untold hours learning the technical side of things, from the physics of the instruments to aspects of the computer operating systems, just so we could keep everything going! Apart from giving me a broad knowledge of how things work, these experiences gave me the confidence to try new techniques whenever I need to in my video art.
After I retired, I was involved in further collaborations with my artist friends and made more installation-based videos with them. Some of my early poetry videos were shown at a local arts festival and received strong positive feedback. Over the next few years, I put in some serious time to learn video production and editing properly, which has been extremely beneficial both to my own projects and my collaborations with others.
3. What kind of subjects have your videos/films?
Most of my videos are based on my poetry and experimental writing. Stemming from my knowledge of neuroscience and cognitive science, I am interested in trying to represent the border between our conscious and subconscious experience of the world. Our conscious experience of the world is represents only a tiny fraction of what our brain is doing at any particular time: much of that experience is built up from an amalgamation of sensory inputs and our expectations based on past events. As wonderful as language is, it fails all too often to convey our experiences, especially how we interact with the world and how we feel about it. Much of my writing deals with this failure of language in different ways: the times when there are no words to describe what we feel, or conversely, the wilful distortion of language for political, social or commercial effect. The combination of video, audio and text allows me to explore these issues in ways that are simply not possible with any medium alone.
For many years now, most of my videos have an inherently political underpinning. I believe that all art is political in some way, if only by omission. But I often specifically explore themes related to the environment, corruption, colonialism and so on, either alone, or, more commonly, in combination.
Much of my footage is taken locally: the city, surrounding countryside and beaches near where I live. It is supplemented by footage and images I take when visiting other places on holiday. I like the idea of having some sort of familiarity in the imaginary worlds I create, even as it generates a feeling of disquiet in the viewer.
Revisiting my zoological roots, I also make short videos of interesting but rarely filmed behaviour of insects, spiders, birds and other native creatures. These are shared with natural history groups to which I belong.
As an active member of the local poetry and spoken word scene, I am often asked to record events and produce video highlights of them.
I also work with artists to video document their exhibitions and installations. Most recently I produced over an hour of animated video for a stage show featuring live performers.
4. How do you develop your videos/films, do you follow certain principles, styles etc?
I tend to work in different ways depending on circumstances. I often take footage when I am out and about somewhere, with no particular aim in mind, just because it looks interesting. In this way, I have built up a large library of video, still images, and audio samples that I can draw upon as required. Sometimes, I get an idea for a video, and I will go out to shoot sequences specifically for that purpose.
Audio is a critical element of my videos. Indeed, my editing process nearly always begins with an audio track, usually featuring one of my texts performed with my music or soundscapes. Even when I start with video, I will generate the audio track as soon as I can. The primary reason for this is that I use the timing of the audio to set the timing of scenes and their transitions. Getting the coordination between audio and video right is an iterative process and I will often go back and re-record or remix parts of the audio to better match an evolving video sequence. Sometimes, this will involve re-writing the original text, a process I enjoy!
I use different visual and audio styles that best fit the subject matter. Many of my videos employ complex compositing to create scenes that look simultaneously natural and other-worldly. I spend much time on this process, to ensure that components such as lighting, colour balance, perspective, wind-direction and shadow-direction, are properly matched. The composites commonly have elements made from still images that I have preprocessed in different ways, for example to make panoramas or to extract isolated elements. At the other extreme of the style spectrum, some of my videos are based almost entirely on animated text elements.
5. Tell me something about the technical equipment you use.
Currently, my primary camera is a Canon XF200 HD professional camcorder. This gives me very flexible control over focus, exposure, zoom, colour balance, audio recording, and much more, but its automatic mode is brilliant for most things too. I also have an ageing Canon HD Handicam that I use as a second camera or when travelling. In extreme weather conditions, I use a pocket-sized Olympus Tough TG-5, which has excellent 4K video and is totally waterproof. For my still photography, I mostly use an old Olympus digital SLR that will take my pre-digital scientific micro-macro lenses for extreme close-up work. And, of course, I use my iPhone a lot. Several of my recent successful videos have been shot mainly on either the TG-5 or my iPhone.
