The Emergence of New Electronic Forms in Australian Art

Bill Seaman 1993

A Selection:

Jon McCormack, Linda Dement, Stelarc, John Colette, Allen Giddy, VNS Matrix, Phillip George, Joyce Hinterding

In this article I will present a landscape of Emergent Electronic forms (as well as related forms) in Australian Art. I will present this as an insider/outsider having come to Australia from the United States and the world of MIT - The Center for Advanced Visual Studies and the Media Lab, three years ago as a visiting artist. I am currently Senior Lecturer and 4D Area Head in the Media Art Department, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales and a practicing artist working with interactive Videodisc, exploring language, image and sound relations.

Australia has produced some of the finest artists working with electronic media in the world. In one sense Australia is a small world (19 Million) separated by the "Tyranny of Distance" from other technological centers. Venues which support cutting edge electronic work are few and far between. Despite this there is a very strong network of artists who tap into an international pool of technological knowledge, often working in a very independent, innovative and energtic manner in obscure studios, bedrooms, University Labs, Art Schools and commercial facilities, scattered across this vast continent. Access to specific high end facilities is a key problem (Silicon Graphics, IBM, and Sun workstations) which is often accomodated through attachment to University Laboratories. Another approach is the innovative use of more affordable computer systems in the home environment (Apple Macintosh, Amiga and Atari computers).

One of the major factors effecting the landscape of electronic media artists in Australia is the physical distance from international venues, distribution possibilities, funding, symposia, media festivals, etc.

Opportunities for the advancement of electronic art which readily present themselves in Europe, The US and Japan are often too expensive to attend for the average artist. It can take approximately 24 hours by plane to reach Europe and much of the United States. Many Australian artist choose to live overseas for much of their lives because of these factors (the Expat. syndrome). In terms of electronic media people like Jeffery Shaw (working with interactive Silicon Graphics environments and currently heading the Zentrum FŸr Kunst and Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Jill Scott (working with interactive videodisc and computer graphics), Simon Biggs (working with interactive computer graphics), Simon Penny (working with electronic media installation and as this years SIGGRAPH Art Show Chair), Peter Callas (living much of the year abroad - working with video and computer graphics) - have all found living overseas the answer to the problems presented by the "Tyranny of Distance". Australians become well versed in the art of faxing, the use of Email, Express mail, and the utilisation of telephones at all hours (so as to keep up with the 10 - 16 hour difference in time with the US and Europe) as well as to keep in touch with the overseas flow of information.

Artists have developed a number of strategies to smooth out the 24 hours by air, employing electronic tools to alleviate the discomfort of travel. Portable computers, Powerbooks, highly portable High 8 units with LCD screens, Dat Cassettes, Walkman Pro Cassette recorders, microcassette, portable CD players etc. are the techno-fetishistic wonders of these global artist. Mobile phones, fax modems and remote beepers are also proving indispensable.

In the following paper I will present a cross section of Australian artists working with emergent electronic forms as well as hybrids of technological/historical forms. The word "Cybrid" was coined by John Jacobs an audio engineer at ABC Radio (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) to express the notion of works which collide various digital forms at the service of artistic expansion.

The following is a survey of artists working with advanced technological systems from a somewhat Sydney based perspective.

Jon McCormack

Jon is working with "Artificial Life" systems. He writes much of the code for for his installation work which utilizes the Silicon Graphics platform. He also uses a Macintosh and various software to generate the music in his work. His installations combine poetic texts, modular electronic music sections, and computer graphic images (built from the ground up using computer code) which all respond to particular stimuli. Last year Jon presented a system which translated weather information into control data in a "moving" ever "growing" and "changing" installation. The work was presented in a darkened room with a data projector and was different, yet similar upon each entry. Heat, cold and wind velocity, registeder from a roof receptor all played a role in the "life" of the generated 3D objects, texts and sounds. Jon's work is poetic, informed by techno-culture and infused with a dry, personal, intelligent wit. In terms of his knowledge of "Artificial Life" systems - Jon rates as a world class programmer. His sense of humor is highly entertaining - a human emulator of numerous intricately encoded personalities, sounds and situations. Jon is currently finishing TURBULENCE the "Laser disc project that won't go away".

"Part of the project is also some interactive software that runs on SGI machines which allows you to evolve your own forms in an easy interactive paradigm. The computer mutates the forms and you pick the ones with the features you like. These become the parents to a new generation of mutants. And so on, the process is repeated. Growth can even be influenced by external conditions, such as the weather ... Part of the software actually uses "Inventor" software which is a 3D interaction interface in C++. It allows you to do nifty things like look at and manipulate 3D objects, change color, texture, lighting, etc. and save and load models in a standard format." Jon's work was featured in the SIGGRAPH art show last year.

Linda Dement

Linda Dement is working in a highly provocative area of interactive storytelling/poetry/conceptual art. Her explicitly detailed, sexually charged interactive computer graphic photo/text/sound collages play with expectations about the kind of information that computers "normally" carry. The work presents a set of intimate experiences which touch on/draw from the realm of pornagraphy and abstracted autobiography. The notion of poetic interface design is a exciting area of potential research which Linda is exploring with great finess.

