Media arts and online culture: enter or escape?

Jeffrey Cook says it’s time to look at defragmenting online arts distribution

“Wilson: But what shall we dream of when everything becomes visible?
Virilio: We’ll dream of being blind.”
Louise Wilson, interview with Paul Virilio, “Cyberwar, God, and Television”, in Kroker, Arthur, and Marilouise (eds), Digital Delirium, St Martin’s, NY, 1997.

Perhaps too much has already been claimed for the benefits that new media technologies, the web and internet bring to the arts, and the media arts in particular. But a maturing audience, a growing “catalogue” of online work and resources, and the burgeoning of partially or wholly web-based media arts practitioners are gradually creating a lively and diverse online media arts culture.

And this in spite of the well-documented failings of the computer-based communications media of the internet and its colourful and noisy cousin, the web. This online culture is the seed bed for many of the most exciting developments in the media arts—the ways they’re practised, received, and ultimately, experienced or lived within a particular culture by its citizens. But it is still early days for this new form of cultural expression.

The digital realm’s ubiquitous influence extends to many media and arts practices and forms allowing the artist to create, manipulate and present work in new ways, and the audience to view and interact with work and exhibitions from anywhere on the globe. The web also presents many opportunities for the media artist and curator to distribute their works or collections widely and to new audiences.

The key change here is the aggregation, in potentially many new ways, of the relatively marginal and fragmented communities of artists and their audiences through the internet. This effect of integrating previously dis-integrated audiences, combined with technologies that enhance audience/viewer engagement and feedback (interactivity) may, in the end, have a far greater impact on the media arts than that of the powerful new technologies of media creation and presentation. Importantly, these different aspects are interdependent and need to be considered as a whole, both for the benefits, and the problems, they bring with them. However, there is currently a lack of knowledge about new distribution channels and the likely future of new media forms.

The recognition of this lack of knowledge has had a significant effect on Australian media arts culture by highlighting the need for government arts funding bodies to address the “downstream” of the production process, arts distribution, with the same commitment they have show to the “upstream” of the process.

The Australia Council, the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA), the Australian Film Commission and Cinemedia, among others, have begun to grapple with the intricacies of global distribution assisted by the internet by supporting a range of media arts resource organisations, sites and marketing projects.

The National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) also has a program, Online Australia Year, to catalyse online culture, with aims that include the idea that, “artists need to be recognised as innovative contributors to the information economy. Encouraging links between cultural institutions, cultural workers and commercial content producers will help to increase the variety and quality of digital content, improve Australia’s visibility in the global online environment.”

But the internet is a vast and restless space and there are many issues that need to be taken into account in addressing distribution and access, such as:

1. The greatest issue that faces the artist, curator or arts organisations for media arts practice and culture is a simple one: access to sufficient bandwidth and resources, including sufficient knowledge of distribution and new technologies to make the right strategic and planning choices that will enhance their creativity, career and audience.

2. ‘Version 1.0’ of the internet is about to become so-called ‘Version 2.0.’ Version 2.0 will not only converge media and audiences, it will also diverge into different kinds of broad and narrow band access with different prices, platforms and audiences—just as free and pay television have become two different domains with different audiences and media forms. The low capacity internet we use today could be overshadowed or marginalised by high speed, high capacity networks that only paying subscribers can access, such as Telstra’s Big Pond. (For a rather technical but very interesting overview see the review on Ester Dyson’s site at www.edventure.com/release1.cable.html – expired)

3. To address this fragmentation of audiences as internet and other delivery platforms diverge, and failing government intervention to ensure a proportion of bandwidth and access is made available for cultural use, artists and others participating in media arts cultures online must develop online audience development and maintenance skills, or plan to work with like-minded public organisations and private companies to achieve these objectives—standing alone will no longer work, except for the biggest players.

4. To address the fragmentation of Australia’s online culture into myriad directories and independent sites (mimicking the competitive environment fostered by competitive funding policies of government support bodies), cluster or so-called cultural portal sites and strategies need to be established that bring together organisations in larger online domains that can attract sufficient audiences to gain sponsorship and support.

Visitors, customers, users or audiences come to a website primarily because of quality, innovative, unique and engaging ‘content’—not to save or make money, but to have a unique and ‘special’ experience, something artists and curators understand well, utilising theatrical and ‘entertaining’ or absorbing elements that are similar to those used in mass-market or more ‘popular’ forms. However, and most importantly, this ‘experience’ is provided in unique ways that are unlike those used by purely commercial websites.

As Stephen Ellis said recently in The Australian (15/5/99), “…brand and reputation [read identity, uniqueness and quality] may be more important on the Internet than in the [physical] world, since buyers and sellers [read the arts and their audiences] are so emphatically separated.”

Uniqueness is the media arts’ greatest resource, and used wisely and well, will ensure a future for media arts online by achieving a respect and position with audiences, government and sponsors that guarantees them a vital place in the new distribution networks, and the skills and resources to maintain this position.

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In terms of new areas for distribution, two of the more comprehensive reports are Stephen Hall’s 1997 “Performing Arts Multimedia Library: Marketing Study” for the New Media Section of DCITA (then DoCA), part of a collaborative project with Cinemedia (see www.cinemedia.net/PAML/); and the 1997 AFC report Other Spaces by Rachel Dixon (www.afc.gov.au/; to order look under “resources” and then use the search engine to find ‘Other Spaces.”

Jeffrey Cook is a director of 3V, an electronic production and publishing company. He is also a researcher and writer on media futures, an independent mediamaker and is currently undertaking postgraduate studies for a Research Masters in Art Theory at College of Fine Arts, UNSW, in digital media arts.

RealTime issue #32 Aug-Sept 1999 pg. 5

© Jeffrey Cook; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1999