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There is an analogy I like to use when discussing the arts and digital technology: primitive cinema. It too was an artform born of an industrial age, dependent on technology. Its inception gave no indication of what it would become—the greatest narrative machine of the twentieth century. Cinema’s existence in an industrial form only became possible through a period of intense experimentation, trial and error, an extraordinary confabulation of artists, business and a fascinated public. It borrowed from all of the pre-existing artforms that it would eventually exceed—theatre, the novel, the visual arts, symphonic music—until resisting all other possible paths, it claimed its current domain and colonised the world. So we sit amid our visionaries, versions of Méliès, the Lumière Brothers and Porter, wondering where it’s all going.

As usual any close scrutiny will support the analogy and show where it disintegrates. Such is the case with the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT)’s small funds for art and technology projects, comparative peanuts strategically thrown to the cutting edge. In this case that edge is so multi-faceted it puts good postmodernists to shame. This is best illustrated in the diversity of projects selected for funding, possibly a reflection of the applications rather than their assessors’ agenda. At best they capture the concept of boundary pushing—addressing the tension between creativity and technology—with just the hint of a time where the arts and sciences can inhabit the same field. The renaissance whiff is reflected in the diversity of the projects; in sound, websites, performance, exhibition and installations, fusions with established artforms and more, and in ANAT’s strategy, which emphasises the conceptual work over realisation and outcome. So, despite the booming technology and infrastructure, despite the fact that digital media seems unlikely to homogenise content in the way the cinema did, we are clearly in uncharted lands seeking the face of the next century. And ANAT is at the forefront of the all-important terrain of content development.

A one-off increase from the Australia Council (doubling last year’s grant) provided $80,000 to fund twenty proposals. ANAT has selected a mix of established artist, from those not necessarily known for their work with technology to those who have established their practices in digitally generated work. Prominent in the former category is painter Juan Davila, who continues to experiment with computer enhanced 3D images. If this is an extension of his previous work exhibited in Adelaide two years ago (large wall mounted pieces viewed with 3D glasses) he will use this technology to enhance his characteristically wide palette of tones and moods. This technology added an entirely new dimension to Davila’s signature of sensuous brutality, giving some of the images the feel of a hagiography for the next century.

Other established artists to attract funds include Greg Schiemer (NSW) working on non-score based forms of music resulting from emerging technologies. SA’s Junction Theatre will be able to fund a consultancy on incorporating video and multimedia into more traditional performance modes. In the area of performance art Arthur Wicks is also being encouraged to explore the web’s potential for virtual events. Like many other past and present recipients, his proposal is as much about exploring the relationship between the virtual and the physical. This seems fundamental to the fund overall. Most ‘art’ currently available on the web is basically treating the technology simply as a new way of disseminating pre-existing forms, like those early films, which basically used the medium to record theatrically arranged events. Few funds address the context this immediately poses: the language of digital media itself and the transformations that are inevitable when pre-existing artforms collide with it.

Urban Exile, for example, have utilised a gallery presence for their collaborative efforts, but cite the simultaneous use of the Internet as the reason for the success of the ‘hard’ exhibitions. Their permanent presence is now on the net, with new exhibitions added to the site regularly no doubt contributing to the high number of on-line hits, about 100,000 fro each exhibition. They have been funded for TOOL 02, a collaborative project which is again intended to have both hard and virtual counterparts. At heart, it’s not just their popularity that makes Urban Exile interesting. It is the conceptual frame behind the work. One of the starting points for TOOL 02 is Gilles Deleuze’s notion of subjective machines, an extension of the post-structuralist conceptualisation of identity as the product of fragmented experiences, the place where often contradictory or conflicting influences intersect. This seems to me more than a perfect metaphor for the web, and the kind of thinking that is as important as the execution itself, which can be clumsy or constrained as often as it is successful. It is also indicative of the criteria ANAT has set for itself in determining funding.

Other artists have also adopted the web as their prime means of exploration and expression. Lloyd Sharp’s beautifully enigmatic website has secured funding for further development again for both his conceptual approach as well as access to appropriate technology. His current work at the opalm site was easily the most lyrical of those I visited in researching this article, and is found at [expired] or [expired]. Agent All-Black are to stage a two-day “multimedia extravaganza,” which will also then move on to the web. Some of their current work is to be found on the Electronic Media Group’s site [expired]. Amanda King is likewise linking an outdoor exhibition/installation with her virtual work. The difference here is that where the above sites originate in Sydney, King operates out of rural Queensland, a reminder that actual location is simply irrelevant when it comes to the virtual world.

Other projects have an intriguing community involvement, such as producer Sharon Flindell’s proposal to distribute DAT recorders to Aboriginal people in the Kimberley, and present the results in a sound installation in conjunction with the Festival of Perth and Aboriginal cultural and media centres. The Victorian College of the Arts has funds to contribute towards a residence for Stelarc, which will include a collaborative project for students as well as the vital opportunity to relocate one of our most important artists back into the country, at least for a while. The true beauty of Stelarc, and the reason he is such an important artist is precisely his distinction from the virtual. He brings technology back to the body itself, a corporeal testament to the subjective machine. Links here with perhaps my favourite project, computer artist Richard Stanford’s collaboration with forensic anatomist Meiya Sutisno to develop a prototype for the facial reconstruction of an unidentified human skull. Not far behind is Stevie Wishart’s work in creating a virtual instrument based on, among other things, the hurdy-gurdy.

Other projects not mentioned (for lack of space, I assure you) extend existing work like Mutley Media’s Booth, and collect work produced for ABC’s Art Rage for regional and public gallery distribution. In another project, Brendan Palmer will produce an anthology of young composers working with experimental electronic music. ANAT’s selection of a nationally derived assessment committee with combined experience in a variety of cross-artforms has done them proud.

RealTime issue #14 Aug-Sept 1996 pg. 19

© John McConchie; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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