Chapter 8

Video as closed-circuit installation

I have already discussed short-term and long-term feedback cycles in video. Although I have discussed the role of feedback in image synthesis it also has a role in what is essentially a surveillance function. That is, it is not an image synthesis function but more a conversational function that is operating, and it is this surveillance cum conversational aspect that can be deployed to bring surprising visual events to the audience.

Installation work, I suggest, is a kind of sculpture in which the object is open rather than closed and self-contained [1] and, as we have seen with David Perry’s installation in London, the video system can be used in an open way in which the audience becomes engaged with the screen as an object and in which they become the (partial) subject of the work. In a sense Bush Video, while it was in the Fuetron building, functioned as a permanent interactive open-system installation of closed-circuit television which was publicly accessible, especially during the Sunday night Video Theatre events.

But the use of video as a crucial part of an actual closed-circuit installation, although it had been done by David Perry while in the UK, did not occur in Australia until Tim Burns produced his very provocative installation: A Change of Plan at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) for the exhibition Recent Australian Art, a show curated by Daniel Thomas and Frances McCarthy in 1973.[2] This was probably the first substantive use of video in an art gallery in Australia given that, at that time, it took a lot of effort to make video art (or any video production) acceptable within the art gallery framework.

Tim Burns

Tim Burns was one of the artists associated with the Yellow House over 1971 and 1972. It was there he was introduced to video through Albie Thom's Yellow TV which documented the activities and artists at Martin Sharp's Yellow House in the evenings during the period that Thoms was documenting the Bruce Copping installation at Inihbodress) (See Chapter 4).

Burns had come to Sydney from Perth where he was working with fibreglass.

“I was casting people and building these figures [in fibreglass] and so on, right?, of which there’s a few. There’s one in Sunshine City and the Yellow House piece [Mary in the Bathroom] [3], and all that kind of stuff I was doing in Perth. … At that stage I had a super 8 camera, a Minolta, and I had an intervalometer. It was a little cylinder that plugged into the top of the camera. And I was just doing surfaces of water, and I did a lot of those. Maybe that was a bit after that. I think ’73 I bought the super 8. … I think that was the year it came out… So actually before that, it was the portapak, or it was a deck, I think. I don’t think it was even a portapak. It was a deck with a camera connected to it, [4] I think.”

Photograph of Mary in the Bathrom sculpture in the Yellow House, 1970-71
Fig.1: Photograph of Burns' Mary in the Bathrom fibreglass sculpture
in the Yellow House, 1970-71. [Courtesy: Tim Burns; Photograph: Greg Weight]

“Brett Whitely came over to Perth with the American Dream, which went to the Gallery of Western Australia eventually. But the gallery that brought him over for the show was my gallery. And so I met him there. … He’d taken over a couple of pieces; one was a cassowary with a head that went into the sky, like a long piece of fibreglass that extended the neck, and that got broken on the way over, right. And I was working in fibreglass, right? I fixed up a few other things in the American Dream, reset things into them, and whatever, you know, and glassed in a couple of things.

“He said: come to Sydney and you can come and do some work for us. And at that stage I’d already been to Sydney, and I’d stayed at Watters. Frank Watters came over when I was at art school and said if I was interested in coming over to Sydney, I should come and see them, Which I did … in ’68. So that was the first connection.

“[Brett] took me to the Yellow House and said: "Give this guy a room." So I arrived there and met Martin and they moved me in there. … And at the same time Watters said: "Go out to Tin Sheds and see what’s going on out there." And I went out to the Sheds and hooked in with Bert [Flugelmann] and Jim McDonell: Optronic Kinetics. They showed me all the optronics and that was kind of interesting. And they had just done the Cubed Tree, I think, at that stage, from what I recall.

“So I had those two things going at the same time, but my aesthetic was with the Sheds rather than with the Yellow House, in a sense. Less kind of carnival and – although I did go and work for Leon Finke in redesigning Luna Park, the Ghost Train, which of course burned down. But they didn’t – you know, I put a huge amount of work into it, and there was all this fibre doors. It was a million dollar job, you know. And that came out of my fibreglassing. I did a room there, a car crash room, that they really liked. When you walked in …and it all kind of started going off, like it had sirens, and one of the things snapped down, and I was into all that kind of – sort of kinetic moments. So, yeah, the two kind of ran together really. And Viv Binns, Viv came in, and also into the Sheds, and Sam Bienstock who I met at the Yellow House and took him out to the Sheds.

“That’s that crossover.

“Yeah, those guys were all into the techo stuff out there anyway, just a slightly different version of it. It was much more conceptual … And also I was looking at the video that they were doing at Inhibodress. The piece I really loved was Defining the Frame, you know, that was my favourite thing in that first series of their stuff [Idea Demonstrations. ??].

