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Multimedia Forum One—’Government Support for a Creative Nation’—at Sydney Town Hall on 8 March, was the first of a series of forums arising from the interactive multimedia (IMM) initiatives announced in the commonwealth’s 1994 cultural policy, Creative Nation. The event was primarily an information dissemination exercise—it provided a platform for besuited bureaucrats and corporate types to deliver monologues on the various programs established under the $84 million allocated in Creative Nation to the development of IMM in Australia. Absent from the vast bulk of the day’s proceedings was discussion of the role of creative artists in the ‘new’ medium, or indeed of the content of the multimedia “product” the emerging industry will be assiduously merchandising.

Richard Heale of the Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association kicked off with a hubristic SWOT analysis of multimedia in Australia (that’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to those uninitiated into the arcana of corporate doublespeak). Heale advocated “harnessing the opportunities created by the new technologies to grow our own industry” based on the production of domestically and internationally saleable content. We must steer clear, he helpfully cautioned, of “multimediocrity” and “multimundanity”. His glowing reference to the establishment of the Telestra/Microsoft on-line network exemplified the total lack of a critical register in much of the thinking around CD-ROM and the infobahn, especially given the spectre of Australia as a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft. Tellingly, Heale warned of the “susceptibility” of the industry to “market intervention” by big government, which he believes can “distort the IMM marketplace and retard its development”. Paradoxically, he simultaneously applauded the proposed 150% tax write off for CD-ROM R&D, a replay of the infamous 10BA scheme which, in the words of one conference delegate, was “one of the biggest disasters ever to befall the Australian film industry.”

Communications and Arts Minister Michael Lee stressed the need to focus on content and to develop a coordinated approach to industry development to ensure that Australia is not swamped by overseas product. Lee underlined the importance of the development of an “open access regime” guaranteed by government for the on-line services coming our way. He emphasised the “hybridity” of the nascent media zones of the late 20th century and the need for “collaboration” between software and creative producers. Noble sentiments, but the remainder of the forum provided little opportunity for the articulation of exactly how such a collaboration might be effected.

Gwen Andrews from the Department of Communications and the Arts reported that the Australian Multimedia Enterprise—a Commonwealth owned organisation allocated $45 million under Creative Nation— will fund, through one off grants of between $200,000 and $700,000, “state of the art”, “world class” interactive titles which demonstrate significant “innovation” and “creativity”. Title development kicks off with the Australia on CD program designed to showcase Australian cultural endeavour by developing 10 CD-ROMs that focus on national cultural institutions. The Department of Communications and the Arts is currently calling for applications for funding under this scheme.

The AFC and the AFTRS are also winners in the world of Creative Nation. Jason Wheatley outlined the AFTRS’ plans for its $950,000 over 4 years allocated to fund the establishment of a multimedia laboratory and to extend the AFTRS’ advanced professional training in multimedia related areas. Michael Ward reported on the AFC’s $5.25 million over four years for developmental multimedia projects. The overall objective of the new AFC funding is to encourage initiatives which explore the creative potential of multimedia. The Commission will be targeting arts and entertainment in the form of interactive movie projects, computer game development and artists’ projects.

Ian Creagh from Department of Employment, Education and Training outlined the Cooperative Multimedia Centres (CMCs) program which has been allocated $56.5 ($20.3 million over the first four years) for the establishment of up to six CMCs around the country. The primary aim of the Centres—which will be operational by mid 1995— is to “facilitate the formation of the skills required to meet the needs of the emerging interactive multimedia industry”. Trouble is, it seems little thought has gone into developing a cogent picture of exactly what skills are required and who should have access to the training. How, moreover, are existing cultural producers—visual and electronic artists, designers, filmmakers, performers, scriptwriters—going to access the prospective cornucopia of training and industry development opportunities? How will their involvement, and their access to the brave new technologies of the information revolution, be ensured? Will the energies of the new techno-bohemians whose creation the CMCs will ‘facilitate’ be directed totally to, in the words of one conference delegate, “turning a buck”, or will there also be space for research, experimentation and a critical engagement with the formal and aesthetic properties of the medium?

Interestingly, the sole presentation by an artist—Tom Ellard of Severed Heads—elicited the most enthusiastic crowd response. Ellard demonstrated the CD-ROM Metapus which documents the band’s recording and performance history. His advocacy for the key role of musicians, i.e., artists, in the development of interactive multimedia in this country set in sharp relief the almost total absence of any engagement, on the part of the apparatchiks of the state and business, with the question of the involvement of individual creators. The only other moment in the day which drew a comparable response was Michael Lee’s collective mea culpa about the disgraceful treatment of the artist-architect Jorn Utzon by the myopic and philistine bureaucracy of the 1960s. Perhaps there’s a message there for the incumbent engineers of the ‘multimedia platform’ of the putatively creative nation. Stay tuned for further forums—the next series, on cultural creators, may hopefully address the key factor largely omitted from the first series.

Information on future forums is available from the Department of Communications and the Arts. The forum series will travel to Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra.

RealTime issue #6 April-May 1995 pg. 24

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