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(In)forming the nation on the goat tracks of the virtual community

Christina Spurgeon on the implications of the launch of the Department of Communications and the Arts’ Artsinfo website

The writer thanks participants in the LINK discussion list for comments and suggestions, especially Julian Thomas, Tom Worthington and Roger Clarke.

Artsinfo is a substantial new information service developed by the Department of Communications and the Arts for the cultural sector. In Canberra it is also regarded as the policy initiative which has given substance to the rhetoric of bringing together the communications and arts portfolios.

Among other things, Artsinfo provides computer-based access to information on the many thousands of grants, services, and business development programs offered across all levels of government, as well as through corporations, foundations and other non-government bodies.

Artsinfo came out of the Coalition’s election platform, “For Arts Sake”. This policy emphasised access, equity and market development. It was supported by a $60 million funding package over three years. This included an amount of $4.5 million to the Department of Communications and the Arts to streamline institutional arrangements across the cultural sector, and to develop a one stop arts information shop. A team in the department co-ordinated work on Artsinfo which was outsourced to a host of specialist consultants. A year in development, Artsinfo was launched by the Minister, Richard Alston, in August 1997. The project is well-funded to 1999, after which time it will be reviewed.

The amalgamation of the communications and arts portfolios in 1994 came as part of the Keating Government’s Creative Nation initiative. The synergy of these two policy areas for cultural development had previously been argued for many years. It was most cogently described by Stuart Cunningham in his book Framing Culture as a key means by which the cultural mandate of the Commonwealth—to foster the formation of an Australian nation—could be most effectively exercised.

Artsinfo does indeed appear to give substance to this rhetoric. It uses communications infrastructures to create and extend cultural and other transactional spaces of “the nation” across the natural geography of the continent. In this respect the Artsinfo story is similar to other stories of communications development in Australia.

However, there are also important differences. The “nation” is not produced here from investment in physical labour or infrastructure. Rather, Artsinfo seeks to add value to existing public stocks of cultural and communications capital. Paradoxically, under the Coalition government, many parts of the underlying communications infrastructure are in the process of being alienated from the ‘public good’ objectives of nation-building. For this reason Artsinfo tells of the ‘weak’ nation-building strategy of the Coalition government.

It also speaks of the general trajectory of economic development which is being pursued by many governments around the world. This particular vision of development can be summed up as the ‘information economy’. In this scenario national economic growth is achieved through open, international markets and greater economic reliance upon communications. Indeed, the Howard government recently established the National Office of the Information Economy as a separate entity within Richard Alston’s portfolio.

So, like Creative Nation before it, Artsinfo has a strong business and export orientation. It aims to “inspire action”, and open doors to “national and international opportunities for a diverse range of cultural activities”.

Artsinfo was launched at the computer game theme centre Sega World, in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. A real time video signal was digitised for internet distribution so that Artsinfo could be simultaneously launched in a number of regional centres, including the Lismore campus of Southern Cross University, where I was involved in hosting the launch.

Preparations for the regional launch began about a fortnight beforehand. Invitations went out to local arts and media organisations. A suitable computer lab was found and the necessary software needed to view the launch was downloaded from the internet. The network was configured and the connection with the Artsinfo server tested. In effect, we were getting ready for the arrival of real time digital video in Lismore.

Coming live over the internet, the videostream had amazing textual qualities. The moving images seemed quite unreal, due in part to the compression techniques required to cram so much data into efficient (and in this case, available) channels. They unfolded in unpredictable ways upon the screen as patchwork puzzles of time. This strangeness was frustrating, but also exciting to experience.

Our view into the launch was provided by a single, fixed camera. Against a plain, black backdrop we could make out the torso and head of a woman. The presentation was simple, but suited to the bandwidth limits of the internet. However, details were washed out with eerie results: could that faceless bureaucrat really be Cathy Santamaria, the country’s most senior arts administrator? At least we could hear her clearly. Not so the Minister, Richard Alston, who was off-mike for much of his speech. We respectfully strained to hear what he said, for most of it. I was reminded of a time when people would gather outside electrical stores to watch television, with interest, awe and fascination.

But our gathering was not entirely made up of inquisitive passers-by. The Artsinfo launch, like the service, aimed to include this assembled group in the national arts and cultural industries “loop” of people-in-the-know. The launch also situated us in relation to other local and global possibilities of community.

A small wave of excitement ran through us when our role as witnesses to the Artsinfo launch was acknowledged by the Minister. I felt momentarily included in the elusive global village of the information economy. I was simultaneously a participant in this particular formation of national and local arts communities. However, these impressions of the global, national and local, mediated by the narrow bandwidths of the internet, were fragile and fleeting.

The importance of ongoing national government support to the development of national culture is clear. Perhaps not so well understood is the importance of communications infrastructure.

It remains to be seen how developments like an open market in telecommunications, the partial privatisation of Telstra, and the sale of the National Transmission Agency (which owns most ABC and SBS transmitter sites), will actually affect the quality, diversity and accessibility of cultural and communications services, especially in regional and remote areas. The Networking the Nation initiative, to be funded from the Telstra float, addresses these problems by directing resources for infrastructure development to those regions and populations in greatest need. It has the potential to facilitate some interesting, important and long overdue projects, especially from Indigenous communities.

No doubt, important and complex consequences for national culture will arise from the alterations to Australian communications described here. An important threshold question to emerge from this term of the Howard government is the extent to which national public culture can be sustained and developed on the basis of privatised communications infrastructures.

The experience of the Artsinfo launch highlights a further paradox here: the first “public” experience of live digital video reached Lismore on the goat tracks of the virtual community, the internet, and not by means of the much-touted (mythical) information superhighway. In this respect Artsinfo is an interesting model of development to emerge from cultural policy. Other initiatives, for example the Australian Cultural Network which aims to provide internet access to public cultural collections, are also being produced from this mould.

Artsinfo marks the shift in the roles of government in both policy fields of communications and culture. But it also serves to highlight the continuing and important role of the Commonwealth in making the nation. It is a risky venture largely because the direct returns on this investment will not generally be measurable in dollar terms. It is also a valuable and timely “public good” service which only a central government can provide.

Artsinfo can be accessed through the world wide web and is available at: [expired]. A free telephone service, staffed by operators trained to interrogate the database on behalf of callers, has also been established (tel 1800 241 247).

The writer thanks participants in the LINK discussion list for comments and suggestions, especially Julian Thomas, Tom Worthington and Roger Clarke.

RealTime issue #22 Dec-Jan 1997 pg. 22

© Christina Spurgeon; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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