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A grand tour of Australian media art

Lizzie Muller interviews Darren Tofts

Melinda Rackham, Empyrean, 200,<BR /> Art Centre Nabi, Seoul, South Korea Art Centre Nabi Melinda Rackham, Empyrean, 200,
Art Centre Nabi, Seoul, South Korea Art Centre Nabi
Art made with computers is coming of age. No longer a fresh faced newcomer, it has 30 years of history and, like any 30-year old, must begin to deliver on its potential. The sense that the phase of emergence is over has been expressed internationally in numerous initiatives to historicise the form, but also by a kind of identity crisis, for what is this art if it is not “new”? In the words of curators Sarah Cook and Steve Dietz it is “the art formerly known as new media.”

In Australia this crisis has been compounded by the dissolution of the Australia Council’s New Media Arts Board-—a political move that threatens both the recognition of past achievement and the support for future work. Into this perilous situation comes Interzone: Media Arts in Australia, keenly anticipated by many practitioners in the field. The importance of the timing of publication is strongly felt by its author, Darren Tofts, for whom the book represents “a culmination...of a decade’s occasional writing solidifying into something more timely and historical.”

The book was timely in the sense that it had to be written (whether I wrote it or someone else)...I have been concerned for some years now that the media arts scene in Australia is losing sway. After the initial novelty, then the genuine curiosity of the 1990s, there seems to have been an indifference to media arts, or at least a de-prioritizing of it in terms of funding and curatorial bodies (specifically the dismantling of the New Media Arts Board and the consolidation of ACMI as a film institution with its obvious shift away from “new media” and digital culture generally). I felt that we needed to urgently get media arts culture in Australia defined and critiqued to ensure its longevity as a vital and important contemporary art form with, and this is absolutely crucial, a history (the initial title of the book was Media Arts in Australia: An Unfinished History).”

Tofts also wanted to “address some of the big questions that have been hotly debated for over 10 years.” Particularly in his sights was the description of this kind of art, being himself “an advocate of doing away with terms such as new media art” (which he does early on in the book, along with the term ‘digital art’—both of which he considers “reductive”).

For Tofts the importance of what has happened in Australia in terms of media arts (to use his denomination of choice) is perhaps least recognised at home. He argues that “some of the most innovative and significant work and ideas to do with media arts culture generally had been initiated here, yet many if not most of these figures were better known overseas than in their own country.” The chapter “Precursors and Visionaries” attempts to establish a canon of Australian practitioners whose work set the coordinates for media arts as it emerged.

Tofts’ concern with history and the forgetfulness of the present is evident. It not only extends to the artworks of the past but also the critical writing that has accompanied them:

There is considerable writing on media arts in Australia by some very fine and important writers...[P]art of the point of writing Interzone was to highlight this fact, to evidence that it was written within an emerging critical practice. There is a lot of ignorance around, particularly among younger, aspiring writers on media arts, that we have no critical tradition, or at least emerging tradition. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Whilst the period covered by the book is described as early 1990s to the present, the text leans heavily on the 90s. For Tofts we are clearly now in a different phase from the one he mainly surveys and the character of this new phase is not something he set out to look at:

[T]here is no question that the 90s were a decade of emergence, from a whole range of perspectives (aesthetic exploration of the medium, funding initiatives, curatorial responses to computer-based art, etc). It is fair to say that important developments have been made in these areas and we are now seeing a period of consolidation and progression. But that is the subject of continuing critical discussion and was never the objective of Interzone.

The book does not offer projections for media art aesthetically or thematically, and there is a noticeable absence of younger artists represented in the detailed critical appraisals. Tofts is reluctant to be pushed on the question of where future developments in media arts and technologies might take the themes of space, nature and narrative with which he has chosen to structure the book.

Of course sins of omission are inevitable for any book with such a general and comprehensive mission. Most Australians won’t be surprised to learn that in Sydney one can hear the opinion that the book is too Melburnian in focus. Tofts responds that such a criticism was inevitable, due to the “long-standing grudge between Melbourne and Sydney...a kind of healthy stouch that’s been going on for years. It stimulates creativity and healthy competition”, but the book, he thinks, is a pretty fair account.

I doubt a non-Australian reader would pick up on any Melbourne bias, but they may well be surprised by the wealth of groundbreaking Australian work so thoroughly documented in the book. Though Tofts may be right that some key Australian figures have been more appreciated abroad, the extent and diversity of Australian artists’ engagement in computer based practice will be revelatory to many readers both within and outside Australia. As such the book will be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of any teacher, student or critic of media art when they want to reach for an Australian example.

But it is going to be one of the less academic books on such a shelf, for while Tofts aimed to “write from a perspective that would appeal to the cognoscenti of media arts”, he has deliberately kept his list of references almost non-existent to help the book live happily on coffee tables as well. He sees it being read by “people who might have seen a show at ACMI or the MCA, are piqued by the work they have seen, but have no guidelines on how to go about thinking about it; a kind of critical coffee table book that offers bearings on an emerging and potentially perplexing art form.”

Looking at the book from this perspective I realise that Darren Tofts has produced a guidebook to media art for those who aren’t really locals in this terrain. And perhaps like all guidebooks, it describes the land not quite as it is, but as it was a few years ago. His book is an invitation to the people and policy makers of Australia to visit this world and take it to their heart, or as Tofts puts it: “Interzone was designed to be a kind of policy speech to the Australian body politic to embrace media art as part of its national culture and not have it fade ignominiously into a minor footnote in the history of art in this country”. Welcome to Interzone.

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 23

© Lizzie Muller; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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