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The Wetware season

Mike Leggett reports from The NxT Mutimedia Symposium in Darwin

Mike Leggett gave a talk at the symposium on his curatorial research recently undertaken in the USA, Brazil and Europe, supported by the New Media Arts Fund of the Australia Council.

East Timorese participants at Nxt Symposium East Timorese participants at Nxt Symposium
The first day of October is the first day of The Wet in the Northern Territory. And sure enough, Darwin experienced a night time shower after the evening opening of NxT. This multimedia symposium, like the several before in other states, set out to expose ways in which, in the words of the coordinator Mary Jane Overall, “artists have challenged, examined and grappled with technologies in ways never even considered by the corporate world.”

Hosted by the local office of QANTM (the Brisbane-based cooperative multimedia centre—CMC) in close collaboration with Geraldine Tyson of 24HR Art, this complex event involved many more sponsors and partners than the similar events organised by the Australian Film Commission (primary financial assistance for NxT was provided by the New Media Arts Fund of the Australia Council), and gave an overview of much that has occurred in Australia amongst those working with interactive multimedia and also single-channel multimedia.

Like a croc in the Harbour, Darwin bobs out of the waters of the Arafura Sea just enough to focus on the task ahead. It faces outwards—to the bush and to the ocean—and as entrepreneurial trader and fixer, responds selectively to the needs and aspirations of the scattered Territorians. The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, built on the foreshore, is a microcosm of the local diversity with stunning artefacts exhibited within its walls (happily the fantastic annual National ATSI Awards coincided with the NxT event) and outside under the breezy palms and fig trees, the Ski Club on one side and the weekly market and citizens gathering at Mindil Beach on the other. In the clammy air, close to the water and with The Wet due, Darwin epitomised the flux of events, both natural and human. Like the best conferences, the setting invigorated and the talking took off…

Inevitably, with so many artists from interstate and overseas who have been practising in the area of media arts for 10 years and more, history was the other setting. Paul Brown’s personal history included works by filmmakers Jordan Belson and the Whitney brothers, ex-painter Harold Cohen, Nancy Burson, Edward Ihnatowicz, Vera Molnar, Larry Cuba and many others. Coming up to the present he repeated the prediction that is now being heard more widely, that the internet should not simply be regarded as another entertainment medium but distinctly as an evolutionary shift. Amplifying Stelarc’s comments from the previous night (and indeed, the previous decade), the development of the internet can be seen as a direct extension of the human cerebral cortex and will lead us inevitably toward a prostheticisation of the corporeal frame, a process that began centuries ago and accelerates as telecommunications and nanotechnology entwine with the human genome—the wetware evolutionary phase.

Such a migration of consciousness translates for some politicians present, and Sally Pryor, as a need “for humans to control the computers.” In the CD-ROM, Postcard from Tunis, she developed a means of referencing another culture without it becoming a cross-cultural enterprise requiring open collaboration. Such a thread was a strong feature of the NxT symposium and was paramount at the Resistant Media space (programmed by Australian Network for Art and Technology) in the Ski Club premises, where a battery of online computers enabled the conference and visitors to continue to grow the cortex. Shuddhabrata Sengupta explained that in the context of the border war with Pakistan, the net offered access to discussion denied in the public spaces of India and, “like modern ley lines across the map”, used anonymity, or the threat of anonymity, as a telling component of contemporary culture effected by warfare. At the same panel session, Geert Lovink reminded us of the part the net played in the wars in the Balkans, relaying closed radio stations, establishing list syndicates and using the range of media in a tactical manner. If it’s possible to view wars on television from the comfort of your armchair, is it becoming possible to actually participate in violent struggle from the comfort of your own workstation? He maintains a distinction between net activism rather than net alternatives. Communication networks must respond to need and develop a political aesthetic. This is the site of engagement and intervention rather than that of an outsider logging-on to passively read the electronic newspapers.

