Australia 75

Computers and Electronics in the Arts

Cover of Australia 75  catalogue.


In Australia the 1970’s — especially between the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 and its “sacking” in late 1975 — were a period of great creative energy, considerable innovation in ways of looking at ourselves as a society, and great optimism for the future: the Vietnam War was ending (30th April 1975, fall of Saigon) and colour television had just arrived (1st March 1975). With Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister it was a good time for the arts, a good time to go to university and there was plenty of interest in science and technology and a growing interest in early electronic arts. The Australian Council for the Arts was revamped as the Australia Council and given a solid funding base.

The National Gallery of Australia made some controversial purchases that were actually supported by the government of the day (and which have proven to be very astute investments). The Interim Council of the Australian Film and Television School (now the Australian Film, Television and Radio School) was established, as was the Video Access network.

In late 1972, the Aquarius Foundation of the Australian Union of Students (led by Graeme Dunstan and Johnny Allen) drew together and funded a collective of community activists who were interested in video and media production (including Mick Glasheen, Joseph el Khouri, Melinda Brown, Jack “FatJack” Jacobsen, Tom Barber and Jonny Lewis) to set up a cable network in Nimbin, NSW, during the Aquarius Festival of May 1973. Many of the collective then decided to continue the project and formed into Bush Video which operated as an artists video production facility in Sydney until mid-1975.

Bush Video family gathered at their van. Photo by Jon Lewis/
Bush Video people gathered at their van. …. John Kirk, Anne Kelly Mike Kelly (on roof of van), unknown, Mick Glasheen (obscured by door) Ariel [aka Mark Evans] Joseph El Khouri, Melinda Brown. [photograph Jon Lewis]

Drawing on the Nimbin project and the Canadian Challenge For Change project, in early 1974 the Film & TV Board of the Australia Council set up a network of Video Access Centres (in association with the Commonwealth Department of Urban and Regional Development) and through the Experimental Film Fund and subsequent initiatives supported many other smaller developments in new video production and technologies. The Video Access Centres were basic video production facilities in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth that were intended to open up access to the then new video technology and make it available to the public for production of community-based media debate, to independent producers (some of whom came from the Sydney and Melbourne Film-makers Co-ops, or who were a slightly later generation of the kind of people that made up the Co-ops, or Film and TV School students) and similar, as well as to experimental video artists and early electronic artists, for example members of Bush Video.

Around 1975 there were three levels of computing:

  • Mainframes, such as those by IBM, Univac and English Electric, belonging to the big institutions,
  • Minicomputers (eg, Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-8) used in research laboratories and workstations and in certain kinds of bureaus in, for example, architectural and engineering work, and
  • Just beginning to appear, the Microcomputers – mostly kit computers, based on the Intel 8080 or the Zilog Z80 chips, and built by enthusiasts for their own experimentation.

But computer technology was still very difficult to get access to. Mainframe computers were large monsters hidden away in air-conditioned floors of banks, insurance companies, government offices and academic research institutions, while science fiction writers dreamed up all sorts of scenarios in which computers existed as a pending Big Brother which would take over the world and turn us all into slaves. For most people computers were inaccessible. The only likely contact was through computer forms on punched cards and the phrase “Do Not Spindle, Fold or Mutilate”.

Occasionally you could get to see a computer at a University Open Day, where you might have been fortunate enough to receive a computer print-out of a calendar with a picture of Snoopy at the top of it, but you would almost never get to use one for your own creative work. Computers, especially for the politically active, were associated with the high technology companies in the US (that made their money from the Vietnam War) and were not really acceptable among activists and most artists. The minicomputer, in some ways, was even more inaccessible since it tended to be hidden away in laboratories or back rooms of offices where it was attended by a specialist acolyte. To some extent it was being used to develop graphics (mostly for data visualisation) or for system development in university computing labs. And the microcomputer was something that only Ham Radio operators and the readers of popular electronics magazines were likely to know about. For activist artists social issues: feminism, the anti-freeway movement, green bans and anti-whaling were the order of the day, and the rare exhibition of Computer Art made very little impact.

The first desktop computers that the public could buy were just becoming available and, if you bought one, it came as a kit that you had to build and program yourself. The only people who were likely to do that were electronic hobbyists and a few young scientists.

One of those scientists, Doug Richardson, a young computer programmer at the University of Sydney, had recently completed a computer graphics software project using a DEC PDP-8, a mini-computer which had a large radar screen as a graphical display and was used in many scientific laboratories both in Australia and overseas. Some of the work that he and other artists interested in experimenting with technology had produced with his system had been shown at exhibitions in Sydney and Brisbane. This led to Doug being invited to organise an exhibition of computer arts for the Australia 75 festival to be held in Canberra over 7th – 16th March 1975. He decided to call the exhibition “Computers and Electronics in the Arts” and invited many of the people he had worked with to contribute and asked them to invite others they knew to also contribute.

Doug Richardson at the PDP-8 mini-computer.
Doug Richardson at a teletype used for entering instructions for the PDP-8 (which is to the left of the photograph). [Courtesy: Doug Richardson]

Doug Richardson at a teletype used for entering instructions for the PDP-8 (which is to the left of the photograph). [Courtesy: Doug Richardson]

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