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New media art: Omigod! It's alive!

Keith Gallasch

The Vital Signs conference and exhibitions from ACMI (White Noise, see p24) and Experimenta (Vanishing Point, p23) combined to prove that not only is new media art ticking over, but it is alive and kicking, fuelled by vision, experiment, R&D, controversy and a sense of enormous potential. This is not to say that the conference itself was a picture of unanimity; on the contrary, its participants numbered detractors, the disappointed and the disaffected, and not a few of the uncertain (“What is it?”, “What is ‘new’?” “What am I?” etc). With over 400 artists, various experts and commentators gathered for this RMIT conference, directed by an indefatigable Lyndal Jones, a range of responses was to be expected. However, while the parameters were set for debates to come, the conference itself could resolve little with large panels of speakers, parallel sessions and precious little time (in the Australian manner) for serious discussion, let alone debate and opportunities to pull together an overview of the state of the field. What Vital Signs did achieve was to live up to the promise of its title in offering evidence of a functioning body of diverse, overlapping and largely emergent practices integral and reponsive to a radically changing world in which art can play a part in everyday life in unprecedented ways. Here are some moments I witnessed of Vital Signs.

The body mechanical & mediocre

CEO Jennifer Bott iterated the Australia Council’s commitment to new media arts but framed it in terms of “the research and development possibilities of new media arts not being sufficiently recognised”, of the potential for the field in “design and engineering” and “access to all industry sectors.” Well, that sucked the air out of a few lungs, and, over the next 2 days, speakers like Mari Velonaki and Stephen Jones kept us mindful that new media art must not be reduced to a handmaid of industry or decoration for science. Lyndal Jones defended new media arts against those, especially visual artists, who see the field as “process-driven”, while also arguing that universities need to see that “our practice is research.”

Media artist Philip Brophy led the first of several attacks on the field, blaming the demise of the New Media Arts Board not on the Australia Council but on artists: “You blew it!” An opportunity had been lost, he said, because “not enough exciting, illuminating works” had been created. Worse, new media artists were whingers (“you believe you are opposed by visual artists”), rhetorical, a-political and not visionary. Brophy decribed the root of his own success in “the accident of being nomadic”, of working across artforms.

In another session, film critic and author Adrian Martin celebrated “the orphic”, “the poetic moments of the audio-visual medium”, but said he had experienced no such moments with new media art works, taking instead his examples of transcendence from intriguing film and photographic images. Martin declared new media art to be “gesturing towards poetry”, but not making it, “strangled by machinery”, short on intervention and yielding “a new slew of cliches.” “We must be vigilant about this staleness”, he declared. Martin offered no examples of new media art he had encountered to demonstrate his claims, only adding that assessing such work for funding had been disagreeable. I wonder what he made of ACMI’s White Noise. For not a few this exhibition offered many transcendent moments. Fortunately, in the same session Melinda Rackham’s account of the triumphs and tribulations of webart gave us just a glimpse of the strange beauties of several works, and an account of the power of network collaborations and “the network as artwork.”

The body is ill

Digital art lecturer Larissa Hjorth’s upbeat account of the social uses of mobile phones in different cultures—the ways the machines are customised by users, shared in Korea, imbued with personalities in Japan in “a warming up of cold technology”, and submitted to creative perversity—contrasted with Lisa Gye’s disappointment with the mobile phone camera in another fascinating talk. Unlike its antecedent, the Kodak Box Brownie, the modern tool was portrayed by Gye as individualised and non-tactile compared with the collectivity of family sharing of photographs and the show and tell that goes with it. Media arts commentator and author Darren Tofts wondered “where is the social” in a culture of “enforced eavesdropping”, of “public space as an annexe of private space” in an “onanistic rather than coital culture.” The post-panel discussion debated the wonders of children multiplatforming and media weaving, or not; the Reality TV-type performance of ordinariness increasingly embodied in the new communications; and whether or not art will, like sex and sport, make the leap to mainstream media platforms. The discussion epitomised the push and pull of the new media for artists and experts for whom the technology is their passion and even the basis of their livelihood, but which commerce deploys in morally suspect ways.

