A (Sometimes) Brave New Australian Culture



'(Sometimes) Brave New Australian Culture' Art Monthly December # 116 pp. 14-15 (1998)

Australia on CD-ROM

Australia’s cultural treasury is undergoing radical renovation. The epic architecture of monumental facades and impressive halls will soon be mere tourist fodder. The images, sounds and words that constitute the canon of Australian identity are now available on a platter for every school child to enjoy, just by switching on their computer. Children will no longer need to visit the great spaces in order to bear witness to Australian cultural history, instead it will come to them on the small screen. So once we take away the walls, what’s left of culture?

Remember Creative Nation? One of its principle projects, Australia on CD, provided funding for ten multimedia titles with the aim to ‘showcase Australia’s cultural endeavour’. In doing so, it was hoped that local multimedia production would receive a valuable kick-start from government. The other side-benefit was to encourage significant partnerships between major cultural organisations. Australia on CD certainly meant to be ‘good for business’ all round.

It is too soon to tell how effective it has been as a leg-up for budding media producers, but with seven of the ten now available, we can begin to assess their cultural significance. How should we judge them? As dwellings for culture, we might look for an alternative to the monumental displays provided by exhibitions, books or documentaries. Our path through conventional cultural architecture is inevitably structured, even if we resist it, by the necessary occupation of physical space (a path through a gallery, chapter order or visual sequence). While these familiar limits are no doubt productive, we can still look to a brave new virtual medium for a different negotiation with its content.

So what’s the deal on CD-ROM? The more intimate scale of the small screen promises a worm’s eye view of things, helping us to understand the source as well as the final product. A recent article in Leonardo (Douglas Yellowless ‘Virtual intimacy’, 1996) argues that unlike the ‘push’ media of books and films, interactive works require our active understanding in order to proceed. Of course, we are familiar with the counter argument that understanding has always been necessary in order to appreciate the work as it was intended by the author anyway. However, at the risk of being facile, we might herald a new medium that formalises the relationship between creator and audience. Follow me? Click to continue.

As part of Australia on CD, 24,000 copies of each title are being pressed for the 9,668 schools and 1,224 libraries of the country. No doubt there are many teachers relieved finally to have something of local significance for students to fiddle with their mice. Stepping back, though, what does this series reveal of our emerging virtual culture?

Naturally, there is a strong indigenous theme among the selection. The digitisation of Aboriginal culture has had a fraught history. Some of the most promising indigenous titles, Punu (Museum of South Australia), Patterns of Power (National Gallery of Australia) and Yothu Yindi are yet to come out, despite years of work. Current titles are mostly research tools, such as the Aboriginal Encyclopedia and the recent ATSIROM (extensive set of databases on Aboriginal issues published by RMIT). It is a great relief, therefore, to come across such as personable title as Moorditj.

Moorditj (a Noongar word for ‘excellent’) opens with a warning about both copyright and use of deceased names. While it may seem a little stiff, such warnings imply nominal responsibility on the part of its user. This contract is followed up by actors who provide friendly instruction on how to use the screen. Like the encounter with Holocaust survivors as guides of a Jewish museum, contact with these virtual escorts often gives us a better understanding of their culture than the objects they point to. As responsible users, we are generously offered a ‘Coolamon’ section where we can retain elements of interest for future reference.

The CD-ROM shows samples of Aboriginal culture across a range of media and regions. Despite this range, the themes focus on the single issue of reconciliation (Land, law and language, Cultural maintenance, Social justice and survival, Influence of other cultures). As such, entries take care to promote Aboriginal pride, rather than provide informative background on the artists. The entry on Bangara, for instance, does explain how they came to be. The limited range of reference is highlighted in the ‘Influence of other Cultures’ section, which concerns itself only with responses to English colonisation. There is no reference to interactions with Indonesia, Indian or Chinese cultures. Though lacking a spirit of adventure, Moorditj helps break the ice between producer and audience, black and white, by making a gift of information.

