A Stitch in Time

Peter Callas show held at Stills Gallery in 2002 Vinculum + Orison resulted from his Asialink residency in Delhi, India and comprises of digital prints on photographic paper and an artists book. Both the scale and choice of images in this exhibition are seductive and enthralling; deceptively innocent moments in daily and century-old rituals and routines.

There's a panoramic feel to the sweeping blue slice of ocean that confronts you when you enter Peter Callas' home on Sydney's northern beaches. This real time panorama recalls his recent work done on an Asialink residency at Sanskriti Kendra in Delhi, India and shown at Stills Gallery in 2002. Vinculum + Orison comprise digital prints on photographic paper and an artist's book that owe much to his known video and electronic art work, yet are divergent in their representation.

Callas' well-documented career as a major international video and electronic artist started with work at the ABC as an assistant film editor for current affairs programs. In the 1970s he went to Sydney College of the Arts where he worked in printmaking, painting and sculpture. He committed himself to video work in 1980 and digital media in 1984 with the introduction of the Fairlight CVI computer. Since then he has been living and working in Australia, Asia, the Americas and Europe making work in and about these places. This experience started with a grant that was the impetus for several trips to Japan culminating in a period as artist-in-residence at Marui department store in the fashionable Tokyo suburb of Shibuya in 1986. Scott McQuire summarises this period:

&he crystallised his distinctive style. From this point, his use of the video camera as a medium for recording original footage recedes, as does his own role as an occasional actor; instead found images come to the fore. With the aid of the Fairlight CVI (Computer Video Instrument), Callas began to 'redraw' selected images into distinctive cartoon-like graphics which constantly cycle through a varied colour palette. The versatility of the process allows individual figures to be made into discrete emblems which can be manoeuvred across differentiated backgrounds, or conversely, figures can become stencils or silhouettes which can be filled with abstract patterns.

In terms of the themes and content of his work in digital media, Callas early on adopted and has maintained interests in several key subjects. In an essay for Heterosis Simon Wright says that Callas has consistently used technology as a 'medium in art' arguing not only that 'technology is a dimensionless terrain which resembles a blank canvas' but 'surface is style, strategy and content', describing them also as 'information landscapes'. On the topic of themes, McQuire talks of

&his view of the screen as a new territorial dimension which was being harnessed to compensate those deprived of 'open space' in horizontal cities such as Tokyo. This sense of the screen's infinitely mutable horizon constituting a virtual frontier has become integral to Callas' perception of technology as territory.

The vast panoramas of scenes in India in Vinculum and the saturating detail of the images in Orison shown at Stills Gallery appear to be as though he left his video and computer behind at the beach, which he did! Their formats vary to include the expected landscape ones but also vertically constructed, cross-wise and irregular squares; they almost appear to be both anti-panoramas and anti-Callas. Even his recent print work done on the theme of Brazil, Um Novo Tempo, doesn't mark such a contrasting body of graphics.

Both the scale and choice of images in this exhibition are seductive and enthralling; deceptively innocent moments in daily and centuries-old rituals and routines. Vinculum is what he terms the signature piece in this new body of work; it shows women in bright pink and orange dress partially enclosed by a wall revealing a balcony above Jaipur with the flat landscape of Rajasthan beyond. In Surveillance the inside of a somewhat worn, off-white room with arched windows and doors recedes and comes forward with a hint of blue clothing to the far right - views out into faraway landscape are hinted at; details of interiors are enticing whilst there's something disturbing on closer inspection. A sweeping vertical image of the dawn with a bird pivoting against a cloud in Freefall provides a moment of suspension at the beauty of that moment. Void also looks to the sky but through a cutout framed by frescoed arcades, in a form reminiscent of folding chocolate or take-away boxes or a camera iris.

Vinculum consists of images purportedly of real subjects and apparently done in real time. As Callas writes in the catalogue essay:

A Vinculum is a connecting medium, bond or tie. In anatomy, it refers to a connecting bond such as a tendon or ligament that limits, and so controls& In digital photography, software that is designed to join photographs that have been shot in sequence is commonly referred to as a 'stitching' program. Stitched images operate as vincula that are virtual emblems or literal artefacts of the bonding of multiple viewpoints into a single, apparently unified image.

Callas describes Orison as 'anti-panorams' to contrast them with the 'panoramas'. Fifty of these, out of more than ten thousand images, are represented in this collection from his travels in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhyar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Goa, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.

An orison is a worshipful petition to a deity&. orison brings to mind 'prison', but it sounds more like 'horizon'& [they] are a form of note taking - mnemonic devices with a latent potential to be transformed, incorporated and layered. In that way, these are 'automatic' photographs taken with other things in mind.