“At that stage I collected pubic hair off 200 people I knew, or something or other, for ??? CAS show. That was when I started to go more conceptual. But I’d been working with explosives, I’d been working on the mines for a start. And I’d been basically blowing shit up on the mines. I was employed to rill fire, which is when you just run around with sticks of gelignite. I wasn’t doing the big fires, … But down in the – where it all comes down into the trucks. So I got to handle a lot of it and blow a lot of shit up. So that was the other thing that was boiling along at the same time, and I was always fascinated with fireworks, and kid making little bombs and all that stuff. [But] I hadn’t really applied it to any art event at that point, but that was always boiling along.

“Specific to the video, I was certainly more interested in film or photography or something like that. And I was casting all these three dimensional figures. But actually I was getting more and more interested in the kinetics of what actually the audience was doing. The premise for the bathroom at the Yellow House was just that moment when someone opened the door and thought someone was taking a shower, and it was a woman and it was a house, therefore people would be taking a shower. And then they would close the door and apologise, you know. And the shower would turn on … that kind of thing. So that was just the pure little kinetic of just that moment, that was the only thing that I was interested in really. And the same with the car crash later on. Just that moment when they walked in. After that it became fairly – it was just a figure lying on a stretcher.

“The piece that I did at Watters in the beginning of ’73, was … I audiotaped people having sex on the floor of Watters Gallery in the middle of summer, you know, on that cement floor. And then I put that through an amp system and used chemists’ mats as trigger devices, and then poured urethane foam over them. It was called Fences to Climb, and it was a series of pens, that you couldn’t get through the gallery unless you went over the pens. Big health and safety now, you know what I mean. You’d only be able to look at it from the door. Actually I read a review of it by Gleeson the other day, and he said, ‘Animal sounds’, so it was pretty amped up, you know. Some sort of weird animal sounds emitted when you trod on certain parts of the floor, or whatever.

“At that stage I was fucking around with foam because foam was part of fibreglass and it was expandable, and I poured foam down steps and sealed rooms, and things like that. And the other piece in that system that was all audio-related, or between a smoke machine and an audio system, was the piece I did with Viv Binns and Mitch Johnson at Sydney Uni, called the Human Consequences of Technological Change. And I did the foyer as this – and I used sound effects records. I was fascinated by sound effects records, so jets were landing, babies were crying, it was a cacophony, and whenever you walked through a certain thing … and Jim McDonnell started wiring all these machines for me. First thing I got was a Theremin, right, straight off the top. And the second thing he did was wire my camera, my super 8 camera up so that it fired on a photo.

“Okay, so then, for the New South Wales show … They asked me to be in the show ages before the damn show, you know. It was like now, you’re a year ahead, you know. And they said, Well, what do you want to do? And I’d just done Fences to Climb, and so I took a detail of that, and said, It’ll be Fences to Climb II, or something, an arbitrary doodah.

“It became a kind of pain in the arse because … in fact I should never have changed the bloody name anyway. It should’ve been ‘Just a Bigger Fence to Climb’. You know what I mean?

“So, you know, by the time I got to that, I was into this whole idea of much more into surveillance. And at that stage I was doing little bombs in the War Memorial, and we’d already blown up other things, and demonstrations. And we were into that guerrilla – we did the Johnson Guerrilla thing where this sort of group of Vietnamese peasants filtered into the crowd at a demonstration. And then we came charging in, in a van, as the US Army, leapt out, ran in there, beat the shit out of these people, and dragged them back and threw them in the van and drove off, right. So we were into much more, you know, I suppose, sort of kinetic – again it’s that kinetic moment, where people are just not sure whether it was real – oh, what the fuck was that? you know – rather than holding up a placard and going ‘dah, dah, dah’. So they were all born out of those moments, those charged moments of kinetic. And also about what the audience reaction to that. By the time you barge through the audience and you've found a Vietnamese peasant, and then [makes explosion sound] blood would spurt everywhere, and you would drag them away – oh, tomato sauce. Just that moment. And you know just explosive little things so that you didn’t get arrested, and all that kind of stuff as well. Even though I did get arrested at the US Embassy, which later on caused me all sorts of pain and agony. They wouldn’t let me into the country.

“So those were the driving forces. The video, first of all it was me talking to Liz Sheridan primarily that generated the ideas for that. And in a sense it was a natural extension of the Fences to Climb anyway. And I didn’t realise as much as I do now, but at that point, that was just six months of – and I’d already gone to Mildura and done the whole thing there; I’d done the Boxes, exploding box piece, where you [unclear 20:03] clap, the one that was put together by Leggo, with the little Leggo … that was called Liverpool Art Prize, and Donald was the judge. So we were all encouraged to – because Donald was judging it, you know – we’re going in that.

