Innovation: maps & distribution

Terry Cutler in discussion with Sarah Miller, Alessio Cavallaro, Linda Wallace & Keith Gallasch

Dr Terry Cutler

Dr Terry Cutler

Dr Terry Cutler

Dr Terry Cutler is 53 years of age, a former chief strategist with Telecom until the early 90s, Deputy Chair of the advisory board to the National Office of Information Economy, 1997-98, Chair of the Australian Government Industry Research and Development Board, 1996-98 and Managing Director Cutler & Co Pty Ld as well as a Council Member, Victorian College of the Arts. Cutler was co-author with venture capitalist Roger Buckeridge of the Commerce in Content report which is said to have fuelled the Keating Labor government’s Creative Nation program.

Cutler’s appointment to the Australia Council is unique: he’s not just a businessman, but one working in new media with projects in Tonga, Malaysia and in Australia and has close connections with government. When appointed Australia Council Chair, Cutler briskly adopted a high profile and made unusually early pronouncements in the press, on IT pages, in an article he wrote for Business Review Weekly and in an edited version of a speech reproduced in the Sydney Morning Herald. In the SMH he was reported as saying that, “Creativity will be the crucial driver of the new economy…and that as the first new chairman of the Australia Council in the 21st century he will be pushing the value of arts in innovation” (“White knight on a mission…”, SMH, June 19).

It was “the value of arts in innovation” that caught my eye. In BRW he declared: “Creative artists will be at the centre of [the] next revolutions, creating technology-enabled solutions that, like all good tools, extend our human capabilities and horizons” (Cutler, “The Art of Innovation”, BRW, June 29). As with Creative Nation, the Blair government’s focus on creativity, the Queensland government investment in “creative industries, and the federal government’s Creative Industries Cluster Study (see below), the connection between the arts and industry is pivotal. Or is it what artists can do for industry? What’s in the relationship for artists?

With this in mind I thought it would be opportune to have a discussion with Cutler early in his Australia Council career, especially on this subject of innovation. Alessio Cavallaro (new media curator and project manager at Cinemedia, former director, dLux media arts), Linda Wallace (artist, writer & curator, most recently of hybridforms, Amsterdam for the Australia Council) and Sarah Miller (writer, Artistic Director, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts) joined in the discussion, which also included the Council’s New Media Arts Board Manager, Lisa Colley.

Just before the meeting date, Richard Alston, the Federal Minister for Communications, IT & the Arts, announced that the Australian Film Commission would manage a “$2.1m fund to seed the further development of innovative broadband content.” A second initiative was the undertaking of “a study of clusters in the creative digital industries to analyse cross-fertilisation that exists between various capabilities in the Australian economy, creative and otherwise, that are producing, distributing and marketing digital content and applications, and what are the key capabilities we need for the future” (www.dcita.gov.au, Aug 31). The panel monitoring the study is Colin Griffith (President, Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association), Professor Robin Williams (Dean, Faculty of Art, Design & Communication, RMIT), Kim Dalton (CEO, Australian Film Commission) and Dr Terry Cutler.

KG What’s in the Creative Industries Cluster Study (CICS) for artists, do you think?

TC Well, hopefully the fact that I’m on that small advisory panel to the study in my OzCo role rather than wearing some of my other hats. It’s been assigned to me to think about it in terms of the role of digital arts within the whole digital industry, digital content arena…[I’ve been] grappling with the issue of how you distinguish between some of the imaginings that we use in this area. We talk a lot about how digital content and digital arts are all digital content, but not all digital content is digital art…The value of the study I think is in trying to have a systematic overview of the whole value chain, if you like, of digital content production.

KG So it’s not just a matter of seeing people as networking or how they might help each other out by sharing costs and so on?

TC Correct, but to have a systematic application of standard industry analysis in a way that I think a lot of the arts could benefit. Trying to get my head around the portfolio here, what I’ve noticed a lack of is any intelligent, comprehensive mapping of the territory in a way that highlights the interconnectedness of practice activities but also, if you like, the interconnectedeness of various elements of the supporting infrastructure.

