Myopic notion

Annemarie Jonson reflects on Creative Nation’s multimedia initiatives one year on

The Creative Nation statement (one year old in October), though admirable in its elevation of the arts to commonwealth policy status, served up slabs of grandiloquent spindoctoring: a curious alliance between instrumentalist goals of increased efficiency (“the government intends to develop programs aimed at improving the [cultural industries’] management efficiency and links with other industries”); economic rationalist shtick (“we need to ensure that good ideas can be turned into commercial product”) and the appropriation of notions of creativity to support a deeply jingoistic nationalism: “Culture is that which gives us a sense of ourselves … Culture … concerns self-expression and creativity. The work of writers and artists like Lawson, Roberts and Streeton offered an Australian perspective of Australian life—a distinct set of values … reflecting a distinctly Australian experience.” Personally, I prefer these sorts of sentiments in the original German.

Amongst all this hubris was a clarion call to arms at the dawn of a new epoch: “we must address the information revolution and the new media not with fear and loathing, but with imagination and wit.” How? In the view of the architects of Creative Nation, this means mobilising significant amounts of revenue to support a “vibrant multimedia industry”, “ensuring that we have a stake in the new world order” while retaining a “distinctly Australian identity”. In dollar terms, the price of our ticket to the new world order translated as a cool $84 million over four years: an allocation of $45 million to the Australian Multimedia Enterprise (AME), $20 million (over the first 4 years) to the Cooperative Multimedia Centres (CMCs), $7 million to the Australia on CD program, about $4 million to the Multimedia Forums program, around $5 million to the AFC, about $1 million to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) for multimedia education and training and some $700,000 to the Australian Children’s Television Foundation.

It doesn’t require much RAM to work out the tilt of the playing field here. The AME, for example, intends to invest in commercially viable ‘product’. Run by a corporate lawyer and staffed by young industry top guns, the AME is, by its own description, a venture capitalist aiming to catalyse the production of demonstrably profitable multimedia titles and services. Applications for investment funding are now open, and the Enterprise has announced its first successful proposals.

The CMCs were initially vaunted as sites for research and development, as well as for the education and training to develop multimedia skills (the “critical pool of talent” CN says is required). With the government’s decision that they should become self-funding enterprises, they look increasingly to being driven by short term commercial imperatives. Early in the piece, there was a degree of optimism amongst some artists and arts advocacy bodies involved in the consortium development process that the Centres would, as an integral part of their function, broker access to high-end multimedia technologies for artists—that is, if they were genuinely committed to creative R&D, a process which takes time and doesn’t necessarily provide an immediate financial return. With bottom lines now setting the CMCs’ agenda, the involvement of artists, let alone integrally, is looking far less certain. Paradoxically, the very viability of the ‘industry’—its ability to innovate and create new forms—is itself dependent in the longer term on the high-end experimentation and R&D which is the stock in trade of contemporary artists. There are plentiful instances State-side of the medium-to-long-term flow-through effect from techno-artists’ research and experimentation into quality ‘product’. Myopic policy makers would do well to take note.

Throughout this year, some 18 consortia submitted proposals for funding of CMCs across the states. Two were funded: the Access Australia CMC to be headquartered at the Australian Technology Park in NSW, with a consortium comprising major NSW universities and industry partners; and the IMAGO CMC in WA, similarly, a university/industry group. Both come equipped with voluminous business and strategic plans and very chi chi logos. Other states are currently vying for the remaining Centres and results are expected to be announced this month.

The Australia on CD program, “designed to showcase a wide range of Australian cultural endeavour, artistic performance and heritage achievements” has already seen some action. Five CDs of “national significance” have been funded in Round One, and will be distributed to every school in the country. Here’s the “wide range”: Did we get one about Australian art? Too right -Under a Southern Sun, a catalogue of 50 great Australian works of art. (We’re thinking Streeton, Nolan, Roberts, Drysdale, Boyd, McCubbin…or maybe Nolan, Drysdale, Boyd, Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton…). How about the war? No worries. Australia Remembers does WW11 in son et lumiere. Then there’s the Tales from the Kangaroo’s Crypt, our national prehistory via the fossil record. But let’s not forget Backstage Pass— “an exciting performing arts concept with an on-stage and behind the scenes focus” —with hot links to a do-it-yourself guide to Stelarc’s stomach sculpture performance…not. A WA project called Mooditj will look at the relationships between contemporary Australian indigenous arts and cultural heritage. Applications have closed on Round Two and successful projects will be announced before the end of the year.