“I had 12 boxes all lined up – I think it was 12, it might’ve been 9 at that stage; I’m not sure what configuration. But they were made by a fruit box maker, and they were stencilled with Danger Explosives, Watch Out, Keep Away, or something. So they were silk-screened at the Sheds, and they were full of vermiculite. And there was a charge in the bottom of them, and they were triggered by the Leggo – it was the Captain Crunch idea, you know – Leggo made a little train set, and it had a sound to voltage converter. And that turned the train on. You went [whistles] you blew into a whistle – they had a whistle with it – but actually a clap did it, the right sort of clap. So it was called Whistle. So they put all these boxes in the bloody show and everything. And actually it was happening at exactly the same time as Mildura, but I don’t think Donald was at Mildura that year. So that got chucked down in the morning of the opening of the show, and the next day, the Liverpool show opened. And of course, Donald gave a speech, the opening – [claps twice] – and people clapped. And someone was standing in amongst all the boxes of the piece – because they were spread out in – and of course they blew up.

“And apparently the guy, some old fellow, you know, trying to – I wasn’t there for that. But I had two shows close, you know, or two pieces removed from shows within the one week. So that was, you know …

“That year I had more shows closed than other people had opened. Including finally the one at the Art Gallery, and all … not by intention, you know. I wasn’t programming that in – I didn’t dream for a minute those things would happen. I just assumed everyone would go along with them, you know. But Donald was telling that story in Adelaide for the opening of the show the other day, and the smoke alarm went off. And not only – then I realised of course, you know, that the fucking smoke alarm would go off, but the cinema next door, MRC, the whole block was shut down and no-one – everyone had to be brought out onto the street. So the place was vacated – Donald was right in the middle of it. And then this old fellow came out and he got blown up and, then [makes noises]... Shit.” [4]

“SJ: So did you get blamed for that too?

“Yeah. You know, I did it, but I didn’t imagine that what I was doing was putting an image back into the gallery of me facing away. Like I had a video projector of the inside of a TV set, and then that was seen – I had the surveillance monitors sweeping the thing anyway – and then there was this camera looking at me inside the room, and I was facing away from them while he was doing the speech. And the only thing I had available then – because I’d come from Mildura, done all this other shit and everything, and suddenly went: What am I going to do? … the performance – was a can of spray paint. So I did the old spray paint trip. I did it once, you know. Hit the cigarette lighter, so I’m facing away, so I was looking for that burn-out around the figure, the halo. And I went [makes sound] and I’m listening for the response from the camera behind, right. And it didn’t seem adequate. It didn’t blow anyone down. Because this is happening behind Donald. Donald doesn’t know this is happening. And so then, Shit, I’d better do it again [makes sound]. And that flamed out a bit more. And I was flaming it out – the image of the TV, the interior of the TV on the wall which I was actually shadowing as well. And then I did it a third time, and [makes sound of smoke alarm] everybody was removed. And it’s all recorded on this sweeping camera. And then of course I discover very quickly that in fact there’s no way they can turn it off, right.

“And then everybody’s got their little – and Julie’s running the foam; you know, you’ve got to go to all these points. Then the fire brigade eventually turned up to turn it off, at some considerable cost. And then they put me in the room and said: Well, what happened? And I’m going, Well... I was mucking around, I was just painting this wall, you know, and fuck, suddenly the whole thing went off. Okay, sure thing, mate, yeah.

“And … They didn’t actually look at the surveillance camera. They kind of all trooped out. But it’s very funny in the surveillance – because you see the head of the gallery – that sweeps past, and then you see firemen go through. And then at the back they had to search the buildings to see that everything was okay. And then of course, everybody, by this time, they were all standing out in the street drinking wine. And then the MRC, all the theatre people are there. There’s groups of people all standing around. And then they give the all-clear and they turn it off, and people come back in, and Donald comes back in and just goes, like, into the next line. So yeah, that was that, that sort of diversion. But it wa very funny. And amazingly, it was better really than the Mildura thing because people weren’t expecting it.” [5]

At the Art Gallery of N.S.W.

A Change of Plan

Recent Australian Art, October 18 - November 18, 1973.

Burns had been making what he thought of as kinetic works: catching the moment of action by triggering a camera with a sound sensor or flash trigger or similar. Thus a clap could make an event occur or be photographed. These led to a series of small explosions in public spaces or during gallery events, or other works that required the audience to clamber over them to release the sounds had been recorded and hidden within the work, for example Fences to Climb (February 1973) at Watters Gallery in which a fenced off space within the gallery held layers of polyurethane foam that hid small speakers which played back sounds of sexual activity when the audience put their weight on the triggers.

Burns had been invited to contribute to the exhibition. He proposed an installation called Fences to Climb (which was to be a further development of his Watters Gallery show earlier that year), but at the last minute asked if he could replace it with a new video installation work, which ended up being called Change of Plan – 2 People 1 Room – Closed circuit TV lent by Sony, an installation of a live camera displaying the living behaviour of two people living in a room for the period of the installation.

