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the name of the game: media arts now

keith gallasch, mirror states, campbelltown arts centre


George Khut, The Heart Library Project: Biofeedback Mirror (2008) George Khut, The Heart Library Project: Biofeedback Mirror (2008)
photo Silversalt Photography
AFTER NOT INCONSIDERABLE HARD TIMES, NEW MEDIA ARTS APPEAR TO BE ENJOYING NEW FAVOUR AND SOME RE-BRANDING. GROWING VISIBILITY, BIG PRIZE MONEY, SIGNS OF RE-GROWTH IN THE TERTIARY EDUCATION SECTOR AND THE EXPANDING INTERNATIONAL PRESENCE OF INDIVIDUAL AUSTRALIAN ARTISTS ARE SIGNS, HOPEFULLY, OF BETTER TIMES. EXPERIMENTA’S EXTENSIVE FORAYS ASIDE, EXHIBITIONS OF NEW MEDIA ARTS HAVE BEEN RARE, SO IT WAS EXHILARATING TO BE ABLE TO ENJOY MIRROR STATES, CURATED BY LIZZIE MULLER AND KATHY CLELAND, AT THE CAMPBELLTOWN ARTS CENTRE. IT’S A SERIOUSLY ENGAGING SHOW THAT OFFERS A RANGE OF INTERACTIVITY WITH NEGLIGIBLE MOUSING AND NOT A LITTLE PHYSICAL AND MENTAL ACTIVITY.

As for re-branding, the ‘new’ appears to have been clipped off ‘new media arts’ leaving us with the somewhat ambiguous ‘media arts’. Exactly who did the scissoring is not clear, perhaps it’s one of those meme things, but it’s certainly no fait accompli: the Queensland Premier’s National New Media Art Award is hanging onto the label with a $75,000 prize for the best work from a select group of artists. Certainly the argument about the ‘newness’ of new media arts has been long argued for and against, including on these pages. Those for ‘new’ argued that the constant inventiveness in electronic technology and art’s engagement and furthering of it justified the label; those against had seen it all before, all the way back through pre-digital multimedia, Expanded Cinema, Fluxus, Dada, Wagner...And then there were the new media artists who just wanted to be artists.

Although university courses are more likely to be titled in terms of electronic art, digital arts and still occasionally as new media arts, there’s a drift to ‘media arts’ in common parlance, encouraged doubtless by various kinds of platform convergence and the out and out digitalisation of the cinema. Media arts now encapsulates everything from photography to pre-cinema to film to video to gaming to Second Life to mobile phone and GPS art, and the big screens proliferating in public spaces across the world. [The international Urban Screens Conference is being held in Melbourne this month. Read Ross Harley’s report in RealTime 88.]

Meanwhile, film schools are pushing their media arts credentials. The Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS), for example, has announced Graduate Diploma courses specialising in Game Design and Virtual Worlds, building, says Peter Giles, Director of Digital Media, on “AFTRS’ expertise in computer animation and interactive writing...coupled with our experience of rapidly prototyping digital content through our Laboratory of Advanced Media Production (LAMP).” The new federal film agency, Screen Australia (a merging of the Australian Film Commission, Film Australia and the Film Finance Corporation) has put out a statement of intent for public comment forecasting not just funding film but developing a broader notion of screen in a context of media convergence [www.screenaustralia.gov.au/soi].

For the $75,000 biennial acquisitive Premier of Queensland’s National New Media Art Award, nine artists have been short-listed: Peter Alwast (QLD), Julie Dowling (WA), Anita Fontaine (QLD/Netherlands), David Haines and Joyce Hinterding (NSW), Natalie Jeremijenko (QLD/USA), Adam Nash (VIC), Sam Smith (NSW), John Tonkin (NSW) and Mari Velonaki (NSW). It’s an intriguing range of artists, a broad notion of the field bringing together some recent converts to media arts alongside established practioners. The award exhibition will be on show in the Media Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) until February 8 next. The selection of artists was made by invitation and will be judged by Melinda Rackham (ANAT), Liz Hughes (Experimenta) and Tony Ellwood, Director QAG, while the $25,000 travel and study scholarship for an emerging new media artist living and working in Queensland was open to application.

There are other positive signs. ACMI’s Game On, a hands-on exhibition tracing the history of computer gaming, was a monster success, drawing record crowds. The Australia Council’s Inter-Arts Office pulled an unusual degree of media and online attention on the announcement of the successful applicant [the team of Justin Clements, Christopher Dodds and Adam Nash] for a residency in Second Life [see the interview with the Office’s Ricardo Peach on page 36]. Australia’s MAAP continues to work the Asia-Pacific region, participating in China’s Synthetic Times [see Dan Edwards’ report on page 32]. The Australian Network of Art & Technology offers artists key support through travel funding, workshops and its administration of the art-science program Synapse. Experimenta has upped the ante by titling its big touring shows as biennales. NSW’s dLux Media Arts has been particularly active in promoting the potential of locative media.

