New media arts, the NxT wave

Mary Jane Overall

Camilla Lawson, Cash Crop

Camilla Lawson, Cash Crop

1999, Darwin. The rampage of the pro-Indonesian militia in East Timor shocked us all as we witnessed the building of a makeshift refugee camp which was to house thousands of refugees lucky to get out with their lives. The streets were peppered with United Nations troops dressed in full military gear. It was scary.
At the same time NxT, Northern Territory Xposure, the Territory’s first multimedia symposium, was set to take place. Another invasion—a welcome one, of new media artists who would gather in Darwin to share their skills with the artists living in the NT.

Regional events encouraged rich exchanges at the symposium and offered NT artists real opportunities to explore and experiment with new technologies. The hackers’ tent at the ski club became both an experimental lab and a sanctuary, a place where artists could explore some of the ideas presented by the speakers while Timorese refugees searched for information about their loved ones. At the close of NxT, many NT artists had begun to visualise how they could incorporate these new ideas into their own work.

To encourage such work, the Australia Council offered funds managed by a group of NT artists known as the MMREF Group and dispersed as 8 New Media Arts grants. Over the last year, the works, some live, some web-based, have been realised.

Camilla Lawson’s Cash Crop, in the artist’s words, “…aims to manipulate the audience’s behaviour in the context of public perception of environmental issues. In doing so, the work involves self-examination and critical debate about social complacency regarding a culture of ‘progress no matter what the social and environmental cost.’”

In Darwin’s Wood Street Gallery, 2 off-beat television scenarios are filled with images of red balloons. Red balloons dotting the landscape stand like soldiers at attention, then break away to flee across the barren earth. The vision then switches to a balloon growing. The sound is of the breath that fills it: air/gas/wind. The impression is lush, comical, majestic. Then it bursts—like popped dreams reflecting so many failures to ‘settle’ our environment at any cost.

In the centre of the gallery is Lawson’s skinned “crop” which she has used to cover a long seat for the audience. The skins belong to her balloons…a magnificent quilt that offers a place to rest and ponder the video works. Most cannot resist the opportunity to sit and feel. Are they just pawns chosen to represent the “frontier dominated idea of staking their claims to the land”?

Jichicha is a Shockwave movie produced by Stella Simmering and Wes Wagonwheel. Having spent years hanging out with the Aboriginal fisherpeople of the Darwin fish camp, Stella and Wes set about to create a “multimedia-language” toy. Their script comes from Aboriginal names for fish in the Darwin waters, their sound—Aboriginal voices and tricky noise compositions by Wes—and their images, sea creatures. The result is an original introduction to an Aboriginal language and culture.

The Massacre of the Gija people, a video produced by Jason Davidson and Rohan Fisher in collaboration with the Gija people, reveals a story of shame. Jason, who has close family ties with the Gija people from the Juwurliny Community, describes how “Elder Paddy Bedford tells a story of a poisoning massacre at Bedford Creek by white pastoralists around World War I. The story tells how some of Paddy’s relatives were incarcerated because they killed a bullock. When they were released, they were given ‘tickets’ to wear around their necks. Little known to the Aborigines that wore them, these tickets marked the people that were to be killed. The station manager took the Aborigines wearing the tickets out bush to cut wood. After cutting a lot of wood, the people were given poisoned food. The wood that they had cut was used as fuel to burn their dead bodies.”

The Ticket Necklace story is one of great sadness but one that the Gija people wanted to share. Jason Davidson feels that reconciliation can only be achieved when the history of these people is recognised, digested and the proper amends made.

Elka Kerkhofs’ fascination with the English language began when she migrated to Australia from Belgium. Many words, she discovered, had more than one meaning—virus, cut, paste and contamination. Armed with these words, Elka went to a number of people from different professions and explored their interpretations, which were then used as the script for a collaboration with Tracks Inc. Dance Company. The result is Blood vs Wine, a breathtaking production incorporating projections of intimate images, sounds and movement.

Beyond the Square was an event coordinated by Cath McKay and Georgia Glen and executed by a number of participating artists. This project explored “the relationship between art and life within the context of a shopping mall and its interaction with the culture of the community.” Using Casuarina Shopping Square, the only mall in Darwin, as their stage, these women set out to create an art exhibit for the general public. Shoppers were offered an array of artforms, including live mannequin displays, digital video projections, performances by a troop of well-rehearsed ‘shoppers’, junk sculptures created from shoppers’ trash, and a shopping trolley piece with a monitor ‘head’ that reveals what life is like from a trolley’s point of view.

Catriona Stanton’s Passage is about nostalgia. Collaborating with Sydney poet Tim Doon and Alice Springs filmmaker Declan O’Gallagher, Stanton seeks to explore the “disparity yet intrinsic connection of 2 Australian environments: the inter-tidal zone of the Pacific Ocean, Sydney, and the ancient bed of the Larapintine Sea, Alice Springs.” Images of granular Larapintine fossils are married to contemporary haikus and meditative sounds, then projected across a screen with the McDonnell Ranges as a backdrop. Set in the now abandoned Alice Springs drive-in, this work offers the viewer a true sense of the “remembrance of things past.”

Frances Bunji Elcoate had been working with youths at risk in Darwin through the Big hART project when she applied for a grant. Equipped with a strong multimedia background, Bunji provided these young people with the skills and the support to tell their stories using clay animations. These works were then presented as part of a huge multimedia production. Staged at the Darwin Performing Arts Centre, Wrong Way Go Back is a gritty, thought provoking piece that reveals, in snippets, the lifestyles that ultimately lead young people into criminal behaviour.

bryce anbis and tashidawa eyles’ box project explores the “analogical world of images and emotions—those places that we don’t really have words for.” anbis and eyles created a portable stage that was set in various locations to perform, record and recover the happenings around them.

There is no doubt that that the presenters at NxT helped to inspire NT artists, as have local artists like Trevor Van Weeren who was instrumental in bringing these works to fruition. Van Weeren was recently invited to be a part of Cyber Pow Wow 2K in Banff, Canada. True to their reputation as intrepid explorers, NT artists are undaunted by the challenges of new media technologies.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 23

© Mary Jane Overall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001