Catalogue pages from Tim Burns' entry in Recent Australian Art at the AGNSW, 1973
Fig.2: Catalogue pages from Tim Burns' entry in Recent Australian Art at the AGNSW, 1973 [Courtesy: Tim Burns]

The proposed installation sounded interesting to the gallery and was accepted. As Daniel Thomas, then senior curator at the AGNSW, notes in a later column for Art and Australia on outrages in local art museums, it would be “a closed-circuit television piece to surprise gallery-goers into conversation with the screen”. [6]

A room was built in which two people (Barry Prothero and Ursula Maele) would spend every day for the month of the exhibition. That they were to be nude for the whole period was not divulged until the opening night, but Burns had warned that they might verbally abuse the audience. What the audience saw was a TV screen in which the two appeared, naked on the screen. The video was relayed from the room immediately behind the screen via a portable video camera and microphone, but the audience didn’t at first know that this was the case and, as Thomas continues, it was artistically stimulating to set up confusion between broadcast or pre-recorded vision on the one hand, and real-time viewback on the other.” [7] Another critic, whose nom de plume was Gene Autrey, mentions in a more recent description of the work that the audience members were surprised that, on going up to the screen “the naked people started talking to them”. As he continues: “This was live interactive closed-circuit television and they could watch you while you watched them. They were right there inside the room-sized box in front of you.” [8]

2 still frames from A Change of plan at the AGNSW
Fig.3: Two still frames from the monitor outside Burns' installation A Change of Plan at the Art Gallery of NSw (1973).
[Courtesy: Tim Burns]

2 still frames showing the inside situation of A Change of Plan at the AGNSW
Fig.4: Two still frames showing the inside situation of Burns' installation A Change of Plan at the Art Gallery of NSw (1973).
[Courtesy: Tim Burns]

Compared with the more earnest video works of the time this performance piece was very clever and very funny. It was also a great deal more incisive than today’s reality television shows which it anticipated by almost thirty years.

According to Thomas the audience was not all that shocked by the nudity and verbal abuse and so, to up the ante, Prothero decided to walk through the gallery to a toilet break without re-clothing himself. This seriously disturbed the gallery attendants and the police were called, arresting him for indecent exposure, but the charges were eventually dismissed and the work was only closed for five days. Both Autrey and Thomas express interest in the capacity for art to outrage and this work was one of many that Burns produced in the early 1970s which were calculated to upset officialdom. However it is the closed-circuit video installation that is important here. It seems odd to be referring to “closed-circuit” video while considering the installation work as an open-system, however, although the connection of video camera and monitor used in a real-time (surveillance) loop is closed, the behavioural configuration that becomes the content of this loop is necessarily open since there would be no content if it were not able to be entered and interacted with. The surprise for the audience was that the system as installation was in fact open, and it is in this surprise that the work had its effect.

Burns continues with his description of the shenanigans of A Change of Plan.

“I should’ve just left it as Fences to Climb. But … this wasn’t the same work. I wanted to do this: I wanted to put this fake room in and … now why was I into the surveillance camera things? I think it was partly because of the little blowing-ups and all that. The piece at Sydney Uni had a lot to do with it. All that was missing in that was the visual feed. And the same with the Watters Gallery show really, in a way. It was all there except that it was sex, it was all that kind of stuff. … I wanted Barry [Prothero] because I needed someone who – basically the idea was that I wanted someone to berate – I wanted a painting to talk back. That was it, that was the idea really.

“And so it just happened to be able to be done with Sony’s video equipment at the time, which just happened to be a couple of bloody cameras and a loop system. The other thing that really appealed to me was the Art Gallery [had] just built that wing, … and they had the plug in the floor idea. And also I’d just done the Joe Bonomo show in Watters … and Watters had put plugs in the floor at that stage, a revolutionary move, you know, so you could power things up in the gallery without running a[n extension lead], you know, and being obvious. And that was when they brought me in in a crate. So all they had to do was put the box over this hole in the floor, and I plugged the jigsaw in, and I drilled a couple of holes in the box, and I stayed there for three or four hours. People were sitting on the box and watching other things, and whatever. And then I started to saw my way out. Because it was about the show of strength.

“So I had the jigsaw [makes sound] and eventually burst out of the box, you know, like … So they were all kind of part of that, but without the visual aspects of it that the cameras gave me. And how I linked Sony in, I’m buggered [if I remember]… I think once they invited me to do that show, then I was able to pull a bit of weight. Whereas before, it had all been unknown stuff, in a way. And so yeah, because that was a big show. It was the Opera House opening, and the Queen, and all that kind of crap.

“And I’m sure the portapaks… they gave me a portapak then as part of the process, as well, so you think I would’ve bloody well recorded it in the show, wouldn’t you? But that came after it. I didn’t get the bloody portapak until after the show, of course. You know how it’s like … just the [act] of documenting something was more than, you know, the next step up from what you were doing, and you had no resources anyway.