I have a good tripod with a fluid head for smooth tilting and panning, and I also have rails and a dolly rig for smooth tracking shots. To assist in compositing, I have blue and green screens, some of which I can use outdoors. I have a small set of battery-run LED lights that are necessary in some situations. To supplement the built-in microphones on the cameras, I have a range of external microphones, including a high-quality microphone for recording vocals, as well as a stand-alone Olympus stereo audio recorder that I can use in the field.
All my processing is done on Apple computers, a preference that goes back to our early days with scientific image processing when some of the key imaging software and hardware only ran on Apple machines (when we were not using Silicon Graphics or IBM workstations). At the moment, I have a highly configured but ageing iMac and relatively new MacBook Pro, both with large amounts of memory and banks of fast external drives.
I use Final Cut Pro with a diverse collection of plug-ins for most of my video processing and all my editing. I also make some sequences directly in Motion, the underlying animation engine for Final Cut Pro. Motion also lets me make my own titles, effects and transitions when needed. For some types of video processing, I use Isadora, a very deep visual programming environment that allows direct access to the graphics processors in a way that is very different from Motion. Some of the newer features of these programs only run on my laptop, so I will often split processing tasks between my desktop and laptop machines.
Still images are significant elements of my compositing methods. I mostly use Pixelmator Pro for processing my stills. It is very powerful and is now well integrated with Motion and Final Cut Pro.
My audio work is mostly done with Logic Pro and assorted plug-ins. I have a range of keyboards, microphones and speaker set-ups that tie in with this.
For gallery installations and live performances, I have my own HD projector, media players, and speaker / mixer system, since many venues are unable to provide adequate equipment. For live audio-visual performances, I use some combination of Isadora, Syphon, Logic Pro and MainStage running on my laptop. More recently I have been experimenting with Avenue for live work.
6. What are the chances of new media for the genre videos/films in general and you personally?
I love the increased range of creative options that new media and new technologies provide. I have made interactive web-based texts that once would have required low-level coding but which now can be done with standard web-design tools with only minimal coding. Similarly, much of what is available in video and audio processing programs now was only possible on big main-frames not long ago.
One major advance I have taken advantage of recently is the use of large scale projections or displays. For example, I have had videos projected onto buildings and outdoor water screens and displayed on giant outdoor LED screens. I also have performed my poetry live in front of my videos on a 10K-wide video array. These technologies greatly increase the opportunities for the use of video in diverse environments outside the usual theatre or exhibition contexts.
Although I have not made my own 3D models, I have purchased those made by others and I have used them in simple 3D animated spaces within some of my recent videos. I’d like to learn more about 3D animation and the creative use of virtual gaming environments, but probably need both a new computer and a new brain to do it properly… On the other hand, I generally find VR and so-called immersive environments artistically underwhelming.
7. How do you finance your films?
I am fortunate that I am now retired and have sufficient savings to support my video work. Since I mostly work on solo projects, the production costs are minimal. I keep my software up-to-date but replace my hardware only when absolutely necessary, which usually means when it will no longer support the software I need.
A few of my projects, especially the collaborations, have been supported by grants from Government or other cultural agencies. I also have received some paid commissions to produce new work and some literary journals pay for publication. I have even won a small number of cash prizes. I direct any such income straight back into my creative practice to buy or upgrade my equipment and software.
8. Do you work individually as a video artist/film maker or do you work in a team? if you have experience in both, what is the difference, what do you prefer?
I mostly work individually, which I enjoy: it is very satisfying having to deal with all the various aspects of a project and learning new techniques as required to bring it to fruition. After a lifetime of being tied to timetables, agendas, and deadlines, it is a relief not to worry (too much…) about these things now. Nevertheless I do also enjoy collaborations.
As a research scientist and teacher, I sometimes worked alone on specific projects, but generally I collaborated in groups of various sizes. Poets and novelists nearly always work alone but collaborative writing is commonplace in many other disciplines, such as theatre and movie production, for example. Scientific writing is routinely a collaborative exercise, with many individuals contributing their own sections of a research paper.
One idea we had as scientists is that the published literature is your first collaborator. In my creative writing, I often resample (with full attribution) published texts, such as newspapers, government documents, text books, and even my own scientific papers. On the other hand, I do not use any stock or public domain audio, imagery or video: all my audio and video is original.
I have collaborated with other writers, visual artists, makers and musicians to create new video and audio. These collaborations have led to us all producing new work in ways or styles that we would not have done otherwise. As in science, the results of the collaboration are more than the simple sum of the parts. Many of these collaborations have been components of gallery installations. For example, our highly successful installation, “The Microscope Project”, involved me working seamlessly with four other artists to produce objects, videos, audio, and a publication that none of us would have, or could have, done alone.
As part of my interest in language, I have been working recently on bi- or multi-lingual video projects. These are increasingly involving collaborations with poets and artists whose first language is not English. A primary aim here is to create videos where the different languages co-exist as equal partners rather than one being a secondary translation of the other. This approach has been very successful so far.
9. Who or what has a lasting influence on your film/video making?
There is no single influence on what I do.
At a technical level, I am very interested in music videos and television advertisements. Music videos are the closest genre to poetry videos and, at their best, demonstrate innovative and challenging ways of matching video to music and text. Poetry videos commonly have a more or less ambient soundtrack. While I sometimes use them too when appropriate, I much prefer a more confronting soundtrack, sometimes with big beats. sometimes with complex rhythms, sometimes with highly processed audio samples including computer-generated and modulated voices. And I usually like them to be performed loudly!
Advertisements operate under an extreme constraint: they must tell a story, no matter how trivial (“Buy this!!”) in as few as 10 seconds. In this time, they must have a beginning, middle and end; they usually combine brief text, both written and spoken, with striking visuals; and they must engage the viewer in a memorable way. A few video poets have recognised this and taken inspiration from advertising methodology, but I think there is much more to learn here.
My main artistic inspiration comes from the so-called avant-garde writers of the 20th Century: the DADAists, Surrrealists, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and many more. Recently, I have been exploring the Oulipo writers (Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, Harry Matthews, and their colleagues) whose emphasis on process I really admire. I am also strongly influenced by so-called concrete and visual poetry. One of the common threads through many of these writers is their use of chance and found elements: this approach is fundamental to much of my own work. Indeed, I am using random and generative components more and more in my videos.
Long before I began making my own videos, I greatly admired the movies of Bunuel, Fellini, Wertmuller, Herzog, and Kurosawa, amongst others of that era, which revealed just what can be achieved in creative film-making.
As mentioned above, my approach to my writing and video art is strongly influenced by my background in neuroscience. This has led me to follow, to varying degrees, a set of underlying principles:
• our conscious experience of the world is a built up from fragmented sensory inputs.
• we cannot help trying to create narrative from our consciously lived experience.
• all narrative is a construction, based on unreliable and malleable memory.
• all narrative is necessarily in first person, even when it purports not to be.
Consequently, I enjoy working with story lines that are ambiguous and uncertain, that leave the audience with a feeling they cannot precisely define, that suggest new meanings on repeated readings or viewings.
10. What are your future plans or dreams as a film/video maker?
Having already had a successful career, anything that has happened since my retirement is a total bonus. My work as a video artist has progressed recently in ways I could not have imagined, even a few years ago, and I am incredibly grateful for that.
In the immediate future, I already have plans to work more with non-English speaking poets to create videos that are intrinsically bi-lingual. I would like to create more installation based work, especially in collaboration with other artists, and including live performance elements. More broadly, I am gradually becoming more involved with curating video poetry and video art programs.
Vague longer-term plans, include, on one hand, learning more about creating and working in 3D animation environments, but on the other, working more with live action performers.
I continue to be intrigued by television advertisements. At some stage, I’ll make a series of creative videos of 10 – 30 seconds duration, using the design elements of advertisements.
And, unfortunately, the fractured politics of modern society and their negative effect on the planet’s ecosystems continue to provide endless subjects for creative critique.
Other than than, we’ll just see what happens next…