critical media forum
australian centre for contemporary art,
Firstly, I'd like to say how enjoyable it is to be in Melbourne. I used to live here a few years ago, and while here, worked for the Commission for the Future in the Media Unit, developed the magazine 21.C, and later worked in corporate communications for former politician Susan Ryan. So I have a journalism, editing and media manipulation, if you like, background as well as one which artworked in many different mediums.
While I speak I'll play some ambient video tapes on the two monitors: the first is an excerpt from my work -- a five monitor video installation called INVOCATION -- and on the other monitor is the video wall tape from the CeBIT event, the largest IT fair in Europe, if not the world, of which I'll speak later.
I'll begin with an idea which is relevant here, and it is one which was put to me by a Singapore academic Chua Beng Huat, and that is that artists in Singapore (referred to by some locals as "Sing Sing"...), while they have limits on freedom can have some effect in the public sphere, whereas artists in Australia have the freedom to be ineffective. This came out of a discussion about the situation of Performance Art in Singapore which was banned by the government in 1994. It was a lively medium and many younger artists were taking it up to respond to certain social situations, and by doing so, performances, and the issues they were addressing, were receiving a lot of media attention and general public discussion, enough for the government to crackdown. The situation was that artists could do performances if they paid a $10,000 licensing fee, and had their script approved by the Singapore police department. Not many artists took up the offer. However, the ban didn't result in the end of performance art, rather, artists went elsewhere to do their work, and more importantly, while in Singapore itself, the nature of their performance changed to something which was not necessarily 'recognisable' as performance art. These kinds of unofficial 'performances' were done in Singapore's shopping malls and other public zones. Performance art is now quietly re-emerging back into the Singapore scene.
Which brings me to a text by Raymond Williams:
"But in certain areas, there will be certain periods, practices and meanings which are not reached for. There will be areas of practice and meaning which, almost by definition from its own limited character, or in its profound deformation, the dominant culture is unable in any real terms to recognise." Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980, pg 43)
This can function both to artists' advantage, and to their disadvantage.
I'm quite interested in art practice which falls into this realm -- outside institutional art frameworks. This is were I've been working recently.
In July 1994 I had a show at The Substation Gallery in Singapore -- an installation work was shown with Brad Miller's CDROM "A Digital Rhizome". I also curated an hour-long screening of computer and video artworks, and spoke on a panel with Singaporean artists about art and technology. There is very little of this kind of practice in Singapore, which is ironic, given the Government's agenda of constructing Singapore as a totally-wired "Intelligent Island" by the year 2000.
One of the things which was clear after this exhibition was that the media loves electronic art. The Singapore show received much publicity, as the ideas make good copy and the images make the copy look even better.
This media interest in electronic arts is also the case in Australia, which has one of the world's highest take-up rates of new technologies. We have the second largest number of computers per capita in the world: 0.193 compared with 0.288 in USA and 0.188 in Canada. Australia also has the second highest computer power per capita -- 382 MIPS compared with 673 in the USA and 379 in Canada. (Data from Ian R Elsum, CSIRO Institute of Information Science and Engineering, August 1995.)
In October 1994 I discussed with the (Austrade) Australian Trade Commissioner to Spain about curating a programme of electronic artwork for the CeBIT (Information Technology) trade show event in Hannover in 1995. Australia was to be what is called "Partner Country" -- which means it receives the media and business limelight from the host country. Austrade were the organisers.
I sent a proposal to their meeting in London, and heard nothing further. When I returned to Sydney I faxed it again then spoke with the co-ordinator, who said in vague way that, yes, he had seen the proposal and had passed it on to someone else. In January I had a call from CSIRO's Information Science and Engineering Institute who had eventually ended up with the proposal, as they were organising some discussion/cultural components, and with five weeks before the event in Germany, we began discussions to include an artshow of electronic works.
In order to do the work, since I am not a gallery or an institution, I had to form a company. So this prompted the immediate birth of machine hunger.
At that stage we believed that we would have a gallery space, and I was keen to include a full installation of Jon McCormack's "Turbulence", as well as several CDROM works by artists. We had secured Macintoshs from Apple, and then found that we would not have any permanent gallery space. We would only have screening and demonstration time in the fifty-seater forum theatre, but would have access to the video wall.
As always in these kinds of things, there are other agendas at work. Austrade were extremely hostile to everything we were doing -- this could have been for many reasons, such as an inability to understand just what relevance "electronic art" had to Information Technology and Telecommunications, and to the Business thereof, but also it could have been to do with inter- governmental department fighting and jealousy.
Ten days before the event, with the catalogue about to go to the printers, I was summonsed to the Austrade offices to screen the works I was going to show, only to have one third of the programme censored out, for a multitude of reasons.