There are touching and haunting moments, as in Architectural template, Datia Palace, Madhya Pradesh, February 2002. A lined brown hand holds what appears to be a mandala template on paper with his other hand touching it and holding a pen against a faint background of stone paving units. In contrast, images of spattered shrines are reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan - they convey a haunting sense of foreboding. The density of accretion and associations with death in these images is pervasive.

Vinculum + Orison appear to be a juncture in Callas' overall body of work and approach to making his art. There is a poetic here that is largely conveyed by the place itself - India - done in real time, that markedly contrasts with the graphics of his computer-generated work. This juncture may only be superficial and only one aspect of Callas' larger narrative. He works in a very conscious and deliberate manner, drawing on the methodology described by McQuire that may be ingrained to a large degree. Chance and intuition do play their part in several ways. Firstly, in the manner in which he allows the attributes of the medium to inspire and then in the manner in which he ended up with a digital camera for his trip to India.

On talking with Callas about this work and bearing McQuire and Wright's comments in mind, the starting point for this work was a new piece of technology. As he tells it, prior to going to India a friend who works as a professional photographer showed Peter a consumer digital camera that, after the initial outlay, can take a seemingly unlimited number of images at virtually no cost. With new camera in hand and having paid up-front costs, as opposed to the post-production ones involved in video work or analogue photography, he went to Delhi with his partner Yuri Kawanabe who shared the residency with him. In Delhi, there are regular brown-outs when the electricity grid in particular areas unpredictably shuts down. The digital camera along with a laptop gave him the facility to catalogue, analyse and develop images on the spot, without reliance on post-production processes.

For the first time in years, there was a challenge for Callas in dealing with both the use of 'real' (through the lens) images and the 'liberation' provided by the camera itself.

To appreciate the disturbing moments and discordant juxtapositions in Vinculum, it is necessary to briefly appreciate the panorama and the camera's facilities. A panorama is conventionally done with a film-based camera from a sequence of different moments that are then represented as though taken in a single moment of time. The physical act of making one involves splicing and layering to minimise such factors as artefacts produced by the curvature of lenses, shifts in movements in subject matter and environmental conditions. In conventional panoramas there are often marks left that indicate the limitations of the camera to perform this task.

By contrast, the new technology engages in a process of automatically resizing and rotating images (digital 'stitching') as the software tries to align a number of specific points which overlap in the adjacent images. In the process it leaves tell-tale marks (called perspective 'smiling') at the edges of an image which are normally cropped out of the finished panorama. Cognition of the convention of the panorama suggests to a viewer that the sections were taken sequentially and to emphasise this fact Callas lets these edges remain - signposting that the image has in fact been constructed over time.
It would be misleading though to imply that the software magically creates the finished work. In fact all of the panoramas are the result of many hours of fine work on screen to get the exact match and to enhance the effect the artist is looking for. This manipulation is done in different ways and for different reasons depending on the image at hand. About his image of the Microsoft Headquarters in Delhi he says:
Parts of MSHQ are what a bad stitch looks like. In many images even if the foreground is stitched correctly, the background will have (by definition) repetitions and incongruities. In some images I chose to smooth these out by hand and in other images I chose to leave them (as in MSHQ, where the violent misconnections between the areas of this mosaic stitch seem to accentuate the feeling of the place [I associate 'MSHQ' with the imperial implications of the Roman 'SPQR']). In the whole sequence I attempted to cover the complete gamut (as I see it anyway) of the ways of dealing with the phenomena inherent to stitched images. In some images I did this in a subtle way. For example, in Graveyard, the joins are disguised within particular pieces of discarded and/or broken pottery - so that you can't tell whether the pottery is distorted or the image& I love manipulated images, and that is partly why I felt so at home with this process&

These processes can also be seen as a critique on the making of images. For Callas, the images or medium of Vinculum are artefacts of a computer program; that being implicit, one assumes that this is what the viewer will take to be the subject matter of the work. At a certain level, these concerns are to do with an artist's contribution to the lineage of painting and thus of concern to an informed academic and/or artistic audience rather than a broader one.

This current transition in his work is consistent and very pro-Callas. As much as his methodology and themes are consistent, Vinculum + Orison are 'information landscapes' and the 'surface is style, strategy and content'. The strategic is also apparent in where he positions himself in the field. In some of his recent work the saturated, day-glow computer graphics merge in the memory with those produced by say Dreamworks and the Hollywood machine. With the fortuitous shift to using a digital camera with real time objects comes a distinct shift in perspective; as in his highly innovative early video work he has moved computer imaging and photography into quite new terrain. His upcoming project in Italy, an animated interpretation of a 14th century fresco, will no doubt reveal where he will take it next.