new media arts wasted

Part two of the news that Australia Council is trashing the New Media Arts Board. I’m posting this email in full because… well, this is the state of contemporary arts in Australia today, please read it.

Australia Council restructures: New media arts wasted

Keith Gallasch

In a devastatingly serious failure of nerve, shocking ignorance of the state of the arts, let alone total absence of the marketplace verve for which it has lately come to pride itself, the Australia Council for the Arts has “dissolved” its New Media Arts Board (NMAB), distributing its charges to the Visual Arts/Craft and Music Boards respectively. The responsibility for the hybrid arts component of the NMAB will now be in the hands of a newly invented “Inter-Arts Office” (not a Board, and apparently therefore without continuous peer assessor presence) which will “triage” funding applicants to appropriate traditional artform boards. Triage? Are we now “patients”? It’s only a step on from the perverse misnomer of “clients” and it complements the ill state of the many badly under-funded arts companies across the country. But who exactly is sick? Could it be the Australia Council itself?

BAD-MOUTHED?

What did new media arts do to warrant such disgraceful treatment in the Australia Council’s desperate bid to reinvent itself in the long-term absence of new funding? Did someone badmouth new media arts? Was it Ruddock and Kemp’s fury over the Council-funded interactive Woomera detention centre game or violinist Jon Rose playing the fences of Australia? Or did the artform empire within Council strike back, fearful of new media and hybrid arts’ incursions into its territories and funds, frightened of loosening its traditional boundaries? Or is this massive misjudgment the work of the charmingly titled, whiff-of-wartime “Future Planning Taskforce” chaired by Council’s Deputy Chair, Terrey Arcus, a specialist in company restructuring, applying an arts-blind business model?

The job of the New Media Arts Board was to support digital media art practices, many of them not fitting into old artform categories, together with hybrid arts – a remarkable range of emerging forms often entailing new technologies, but not always. The future handling of hybrid practices gets some explanatory treatment in the press release, but new media art is simply dealt with thus: “Digital media arts would be handled by an enhanced Visual Arts/Craft Board, and by the Music Board.” And that’s it.

Council’s December 8 announcement represents a pre-emptive strike, in line with the secretiveness of contemporary governments and bureaucracies – not an iota of consultation with the field, but only with itself, to be followed by a wasteful “national briefing tour.” We want to see these plans in writing, and soon, not in some Power Point demo of the kind in which the Australia Council CEO Jennifer Bott is only too smoothly accomplished. Cancel the briefings.

Together digital media and hybrid practices make important partners in their interplay and overlap. They are the future. Having one board in the NMAB that was no longer artform based and alert to developments in this burgeoning area made a lot of sense, but splitting attention to its concerns does not. Why isn’t the Inter-Arts Office charged with new media arts management and “triaging” as well? The expertise required to understand new media arts is enormous – technology, biology, physics, ethics, law, communications: adding a new member or two to the Visual Arts/Craft and Music Boards will just not do.

MORE THAN VISUAL ART

The assumption is that new media art is either visual art or sound art. It is both of these of course but much, much more as revealed by the recent BEAP (Biennial of Electronic Arts Perth), the ongoing exhibitions at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne) that survey two decades of evolution of new forms, the peak new media arts organisation ANAT (Australian Network of Art and Technology), the Synapse program which brings together artists and scientists, Sydney’s dLux Media Arts, and many artists and companies. There are also the major events that celebrate new media and hybrid arts – MAAP (Multimedia Arts Asia Pacific, this year held in Singapore), SOOB (Straight Out of Brisbane), Electrofringe (Newcastle), the Time_Place_Space hybrid performance laboratory, and unsound (Wagga Wagga). The work of Australian new media artists is widely distributed and internationally admired and reflects a broader Australian curiosity about innovation and new technologies. As the latest edition of RealTime#64 reveals, new media and hybrid practices have been emerging strongly in regional areas across Australia. And for a decade RealTime the national arts magazine has documented in 27,000 copies distributed to a 1000 locations across the country every 2 months just how important new media and hybrid arts have been for a new generation of artists and audiences. This field is a critical area for young artists as reflected in SOOB and Electrofringe. Its forms cannot be relegated to the gallery and the concert hall. Will the Music Board become the Sound/Music Board. Yes, there are overlaps in sound and music cultures, but they are not the same thing. How will the Visual Arts/Craft Board handle the revolution in mobile phone art about to be embraced by the 2005 Adelaide International Film Festival with the collaboration of ANAT? Short film is the model here, not painting, sculpture or installation. Will the Visual Arts/Craft Board have an ethicist on hand to deal with bio-art issues?

