Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Cultural Apartheid : ISEA Sydney

Aboriginal New Media Artists have been focused on building a movement for over 15 years, but were brought to a stand still in Australia, having been excluded from ISEA Sydney 2013. ISEA, which is an acronym for International Symposium of Electronic Arts, has been running since 1988 in the Netherlands, and it tours to different host countries every year or so. The last time it was hosted in Australia was 1992, 21 years ago in Sydney. 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 non-Aboriginal) ISEA hierarchy and others. The meeting, which was held two years previous at the Australia Council for the Arts, finalising a two stage Indigenous Media and Hybrid Arts Roundtable, and was part of an Inter-Arts Fund strategy to develop support for Indigenous experimental media and hybrid arts practices, promised Indigenous involvement in ISEA Sydney as an outcome.

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 communicate fluidly and contribute towards screen-based culture in new ways. Even if we didn’t have a name, such as Blackout, we would still be a collective, because we work in a minority artform, in the minority Aboriginal art scene and we all struggle to represent as new media artists, with very little support or inclusion in Australia. 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 Aboriginal artists 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.

While some Aboriginal artists were promised thousands of dollars to create and present new work, that was reneged upon, and instead, the money was used to open ISEA Sydney with an Aboriginal Welcome to Country and performances for International and interstate guests at Carriageworks in Redfern on Friday June 9, 2013. In the media response to the Blackout Collective, 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. Aside from that, there was a small exhibition of painters works that have garnered a new life with animation, but the question is, where were the Aboriginal New Media Artists for ISEA in Sydney? Would an International Dance showcase being hosted in Australia, get away with only including one Indigenous artist representing that entire artform? Even with a few back up painters sponsored by the mining company thrown in for good measure? Surely there would be an uproar.

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 short list since December 2012, with significant budgets being offered, and continually working on creating new work, only to find out final rejection notification one day before ISEA started in Sydney. It was a huge waste of money upfront 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 Columbian 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 in a partnership between the Latin American Forum and an ARC Linkage project undertaken at the National Institute of Experimental Arts in Australia. Acknowledging that international publications and online archives dedicated to the study of media art are often dominated by white European and North American exemplars, and to further the discussion by drawing attention to the multiple trajectories that have sprouted from outside of the usual centres and dominant paradigms.

Press releases about the exclusion from exhibiting, were sent to the media and to the ISEA Sydney main funder, the Australia Council for the Arts. The story was really only picked up by one mainstream publication, Artshub (in the UK and Australia). Interestingly, the names of Aboriginal New Media Artists who had previously represented at ISEA overseas had been omitted, and instead were replaced by a list of the dancers involved in the Welcome to Country for ISEA Sydney, along with an incorrect list of artists, only one of which works in Aboriginal New Media, and was actually involved in ISEA (and not the Vivid, Festival, which was happening at the same time).

In the Arts Hub 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 only for Victorian Indigenous artists to travel to Sydney for the conference. Aboriginal faces at ISEA Sydney were certainly very few and far between. No official reply was received from ISEA Sydney (until the matter moved into social media, of course...), no official reply came from the International ISEA body and no official reply was received from the Australia Council for the Arts. ...Usually it is a conflict of interest for the funding body of an event to slide a (rare) paying role to one of its own staff, so maybe that is why? * with the usual decades of artform specific experience suddenly not necessary.

The press release received 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 made contact to alert us to the fact that in the 2012 Albuquerque ISEA, exotically titled 'Machine Wilderness', they had also been excluded from participating in their own country. Ironically ISEA International promotes itself publicly on its website as 'an international non-profit organisation fostering interdisciplinary academic discourse and exchange among culturally diverse organisations and individuals'. However, American Indians also understand Cultural Apartheid and Culture Wars very well, and explained to me the notion of Co-option. Now I have a name for something that I have witnessed many times over the years, and which was particularly relevant in this instance as only one role had been created as the outcome of the advocacy of the Indigenous Roundtable, but that role had been filled to work against us, and spend Indigenous assigned funds without us New Media Artists and Curators.

Later in the year, 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 artists selected to make new experimental work were Christine Peacock, Jason Davidson and Michelle Blakeney, and we all travelled to Toronto to speak on a roundtable with other International guests at the annual festival, and later travelled on to London to present at the inaugural conference in the UK. The arts hub article about the ISEA exclusion, described this as an “ambitious presentation”, however, it is much easier and much more gratifying to organise engagement overseas, than it is in our homeland, especially given the greater divide between the film and new media arts here, and the lack of major Indigenous arts institutions, staff and interest. Highlighted again upon returning home to find that the short lived New Media category has been canned from of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, without any prior warning to the field of artists, nor consultation.

The imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival is an international festival in Toronto that 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 film makers, media artists, programmers, buyers, and industry professionals. The works accepted reflect the diversity of the world's Indigenous nations and illustrate the vitality and excellence of our art and culture in contemporary media.

Superhighway across the sky' will be launched in 2014 and featured with cyberTribe, an online gallery focused on nurturing 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 gallery spaces across the world. cyberTribe celebrates 15 years in 2014, and over the years, has brought together Indigenous artists from places across 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 over the years 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 in the ABC RN announcement: “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 out back where communities are keeping fires of tradition and continuity burning strong.”
...So what's next? Now we wait 20 years or so, for the next ISEA to come to Australia and see what happens then? Meanwhile we observe a charmed circle of the mainstream Australian Art scene do what they do best – promote their own interests, and sickeningly get all self-congratulatory about it. Even though Parsons had started the ISEA Sydney role very late, and it was only for a few months anyway, it is interesting to note that he has already been appointed to a major New Media Arts role in one of the very few New Media specialised organisations – Experimenta. This is usually unheard of - for an inexperienced outsider of the medium to be anointed with free passage through the gate ...but not entirely surprising. Although the hypocrisy is astounding, its the Australian way.
Jenny Fraser

an edited version of this article has been featured in Artlink Magazine under the title 
Cultural Apartheid and the Superhighway across the Sky


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