The enjoyment of this intimacy continues in Real Wild Child, which is derived from a Powerhouse exhibition of the same name. While not offering great technical advances, this title shines for its comic invention. Real Wild Child divides recent Australian history up into a variety of cultural spaces, such as the 1950s milk bar served by Robert Menzies. Milking each scene for the variety of music clips and media reportage presents a moving picture of the close marriage between pop culture and national identity. One of the most poignant elements of Real Wild Child is the 1980s garage, which has the theme ‘Taking it to the world’. The title is reflected ironically in the sudden absence of Australian artists from the annual top fifty.

Richard Fidler’s script is corny, loud and insouciant. There are two particularly devious cul de sacs in this CD-ROM. As well as a ‘showcase of Australian talent’, miscreant users are consigned to Rock ‘n Roll hell, to be endlessly entertained by failed B-sides. And in a tribute to the early eighties, the Christ-like resurrection of John(ny) Farnham’s career is presented inside an interactive cryogenic laboratory. What shines with this humour is the Mambo graphics, whose suburban surrealism perfectly complements the dreamy history of pop music.

Thus far, Moorditj and Real Wild Child have not been matched by other titles. Though Voices from the War contains gripping accounts from several hot spots of the Second World War, our navigation through them is badly developed. To begin with, we are placed in a garage listening to two children rummaging through Grandpa’s memorabilia on a bad sound loop (even CD-ROMs can get scratches). Navigation is confusing and written material is presented on textures of crumpled paper, which makes it unnecessarily difficult to read. Though it recently received an award for digital design, I doubt that was for its interactivity.

But of all the titles I have seen, Convict fleet to dragon boat is the most disappointing. Given the rich variety of stories offered by migration to Australia, the creators have made a surprisingly dull work. The interface is quite practical and stories of individual migration are divided up like a database. It may as well have been made in a CES office (or the late nineties equivalent), with each case responding to the same set of questions. The interactive component is provided by two games in which we have to navigate our way through arrival, either as a convict or Chinese gold digger. These offer some engagement, but are at odds with the rest of the title, which seems more like an annual report than a genuine cultural encounter.

What distinguishes the better CD-ROM titles from others is the presence of somebody ‘at home’. Exploring titles like Moorditj and Real Wild Child, we have great confidence that our path has been carefully made, and our moves anticipated. The mistake of some producers is to think that we would be happy merely with a multimedia brochure—satisfied with nice images, catalogue details, and a few buttons to click.

But while we await on the remaining titles, a new wave of cultural renovation is already breaking over CD-ROM. An extensive network of organisational web sites and databases is coalescing under the general umbrella of the Australian Cultural Network, also funded by the Department of Communication and the Arts. We need to tread a little more warily here. Consider the mission statement of ACN: ‘to enrich the lives of Australians and the wider global community by promoting online access to Australia’s cultures.’ There is a danger that providing ‘access’ is seen as synonymous with ‘enriching’—that culture becomes a technical problem rather than a symbolic journey.

But wait, to be cynical early would be to miss the unique opportunities offered by ACN. In providing a common point of reference for the nation’s cultural organisations, it offers great opportunities for lateral collaborations. And particularly as an electronic site, it offers a chance for those unfamiliar with the tea-rooms of those institutions to participate in public debate and expression. Though as Australians we may have a ‘talent for bureaucracy’, at least we can spread that talent around more widely.

While it is too early to judge its success as a cultural forum (and the motivation of Australians to take advantage of the opportunity), the initial list of ACN-funded projects provides some measure of its worth. It’s not encouraging. Apart from training programs, the cultural projects include sites for Douglas Mawson, ‘Dreamtime stories’, and Russell Drysdale. The best that could be said of this list is that it is not likely to alienate conservative institutions from a new medium. Hopefully, we will find something more adventurous to come.

In a broader context, the challenge of portals like ACN is to provide a critical alternative to MSN and America Online. If we look to successful sites, such as Salon and Feed, we find forums for reader responses that are actively maintained by interventionist moderators. Just as the more successful CD-ROMs provide a sense that ‘someone is home’, so flourishing online sites require constant maintenance. The most promising feature of the ACN thus far has been the direct proselytising by those involved.

So ‘click’ Australia, but only if you really want. Exit.