“But then they did present me with a portapak, Sony, because they were thrilled [and] they got a huge amount of publicity out of that inevitably. Because the guard smashed the TV, you know.” [9]

Daniel Thomas comments on the surprise element of suddenly this thing that appears to be like maybe a bit of a porn movie or something like that, some kind of pre-recorded thing that you can play back, suddenly starts talking to you. And that really unnerved people. Burns continues:

“Well, first of all it was Psychology 101, you know, it was the manual. So yeah, and I had Barry [Prothero [10] who was acerbic, that gay acerbic – but he also had that huge general knowledge and art knowledge. … So that’s why I wanted Barry in there, because he was able to reduce people to tears, you know, if he so chose. You know that kind of … acid wit, I think you’d define it as.[11]

“He reduced the bloody director of the gallery to tears on first connection. So that was the reasoning. It was Psychology 101, just attack the person. But it was to do it like – “I don’t like paisley, I don’t like blue shirts. I hate fucking people who wear blue shirts and bloody light blue ties. They’re a bunch of bastards.” And the guy’s standing there looking at it. And slowly, you [realise], he’s got the blue shirt and the blue tie, and you know what I mean. So that was the premise, that was the working model, was to attack people for what they actually looked like primarily.

“And then that would branch off. When Colin [Little] came in later on, of course it became much more about the cerebral, sort of [unclear 34:10] space, we’re out here, you know, everything is cool, you know. It was much more inclusive.

“He came and took over Barry’s [role] after Barry was arrested. Barry said: Fuck this, Idon’t want to do this any more. He had built it up to … crash and burn. And I think Barry just made the decision he didn’t want to go on with it. [12]

SJ: So he upped the ante by walking out to go to the toilet?

“He certainly did. And I think it was that build-up, which probably had a lot to do with it. The fact that people kind of imagined that they were sort of in some TV studio in Gore Hill, that seemed to be the general premise, and that they were being fed in, they were at the ABC. So you know one minute you walk off camera and you come live just that moment was the thing that he was looking for in the end.

“And I’m sure it built up to that. But it was certainly about the fact that no-one really … they certainly didn’t know they were right behind them.

“It looked like an air conditioning duct. You know, [like] you get in buildings. You get these vacant spaces that happen to have services in them, and all that sort of shit. That was playing on that.

“And there were a lot of little reasons why all the things fitted into the gallery – it was even the way they had these panels to divide up [the space]. You jacked them up into the roof and then they slipped these little things in underneath them, so that they were a kind of pure wall. There were all those things that – it was just me looking at the systems at the gallery, and the fact that the wire underneath and the TV was totally isolated, you know. Those were the sorts of triggers that kicked in for me, in terms of how to handle it.[13]

SJ: So you actually used the panelling and walls of the gallery to build the room?

“Mm-hmm. I mean, in one of them I put a door in with a key flushed into it, that you could only open with a key, and [unclear 36:46] and Barry had the only key. So they jimmied it open in the end. But in the process of that, you know, one of the things they don’t talk about is a lot of people in the bloody crowd took all their clothes off. And joined them in the room, and the door would open and people would rush in and they would close the door again, and the guards couldn’t do anything about it. He’s sitting there waiting. And then, you know, they pulled the little pieces out underneath and people all lay down on the floor and talked to them through that section at the bottom. [14]

In an email dated 6 October 2009, Burns commented:

A Change of Plan was about the verbal or performance elements – the best attribute of video at the time, not withstanding that cctv or surveillance was something people had little experience of, which set up Barry's emergence ‘into the reality frame’. In the end video was performative and informational or documentary driven at that time for me. I was more influenced by Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy’s work where they mark the frame edges of a camera facing the wall by the [person] behind the camera describing the frame to the other who marks the wall with tape.” [15]

A Change of Plan came about during a period in Australia where video was seen as having the potential to bring about a considerably more accessible media and it was out of this notion that the video access network grew in Australia and a widening group of artists and activists in Australia became interested in this more political usage of video. There seem to have been two lines of approach.

One was the use of video to disturb the complacency of the viewer’s sense of the world and the other was an engagement in society and its day-to-day politics through the documentation of direct political action at both the governmental/institutional level and at the community level.”

Tim Burns' approach to art and to the use of video was aligned to the former which allowed him to become a direct provocateur for the latter.

At the Ewing Gallery

Boxes: An Ideas Show

Ewing and George Paton Gallery, Melbourne, July 29 - Aug. 16, 1974.

