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Working the Screen 2000

ANAT's special alchemy

Amanda McDonald-Crowley interviewed by Keith Gallasch

Alchemy Alchemy
As her last major project for ANAT (Australian Network for Art and Technology), Director Amanda McDonald-Crowley planned and hosted Alchemy, a 5 week workshop presented at Brisbane’s Powerhouse (May 8 - June 9). In almost 5 years Amanda has expanded the scale and vision of ANAT, transforming its annual schools and international connections into something new and substantial, Alchemy, with its intensive workshops, forums and presentations with Australian and international participants and tutors. Amanda is now one of the growing team of Associate Directors for the Peter Sellars’ 2002 Adelaide Festival.

The first week of Alchemy was a set-up week. The sponsored equipment didn’t turn up until the Saturday before and doing it in a new building was pretty tricky too. It was a fantastic venue to work in: we had the run of the whole space. But it didn’t have any internet connectivity so we had to work with the Powerhouse to get that up. Getting the technical requirements out of the tutors was a pain. The best was when one of the UK group Mongrel said he needed 2 blow-up dolls. Cute, but not very useful.

You’ve run ANAT Summer Schools, what was the difference?

It was a lot bigger, 16 tutors, 46 participants, but never more than 26 there at any given time for a minimum of 2 weeks. In the future I’d insist on 3 weeks. Our Summer Schools have always been that and in teched-up venues belonging to organisations who sometimes use the schools as leverage to get enough equipment or set up a laboratory. By the third week people are using the tools and feeling familiar with them after being on a steep learning curve all the time.

We started out with art and science collaborations with tutors Nina Czegledy from Canada and Hungary, John Tonkin and Marko Peljan having just finished with Makrolab on Rottnest Island (RealTime 37, page 10). A lot of curators with some arts practice, attended this and there was a lot of discussion about public art and how you negotiate space and the overlap between public and private and then physical and virtual space. In the second week most of the Indigenous artists were there. I wanted them to be there at the same time. I think the bonding process is very important. Two of them, Christian Thompson and Jenny Fraser, had done the National Indigenous School in New Media Art last year that Brenda Croft had project-managed, so they mentored the 2 younger artists who had come from regional areas. That worked really well. They were doing a lot of digital imaging—Rea was teaching in that component—and work online, too, developing websites and building gif animations. A young guy called Chris Dempsey from Mount Isa is a cartoonist who’s never worked with computers and did some fantastic gif animations.

So the workshops are not focused on direct outcomes?

No. When people arrive, one of the first things I say is if you’ve come with a project you want to do, forget it now. It is about process, about what you can do. It’s exploratory, even moreso than the summer schools because there was a constantly shifting framework and negotiating with new arrivals, the people you’d be working with. I was there for almost all of it, except when I had to pop back to Adelaide for an AGM and a haircut. So I did a lot of hand holding. Having John Tonkin, who’s taught at the Summer Schools, and Rea who taught at NISNMA, was really useful. It was more difficult where the tutors hadn’t worked with us before. Then I did more hand-holding. The challenge is that it’s so formless—you arrive with ideas and talk it through.

In the second and third weeks we were looking at something ANAT’s been focussed on, ‘A Digital Region?’, what it might be, and the network of artists in our geographical region, mostly in Asia. Shuddhabrata Sengupta from India led some fantastic discussions. A majority of the international participants came from Asia and several from New Zealand. When I’m travelling I come across pockets of work in our region and there’s a sense that there’s a lot going on that you don’t know about. And it also comes from the frustration of going to the northern hemisphere to find that they’re convinced that the world is hemispherical and nothing exists below the equator...”So Australian artists make net art?”

Australians are well respected in this field and have great connections but it’s always with a complete lack of acknowledgment of the cultural and geographical differences that artists in our region here face...they think, ‘you’re kinda like us really.’ When Shuddha talks access, it’s a completely different way of thinking, it’s not about your computer at home not working or everyone having a connection, it’s much more about sharing and access. Seventeen people from the Raqs Media Collective and friends (part of the team setting up Sarai New Media Institute, New Delhi) shared the first computer they got and 32 people shared the email account. It’s also about printing out stuff from the internet and distributing it that way, a crossover between soft copy and hard copy.

Is this about collaboration within the region?

It can be about one-on-one collaborations. Graham Harwood from Mongrel said that it was the first time he’d been at an event with so many people from such diverse cultures who actually got beyond just cooking together, that people actually started to engage with what it might mean to work in cross-cultural ways. It was interesting that the fact that we were all working with new media was secondary to how we might work together. There were different expectations—someone like Raul Ferrera from Mexico arrived wanting skills—”You’ve got no idea what it’s like working in a Third World country, I don’t want to talk ideas anymore, I’ve done all this.” But he left feeling that the experience and connections had been rewarding. We did cook together and there were some fantastic meals.