For example, do we have a good grasp on the changing nature and role of distribution channels and how that affects both the scope for individual artists and their practice and the various pressures that either create channels to audiences or in fact make them more difficult—which I think is always a particular issue in Australia. If you look at content generally, distribution has always been the neglected bottleneck. Film and television is a great example. To me, the initial value of this cluster study is in trying to get that overall mapping and then hopefully, to be able to identify particular points where there has been a lack of attention and focus more government attention on some of those areas. I’d like to see more of that happen across more of the territory.

LW Do you think a study like that could begin to put pressure on the government to free up the media control ownership laws, things like that. That’s one of the sticking points for digital distribution, there’s no channels for it or very few.

TC If you start looking at issues of distribution channels in a digital, networked environment you can begin to understand some of those bottlenecks…and, therefore, the connection with other policy agendas. That will give you a new angle on some of those agendas.

LW So it could have legs, it could really bring about some changes?

TC Well, I’d hope so.

AC More broadly, how might that affect other aspects of the arts, not just digital media arts but arts that are performance-based for example?

TC Well…what I can’t put my hands on at the moment is a good descriptive mapping of the [arts] landscape in a systematic way. What this exercise could do, if we do it properly, is perhaps provide a model that could be replicated more broadly. That’s something that I’m very keen to see here. In the current visual arts review or the review of second tier performing arts companies, how do we understand the landscape and the interdependencies between major companies, smaller companies and so forth? At the moment, it’s very hard to get a picture of that landscape. Certainly I find it hard to find a picture.

SM It’s great to hear that you’re interested in that kind of overall mapping because things have tended to happen because of historical precedent, of course, so there’s not necessarily any reason behind it. It’s just evolved, “growed.”

TC In conjunction with next year’s [Australia Council] Annual Report I’d like to think about producing an annual state of the arts type report, as a way of actually asking what does the landscape look like now, or if your like, how has the cultural biodiversity developed that gives us a reference point for moving forward, because I haven’t seen that. …The challenge there is to find a really good landscape painter.

SM All of us are here because we’ve worked in hybrid new media, interdisciplinary areas and I had the debatable privilege of spending 5 years on the Board of a CMC [the Community Media Centres set up in the wake of Creative Nation]… From my own experience, the desire for convergence and the ability to actualise it are radically different things. It’s a term that comes up in a lot in a number of your papers.

TC To me, confronting the concept of convergence is progressively unpacking something that gets more and more like an octopus. The only way I can make sense of it now is to talk about different waves of convergence. The first wave was really very much technology driven in terms of the integration of the tool side and particularly between computing and telecommunications. The second wave was very much around the whole services sector. This is where it begins to get exceedingly messy, and becomes much more demand-side driven in terms of the applications. The technology then becomes embedded in the re-design of process and practice. The third wave is where you’re getting a convergence between IT and biotechnology, which I think is really interesting in the way that then raises fundamental questions about the nature of meaning, of mind and so forth. That raises a whole lot of new ethical questions about our self-definition as humanity which then, I think, creates challenges for how the arts re-envision how we see ourselves.

Some work we’ve been doing in biotechnology and bio-informatics lately and the arts thinking about how you visualise information and meaning is actually a really interesting new area of convergence, where new skills need to be brought back into what might traditionally be seen as fairly sterile technical areas. That’s an area where some new stimulus in digital arts might come from.

SM Are you aware of SymbioticA— [a collaborative research laboratory in the Department of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia; see The Tissue Culture and Art Project in Working the Screen]?

TC Absolutely. And I think that’s a beautiful example. I find it really exciting. The challenge is how you replicate that experience and learning and particularly in Australia’s uncreative industrial landscape. To get more people to see the value of those forms of interdisciplinary work.

AC A couple of your papers online refer to the book by Kristensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: Why Technology Causes Great Firms to Fail, and a couple of the key words or phrases that you quote in relation to that book are “disruptive innovations” and “precipitate major disjunctions.” I’m wondering in relation to these sorts of issues how the Australia Council might itself be seen to be productively disruptive to enable these sorts of connections to be made across disciplines. How to introduce artists to industry to try to stimulate a sense of a broader, more lateral, more creative approach to art-making. Not just in digital arts, but to get performers, musicians and so on to think about some of these lateral issues you’ve raised. How might the Australia Council be seen to be a more productive catalyst for such relationships?

