Experimenta into the 21st century

Darren Tofts

Brook Andrew, level one - Reality Check, level two - Tom (video), digital print, video and sound (CD) installation, 1999

Brook Andrew, level one – Reality Check, level two – Tom (video), digital print, video and sound (CD) installation, 1999

In the liner notes to retArded Eye’s 1997 film Superpermanence, Experimenta’s Keely Macarow notes that the film’s digitally rendered appearance as a hand processed experimental film “confounds the populist myth that digital = slick techno geekdom!” This aphorism neatly sums up the spirit of Experimenta’s signature program of 1999, Manifesto. The title of this film (part of Experimenta’s 1999 screening program in September) was suggestive of one of the key themes of Manifesto, longevity. Macarow’s didactic use of the film as a rejoinder to public opinion on the subject of digital art also anticipated the sense of challenge in Manifesto.

Manifesto was a series of events aimed at reviewing 20th century experimental media culture and locating this legacy in the context of contemporary digital media. Manifestos, at the best of times, smack of the rantings of the ideologue (think of Marinetti) or march to the beat of the militant avant-garde (“the plain reader be damned”). In curating this serial event, Keely Macarow astutely sidestepped the declamatory inflections of the manifesto and instead garnered its ability to capture a moment (to make it manifest). And I’m not talking about anything so facile as zeitgeists. Manifestos are really about commitments, in the dual sense of giving or bestowing and investment in a principle or policy. In using the venerable technology of the time capsule as a metaphor for embodying the relationship between the experimental history of 20th century media arts and its continuation in digital practices, Manifesto literally captured the art of the present and sealed it for posterity in a purpose-built plinth that will reside at Melbourne’s Scienceworks for 100 years. It is fitting that in its last program of the 20th century, Experimenta made a commitment to the future, a commitment to its own present.

It’s difficult to know what the late 21st century will make of the digital prints of Brook Andrew and Brenda L Croft, the video installation of BIT (Bureau of Inverse Technology), Chris Knowles’ soundscape Beam—Me—Back, or the web-based installation Greylands, produced by KIT, an international group of artists based in Australia, Canada and the US. These pieces are part of a collection of 8 works deemed representative of their time. But time present may be very different from time future; the mediating technology that (in most cases) is required to run them may be dead media in 2099. Curatorial issues of inclusion must have been a breeze compared to the archival decisions about what would actually survive for a century in a time capsule: will we include a VCR? Digital video will probably be a memory in 50 years. What about wooden boxes? Too combustible. Will the enclosed state of the art I-Book be the clay writing tablet of the 21st century?

The time capsule was designed to be more than an archaeological midden. Macarow and Louise Whiting (the project’s research co-ordinator) have tried to second-guess the future by including the technology that is least likely to be redundant for the presentation of the work. But more importantly they have retained a sense of temporality, of what was (is) required for the work to be experienced as art. In this sense the time capsule installation itself (designed by Lifford/Smith) is less an archive than a kind of memory theatre, a means of reconstructing a particular cultural event (the installation of the work as an exhibition, originally held at Span galleries) and a specific historical moment (the Australian digital arts scene in 1999). Like the mastabas of ancient Egypt, the time capsule will hopefully be more than a store of treasure for the future custodians of the past; it will be a vibrant key to understanding their own world.

Also included in the capsule were reproductions of other events in the Manifesto program, such as the outcomes of the internet media laboratory Hothouse (co-ordinated by Steve Ball). Conceived as an interactive means of exploring new media arts, Hothouse began in late October as a subscription-based discussion list and developed into a collaborative web space, in which participants could include samples of the media art they were discussing (although part of this event has been included in the time capsule, Hothouse is an ongoing project: www.experimenta.org).

Also present was a CD-ROM version of Experimenta’s first online edition of Mesh. The theme of Mesh 13 was ‘cyberbully’, described by Macarow in her editorial as an “omniscient entity that may be found lurking in the cyber corridor of the school yard, the nation state, the digitised corporation or your email discussion list.” In a very general sense, Mesh contributors set out to reveal how cyberbullies “disseminate, regulate, dictate and infiltrate digitised information, software and hardware.” Specifically, this culture of cyberbullying was evidenced in a range of online discursive practices, such as Dean Kiley’s brilliant expose of the powerplay of academic mailing lists. Using the discussion of the death of Princess Diana and JFK Junior as exemplars, Kiley constructs an hilarious and ingenious “taxonomy of the postures, gestures, rhetorical moves, subject positions, intimidatory tactics, self-characterisations, other-caricatures, disciplinary gambits, administrative threats, and plain old verbal bashing-up” that manifest when academic communities get together online.

Sam de Silva’s piece on NASA’s global surveillance system, Echelon, reveals the subtler, more insidious side of the cyberbully who intrudes into every nook and cranny of your telematic space without you ever being aware of it. Lisa Gye’s analysis of style bullying in web design questions the prescription of what is good and bad style. The presence of the style bully suggests that the arbitration of taste will continue to be a highly contested area of cultural life and anyone’s homepage runs the risk of being ridiculed in Offensive Web Site of the Month. Who said cyberspace was an egalitarian state?

The fourth component to Manifesto was Zen Cinema, a survey-celebration of defining avant-garde film and video of the 20th century. Assisted by Ian Haig and Corinne Preston, Macarow assembled an impressive salmagundi of the genre, spanning the heyday of modernist preoccupation with materiality and form (Man Ray’s Retour la Raison [1923], Marcel Duchamp and Rose Selavy’s Anemic Cinema [1926]) to postmodern appropriation (Martin Arnold’s inspired piece of pure cinema, Piece Touchee [1989], Sadie Benning’s Girlpower [1992]). In between were the pleasures of old favourites, such as Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1961), Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) and Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut’s Electronic Fables (1971); the latter a true encapsulation in time of some of the acknowledged sages of the digital age, John Cage, Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller.

Zen Cinema provided a real sense of the coalescence of the past with the future that Manifesto was trying to achieve. It was successful in reminding us of the synergies between historical moments of experimentation in media arts, which implicitly established the premise of projecting the digital arts scene and its avant-scene into the present of another century. Combined with Experimenta’s September screening program, which featured the work of contemporary Australian and international experimental filmmakers, Zen Cinema reinforced the convergent nature of our engagement with and critical understanding of the emergent digital arts scene (fittingly, Convergence was the title of a series of forums on art, culture and technology presented by Experimenta at OPENChannel during 1999).

Manifesto was a successful event that culminated an active and fruitful year for Experimenta Media Arts. As an event it was a commendable and memorable expression of Experimenta’s commitment to fostering an active and informed media arts culture. Manifesto’s singular contribution was its determination to see that new media art carries with it the historical signatures of media past and present. I feel confident that when that time capsule is opened in 2099, those present will feel an uncanny sense of familiarity with the past of their own present.

Manifesto, curated by Keely Macarow, Experimenta Media Arts, November, 2-13

RealTime issue #36 April-May 2000 pg. 30

© Darren Tofts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2000