Do Art-droids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Peter Robinson and Jacqueline Fraser were the first two New Zealand artists ever to be included in the Venice Biennale. Both were chosen as a result of their work, rich in conceptual layering and with roots in Maori culture, but wrapped in appealingly conventional presentation styles with plenty of hooks for an international audience. This fact leads Butt to the discussion surrounding the support for New Zealands arts and culture sectors, pointing to a few examples such as Cuckoo, The Physics Room web project series and artists such as Sean Kerr and Warren Olds.

This year, New Zealand sent its first ever representatives to the Venice Biennale. Peter Robinson and Jacqueline Fraser were easy choices - both make conceptually layered work with roots in Maori culture, but wrapped in appealingly conventional presentation styles with plenty of hooks for an international audience.

But while Fraser's ribbon installations draw upon a deep connection to Maori story-telling traditions and visual culture, Robinson changes media like underwear, trying everything on in his witty and pointed engagements with biculturalism. The Biennale work contains a series of digital prints, each filled with a grid of 1s and 0s. These are rendered in the traditional Maori black, red and white - reminiscent of tukutuku panelling, which often lines the walls of meeting houses. Titles such as The Presence and Absence of God point toward a shift from '10' to 'Io', the Maori deity who is the source of all life in some tribal traditions. While there are many possible readings, according to mainstream press coverage, the work also highlights New Zealand's obsession with things digital.

If we do have an obsession with technology, you wouldn't know it by checking out the state of new media arts. New Zealand is well ahead of Australia in both cultural funding and contemporary art institutions per capita but we are well behind on the number of practicing new media artists. Robinson's work sums up New Zealand's relationship with new media culture - everyone is talking about it, but who's doing it?

A primary reason for the lack of new media arts activity is the lack of institutional support, particularly at a national level. The national arts funding body, Creative New Zealand, has lumped new media arts funding support into its Screen Innovation Fund, which is explicitly set up with the New Zealand Film Commission to provide seed funding for potential short-film auteurs.

More substantial support has come from the independent and non-profit organisations. Deborah Lawler-Dormer, who curated the exceptional new media art survey show Electronic Bodyscapes for Artspace in 1996, now directs The Moving Image Centre, New Zealand's leading resource for screen arts. The MIC have brought to new Zealand leading overseas practitioners such as the Mongrel collective, and hosted shows such as Cyber Cultures, curated by Kathy Cleland, which includes the excellent Digital String Games installation by local artists Maureen Lander and John Fairclough. While the MIC's web project series hasn't seen action in the last few years, they have expressed interest in commissioning online projects in the future.

Artspace in Auckland and The Physics Room in Christchurch are two long-running contemporary art spaces which have been actively commissioning new media projects, and occasionally online works. Lara Bowen directed Artspace 1994-1996 and facilitated strong connections with Auckland's experimental sound and performance communities, organising many shows to bring in new audiences from outside the contemporary visual arts scene. Current director Robert Leonard comes from an institutional contemporary arts background, but has maintained Artspace's involvement with new media, presenting works from artists such as Terrence Handscomb, and hosting Joyce Campbell and Ross George's ambitious, now-deceased online work Bloom.

The Physics Room's web project series has been one of the longest-running efforts to develop NZ online art. Inadequate resourcing means they don't host an archive of previous works, so excellent projects such as the Nigel Clark-curated Shrinking Worlds are unfortunately no longer available. The latest addition to this series is curated by David Hatcher (a.k.a. Blank Industries) a Christchurch-trained video/new media artist now resident in Germany. 4eva is a 'meta-fanatical' site, a homage to musical fandom in all its forms, complete with mp3 and RealAudio streams from new and established sound artists.

But while institutional support for new media art in NZ moves in fits and starts, there are signs that changes could be imminent. Cuckoo are a group of young Auckland academics who are curating interesting contemporary art shows in other people's spaces, perhaps indicating that educational institutions are the new home for the energy associated with artist-run spaces during the mid-90s. Other artists like Sean Kerr and Warren Olds are part of a network of young academics fostering development of students working in new media. Many of these students are coming from institutions where the art/design crossover takes place, rather than from the traditional University-based fine-arts schools such as Auckland's Elam and Christchurch's Ilam. Expect to see significant new work from graduates of institutions like Wellington's Massey University, Dunedin's Otago Polytechnic, and Hamilton's Waikato Institute of Technology before long.

