Premier of Queensland’s National New Media Art Award
Eyeline, January 2009

By Linda Carroli

There are times when it becomes apparent that typologies of convenience, such as ‘new media art’, become unserviceable and, indeed, mendacious. For years, if not decades, the term ‘new media art’ has been wrangled and wrestled with in international discussion lists, publications and conferences. Quietly resisted assimilation was witnessed when the Australia Council erased their program targeting new media art to focus their funding of ‘new’ and ‘emerging’ forms, tendencies and platforms on collaborative, research-driven and interdisciplinary practice.

When the Queensland Government initiated the first of its biennial $75,000 acquisitive awards for New Media Art at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) last year, it was another sign that institutions are also at a loss about how to meaningfully negotiate the terminology. In that instance, we might hopefully anticipate that the institution would assume a task of casting some light across the semantic uncertainties that riddle this field of many fields and that it might help us cast off the strangeness of this art movement[1] where the media and/or the art somehow ceases to be ‘new’. As such a grand gesture towards these practices, we might feasibly expect the Award to make a grand, even brave, statement about the problematic legacy of defining art by medium or technology.

Things can get old very quickly these days. And this posits an unanswered question about whether the institution should lead or follow in these debates. Institutions have a vested interested in typology and category and, so, does GOMA evoke ‘new media art’ as something that was, is or will be? In 2006, Mark Tribe and Reena Jana mused about whether:

New Media art has run its course as a movement ... As the boundaries separating New Media art from more traditional forms like painting and sculpture grow less distinct, New Media art will likely be absorbed into the culture at large ... It may end as a movement but live on as a tendency – a set of ideas, sensibilities and methods that appear unpredictably and in multiple forms.[2]

Tribe and Jana, like others, suggest that this field is inherently transitional, amorphous and mercurial. While the exhibition of the Premier of Queensland’s National New Media Art Award appears as an exhibition of something that was, the State Government, with its ‘Smart State’ message, should be applauded for instigating it at GOMA, for seeding it in the state’s cultural and collecting infrastructure. Collecting institutions have been slow to respond to the challenge of developing appropriate preservation, curatorial and collecting strategies for engaging the breadth of work that has sprung from the transversal of art, science and technology.[3] Important works, like some of those shortlisted for the Award, simply aren’t collected or preserved under current regimes.

The Award exhibition features works by the eight artists and one collaboration short listed for the prize: Peter Alwast (QLD), Julie Dowling (WA), Anita Fontaine (QLD/The Netherlands), David Haines and Joyce Hinterding (NSW), Natalie Jeremijenko (QLD/United States), Adam Nash (VIC), Sam Smith (NSW), John Tonkin (NSW) and Mari Velonaki (NSW). There are more rifts than continuities in this distilled technological terrain where shimmering interfaces and interactivities in dim rooms do more than supplant or supplement older art forms. These works, with some notable exceptions, emphasised installation (both online and offline) as a relational mode that encompasses space for the viewer or participant. Our bodies, as does our agency, engage when all our senses, except taste, are stimulated.

The works of Alwast, Dowling and Smith focus on digital video, sound and image production. Alwast’s Everything, a three screen projected digital animation, was the eventual prize winner. Everything collages multiple visual and representational languages that (dys)function in a mode of excess. In Alwast’s engineered and alienating world, assuming it is another world, there is a proliferation of digital modelling sophistication and cliché. The merging, like the visual environment of the world itself, is superficial and disharmonious: while assemblage and remediation endeavours to mesh and equalise, those moments where the modelled meets the photoreal can sometimes appear like fault lines.

As Alwast’s world keeps us at bay, Dowling’s invites our gaze as a movement towards the recovery, through the grains of memory, what has been lost. Her story of cultural rupture is attenuated through healing and reclamation in Oottheroongoo (your country), a ‘purposely low tech’ four screen still and video projection that features images of the artist’s family, herself and Badimaya country. The recitation of traditional language by her nephew, as he participates in language lessons, forms the soundtrack – words touch, enlivening the land and the spirit.

Smith’s sculptural work Control Structure also explores the digital production environment and its relationship with the material world. A giant timber head extrudes a lens in place of an eye, with a screen (a window to the mind perhaps) protruding from the side. As both subject and process, Smith’s inquiry posits the rift between the dual realities of the material and immaterial. These realms cannot neatly intersect nor can they conveniently reproduce the other or merge, yet they offer new morphologies.

Nash and Fontaine, working within more recent media platforms and environments, draw us into other worlds as players or protagonists. Their virtual worlds are more permeable and less rhetorical. Both works position us to seek out experience and knowledge, to willingly journey forth. Entry into Fontaine’s gameworld CuteXdoom II drops us into a cultish mystery where the life you save may be you own. As the single player, you become the game’s protagonist, Sally Sangrio, who, having been lured into unknown terrain and poisoned by a cult of cuteness worship, must acquire healing objects before the moon sets. The game, a mod of the PC game Unreal Tournament 3, is disorienting as the sitting user’s body strains to keep up with Sally’s sense of urgency. Fontaine has presented the work in a specially designed installation space covered with wallpaper that replicates the graphic style of the game, providing the user with a sense of continuity between the real and virtual worlds.

Created as a Second Life installation, Nash’s 17 unsung songs also prompts corporeal displacement as we search the virtual world, seeking out the ‘unsung songs’ on an island called East of Odyssey. Nash has developed an intricate praxis involving the reinvention of harmonic, spatial and media relationships in ways that are more responsive, perhaps natural, to the online world. The user embarks on an odyssey, endeavouring to find a series of ‘interactive sound installations’. However, perhaps these installations are, instead, a kind of impossible geometry or architecture – architectonic ‘games’ that can be played and that, in turn, play us. 17 unsung songs considers the semantics of ‘playing’ in the virtual world: playing as harnessing, releasing and authoring.