Imagine a scene in the Inter-Arts Office. “What is it?” “Looks like an installation.” “Send it down to Visual Arts.” “But it says sound-work.” “Try Music.” “But it’s created by a visual artist.” “Visual arts 60/music 40. Send it to Vis Arts. Let them work it out.” “But it’s attached to an online thingy. And it’s a community project with a performance art component. Gawd, can we refer it to a peer?” “Maybe, but we’re not a board, we’re just an office.” “Should we send it to the Office for Too Hard Basket Cases, Herr Director?” “Don’t call me that. I’m not a director and I’m not on Council.”

BAD LANGUAGE

The bad signs about this restructuring of the Australia Council can be read in the language of the press release, bland but inherently dictatorial, managerial and barely masking guilt and panic, shockingly revealed when the veneer is punctured by that one telling word, ‘triage’, with its commonest connotation of dealing with the wounded. (Who snuck it in? A too-true believer or a subversive in the OzCo ranks? One way or another they’ll have to be shown the door.) Just as telling are the grandiose re-titlings, transformations and brand new labels: “In the Council’s Arts Development Division, the current role of Artform Managers would be elevated to Artform Directors, to drive artform overview across all areas of Council – and to give a stronger external focus, engaging with Australian artists, companies and interest groups, and representing the artform in the public arena.” From Managers to Directors in single corporate leap. Will these new directors be easily identifiable? Will they wear an Australia Council blazer and epaulettes? After all, it is claimed that “they will engage with artists, companies and interest groups, attending exhibitions and performances, and representing the artform in the public sphere.” A new breed? How many of these wunderkind will be glimpsed at a theatre or artspace near you? This has to be a bad joke. This is not the 1970s or the early 80s when there was some chance of a conscientious project officer (and some mighty good ones whose praises have rarely been sung, who travelled thousands of kilometres) sighting an artist’s work or meeting an audience. There are to be only seven Board Directors on Council: how much of an artform from the works of thousands can they represent? Perhaps they could become media personalities. Maybe they already are. Why not follow the ABC’s example and take on a stable of comedians?

But these are more than casual signifier shifts: the Board Managers are to “provide leadership.” Who are they to lead? Artists? All Australians? Do we want leadership or do we want an Australia Council responsive to what is happening in the arts and the rights of Australians to have access to it? We don’t want directors, we want collaborators. We don’t want more corporate lingo to cover up the Council’s failures. The press release has CEO Bott saying that the Council “will take a greater leadership role in the sector.” Just how this is to manifest is not explained. Recently, in defence of Council’s failure to win promises of new funding from either of the major political parties in the run-up to the election, Bott argued that Council’s role is not that of a lobbyist and that the arts community itself was lacking in this respect. If that’s the case what can the Australia Council possibly do to improve its “leadership” and “to ensure we are a catalyst for greater impact”? How can it lead if it can no longer nurture? How can it be a catalyst if it doesn’t have the ingredients to spark? Recent detailed reports on the dance sector, the triennially funded theatre companies and the major organisations all indicate imminent financial disaster which no amount of business planning, sponsorship, partnerships, national or international marketing, or networking are going to seriously alleviate. Leadership won’t solve anything unless it can convince government of the Council’s importance to the arts. Nor is the following scheme likely to help: “The Council also plans to create a separate section – Key Organisations – to handle its relations with 120 small-to-medium arts organisations receiving triennial grants, led by the new role of Director of Key Organisations.” Only 120? How Dickensian, how intimate, how efficient. How meaningless. And another new job. The Council’s “strategic focus over the next 5+ years [will be] to ensure maximum positive impact in the sector.” This is compensatory language, an admission of long term failure.

Worse, the claim that “With this reorganisation the Council bolsters its commitment to supporting arts practice that goes beyond conventional single artform practice” is utterly unconvincing when new forms are shunted back into traditional artform categories. Given the provocative character of these works perhaps they’re better safely tucked away?

