Voices from the Top End



'Voices from the Top End' The Age 17 December D8 (1996)

`Global village’ was Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the world according to TV. The move away from `cold’ print to `hot’ transmission promised a return to tribal forms of experience. Thirty-five years later, we can see how events proved McLuhan strangely right. Yes, there is a global village, and it’s called Hollywood. Today we are likely to know more about the characters in Melrose Place than we do about our next door neighbours.

As American media corporations attempt to push their content into the new digital frontiers, it is salutary to discover an alternative `global village’ emerging in Australia. To find it, you need to go straight to the top—Arnhem land. The Yolngu people who inhabit this tropical land have shown a particular interest in multimedia and seem willing to share their culture on the new digital stage.

`Around the world, children of the earth—you and me, superhighway.’ In their new single, `Superhighway’, the East Arnhem land group Yothu Yindi celebrate the Internet as a medium of understanding between peoples. Their own web site was born in July last year. Lead singer Mandawuy Yanapingu conceived the idea, legend has it, during the band’s tour through the states: `missing her touch, missing her call, out on the road’.

Help from a specialist was required to make it a reality. Their online midwife appeared in suitably enchanted circumstances. Band manager Alan James `bumped into’ Steve Hutchings, a double Stanford graduate, while hang-gliding in Byron Bay. Impressed by the American’s grasp of the `big picture’, developed during employment with NASA Ames Research Centre, James set him to work on the home page. When first online, it was the only site in the Southern Hemisphere to use Real Audio, the continuous sound feed. It now receives more than 1,000 hits a week and is about to be updated with true `streaming’ video technology.

But Yothu Yindi weren’t the first Yolngu on the web. A couple of months earlier, a town on the north-west of Arnhem land delivered its own web site. Maningrida is nationally famous for its indigenous weaving, a selection of which is currently touring Australian art venues. A melting pot of more than a dozen clans, Maningrida’s name means literally `where the dreaming changed shape’. Today, their dreaming turns toward new technologies.

The particular charm of the Maningrida Home Page is its down to earth appearance. The lack of fancy graphics makes it more transparent to the personalities who appear in its pages. A photo of the council chairman Dean Yibarbuk smiles at visitors: `Hello country-men and friends’. Clicking through the links we find information about the outstations, local rock art and an opportunity to purchase local crafts.

Maningrida’s online midwife was no LA whiz-kid. While working at their Bawinanga Arts Centre, a Melbourne linguist noticed how much of Maningrida’s art was sold to local balanda (white people)—up to $10,000 a month. Margaret Carew thought sales might increase if the charms of Maningrida could be disseminated through the Internet.

Currently, sales through the Internet more than cover costs and the web site itself rarely gets below 3,000 hits a week. With experience, their approach to buyers has become more specialised. The present Cultural Research Officer, Robert Handelsman, has been able to customise private web pages for avid overseas buyers, such as an eccentric collector from Norway.

Computers are not new to Maningrida. PCs for bookkeeping and word processing were first introduced to the Arts Centre in the 1980s by National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. Aboriginal employees found these difficult to use because of the linear sequences demanded in data entry. Real involvement only came with the introduction of Macintosh computers with more flexible interfaces. According to visiting Japanese anthropologist, Shigenobu Sugito, `Mac is more friendly to Aboriginal people.'

But to understand what computers mean to Yolngu requires stepping back much further in time. Well before white settlement, when Yolngu traded with Macassan fishermen, ceremonies of exchange developed as tobacco and other goods were swapped for labour and symbolic objects—`Rom for rum’, as some describe it. `Rom’ is the Yolngu word for `law’. Several of these ceremonies have been performed in Canberra as gestures of reconciliation, the most recent of which earned them a computer with a CD-ROM drive—or `rom for ROM’ as we would say today.

This linguistic coincidence has its problems. In finding an appropriate name for their recent CD-ROM of Arnhem land art, the National Gallery of Australia had to use the expression `electronic book’ in case of confusion.

This new digital object of exchange with the outside world gives an added dimension to national dialogue. The conversations between Margaret Carew and the Aboriginal heritage officer, Peter Danaja, are in their own quiet way critical moments in cross-cultural understanding. Drawing a map of computers across the world, Margaret showed how, `a message sent from one computer to another could follow any of many pathways, eventually ending up at its destination. Peter said "that's just like us".’

Why do Yolngu people have such an affinity with the Internet? Danaja has presented his own answer to this question in forums around Australia. I met him first at a Museums conference in Brisbane last year, where his boundless optimism easily distinguished him from other speakers.