When we arrived we found ourselves in a
curious position. It had been my experience up to that point, that, internationally,
"culture" has been looked upon as an apolitical adjunct to whatever
the real business at hand was, ie trade or politics. And so in this way
was no threat, and could therefore be used to garner a lot of threat-free
media attention and act as a 'lubricant' for the perceived 'serious' agenda.
However, in this case we were not viewed by Austrade as a means of securing
publicity and attracting crowds to the Australian stand -- instead, Austrade
seemed to view the
This really surprised me, though in retrospect,
it is (possibly) the inevitable attitude which will come with increasing
corporatisation of the "culture industries". It could also be
The Australian stand was, unfortunately, in its general conception and design, not very intelligent, despite labouring under the cringing theme "InTelligent Australia". As usual, the audio-visual interface was, it seemed, the last thing considered, as the massive and expensive video wall was almost hidden from public view.
However, on the weekend of the
Some of the more interesting artists in the world today working with electronic media are coming from Australia. It is therefore extremely disappointing to realise the extent of the gap between certain sectors in Australia (for example, arts and trade), who, rather than seeing complementarity, see competition -- or see nothing at all--which is worse.
Another issue is of course the inaccurate representation of Australia which is projected overseas via poorly conceived and uncreative events.
I think that the CeBIT Deutsche Telekom stand articulated this difference concisely. As part of their exhibition were four artists' installations from the ZKM Art Research Lab in Germany. These installations provided a focus and framework for the way the company wished to project itself to the world. The stand was constantly full of people intrigued by, and interacting with, the smart and creative use of new communication technologies.
The next tape I'll play is from another exhibition, this time in Canberra, at Parliament House, as part of "Technology Australia". The purpose of this event was to showcase the range of companies who had been assisted by the Australian Government's I R &D Board. I inserted the work of three artists -- Jon McCormack, Ellen Jose and Faye Maxwell -- into an information video for continuous play at the exhibition, which discussed the importance of research and development to modern economies. Their work was also shown on opening night to a general business audience, which included several Australian Government Ministers and the Indonesian Minister for Science and Technology, Mr Habibie.
The third video I want to play here is documentation of the 18cube video wall I recently co-ordinated for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). This entailed the making of a number of tapes to use as sources to feed onto the wall, to mix live with DEC computers on-line to the internet. Not only was it fantastic, as visual artists, to use this state of the art video wall technology to create ambient visual fields, but also, working for DEC means earning a reasonable fee. I am better off making money from DEC, and then being able to continue my art practice, as I can be absolutely certain of the results, rather than entering into the VACB artist-grants lottery system.
Following the DEC job, Linda Dement (an artist working with computer interactives) and I addressed the ASEAN Science and Technology Forum in Bangkok. Our subject was to do with creative uses of technology. We were assisted by the Department of Industry, Science and Technology, the Australian Embassy in Bangkok and the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT). I also curated a programme of Australian work to show on the video systems at the Australian stand at the ASEAN forum.
Linda and I also gave workshops/presentations at the two major artshools in Bangkok. We managed to get a Macintosh computer for Linda to demonstrate how she makes an interactive artwork to about 60 students at each session. This entailed a hands-on demonstration of software including Photoshop, Soundedit Pro, and Macromind Director. The students were riveted by this and also in the works of computer graphics, performance and video I showed.
We also did a number of media interviews -- as usual, artists making use of technology makes good copy in any country.
So that is an update on machine hunger.
I'd like now to speak to two ideas which currently interested me. The first is one from the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and is to do with the extended phenotype:
"In biology, the genes in the egg would be called its genotype, while the physical expression of those genes -- the chicken -- would be called its phenotype. Dawkins called this marriage of organism to artifact The Extended Phenotype - the title of his second book, published in 1982. Still extending the outer limits of his replicator idea, Dawkins used this "extended phenotype" construct to look beyond the individual and artifact to embrace the family of the organism, its social group, the tools and environments it created. These are part of the physical "readout" of the genes, the extended phenotype of the replicating code. The invisible code in genes are therefore, in a very real sense, manipulating large chunks of the visible world to their advantage.
Of course humans -- with our massive and complex array of technologies -- have extended our phenotypes more than any other living species. Just like a bird's nest, a beaver's dam, or a groundhog's intricate set of underground tunnels, our technologies are now an integral part of our evolutionary fitness. In light of Dawkins' work, to be a scientist today and talk about human evolution divorced from technological evolution no longer makes sense. In the truest and most fundamental sense, human evolution is now inextricably bound with technological evolution. Taken to its natural conclusion, Dawkins' idea suggests that humankind is really co-evolving with its artefacts; genes that can't cope with that new reality will not survive into future millennia." (Michael Schrage, Wired magazine, July 1995, pg 172)
I'm interested in how artists working with technology fit into this framework: whether they are positioned in a classic McLuhanesque avant guard position, or whether they are positioned differently, at the front-end of the human/machine interface, and serve to reveal the machine (and/or the machine's intelligence, ie our new intelligence) to itself.
