In the pre-internet times of 1987, Artlink published its first special issue dedicated to digital media art practice–Art & Technology. A joint project between Artlink, Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT) and Apple computers, this milestone issue heralded a new era of digital publishing and provided an overview of digital cultural practice in Australia.
This prescient commitment for writing on digital arts was due in part to the participation of Artlink’s founding editor Stephanie Britton in Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation (EAF) of the late 1980s when EAF commissioned a report into art and technology practice, which seeded the formation of ANAT. Australian artists and computer scientists had been experimenting with computer generated art since the 1960s and a new cohort of digital media practitioners, such as Paula Dawson, Jill Scott and Peter Callas, were becoming widely acknowledged for their work in holographics, digital animation and computer-generated video.
The editorial entrée to Art & Technology embraces the digital impact on artistic practice:
The computer, with its potential to emulate human cognition, is perhaps the single most important invention since the wheel in the history of technology. Virtually every area of human activity including every branch of the arts, have been influenced by the computer. Writers, composers, visual artists, designers, even dancers are involved in major revisions of their working methods.
It goes on to note the gender imbalance within the digital arts sector. An enduring concern for contemporary art, it continues today, more broadly, as an inverse issue, reflected in job loss projections against the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation. Unsurprisingly, women’s livelihoods are at greater risk.
A source of continuing concern is the small number of women we were able to represent here, with the exception of the area of new video. Despite increased access it seems the old realities of technology being a male domain are still current and are unintentionally reinforced within the education system.
Art & Technology remains an important historical document as it offers an insight into the early days of Apple Macintosh computers, who aligned themselves with the arts as the ‘go to’ computer for artists and designers. At four times the size of a standard issue, featuring 32 full‑colour pages, the first five pages are dedicated to Apple as a sort of ‘advertorial’ on ‘How to build a design studio, a type house and a print shop on your desk.’
At the time, Apple Macintosh computers were only just starting to be utilised as an artist’s tool. There were various types of computers and systems being used by artists for experimentation and the exploration of coding, algorithms, computer graphics, sound, music, animation and moving image. The issue sets out to provide a comprehensive overview into these practices, across form, media and style, an effort reflected in its thematic concerns: Texts; Binary Vision: visual art and computers; New Video; Producing the Goods; Lucid Dimensions; The New Score and The Network.
Texts were devoted to an emerging digital culture in Australia at the time, and theoretical ideas of simulation, computing and image-making. Influential thinkers and theorists were invited to contribute, with the renowned art critic and theorist Donald Brook asking in his essay Cleaning Up Computer Graphics, ‘If computers are to represent the real world pictorially, should they be programmed to follow the principles of natural resemblance–if there are any such principles–or should they be taught the conventions of likeness currently prevailing among picture users?’ A question we could ask today against the emerging challenges of AI, Brook’s insight explores the ways in which computers are ‘taught’ or programmed to mimic or reflect reality, a phenomenon we might now describe as synthetic image-making.
In her pictorial essay Image Through Process, Sally Pryor provides an indirect response to Brook by talking through her personal process of image-making via the computer. Although brief, it is a key text for describing creative and technical processes. Pryor says,
I wanted to make a picture about a bumper sticker I saw which read One nuclear bomb could ruin your whole day. First I scanned a 50's magazine cover into the computer using a camera digitiser. Next I wrote a small program to process the computer file of my picture. It rebuilt the picture using randomly selected blocks of 10 scan lines… It was fragmented yet personal. The interesting thing to me is that I'd had only the idea but not a mental image of how it should look.
It is important to remember that in 1987 access to computers was limited, they were not in every home or studio. Organisations like ANAT and the Australia Council (now Creative Australia) were essential in providing access to higher-end facilities housed in research organisations and universities–a radical difference from current desktop AI like MidJourney or DALL-E.
In his essay Fine Tuning, Warren Burt talks of his experience at the CSIRO/Artists and New Technologies Program administered by the Australia Council, a program which also supported Moya Henderson's work with her bass triangles instrument and Paula Dawson's holographic work.
Burt had returned from overseas and was looking to continue fabricating a series of aluminium tuning forks. He connected with the CSIRO National Measurement Laboratory in Melbourne and found they had a machine shop and precise frequency measuring equipment tuned to the microtonal scales Burt was working with. Over a 12-month period, Burt worked with CSIRO and other partners to realise his project which culminated in an improvised concert broadcast live over ABC Radio National's program 'Music Line’.
