McKenzie Wark on Wed, 6 Mar 2002 04:48:07 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Now Here's What's Happening in Your World

Now Here's What's Happening in Your World
(Even As We Speak)
McKenzie Wark <>

Under_score: Net Art, Sound, and Essays from Australia.
Curated by Wayne Ashley
Brooklyn Academy of Music

On the great blue-black ball of the planet, with
Antarctica its icy pupil, the Australian landmass is a mote
in the eye. Space is the thing. Australian culture is a
problem of space. Finding a place in space -- that
perhaps is the great Australian desire, and anxiety .

For starters, Australia is very big. About two thirds the
size of the continental United States. But it has only
about as many people in it as the state of Illinois. It is a
bit like a very big Illinois --, with ann army and a navy.

It is also a very, very long way from most other places
that speak English. England, which some old folks still
call the 'mother country' is about 20 hours from Sydney.
New York, which many of us younger Australian types
think of as the capital of the English speaking world, is
also about 20 hours away.

On the other hand, this distance in space is compressed
into nanoseconds in time with communication
technologies. I remember, in the 80s, when satellite TV
became a common thing, NBC's Today show was
broadcast live, late in the Australian night. Willard Scott
was the weatherman back then. This was before he lost
his toupee and took to reading the birthday greetings.

Every night he would say "now here's what's happening
in your world, even as we speak." It was the cue for local
stations to give local weather information. For a few
seconds, a computer graphic would show the
temperatures in Sydney, Melbourne and other Australian

I was always fascinated by this routing of information,
bouncing around via satellite, radiating from broadcast
towers. Now here's what's happening. Right here, right
now. It seemed as though communication could put
Australia in touch, instantly, with the world, or at least
with America.

But there's an anxiety that attaches to this, too. How is a
small population of English speakers, in the middle of
nowhere, to keep close any sense of themselves, when the
place is awash with images and stories from Hollywood
and Broadway and Madison Avenue?

Part of the answer was to build up a government-
sponsored and subsidised subsidized world of education,
culture and media that would form a kind of semi-
permeable membrane. There would be literary journals
and performing arts companies and even an Australian
film industry. There would be a national broadcasting
network of radio and television.

The Gorton and Whitlam governments of the 70s were
the first to articulate a policy in which a comprehensive
network of arts, education and cultural institutions were
tied to a national project, expressly conceived as
countering American and British cultural influence.

By imagining a place for each other, Australians would
keep themselves just a little apart from the space of the
world. We would connect to it collectively, via our
cultural institutions, rather than just singly, via the
American TV image or pop song, broadcast straight to
the brain.

This  national cultural project has been through three
phases. The first established the very idea of an
Australian culture. The second institutionalised
institutionalized its key myths and images. The third
questioned those myths, deconstructing them. Perhaps
there's a fourth phase on the horizon, where new
practices of image-making and story-telling come into

These phases overlap, and each rewrites the national-
cultural past at the expense of its predecessors, so it is not
really appropriate to speak of these phases as a
succession. Moreover they are not the same as the
succession of styles that a history of literature or art
might record. Nevertheless, these phases can be readily
uncovered by looking at the relation between art and
literary production and its conception of the relationship
between cultural interiority.

Given Australia's origins as a collection of discrete
colonies, the art and literature of the late 18th and early
20th century was preoccupied with the problem of a
national culture's very existence. The federation of the
colonies into the Australian state in 1901 was both the
result of, and a further impetus to, national myth
making. This first phase is characterized by the
identification of images and narratives that might stand
in for nation. Landscape was a key preoccupation of the
artists and writers of this first phase, charged with the
task of calling into being an understanding of a land far
different from any conventional western understanding.

Out of the diverse range of images and stories generated
by the first phase of aesthetic exploration, only a few
ended up being canonized as truly 'national'. Urban
stories and images took a back seat to a mythology of the
'bush' and its --typically masculine -- pioneer. The
savage experience of world war one, in which a higher
proportion of the Australian population died than that of
any other country, cemented a national mythology of the
bush bred and battle tested 'digger'. This figure was a
resourceful trickster, a 'battler' and survivor, who
populated the cultural imagination from 1914 into the

The institutionalization of the digger, with his stories and
images, reached its high point in the 70s, with the
consolidation of an explicitly nationalist matrix of
institutionalized art and culture. But this culmination of
the second phase of cultural institutionalization was also
the opening of a third phase -- its critique. Under the
impact of another war, the war in Vietnam, the battle-
hardened figure of the digger and the fables of his trials
in foreign wars or in the deserts of the Australian interior
came in for closer scrutiny. Australia's involvement in
Vietnam, as in previous wars, was at the behest of an
imperial partner, now the United States rather than

The breach in the legitimacy of the a national state
subservient to the imperial designs of others caused by
this war stimulated a thorough critique of images of
national culture. The place of women, migrants and
indigenous peoples in the national imaginary became the
critical sources of a rejection of an institutionalized
national culture. The paradox is that this thorough
critique of the national culture came from the very
institutions set up by the state to reproduce it.

