Media arts: reflections for the future

Mike Legget

Interzone-media arts in Australia
Darren Tofts
New Art Series Editor:
Ashley Crawford
Craftsman House, Sydney
An imprint of Thames & Hudson
ISBN 0-9757303-8-X

Interactivity and media arts is at the core of Darren Tofts’ timely survey of the last 15 years of media arts creativity in Australia. As the institutions that have shaped the ebullient surge of activity during this period pass through cyclical change—tertiary institutions, the funding bodies—as the practitioners who have driven it forward reflect upon where they have been and what follows next, as the affordances of technology to artists and audiences change by the year, now is a good time to document in one volume a history of the present now past.

Introducing the computer and its various applications to the arts scene was bootstrapped with the hosting of TISEA (Third International Symposium of Electronic Art) in Sydney in 1992—listed in the essential contextual information provided in a timeline section of the book—and Tofts picks up creative developments from around then until 2005. The plethora of full colour images that spill from the superbly designed square format pages are matched in intensity by the vivacity of his commentary.

In an opening section the ground is debated—what are the terms we use so blithely? How do they lead us into an area about which practitioners and the audiences who have followed them are familiar, but about which others are mostly ignorant? In recuperating the recent past the opportunities presented by the convergence of the computer and media are sharpened. Dispensing with many of the working terms accumulated by artists and the discourses of the production process, we are focused upon the artefacts of Interactive Media Arts with clear and weighted prose, without jargon or glib references to fashionable writers. The tiny Endnotes/bibliography indicates intent—this is not for the well-read academic or well-traveled curator, who can hone their needs from other tomes. This is for the audiences, the visitors to interactive media spaces, the practitioners new to the scene who seek some guidance and analysis, some clear and stimulating perspectives on outcomes. If appetites are whetted, then there is no shortage of bibliographies elsewhere from which to proceed, including Tofts’ earlier books.

Spectatorship is redefined by the three ‘i’s—interaction, interface and immersion. It leads into other chapters which cover: precursors and visionaries; “abstraction of the virtual”; artificial nature; and story spaces. Each commences with a cogent summary of the central issues and questions, filled out and developed through the work of artists in the field. Accounts are offered in one or 2 paragraphs of each of the highlighted works. We track the author’s responses and thought processes as he, as we, play co-respondent to the artwork, the initiating respondent in the dance of making the work, each distinctive in form, different by contention.

The direction taken through the book is unswerving—we see stills, have the work described and placed, insights and perspectives proffered to tease and provoke. But are we simply being presented with leftovers from a feast to which we are lately arrived? Was not the real energy present as individuals came together to nut out some of the complexities and possibilities of new mediums as they emerged? Not only how to do it, but what is it? Where does it fit, where does it go next? Little distinction is made between places of reception here: it may be a gallery installation, a website, or CD-ROM (though as the term implies distribution, this was often difficult to achieve). Site is less important than accounting for what occurred in the meeting space between human and machine.

Work in the performance area and the biological receives brief mention. Inevitably too, of the practitioners selected, there will be in the mind of each already informed reader, those few omitted. This reflects the complexity of compilation and the difficulty for the author, though committed engagement is clear, to attend all the exhibitions mounted throughout the period.

The overview also reveals a distinct pre-occupation with issues of stylistic representation, the appearances of content rather than concept. This is not to do with the antipodal distance from the larger audiences in Europe and North America as much of the work has been seen internationally. But it indicates that most practitioners, as overseas, have either migrated from the visual and media arts or been trained into the interactive media arts by earlier migrants. (Most of the artists have close involvement with teaching.) In the current climate of cross-disciplinary collaboration, Interzone critically examines the artefacts and reveals some of the processes that have emerged from these traditional structures.

Whilst aiding and enlivening seminar and lounge room discussion, Interzone could undeniably become the final visible repository of many of the works it features. The ephemerality of chip and operating systems mutating annually frustrates the interactive media artwork from becoming preserved by the active collector or museum, engineering by default ‘the ephemeral artwork.’ As a milestone, Interzone is placed to anticipate fresh directions for computer-mediated art activity.

Investment of funding and its management by the state that has encouraged, if not supported, practitioner-based activity receives scant mention, though the specialised development of vital exhibition opportunities is discussed more fully. This affects outcomes for audiences as surely as the medium with which the artist is working. We are reminded of the role played by the writers who helped develop dialogue. For instance, Mackenzie Wark once memorably described the whole apparatus of cultural production across myriad artforms by tying in practitioners, curators, theorists, teachers, managers etc with studios, venues, marketing, distribution, government funding etc, which together produce one big distinctively Australian art work. A commentary indeed on the complexity of our culture.

With some official encouragement artists have begun to seek the scientists and technologists wishing to collaborate committedly on projects of mutual benefit. The arena of audience involvement with art will likewise shift and mutate into an interzone that creates human computer interaction of a different order, between respondent and correspondent. The role of initiator and auteur is becoming less dominant, less in charge of how an interactive encounter may proceed. Bundling and linking a variety of electronic and microprocessor devices moves the art activity decidedly from the geographically installed and hard-wired artefact towards systems and processes that are more mobile and harder to classify within the taxonomies of art and social behaviour.

Tofts is well placed as an observer and commentator on the national and international scene, having consistently written about the emergent artwork and its issues in the local press, as a long time RealTime contributing editor, and also as joint editor of Pre-figuring Cyberculture—an intellectual history (MIT Press & Power Publications, 2002). Having authored a pre-history of cyberculture, Memory Trade (21.C Book, Interface, 1997), his conclusion to Interzone looks to the future: “..the challenge is to amplify the visible and sonic presence of media art in the ambience otherwise known as culture.

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 22

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2006