Media artist Ian Haig diagnosed a different kind of sickness, among artists themselves: “a psychopathological relationship with new media”, a condition he has consistently parodied, and an “implicit utopianism” about which he felt cynical. In his own art he has left behind technology, he said, in favour of hybridity, of “works that can’t be pigeon-holed”, that question interactivity (“the toilet as interface”) in the Haig boy’s-own-Freud body of work. His objection to “button pushing literalism” of interactivity, however, reminded me how little of it I’ve seen lately and certainly not in Vanishing Point.

Unbounded & inclusive

As the conference progressed and more works were invoked, reminders of what had been achieved and what was possible started to lift the mood. Talks were laced with discreet retorts to new media art’s critics. Curator and theorist Lizzie Muller’s account of the impressive work of George Khut with biofeedback systems exalted human-centred design that works from bodily awareness and privileges subjectivity. She declared the work as neither passive nor pathological. Choreographer and multimedia artist Hellen Sky mused over “experiential embodiment”, of the experience of being simultaneously virtual and physical when “the real and the virtual fold into each other…I think I’m a cyborg.”

In her search “for a rationale for digital art”, photographer, digital artist and industrial designer Gay Swinn conjured “a diaspora in cyberspace”, claiming digital works as “immanent, not just imitative”, and, in their use of irony and blasphemy, opposed to “those who would make us in their own image.” Cultural theorist Nikos Papastergiardis, in a conversation with Ross Gibson and Pia Ednie-Brown, reminded us that we are “not just bodies but modes of consciousness, not bodies that finish at the skin...that we feel thinking and vice versa.” In the “rising mania for user-centred” works and experiences we must, he argued, develop open-ended, “un-edged, unbound arenas of inclusiveness.” There can be no closing of borders as governments do, or publics fearing complexity—institutions must be open to the new.

An overloaded session on curation told us little about why and how curators choose what new media art to exhibit, but revealed that a lot is going on, from Rawspace’s admirable residencies program in Brisbane to multimedia ventures in Tasmania’s 10 Days on the Island, but with less action in major galleries. Next Wave director Marcus Westbury with his familiar “what I do is in what I don’t do” manifesto (not into art, not into form, not into new media art—"it’s not a form”, “I’m into the circulation of ideas”) made one of the more important observations in the conference—“media art is the folk art of my generation.” The truth and extent of this could have made for a conference in itself, as with the issue raised earlier, about whether or not kids really are wired.

Body growth

As she did at MAAP in Singapore in 2004, producer and curator Yukiko Shikata (Japan) gave us an entertaining and extensive update on developments in the field with accounts of works and events many of us won’t get to experience, exploring biosemiotics, the visualisation of gravity, DNA cooking for kids, data architecture, collective mobile phone art, and the moblab (mobile laboratory) project. As the Moblab bus travels through Japan, collaborations are forged between young Japanese and German artists ( Shikata described these adventures in “new subjectivities and new expression” as “utopian, but plugged into reality.”


Former ACMI CEO John Smithies argued for acknowledgment of new media art’s unique pedigree, its distinctive platforms and tools, its very different engagement with the viewer, its user-driven fundamentals and the revolution in income generation and collection through micropayments. That the film and television industries cannot afford to ignore these developments, emphasised by the successes of Canadian multiplatform broadcasters (see RT66, p19) and the opportunities offered by the AFTRS LAMP program (see p21 in this edition). Nell White and Claire Jaeger described their work-in-progress, the AFC-funded Stowaways Guide to the Pacific, an interactive online program for 8-12 year olds. It’s a narrative embedded with all kinds of information and featuring 2 children on The Endeavour in 1769, but with the capacity to time travel.