In 1974 Burns had video works in two shows held in quick succession at the Ewing Gallery at the University of Melbourne. “The Ewing Gallery had actively supported video art from 1974 when early examples of the possibilites of the medium were shown at the gallery in the Ideas Show Boxes (July-August 1974) and Events Structures (September-October, 1974).” [18]

Boxes: An Ideas Show included a video by Tim Burns called ‘The Philosophy of Video’. Meredith Rogers describes this in her essay for Helen Vivian's book When You Think About Art: The Ewing and George Paton Galleries: 1971-2008.[17]

“Two of many memorable exhibits that resulted were Peter Tyndall’s photographic documentation of the box being burned and Tim Burns’s The Philosophy of Video, in which the box was posted back filled with a two-part resin at the centre of which was a cavity containing a video of the artist mixing and pouring the resin.”

Helen Vivian notes:

“In 1974 there were 2 exhibitions which incorporated video in multimedia / performance / installation shows. These were large group shows so I don’t know how many of the artists used video (no detailed catalogue) but I do know about those mentioned in reviews, etc.”

She relayed to the author that Meredith Rogers described these in her essay for the book “Two of many memorable exhibits that resulted were Peter Tyndall’s photographic documentation of the box being burned and Tim Burns’s The Philosophy of Video.

Regarding the Boxes show: Boxes, the first of the Ewing Gallery’s “Ideas shows”, was billed as Responses of some Australian artists to a basic object, a cardboard box 13 x 11” (July-August, 1974), Burns returned the cardboard box, now labelled The Philosophy of Video and “filled with a two-part resin at the centre of which was a cavity containing a video of the artist mixing and pouring the resin.” [17] He comments:

“Yeah, I used that material from the Watters show. I cut a piece out of the Watters show, you know, all the bloody foam that I had and everything in that, I had to do something with that. I had fences and crap from that show. And it was like an abdomen as well.

“And it had the half inch video in, so it must’ve been after … the Art Gallery [AGNSW] show, because it was the half inch videotape of making it. Which of course I never showed to anyone. And god knows – actually, Meredith, I got photographs from her of the actual piece, but god knows what happened to the actual piece. But they did photograph it before it got tossed, or wherever it went.

“Or I don’t even know whether it still exists, or what. So … that was before I did the exploding TV piece.” [18]

The Box. (L) outside with label and return address. (R) The specially formed foam inside the Box.
Fig.5: The Box. (L) outside with label and return address. (R) The specially formed foam inside the Box.
[Courtesy: Tim Burns]


Ewing and George Paton Gallery, Melbourne. Sept.24 - Oct.4, 1974.

performance art/video/film/lectures/body art/EVENTS

The second show, Events/Structures (24 September - 4 October, 1974) was a massive Mixed Media Installation/exhibition involving Performance, Body Art, Video, Film, Seminars. There were 24 separate programmed events plus the gallery installation. [19]

Tim Burns' work for this show was For the Sake of Art in which he installed several TV sets in the gallery. They showed a videotape (originally shot on 35mm film by David Perry using a slow-motion camera) demonstrating the ICI Explosives Users Guide where, in this case, the example is the very TV sets on which the tape is being shown.

Of this video installation/performance Burns notes:

“with For the Sake of Art… David Perry shot the video that appeared on the screen in the finished work on a road in Chippendale where I drew on the road the construction of the device and the TV, although this was not overly telegraphed to the audience with a count down at the end from 10 to zero when I would fire an electric detonator and the TV would blow, thus revealing the subject and object of the drawing. The tests were shot on 35 mm [or 16, can't remember now] in WA by John Clarke to test the placing and amount of explosive to be used, this footage was later used as the indicator of the trigger for the exploding videotape in the end of Against the Grain. Donald Brook allowed another showing against the wishes of his department at Flinders Uni where I was artist in residence in 1975.” [20]

Later in an interview with the author he added:

“Before the installation at the Ewing: I’d gone back to Western Australia, and so I picked up a whole lot of TVs and took [them to] the Boyer Quarry. And I had a friend who had a – I can’t remember what camera – but it was a 16 mm, 35 mm high speed camera. So I wanted to see what happened to the TVs when they blew up, you know. First ones, I just evaporated them, you know, completely. And then I was starting to work more and more with – one of the things that was really appealing was cordex, which is the selfdetonating fuse. It’s actually a detonator, travels at about 66,000 feet a second, and allows you to blow up a series of things manually rather than electrically. And you just punch it through the gelignite and just thread it like bloody string, and away it goes. And it’s just got enough so that you can do it without upsetting the one before it, kind of thing. And so I was mucking around with that, and that’s a high explosive in itself. And then I found that just using that alone was all I needed to do, you know, as long as I had a det on it. And I could ramp up the dets by putting a [unclear 48:02] and connecting that to something that was going to blow a real det. And the det would blow the bloody fuse, and away she would go. And I could use a piece, like that long, on the back of a TV.