A dedicated family man, he recently decided to forgo touring and return to his outstation. It much harder to find him at home than in Brisbane thanks to the many ceremonies occurring at the end of the dry season. I eventually found him again near the airstrip in Maningrida with his wife, his mother and his six children. The sun was going down and he threw a sheet on the ground for us to talk.

Accompanied by careful hand gestures, Danaja spoke of how the Internet linked sites together—`just like my people.’ Just as you click on an icon to find another site, so Yolngu are connected to each other and their land. `We are like an icon walking around, full of information’.

The stars come out and his family gather around the television to watch a Chinese video that Danaja had ordered from Melbourne. Danaja says one day he’d like to have a laptop so he can do email from his outstation and not have to travel to Maningrida.

Despite his celebration of the Internet, Danaja is more keen to produce a CD-ROM than a web site. He plans to create a database of his clan and their mythology. The CD-ROM format is more appropriate because it is finite and unchangeable (`Read Only Memory’). Just like Yolngu kinship: `it’s like a circle that goes round and round and goes back and links up into that group.’

Impermanence is not the only problem Yolngu have with the Internet. In planning their home page, Maningrida Community Education Centre are grappling with the issue of language. The school aims to teach literacy not only in English, but also in students’ first languages. The Literature Production Centre provides tools in desktop publishing for quick and accessible production of books.

Digital cameras are in much demand as simple hunting-like tools for gathering images. One teacher uses Hypercard to make talking books from material collected during excursions. As testimony to their effectiveness, I once strayed into a class during his absence to find a keen circle of students squeezed around the computer reciting their fanciful tale of alien abduction.

The dominant language of Maningrida is Burarra. Though a web site in the Burarra has been prototyped, it makes little sense to put it online when it is spoken by less than a thousand people, read by a fraction, only a couple of whom have net access. But like ceremonies, it may be the process of putting it together, rather than the end product, which matters most. A web site becomes a scrapbook of all the community believes is uniquely theirs.

There are signs of Aboriginal communities beginning use the web as a cultural stage. Ernabella School’s page is a particularly charming site with room for stories of excursions and creative writing. Principal Neville King set this up as another outlet for pupil’s English expression.

This is enabled by the Northern Territory’s Open Learning centre, which administers the educational component of the Tanami system. Their talking book series uses Hypercard to create interactive stories, the most ambitious of which was the Vertebrates database. The creator Graeme Sawyer incorporated `me stacks’ for children to include their own data. They are currently prototyping a CD-ROM teaching tool for remote Aboriginal students. Progress through the program is inscribed automatically onto a floppy disk that can be emailed to a teacher for assessment.

A more widely known remote teaching program occurs within the Tanami Network, recently discovered by CNN. This videoconferencing network is owned and operated by four remote Aboriginal communities in central Australia and provides a range of programs including secondary education and case management for long-term unemployed. Globe TV, a subsidiary of CNN, recently visited Yuendumu to film a story on video conferencing and Tanami Network's Yanartidlyi: The Cockatoo Creek Multimedia Project. A collaboration between the people at Yuendumu and Melbourne’s The Purple Group, the CD-ROM tells the story of a large family-based painting as it depicts the local jukurrpa (Dreamings) and landscape. The canvas was commissioned through Warlukurlangu Artists of Yuendumu by the South Australian Museum and investment in concept development was secured through Film Victoria’s Multimedia 21 program.

According to project coordinator Melinda Hinkson: 'projects such as Yanartidlyi are extensions of what has been a long history of engagement with media and communications technologies at Yuendumu. Contrary to the expectations of 'outsiders', Yapa (Warlpiri people) have a very sophisticated understanding of the way in which the media operate'.

The Yuendumu CD-ROM complements a valuable archive of anthropological photographs held by the South Australian Museum. An online version of this archive features in the remarkable Aboriginal Family History project. On one page is a line of thumbnail images stretching down seven generations, each linking to a documentary photograph. Seeing how the Internet might be embraced as a medium for representing kinship demonstrates an alternative to the virtual shopping malls beginning to swamp online content.

With the Internet, Australia’s notorious `tyranny of distance’ may turn out to be a virtue. This paradox doesn’t escape Alan James, as he table-sits his mobile and café-latte in a Darwin diner. `People in Darwin are more internationally focused than in Sydney and Melbourne.’ But this global orientation doesn’t always translate into financial support. Yothu Yindi already have a CD-ROM mapped out but are awaiting the right backers. Multimedia is alive and clicking up north, it just needs a little sustenance.

See also:

Fourth World Documentation Project Home Page
Indigenous Peoples' Literature
Nanga-Ngoona Moora-Joorga Aboriginal Land Council
Northern Land Council - Test Home Page
Northern Territory Internet Service Provider
South Australian Museum
Tandanya Aboriginal Art