Innovation: in a word

Keith Gallasch

Innovation. The word is over-used, appropriated, wrung-out. And not all of it is good. Phillipe Vasset’s prophetic Script Generator©®™ (Serpents Tail, London, 2004) is a wickedly droll, satirical novella doomed to its own appropriation by an innovative new software aimed at cost–effectively eliminating writers. Corporations can be innovators. Tyrants too. But let’s not get depressed. What we need is principled innovation. But it’s the unpredictability of innovation’s destination that requires open minds and the braving of risk. Being principled often has to come after the event.

 

Ethically…

After reading Alain Badiou’s Ethics, An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (trans Peter Hallward, Verso, London/New York 2001), I attempted to summarise the French philosopher and political activist on the subject of innovation. He describes an innovation as an event, a break with the past or an extraordinary modification of what has become ordinary; the unleashing of a truth at the expense of mere opinion and the realm of established interests and differences. The innovator is implicitly or overtly a militant who lives with the consequences of their innovation. Their fidelity to their invention is critical, as is that of those who enjoy, fund, promulgate and write about it. This is innovation as a tall order but worth debating in future editions of RealTime. In the meantime, let’s look at the event.

 

The event

Innovation is of course about creativity, conscious or unconscious–the not uncommon surprise at finding something new in one’s work, or having someone else take it up. Innovation can be invention, pure and simple. But more often it’s about the application of an invention: what you do with it, with the tools, the hardware or the software, with the transformation or perversion of an established form (which is often the way it’s received–are you fucking with our art? Our truth?). It’s all innovation. Even the copying of innovation as trend, as fashion: it’s innovation’s way of dispersing itself. And innovation, it has been argued, is one way we provide feedback on our capacity to adapt.

RealTime has focused for over a decade on innovators in the arts, seeking them out and urging them on. But we’re cautious about using the word. Our writers use it rarely. Innovation has to discerned. The plaudit has to be earned.

Unusually, however, the word does crop up frequently in this edition of RealTime and the way it is used is revealing. A recurring theme is that it’s not the tools, not the technology, but the artist’s vision that is key.

 

Vision first

Melbourne Festival Director Kristy Edmunds says of her own creative work that she chooses the medium (film, photomedia, choreography) that will best realise her vision: the idea comes first. Theatre director Wesley Enoch likewise admires Tracey Moffat for seeking out the tools that will best express her vision: “…it’s about purpose first, not the form or the medium…Purpose is the driving thing…it might mean one day wanting to make a film, or writing poetry.” Roy Ananda, a visual artist himself, says of Thomas Buchanan that his work (a dynamic fusion of performance, drawing and video) is “a powerful assertion that artistic innovation lives in the attitude of the artist, not necessarily in the advance of technology.”

 

Innovating tradition

The relationship between innovation and tradition is another recurring theme. Ananda observes that innovation can engage with the past as much as it breaks with it: “…by colliding [representational drawing] with performance, video and animation, Buchanan manages to work both at the edges of drawing practice and within a traditional idiom.” Gallery director Gitte Weise, when quizzed about her aesthetic and her choice of artists, answered: “I suppose most of the artists I take on are informed by art history. And you can see it in the work, they can transform that into something new.”

 

Formally…

John Bailey draws attention to an innovative break in the representation of the dancing body in Lucy Guerin’s multimedia dance work, Aether (in collaboration with new media artist Michaela French): “Contemporary dance frequently invokes a mechanicist philosophy to present the body as a machine, whether idealised or problematised; Aether offers us bodies as networks, nodes, radiation and flickering signals. These are bodies as frequencies, variable rather than immanent…What Guerin offers here is an impressive and successful way of imagining the body mediated by technological forms” (p14).

Sometimes formal innovation is admired, but is valued ambivalently when the ideas underlying vision are not evident. In his review of Malthouse’s new program, when commenting on A Journal of the Plague Year (p29), Bailey writes: “There is a sense that the real theme motivating directorial choice is simply the theatre itself as a vehicle for the production of wonder. If this is the case, Plague Year is an unabashed success. However, I find it slightly (though thrillingly) problematic that this production relies on an apocalyptic vision to achieve its effects.”

 

Hybridity

Current attention to innovation is often on the hybrids emerging from cross-artform and multidisciplinary practices. Sandy Cameron reports that “director Liu Jiayin won the Asian DV prize for…Oxhide (2004) at the 29th Hong Kong International Film Festival this year; the jury commended her for ‘demonstrating the new possibility of cinema, and radicalising the process of filmmaking…’ Oxhide manages to bring together the traditions of conceptual artwork with domestic drama and comedy…Liu obviously enjoys blurring the line between documentary and fiction” (p22).

 

Form/content

Dan Edwards finds much to admire in Australian documentary filmmaking in his survey (p17), but sees it as often radical in content, but rarely innovative in form. However, he comments that Indigenous filmmakers show a greater willingness than their peers to work across media and forms. Wondering at the constraints on documentary form he quotes producer Michael McMahon: “There is a core of wonderful people who constitute a very real and vibrant documentary sector but there is that fundamental problem of having so few opportunities outside the broadcasters to actually push the form, the way stories are told and the stories that actually get told” (RT61, p15). This is a reminder that innovation is not the realm of the lone inventor, but of support networks, collaborators, producers and audiences, all required to be receptive to innovation.