Meanwhile, just across the sea in East Timor, the United Nations were mopping-up the militias, and Sue McCauley referred to the Free Timor website and others that had a large part to play in keeping exiles and the rest of the world directly linked to events. Sam de Silva emphasised the need for more tactical alliances between artists and campaigns, for websites to provide information countering the claims of corporate interests, and acting as communication points for popular campaigns such as Jabiluka.

Peter Callas showed an early 2-screen video work which, utilising footage from the Vietnam War, demonstrated the subtleties of irony in relation to race and the culture of militarism. The survey of his work fleshed out the complex ways in which the modern electronic cultures of the Japan he encountered inexorably plotted the advances of cybernetic prostheses. He had created electronic horizons in cities like Tokyo where the landscape horizon had long been obscured.

“The computer as an intelligence amplifier” was how Jon McCormack characterised the human evolutionary stage, though his own work concentrates on a move away from carbon-based life forms to those based on the life-synthesising silicon chip. In the pursuit of complexity from simplicity, he demonstrated the ‘Evolve’ interface he has developed which may become a market item offering the experienced user ability to create Artificial Intelligence environments through this code-writing software.

Josephine Wilson described online writing communities, including Cipher (, her recent online project collaboration with Linda Carroli. Josephine Starrs previewed the new CD-ROM she produced with Leon Cmielewski: Dream Kitchen takes the Doom gaming conventions into the kitchen where, equipped with egg flips and other utensils, various 3D animation horrors are dealt with in hilarious style.

“The updated version of Cyberfeminism is more about networking, webgrrrls, geek girls, FACES, OBN, online publishing, career prospects, list servers and international conferences,” stated Julianne Pierce in surveying the work of VNS Matrix, “…to get ahead you must control the commodity. Information is political, it’s a weapon, and the more knowledge we have, the more powerful we are".

Yolgnu knowledge, from NE Arnhemland, has been the longtime study of Michael Christie. He described the issues surrounding the work at Northern Territory University “to incorporate Yolgnu theories of language, identity, intellectual property and the negotiation of knowledges into the university teaching structure.” This has been pursued through a number of multimedia projects aimed at producing study materials.

Such cross-cultural projects have been a success. In the words of Kathy Mills, the prominent Aboriginal spokeswoman, songwriter and poet of “greetings, respect and language”: “Balanda (white fellas) don’t listen carefully or respond with appropriate structures…” Her work has been concerned with addressing such shortcomings in the health industry.

Staff from Batchelor College discussed and showed work derived from the adaptation of electronic technologies into the Indigenous education environment of that campus, in particular, digital archiving approaches to stories from the communities.

East Timorese refugees in Darwin were hosted throughout the symposium, utilising the online facilities and, during the final emotional session, immersing themselves in Michael Buckley’s CD-ROM collaboratively made with the Melbourne Timorese community. East Timor, Culture, Resistance and Dreams of Return allows a “rich plurality of voices” in a “social interactive documentary” in which the developer had more of a curatorial role in the design and production rather than being its author or director.

The plurality of voices online and in other public spaces was celebrated throughout the NxT event in a spirit of mutual respect for language and cultural difference. However, the impetus of rapid advances into digital culture during the decade by Australian artists is in danger of dissipation through reductions in levels of infrastructure support. The increasing babble from websites is daunting to most potential audiences. Whole areas of research as well as artefact are denied beneath the weight of Microsoft-style marketing. The wetware alliances between artists, scientists and technologists, well established overseas, are hardly heard of here. Indeed, is there a place in evolution for 3D animation?

The NxT symposium showcased a significant national record and described innovation in The Top End setting. The next event needs to be more risky and project into the future with an image of multimedia arts as a form of ubiquitous social interaction.

NxT Northern Territory Xposure Multimedia Symposium, Darwin, September 30 - October 4.

Mike Leggett gave a talk at the symposium on his curatorial research recently undertaken in the USA, Brazil and Europe, supported by the New Media Arts Fund of the Australia Council.

RealTime issue #34 Dec-Jan 1999 pg. 18

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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