Filmmaker Michael Buckley described a changed film world in which “the old feature film as holy grail is going”, where there is a “renewal and diversification” of resources…not locked into old venues” and where makers can create and control their own distribution networks. For Buckley this has also meant seeking out new and diverse financial sources in local government and community services to make work that otherwise would grace no platform. Documentarist Pippa Wischer, offering engaging examples of her own work and others, argued that traditional forms are being incorporated into new ones, that modern documentary has absorbed the interview, the compilation and the mockumentary, in works that can go resolutely beyond the gallery to television, DVD and online. The session chair, dLux media art director David Cranswick, enlarged the picture by describing the potential of the mobile phone platform.

The beleaguered word

In the session on critical writing, the occasionally heard lament that writing on the visual and new media arts was not up to scratch was challenged, the focus shifting to the poor conditions under which it is usually done—unpaid or lowly paid, not having the time to fully engage with new kinds of work, struggling to develop the vocabulary with which to adequately describe it, and getting past increasingly vigilant cultural gatekeepers. Addressing the issue of how to foster a critical voice, Adrian Martin argued that reviewers are not those gatekeepers—it’s the advertisers and marketers, editors and sub-editors, and the ABC, he said, with its bevy of comedian hosts, who dumb down the arts, and conjure a “phantom public” as their rationale. The danger, he said, is that new media art will be sold like the video clip, as fun, fun, fun—false advertising for work and audiences that need to be taken more seriously.

Celebration & ambivalence

The plenary session ranged across a number of issues that had emerged from the conference, or which had not been addressed, like the “crisis at meta-level” (Mike Stubbs, Head of Exhibitions, ACMI) affecting new media arts organisations around the world and not just in Australia. I posited an ‘ecological’ model of new media arts as a set of practices and groups of artists, organisations, festivals and schools around Australia, a cohesive, organic network recently subjected to negative pressures requiring a response that questions current funding models and the attitudes of government agencies. Some didn’t want to go down this path, preferring to discuss ‘the state of the art’, especially given the repeated criticisms that new media art is cliched, utopian/a-political, lacking poetry and technologically fetishistic. It’s a pity that Vital Signs’ atomistic approach didn’t provide some detailed, extensive overviews, instead of the many glimpses of fascinating works, forms, personalities, networks and events that were difficult to assemble into a meaningful picture. Perhaps Darren Tofts’ recently published interzone (see reviews in RT 71) will provide a rare opportunity for doing so in the near future.

Other participants were eager to discuss the means to find new sources of financial support for new media arts. Brendan Harkin of XMediaLab pointed to the significant funds for new media developments in key governement agencies; others spoke of the difficulties of tackling such organisations and the secondary role that artists can end up playing in projects. As Mari Velonaki argued, the artist is the one whose vision requires the scientist to develop the software or hardware that will realise the innovation: spinoffs that benefit science and industry will only ever be occasional.

There were sessions on sound art, video and hybrid practices, which were outside my timetable, but I hope the transcipts of Vital Signs become publicly available and doubtless play a role in the Australia Council’s scoping review on new media art.

Taking shape

In the end, I think Yukiko Shikata’s image of media arts as “utopian but plugged into reality” an apt summing up of where we are in new media arts—utopias have a bad name after the brutal excesses of the 20th century in their name, but if we have no vision where can we go? Above all, we need a comprehensive overview of new media arts in Australia so that we can come to know more precisely what this body is and what its vital signs mean. The conference has provided a rich plethora of detail of the working parts, what drives them, and which Darren Tofts’ interzone and, I hope, the scoping review, will give shape to, as perhaps will the formative Australian Media Arts Organisations (AMAO). The last decade has been a period of critical growth for new media art, but it’s a body still emerging, still forming, developing a sense of itself. Vital Signs was a mirror on this process.

Vital Signs: creative practice & new media now, convenor Lyndal Jones, School of Creative Media RMIT, with the Australia Council, Australian Film Commission, Australian Centre for the Moving Image; ACMI, Melbourne, Sept 7-9

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 35,

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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