Fig.6: Testing the explosive power needed to blow up the TV at the Boya Quarry in Western Australia (1974)
[Courtesy: Tim Burns]

“They were really effective. That’s what I should’ve been using in Mildura, you know, something that’s got high explosive, very fast, very full on, and it’s just boom, it blows the TV, implodes it, and explodes it. Basically it’s imploding it first, because it’s a vacuum, so it just sucks in. Then it comes out by virtue of that. But you can direct that very efficiently because there’s weaknesses in where it’s going to go, you know. And the back of the tube is always, you know – specially because they used to put those glass fronts on them. And in some they used to put a plastic sheet over that, like a plexiglass front on that, and there was all this kind of variation on that. But they all had something like that so that people wouldn’t kill themselves when they threw an axe, you know, when they chopped through the TV – they didn’t like the show, or whatever.

“So yeah, so I exploited that. Because in the end, I had to get down to being able to do it a couple of yards away from where people were watching, and not kill anyone. And so I recorded a lot of those in various... And we took the camera up there and we had to get – because I was actually firing that manually with just a regular fuse, you know, tar fuse. This is in Perth when I was doing the experiments. So yeah, the camera would build up speed, you know, those cameras used to burn up bloody juice, they’d burn film like it was going out of style. Thousands of feet. So I’d be going, all right, it’s going to go off in 2 minutes, within one minute. So I’d do a one-minute fuse, you know, which is also a bit scary. And then I’d count down to 50 seconds and then get him to start running the camera, you know, because I didn’t want to waste the film.

“So I had to film it and then see, and then slowly I’d reduce the amount and got the position of it right, and so on, so that I could blow it up. Ewing Gallery was still scared shitless, and at one stage, I think the first series of shows they did, they actually put a camera on the situation, and had everyone stand in the middle of the room, for the first one. But by the time I got it down, I’d convinced them, you know.[21]

Triptych of images and notes from
Fig.6: Triptych of images and notes from "For the Sake of Art.
(L) The aftermath at Ewing Gallery, (C) a sequence of the actual exploding TV,
(R) The proposed events for the work. [Courtesy: Tim Burns]

Other artists showing work in the “Events/Structures” exhibition [22] included:

Ariel: (Bush video),

Tim Burns: blowing up TV sets in For the Sake of Art – The Explosives Users Manual),

Dave Cubby: performance/talk, documentation

Philippa Cullen: (performance of Music and Dance with theremin and synthesiser),

Aleks Danko: Two Durations - A Matter of Placement,

Dom De Clario: Untitled

Philip Gerner: Direct Life Studies,

Peter Hobb - performance,

Mitch Johnson: Video Feedback Participation Piece),

Tim Johnson,

Peter Kennedy: (But the Fierce Blackman - an oral composition with 12 performers,

Tony Kirkman: A performance in Four Parts

Chris Mann and the New Music Centre: "Language Machine" - Installation,

New Music Centre: A programme of electronic music devised in the Ewing Gallery workshop,

Mike Parr: Lecture on Viennese Body Art with slides and film,

Ian Parry and three people: Construction and Conversation,

Peter Tyndall: The Democratic Art Show - Installation,

Yellow Brick Road Show: 40 plays at your request,

Video tapes etc. of various artists works will be available on request.
(Curator, Peter Cripps),

During the exhibition Philippa Cullen also held a workshop with the New Music Centre (led by Peter Mummé)

Helen Vivian comments,

“I am not sure how much of this has survived – I have b/w photos which show a lot of performance and some video, and I know we have Direct Life Studies (September 1974) by Philip Gerner (which was probably part of this exhibition) and Tony Kirkman's Performance in Four Parts.”

However, as Helen Vivian notes, ‘according to the documentation videos were made of Mitch Johnson’s Video Feedback Participation Piece, Tim Burns blowing up TV sets in For the Sake of Art – The Explosives Users Manual, Peter Kennedy’s But the Fierce Blackman, Philip Gerner’s Direct Life Studies and Philippa Cullen’s Utter. Its hard to say whether Peter Kennedy or Philippa Cullen used video in their performances but she worked with the New Music Centre in one of her pieces and held a workshop [with] the participants later performing in the gallery.” [22]

Peter Tyndall remembers:

“A favourite, for it’s brevity, clarity and humour, was by Dave Cubby on a Saturday afternoon : he put on a helmet and rushed at, threw himself at the end wall shouting “Down with US Imperialism” (sic). Maybe he did it a few times, one after the other. He was a bit sick afterwards. … I had thought Mike Parr was going to do a performance and so was a bit nervous as to what we might encounter. In the small Guild Theatre - like the Ewing Gallery, also in the Union House building – he gave a presentation of his art to that time and then answered our questions until we had no more to ask. I was very impressed. Tim Burns with gelignite (inside the gallery, phew! Work safety would go nuts today) over a number of lunchtimes blew up one television after another while these TVs were live video screening their own image and destruction. There were several text-object instruction pieces, can’t recall by whom, Mitch Johnson perhaps. One was a telephone with instructions about cold-calling someone and asking them about… another was a 'water cooler’ with a text offering a drink but refusing the artist’s responsibility for the consequences. Might it be other than pure water? What is the responsibility of the artist, of the trusting participant? Aleks Danko did a performance based on something by fluxus artist George Brecht. Peter Hobb’s performance was a grid marked out on the gallery floor which he travelled from intersection to intersection “on the beep”. Dom de Clario had a heap of his things roughly corralled outside the gallery space, in the main student courtyard (sic). Peter Kennedy’s performance, I don’t recall lots : audience participation, saying certain given things including the then aural-only title text “But the Fierce Blackman” (as I’ve since seen it documented). … But I can’t recall what Chris Mann did for Events/Structures. Perhaps, just the Language Machine, installed opposite my contribution The Democratic Art Show, which I attended throughout the exhibition.” [23]

