Emergent media zones

McKenzie Wark tunes his aerials to the information superhypeway

How is the mediascape likely to change over the next decade and how does this affect the practice of new media art?

The changes in the technology of the media that are either happening or imminent have been much hyped, and not without reason. New media forms will open up some interesting possibilities for art practice, and perhaps close off some old ones.

Less often discussed is a second aspect of this— the changing expectations and competencies of audiences. The media often discusses the media as if the process of choosing, receiving and interpreting media flow were some kind of natural process. No matter how much the technoboosters might like to presume that the development of the new media vectors will automatically create a new audience and a new market, it ain’t necessarily so. The relationship between existing audience cultures and new media forms is always a complicated and quirky business. This is as true for the uses made of media by art as by commerce. Changes in media forms often appear to be driven by new technologies but what drives these new technologies is the problem foreseen and the opportunity seized by a number of media oligopolists. Basically, every medium faced the same problem in the 80s: costs were rising faster than audiences or markets were growing. This was the problem with the movie business, television, publishing, computers and telephony.

One solution to this problem was globalisation—the campaign against the cultural protectionism of countries like France and Australia and the privatisation of state telephone monopolies in many countries are examples of this strategy. A whole range of businesses, based in TV or publishing or telephony, from well developed markets such as Australia, Italy, England or the US, built global empires in a climate of reduced protectionism, and the privatisation of formerly public media assets or state industrial monopolies.

The second solution is to try to take a chunk of the media market away from some other media industry. In the US the phone companies and the cable TV companies have been contemplating this for some time. Cable network owners want to use their infrastructure to carry phone calls as well and vice versa. This would require pulling down the regulatory walls within the US and this in essence is what was behind the push for a new communications bill and all that guff about the ‘information superhighway’.

The third option is to develop a new technology for which one can charge a premium price or with which one can grab a big share of an as yet undefined new market for culture. The so-called experience industry (including ‘virtual reality’) and multimedia (including CD-ROM) are two different versions of this process.

The economics of the experience business are very simple. American punters will pay about eight bucks for 90 minutes of feature movie, but will pay eight bucks for 10 minutes of virtual reality or for 30 minutes of I-max format 3-D cinema. For the most part these are experiments developed by a combination of movie business cultural skills and Silicon Valley computer industry technology, a marriage dubbed ‘Siliwood’.

Since it is by no means clear who has the cultural capital required to make heightened experience media work, all kinds of people from cinema directors to video game produces to performance artists end up getting sucked into this development process. The experience industry is based on the premise of increasing the intensity of the spectacle. For example, Douglas Trumbull who produced famous special effects for 2001 and Bladerunner is now trying to develop experiential cinema. Brenda Laurel, who has a background in theatre and performance as well as a doctorate in computer interface design is working on a virtual reality environment called Place Holder. Ivan Sutherland, one of the most famous names in interface engineering is into 3-D interactive environments. Disney is also trying to turn animations like Aladdin into a virtual ‘product’ for its theme parks. Video game maker Sega has the AS-1, a highly kinetic ride designed for video game arcades.

If the experience industry is mostly about increasing the intensity of the spectacle, multimedia are about increasing the freedom of movement of the person using the media. VR is in theory an attempt to offer both simultaneously—but in practice ends up falling on one side of the line or the other. It simply isn’t feasible with present technology to offer intensity of experience combined with interactivity. Interactive media, hypermedia or multimedia are mostly pretty low resolution technologies compared to cinema or even television, but don’t limit the user to one narrative strand.

Interactivity can be delivered via some kind of portable product like a CD-ROM, or over a network, be it the telephone system used by the internet or cable and satellite vectors that presently deliver multichannel television. On the internet, the World Wide Web is growing rapidly and offers space for low cost experiments, like video artist David Blair’s Wax Web. CD-ROM is also a potentially low cost medium and many artists are presently exploring it. Interactive television is another story, and experiments here are mostly restricted to corporate test beds for commercial products. In the US, access to this medium depends on mainlining the community access principle already in place for pay TV.

