New media art: curation/creation

Keith Gallasch

Mike Stubbs

Mike Stubbs

Mike Stubbs

I interviewed Mike Stubbs the day before RMIT’s Vital Signs, a 2-day conference on new media art that brought together several hundred artists, theorists, curators and writers from around the country to discuss the standing of the field and the key issues of practice, distribution, reviewing and curation (see RT 70 for a detailed report). It’s appropriate for Vital Signs to be held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image; it’s one of the hubs of Australia’s new media art scene and, internationally, a unique, specialised home for the latest in art practice. Stubbs is Head of the Exhibitions Unit at ACMI.

Trained at Cardiff Art College and the Royal College of Art, Stubbs was the founding director of Hull Time Based Arts (1985-2000) and developed EMARE (European Media Arts Residency Exchange). He co-founded Metamedia, a Soho-based production company specializing in art and music. As a producer he commissioned the award-winning media performance POL by Granular Synthesis featured at the 2001 Venice Biennale, and curated new media programs for the Kiev International Media Art Festival in the Ukraine and the Microwave Festival in Hong Kong. He also established strong collaborative links with European art organisations through establishing the Hull Time Based Arts’ Root Festival.

Stubbs’ commissioned films Donut (2001) and Resistor (2001) were broadcast on BBC 2 and Channel 4 Television; many of his films have won awards; and a retrospective of his video work was shown at the Tate Gallery, London. In 2001, he completed Zero, a short film made in zero gravity on board a Russian military aircraft at the Yuri Gagarin Training Centre. He has also created large scale outdoor projections and streamed works.

Curator and maker

After art school, Stubbs worked with film and then video. He recalls his first show, curated in a temporary cinema space in a supermarket in Cardiff city centre in 1980, was called Not just another art show. As for the difference between making work and curating, he says he has “never been able to separate the two. It’s the sense of working with materials, whether 16mm film or computer digits or expertly ironing shirts (my mother), or arranging the work of other artists; you take pleasure in the craft, the duty of curation, the ability to question, whether creating work or programming or curating. Of course they are different but the underlying principles are the same.”

Stubbs came to Melbourne from Hull via Scotland where he was a Senior Research Fellow at Dundee University. He refers to the experience as “a recovery period [from his 13 years at Hull Time Based Arts] when I actually got to make a body of new work which was, in a sense, critiquing agendas of social economic cultural regeneration which I’d become aware of through my work in Hull. My most significant collaborations have been with social scientists, health care, psychiatrists and scientists, not because they’re better than artists but they challenge your assumptions.”

Two cities

Stubbs describes Hull’s decline from being a highly industrial, masculine culture: “It lost its fishing industry which provided 80% of its employment and had the lowest education attendance figures and the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the UK. Talent drained to the south. Here was a city that wanted to be part of the information age. It was strategically important for Time Based Art to be in a dysfunctional part of East England in terms of government funding. I was young, I represented techno-music and clubs, and I was up against ageing male councillors, the city fathers. It led to a sense of independence—Time Based Arts became the primary promoter of live and new media art in Britain. I don’t think we really tried to meet their measures of social regeneration but they turned a big-enough of a blind eye to what we were doing to continue to fund us, because enough people in positions of power supported us because we were developing an international reputation, which gave Hull something like having a premier league football club. I was working through the network I’d got from my filmmaking, capitalising on trips to film festivals and then establishing good solid working relationships. We had very strong connections with Holland and Germany, Hong Kong, the Ukraine…”

For Stubbs, Melbourne was very attractive: “a liveable city, security good, good for raising children, images of a relaxed environment, sun etc, but, ironically, it turns out Australians work harder and longer than anyone else.” ACMI is “an amazing site, challenging expectations for people about what they see and where. It has one of the best screen galleries in the world. And there are some great artists working in Australia.” He’s also taken with Australian culture: “Australia has masses of potential, it’s highly distinctive in terms of its history, the mix of migration. It can connect internationally but also with its Indigenous population. Christian Thompson is an intern here, it’s a small thing, but it is important.”

Curating history

Curation and programming are historically significant. Stubbs describes his work as the Head of the Exhibitions Unit and that of his fellow curator, Alessio Cavallaro, as “taking snapshots of particular practices at particular times, and in a way that’s artistic. I’m not a cultural theorist but historically you can see who’s been able to dictate ‘history’, impart versions of the world, for various reasons.”

He is alert to how a curator has to read the signs: “people want to manufacture movements because it’s convenient, because it post-rationalises theory—and Australia is full of theorists. In the early 1990s, he says, the scratch video movement was “romanticised as underground, uneducated garage culture, which didn’t really exist; it was students.” Similarly, being alert to what’s happening around the world is vital: “You have to take on multiple sources of information. I’m always interested to know what great art artists are seeing, otherwise you end up with biennale shopping, which is justified in terms of Australia’s isolation, but risks it being subjugated to a homogenised culture.”

Stubbs describes the unit as “a small team doing 3 or 4 exhibitions a year, but they’re big exhibitions. ACMI is over its start-up period, there’s a new director, Tony Sweeney, with a sustainable model for the institution. Exhibitions had been pretty much specialised media shows, but recently have become more variable in texture and curatorial brief. From here on they’ll be intermixed with shows like the Stanley Kubrick exhibition; a collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria; something on the history of Australian television [in its 50th year]; and experimental film from Germany; and an emphasis on building audiences.”

White Noise

The current show, the Stubbs-curated White Noise, is a seriously entertaining exhibition of curated and commissioned abstract works in new media, a nice contrast to Experimenta’s equally engrossing Vanishing Point with its more representational animations and interactives. Both shows will be reviewed in RT 70 (December-January).

White Noise is not primarily interactive, but it can be intensely immersive, and that includes the exquisite installation design—a dark corridor with glowing blue frames receding into the distance, each the entrance to a visually and sonically discrete and often powerful work.

Stubbs recalls that as a young filmmaker, “I used to reject abstraction. I was always more interested in the representational than the non-representational. I had that need…but I came to know a lot about abstract filmmaking and loads about new media art. My tutors at the Royal College of Arts were eminent materialist and abstract film makers, Peter Gidal and Malcom le Grice.” Stubbs enjoys the beauty of much of the work in White Noise and is impressed by the artists each having a strong philosophical base.

The show also represents continuity for Stubbs: “There are artists in this exhibition I’ve worked with over a long period of time, more as a producer. I have confidence in them, a close working relationship, and I want to see where they’re going next. And I want to encourage that, provide the opportunity for them to make masterworks. I don’t know how many shots I’ll have to do this here, in a great gallery, with a great body of artists, with a show highly focused in terms of architecture and engineering, at every level. The balance in White Noise between having the right slate of artists, a significant thesis and a great audience offer is a dream scenario.”

White Noise, curator Mike Stubbs, ACMI, Aug 18-Oct 23, www.acmi.net.au

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 26

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

1 October 2005
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