"The interactive piece Typhoid Mary was made using a Macintosh Quadra 700 with the software Macromind Director, Colour Studio, SoundEdit Pro, Hypercard and Canvas at the Computer Centre, College of Fine Art, UNSW. the work includes manipulated photographic images, poems, academic references, animation, sounds, stories that print out information from statistical reports and medical text books. There is no menu system or apparent user interface. By clicking somewhere on the images on the screen, the viewer moves along paths I have determined. There is no beginning and no end."

"The links between the various bodies of information follow an internal logic and specifically, my illogic."

"I use very personal and corporeal subject matter and my own blood and clutter aesthetic, with computers: a technology that is often associated with the impersonal, with slickness, clean-ness and the commercial world: a technology which I established as a tightly controlled framework and within which I can create with the 'out of control' in myself." Linda's work was featured in The
Third International Symposium on Electronic Art.


Stelarc, a well known performance artist (somewhat notorious for his suspension series where the artist was hung in mid air by multiple hooks), is currently interested in extending the functions of the body into a virtual realm as well as through robotics. Stelarc presents a highly sexually charged atmosphere of image and sound using a series of computer systems which are activated through manipulation of his body during performance. The work presents the artist's body at the center of a technological network of imaging tools, sensing apparatus and sonic devices. The performances exhibit a unified image of Stelarc, semi-nude, controling (in the most recent work at The Third International Symposium on Electronic Art in Sydney) a virtual arm (presented above the artist as a data projection), a pre-programmed scanning robot arm with video camera, a switcher - to facilitate switching to other visual data including biological data being monitored at the time of performance, live cameras from numerous viewpoints, an industrial robot as well as amplified body and machine signals. The work functions as a kind of resonant meta-self protraiture. Stelarc has been experimenting with a 3rd arm (a mechanical device to function as an extension of the body for some years). Most recently he has developed a virtual arm using live interactive input/feedback to a high end Silicon Graphics machine. Stelarc is currently coordinator and visiting artist - Artist In Residence Program at the RMIT Advanced Computer Centre, CITRI in Melbourne. He works there with a number of skilled programmers to bring his creative vision to fruition. The Virtual Arm project was completed with the assistance of Mike Papper, Craig McNaughton, James Boyle, Dean Hansen and Robert Webb - supervised by Mike Gigante.

Virtual Arm Project

"The Virtual Arm is a computer generated human-like manipulator interactively controlled by VPL VR equipment. Data Gloves with flexion and position-orientation sensors and using a gesture based command language allow real-time intuitive operation and additional added capabilities. Functions are mapped to finger gestures with parameters for each function allowing elaboration - for example the continuous rotation function can apply to the fingers as well as the wrist and the speed can be varied."

"An Arm Editor allows the Virtual Arm to be customised for particualr performances and virtual tasks - not being limited to anatomical or engineering constraints of the real world...The Virtual Arm is able to behave ambidexterously - as a left hand or a right hand by switching the user's control and simulating hands."

"Some of the Virtual Arm's extended capabilities include 'stretching' or telescoping of limb and finger segments,'grafting' of extra hands on the arm and 'cloning' or calling up another arm. The 'record and playback' function allow the sampling and looping of motion 'macro mode' complex commands can be generated with a single gesture and in 'fine control' delicate tasks can be completed by the transformation of the large operator movements to small movements of the virtual arm."

Stelarc's work posits a fascinating poetic/philosophical vision related to the extension of the body through computers and robotics. Such a vision is both visually and conceptually exciting as well as freightening in terms of the future notion of "Replacement" of body parts by such bio-apperatus.

VNS Matrix

VNS Matrix are a feninist collective who work both in the area of Guerilla/Action art and with photo collage/installation work. The group consists of the following artists: Virginia Barratt, Julianne Pierce, Francesca Da Rimini, and Josephine Starrs. Their work, All New Gen is a critique of the Nintendo "Gameboy" - a hand held computer game. "'Gameboys' have been on the market now for several years, gaining emmense popularity with children and (in particular) with adolescent boys. In the "Gameboy" worlds exemplified by Nintendo's Donkey Kong and Super Mario and Sega's Sonic Hedge Hog the rationale is simple - there is a hero and an enemy (or more precisely, a hero who engages with multiple manifestations of enemies and hazards)."

"ALL NEW GEN is a new contender on the market, a "Gamegirl" whose enemy is the computer terminal "Big Daddy Mainframe", the essence of a futuristic omnipotent military-industrial complex. With her posse of Homegirls, ALL NEW GEN's mission of sabotage is to act as a virus in the terminal, infiltrating and corrupting the databanks. She is the modem of Big Daddy's discontent, the ultimate mercenary of slime."

VNS Matrix comment through their work on a set of relationships which explore the body/self in relation to computers - notions of sexuality, commercial clich≥s, power structures, gender roles, ethics, art history and technological developments. A 90's sense of pop art and popular culture inject the work with a charged visual strategy. The image/text productions are colorful both literally and metaphorically, often presenting a confronting linguistic proposition, sometimes exploring tabu. The work often contains abstracted refrences to sexuality presented from a feminist perspective. The work comes out of a painterly tradition of collage but is manifested in print, lightbox, screen and poster form. The aesthetics of the work are presented through highly developed group computer graphic photo collages and computer graphic text. They have also presented related audio collages and are currently working on an interactive screen-based piece.

