The big suture

Art and technology, business and culture sewn up in Online Australia’s
Project 1. Keith Gallasch reports.

We were reminded early in the day that art and technology were once one and the same in the Ancient Greek ‘techne.’ Project 1 was an intensive, one day Online Australia forum for cultural organisations and web-developers. As Federal Minister for the Arts Peter McGauran put it in his opening address, “Project 1 aims to encourage dialogue and interaction between the cultural and the online sectors. Ideally today’s workshop will produce new partnerships, new opportunities…”

The forum was timely, lively and sometimes overwhelming as vocabularies were shared, upgraded and our mental spellchecks failed to recognise. In the morning keynote speaker Tiffany Shlain, Executive Director & Creative Producer of the Webby Awards and President of the International Academy of the Digital Arts and Sciences (US), defined online culture and panels of speakers briefly commented on their online cultural and business goals and experiences. In the afternoon, small, informal groups gathered in 45 minute Breakout sessions to discuss topics posted by those attending the forum. Any one of these sessions could have become the subject of at least a half day’s discussion. To this extent, Project 1 provided for artists and cultural organisations starting points that warrant continued consideration and debate. Also evident was the disparity in levels of knowledge, not just between business and the arts, but within the arts where the range of experience with new technologies runs from naive to expert. At the end of the day the most frequent comment heard was, “We need more of this.”

Putting the words together

Project 1 was an intense wordfest, a word wrestle, a yoking together of terms and concepts not often used in each other’s company. In the red, plush comfort of the Sydney Opera House’s The Studio, words that we thought we knew lunged at us like dark strangers, others fell apart like drunks, some staggered about high on overuse (what industry other than the net describes its customers as users, someone asked) and metaphors got dangerously cocktailed. Strangest (though who should be surprised as we dizzily fight off ever recurring bouts of economic rationalism) was the way key words from the communalism of social responsibility and the kingdom of capital overlapped and intersected or crossed the line or put an uncertain foot in each camp. Words like community, trust, heritage, cultural identity and diversity served all-comers, and mixed it with brand, industry, delivery, value-adding, currency, bonuses, marketplace and consumer, though more than one speaker stumbled over ‘arts industry’ and ‘culture’ stuck in a few voice boxes.

After setting the scene—“The development of communications technology this century has done much to weave the tapestry of Australian society by combatting the tyranny of distance which we inherited so long ago and bringing Australians together in new and often unexpected ways”—Peter McGauran coolly brought home the dialectic—”…in this increasingly globalised world we must ensure that all Australians continue to participate in our diverse cultural life and heritage”—which we worried at the rest of the day along with the business/arts tussle.
Back(s) to the future?

It was a day in which time as well as language was subject to delirium. How many times were we told that everything would be okay when we got the bandwidth we wanted, any day now, or later than we hoped, much later. Or that the arts online were three years, no five years, ten even behind business and that Australian business was five years, no seven, eight, behind America and Europe. Keynote speaker Tiffany Shlain mused that we were enjoying a New Renaissance, one analogous to the first, but with our technology at last matching our stream of consciousness. Others painted bright futures of community and access and profitability, some of it already here, some of it Australian and battling big US counterparts. One speaker gloomed that it was a future for some, but not for others as “the big five” prowled, buying up the future—small media arts companies. The same speaker, Jeffrey Cook (Director, 3V & Merlin Integrated Media), took us back to the idiosyncratic emergence of the Australian film industry (and our current international film reputation) as a model for working the net. At that moment Cook and McGauran seemed unlikely allies. Cook said, “Australian film is unique” and, by analogy with what can be achieved online, “that’s all that can save us in the future.” McGauran had declared, “our challenge is to ensure a distinctly Australian voice is heard amongst the hubbub of global discourse.” We all looked back to look forward, we looked in to look out.

Facts? What facts?

Statistics also eluded us with their instability and unavailability. It seems that the arts (the ABC aside) in this country have no idea at all who their audiences are. Business, however, does know its clients. But when it comes to the net, even business in Australia develops websites but will never market them. Peter McGauran said, “At present it is estimated that 70% of internet content accessed by Australians has been sourced overseas. It’s clear therefore that we have to develop new ways to promote our culture to ourselves and the rest of the world.” Peter Naumann (Manager Multimedia & Public Program, National Gallery of Australia) said that 50% of visitors to the National Gallery of Australia’s online gallery were from the US, 70% overall from overseas. Victoria Doidge (General Manager of the impressive Chaos Music online store, our first serious taste on the day of e-commerce for artists) said they were doing impressive business nationally but also with overseas customers (how many?).

Of course, thanks to email, to its engrossing sense of intimacy and communality, we have a means of finding out like never before who’s out there. And the AFL (Australian Football League) is right into it, engaging millions with pure information, including a weekly injuries list. Could theatre companies offer the same (instead of the atrociously quaint newsletters they print)—updates on hoarse voices, sore backs, critical thrashings. It seems the online means are there to find out more and more about our audiences and to project potential markets, but the work on it in the arts has barely begun except with some film organisation and youth culture programs.

