Still image from LANDED by Christine Peacock, commissioned for 'Super Highway across the Sky', and pre-selected for imagineNATIVE 2013.

Cultural Apartheid and the Superhighway across the Sky

Aboriginal New Media Artists have been focused on building their own movement for over 15 years, but were recently brought to a standstill in Australia, having been excluded from the International Symposium of Electronic Arts (ISEA) in Sydney in 2013. ISEA has been running since 1988 in the Netherlands, and tours to different host countries every year. ISEA Sydney 2013 was organised by an Australian-based committee with very little Aboriginal new media arts input, despite a face-to-face meeting between Indigenous artists, the (the non-Aboriginal) ISEA hierarchy and others at the Australia Council for the Arts in 2011.

Instead, the Sydney ISEA Curatorium blocked Aboriginal New Media Arts interests such as the Blackout Collective from participating. The Blackout Collective is a group of Aboriginal creators from all over Australia who contribute towards screen-based culture in new ways. Ironically, the official slogan for ISEA Sydney 2013 was ‘Resistance is Futile’, and Aboriginal New Media Artists are certainly familiar with the notion.

While the Blackout Collective may be small in number, and spread across the country, many of its members have represented at international electronic arts events such as ISEA, SIGGRAPH, X Media Lab, Ars Electronica in Austria and the InteractivA Biennale in Mexico. Over the years, this has included Aroha Groves (NSW) in ISEA Istanbul in 2011, r e a (NSW) in SIGGRAPH San Diego 2007, Genevieve Grieves (NSW) and myself (QLD) in ISEA/Zero1 San Jose 2006, and Jason Davidson (NT) in ISEA Helsinki in 2004.

Aboriginal New Media Artists were promised thousands of dollars to create and present new work at ISEA Sydney 2013. But that promise was reneged upon, and instead, the money was used to open ISEA Sydney with an Aboriginal Welcome to Country. The Australian ISEA Director, Jonathon Parsons, perpetuated the idea that the welcome performance was the be-all and end-all of an Aboriginal presence at ISEA Sydney, but really a welcome and performance are just a normal part of Aboriginal culture, which should occur at every significant gathering in our country. In ISEA 2013 there was a small exhibition of works by Aboriginal painters using animation, but the question is, where was the work of the dedicated Aboriginal New Media Artists at ISEA in Sydney?

Not only did the Australian ISEA organisers exclude Aboriginal New Media Artists from exhibiting at an international electronic arts event in our own country, but they failed to manage the situation professionally. In good faith, Indigenous artists jumped through their hoops and proposed new projects a year before, and had been on the shortlist since December 2012, with significant budgets being offered, and continually working on creating new work, only to find out formal rejection notification one day before ISEA started in Sydney. It was a huge waste of money and good energy in trying to meet the deadline with very little useful communication from the organisers.

However, the International guests were interested in Aboriginal New Media Arts and invited some of us for an opportunity to speak at the ISEA conference as part of the Latin American forum panel titled Re:imag(in)ing Indigenous Media Art Histories alongside Colombian practitioners. The discussion was framed around a focus on the respective histories of Indigenous Australian artists working with new media, and in particular the inroads and dialogues established in international networks. More broadly the session addressed issues of identity, representation and visuality in the so-called ‘Global South’.

The panel was organised through a partnership between the Latin American Forum and an ARC Linkage project undertaken at the National Institute of Experimental Arts in Australia. The panel acknowledged that international publications and online archives dedicated to the study of media art are often dominated by white European and North American exemplars, and also drew attention to the multiple trajectories that have sprouted outside the usual centres and dominant paradigms.

A press release about the active exclusion of Aboriginal New Media Artists from participating in ISEA were sent to the media and to the ISEA Sydney main funder, the Australia Council for the Arts. The story was picked up by one mainstream publication, artsHub (in the UK and Australia). In the article, Parsons states that “ISEA2013 also provided a number of bursaries to encourage the participation of Indigenous artists in the conference”, but actually the bursaries were provided by Arts Victoria, and specifically for Victorian Indigenous artists to travel to Sydney for the conference. Aboriginal faces at ISEA2013 were certainly very few and far between. No official response was received from ISEA Sydney, nor from the International ISEA body or the Australia Council for the Arts. 

The press release did receive interest internationally, and in the resulting conversations we learned that it wasn’t the first time that ISEA had failed to deal with the ‘Indigenous problem’ adequately. Some Native American artists and journalists alerted us to the fact that in the 2012 Albuquerque ISEA, exotically titled Machine Wilderness, they had also been excluded from participating. Ironically ISEA International promotes itself on its website as “an international non-profit organisation fostering interdisciplinary academic discourse and exchange among culturally diverse organisations and individuals”. American Indians however also understand cultural apartheid and culture wars very well, and explained to me the notion of co-option.

Later in 2013, the Blackout Collective presented a new online art project Superhighway across the Sky at the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto, Canada. The Australian artists selected to make new experimental work were Christine Peacock, Jason Davidson and Michelle Blakeney. We all travelled to Toronto to speak on a roundtable with other international guests, following which we travelled to London to present at the inaugural conference. In general it is much easier and much more gratifying to organise engagement overseas, than it is in our homeland. This was highlighted again upon returning home to find that the New Media category has been dropped from the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award without consultation.

The imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival celebrates the latest works by Indigenous peoples on the forefront of innovation in film, video, radio, and new media. Each year, the Festival presents a selection of the most compelling and distinctive Indigenous works from around the globe. The festival’s screenings, panel discussions, and cultural events attract and connect filmmakers, media artists, programmers, buyers, and industry professionals. The works reflect the diversity of the world’s Indigenous nations and illustrate the vitality and excellence of our art and culture in contemporary media.

Online residency Superhighway across the Sky will be launched in 2014 on cyberTribe, an online gallery focused on nurturing Indigenous digital art. cyberTribe has been at the forefront of exhibiting cutting-edge and politically important artworks from Indigenous artists internationally, both in its online gallery and other physical gallery spaces across the world. cyberTribe celebrates 15 years in 2014, and over the years, has brought together Indigenous artists from Australia, the Pacific, the Americas and elsewhere to participate in exhibitions of international standing. All without any annual funding, ever.

An important milestone for cyberTribe includes winning the ABC Radio National Indigenous Cultural Centre/Keeping Place Award in 2009 for creating a unique place for Indigenous artists to create and exhibit new media work as well as more traditional forms. Museums Australia Director, Bernice Murphy, commented on the ABC: “The award to cyberTribe reminds us all that Indigenous creativity needs to be supported in the most up-to-date forms - even in ‘regional cyberspace’ – as well as outback where communities are keeping fires of tradition and continuity burning strong.”


cyberTribe on facebook
ISEA Latin American Forum #3
ISEA Sydney 2013
ISEA Sydney 2013 on facebook

Jenny Fraser is a Murri artist and curator engaged with sovereignty and emancipation. She works within a fluid screen-based practice of bold and confronting art that utilises popular cultural references as a bridge to challenge viewer’s frames of reference. Her practice has also been partly defined through a strong commitment to collaboration with others and she is motivated to redefine the art of curating as an act of sovereignty and emancipation, founding cyberTribe online gallery over a decade ago.

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