Part 1: Digital strategies

Christine Nicholls

The world wide web, digital and other new technologies have the capacity to transform the visual arts and artistic practice on a global scale. This has already begun happening in this country and in other parts of the world. Consider Patricia Piccinini’s high profile in the international art world on the basis of her digitally modified creature-compositions. There is a rapidly growing literature responding to the utilization of new technologies in contemporary artistic practice, most of which enthusiastically embraces this phenomenon. Much of what is written borders upon evangelical in tone.

Like the globalization of capital, with which these new media are imbricated, technologies have the potential for positive and benign outcomes but also for less socially beneficial consequences. These new technologies certainly have the capacity to liberate—for instance, the www can inexpensively provide hitherto unknown artists with instant, large audiences for their work. Similarly, minority groups, for example Indigenous peoples all around the world, are able link up in ways that have not been possible in the past, thereby advancing their political, social and cultural agendas. But the same technology also has the capacity to facilitate theft of the intellectual property of others on an unprecedented scale. This has implications for art generally, and for Australian Indigenous art especially, because of its disproportionately high level of return to the Australian economy by comparison with other Australian art. The vulnerability of Indigenous art to copyright theft is exacerbated by the remote location of many of its practitioners.

“Borrowing” imagery from Indigenous art is not new. For years now, considerable numbers of non-Indigenous Australian visual artists, both professional and amateur, have been influenced or inspired by Indigenous Australian art, and have been incorporating Aboriginal imagery or motifs, media, colours or quasi-Aboriginal “styles” into their work. The same applies to (predominantly) non- Indigenous business people, especially those in the textile, clothing and floor covering industries. Usually the influence or appropriation stops short of the actual theft or straight-out copying of Indigenous imagery. Often the influence is as vague or generic as incorporating an Aboriginal ‘look’ into a work, by including quasi-Indigenous imagery into the designs of carpets, tiles, T-shirts or even bath mats or teatowels, resulting in an indeterminate ‘Indigenous’ influence that can not be attributed directly to any specific regional artistic tradition.

Throughout Indigenous Australia, particular designs, patterns, iconography and imagery are owned by Indigenous artists, and therefore subject to the strict rules of Indigenous intellectual copyright. Up until comparatively recently Indigenous art was considered by unscrupulous non-Indigenous business people as ripe for the pickings, and Indigenous artists had comparatively little legal recourse in the event that their sacred imagery was appropriated or stolen for commercial advantage.

Outright theft of Indigenous imagery iconography still occurs. The underlying motive for this is usually financial gain. In response to this situation, Vivien Johnson, working with a group of students of Indigenous art at Macquarie University, has assembled a website and CD-ROM broadly relating to this subject. These accompany and extend Johnson’s earlier catalogue, Copyrites: Aboriginal art in the age of reproductive technologies: Touring Exhibition 1996.

Initially one enters the House of Aboriginality online or via CD-ROM. The house has been constructed as a literal, and also in a sense, figurative domicile. One visits each of its rooms in turn (for example, the bathroom, lounge room, bedroom) encountering a plethora of Indigenous imagery and designs on bedclothes, bathroom décor, and even on objects like coasters and ashtrays, which the web design enables you to scrutinize more closely. The contents of the house exemplify the full gamut of appropriation of Indigenous imagery. The House of Aboriginality makes a powerful visual statement that strongly reinforces the pervasiveness of the practice of “borrowing” Indigenous imagery. It seems that no object is too banal, nothing inviolate, nothing that can’t be value-added via visual expressions of Indigeneity.

On the same website, there is also a good deal of hard information and excellent, accurate background material on comparatively recent court cases that have been fought and won by Indigenous artists whose imagery has been stolen and reproduced on, inter alia, banknotes, carpets and fabric. The work is educational, entertaining and really drives its point home. Vivien Johnson’s excellent research and the clarity of organization underpin the success of both website and CD-ROM. They would be particularly useful as resources to use in secondary schools as they cover a range of subjects, from the social sciences, to Legal Studies, Australian Studies and Indigenous Studies.

Indigenous Australian artists are themselves skilled practitioners of the new technologies, and now becoming increasingly comfortable working in new media. This in turn may eventually help to address the more negative practices highlighted by Vivien Johnson and her team. Artists who have been working in the area for some years now include the Warlpiri digital artist Simeon Ross Jupurrurla, Jenny Fraser, Christian Thompson, Jonathan Bottrell- Jones (who has just won a major NSW travelling grant), and Brenda L Croft. Most notable of all is the remarkable Rea, whose pioneering work in this area deserves an article of its own. Part 2 of this article (RT 52) will survey the work of these and other Indigenous new media artists.

This year, the second intensive workshop of the National Indigenous School in New Media Arts (NISNMA) is being held in Adelaide at the Ngapartji Multimedia Centre (Sept 23 – Oct 11). The school aims to provide an intensive learning environment for Australian Indigenous artists to acquire skills in new media and multimedia production, catering for a wide range of students from beginners to those with advanced skills in the new media.

In an email interview, overall organizer of the school, ANAT Director Julianne Pierce, described the long-term purpose and benefits of the projects as providing Indigenous artists with the skills to consolidate and advance their practice. By creating an environment that is responsive to artists’ needs, she says, the school will ensure that an optimal learning situation is achieved. Participants will learn skills that they will be able to develop, as well as gaining confidence in the practice of new media arts. However, the focus of the school is not only on technical skills, but also on the generation of ideas and interest in the field of new media arts.

Pierce goes on to explain that participants have quite different expectations regarding outcomes, ranging from a desire to tell Indigenous stories from a variety of global sources in innovative ways, to the telling of personal stories via emerging media forms. Some participants are motivated by the aim of networking and meeting with other Indigenous artists, or combining new media with traditional media such as printmaking and textile design.

The 3 week school covers areas including digital photography, building a website (html, Dreamweaver), graphics, video and sound for the web and webcasting. Sixteen Indigenous artists from all over Australia are participating in classes run by 5 instructors, some of whom are Indigenous, with expertise in a range of areas including Flash, computer animation and multimedia art.

It is expected that a similar school will be convened in 2 years time in Queensland. In addition, ANAT has recently embarked on a partnership with Tandanya to support new media arts practice and is looking at other potential partnerships to provide opportunities for professional development and for the creation of new work in what is an exciting new way of ensuring the continuity of the world’s oldest artistic tradition.

Vivien Johnson, The House of Aboriginality CD-ROM; Copyrites: Aboriginal art in the age of reproductive technologies: Touring Exhibition 1996, Catalogue National Indigenous Arts Advocacy Association and Macquarie University, Sydney.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 6

© Christine Nicholls; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002