 

Experience design

Greg Hooper, reviews transmute collective’s interactive installation, Intimate Transactions, singling out an unexpected innovation, not just in the work but in new media art in general: “The pragmatic upshot of [Keith] Armstrong’s ethical position is the development of work that requires prototyping, interviews with people about their experience of the work, and further prototyping. Perhaps that is the contribution of new media: the introduction of user testing in the arts…” (p26).

In our culture, innovation is increasingly tied to the prospect of profitable outcome, the scenario satirised by Phillipe Vasset. In this edition of RealTime, new media art watchers Hooper, Lizzie Muller, Melinda Rackham and Garth Paine describe works that are hard or impossible to commodify, though, ironically some have commercially viable spin-offs from the software and hardware innovations demanded by artists’ visions. More important though is the innovation that interprets the world for us, or takes us beyond it into the realms of speculation.

Hooper writes that “Intimate Transactions isn’t a game, there is no sense of moving to an outcome or nearing the end. It’s a piece of experience design, an opportunity to enter a world like ours but different.” Lizzie Muller makes a like point in her overview essay on interactivity, describing key new media art works where, “We are not shown the effects of new technology; we experience them, living through them in all their complexity.” Muller goes a step futher with a semantic twist that reveals the particular importance of new media art: “Interactive artworks reveal the way new technologies ‘innovate’ human existence, the ways we are re-made by our inventions. They offer us opportunities to inhabit and reflect upon revolutions in human experience before they engulf us and we are no longer able to see their effect” (p24).

 

Artists first

While Muller allows that in new media arts “there is a degree of technological fetishism at play, the image of an art form following like an eager puppy at the heels of ICT development misrepresents interactive art’s role in driving technological innovation. Artistic visions can often only be achieved with software and hardware created specifically for individual artworks. Such ambitious productions require collaborative relationships with developers at the cutting edge of technology.”

Sound artist Garth Paine makes the same point: “I believe the arts drive a lot of these [technological] developments because somebody has got to be out there making the vision. Industry is often driven by the fact that they can now put all this on this little chip, but what are they going to do with it? They have a whole team thinking up applications but it’s driving it from the technology rather than need” (p12).

Muller reports on the work of a group of scientists working with artist Mari Velonaki on Fish-Bird, which comprise a pair of communicative, robotic wheelchairs. The scientists feel that “realising Velonaki’s imaginative vision so completely without aesthetic compromise is the work’s great achievement. Interestingly it was the exacting nature of the artistic vision and its real world requirements [the user-testing that Hooper refers to] that drove a great deal of the technological innovation.”

 

Networking

New media artist Melinda Rackham surveys network art, wondering why Australia, an early innovator in the field has paid it less than due attention and in doing so draws attention to the broader needs of innovation and to the network as a medium. Rackham shows how programs at Colorado University and RMIT are creating “students multi-literate in network and software, utilising blogging, podcasting, videoblogging, and conducting collaborative research…The crucial innovative factor is that students learn to operate within a network rather than learning to design work for networked display. These focused but flexible environments encourage experimentation, and most importantly acknowledge failure as a crucial part of the innovation process.” Of course, these days failure is rarely a creative option, but we need to reminded of its importance in the process of innovation.

Rackham reports that networked art is thriving overseas, but not in Australia. She thinks that the reasons for this are that “funding bodies and commissioning organisations often profoundly misunderstand the media” and “that networked art challenges the very foundations of the commodification of art, as it defies conceptions of uniqueness, stability and collectability. It is a practice that has never slotted neatly into existing institutional and cultural establishments.”

In Australia, as we know only too well, new media arts are suffering various forms of dimunition and erasure. Network art needs to be clearly acknowledged so that it can be properly supported and funded. Rackham argues that “When network art is positioned as a discrete discipline…innovation can be recognised and fostered.”

 

Recognising innovation

The Australia Council’s decision to eliminate the New Media Arts Board and distribute new media artists to the Visual Arts and Music Boards represents a profound failure to engage with innovation, with new works and audience experiences both independent of and entwined with commercial media. Audiences are being engaged in ways hitherto unimagined, as interacters and, not least, as co-creators of works that can be constantly remade, that are, in effect, never finished. Lizzie Muller provocatively claims that, “Unlike a book, a painting or a video installation, an interactive artwork is an open field, which means in effect that every instance is an innovation.”

While there is an emphasis in this edition on the artist’s vision as primary and the tools for its realisation a matter of choice, the very tools are often the stimulus for creation, not least in new media arts where the technologies are increasingly accessible and an integral part of the everyday, and the distinctions between their form and content significantly hard to make. The Australia Council’s scoping review of new media arts will soon commence: it is to be hoped that it will acknowledge, as Melinda Rackham has argued, that the formal recognition of new media arts practices is vital to their well-being and their continued capacity to innovate.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 2

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2005
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