In the relatively high tech area of the experience media, the talents of creative artists are brought in by investors hedging their bets on what kinds of cultural forms might work with as yet unspecified audiences. In those areas of interactive media that use established software tools and delivery formats it is often possible to create works on very small budgets. An example is the very successful CD-ROM Myst, produced by a team of three people working at home. Many visual artists and filmmakers are now experimenting with CD-ROM works.

The first big problem is distribution. There is as yet no easy way to distribute CD-ROM art. Book publishers and video game companies are rushing out CD-ROM based products, and these are distributed via computer stores and occasionally, on an experimental basis at this stage, by bookshops. Many of these products are very poor, particularly some of the crap authored by publishers and TV documentary producers, but because they have media conglomerates of the order of Time-Warner behind them, they are on the market.

Most interactive products from commercial producers are adaptations of existing cultural forms, including encyclopaedias, music video, documentaries and video games. They often have high production values but fail to maintain the interest of the idea or to really use interactivity in any interesting way. How is pressing buttons and waiting ages for the screen to redraw any more interactive than flipping the pages of a book? Where interactivity gets interesting is where the skills of film, video, music, games and publishing collide with each other. In Australia, producers with a diverse range of media experience such as Troy Innocent, Brad Miller, Linda Dement, John Collette and VNS Matrix are all producing interesting hybrid forms of interactivity, mostly using readily available delivery formats such as CD-ROM and laser disk. Jon McCormack’s work stands out in this company because of his abilities in computer programming. On the whole, however, the opportunities for artists, particularly for Australian artists, lie in bringing conceptual and cultural forms to existing technologies, rather than being on the so-called ‘cutting edge’ of technological change per se.

Television based interactive media are a long way off for Australian media producers. The collusive interests of the broadcasters have locked us out of multichannel television for a generation. To this one can add the enormous difficulties in raising investment money in Australia for any new media. Some community TV activists have a foot in the door with the Telecom cable roll out. For example, Metro TV in Sydney is involved in putting community TV to air via cable, and a small band of energetic community TV activists, such as the indefatigable Jeff Cook, have interactivity in their sights as well. The TV remote control is a pretty rudimentary form of interactive device but it can be used to drive a menu-based interactive information format.

In the Australian context, access to new media for artists, or indeed for anybody, is constrained by a number of factors. Pressures from globalising media oligopolies to relinquish cultural protectionism will increase. The Hollywood movie conglomerates lost on this issue in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, but are actively working for free trade in cultural commodities for the next.

Given the stranglehold media oligopolies have on mainstream Australian media, and their influence on the policy process, it will be extremely difficult to maintain spaces in the emerging media landscape for something analogous to public and community broadcasting and subsidised cinema and art. It was refreshing to see a strong commitment in last year’s cultural policy statement to experimentation and production of Australian content in film, television and new media, to be administered by a new committee, the Film Commission and SBS. That the ABC was unable to negotiate this policy commitment was very disturbing, as is the present government’s lack of commitment to the main public broadcaster at a time in which it has undergone massive restructuring to orient it to the new environment.

Community activities won a significant victory in 1993 in getting bandwidth set aside for a sixth TV channel devoted to community video access. Yet it remains an open question whether community media groups have the resources and experience to capitalise on this opportunity. The lack of coordination between arts policy, community media policy and new media policy on the part of government finds an unfortunate parallel in the lack of coordination between different interest groups in the media and the arts. Creating spaces for dialogue on media futures is very urgent.

There are now significant funds to disburse for new media experiments. This will work best if concentrated on the cultural forms of new media rather than on cutting edge technology. Australia is a technologically dependent media market, being a long way from centres of research and power in the emerging ‘military entertainment complex’ of California.

Art tends to occupy one of two margins in relation to the dominant media technology of the day. Either it colonises residual media left behind by changes wrought by the culture industries, or it forms an avant- garde in the emergent media that do not yet have a stable cultural form. The interesting opportunities for art practice at the moment are opening up in the emergent media zone. There is a narrow window of opportunity there for new and creative work, a window that it is more broadly important to keep open, given the instability of the whole nexus between media technology and cultural forms at present. The patterns of culture that will stabilise in the next millennium may well be determined by experiments and struggles undertaken today.

RealTime issue #5 Feb-March 1995 pg. 24

© McKenzie Wark; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1995