Each  phase of the national cultural project starts as a
dream in the eye of artists, writers. Only gradually, and
not without resistance does it become part of the culture.
Australian art is, among other things, the 'research and
development' for an always rather fragile national
culture. It is charged with the ambivalent task of at one
and the same time maintaining a national culture and
overcoming it in the name of new perceptions of the

What really characterizes the art and writing of each of
these phases is the perception of the relationship between
inside and outside; national space and its other(s). Early
national art contained an ambivalence born of Australia's
ambiguous status as both a nation and a subordinate part
of the British empire, leading to the paradox of a
national mythology based on sacrifices made in imperial
wars. So long as Australian interests seemed clearly
aligned with its imperial masters, the paradox was not
felt as such. When Australian interests were finally
perceived as strongly divergent, a wholesale reassessment
of the national culture followed as an unintended
consequence of rethinking Australia's external relations.
But this did not so much resolve the paradox as displace
it, as the institutions within which the rethinking took
place became the site of the tension, between upholding
their role within the national culture and rejecting it
There's  been a change also in the way Australian
national culture relates to the outside. It used to be a
question of resistance, of refusal, a deliberate
oppositional stance towards our old and new imperial
masters, the English, who colonised colonized us, and the
Americans, who coca-colonised colonized us. This was in
its second phase.

That changed somewhat, from the 80s onwards, when a
third fourth phase appeared. Australian art became less a
matter of clinging to an essence, more a matter of a
certain ironic ability to both be absorbed in, and detached
from, American pop culture. praising or damning a
national myth caught in an ambiguous relation to an
outside, and an affirmation of the very ambiguity of
being a peripheral, 'postcolonial' culture. The tension
between inside and outsideIt could be embraced in the
spirit of play, sampled and mixed. The Rockmelons, a
mostly white band from Sydney, mixed r&b sounds with
a sample of Willard Scott on a dance track: Now here's
what's happening in your world (even as we speak).

What changed in the 80s was the idea of Australia's place
in the world. It need not be a clinging to the old
mythologies of imperial dependence, or the fantasy of an
impossible independence n an increasingly global sing
world. It could be a creative appropriation of the best the
world had to offer. Our simultaneous physical distance
from the world, and informational connection to it, could
work for us. We could be a place where all the places
meet. An abstract nation. Canny remix artists and
appropriators of the south.

This dream is still alive. Darren Tofts gives an eloquent
expression of it in 'Wrestling With Proteus'. Melinda
Rackham's empyrean approaches the world wide web as
Australians approached the whole of global culture. As a
space to navigate, as if our island home were a motor
boat on the high seas.

Ian Haig's ironic reprocessing of media junk might be
another example. Haig's is not merely a critical attack on
cyberhype, it?s a loving cut and mix of its characteristic
moves. It's a cool, rather than a hotheaded work, a sly
inhabiting of the junkyard of the digital, picking through
it for the gems.

This urbane approach to the world had its popular
expressions. Watch a movie like Strictly Ballroom, or
Muriel's Wedding, and one finds stories of a coming out
into the world. As I wrote in my book Celebrities,
Culture and Cyberspace, this is the great theme of
Australian cinema in the 80s and 90s. Yes! There is life
beyond the provincial, beyond the myth of Australia as
one big suburb protected by a picket fence.

Three kinds of life appeared in the art of the 90s: the
emergent technological terrain of cyberspace, the 'far
east' that resides to Australia's 'near north' of Asia, and
the local culture that national mythmaking ignored or
repressed -- Aboriginal Australia. By turning to these
three terrains, a fourth phase in Australian art has tried to
overcome both the limits of the nationalist stereotypes
and the depressing gesture of a permanent critique of
them that builds nothing in their place.