Pghilippa Cullwen in front of the audience.
Fig.7: Phillipa Cullen dancing with the Theremin in front of the Ewing Gallery audience [Courtesy: Peter Tyndall]

Tyndall then goes on to comment:

“As I recall, even though Philippa may appear “settled” in the photo [Fig.7], this photo was taken during the performance, not before or after. So, I presume, I read it as she is literally a/the “conductor” and dancer (sic), is listening, holding, sustaining a sound and our fellow attention. The apparent rapt attention of those outside the inner rectangle would appear to confirm this general shared engagement in the flowing moment.” [24]

The NGV followed in 1974 with the purchase and exhibition of a collection of video art from the U.S. and then in 1976, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman were brought out to Australia by John Kaldor to present video tapes, video installations and performances together at the Art Gallery of South Australia and then the Art Gallery of NSW. (March-April 1976).

Later in 1976 the second Biennale of Sydney, also at the Art Gallery of NSW, included a number of video works as video-tapes and installation. [It makes some sense to argue that these latter two events of 1976 are what actually made video art viable within the art-world in Australia.]. These events, and further events at the Ewing Gallery, will be covered in later chapters of this history.


1 In the language of systems theory, the installation is an open system whereas the sculpture is a closed system.

2 McCarthy, Frances and Thomas, Daniel (curators) (1973) Recent Australian Art, catalogue of an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, 18 October – 18 November 1973. Sydney: The Trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW. One might wish to debate this depending on how the presence of the TV set in Peter Kennedy’s But The Fierce Black Man installation at Inhibodress is considered. It was clearly an open system installation with a closed-circuit function but these functions were audio-based and not video-based so I don’t think we can call it a video installation, although it had all the other characteristics that I am alluding to here with video installation.

3 See The Yellow House 1970-72, catalogue to the exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW, 1990. On page 4 there is a photograph of Tim Burns' installation Mary in the Bathroom probably by Greg Wieght

4 [Did USyd have a CVS 2000? Investigate]

5 Tim Burns in a recorded conversation with Stephen Jones, Sydney, March 2011.

6 Ibid..

7 Thomas, Daniel (2004) “Museum pieces: 3D TV, 1973”, Art and Australia, vol.41, no.4, Winter 2004, pp.550-551.

8 ibid, p.551.

9 Autrey, Gene (2001) “Big Brother is Ignoring You”, Art Monthly, no.140, June 2001.

10 Barry Prothero was born in Perth, W.A. He studied art history at the University of Sydney, then moved to the U.K to study at the Warburg Institute and later the Courtauld Institute and, after some time as a gay rights officer at the Council for Civil Liberties in Britain, established the Angel Row Gallery in Nottingham in 1991. < >

11 Tim Burns, email to Stephen Jones, 6 October 2009.

12 Helen Vivian, email 17 April 2007.

13 ibid.

13 Meredith Rogers, “Arts Melbourne and the end of the seventies” in Helen Vivian (ed), When You Think about Art, The Ewing and George Paton Galleries 1971-2008, (Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing).

15 Tim Burns, interview with Stephen Jones,

16 Helen Vivian, email 1 May 2007.

(M. Rogers, for the History of the George Paton Gallery, forthcoming, Macmillan). [Helen Vivian, email 1 May 2007]

17 Tim Burns, email to Stephen Jones, 6 October 2009.

18 Tim Burns, interview with Stephen Jones. Tim Burns' website is at:

19 Helen Vivian, email 1 May 2007.

20 Meredith Rogers, “Arts Melbourne and the end of the seventies” in Helen Vivian (ed), When You Think about Art, The Ewing and George Paton Galleries 1971-2008, (Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing).

21 Tim Burns in a recorded conversation with Stephen Jones, Sydney, March 2011.

22 Helen Vivian (ed), When You Think about Art, The Ewing and George Paton Galleries 1971-2008, (Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing), p.32ff.

24 Tim Burns in a recorded conversation with Stephen Jones, Sydney, March 2011.

25 Ibid.

24 Peter Tyndall, email, date???