Artlink continued its commitment to showcasing Australian art and technology practices. A decade later, in 1996, came Arts in the Electronic Landscape guest edited by Amanda McDonald Crowley, then-Director of ANAT. The issue examined multimedia arts and education, audience interaction, and frontiers and challenges for the future. In a first for Artlink, it featured a bonus CD-Rom titled Sequinz attached to the cover showcasing a survey of electronic art in Australia at the time. Playable only on Macintosh, today, the Artlink team is unable to access its content using current operating systems; Sequinz is now emblematic of the many conservation challenges of digital works.
Whether a deliberate reference to the 1986 Art & Technology issue, or by pure coincidence, Arts in the Electronic Landscape opens again with essays from Donald Brook and Simon Penny. These introductory essays focus on the role of the computer in making art and theoretical concerns, such as Simon Penny’s dilemma as a practitioner in the field:
When one is involved in the generation of an artwork which requires the techniques and tools of engineering, the identity of the work as art can become tenuous. The work of R&D engineering is the same, whether one is building an interactive sculpture or a washing machine.
Emerging technologies are also discussed such as the arrival of Virtual Reality (VR), with Geoffrey Batchen’s essay Spectres of Cyberspace, talking quite melodramatically of science fiction becoming reality. He writes,
A new spectre is haunting Western culture — the spectre of Virtual Reality. Not here yet but already a force to be reckoned with. The term has been coined to describe an imagined assemblage of human and machine so intertwined that the division between the two is no longer discernible. In VR, so it is said, the human will be irresistibly melded to the morphology of its technological supplement.
Of course, parallel (and perhaps empty) rhetoric has surrounded AI, a technology that has been famously described as Life 3.0.
From these opening essays, the issue goes on to feature works by significant Australian new media artists such as Nigel Helyer, renowned sound artist who exhibited his installation Silent Forest in San Francisco in 1996, John Tonkin and his Elective Physiognomies (1994-96) interactive digital work and Patricia Piccinini Yours Forever (1995), included in the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition Perception and Perspective.
A short yet important feature is Electronic Media Collection – Griffith Artworks which addresses the acquisition policies of Queensland’s Griffith University Art Collection. The university gallery is one of the few tertiary institutions in Australia to consistently collect and archive Australian digital and video artworks. The article notes that, ‘Such a collection of video and electronic-based art maps alternative art histories and provides a central core of material to support the many works in the Collection which are influenced by the impact of technology.’
With limited options for commissions or opportunities to sell work in Australia, even exhibit new media work at the time, several major Australian media artists relocated overseas in the 1990s. As guest editor McDonald-Crowley notes in her essay Electronic Art in Australia: Do we have critical mass?:
A continuing problem for Australian art is that many of Australia's more successful and internationally acclaimed artists have simply packed their bags and headed for foreign shores where more opportunities present themselves… However, it is also crucial to acknowledge the huge diversity of practice which exists in Australia. There are many artists both established and emerging, who are exploring the cutting edge of culture and society.
The late 1990s and 2000s saw a significant ramping up of digital arts practice in Australia and a wider profile through exhibitions: CD‑Rom: Burning the Interface (1996) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Cyber Cultures: Sustained Release (2000) touring exhibitions presented by Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre and the Biennial of Electronic Art Perth (2002–2007). In 2001, the third Artlink art and technology issue, guest edited by Kathy Cleland and titled E-volution of New Media, investigated the burgeoning field of interdisciplinary and collaborative new media practice in Australia.
It put forward the idea of computers as just another tool for artists, digital art was becoming accepted as a medium of art. Less understood was the internet as a potentially powerful new way of showing—and making—art. Web‑based art, sound works and writing were explored alongside hybrid forms using imaging tools developed for microbiology, or performance works involving machines and digital images.
In 2007, I was invited to guest edit the fourth art and technology special issue. At the time video art had become mainstream and was pervasive in both the Australian and international art arenas. Screen Deep sought to ‘take the temperature’ of new media arts and moving image practice in Australia. The issue looked at the increasing blurred lines between video, digital media and online platforms, and how the screen was becoming a dominant format to experience and engage with contemporary art. It explored how artists were working in this space and the ways in which audiences experienced moving image-based works (online, in galleries, the black box, public space). Screen Deep also focused on emerging forms of interactive media at the time—Second Life, Web 2.0, avatars and machinima—with writers invited to scratch the screen, crack it and get under its surface.