But while artists busied themselves constructing new
Australian images and stories with an open traffic
between inside and outside, Australian culture turned
inward, toward a nostalgic longing for the 'digger' and a
simpler view of Australia's relation to the world.
Something went terribly wrong with this urbane dream
of Australia as an open, plural place that can mix and
match the flows of information of the world. It never
made the transition from art to culture. There was always
the problem with what it left out. There was something a
bit too limited about thinking of Australia as a place that
can play the flows of English and American culture off
against each other. Australia is not really far, far away. It
is really very, very close -- to Indonesia, to Malaysia, to
the whole of Asia.The three areas Australian artists
started to explore -- cyberspace, Asia and Aboriginality -
- conflicted with a popular desire to retreat from
globalization and to ignore the complexities that always
resided within the national cultural space as a result of
complex and dependent relations to the wider world.

But this increasing resistance didn't stop Australian
artists. Slowly, a process of discovery took place,
whereby Australian artists and writers discovered a world
that was physically very close by, from which there were
few flows of information. The Australian-Indonesian
shadow puppet musical Theft  of Sita is a product of
that discovery, as if geniwate's digital work Ricerice.
These might be examples of a fourth moment in
Australian art, a new pluralisingpluralizing turn.

Growing up, as most Australians do, immersed in
American and English music and film and television, I
always found it easy to cut and mix ideas from those
sources. To be Australian was to be in a confident place,
culturally. Detached, but knowing. But a quite different
kind of work is called for when it comes to thinking
about what is near. Rice rice starts with a seemingly
know-it-all tourist voice talking about the charms of
Vietnam, but scroll down and one finds that geniwate is
merely retelling tales heard before she even left
Australia. The knowingness is nicely undercut.

There was another great discovery, perhaps the most
troubling one. The myth of Australia, a proud white
suburbia ringed with a picket fence, was built on the
ashes of a prior civilisationcivilization. The greatness of
Aboriginal culture is something Australians are still
grappling with -- and by 'Australians' I include
Aboriginal Australians, who are also grappling with the
profound genius of their own way of thinking and
making art. There's a great song by the Warumpi band
that says: 'we have survived the white man's world -- and
you can't change that!'

There's a misty-eyed, romantic view of Aboriginality,
the kind you find in Bruce Chatwin's dumb book
Songlines. But it?s a much more troubling thing to
grapple with than that. Paul Brown does it admirably in
Sand LinesSAND LINES, which I think gives a kind of
spatial analog of what Stephen Muecke calls Aboriginal
philosophy. There's no form, no hierarchy of essence and
appearance. There's a network of lines, forming and
unforming. It's a nice idea to think 'of', but hard to think

Asia and Aboriginality -- these are things that Australian
intellectuals and artists have embraced and are grappling
with in a collaborative, tactful spirit. I think it took the
coming into being of a deconstruction of all the old
cultural myths of Australia, in which Asia and
Aboriginality were denied or repressed, plus the coming
of a confidence in handling the materials of the English
speaking world, to really open up these new directions.
These third and fourth phases are closely linked. But the
problem is that neither really quite took root in the
culture, in the way that earlier expressions of an
Australian aesthetic practice did.

There's a widening gap between the urbane temper of
Australian art and the provincial mindset of the people.
Frightened by globalisationglobalization, anxious about
keeping a toehold in prosperity, there's a mean and angry
mood in the land. Reactionary politicians are exploiting
the fear of losing the old place in the world, before the
new sense of place can take hold and bear fruit. People
are encouraged not to care what is happening in their
world, just in their own backyard. There's an angry
dismissal of the ideas coming from cultural 'elites' --
mostly made by unconsciously borrowing ideas generated
by previous waves of artists, which are taken to be a
natural expression of identity.

This  is happening at a time when the old cultural
institutions are breaking down. The national broadcasting
system has been crippled by political negligence, as have
the film industry and higher education. They are being
punished for daring to rethink the possibilities for what
Australia could be. Mendacious men rule, and impose the
entire contents of their tiny minds on what was once an
expanding cultural enterprise. What  you see here at
BAM is a documentation of the ruins of a dream.

What Australian artists grasp, sometimes intuitively,
sometimes overtly, is the fragility of Australia's place in
the world. But where artists respond by pushing forward,
toward new conceptualizations of a possible way of
constituting a viable culture in an open relation to the
outside, it comes increasingly into conflict with popular
anxieties, which mainstream political forces are only too
happy to exploit. While the integration of Australia into
the new global economic and political order proceeds
apace, a conservative and reactive culture is propagated
by Australia's political masters as a way of appeasing
popular anxiety.

