Anarcho-techno possibilities

John McConnchie in Adelaide reports on the UTLCA Symposium: Community Cultural Development and Multimedia.

The real value of this symposium lay in its intersection between potentially conflicting fields—the grass-roots methodologies inherent in community arts, and the still-rarefied strata of digital technologies. As such, the symposium was aimed more towards the community end of practice, a welcome space in which to discuss the implications of emerging technology without the tech-heads or the incomprehensible minutiae required to explain the operations of digital media. Credit goes to symposium artistic director Lylie Fisher for placing content and means on the agenda, firmly ahead of form, rounded out by a comprehensive series of hands-on workshops and demonstrations held each afternoon. It’s perfectly fine to explore what we can do with this technology, but it is imperative to discuss why we would want to do it at all, pushing debate beyond the Mt Everest (because it’s there) syndrome.

As it turns out, the community arts is a contentious arena in which to stage this debate. Its more traditional supporters and practitioners view the technology with suspicion, as exemplifying the alienation inherent in Western industrialism—the enemy of the people. If it is that, it should be cast in Ibsen’s appropriation of the term: something crucial is happening and to turn our backs to it is at our own peril. Key-note speaker Stephen Alexandra hinted precisely at this, that to avoid this technological revolution is to cast the community arts as envisioned in the 70s even further into ghettoisation and marginalistion. But he also stressed some of the peculiarities and contradictions inherent in the structure of new beasts like the internet and other digital media. On one level we find the power struggles of multinationals seeking their stake in information technologies, dynamic battles which will restructure our concepts of national autonomy, cultural boundaries, commercial and civil infrastructures. On another, there exists a digital community which is best described as grass-roots with a virtually (pun intended) unfettered exchange of information and ideas, including political organisation and protest. As a mass-medium, the net circumvents other ideologically determined media, as described in Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. Quite to the contrary, the net provides the perfect opportunity for Chomsky’s celebration of counterculture, whether it be environmental activism or gay lobbying (as discussed in detail in Michelangelo Signorile’s Queer in America: Sex, the Media and the Closets of Power, Abacus 1993). This is because the plethora of content on the web is so diverse that it mimics a genuine anarchy. Later speakers would throw cold water on certain cherished concepts of web-utopia. But in the meantime, we can say that while corporate battles are waged, individual expression runs riot, as any web-surfer would be aware.

Speakers who followed over the next few days (many familiar to readers of these pages) only emphasised this point: Francesca da Rimini speaking about the work of VNS Matrix, Zane Trow on his role as Artistic Director of the Next Wave Festival, Brett Spilsbury on Australian Network for Art and Technology’s seeding work for art in the digital arena, and Michael Doneman’s run-through of a website for Brisbane’s youth arts organisation, Contact Inc. I was delighted by some of the contrasting approaches given expression over the three days.

da Rimini, for example, emphasised the non-technological approach of VNS Matrix’s efforts. Working only on a need to know basis, and drawing on expert help when required, emphasis is placed firmly on discursive strategies fluidly aimed at subverting a patriarchal unconsciousness most popularly summarised as ‘boys and their toys’. Yet implicit in VNS Matrix’s approach is a growing awareness and sophistication: once you start playing with this stuff, you start getting good at it. Still, VNS Matrix have succeeded by deciding on a focus, their pro-libertarian feminism is refreshing, the final effect delightfully fearless. In contrast at least to VNS Matrix’s stated aims, Zane Trow emphasised the skill of the artist who uses the computer as a virtuoso instrument. He presented a devastatingly brief manifesto of such wit and truth that its more unpalatable side was greeted with guffaws of recognition, especially “our art is so radical it is sponsored by the government”. Perhaps because his background is in sound and composition/performance, one of the first arts practices to embrace digital technology, his attitude was refreshingly down to earth. The computer is just a tool. Or, again recalling Chomsky, a reminder that if access to digital information could really change things, the Pentagon wouldn’t let us have it. As it is, cyberculture is best characterised as ‘adolescent’, not democratic. But most importantly, it was stressed that community arts in the digital age would never be about ‘decoration’, which has characterised Western art since the baroque met bourgeois ideology. That in itself is a breakthrough, making digital art about ‘things’ (if not objects), and implying links between the virtual world and the material one of bodies, communities and power.

The symposium had the excellent sense to address exactly these issues by choosing artists working in both multicultural and indigenous contexts such as the Milanese Ermanno “Gommo” Guarneri who gave an account of disenfranchised Italian youth who have moved into cyberspace to conduct community events. Last month, the old News building on Adelaide’s North Terrace, the origin of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, caught fire—no doubt through the activities of homeless street kids. Imagine instead that it is filled with computers, begged and borrowed, hooked into the web as an integral part of its fabric and giving voice to an anarchist youth who find this technology as familiar to them as phones. This might scare people, but frankly, Gommo’s account of such events in Italy looked a lot like fun. In Australia however, it won’t be street kids working this stuff, but the (hopefully not) well heeled children of the bourgeoisie. It still raises the question of community access which is where Gary Brennan’s somewhat dry address to the symposium belied the importance of what he had to say. Gary’s consultancies with both the Australia Council and the Australian Film Commission have identified the means for providing access, basing skunkworks in the existing Screen Cultural resource organisations such as Metro, Open Channel, the Media Resource Centre and FTI in Perth. This deserves a report to itself.

United Trades and Labour Council of Australia Symposium: Community Cultural Development and Multimedia, Mercury Cinema, Adelaide, September 24-26.

RealTime issue #16 Dec-Jan 1996 pg. 24

© John McConchie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1996