Sean Kerr is probably New Zealand's highest profile new media artist, curator, and lecturer. His work often takes methods associated with music composition (rhythmic experimentation, sampling) and extrapolates them into visual plays on Pop Art formalism and minimalist artmaking practices. His recent residency in Artspace Sydney resulted in the imposing Stacker, a massive wall constructed of old speakers which rocked the gallery with explosions when viewers entered. Other projects seem to make visible the latent aggression in abstraction: generated bullet holes randomly rupturing computerised representations of Jasper Johns' target paintings, or Warholian Shockwave portraits of the artist in confrontation with unseen rivals. Kerr's works convey the subtle pathos in the end-game of contemporary aesthetic masculinity. Through the archives on his website a coherent picture emerges of a 96-pound weakling in boxing gloves, a wannabe Pollock inspired by the Clement Greenberg archives to take on all comers, but nonetheless finding redemption in getting his arse kicked by the big guns.

Warren Olds is well known as the designer for New Zealand's only contemporary art magazine Log Illustrated, organiser of artist-run spaces such as Dunedin's Honeymoon Suite, and designer of many artists' catalogues. His art career has received less coverage, but he has probably generated the most significant sustained online production in the country. His latest work Dotcom AOK deploys online materials and techniques in an installation setting. Users are invited to play the classic arcade game The New Zealand Story in front of perspectival wall-paintings of football stadiums. Dotcom AOK continues Olds' systematic investigation of 32-colour sprites and 3D wireframe rendering traditionally associated with 1980s computer games, but revived through the Internet's primitive graphic environments.

In the online world, there has been little ongoing production by established artists, although Terrence Handscomb has placed his recent internet-oriented gallery projects onto his website. The mid-late 90s seemingly sparked a brief flurry of online arts activity such as Robert Hutchinsons' excellent, now-defunct Spatial State project - the first New Zealand site devoted solely to commissioning and producing new online works by contemporary artists. 1997 also saw the launch of Codec, a national project linking Artspace and The Physics Room with artist-run spaces Teststrip and GDV in the commissioning of four significant new online projects, and launching a publication containing interviews with commentators on New Zealand online culture. The idea was to share infrastructure and build dialogue between cities, or perhaps function as an advocacy project akin to the Australian Network for Art and Technology, but so far none of the institutions involved have followed up on the intention to make it an evolving site.

The standout example from this project is Michael Stevenson and Robert Hutchinson's Alt.waysofseeing, commissioned by Artspace. Stevenson expands on his hilarious conspiracy theories concerning a cabal of international curators and organisations led by the Dia Center. The site is rendered in an authentic web-paranoid style, complete with screeds of caps-locked, centred text, starry background images, and shonky password-protection.

Keri Whaitiri and Mike Dunn's huri, ka huri, huri noa is another excellent Codec project commissioned by the Physics Room. The site makes extensive use of Java and sound to investigate the role of whakatauki, (traditional oral forms of speech) in Maori language, and asserts the status of orality as more than a precursor to literacy. Both traditional Maori speakers and Pakeha were randomly selected by Whaitiri and recorded speaking traditional Maori proverbs. In a medium which is intimately tied to connecting global cultures, the awkwardness of the Pakeha recitals highlights the violence of translation and transcription in poignant clarity.

In current online practice, some of the most interesting work has come from outside the established contemporary art scene. Douglas Bagnall is an experimental film-maker, musician, and web developer from Wellington, whose 12,800,000 Views of The South Island and Taranaki allows users to construct their own painting in New Zealand's modernist landscape traditions. After generating a unique, numbered composition the work can be automatically 'reviewed' by a panel of fictional 'experts'. Bagnall and collaborator Lissa Mitchell's site features other excellent projects which don't always sit within the art context - see for example the reconstruction of Space Invaders for the 5k web design project, or the Unix application which feeds randomly generated passwords into a search engine. Bagnall is ahead of the pack with his unusual blend of cultural nous and technical facility. He believes that this integration is crucial, and fans of the axis will undoubtedly agree with his assertion that "many web artists are scrabbling to keep up with technology and denying themselves the familiarity with tools and materials and traditions that has always been a defining characteristic of the 'artist'".

The initiative of a few committed individuals making such great work only makes the ad hoc institutional support for new media practice even more palpable. The independent institutions may have to take on more of an educational role with the funding bodies, or develop stronger relationships with the public institutions to ensure this support comes in the future. When the only actively commissioning organisation can't even afford to host archives of previous web projects, it's clear that urgent action is required to protect the small history of work done to date.