A significant part of the strategy has been to turn popular
sentiment against its literary, educational, artistic and
intellectual 'elites', to delegitimize them and run down
the institutions that harbor them. Hence the paradox of
an Australian economy that is rapidly being retooled for
insertion into the global marketplace, existing side by
side with a culture in denial, wallowing in nostalgia for
the diggers of yore.

Not that anything can stop artists from dreaming. As the
old media fray at the edges, and the literary and visual
art world become timid machines for administered
culture, a few early adopters bolted into the less rigid
world of 'new media' art. (I even made a work along
these lines myself, with Brad Miller, called Planet of

In Australian new media art, one finds all of the themes
at work in the larger culture replayed at hyper speed.
There's the confident handling of America pop culture,
the interest in Asia and Aboriginality, the dream of
Australia as a place of thinking through and playfully
combining elements from the whole space of culture. But
there is also, as a sign of the times, something else.
There's a tactical retreat into cyberspace as a place from
which to escape from Australia as it has become, back
into the dream of what it could be.

In the utopian poetic of Mary-Anne Breeze (mez) there's
a sense of cyberspace as a possible space for the play of
placelessness. Her work draws on cyberspace utopianism
and that of avant garde literature, but I think there's also
a little bit of the Australian cultural dream there too, the
dream of the nation as free place has found a refuge in
the digital.

It may not be evident to the nonAustralian sensibility,
but I think there's a certain escape trick going on in a lot
of digital art. A seeking after a new space in which to
place oneself, where one can keep exploring the dream of
an open, inclusive, plural culture. What I called in
another book a Virtual Republic. It's curious how often
Australian digital work invents spaces. The virtual
republic is alive in the construction of ethical relations
between personas, sounds, words, images.

In the network of stories of Francesca da Rimini, or in
alternative broadcasting zones like radioqualia or
l'audible, a certain sensibility finds itself stripped of its
connection to the national project. Perhaps that's a good
thing. There are nations of sensibility, freely chosen, at
work in these digital worlds.

I mentioned before that there have been several phases in
the unfolding of an Australian national cultural project.
Each phase starts with a few enlightened holders of
power, opening up a place for artists to dream of a nation
to come. There is always resistance, reaction, a split
between art and culture. But gradually, art prevails.
Culture changes. Artists are reconciled with their place in
the culture, and leaders speak as if in their own voice in
terms artists once fought to make heard.

At the end of the 20th century, there's a split between
Australian art and culture. The art is going forward; the
culture, backward. Artists look for escape routes, and
cyberspace is one of them. But unlike the United States,
where the alienation of the artist has been going on so
long it seems a natural state of affairs, I'm confident that
-- eventually -- in Australia the dream will prevail.
Australia's ambivalent place in the world is doubled by
the ambivalent place of artists within it.

Seeking refuge in the old romantic cubbyhole of the
artist as permanent outsider is a tempting option. But
what has always made Australian art interesting -- a
characteristic it shares with many other minor cultures --
is that there's a more intimate connection between art,
culture, nation and state than a vast empire such as
America affords.

There is a danger, however. The danger of
provincialism. At its best, Australian art is both in the
wider world and indifferent to it. It sees itself as
collaborating in both local and global spaces. At its
worst, it turns inward or outward too far. It becomes
absorbed in its own identity issues, cutting itself off too
much from the world. Or it turns outward too much, and
becomes a provincial imitation of global trends. Filler
for global theme shows or anthologies, but always
lagging a bit behind.

The danger thesedays is the latter. There can be a
deafness in Australian work to what other Australian
work is doing. There's an amnesia about the local
histories, which turn up as unacknowledged influences.
Fortunately there's an awareness of the danger. Take, as
an example, the fibreculture mailing list, which is
deliberately trying to create dialogue aimed at
reconstituting some notion of shared project among
Australian new media researchers, in these somewhat
trying times.

It may take a while, but I'm confident that art will
prevail, that the culture will change. There's just too
much to lose by not rethinking Australian culture along
the lines proposed in the third and fourthrecent phases of
Australian art. There's no abiding reason not to feel
confident about the ability of Australian culture to
remake itself as open and inclusive, curious and
confident, about what is happening in its world. Even in
these difficult times, there's more there than meets the


About Under_score
Under_score: Net art, Sound and Essays from Australia
exhibits the works of nine Australian artists for whom
the internet has emerged as one of the most
significant arenas for artistic experimentation and
multimedia production. Under_score was part of Next
Wave Down Under, the month-long Australian focus of
BAM's Next Wave Festival 2001. Featuring work from

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