Graham was at the school for 2 weeks and Richard Pierre-Davies and Mervin Jarman popped in and out a bit and did residencies elsewhere including with an Indigenous community in Cairns. Mongrel are all cultural ‘mongrels’ who do work with the Korean community in Bristol. They’re very generous, they’re not there to take anything away, they’re here to offer skills. They’ve developed a software called Linker, a bit like a Director hack, but very simple to use in order to allow participants in workshops to make their own stories, with images and sound and video, within a day or 2 of using it. Harwood gave a great presentation that had nice confluences—rather than teaching a piece of software he’s much more interested in people knowing about how software works. So he draws maps about grasping it conceptually. So even people with high-end skills in Director or Dreamweaver found it incredibly useful to go back to basics, to think about what is it you’re doing when you’re using a piece of high-end software. He also did a great lecture on the potato and its responsibility for the Industrial Revolution. That came out of some tense moments of cross-cultural discussion about what it means to have been colonised, difficult stories to be negotiated. We were talking about people a lot, so Harwood decided we should talk about potatoes. He’d also been commissioned to do a piece of web art work with the Tate Organisation (all of the Tate museums) so he hacked their entire site and re-told the stories and history of how the Tate came about. The Tate British is built on the ruins of a penitentiary built at the time of the hulks. So the site for Tate British was a key prison for transportation to Australia.

Richard and Mervin from Mongrel taught skills at the Murri school in the mornings during the DÄR Festival, the Indigenous arts festival that was happening at the same time.

What came next?

Performance and hybridity, but even earlier there had been a performative element with the curators. Earlier Sara Diamond (Director, New Media Institute, BANFF Centre for the Arts, Canada) had made everyone enact a game and it was one of the silliest things I’ve seen, all these curators and artists wandering around the Powerhouse looking like weirdos. They were broken into several groups, for example the designers looked at how you might think about the framework for a game. A lot of it came out of an interest in the history of the building we were in, the Indigenous site, the factory, kids playing in it and squatters after it was decommissioned. So Sara said let’s make a game about the building, a multimedia game which you can’t do until you’ve actually physically acted it out.

How far did this go?

It remained at the imaginary stage, but they went through how you get your head into the space to make a game. We rarely went straight to the computer. It wasn’t about sitting in front of the boxes all of the time. When Blast Theory (UK) came they did a digital karaoke workshop, a daggy way of stripping away the technology first before you think about using it. They then broke people up into smaller working groups and projects were again based on the building, developing a concept, bringing it back to the group. The following week, Tess de Quincey arrived and got everyone doing physical work in the mornings and conceptual project development in the afternoons with media artist and web designer Laura Jordan who worked with Tess on Triple Alice (RealTime 35).

What was the function of the physical work—getting into a state of mind or being before tackling the work?

That’s part of it, reminding ourselves that we have a body before sitting in front of a screen. Placing yourself in relation to the work but also the world around you. Sounds a bit warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it, but that’s what it was about, and it informed some of the projects. We had public events, 2 forums, a sound event, and then performances.

What kind of people came for the performance module?

Dance and movement people, Samuel James, stage designer and video, Vanessa Mafe-Kean, the PVI music collective from Perth, performance artist Peter Toy, Bruce Gladwin from Back to Back Theatre, Rebecca Youdell from Bonemap, Grisha Coleman from New York, Mike Stubbs a video artist from the UK, Kamal Krishna, performance artist from Brisbane. If anything, it was a bit too heavily balanced towards performers. The previous weeks had been much more cross-disciplinary with more skill sharing and cross-overs in working in totally different areas—a sound artist wants to be a visual artist for a fortnight working with digital manipulation. You don’t want people to go away owning a different discipline but knowing enough about it to be openminded about working with other people. But there was a lot of sharing, a lot of talk. A lot of show and tell. Laura would help people with technical skills, how to document work on the internet, how to use it. They didn’t walk out web designers, but they understood it. Participants became tutors for a moment. Sam James helped with video editing.

We invited the public in to show some of the work and I’d booked the Visy Theatre and the computer room, but the artists wanted to be outside the building, to use the lift (sound artist Sophea Lerner was determined to use it). It ended up like stations, each with a performative element. The aim of the audience that night was to find all of the 12 stations, to visit them each at least once. The Visy Theatre was used after all, a single computer sitting in a spotlight in the middle of the stage, next to a speaker on its back so that vibration would move the computer’s mouse and that would affect the interactive work on the computer. The rest of the sites were performative: in the lift people had to do things you wouldn’t normally do in a lift. Keith Armstrong I believe was good at getting far too close to people. When I entered the lift I suddenly knew that I would have to swap clothes with Mari Velonaki...with the help of a little girl. Kamal with Mike Stubbs did a video piece as a shrine. A sound piece was developed with sound artist Alexei Shulgin about a computer that only speaks computer language. You had to tell it something intimate about your life and it would come back with something as mundane as ‘System error 404.’ It’s about interactive sound pieces being about speaking very different languages. There was a great screaming sound installation with the lift and Vanessa playing the body. You could record your own scream.