TC …Kristensen distinguishes between conventional models of continual improvement—clearly there’s a whole tradition of that in the arts, succeeding generations taking an established disciplinary approach and continually improving, refining, refreshing that—and a second form of innovation around disruptive technologies, which probably does happen in the arts from time to time. To me, the interest is in the way in which the creative arts can be a catalyst for disruptive innovation in other territories. I see it increasingly as a driver of innovation in industry and science, education, health and so forth…and in new areas of collaboration. You can look back to points of radical change in the arts, like the Renaissance and the revolution around the scientific basis of perspective, for example, and how that totally changed an aesthetic. It’s interesting to speculate how our use of digital tools frees us from some of the traditional constraints around time and space and might provide equally radical new ways of conceptualising practice. Some of the most interesting areas for me are combinations of visual art and sound or virtual reality where, again, you’ve got the potential to radically play with those dimensions.

LW What usually gets lost in these kind of collaborations [between art and industry] is the artist and their work. They usually have to compromise. They usually are the poor cousins of science and technology development. They always have been. And the impulse to art is what gets pushed under the table and that’s really key in this.

SM And budgets, which you would know, Terry, from your experience on the [Australia Council’s] New Media Arts Fund.

TC It’s a vicious circle. I totally agree with you about the risk.

LW And it takes a really strong lobbyist to really push for an artist and the art project itself.

TC That’s why we’re all in the job, isn’t it? But to me, there are a number of issues about those collaborations which I think are really important. Only through changing those points of connection you’re going to change people’s perceptions about the value of the artist in the contribution. To me it’s also about a bigger challenge, one of how we re-position perceptions of the importance of the arts in our society, a consequence of which is then you can look at funding and support for artists in a different way. When I think about the challenge of do we provide enough funding and support for artists at the moment, the answer is demonstrably no. How do we increase that and increase the effectiveness of support in all its forms? A key prerequisite for being successful in that is to change people’s perceptions of the value of what we’re offering. And a key part of our job here is actually to work with the sector in trying to change those perceptions.

AC If you were able to achieve that, you’d actually re-position the Australia Council’s role in the cultural community of this country. Are we at such a point now with arts practice and the infrastructure that supports it that we need a radical re-positioning of the Australia Council? If we put it at the centre can it enact more challenging connections, relationships and partnerships with industry and science and other areas, commerce and so forth—and indeed even position Australian art and artworkers internationally to achieve different kinds of work?

TC You’ve got to think about the whole process and mechanics of social change as a generic issue because what we’re talking about is part of that. Is it time for a radical point of reassessment? Thinking about charting the course for the Australia Council and government involvement for the arts at the beginning of the 21st century provides a natural break point that says, ‘where are we headed?’, and that’s a bit irresistible.

AC According to the discussion paper for the [Australia Council] Strategic Plan that’s online at the moment, one of the goals is to develop increased support for innovation, research and development of the arts in a rapidly changing world. But the same could have been written in a list of goals 10 years ago and it would still hold true.

SM It was and then it was withdrawn from the strategic plan…and then it went back in again.

TC But isn’t that interesting and important. To me it’s a really challenging concept, encouraging risk-taking for what it means in practice. I love a line…which I rediscovered the other day in Wired about innovation in the information economy being like the need for new metaphors…new metaphors will probably come from ecology or systems, Chaos theory and talking about “skating to the brink of Chaos”…Now, how we domesticate and become comfortable with those notions within something like the Oz Council is a really interesting challenge.

SM It’s interesting that in a decade that’s been very much about the rhetoric of change, my experience has been that all of that has been about about diminishing of possibilities. We all know that Australia has a small economy and a small population and so on so, [ that] advanced technological research has not seemed to be possible in this country. I think [there’s something in] Alessio’s point about how we engage internationally. Somehow we’ve positioned ourselves outside all those different economic blocks and we’re not accessing effectively it in the way that many other equally small countries in the region are…It’s often been noted, and it seems to me to be true, that Australia has not had a successful research culture or a commitment to it. But the rhetoric keeps emerging. It’s almost as if we want to know in advance which bits of research will be successful before we commit to it.

