geert lovink on 15 Jan 2001 06:41:32 -0000

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<nettime> Interview with Kathy Cleland, Australian New Media Arts Curator

An e-mail exchange with Kathy Cleland
Australian new media curator
By Geert Lovink

Kathy Cleland is an Australian based new media arts curator and writer. She
curated the Cyber Cultures series of exhibitions in 1996 (Performance Space
in Sydney) and 1997 (Casula Powerhouse, Sydney). Her latest show is Cyber
Cultures: Sustained Release, which premiered in 2000 and includes four
exhibition capsules: Infectious Agents, Posthuman Bodies, New Life and
Animation Playground. Sustained Release is touring Australia and NZ in
2001 - 2003.  She is also president of dLux media arts, a Sydney based
organisation that promotes innovative film, video, new media and sound arts.
She lectures in the Department of Informatics and Communication at Central
Queensland University - Sydney International Campus. In the  exchange Kathy
Cleland talks about new work. We also discuss the advanced yet poorly funded
condition of new media arts in Australia. It is a country which had been at
the conceptual forefront of cyberculture in the early and mid nineties and,
unfortunately, has so far been unable to transform its vital creative
potential into sustainable structures.

GL: Could you tell us about the state of the arts in Australian

KC: The new media arts is an interesting area to be working in at the
moment, there is a huge diversity of practice and new technologies and
software programs are coming on line all the time. This is certainly
stimulating for artists and curators but it does cause a few problems
regarding the exhibition and 'archiving' of artworks. Works that are even a
few year's old sometimes rely on particular software and hardware that is
increasingly difficult to find. As part of the Cyber Cultures: Sustained
Release program I curated, we exhibited a museum version of TechnoSphere (by
UK artists Jane Prophet, Gordon Selley and Mark Hurry) which required a
particular graphics card that is now obsolete. We eventually managed to
track one down through second hand dealers. Other artists have build
exhibition kiosks or housings for work that require very specific computer
monitors etc. Curators and artists need to think about archiving the
hardware and software necessary to run individual artworks and perhaps
rather than new media artists just providing a CD-ROM with their work on it,
they may need to start thinking about their work as a complete package which
includes the hardware and software required to run the work. Of course, many
artists are not very keen on this option because of the expense involved but
as computer equipment keeps coming down in price and machines are now
becoming redundant in 2-3 years and need to be replaced, I think this is an
increasingly viable option.

GL: What tendencies have you come across, while preparing the exhibition
series? Looking at the topics and artists you choose, the shifting borders
between "posthuman" body and the machine still seems to be of importance. So
does artificial life with it "agencies". Why do new media artists stick to
these rather scientific topics? Isn't cyberculture these days to be located
elsewhere, in the mass use of Internet, mobile phones and computer games?

KC: It was an intriguing process putting together Cyber Cultures: Sustained
Release in terms of the themes that emerged as common areas of interest for
the artists. Of course, there were particular themes I had a strong interest
in personally and of course that played a part in selecting the artists and
the work, but I didn't necessarily decide on the themes first and then go
out and look for the artists, it was more of an investigation and survey of
what was already happening in the area and then grouping the works into
areas of shared thematic interests. For me, the most interesting work in new
media arts practice is work that uses new technologies as an integral
component not just in making the work but also as part of the thematic
concerns of the work. There is a futuristic hype around new technologies
that lends itself to explorations of futuristic themes such as the
increasingly intimate symbiotic relationships between humans and machines
and the development of new technological life forms and environments.

You suggest that these are rather scientific topics and that is true, but
they also have become key areas of concern for the broader population.
Scientific and technological developments are debated in the popular media
as well as in scientific journals and science fiction scenarios have been
explored in a number of science fiction films such as The Matrix, Gattaca,
Total Recall, the Terminator films etc. The whole science fiction genre has
shifted from being a geeky marginalised genre to being increasing mainstream
and this is also reflected in the interest of artists in scientific ideas
and science fiction scenarios. "LumpCD" by Peter Hennessey and Patricia
Piccinini, explores issues of genetic engineering and reproductive
technologies and Jane Prophet's "The Internal Organs of a Cyborg"
investigates the technologized cyborg body. Stelarc has been working in this
arena for many years exploring various ways of augmenting and extending the
biological body.

