The Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader, edited by Stella Brennan and Su Ballard, (Aotearoa Digital Arts and Clouds, 2008) 240 pp., $60.00.
The Landfall Online Review seems like an appropriate place to review The Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader; an opportunity to consider the digital lay of the land from within. It is also a chance to touch on the critical realm of art online – and the factors that affect the discussion and dialogue that surround current commentary. Now readers have a chance to disseminate this review, and respond to it if they choose, on Facebook, Twitter, email, or on their blog. Yet, Landfall still exists in its printed format. And it has valid reasons to, just as there are valid reasons for the Digital Arts Reader to exist in print form. Published nearly two years ago, the book is now inevitably showing its age, but despite this it remains an extremely valuable publication in the national discourse. It is this messy crossover between media and formats that characterises the time and place that we occupy and it is these tensions that are played out frequently in The Reader.
Aotearoa Digital Arts Network is New Zealand’s only digital arts network and has its origins in the website/message board of the organisation where members discuss projects, opportunities and issues. Members herald the site as a crucial point of connection between New Zealand artists practising in digital media within the country and outside of it. The Reader is representative of the diverse membership of practitioners and is comprehensive, inclusive and reflects the multifaceted, interdisciplinary nature of digital arts in Aotearoa.
The Reader contains a variety of theoretical analyses, case studies, and broader views of practice. At times some of the articles read like timelines — listing name after name and work after work — this is especially true of some of the accounts of residencies which seem to be exercises in documentation for its own sake. Those pieces that strive to provide historical surveys do so admirably: Andrew Clifford’s ‘Interdisciplinary Moments: A History in Glimpses’, and Su Ballard’s piece on sound and noise art, both cover the necessary areas of practice, but also touch on lesser-known moments. Clifford and Ballard’s wide coverage and historical contextualisation of a number of themes that run throughout The Reader means that these pieces would serve better towards the beginning of the book where they would be able to establish a chronology.
Instead, and arguably just as usefully, the reader begins with an exploration of questions of definition: Caroline McCaw examines how relevant the terms ‘new media’ and ‘digital media’ are currently and will be in the near future – her point, lucidly made, is that the modes of production, reception and consumption are still shifting and that flux is innately part of the media in question. While McCaw focuses on dynamism, Douglas Bagnall’s concise history of the concepts and moments that define digital in relation to analogue is satisfyingly concrete. It is an article that should be required reading for art students of all disciplines.
In the final article of the book, ‘Internet; Environment’, Julian Priest poetically captures the tangle — or tango — between the material world and the digital realm. By viscerally illustrating the obvious connections between our physical actions and the creation and maintenance of the World Wide Web, the standardised dualist conception is broken down to the unavoidable reality that it is all part of our physical environment — and that, crucially, they cannot be separated. It is a well-chosen article to end the book as it completes the circle established by Sally Jane Norman’s Foreword that begins by looking at the digital arts in a local, culturally specific context. Norman outlines the desire of artists in Aotearoa to express a rootedness in whenua — so that politics of place never disappear — and while increasing digitisation builds cyber-bridges so as to conquer the tyranny of distance, there is no escaping the here-ness of here. A number of authors develop this point further, exploring the connection between Maori culture and tradition, and the digital world.
Maree Mills’ piece ‘Contemporary Maori Women’s New Media Art Practice’ draws links between oral culture and digital media, citing their phenomenological similarities. Janine Randerson and Danny Butt also note corresponding patterns of information transmission across digital technology, Randerson drawing particular attention to the dislocated intermediary site of Rachel Rakena’s Rerehiko.
While many of the writers bask in the fact that digital is a transient, often ephemeral medium, Lissa Mitchell grapples with the very real issues that work of this kind raises for museums and other arts institutions in terms of conservation and maintenance. Artists are now more involved than ever in the ongoing updating and archiving of their digital work. Stella Brennan and Steven Cleland further this conversation in their article ‘Onsite and Online’, which details the roles contemporary galleries have played in producing internet-based work.
These articles highlight the role of the audience and provide a reminder that digital work, while stimulated locally, has the potential to reach an international and diasporic audience and that this audience can network and be collaborative. In ‘Open Interactions’ Karl D.D. Willis analyses the concept of interactivity and presents a quasi-manifesto for those wishing to create or display work that relies on audience interaction. He references MIT’s definition of interaction which states that it should be in the form of a conversation rather than be a lecture, and notes that quality interactions produce highly participatory creative experiences. The article is a tonic to the last two decades, where ‘interactivity’ became a buzzword for institutions that looked for an easy way to increase audience numbers. Mitchell, Brennan and Cleland and Willis all contribute to the value of The Reader as an excellent point of departure for good practice in the digital field.
The sheer amount of work and range of practices covered is extremely impressive: the publication certainly lives up to its ‘Reader’ tag. Su Ballard and Stella Brennan have been thorough with their selections, covering all the nuances of digital visual art, as well as theatre and performance art; we are given personal glimpses into the practices of Nathan Pohio, Julian Oliver and Helen Varley Jamieson, to name just a few. There is also a great array of colour images that illustrate the articles, as well as featuring on artists’ pageworks.
However it does seem to me that the large amount of miscellaneous information in The Reader — which contains 34 articles in total — could benefit from a restructuring, possibly using thematised chapters. At present its trove of knowledge resembles the helter-skelter form of the World Wide Web. It would be wonderful to see a second edition of The Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader that builds on the very high quality of the first, and provides updates of the work that members of ADA have been doing over the last three years.
JAMIE HANTON is a visual arts writer and curator. He is currently the Director of The Blue Oyster Art Project Space in Dunedin.