Virtual Topographics: an interview with Peter Callas

It is now well accepted that what has been variously dubbed the Ònew mediaÓ, Òelectronic artsÓ, ÒmultimediaÓ, or Òhybrid artsÓ are rapidly changing how we engage with issues of subjectivity, identity, nationality and interactivity.

It is now well accepted that what has been variously dubbed the "new media", "electronic arts", "multimedia" or "hybrid arts" are rapidly changing how we engage with issues of subjectivity, identity, nationality and interactivity.
Artists working in these genres are welding new audio-visual and textual languages into what we might call 'virtual topographies' in that they are mapping out new aesthetic values as well as reaching out to a global audience which can access the art across cultural/political boundaries.
Perhaps more than any other new media artist in Australia (besides Stelarc) Peter Callas has grappled with the vagaries and ecstasies of working with video and computer mediated imagery.
Peter Callas has worked in the electronic arts for some twenty years now. He has led a nomadic existence that has carried him around the world from gallery to art school to corporate production house and back again. Now at the end of the millennium Callas might be dubbed a cyberartist or a hybrid interactive multimedia artist. Whatever you call him Callas now works in Netscape as much as any actual landscape and drives a Silicon Graphics Indy computer to produce dazzlingly beautiful and at times hypnotic images. He granted me a few precious kilobytes of his time (while in Sydney to curate the Phantasmagoria exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art) to discuss his work and related interactive media issues.

KB: Our domestic computers can now support TV, fax, email and internet services. This convergence of technologies coupled to the rise of global media network monopolies has also seen a convergence of programming aesthetics, if not politics, particularly within news, current affairs, music videos and sports. Is it still possible to be resistant to those advertising micro-narratives?

PC: When I was living in Japan, I was fascinated by how much you could actually take in, because Japanese ads are usually 15 seconds long and yet you adjust even though there is a lot happening on the screen. The longer you see that kind of material the more you can actually absorb, almost coherently, but on the other hand I do feel that this kind of image culture has led to, at least in Japan, to the complete degradation of the image; to a certain bankruptcy of the image whereby the image has paradoxically become powerless. The image of paper money for example has died as a symbol of status and power of the state. Electronic banking is now imageless, at least in its personal transaction form, and to some extent I mourn that loss.

So we tend to interact more with virtual people than real ones. I don't mind this arrangement when it comes to banking but what can interactivity provide when it comes to transacting images?

I feel that interactivity has the possibility to return us to the state where we are able to look at images in our own personal time. I think basically since the beginning of film the director and the editor have more or less controlled the amount of time people look at things and the pace of that looking has accelerated to a great extent. We don't look at electronic images in the same way that we look at paintings because we don't approach them with our own bodies in our own time but in a sense it is possible to do that with interactive images in that they can be recalled even though they are sequences. If there are moving images, they can be repeated and they can be recalled at will.

How will images respond directly to our body movements?

In a kind of a spastic way, if we are talking about CD Roms for example, we are not using our entire body but at least we are seeing work more or less on our own terms.

So it's a reclaiming of the time and perhaps even the space of reading images, of interacting with media images.

Well you look at the problem of shows like Australian Perspecta at the Art Gallery of New South Wales - which involves mixed media, painting, sculpture, installation and video. It's always been very evident in these shows that you have to approach video work with a completely different frame of mind, you can't just walk into a dark space and suddenly switch onto a time-based work, it just requires a different kind of thinking. If video is presented in this way then people walk in and watch it for the same length of time that they look at a painting and then walk out. Interactivity engages you in a different way and it is that difference in reading conventions that I find potentially very encouraging.

I think a lot of my younger university students feel a lot more comfortable in their virtual mediascapes than in the physical world. To what extent are you interested in reconstructing or refiguring the haptic spaces of media cultures?

My work has tended to be portraits of particular cultures, so to me the sense of place is still very important. I am not interested in completely divorcing the construction of the image from, for want of a better word, reality, or a historical specific cultural context.

Looking at some of your early videos like Our Potential Allies (1980) it seemed to me, that they were political commentaries or critiques of anthropological or ethnological conventions of speaking for other cultures. To what extent can art be a political or critical agent? I know that while you lived in Japan you produced work critical of American cultural imperialism/occupation of Taiwan for example.

Not every one understood the strategy I was using in these works because they looked very flashy, but that flashiness was originally a metaphor for what I felt was happening in Japan with electronic culture in general. Japan in the '80s was a culture in which surface appearance was everything and it was hard to put content into anything. The first works I did in Japan were, in my mind, critiques of Japanese culture in the same way that Our Potential Allies is not only a critique in the way that you said it but also a critique of how language is always used to explain imagery, particularly on television news. Before I made Our Potential Allies I was working in the News Dept at the ABC so that piece was a direct reaction to what I had perceived at work there.

