Sharpening the edge

Annemarie Jonson interviews Amanda McDonald Crowley, new Director of the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT)

AJ First, could you tell us a little about ANAT—its roles and functions?

AMC ANAT was established as a project of the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide in 1985, and its brief is to support artists working across a range of scientific and technological media. As an organisation with a national brief to foster links between the arts, sciences and new technology, ANAT essentially acts as a networking, advocacy and service organisation. We are principally funded by the Australia Council, and we undertake a wide range of functions including intensive skills training programs, grant programs through our R&D fund, publication, and exhibition and conference organisation, for example, hosting the Third International Symposium on Electronic Art (TISEA) in Sydney in 1992. ANAT also maintains a database of artists working with new technologies throughout Australia, and we publish information in our newsletter and on our website. Since its inception in 1985, ANAT has been at the forefront of the movement to position artists as active participants in the ‘information age’.

AJ You took up your position in November ‘95. Could you reflect on ANAT’s track record prior to your directorship?

AMC ANAT has always been in a difficult position. One of its primary problems is that it’s always been seriously under-resourced, so that, with its broad national brief, its profile is not what I think it could be. However, the outcomes of its training programs have been fantastic for artists who have skilled up and gone on to develop national and international reputations. Similarly, in the grant programs, quite small amounts of money have supported many innovative artists who have subsequently achieved national and international acclaim in the media.

AJ ANAT is based in Adelaide, yet the focus of much new media activity, and particularly now, multimedia development, has been along the east coast axis.

AMC I think it’s an overstatement to suggest that the focus of activity has been on the east coast. There’s certainly significant activity on the east coast because of the critical mass of people, but there are also exciting developments throughout Australia, exemplified by the fact that ANAT grew up in Adelaide, and that one of the first two successful Cooperative Multimedia Centre (CMC) bids was a Perth-based bid.

However, developing a higher national profile within the arts community, in industry and amongst the broader community, is something that’s high on my agenda for ANAT. For example, I’m establishing a national advisory committee which will assist me to formulate policy on the development of ANAT’s profile nationally, and that of artists working with new technologies across all artforms.

AJ As you’re aware, recent cultural policy has established a range of initiatives to support the development of a multimedia industry in Australia. What is the role of ANAT in the development of such an ‘industry’?

AMC Creative Nation had a very strong focus on multimedia. However this focus has been economically driven, and the support has predominantly gone to industry development, not to art and cultural imperatives. Many artists are understandably finding that problematic. ANAT has a role to play in making clear that the only way we’re going to develop a sustainable industry is by ensuring that artists are integrally involved from the developmental stages. The CMCs for example should be supporting artists’ research and development and providing digital skills training opportunities. We clearly cannot establish a genuinely innovative and viable industry unless artists have opportunities for R&D and experimentation within that industry sector.

AJ There’s also been criticism of late of the Australia Council’s response—or lack of it—to new media and technology-based arts practice in the wake of Creative Nation. As director of an Australia Council funded organisation, what is your assessment of their response?

AMC I’m pleased to report that the Council has recently provided ANAT with a one-off allocation of $90,000 to increase support to artists working in this area. It’s not a vast amount, but it will double our research and development fund to $80,000. The funding will also work towards helping me to establish a national profile for the organisation.

I think the Australia Council was particularly slow off the mark in developing policy: I haven’t seen any demonstration of any Australia Council policy on art and technology presented publicly to date. At the same time, Council was put in a difficult position, insofar as it was presented by Creative Nation with an imprimatur to support artists working with new technologies—in order to get ‘creative content’ onto the ‘information highway’—but it wasn’t provided with any financial resources dedicated to this area. As far as developing effective and responsive policy, it will be critical that Council looks to genuine consultation with artists—not just policymakers, but artists working with new technologies in formulating policy directions.

AJ What is the current state of technology-based arts practice in Australia?

AMC Australian artists have been experimenting with new technologies and digital media for many years, and there’s a great diversity of practice, from installation work in conventional gallery settings, to online work, to video exhibition, to interactive CD ROM, through to electronic sound. There’s also a groundswell of extremely interesting work at an ‘underground’ level in collectives like Clan Analogue who produce electronic sound and installation: work that doesn’t fit into an ‘art’ milieu but is culturally very interesting. There are established digital artists like Jill Scott and Peter Callas who are absolutely at the forefront of these areas internationally. There’s also online work: ventures like Parallel in Adelaide which runs an online gallery and a journal developing discourse around these areas. I’m particularly interested in supporting the grass-roots experimental edge of technology-based practices that are emerging in Australia.

AJ What are your plans for ANAT over the next couple of years?

AMC My first priority is to develop the profile of ANAT nationally, because I believe that by doing that you assist in developing the profile of artists working in new technologies. ANAT also has a role to play in enhancing Australian artists’ capacity to network internationally, and I’ll be furthering our relationships with international networks such as ISEA.

It’s critical that we continue to support the development of art practices through our art R&D fund by providing direct funding to artists. But it’s also critical that we develop exhibition opportunities for artists to present work in a critical context, whether that be in conventional gallery spaces—there’s a major need in Australia for venues properly outfitted to show technology-based work—or online, which presents fantastic opportunities for experimentation with the medium. I’m particularly keen in this regard for ANAT to develop its online presence so that we can further develop the profile of artists and assist them to better promote and market themselves. The development of the field relies on the potential to promote, exhibit, discuss and develop a critical discourse around technology-based practices. I’m aiming to achieve that critically important balance between support for artists’ production, research and development, and support for presentation opportunities within a critical discourse, while working to build the profile of the organisation.

RealTime issue #11 Feb-March 1996 pg. 21

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

1 February 1996