Reclaiming technology: Peter Callas

Initialising history and peripheral visions
Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, Perth

Initialising History is an overview of Peter Callas' art practice from 1980 to the present. Beginning with his earlier performance works such as, Our Potential Allies (1980, Sydney) and closing with his recent computer animation work-in-progress, Lost in Translation (1999, Karlsruhe/Brazii/Sydney), the program consists of twelve works selected by the artist. Peripheral Visions featured thirteen contemporary international video, electronic and computer works curated by Callas. Together with Eccentric Orbit commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art (New York) in 1994, the three part program, initiated by Alessio Cavallaro, Director of dlux Media Arts, and executed in conjunction with Peter Callas, premiered in Perth as part of Festival of Perth and PICA's Articulations Symposium.

The screenings of Initialising History and Peripheral Visions presented a valuable opportunity for the Perth audience, not only to view a diverse range of contemporary media arts, but also to discuss the current situation and future direction of screen practice-most significantly, its changing relationship with technology. It is evident in Callas' own works that this relationship is a pivotal one. In particular, the works made on a Computer Video Instrument (CVI) such as, Kinema No Yoru/Film Night (1986, Japan) If Pigs Could Fly/The Media Machine (1988, Sydney) and Neo-Geo: An America Purchase (1990, New York) exhibit Callas' vigorous imagination in stretching the possibilities of the technology, as well as taking advantage of its limitations.

In these works, pixels, which are generally seen as something to be avoided, construct vibrant ecstatic animated graphics on screen. Callas assembles fragments using CVI 's simple masking techniques to produce a multitude of collages. Temporal and spatial juxtaposition of these images creates fleeting visions, structured by intensely hypnotic sound components that can be likened to rapidly changing radio frequencies.

Produced in cities such as, Tokyo, Sydney, and New York, these works are far from an authoritarian claim of knowing a place, rather, they represent the artist's submergence in complex cultures. The temporal and spatial layering is Callas' process of mapping cultures that are elusive and full of contradictions- the more one tries to grasp them, the more they slip through one's fingers.

The audience is led into fluctuating mazes of speeding images and flashing icons. Through Callas' multi-linear maps, viewers experience the paradoxes inherent in specific cultures. For example, in If Pigs Could Fly the Australian bicentennial celebration becomes hysterical, yet, at the same time, the irremovable stains made by repressed memories of a denied past remain only too visible beneath the layers of hyper-animated Australiana . However, it is clear from Callas' works that understanding one's location is not a matter of resolving these contradictions. Rather, it is a continual process of recognising, mapping, and representing the constantly shifting relationships between memory, history, and identity.

The concerns with the ability to represent memory and history are reflected strongly in Callas' curatorial work, Peripheral Visions. This program brings together works that tackle the haunting themes of memory, the body, and history. Yoskitaka Shimano's Terebi Dorama, or TV Drama, (1987, Japan) which opens the program, leads viewers through a series of scenes where Shimano violently destroys a number of television sets using baseball bats, chain-saws, speeding cars, and a variety of other methods. Each of these scenes cross-fades into its recorded footage, displayed on yet another television screen, only to be destroyed again. Shimano's performance establishes the tone for the program with its focus on the exploration of technology's increasingly prominent role in mediating our experience.

In Kristin Lucas' Host (1997, USA), the viewers take the position of a street on-line therapy kiosk, watching a confused teenage girl in black and white and in delayed time through a 'web-cam'-like transmission. The girl reveals her problems following a power black-out and her recent 'memory upgrade'. As the film progresses, the difference between human or machine is gradually erased. This confusion, seemingly absurd, may appear familiar to those who dream of their daytime computer-based activities in their sleep.

Other works such as Justine Copper's Rapt (1998, Australia) and Shrinya Tsuji's Sento or Bathhouse (1996, Japan) re-construct visions of the body through technology. The former dismantle and re-assembles the body from Magnetic Resonance lmaging (MRI) data mapping, whilst the later create computer generated three-dimensional virtual images of dirt and grime in a bathhouse in which the idea of bodies being scrubbed most furiously is heightened by magnified sound. Case by Yasuto Yura (1994, Japan) humorously proposes a scenario where memories are mediated, altered, and re-programmed by technology to an extent that there is no longer any certainty about the past. Similarly, Flash by Merilyn Fariskye (1998, Australia) and Tamas Waliczky's Landscape (1997, Hungary/ Germany) relate memories from another place and another time.

Although modernity may have failed to deliver the promises of a more equitable society through technology, current desktop computer editing technologies, for instance, do provide many of us with a degree of autonomy and independence that did not previously exist. Both Initialising History and Peripheral Visions make apparent the possibility for practitioners to claim and reclaim technology as their own. Through seeing the potential and limitations of their tools in relation to their practice, artists are able to determine the direction of their works, and Peter Callas' practice is exemplary in this regard.