Canada's new media insights

Daniel Heckenberg

Canada is home to several internationally renowned institutions and individuals active in interdisciplinary and media arts. The nation’s many similarities to Australia in population, culture and history make it an excellent reference point for our own activities and support mechanisms in this rapidly evolving field.

Arts funding in Canada is provided by well-established infrastructure at all 3 tiers of government (federal, provincial and local) and new media projects are often supported by a combination of these. Related industries such as multimedia production and game development also receive government assistance. As in Australia, there is not a strong history of private or institutional philanthropy for the arts.

At a federal level, funding to new media arts is administered by institutions that reflect technological and disciplinary developments over the past century. Artistic practice is supported by grants to individuals and organisations from the Canada Council under its Media Arts and Inter-Arts programs. Since 1998 production projects (eg multimedia, web and game development) have been assisted by the New Media fund at a current rate of CAN$9 million per annum. This fund is administered by TeleFilm, established in the late 1960s to underpin the local film and television industries. This structure and history bears a strong resemblance our own Australia Council and Australian Film Commission.

Recognition for research practice in new media is well established in Canada. The New Media Initiative from the Canada Council and National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) provides grants for collaborative research between artists and scientists. This program, introduced in 2002, is mirrored in the joint Australian Research Council (ARC) and Australia Council Synapse program which began disbursing funds in 2003.

While funding for research in the arts is now commonplace, these programs have very successful precedents in Canada. Collaboration between the Canadian National Film Board (NFB) and the NRC in 1960s and 1970s, for example, yielded many innovative computer animation techniques. Installing animators, filmmakers and composers as artists-in-residence led to animations of unprecedented realism, including the first Academy Award winning computer animation in 1974, Hunger. The research work was recognised with an Academy Award for technical achievement in 1996.

Artists and scientists involved in this ongoing collaboration eventually established software companies now important in the computer graphics industry: Alias (Maya), SoftImage (XSI), Discreet (compositing tools) and SideEffects (Houdini). That some of these companies are prominent sponsors of Canadian new media arts institutions and practice illustrates the significance of this creative cluster.

The Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta has also hosted significant interdisciplinary collaboration. In the early 1990s when the centre diversified into media arts, its Art and Virtual Environment project (1991-1994) explored the aesthetics of virtual reality. Participants, including the pioneering artist Char Davies, went on to SoftImage and Discreet. Davies founded SoftImage with Daniel Langlois, where she further developed the Osmose project (completed in 1995). Osmose and Davies’ later work Ephémère (1998) are currently exhibited at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne.

Community-based organisations play an important role in the development and exhibition of new media arts in Canada and in the careers of prominent Canadian artists. In Canada’s 2 biggest cities, Toronto and Montreal, there are well established production and exhibition spaces with high public profiles and levels of accessibility. David Rokeby, winner of the Ars Electronica Golden Nica for Interactive Art in 2002 has had a long-standing involvement with InterAccess in Toronto. Interactive video artist Luc Courchesne is president of Société des arts technologiques (SAT) in Montreal.

The InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre has offered facilities and instruction for electronic arts in Toronto since 1982. They also have a 200 square metre exhibition space. Supported by operating grants from Toronto, Ontario and Canadian arts councils, the Centre relies on a volunteer staff. The collective has regular courses, workshops and discussions as well as undertaking group projects.

SAT provides workshops, residency, exhibition and performance space in Montreal. Formulated in the wake of the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) in Montreal in 1995, SAT has recently moved into a very large permanent location with the support of city, provincial and federal funds, in addition to private sponsorship from companies including Discreet. Incorporating workshops for residencies and a cafe/bar, the SAT’s venue hosts new media development, organised discussions, exhibitions, performance and informal meetings in a community environment.

Montreal is also home to another prominent new media institution, the Daniel Langlois Foundation (DLF). An animator at the NFB during its period of computer animation research, Langlois made his fortune building SoftImage (sold to Microsoft in 1995). In addition to his philanthropic foundation, Langlois has also developed and funded several media operations including a digital cinema facility (Ex-Centris), the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema and New Media (FCMM) and a digital content distribution network (DigiScreen/Pixnet).

The DLF’s mandate is to “further artistic and scientific knowledge by fostering the meeting of art and science in the field of technologies.” It operates an archive of new media documents and artworks (Centre for Research and Documentation) and has provided individual and institutional grants to international recipients to the order of CAN$1.5 million a year. Although its 2 main grant programs have been suspended in 2004 “to assess the impact of its programs and decide on future directions”, the programs have been acclaimed since their inception. Philanthropic funding for the new media arts regardless of where recipients are located is rare.

Canada’s support for new media practice offers some important insights for Australia. Its rich community of new media artists, scientists and researchers have produced internationally recognised artworks, research and institutions. These successful models of interdisciplinary collaboration lend support to similar endeavours such as QUT’s Creative Industries Faculty and programs administered by the Australia Council and ARC.

However, Mike Leggett’s concern about the trend in favour of institutional funding for research in the arts is salient here (RT 57, p26). Accessible new media research environments appear to be missing from Australia’s new media landscape. Where are the artist-run workshops, collectives and collective facilities for new media research and exhibition in Australia? Canada’s experience with InterAccess and SAT indicates that such organisations continue to have a place in new media practice, and can play an important role in their communities and in the artistic development of participants.

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 27

© Daniel Heckenberg; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004