Under a Federal sun?

Mike Leggett asks whatever happened to CMCs

Co-operative Multimedia Centres (CMCs) emerged into the atmosphere at about the same time as the Cfcs were destroying it. The atmosphere surrounding the newly identified ‘clever country’ at the time contained the heady technology of ‘new media’ and all things digital—interactive multimedia, the internet and the world wide web. Australia, in the view of the Labor government, had been at the end of the communication line for long enough and needed to be aboard the band-wagon that would deliver global proximity, as well as a new employee hungry industry.

The intervention that Keating and Canberra wanted to make was announced in Creative Nation, that policy document which spoke in October 1994 of “being distinctly Australian” in the face of the “assault from homogenised international mass culture”. After the inevitable wrangling, the six Centres that had been proposed were open by mid-1996. What impact have they had? What has been the quality of the services provided? What plans do they have to survive a non-interventionist, market-place government?

The mission for the Centres was to “offer education, training and professional services, access to state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, access to leading-edge research and development, and assistance with the handling of issues such as intellectual property and product testing and evaluation”. To greater or lesser degree each of the locations have and are delivering in each of these areas, but with differing degrees of emphasis—“complementarity” was the word used by Professor Guy Petherbridge, CEO for Starlit CMC and spokesperson for the Association of CMCs, to describe how the strengths of each enterprise are shared between all. It seems that it is early days for such an ideal to become evident, like many of the projects listed by each CMC.

Web sites are an obvious point of contact with the Cooperatives, some of which are non-profit, and the QANTM site (www.qantm.com.au) explains in the clearest way their business model summarised as the “brokerage of skills and related services for the interactive multimedia industry”.

QANTM is now operational in Darwin and Brisbane with 20 staff employed in four areas: Youthworks has trained over 200 young people in basic internet skills. Indigenet has developed approximately 15 major projects and with the leadership of Chris ‘Bandirra’ Lee will achieve placing digital networks parallel to traditional ones. Eventually, some access to Indigenous culture will be given to the wider global community. Australian Silicon Studio Training Centre (ASSTC) has received over 200 scholarship applications for 3D animation scholarships and the first 10 students have completed. QANTM Edge has five major development projects in the multimedia arena, all staffed by local contractors or individuals. CEO Olaf Moon admits that “research and development is a minor part of our activities, apart from research into five copyright projects”. Queensland government sponsorship is for two years and the Federal Governments will continue for a total of three. “At the end of this time, we expect to be self sufficient”.

QANTM is one of two Queensland CMCs. Starlit (www.starlit.com.au – expired) focuses on the tooling needs of educationalists and trainers, and instructional design, utilising the accumulated national experience of ‘distance learning’. In a bid to challenge the US heavies of on-line courses, the new academic year will see Swinburne University launch 56 courses, Griffith Uni just behind, all distilled from Australia’s unique pedagogical expertise.

“Western Australia is now poised to become a Mecca for digital artists throughout the Asia Pacific”. The team at Imago in Perth (www.imago.com.au – expired) identify their work with the art and cultural sector as their main achievement. One project with the Film and Television Institute established during July is DAS (The Imago/FTI Digital Arts Studio), a facility specifically designed to allow access for screen culture artists to modern digital production facilities. With financial and technical support from Arts WA, the Australian Film Commission and the Australia Council, the production facilities include interactive multimedia, digital sound, 3D modelling and animation, digital video and web authoring. The essential and primary purpose of DAS is to provide a facility where artists can access computer equipment for experimentation, production and training, and become a hub for critical arts activity.

CEO Mike Grant observes that “at this early stage there has not been a lot of cross-over between the technological researchers and artists”. Another facility, the Imago Sun Research Centre, is also open and equipped with high-end workstations. “A number of leading local artists are already designing projects to work on utilising the resources and expertise of the centre”, says Grant. Imago also works with PICA in the implementation of a bi-annual funding program which provides small amounts of money to artists for research and development. In addition Imago covers programs addressing education and training, industry development, content development, and research coordination.

Ngapartji (www.ngapartji.com.au – expired) launched onto coffee saturated Rundle Street, Adelaide in August 1996 with a state of the art multimedia centre containing studios, seminar and exhibition spaces, and a spectacular pavement cafe—up to a 1000 people every week have a hands-on experience with interactive multimedia, predominantly on-line. Training is either informal from trusty cafe staff or from high level trainers.

Carolyn Guerin, Ngapardji’s manager of applied research explains that the centre assists with “a range of on-line activities with real life elements such as the Virtual Writers in Residence Pilot Project (funded with the Australia Council), and Ngapartji Interactivity and Narrative Research Group (“Rosebud”) which, besides holding monthly seminars, has a web site with papers consolidating the group’s work and, soon, a research database. We have also sponsored and promoted the work of artists including Linda Marie Walker—exposure to new work is key to the centre. With so many mainstream industry people participating in activities at the centre, exposure to art-based work is inspiring and often commented on—the last Australian Multimedia Enterprises board meeting was held here during Jon Mccormack’s Turbulence exhibition. Most of the board members were blown away by it—you could see their minds ticking over like mad”.

Ngapartji Nodes will bring other Adelaide organisations on-line—Tandanya Aboriginal Centre is the first—self-managing the kind of computers available in the Ngapartji cafe. Nodes is about on-line activity and has included virtual community components—interactive communications capabilities rather than your usual brochure ware.

In Sydney, Access Australia (www.cmcaccess.com.au – expired) and its unwieldy consortium including Telstra, NSW Department of School Education, NSW TAFE Commission and five metropolitan and regional universities, have just appointed its third CEO in two years, Rim Keris, who comes from a hardware marketing and business background. He will need to bring substance to a program which includes Propagate, a key national project allied with the European Commission, on multimedia copyright.

At the other end of the financial scale also in Sydney, MetroTV (www.home. aone.net.au/metro/-expired now Metro Screen http://metroscreen.org.au/ Eds.) launched Stage One of a New Media Laboratory in November 1996 then last month received State Government funding to set up Stage Two—this includes ten high-end Apple Macintosh 9600 computers on an ethernet network with high speed internet access. Since January, in conjunction with other screen culture organisations, a range of digital courses have been run at Metro.

In Melbourne, it is the screen culture sector again setting the pace in giving access to digital media facilities. With financial backing from the state-run Multimedia Victoria, Open Channel (www.openchannel.org.au) will augment its digital video editing facilities with four 3D animation suites and a dozen high-end PowerMacs.

In the smart end of town, eMerge (www.emerge.edu.au – expired) is about to pilot a project with cultural institutions and individual artists to establish a Virtual Cultural Centre, “a complete experience rather than a collection, going live in 1998”, according to CEO Terese van Maanen—surely an opportunity for vibrant links with Melbourne talent? On the web, the iSite resource directory for the national industry will list personnel and clients. A range of other projects will address pedagogical and curriculum concerns at all three educational levels. Links with San Francisco and the ‘Malaysian corridor’ are also advanced.

Many, including Colin Mercer at the Griffith Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy, wonder about the marginalisation that the more creative communities are being forced into by the majority CMCs pursuing industry and training objectives. “Interactive multimedia offers a chance to break down a whole series of barriers between genres, disciplines and artforms. Convergence of mind-sets, not just technologies, is the issue,” according to Mercer, “with the ability to think laterally and more creatively”.

Professor Petherbridge feels that it is the industry support area rather than the cultural area that will continue subsidy to the nascent multimedia industry, “because it provides a message to industry and the public at large that this is a very important part of public policy…that if we slip in the next year, we’ve really slipped”.

RealTime issue #20 Aug-Sept 1997 pg. 26

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1997