Of tools and toys: ISEA2004

John Tebbutt

In a keynote address at ISEA2004 (Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts), French sociologist Michael Malfesoli argued that postmodern culture is in part defined by the play of experimentation, rather than rationalised technology. This tension between toys and tools provides an interesting context for two ISEA2004 exhibits for which games and play form an important background: Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs’ Floating Territories and Jason Davidson’s Aboriginal Imagination: Ngulliyangi.

ISEA2004 saw exhibitions and conferences in 3 locations: initially the Baltic Sea cruise ship The Opera, then Tallinn (Estonia) and finally Helsinki (Finland). For Floating Territories a game card was slipped in with each passenger’s ship boarding pass. The card could be swiped at a terminal on board to access a game or swapped with other passengers. And it provided a portal for players to map their own migratory histories.

In this and previous work such as Dream Kitchen, Cmielewski and Starrs engage with the cultural force of games as opposed to say, filmic forms. Games provide opportunities for immediate engagement. “Play is an important strategy so we use that. We want people to enjoy the work, to play with it but play is also a fantastic way to allow expression and disseminate meaning” says Starrs. In this instance they had a captive community of savvy ISEA participants sailing the Baltic Sea. There may never be a better group of boat people to test this research project.

Floating Territories is a response to recent migration debates in Australia: “We wanted to do something about territory, about immigration, and started to consider if we could work out a game. We didn’t want to have representations of people because once you start doing that you enter a minefield of stereotypes. So we went back to the Atari abstract games: we liked the aesthetic in those games and we could talk about movements of people in an abstract way.”

The work required a series of simple exercises, yet finally presented a powerful, complex message that visualised the previously invisible traces of migration. Each boarding pass card had a theme, such as “Defend”, “Colonise” and “Petition”, with ironic instructions (the “Petition” card suggested that you buy a drink for an important ISEA delegate). Players deployed their assigned strategy, or one they had chosen after swapping cards. After, the game players arrived at a site programmed in to the computer where they could map their migration history by drawing lines connecting their family’s migration, their own domicile and their current position. In Tallinn the artists projected an animated graphic of the results. It was a powerful experience to see the Mercator map disappearing behind a series of superimposed lines linking points across space, creating a new map of interconnections.

The ‘play’ of the work reflected the production processes employed by Cmielewski and Starrs. They collaborate without necessarily assigning specific roles, while programming tasks on this project were undertaken by Adam Hinshaw. Floating Territories itself was conducted as a form of research. The on-board installation gathered migratory data which was fed back to participants in the presentation.

The open nature of the research strategy meant the feedback raised new possibilities. Cmielewski noted that the mapping process prompted people to put in their own personal stories: “If you were standing next to them they’d start reflecting on their migration history and so a lot of suggestions have come from people who’d like to add more information and build up a network of stories.” Starrs added that the strategy of incorporating play and mapping had potential for spin-off modules for workshops and other festivals. But Cmielewski mused that a “demographically correct” mapping of the entire movements of people may take this work too far in an instrumental form.

The diagram may be a banal example of the instrumental tension in art, yet its mundanity belies its danger as a form of knowledge. These days a sketched map is enough to have you labelled a terrorist. The danger of diagrams prompted Jason Davidson’s contributions to ISEA2004, but his motivation was to release the play of Aboriginal knowledge into health education. His work was presented at the City Gallery in Tallinn.

Davidson was completing a Masters degree in cross cultural health communication when he was asked to view health promotion images for an Aboriginal program. He was appalled: “The pictures [showing the kidney filtering waste from the blood] were so simplified it was psychologically saying that you mob are too stupid to learn from anything harder than kindergarten drawings. So I decided to design a drawing of the kidney to prove that Aboriginal artists and culture can be used scientifically in health and in education to tell a proper story for how the kidney does its job.” This print was recently purchased by Janet Holmes a Court.

Davidson’s work travelled from health intervention to valued art through Aboriginal knowledge systems. He says he is applying existing knowledge in a new way so that “Indigenous people get recognised and supported to control things in this area [health education] for themselves and for their communities.” This socially engaged ‘art as information’ challenges instrumental health promotion. Davidson spent hours reading anatomy books, reworking their drawings and later testing his material back in his communities in Gurindji country in the Northern Territory.

His images are hand drawn with acid free felt tip pen, manipulated with Photoshop, and printed on canvas and etching paper. Davidson plays with Western images of the body by using an “x-ray style.” As well as the mounted images there is a similar multimedia animation, produced with After Effects, that unpacks a human body to demonstrate relations between organs and movements of forces and fluids.

Aboriginal Imagination also includes Davidson’s “hunting videos”: handheld digital video images of hunts and food preparation. The videos are a kind of reworked diagram, taking the viewer through each phase of the process from hunt to feast. They challenge the boundary between health, bodies and knowledge, by linking killing and feasting to health.

Despite being based in an educational institution, Davidson was unable to get access to a laptop for his field research. So he took A4 prints and video copies of the animation back with him to trial with communities. The multimedia includes a number of the original songs (written and performed by the Wildwater Band) that were recorded live as “lounge room and kitchen” voice-overs.

As well as attracting attention from art collectors, his work has caught the eye of business developers. Davidson had to fight for intellectual property rights when a company marketing health products appeared interested. This is reflected in a number of prints in the Tallinn exhibition which he has titled Fight for your rights.

Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs, Floating Territories, programming Adam Hinshaw; ISEA2004; The Opera cruise ship, Baltic Sea, August 15-17; Jason Davidson, Aboriginal Imagination: Ngulliyangi; ISEA2004; City Gallery, Tallinn, Estonia; August 17-19

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 35

© John Tebbutt; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004