The issue opened with a feature spread on Lynette Wallworth, with the works Hold: Vessel 1 (2001), Evolution of Fearlessness (2006), Invisible by Night (2004) and Damavand Mountain (2004) which were being exhibited in Australia at galleries such as ACMI and Samstag Museum of Art as well as overseas. Wallworth has gone on to become a major international artist in the creation of ground-breaking interactive and VR works, such as Collisions (2016)–an immersive documentary on atomic testing in the South Australian desert.
An essay by Kathy Cleland, Entering the Screen, explored the rise of interactive online environments and the explosion of online avatars. The mid-2000's saw a boom in online spaces, especially Second Life with a mad rush to create islands and worlds inhabited by fictitious personas and spaces. It was perfect millennial escapism and even organisations such as the ABC and Australia Council created their own Second World Islands. This was made possible by better bandwidth and higher resolution screens and was an opportunity to go deep within the screen, to enter the computer and make it a social and online gathering space.
I returned to Artlink at Eve Sullivan’s invitation in 2018 to guest edit Virtual Reality Ways of Seeing. Inspired by John Berger’s seminal ideas, it questioned how technologies such as VR influence the way we see and asked what the technology might offer contemporary art. Writers contemplated this changing landscape and explored how artists and museums were engaging with VR, and how audiences became part of the artist’s vision as both player and agent. As with the application of all new technologies, artists were driven to probe, experiment with and sometimes even break the machine, challenging the possibilities of the medium.
The cover featured Fleshold Crossing (2017), a VR animation by Jess Johnson and Simon Ward. Both hailing from New Zealand, in Denise Thwaites’ essay Ways of (not) seeing: Structures of Visibility in VR, the artists talk of their early influences from gaming culture and Johnson’s drawing practice. The duo have since created astounding and elaborate VR worlds, exhibited at the National Gallery of Australia in the 2018 exhibition Terminus. As noted by Waites,
Ward’s adaptation of Johnson’s surreal imagery into sensorially saturating digital worlds is done with the aim of seducing, disorienting and troubling the audience. In doing so, Johnson and Ward use VR as a psychedelic conduit that pierces the fabric of reality, indulging what they consider to be the audiences’ innate exploratory drive to see beyond immediate reality.
The Ways of Seeing issue also sought out works that were using VR as a vehicle to talk of social and political issues, and how it can be experienced in a gallery setting. In Vince Dziekan’s essay, The virtuous politics of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena, the creation of an immersive filmic space is discussed and explored with a focus on the US-Mexico border. It situates the viewer in crossing the border with a group of migrants. The impact of the work, created by the director of films 21 Grams (2003) and The Revenant (2015), is vividly described by Dziekan as he guides the reader through a harrowing and life changing experience.
The world–and future–of digital art has come a long way since Art & Technology in 1987. Technology itself has developed at a whirlwind piece, as have artist’s concerns and the ways in which screen-based and digital art is distributed and experienced. What remains is the dedication and tenacity of artists to experiment, break, challenge and disrupt these tools and forms to create works that exist online, in virtual space, on screens and in the ether. They contemplate our place in the world, the many challenges we face, interrogate power and control, create pleasure and invite audiences to envisage and imagine many possible futures together.
- ^ ‘8 in 10 female workers in the United States, compared to 6 in 10 men, have jobs that are “highly exposed” to automation, meaning that over a quarter of their tasks can be automated by generative AI.’ Annabelle Timsit, ‘AI will take more jobs from women than men by 2030, report says’, The Washington Post, 26 July 2023.
- ^ “Why Digital Art Lives Fast and Dies Young”, 24 August, 2023, in The Art Angle Podcast, mp3 audio, 28:41, Apple podcasts.
- ^ Max Tegmark, the Swedish-American physicist responsible for the 2023 Open Letter to AI-focused tech firms, uses this figuration in his 2017 non-fiction book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.
Julianne Pierce is an Adelaide/Tarntanya based writer, curator and artist. She is a founding member of the cyberfeminist artist group VNS Matrix.