Social good and capital success

‘Intimacy’ and ‘community’ resonated across the day with overtones of social good and capital success as we learned of the desire to belong that the net fosters through news and gossip and sensitively constructed list server levels of access (‘trust’ again). A new subjectivity emerged too, amplified in an advertising scenario where we no longer have to project onto archetypes. No. We are scanned into promotions as ourselves, like Martin Lindstrom’s (Executive Director, Zivo) story of a NY child’s face mapped onto a Barbie doll purchased through the net, and his own image (sent to him online) adorned in the latest fashions after he’d been scanned in a fashion store.

Equity and social justice occasionally surfaced from their steady subtext, humble Davids toppling corporate Goliaths in winning Shlain’s Webby Awards—anyone can succeed and it doesn’t have to be with every plug-in in the book. On the one hand, there was a happy free market belief in the power of individual will and creativity, on the other a serious concern to create systems responsive to those with “only a phone and a microwave” or the cheapest of computers. Email, said Tiffany Shlain and Ruby Blessing (Group Creative Director, Spike), was seriously under-utilised. Occasionally there was a myopic globalism—we’re all in this together, it’s universal, we’re all speaking the same language (html)—oblivious to the new class lines defined by who has the technology and who doesn’t, and to the millions in the world who have never seen a telephone let alone used one, and then there’s UNESCO’s recent report on the limited global uptake of the net. But the curious mix of laissez faire energy and the drive for social responsibility in the context of apparent technological inevitability kept issues on the boil and one’s vocabulary on red alert.

Speaking each other’s language

Key words kept recurring all day—partnerships (tied to bartering), value-adding (along with bundling and bonuses), community (whether referring to a social group, a virtual one or company employees, and tied to intimacy and trust), access (how to reach as many people as possible with the simplest technological means), currency (keeping your site ‘fresh’, or what you can barter with—’the arts are sexy, business needs you’—I never quite believe this), portals (are they working, how can we make them work for us?), lists and filters (helping direct users to areas where they can then make choices) and branding (arts companies having to look beyond their logos). These fuelled much of the afternoon discussion. But there were other words used approvingly like ‘chaos’ and ‘junk’ that reminded us of a net free of ‘convergence’, of creative mess, and, as several speakers noted, work on the web as an ongoing experience, an evolution, something unfinished.

It was a day of anecdote, hyperbole, vision, caution and timewarps, and a wobbly lexicon—not a bad thing when you’re trying to get a handle on a newish world, and not a little Shakespearean when the language is rich, silly, technical, pliant, shifting and often barely defined. Not that I left Project 1 happily branding and value-adding: I guess I like that tension between the arts and business. If we have something to learn from each other, Project 1 was a glimpse of some intriguing possibilities needing further thought and more dialogue. True to the promise of Project 1, web developers and business managers met with artists and members of arts organisations in a dialogue worth continuing. Of course there are many artists who are web designers by the very nature of their online work and more than a few intersect the worlds of commerce and art.

Go online for more of Project 1 [no-longeer available] . It includes a detailed account of keynote speaker Tiffany Shlain’s address on online culture and how the Webby Awards work (for one thing as another kind of filter, she suggested), plus summaries of talks from Richard Fidler (panel chair, writer, performer, TV host)—“the lovely thing about the web is that it’s such messy business, genuinely chaotic. Business men want to impose some elegance on it”; David Thompson (Senior Consultant, Deloitte Touche Tomatsu)—“creativity in new media hasn’t yet delivered…hasn’t hit on a winning formula”; Claire Byrnes (Producer, ABC Arts & Culture Online)—the need for “a content that everyone can see, therefore not reliant on plug-ins…”; Tess Dryza (Creative Director, Multimedia, Open Training & Education Network)—the task of building online communities generating trust and intimacy; Ruby Blessing (Group Creative Director, Spike)—“define different groups within your database rather than using a blanket approach”; Martin Lindstrom (Executive Director, Zivo)—“Now it’s a matter of the customer becoming the star. I’m the centre”; Victoria Doidge (General Manager Chaos Music)—“we’re selling Australian music to the world and it’s working well for us—the top 5 on the chart are Australian independents. We create a web page for them for each of their products. They can go in and manage that page and link it to other sites and list performances”; Jeffrey Cook (Director, 3V & Merlin Integrated Media)—“For years I’ve been trying to get cultural organisations to work together. That’s supposed to get a laugh…If we had one arts portal—not a damn government one—everyone would go to it! e-commerce you haven’t seen anything yet.” Peter Naumann (Manager Multimeda, Australian National Gallery)—“The gallery has 100,000 works in store rooms, has launched 5,000 on screen, and by the end of year will have 10 – 16,000 accessible.”

Also in the online report from the afternoon Breakout sessions is a detailed account of the discussion of the future of the Australian Cultural Network which included issues of research and marketing, mega-portals, the success of the AFL site and why the Australian Cultural Network includes Skippy and Neighbours sites (thousands of hits for them). Very briefly summarised too are sessions on youth culture online, regional needs and branding, along with a few of the notable provocations including, “Only Victoria is forward-looking in new media—the rest are casualties”.

Project 1 was presented by OnLine Australia (a project of The National Office for The Information Economy) in partnership with the Australia Council, RealTime and the Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts.

RealTime issue #32 Aug-Sept 1999 pg. 10-

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1999