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Res Artis: new media neoliberalised

Robert Hassan

The 6 day Res Artis conference saw delegates jetting into Australia from north America, Europe, Africa and north and south east Asia, and then shuttling internally between Sydney and Melbourne. The title of the Conference was “Knowledge + Dialogue + Exchange”, and the 2 city locations supposedly provided a mass moving metaphor for a conference “key objective”: that delegates be “exposed to the multidisciplinary infrastructure of Australian art and cultural organisations.”

Notwithstanding the extra eco-burden of vaporising all that jet and diesel fuel, as well as the reinforcing of a global/neoliberal way of life that sees resources as infinite—and notwithstanding the fact that this way of life further marginalises the masses of the South (if not its cultural and artistic select)—the conference represented fossil energy well burned. It actually explored some very pertinent questions about the age of increased mobility (for some) and how artist residencies and the institutions that coordinate them contribute to global cultural production. There was also exploration of the forms this culture takes through its political and ideological expressions.

Institutional exchange programs comprise a powerful element in the dissemination of art and ideas, its practice and theory. The disinterested observer might view many of these programs as a sort of limpid cross-fertilisation, the kind of stuff that academics have been getting away with for a long time, with selected artists now having their day in the sun or the snow (or torrential rain in the case of Melbourne). The same observer might note that, again at its most benign, this process leads to a nebulous global multiculturalism where we all understand and appreciate each other’s perspective, cultures and art. It’s the sort of harmless stuff, in other words, that can go on ad infinitum; a money and-travel-go-round where frequent flyer points accumulate and those jet vapour-trails criss-cross the skies.

However, institutions matter and residencies also matter; art matters, as they say. They help form the centre of gravity for the contemporary art scene in terms of its cutting edge and its future directions. Politics permeate, shape and form them, albeit at an unspoken ideological level. In-your-face political art still exists at certain levels in the hierarchy however. For example, John Berger wrote recently with reference to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 that it should be “considered as a political historical landmark.” Maybe. But where do we locate institutions in the nexus between art and politics in the age of neoliberal globalisation?

Nikos Papastergiadis considered this key issue in his talk at the Sidney Myer Centre, University of Melbourne. Contemporary art institutions, especially those that have come into being over the last 15 years or so, are very different creatures from “traditional” institutions. In the latter (which still exist everywhere), he argued, art is “housed” and “displayed” for public edification. And what was/is expected of them runs along fairly delineated lines. You go and see the display; or if you are an artist you show your work and participate in exchanges and residencies, all within the comfortable realm of “art and culture.” These are the old-style museums and state art galleries; publicly funded, with no surprises and no controversies.

Papastergiadis observed that with the ICT revolution during the 1980s and 90s, and the transforming free-market neoliberalism that accompanied it, new kinds of institutions mushroomed from the restructured ruin-scapes of the developed North. He listed 6 key institutions, including ACMI in Melbourne and FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool (UK) as representing, he imagined at the time, exciting developments in the realm of new media art. Exciting new works and artistic exchanges were happening that seemed to be taking art into fresh realms of practice and representation.

The problem is that these institutions were flawed from the beginning. Backed by both public and private funding sources, these new media institutions were dropped into the partial vacuum created by the withdrawal of the state from its role as funder of public art institutions. Moreover, the expectations heaped upon these institutions were enormous. Essentially, public and private sponsors expected them to culturally and economically regenerate a cityscape brought low by 20 years of neglect.

The effect has been that the public respond to their heterogeneity with enthusiasm, but institutional “partners” (sponsors, governments) don’t know how to categorise and feel comfortable with them and their areas of success. Moreover, it became clear that they are not going to revive areas of neglect on their own. Artists’ colonies aren’t going to flock around them spreading positive waves of culturally-inspired entrepreneurialism.

We are left, as Papastergiadis implies, with vast social-cultural anachronisms housed in cutting-edge architecture. The public is swarming to institutions like ACMI, but their very success through new media art jeopardises their future, because it is taking art and the public relationship with art into unknown areas. The artist as producer and public as consumer and creator may begin to think and act politically and question the role and purpose of art, and how it can connect to larger questions and issues—and even influence events! This of course leaves institutional partners somewhat on the sidelines, perplexed about public participation and unplanned organic developments and directions. That this cannot be allowed to endure means that institutions and artists, exchanged or otherwise, thus enter into a deeply compromised logic: success is to be measured by safety and predictability or serious questions will be asked.

One came away from the conference contemplating the dilemma that new media art institutions have never been busier, and expectations of them have never been higher. But also realising they are conceived and born as part of a bigger business plan that has little to do with art and art practice, and a lot to do with being expected to fill the gaps in our cultural life and civil society left by state abandonment. On the global scale all new media art institutions are implicated in this neoliberal project. And of course these are doomed to fail; and the institutions, the artists and the public will be blamed for it.

Knowledge + Dialogue + Exchange: Remapping Cultural Globalisms from the South, convened by Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne; 9th General Meeting of Res Artis, Sydney and Melbourne, August 10-16

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 15

© Robert Hassan; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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