Meanwhile, Australian media artists roam the world, invited to major media arts events like Ars Electronica and ISEA [see reports on the 2008 festivals in RT88] or appearing in notable exhibitions. Recent travellers include Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski with their new work, land [sound] scape (2008), chosen for the Guangzhou Triennial, China; Lynette Wallworth whose work has featured recently at London’s BFI and now the 2008 Melbourne International Arts Festival; and Transmute Collective, whose Intimate Transactions has taken them recently to the UK, Europe and USA [director Keith Armstrong’s Shifting Intimacies is reviewed on page 33].

If recent years have been frustrating for new media artists—watching ACMI turn predominantly to cinema before Game On, universities shutting down new media arts departments or forcing mergers with sometimes unlikely partners, the absorption of the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board remit largely into the Visual Arts Board—things seem to be looking up. A more integrative vision is also evident. As Ricardo Peach makes clear, several of the Australia Council artform boards have partnered media arts projects and have individually addressed the potency of new technologies for their constituencies. I was pleased to be invited to launch the University of Technology Sydney’s Centre for Media Arts Innovation (see p42), which aims to work across disciplines and artforms within UTS and generate dialogue and ventures with sectors outside the university and the general public [www.communication.uts.edu.au/centres/cmai].

In Indigenous media art, the winner of the Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award in the 2008 Telstra Aboriginal Art Awards, went to Nyapantapa Yunupingu, a Yolngu artist from Yirrkala, for her installation (natural pigments on bark, moving image) entitled Incident at Mutpi (see page 10). The filming for the work was done at Yirrkala’s new multimedia studio, the Mulka Project.

All these signs of new media arts life (Lyndal Jones’ RMIT Vital Signs conference in 2005 [RT 70, p35] in the wake of the demise of the New Media Arts Board had left not a few us fearing a fatality), not least a major media arts prize with ‘new’ in the title, suggest room for optimism even if the uptake of media art in galleries, proliferating video art aside, is still very slow. It’s good then to know that Campbelltown Arts Centre and GoMA are creating new benchmarks with a determinedly national approach (for a state premier’s prize) in GoMA’s case and a Pacific Rim one in Mirror States.

mirror states

Kathy Cleland and Lizzie Muller have drawn together works familiar and unfamiliar, all deserving of a wider audience. The spacious Campbelltown Arts Centre allows each work plenty of room to work its magic in a thematically rigorous show that seduces the viewer-participant into reflecting on their self perception with humour, trepidation and deep seriousness.

At the gallery’s entrance we are welcomed face to face by a video of the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy (from Bioheads, Anna Davis, Jason Gee, 2005-08). In appearance it’s a simple work displaying the usual mechanics of manipulation but, with restrained digital animation, the eyebrows seem to rise that little bit higher, the smile wider, the jaw deeper as the dummy intones deviantly mainstream self-help mantras: “I sing beautifully and am financially blessed”; “it is abnormal to be sick”; “poverty is a mental disease.” The extra animation touches and the eye to eye positioning of the screen make the doll just that little too real. You feel vaguely implicated, a tad grubby, for even staying to listen to the rubbish he spouts. That’s not me in the mirror, you hope.

Even more alarming, filling the main entrance, floor to ceiling, is a huge, long, pink inflatable finger, Sean Kerr’s Klunk, Clomp, Aaugh!—Friends Reunited (NZ, 2008). It seems to have a life of its own, but you work out fairly quickly that if you turn to two small screens with large black dot-like eyes, in the corner and gesture you can perhaps influence the rise and fall of this phallic toy —shocking inflation, too big!, and worrying deflation, almost flat to the floor. You want to turn to the nearby gallery staff and say I didn’t do it, but then you think, Did I? Is it giving us the finger for imagining we’re on top of the new technologies? Is it mirroring our foolishness, our wishful thinking?

Deeper into the foyer, Hye Rim Lee’s Powder Room (2005, USA/NZ) displays a face, seen from various angles, being digitally made over on four small circular screens. The face is analysed and gridded so we witness the precise topography on which changes will be wrought—the slow re-drafting and fattening of lips or re-working of eyebrows and nose. It’s clinical but leavened by familiar, cute Asian-style graphic art which almost, but not quite, guts the horror of the cosmetic surgery reality behind this ‘mirror’ evocation of a possible future self. This is not me, but it might be the kind of hypothetical modelling offered potential makeover customers. Things get weirder when we’re drawn to an adjoinging large room where, in Lash, a huge version of the face fills a circular screen, engaging us eye to eye, waves of soft colour emanating from behind the coiffure, head rolling, a gentle moaning and then eyelids fluttering with an accompanying, alarming machine gun ratatatat. This is mechanistic animation, but like the ventriloquist’s doll, there’s a disturbing sense of being regarded, played to, in the loop of being estimated, or seduced.