These were works devised over 12 to 24 hours, they weren’t resolved so the audience didn’t get a slick performance—it was about playing with ideas, about networking and the participants are still chatting to each other on the list server we set up. From these schools people do get to work with each other years later and the international element of this one—the summer schools weren’t international—will have a long term effect.

How did you achieve support for Alchemy?

Last year we ran 3 workshops, one for curators with the AFC and the Australia Council, one for Indigenous artists in collaboration with the Australia Council and the ‘normal’ summer school. Because we’d developed our international connections so well, we’d get a lot of overseas interest about participating, but I’d have to say, no it’s funded for Australian artists. So we decided to go international and got money from the Daniel Langlois Foundation in Canada for the international participants, plus support from the Australia Council, the AFC, state governments, Macintosh and Choice Connections in Brisbane for the computers.

How many years were you at ANAT and was Alchemy a culmination of your work there?

Just under 5 years. Well it was a bit serendipitous. A few people made jokes, ‘Ah getting together all your mates and colleagues from across Australia and internationally to have a big party before you leave.’ In my job interview for ANAT I said I thought the summer school idea had run its course, tertiary institutions were starting up courses and now there’s a lot. But once I’d run some I saw that it was a completely different kettle of fish. It’s more about a masterclass environment, or perhaps I’ve turned it into that, rather than just skills-based.

You expanded the school model and ANAT to an international level. Was there enough strength in the organisation for you to build on when you arrived or did you have your work cut out for you?

It had gone through a lot and was at a bit of a sink or swim stage, and it didn’t get any money from Creative Nation, despite lobbying. Yes, I did have my work cut out for me. We worked closely with the Australia Council at the time. ANAT’s budget has now tripled, we’ve got fantastic support from the Australia Council, which comes as well from ANAT’s success prior to my arrival, giving the Council the courage to support it. And we’ve developed a relationship with the AFC on a project by project basis. We haven’t increased our infrastructure much (ANAT has 2 fulltime and 2 part-time staff). We have a national board and I think it’s remarkable that an organisation like this has grown up in Adelaide. And I’m pleased to say that for the first time ever that at the moment I’m leaving we’ve actually got core administration funding from the South Australian Government.

Why stop now?

I think it’s important for small organisations such as ANAT to have fresh input and ideas every few years. I’m stopping short of 5 years, and 5 years is all I’ve ever intended doing, because of the fabulous offer from the Adelaide Festival. We’ll all be working in a very collaborative way. I’m keen to see new media and technology fully integrated into the entire festival, not just for streaming what’s happening, but for community building and internet projects.
ANAT, Alchemy, Brisbane Powerhouse, May 8 - June 9, 2000

* * *

Alchemy wasn’t as I expected—full of tech-heads—but instead full of artists trying to find ways around the outside of technology or looking at technology from the outside-in. The title Alchemy I thought referred to artists pooling together all the parts of the world in order to create a new brew (with digital media as just one part of the collective terrain available to artists) and distilling down processes to find the intrinsic nature of communication and how we now think of it. It seemed that there was a lot of work being made (in the actual Alchemy workshops) that was about the means and the utilisation of the many available vehicles of communication. I know that the New Media Fund shies away from ‘discrete arts practices’ and Alchemy was the same. There was not much room for development of individual practices but more on communal exchange, personal exchange and thinking ‘low-tech’—can I make this performance/installation say what I’m trying to say without computers, or with a tape recorder or the existing potentials of the site or space, electronic or not. It was a bit like going to do a computer course and getting a massage instead. Then when you’re walking home each night you are often thinking, “Well, I feel refreshed, I feel human...” The course would be suited to being hosted by regional arts organisations, especially with the international participants. It was a very earthy course which is where I imagine Amanda believes our best resources are. Sam James

We flew into Brisbane from around the world and from within Australia, bringing our cultural backgrounds and experiences from a wide variety of media—coming together at the Powerhouse under the generous umbrella of new technologies. We spoke of similarities and difference, attempting to articulate impossible spaces while discovering new ones. We plotted maps to explore unfound territories, cooked magnificent feasts, invented crazy games, gained networks, enriched concepts, and strengthened and acquired new skills. Alchemy was an info surge, a completely invaluable experience. Megan Rainey

RealTime issue #38 Aug-Sept 2000 pg. 10

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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