System Error

John Conomos retrieves artists from the Creative Nation trash can

The rhetorical architecture of Paul Keating’s recent Creative Nation statement signals the growing realisation that the new media arts are emblematic of new cultural, economic and paradigmatic shifts in our everyday lives. Clearly, this document suggests a substantial shift in government cultural policy from the more traditional emphasis on direct assistance to visual artists, filmmakers, writers, performers, dancers, and all kinds of cultural producers, to a more recent one of supporting diverse institutions and mechanisms of cultural products and services in the context of local, national and global cultural spaces.

For the first time, aside from the more necessary concerns of supporting relevant arts funding institutions like the Australia Council and the traditional art forms, we have a focus on the way the new multimedia technologies connect to broadcasting, computing, telephony and information. This signifies throughout the document a sustained project to expand the economic export potential of the arts by encouraging the computer/multimedia sector of our economy to fund new digital media products. Further, it indicates the emergence of new post-biological art forms evolving from a multiplicity of interactions in electronic space.

Although Creative Nation possesses numerous worthwhile ideas, rhetorical emphases, and pragmatic funding suggestions, there is nevertheless a problematic Arnoldian characterisation of the traditional and the new media art forms in terms of cultural excellence, national identity, self-expression and quality. To a considerable degree, this is a valuable road map to our expanding techno-culture and its relevance to us as individuals and as a highly urbanised multicultural society. But it is a document that also typifies certain cultural, epistemological and technological pitfalls of a more utopian/ technophilic approach to the question of new media technologies and contemporary art practice.

Too much emphasis has been placed on how high-tech entrepreneurs have the magical formula for transforming Australia into a cutting-edge cultural producer in the Pacific Rim. The $84 million tha t is to be spent in the next four years is a positive step in facilitating new media products and services for Australia’s rapid entry into a post-broadcast world of global media, but little consideration has been given to the more marginalised artists, who are more representative of the postmodern technological avant-garde, in the emerging multimedia institutional landscape.

Too often reading Creative Nation one has the conviction of déjà vu: a naive belief in a top-down hierarchical model of cultural production, new media technologies as an expression of late-capital culture and Platonic cyberspace ideology. It is also assumed that new media art forms imply, ipso facto, new aesthetic paradigms. This does not mean that I subscribe to the wilder romantic excesses of Roy Ascott’s view of the new interactive media as a global “mind-to-mind” revolution nor to a Jeffersonian model of the information superhighway and its putative emancipatory possibilities as we read in Wired and other West Coast New Age publications. But I do believe in the critical project of conceptualising the new media art forms (as Ascott does) along the lines of a bottom-up paradigm of connectivity and interactivity.

The new “terminal identity” subjectivity that defines the young navigators of today’s computer terminals of multimedia forms has not been adequately acknowledged. Electronic art as an open-ended paradigm for re-thinking our institutions, our perceptions of ourselves and the complex continuity between traditional and new media has taken second place to the notion of new multimedia technology as a national educational “down-loading” technology. (This is especially evident in the “Australia on CD” Program). The proactive stance adopted by Creative Nation to engender a viable content- oriented multimedia industry suggests a limited utilitarian concept of the new electronic media. It rarely acknowledges that the genealogical formations of new media art forms are complex and that their innovative computer-mediated audiovisual concepts, forms, textures and cultural agendas are a legacy of modernism as much as they are of the post-war avant-garde arts. (This is tangentially indicated in the recent Nike TV advertisement featuring William Burroughs).

What is commendable in this cultural policy document is its underlying objective to locate the new media arts in the broader domain of everyday life. However, this does not negate the importance of creating new exhibition, production and rhetorical contexts for artists engaged in the new cultural forms, in the gallery and the festival world as much as in the proposed Co-operative Multimedia Development Centres. The electronic arts depend on our ability to question the misleading beliefs and assumptions of our cultural zeitgeist, whether they do constitute an “avant-garde” practice and how they relate to the more traditional art forms. Further, irrespective of the document’s practical strategies to create national multimedia forums, the Australian Multimedia Enterprise, the Co-operative Multimedia Development Centres, the “Australia on CD” Program and funding the Australian Film Commission to produce multimedia works, we need to ask the more demanding self-reflexive questions regarding technology’s masculinist conceptual frameworks, seeing how cultural institutions mask the vested interests of academic, bureaucratic and corporate culture and how our mainstream thinking about art, culture and technology is hopelessly inadequate in the light of the aesthetic and cultural turbulence the new cultural technologies are creating. (On the latter point, Laurence Rickels amongst others, has appropriately described our symptomatic inability to find our way from the inside of technologisation as “perspective psychosis”).

Where Creative Nation is correct is in stressing the diverse division of cultural labour that is required for the production of CD-ROM technology, broadband interactives services, and on-line PC services. It is confused and vague however on the complexities of training individuals in the new electronic media and on how established and younger artists will connect with corporate, software and tertiary personnel in these new production contexts. Creative Nation underestimates not only the experimental necessity of the role that more peripheral Nintendo literate artists have to play in the production of the new multimedia exhibits and screen-based electronic media, but it also overlooks the importance of how difficult it is to locate adequately trained new media arts personnel.

Consequently, artists familiar with the new media forms need to be situated in the chain of executive decision-making, they need to be empowered and visible in the new tertiary sites creating their hybrid works for the Internet as much as for the more orthodox forms of broadcasting, exhibition and critical reception. Bureaucrats, curators, producers and our museums and heritage sites need to commission new media artists to do new works for everyday consumption, something that is finally recognised in the Creative Nation document and is sadly lacking today with the exception of one or two museums like the Museum of Sydney.

It is crucial that we remind ourselves whenever possible that the emergent media arts are starting to represent a canon as much as the more traditional art forms do. This necessitates the hermeneutic awareness to question our established tendency to either subscribe to a utopian or a dystopic view of the new media arts.

As we approach the end of this century, what is clearly emerging in electronic media are the unpredictable non-binary intertextual forms between computer art, video, cinema, television, performance, virtual reality and photography and the increasing significance of computer animation and graphics in shaping the concerns and techniques of interactive installation art. Lamentably, Creative Nation does not give due recognition to these dynamic aesthetic, cultural and technological forms, nor to their multimedia creators and neither does it consider how they might be located in reference to education, culture and industry.

Notwithstanding the questionable nationalist slant of Creative Nation and its overall tendency to define the new media technologies almost solely in audience, economic, marketing and social terms, it nevertheless manages to address important issues relating to how the new digital arts are connected to the experience of our everyday lives. It is a significant “weather vane” signal by the Keating administration that finally the new media technologies are being factored into government cultural policy. But why should new media artists endowed with experience and knowledge of these art forms play second fiddle to our techno-corporate industrialists?

RealTime issue #5 Feb-March 1995 pg. 25

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

1 February 1995