In a spare, white room, two wheelchairs lurk on a floor littered with paper strips—that’s it. No screens. Mari Velonaki’s Fish-Bird: Circle C-Movement B (2005), created with a group of roboticists, is by now an old favourite but still manages to surprise as these empty conveyances with apparent lives of their own seem to uncannily sense your movements as they follow, back off or turn away at the last moment: they seem to mirror your intentions and expectations. Meanwhile they’re pumping out messages to each other on small strips of paper which they dump on the floor or which we bend to gratefully receive as gifts from another intelligence. One printout suggests I’m being addressed directly: “Fish is not talking to me.” The desire to be mirrored by another (the phenomenological loop that builds and sustains our sense of self), even if by a wheelchair, makes for an experience both uncanny and self-critical.

Mari Velonaki, Circle D: Fragile Balances (2008) Mari Velonaki, Circle D: Fragile Balances (2008)
photo Silversalt Photography
In a nearby room, the wheelchairs have been replaced by doppelgangers, two immaculately crafted timber boxes with crystal screens on four sides (Circle D: Fragile Balances, 2008). You pick one up and, as you gently turn the box around, writing unfolds in a similar style to the wheelchair printouts. At the same time you glimpse responses on the second box as a lateral, poetic conversation unfolds. It’s like coming across an expensive Victorian pre-cinematic toy that’s been digitalised. It’s an odd, and again implicating experience, holding an intelligent box as it writes, “If our eyes should meet, what would we have in common?” Exactly. Mari Velonaki is one of the contenders for the Queensland Premier’s New Media Arts Prize, so this work will be on show at GoMA.

I’ve also seen Alex Davies’ Dislocation (2005) before, but again it’s surprising to find your perceptions nonetheless tossed about as you bend to peer into one of four small peephole screens that reveal the room behind you. Suddenly, on the screen, someone enters—other gallery goers, a guard and a dog, variously indifferent, affable, vulnerable and perhaps dangerous—but, you turn quickly, to find there’s no-one there. The screen is an unreliable mirror. You wonder how you’ve triggered these ghostly intruders.

Canadian David Rokeby’s Giver of Names (1991-2004) is an even stranger experience. Brightly coloured toys litter the floor. You arrange them on a plinth. A camera and computer read your arrangement and interpret and transform it onto a screen above, thickening and varying the colours quite beautifully. Meanwhile the computer is converting its sense of the image into extremely lateral text, readable on another screen: a rubber duckie on the plinth becomes “that is the mountain girl.” This is no mere mirror of our actions rendered interactively, but an evocation of the challenges and limits of translation.

The closest we get to something like a true reflection is John Tonkin’s time and motion study (2006), the latest version of which will also appear in the New Media Art Prize show at GoMA. In a long, narrow, dark room you move towards a screen (and camera above it) on which fragments of a row of overlapping faces are fading and over which your own multiplies moment after moment, in portraiture of now and now and now and before, before, before...and, as you shift before the lens, now again. As in the Rokeby, there’s an absence of literal translation, the imagery is dark, grainy, not distorted but curiously Francis Bacon-like, each duplicated face locked into a kind of rictus in an infinity mirror, trailing light years away.

If George Khut’s previous works (Drawing Breath, 2004-06 and Cardiomorpholgies, 2004-07) have allowed the heart beat and breathing of individual participants to modulate his visual and sonic imagery, this new work, The Heart Library goes much further in transforming states of being into artistic mirrorings and with greater audience-as-co-maker participation. The visitor retires to a gently darkened space, stretches out on a cushioned platform, holds a sensor in each hand and encounters themself, life size, on a screen above. The pace of the heartbeat yields a flow of snow or blossom-like drift over the body and changes in colour and sound—for some participants the variation is subtle, for others relatively dramatic in intensity.

On leaving the space, you enter another hung with full-scale drawings by participants reflecting what they’d just experienced. A number are distinctive artworks and all are revealing about where people see their bodies centred or off-balance, wounded, anxious or enjoyed. Khut and collaborators (Caitlin Newton-Broad, Greg Turner and David Morris-Oliveros), have video-ed some of these drawings and recorded the makers explaining them. These, with headphones, are available on small wall players. The notion of a new kind of library is fully and immersively realised, and goes a step further in its offer of creativity. The artist Khut provides the framework within which others can make art of their bodies and their perceptions. As Anneke Jaspers writes in the Mirror States catalogue, “...the addition of a social dimension reconfigures interactivity within an inter-subjective rather than strictly technolgical framework.” We feel of works of art we like that they mirror something about us, even if we don’t like what we see, but in The Heart Library we are the actual subject of the work. Our heart beat turns us, thanks to Khut’s artistry, into co-maker while being audience to our own experience. Those who draw and speak become interpreters of that making. The hung paintings and screen recordings are left for others to share and compare as the mirroring multiplies.


Mirror States, curators Kathy Cleland, Lizzie Muller, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney, July 18-Aug 24; MIC Toi Rerehiki, Auckland, New Zealand, May 16-June 28

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 34

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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