The Multimedia Forums were an object lesson in how to disenfranchise the arts and intellectual community and defuse debate on the social, aesthetic and political implications of multimedia. Suits, business cards and cellulars were mandatory at all three 1995 sessions (on “the government’s multimedia initiatives”, “creative aspects of multimedia” and “export markets”) which, despite their diverse monikers, spanned the gamut of issues from fast bucks to, well…fast bucks. Perhaps this is not surprising. At a recent meeting a high ranking functionary from the Department of Industry, Science and Trade which administers the program was asked whether the government’s intent in supporting multimedia is primarily commercial, or primarily about cultural and creative concerns. (Naive? Perhaps. Some would even say artificially dichotomising terms which need not be mutually exclusive.) The DIST operative shot back with an affirmative on the former objective: no ambiguity in his mind on the exclusivity of the terms. Forums planned for 1996 will focus on online and new technologies, copyright, marketing and distribution and—in a laudable attempt to make good on the program’s past failure to accommodate creative artists— “building bridges between the creative community and industry”. They’re going to need the Golden Gate.

All this is not to suggest that industry development policy, and government support to kickstart industry viability, is necessarily a bad thing. (It’s commendable that the incumbent Labor government has had the foresight to deliver a reasonably resourced policy on new media, with some good open access initiatives in relation to users—as opposed to producers—of content; and too abominable to contemplate the consequences of a Coalition win next year.) However, any genuine attempt to engender the kind of “creativity”, “innovation” and “leading edge” practice the government purports to be fostering requires that a diverse range of objectives share the policy agenda: critical, aesthetic, cultural and social as well as economic ones. A number of Australian artists, though their own efforts and against the financial and geographical odds, have established themselves at the forefront of the cultural and intellectual community’s version of the microeconomists’ ‘world best practice’: witness the disproportionately large representation of Australians at the recent International Symposium on Electronic Arts in Montreal, and the status of artists like Jon McCormack and many others in international new media art.

Direct support for artists developing multimedia works has been left squarely to the Australian Film Commission and its $5.25 million over 4 years (which works out to 6 cents in every dollar out of the $84 million over four years allocated overall to multimedia). The Commission intends to fund projects which are exploratory, innovative, geared to lower budgets and high risk: projects which, in other words, are unlikely to be funded under the objectives of the other multimedia initiatives set up under CN, notwithstanding the rhetoric. A number of works have already been funded, including a collaboration between multimedia artist Brad Miller and writer McKenzie Wark. Miller created the CD ROM A Digital Rhizome, based on Gilles Deleuze’s A Thousand Plateaus, and Wark is the author of the book Virtual Geography. Another project to receive funding is the development of a prototype multimedia game title by the cyberfeminist electronic artists VNS Matrix, based on their ongoing work All New Gen.

It might be asked what the Australia Council has been doing in all this. Apart from channelling the genius of Hugh Mackay, dismantling peer review and heaping invective on artists, not a great deal. As their self-promotional hyperbole goes, they have been supporting electronic and media artists for years, and indeed, artists in these areas have been receiving support, predominantly through the Hybrid Arts Committee. But, 13 months after CN, Council has yet to establish any public policy position on support for multimedia arts practice. Council plans to announce its new initiatives in early 1996—in terms of the cultural policy, a mere year and a half or so after the event.

In the interim, artists will doubtless continue to work critically and innovatively with the new technologies, helping to ensure that multimedia culture in this country develops beyond—in the words of digital artist John Colette—the “acumen of a computer sales presentation”.

The opinions expressed in this article are strictly personal.

RealTime issue #10 Dec-Jan 1995 pg. 23

© Annemarie Jonson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1995