Even though much of the technology we use was developed by the military-industrial complex, this is changing. Char Davies, who exhibited a Virtual Reality (VR) work at the annual International Symposium of Electronic Arts (ISEA) in Montreal in 1995, was originally a painter who decided she wanted to work with technology, but wasn't particularly delighted with any of the image software available. So she and her partner developed software which was to become SoftImage -- described to me by an artist who uses it as "extremely intelligent and intuitive". Their company has just been purchased by Microsoft which means that their software (or a version thereof) may become cheaper and more accessible to the general public. Or it may not.
The work at ISEA, "Osmose", was a very different VR work, in that it was a radical departure from the usual "disembodied" approach. It situated the navigation tools directly onto the body, rather than using the dislocated data glove, and its environment was amorphous and dreamlike, not angular and gridlike. So this is an example of an artist using the VR concept to create an astonishing work which seeks not to remove ourselves from the body, but rather to heighten our experience within it. By doing this work, Char Davies has shifted human/machine evolution in her direction.
A number of the works I've seen at the ISEA events are working within this kind of parameter. It's a pity that we will not see many of these works in Australia, even though we have a number of events which are supposed to offer us leading-edge global practice, the 1996 Biennale of Sydney being one of these.
Which brings us again to the state, and its relation to culture. Geert Lovink is from a Dutch group called Adilkno -- the Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge. In his address at ISEA he quoted West German pop theorist Mark Terkessides from his book Kulturkampf (Cultural Struggles, Cologne, 1995). Terkessides sees it as a mistake to consider culture as an issue of power, as was done in the seventies and eighties. He even suspects a 'deal' between the establishment and its erstwhile critics, in terms of "if you let us govern in peace, and stop bringing up the power question, then you can have culture". It is an interesting way of looking at culture and the way it operates in Australia.
For example, the First Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Gallery in 1993 could be seen as an example of the way culture operates to suit a liberal/leftist curatorial agenda. We fly artists in with their works which may talk about, for example, human rights abuses and labour rights abuses in Indonesia, which is all very well. However, the Australian state is extremely encouraging of trade and business ties with a country such as Indonesia, and of course sees the issue of East Timorese sovereignty as having no currency. The Triennial was, in 1993, largely funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, other government departments and corporate sponsors, and described in media releases as an act of 'cultural diplomacy'. The gap is not acknowledged in conference discussion, and any discussion along these lines is in fact quite rigourously discouraged.
At the conference the art works were largely discussed in terms of aesthetics and art history, not in a social, political and economic context. Of course, expensive events such as these need all the financial assistance they can get. Rather than try to conceal the motivations of organisations which foot the bill, it would be of greater advantage to discuss them, and their implications for cultural practice. This would then enable the development of a more conceptually sophisticated and effective framework for regional cultural critique.
The way this kind of denial of means-of-production issues (and this doesn't mean a simply a retrieval of neo-marxism and its attempts in the seventies to foreground "ideology critique") happens in art and technology circles could be illustrated by a panel discussion at ISEA on aesthetics. Panel member Virginia Rutledge, a curator from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was saying that you couldn't discuss aesthetics without discussing production issues. It was her curatorial experience that the technology itself was a major factor, in terms of trying to stage exhibitions --ie where to get the machines from etc -- a factor which no doubt Clare Williamson from ACCA will concur with. As she was speaking she was cut off by the (hideously verbose) panel moderator, Derek de Kerckhove, from the University of Toronto, who said "we are talking about aesthetics here, not equipment, sorry, we'll go on to the next speaker..." As any curator knows, obtaining the equipment to show the work is always difficult, as artists themselves more often than not do not own it themselves. It was an outrage, but, within the framework of high art-wordliness, was accepted. If you start to think of artists as pushing the boundaries of revealing our new phenotype, then these issues of access to equipment are in fact critical questions.
To conclude, I'd like to say that it is not that I think trade shows and the like are excellent sites to show technology-based works, however they do have their place. They open the works up to viewing by new audiences who may never go to the rarefied spaces of contemporary art galleries, especially in Australia. Not surprisingly, many people within the trade show and business environment are very interested in the works and the ideas which they are working with. Using these kinds of exhibition spaces also gives a more rounded images of Australia, or Information Technology and Telecommunications, as well as pointing to the undercurrents of human/machine evolution.
Galleries however, still occupy the prime site of exhibition as the works (in a perfect world) can be staged in the way they were meant to be, without the distraction of sound and light spill. It could be that galleries become akin to churches in this respect. Sacred. But as a friend of mine remarked, no-one in an art gallery ever cries out in spontaneous joy...