The mass use of the Internet, mobile phones and computer games are also
areas of interest for artists. There are an increasing number of artists who
work on the web and as bandwidth increases and download times decrease, the
web will be the preferred delivery format for a lot of work that is now
exhibited via CD-ROM or directly from computer hard drives. Many of the
artists in Cyber Cultures: Sustained Release use the web as a primary
component of their work. Melinda Rackham's work "Carrier" is web based, as
is Ian Haig's "Web Devolution" which explores the hype and evangelism of
digital culture. Anita Kocsis's work "Neonverte" is 'grown' on the web in a
Flash environment and then displayed as an immersive environment as a
gallery installation. The Lycette Bros. "UN-icon" was also developed for the
web in both Shockwave and Flash formats. Other works such as TechnoSphere
and John Tonkin's Personal Eugenics are exhibited on-line, but also have
gallery versions which allow for faster processing times and allow the
artists to create more of an installation environment. Leon Cmielewski and
Josephine Starr's work "Dream Kitchen" uses the format of a computer game
and UN-icon and Digital String Games use aspects of games and play in their
work. Some artists have started making artworks or games for mobile phones
and PDAs but at the moment these are very limited due to file size and
memory limitations.

GL: Wouldn't it be time for new media arts to disappear into the much larger
context of contemporary arts? Or would you rather prolong the idea of a
"safe haven" for artists who are specifically into technological
experiments? Mainstream museums are not yet ready to curate new media works,
I know. But will they ever? Soon everyone will be familiar with the
computer. Finally, cyberculture will lose its claim on the new. Would you be
happy to wake up one day to find that new media arts has suddenly vanished
and dissolved into other disciplines and practices? Which battles still need
to be won?

KC: As an art form, "new media art" is a bit of a clumsy term. People have
been stumbling around over the last decade trying to find an appropriate
label and I don't think we've got there yet! Early on there was "electronic
art", then "digital art", then "multimedia art" and now "new media art", but
what happens when the new media isn't so new anymore? The longevity of this
term is questionable. There are also so many different types of practice in
this area including performance work, web work, sound work, installation
work, etc that definitions and boundary lines are hard to define
particularly as artists from other disciplines are also using the new tools
of digital media in their own work. In many ways, new media art is
characterized exactly by this hybridity. Nevertheless, I think that there is
still value in maintaining the "new media art" discipline even if the
definitions and terminology are very blurry and subject to change and

GL: There are only few new media art curators, world-wide, and you are one
of them. Where would you like to see this profession go? Is it all a matter
of technology skills?

KC: I'm not sure I would class it as a separate profession! It is certainly
an area of curatorial practice that requires flexibility as the technology
is constantly changing and it's important to keep up to date. It's not
necessary to be a technology expert to curate in this area but a general
understanding of how things work and the directions the field is moving in
is important - at the moment there are some exciting developments happening
with web based work and there is also a movement away from CD-ROM based work
to installations and immersive environments - getting away from the mouse
and the keyboard as interface items - YAY! In the new media arts, technical
support is very important - sometimes the curator may fulfill this role but
usually technical support is a separate role - gallery staff are having to
become skilled in this area as so much contemporary art is making use of new
technologies. In general, I have found artists to be the best technical

GL: A while ago ANAT organized a master class for new media arts curators.
Does that make sense?

KC: I wasn't able to attend the ANAT master class unfortunately but I think
it's important for people and organizations curating and working in this
area to have an opportunity to network and share ideas, gain skills etc.
ANAT has played a very important role in Australia in promoting the work of
artists working with new technologies and in providing training etc so I
think that it is an important strategic move to also assist and support the
work of curators and institutions to exhibit the work of those artists and
to encourage critical debates etc.