Council Chairman David Gonski is quoted as saying, “The reorganisation will more effectively bring artform, sector and other stakeholder issues to the Council table.” The key artforms for Australia’s future won’t get near the Council table in this restructure. They won’t have a voice.

There’s also to be a new Strategy Department. It is announced that the CEO will now “champion strategies” – what was she doing before? What will the new department be about, how to get more funds or to live on less? Clearly the latter. One sad sentence says it all, about an organisation that is in fact trying to preserve itself and in the proud tradition of the “narrowing the gate” era of the sainted McPhee-Lynch partnership: “The objective is to concentrate the Council’s limited resources on a smaller number of critical initiatives, and demonstrate substantial impact in these areas.”

Australians should be enjoying increased opportunities to celebrate the explosion of new media and hybrid arts. Instead, like the arts on the ABC, they’re here being disguised or buried by stealth with the promise that they’ll get greater attention in traditional artform Boards. That’s hard to believe. Will those boards commit to using the money they get from NMAB specifically for new media arts? Will they promote them with vigour?

New media and hybrid arts have been with us for well over a decade and they represent an important transformation in the arts, one to be addressed, not absorbed into generalities or single artform practices. The New Media Arts Board has been a success story, even with the limited funds at its disposal. As Danny Butt writes on the fibreculture list: the NMAB has produced “per capita a pretty well-resourced Australian new media arts scene. Compare it to New Zealand, for example, which didn’t see any need to address new media arts as a special case, and Creative NZ are now trying to develop a ‘new media strategy’ to address NZ’s under-participation in this field compared to other art forms where it is active internationally.” (December 9.)

SICKNESS & CURE

The language of this restructure suggests that it the Australia Council itself is sick, the symptoms an hysterical and inconsistent flurry of mixed metaphors, re-labellings, new jobs, strategies and role-playing – recasting itself ambiguously in terms of arts leadership. The Australia Council has become an ungainly example of a hybrid: funding body, promotional agency (Audience & Market Development), coach (fuel4arts), socio-cultural manager (CCD now absorbed into Audience & Market Development; youth and multicultural programs), and now, curiously, ersatz lobbyist. What appals in this restructure is that in a body with an enormous amount of accumulated knowledge and expertise that it’s Taskforce could underestimated the distinctiveness of new media art and its enormous potential. By not treating it with distinction it will squander an astonishing resource.

The Australia Council’s failure has been turned away from itself and onto a significant sector of the arts community in new media and hybrid arts. It is time to look at ways of supporting new media arts now that the Australia Council has clearly abdicated clear-cut responsibility and transparency. In the short-term the New Media Arts Board must be immediately reconstituted so that artists working through it have security of support. If that is not to happen, then there must be a period of consultation with the field before the restructure goes ahead.

If Council is not amenable to such considerations, then it must be reviewed on much larger and far-reaching scale than in its current narcissistic exercise. A new review would ask if a model that has been functioning for over 30 years is still appropriate, even workable, given the shifts in funding towards the states and local government and various federal government agencies, and substantial growth in and changes to artform practices. In respect of new media and hybrid art, no office or traditional artform board of the Australia Council can be sufficiently in touch with this field. Funds should be devolved directly to key organisations dealing with these practices. They will be responsible for funding artists and companies. There is constant pressure from the Australia Council to achieve new levels of maturity in arts self-management, but key decisions are still made top-down by Council, now more than ever and by an ever-decreasing number of participants and, doubtless, fewer peers. It is time to let go and unleash a greater arts maturity.

What can you do now to protest the restructuring of the Australia Council, in particular the dissolving of the New Media Arts Board? Write directly to CEO Jennifer Bott (mail@ozco.gov.au; or Australia Council PO Box 788, Strawberry Hills, NSW 2012) to lodge your complaint during the staff consultation period which concludes January 30, 2005. After that, attend the briefings and demand transparent treatment of new media and hybrid arts by Council. Alternatively, let us know your feelings about the restructure by writing to RealTime at opencity@ozemail.com.au

Keith Gallasch, Managing Editor, RealTime

editorrealtime@ihug.com.au
www.realtimearts.net