In the anthropological tradition there is a tendency, when visiting another culture or living in another culture, to appropriate the signs of that culture and drain them of meaning, simply because you don't understand the codes and values (the significance) of them, and then you reinvest these signs with your own personal meanings from your own cultural perspective. Any view of another culture becomes a commentary both on the otherness of the culture you are visiting and the culture you are coming from. A criticism of such productions is that they tend to depoliticise images and shy away from any critical debate. Such work runs the risk of being nothing more than a vacuous set of cliched ahistorical symbols that play with the surface of appearances.

I think it is a risky business, but I don't believe that you necessarily make interesting work by being comfortable about what you are doing all the time. Certainly with my new work on Brazil (Seringue), I'm already starting to feel some sense of politically correct criticism that I should be involved in, making material about a third world culture, but then I think why can a novelist like John Updike write a novel called Brazil which is basically a portrait of an entire culture through the stories of two people.
I have never claimed in any of my work to be speaking for the cultures that I have somehow engaged with but I have begun to sense that the work I am doing at the moment is something of a hot potato and perhaps I didn't kind of realise it when I embarked on it. I thought that despite all of Brazil's problems, it had in terms of new world cultures gone further than any other in creating more than the combination of its origins, and there were parallels for me with Australia and what Australia might become culturally.

You have said that you work in a very intuitive manner rather than in a systematic fashion. What you mean exactly by intuitive in relation to electronic art.

In printmaking there is a choice between screenprinting and etching, With etching there is the possibility to make a printed mark then react to it by making another mark and eventually an image arrives. With screenprinting, because you are working in register, you have to know what image you're going to end up with in order to be able to work with that medium. The way that I work is more akin to etching, in the sense that I begin somewhere and I work through the medium to arrive somewhere I didn't necessarily expect.

There was a conference called State of The Image in Belgium about three years ago and the topic was can new images be made with digital technology?  new in the sense of something that couldn't be made with any other medium  and the consensus of everyone on the panel except me was that any image, once it is made, can be simulated by other means.
For me on the other hand, it is the process of working through technology that is important. It is by working through the technology that I have access to parts of myself which I would normally not have access to.

Every technology has its own particular limitations too and these make available something unique technically and aesthetically too.

A great deal of what I interpret art to be is knowing how to work with limitations. The dilemma for the computer artist is that the computer isn't really a medium, it's something that simulates all other mediums and because the software and hardware is being changed at such a dramatic rate it is really hard to know where the boundaries are. There are drastic limits to computers although in 3D animation for example I often feel when working alone that the software possibilities are almost limitless.

You have also spoken of cultural essences residing in the images of your videos such as Neo Geo (1989) and Kiri Umi No Yuni/Cutting Like the Ocean (1983). Are you referring to something akin to Benjamin's notion of the 'aura' or are you referring to a compression or residual condensation in some symbolic or imaginary sense?

Well it is more an observation on how people react to my work. It refers back to what you were saying before about the anthropological approach and whether you really understand the symbols of that other culture - Americans certainly respond to Neo Geo, which I made while I was living in New York, in ways that I probably will never be able to understand, yet by the same token Americans don't really get Night Time Moon which was made during the Bicentennial in 1988 because the images are out of their range of experience.
There are other readings of the tape that are more subtle in terms of pacing and the use of patterns, that are important to me, which are probably opaque to most people watching the works, but I always tried to create patterns that I felt, for me, had something to do with the culture, and the patterns always came out of decomposing those recognisable images. So once I had made a recognisable image I would almost always reconfigure it into a pattern - that for me was a compelling almost obsessive process.

Turning it into a mantra for yourself to try to understand the excess of images and their dumbness in the face of your cultural ignorance?

I guess so - I have never talked about that before, I guess none of that is necessarily immediately apparent in the work.

But perhaps it is something that you would like people to move towards in response to your work?

I saw the patterns as representative of the culture and also the sense of pacing that you get when you are walking down the streets of say Tokyo and how it is different from Sydney. There are examples all around the world where religious beliefs are submerged and disguised under the belief system of the ruling power: Japanese Christians who had become Christianised under the Portuguese and Spanish were either executed or expelled at the beginning of the feudal period. Those who remained did so by maintaining their Christian beliefs under the guise of Buddhism. In Brazil the combination of various religious strands from Yoruba culture and Congo culture were disguised within Catholicism and now it's hard to see the divisions between Catholicism and Arisha worship.