Velonaki, Tonkin, Haines and Hinterding, and Jeremijenko have consistently explored and engaged informational, technological, engineering and scientific ideas in their work. Their merging of scientific and artistic processes and knowledge, emphasising experimentation, results in richly textured and technically complex works that integrate idea and investigation. 

Velonaki’s Fish Bird project was a 10 year research driven collaboration that explored interactivity through robotics and artificial intelligence. Circle D: Fragile Balances is one of the works from this project that recounts the love story: fish and a bird are characters from a Greek story who fall in love but are unable to be together in their respective environments. Having taken the form of timber boxes in Circle D: Fragile Balances, the characters are programmed to communicate with and respond to each other in text on the high resolution crystal screens embedded in the boxes and through Bluetooth links: gentle and fragmented messages about desire and longing. Velonaki is concerned with the relationship between humans and machines and in this installation the viewer is able to handle the small boxes. However, if the boxes are handled without the respect that living entities warrant, the texts become illegible.

In Tonkin’s time and motion study v2, users are imaged into the artwork’s memory (database), fixed into a timeline of blurred and endless moments, like Zeno’s paradoxes or the bullet in Calvino’s Time and the Hunter. Having custom-programmed the work, it seems to exist only to keep a record of those who have visited, who have passed through. The installation is comprised of four wall-mounted monitors – one has a camera and mouse control, and another has a mouse control. As the user moves, the camera captures a sequence of images, which immediately become woven into the work’s timeline. Using the mouse at the other monitor, the recorded images can be viewed and skewed. The other two monitors playback the archive. Unlike other works, which set us on paths of discovery, time and motion study v2 gives us only ourselves and those who came before to discover. It provides a space for spontaneous self-expression and momentary self-awareness.

As artists who work with scientific instruments to apprehend elusive frequencies and illuminate our awareness of natural phenomenon, Haines and Hinterding have developed an installation of poetic deliberation. In Earthstar, we can see, hear and smell the sun. The installation is centred on a projection of the sun, captured using a Hydrogen-Alpha telescopic lens attached to a camera, within a real time audio environment comprised of solar frequencies captured by very low frequency antennae in the middle of the room. The filtered image and sound allow us to experience and sense the sun in ways that we cannot without this kind of technological intervention. The artists have also synthesised an intoxicating perfume using ozone scented aroma molecules. Samples on cardboard strips are included in the installation and this imparts a heady scent to the space. 

The sun also plays a vital part in Jeremijenko’s installation Green Light System. It is an ethical and sustainable oasis, as a carbon neutral installation, in the midst of an energy gobbling environment. Jeremijenko’s work has consistently engaged science and engineering to communicate ideas about ecology. Reflecting on a role for art and design in activating environmental solutions, the artist highlights the need for redirecting our cultural practices to incorporate metabolic processes and clean technology. Comprised of living sub-tropical plants, light-giving sculptures and solar energy collectors on GOMA’s roof, the installation creates a dynamic mini-ecosystem that also filters air with potential for urban agriculture and other urban or architectural interventions. 

As this exhibition attests, the terrain of new media art pushes and pulls in many directions. It evokes many of the historical, aesthetic and typological problems associated with ‘new media art’. With the Awards’ promise of ‘some of the most exciting developments in contemporary art today’, there is more explaining and development to do in terms of how GOMA or the State ultimately builds and frames its collection, as well as an effective exhibitions and public program to support it. The exhibition catalogue is equally silent about the driving vision and logic of this initiative, other than it was the Premier’s idea. What of a meaningful engagement with industry? For example, Spain’s ARCO/BEEP New Media Art Awards aims to ‘foster communication between the manufacturers/creators of this new technology and those who create art’. In a state that enshrines its smartness in policy, what of seeding science, education and innovation programs with interdisciplinary imperatives? While not a state award, the Prix Ars Electronica grows out of and with an international community of practice, a centre and a festival with its locus in Linz, Austria.

While the imperative for the Premier of Queensland’s National New Media Art Award inspires perplexity, that is no reflection on the work or the curatorial experiment that lets audiences chart conceptual pathways between these differential interrogations of ‘digital aesthetics’, as one construct of aesthetic code. Perhaps a more compelling and critical idea lies in the 'coded aesthetic'. The digital, the recombinant, the interactive and the confluent are obvious tendencies in new media art – non-linear and decentralised production, processes, aesthetics and distribution now proliferate. However, coding presents another dimension for some generative, interactive and relational art. For all the pleasures of these works, we are ultimately confronted with a conundrum about the force of the ‘new’ in ‘new media’ given a catalogue reference to ‘early adoption’. What and how does that ‘new’ do? What and how does it produce? Hopefully, the second incarnation of these awards won’t leave those critical questions begging.


1 Mark Tribe and Reena Jana (2006) describe New Media art as a movement rather than an artform, citing a relationship with Video art but not necessarily a confluence. In their historical account, the web browser precipitated New Media art as a movement.

2 Mark Tribe & Reena Jana, New Media Art. Koln: Taschen. 2006. 25

3 Geert Lovink (2005) comments that historical accounts of ‘new media art’ can “lack institutional awareness. Whereas technology developed fast, institutional understanding in this sector has been equally slow. In this respect, new media art is a misnomer, since it reproduced time and again the modernist dilemma between aesthetic autonomy and social engagement.” See


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