GL: In the early and mid nineties Australia had a sophisticated new media
culture. This was mainly due to a generous, innovative cultural policy.
During the conservative Howard government funds have been cut. Are you
nostalgic? Do you think all the money invested in electronic culture was
well spent? Which cultural policy concerning new media would you be in favor
of for the next five years?

KC: Yes, a lot of money was invested by the Australian government in new
media/technology initiatives but although some good things came out of that
there was also a huge amount of wastage. CMCs (Collaborative Multimedia
Centers) were set up but primarily with a commercial focus and an awful lot
of money was frittered away with very little to show for it in terms of
outcomes. A couple of the CMCs like Ngapartji in Adelaide and Imago in Perth
did demonstrate some commitment to artists but in general the whole
situation was pretty depressing for artists and curators. If the money had
gone to the groups who were already showing an interest and commitment in
the new media/technology arena such as the Australian Network for Art and
Technology in Adelaide and dLux media arts in Sydney, the outcomes would
have been far greater. Funds devolved to the Australian Film Commission and
the Australia Council have been far more productive in terms of new media
art outcomes. These organizations dispersed the money to organizations and
artists as project funding and I think the returns on these investments are
always far greater than when the money is given to bureaucracies or
corporations. Artists really makes those dollars work hard! It would be
great to see more money being given to these initiatives.

GL: I would say, exactly because most money has been going to offline
"macromedia" artists and not to organizations there is not much of a
structure within the Australian new media scene. It is really striking that
there is no media arts festival, no new media centers and even a relatively
underdeveloped Internet usage amongst artists and critics. Not much research
and production is being done with the result that many Australian technology
based artists and programmers are migrating overseas. The recode Internet
mailinglist, dealing with Asia-Pacific media arts issues seems pretty much
dead, and with the exception of the excellent (free) RealTime magazine there
is not much media coverage for new media culture. The definition of IT and
e-commerce are very rigid. It seems as if the arts is pretty much locked
into its own funding ghetto. It is unable to communicate with the
broadcasting and print media. There is even a treat of generational
isolation, with younger people getting involved in social- and political
issues such as reconciliation, the S-11 protests in Melbourne, while
gathering at the Newcastle young writers festival. This is my little rant.
How would you describe the situation?

KC: In terms of print publication, RealTime has been fantastic but as you
comment, there is not much else happening in the print media - there is the
odd "special technology" edition of arts publications such as Photofile,
Artlink and Art AsiaPacific but there is still a lot of resistance and lack
of interest and intelligent commentary in the mainstream and contemporary
arts media. One of the most frequent questions I've been asked by arts
journalists about new media work is, "Is it art?" - it's quite depressing!
In the mainstream newspapers, new media arts is usually ghettoized into the
Technology section the rather than the Arts sections so that's another
battle that is still being fought.

In terms of new media arts events, dLux media arts in Sydney has an annual
showcase of new media work in its program and hosts an annual
exhibition/conference called futurescreen which focuses on critical topics
and debates in new media arts. Last year's futurescreen focussed on debates
around artificial life and genetic engineering. This year's futurescreen
will be looking at tactical media. Unfortunately organizations like dLux
media arts in Sydney and Experimenta in Melbourne are operating on tiny
budgets. New initiatives in Australia like Cinemedia in Melbourne look very
promising. There are also plans for a new wing of the Queensland Art Gallery
which will focus on contemporary art including new media. Nothing like that
is currently planned for New South Wales (where Sydney is, GL), although
every few years the Museum for Contemporary Art in Sydney tries to
resuscitate its plans for a new screen arts venue - the problem is always
funding - Sydney had the Olympic Games instead. The politicians all love

Kathy Cleland's exhibition series Cyber Cultures:
If you want to contact her:

Sydney media arts organization dLux:
Melbourne media arts organization:
Australian Network of Art & Technology (Adelaide)
New Media Exhibition Center Cinemedia (Melbourne):
Australian performance and media magazine RealTime:

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