TC We’re slowly changing. I’ve seen a huge amount of change say in the R and D environment in the last 10 years, in which I’ve been actively involved, in terms of what you can now talk about and what is happening versus what was possible a decade ago. I think we should be quietly optimistic. You’ve put your finger on an interesting area though in terms of that whole issue of international collaboration because part of the solution in the R and D territory is how you make sure Australians can think themselves into being part of global networks and putting to work all our rhetoric about virtual communities and actually actively networking in global collaborations with peer groups. The potential for that is huge including reconnecting with a lot of Australians who have gone offshore, assumed key positions all around the world but who we’ve lost in terms of our own creative base. In a whole lot of industry areas, I’ve been involved in initiatives to actually reconnect those people. I think the scope to do the same in the arts could have huge potential. The flip side of that is that if we really started to think through in more detail what we might mean by multicultural arts practice and so forth, how does that then affect the way we think of cross cultural collaboration more globally. Personally, I’d like to see far more people trying to find more ways of bringing far more people from offshore here and creating a real hotbed of activity.

SM We had the experience this year with a major Taiwanese show which was spectacular with one of the largest financial, integrated services companies in Taiwan. China TV came across to Perth to make a documentary about it. A 20 minute documentary about a Taiwanese exhibition in Perth, you can’t buy that. And before that, these extraordinarily well-connected people didn’t even know that Perth existed except for the curator whose father bought gold from Perth. It’s been very interesting and they paid for all of it. And it would have been worth at least a million US. And the state of Western Australia put $2,750 towards the show.

TC Pivotal seed funding! If we’re serious about the challenge of how we most effectively act at the start of the 21st century, then I think the real role for OzCo is to be much more effective in promoting critical discourse and discussion. To me, coming into this gig, one of the things that’s disappointed me most is the lack of that. And I think the opportunity is there and I think the OzCo can play a natural role in promoting that critical discourse and discussion that then starts to permeate.

LW I’ve had quite a lot to do with [technological institutions] and I think they don’t really want to give an inch to art practice. They’re not really interested That’s my perception. If you can assist me to break down, I look forward to it.

TC What you’ve said just reinforces to me the sense that we’re dealing with incredibly clunky outmoded institutional structures that don’t work as models for collaboration. The challenge is how we invent more effective models for collaboration.

SM I should say with Imago [the Perth-based CMC], the one part which was effective was the arts program. It was the only thing that stayed within budget, the only thing that developed the organisation any profile and it was the first thing they tried to junk in the push to become self-supporting even though they failed miserably on every commercial operation.

TC We’ve also got to be fair because when we go back to that climate in the early 90s that all of that came out of, I think those were important interventions and to say that the world has moved on is not to say very much.

KG It’s been good to talk and if you’re available it would be good to do this again. I think it’s important, especially for the small to medium companies and individual artists, who often feel, given the Nugent years and the Saatchi report, they’ve been left out of the picture, as Rodney Hall says. Discussions like this can be a conduit between Council and artists.

TC It’s crucial. One of the hardest decision I had when this gig landed on my desk was what I gave up. After much debate, one of the things I didn’t give up was being on the Council of the VCA precisely because of that fabulous linkage to the coalface, and to those kids. I get so much out of that. You have different challenges at different points in time. How you stay always connected to the real game and your core business, something that is always going to be a priority for me. And that means the practicing artist because that to me is the touchstone. I’m trying to find ways to stay connected so that I don’t lose the plot. That also means that channels like yours can play a key role in managing the dialogue.

AC …From my perspective I would like to see would be a little bit of extra proactivity taking place…I think some of the issues that have been raised today and your response to them would demonstrate in an exciting way that that might be the case.

TC You can score me on benign proactivity downstream.

This is an edited version of a discussion held at the Australia Council offices in Sydney on Monday, September 3

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 6

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

1 October 2001