John Colette

John has been working with photocollage on the Macintosh combining numerous programs to build his graphic word-images. He installed a series of works in the commercial context of a subway station, undifferentiated from adjacent advertising (for TISEA). His work defines a strategy which presents an opportunity to re-see the structures and aesthetics that are inherent to advertising. The work is a kind of 90's pop art. By abstracting advertising 'copy', and commercial jargon, John presents a rich poetic language of nonsense and displacement. The work subverts expectations about context and message and thus generates a powerful aesthetic transcendence which both attracts and confounds viewers. John is currently working on a CD Rom project as an extension of this poetic form. He has also applied his aesthetic to a experimental dance clip for the band Single Gun Theory in which he uses the 'Harry' (a high end digital video graphics tool) to build a luscious set of layers and juxtapositions. He is very interested in the media literate culture of Japan and their use of imagry in advertising (using themes which have little or nothing to do with the 'product' as well as the proliferation of visual/electronic media in their society. One might see Johns work as being parallel to Zen Koans - nonsense statements utilized by Zen Masters.

Joyce Hinterding

Joyce Hinterding employs the sofisticated use of various electronic technologies to bring to life specific aspects of focus through scultpural/sound environments. She often exploits attributes essential to electronics to access particular content.

The works fuse form and content into a resonant expression which is both subtle and ultimately extremely evocative. The aesthetics of electronics are made visible and are often presented in multiple/modular form. Subtle sound strategies give her environments a charged /electric atmosphere. Her latest work for the 9th Bienalle of Sydney presents a set of hand made wafer thin speakers which through delicate percussive electric clicks and pops presents a 3D audio image of electrons bombarding receptors, a translation of an electron storm into sound and space. The work makes a sonic-isation (the sonic version of visualisation) of an invisible, inaudible phenomena. The functionality of the objects in the space extend their beauty into a conceptual realm.

Phillip George

Phillip George uses computer graphic collage and painterly techniques to manifest a hybrid form of painting. His work "MNEMONIC NOTATIONS" explores personal/universal content. The works are made using Gouache, color lazer copy, guilding, and AT & T "Tips" software. The Hardware is a 486 50mhz machine with a 4 mb Vista Board. The work is "an installation of computer imaged and painted works.

The base construct has been cultivated from a digital and human mnemonic system, which deal with time past, present and future - and its' interrelationship to space and the site with regard to quantum theoreticians..."

"Past, present, future thoughts, desires, needs, wants, jumping in and out of conscious speculations. Short grasps of an idea, then a jump to the next thought, sparked by a smell, the glimpse of an image......information by instalment rather than a continuum of ideas/ thoughts. This is the way of human consciousness, all our information is processed by a nomadic thought and memory structure .The use of a computer graphic system has empowered the user with a memory process that is without distraction, a focused and reliable reference point."

"This suite of images have been developed from one computer file. This file has been continually edited, added to, modified in an intuitive manner, which in itself is replicating / documenting a particular mode of thought. When the metamorphosed file has been developed to the desired degree, it is output. Having completed this process the file existing on the hard-drive (the master file) is then re-addressed, re-worked and again output."

"The images are time denotations, collections of mnemonic icons, organically generated debris, detritus frozen, down-loaded for the spectator, made artefact before moving on....................."

Rodney Berry

Rodney Berry is working with midi driven instruments and more recently with 'Artificial Life' composition systems. He presented a piece for The Third International Symposium on Electronic Art which consisted of a series of home made spinning musical instruments - "Rotary Zithers". Rodney used midi information to trigger plucking mechanisms, thus as the instruments would sping a computer would send out midi commands and trigger particular notes (or sets of notes). The spinning of the apparatus gave the work a rich spatial acoustic property.

"Lately I've been interested in complex dynamic systems, not so much the theory side but more the building of systems and seeing what they do. One system I put together recently was a chaotic music generator. It consisted of a Fairlight Voicetracker pitch-to-MIDI comvertor and a Roland D110 sound module. The sound module played four notes in succession when it recieved a MIDI instruction, the four notes were then converted into four note instructions by the Voicetracker and fed back to the sound module. These notes each became four more and so on... until the whole thing became a big joyous mess! With some fitering of the MIDI information, some very attractive phrasing and melodies came out. The advantage of using 'off-the-shelf' hardware instead of a software-based system is that it is full of surprises, a result of gear being used in a way that the designers never imagined."

"The thing I'm working on at the moment is a music program based on cellular automata or 'artificial life'. I'm imagining little bits of melody and rhythm creeping around in a space eating each other, mating and having offfspring. The creatures' DNA will be built up of series of tones inherited from the parents. Each generation will be related to but slightly different from the last."

"The output from the program will consist of MIDI signals sent to a number of sound modules, accompanied by a colour display of the little beasties' movements on screen."