Interview with Kathy Cleland

Australian new media curator

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 cyberculture?

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 evolution.

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 experts!

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 sports!

Kathy Cleland’s exhibition series Cyber
If you want to contact her:
Sydney media arts organization dLux:
Melbourne media arts
Australian Network of Art & Technology (Adelaide)
New Media Exhibition Center Cinemedia (Melbourne)
Australian performance and media magazine RealTime: