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Book Review: Darren Tofts, Interzone: Media Arts in Australia (Craftsman House)

by John Potts

Darren Toft’s book Interzone comes at a crucial time for the media arts in Australia. The Australia Council - despite vigorous opposition - has moved to dissolve the New Media Arts Board, effectively consigning the funding for electronic or interactive works to the broader domain of Visual Arts. This bureaucratic decision is the fulcrum around which has swirled passionate debate on the identity, status and significance of media arts.

Proponents of new media works have decried the short-sightedness and conservatism of the government funding agencies, pointing to the innovations developed in electronic artworks since the early 1990s – innovation now threatened. On the other hand, critics of so-called new media art have fired some wounding arrows. Did we really need a new media art ghetto? Shouldn’t an art project be assessed on its qualities, rather than its technology? Did digital art make good use of the funding it received through the 1990s? Where are the poetic, resonant works? Where are the masterpieces? Has the new media moment passed?

Enter Darren Tofts and Interzone. Tofts does not attempt to answer all these questions: it isn’t that kind of book. But Interzone is the right book at the right time. A beautifully produced volume, it takes the wisest path by showcasing the artworks themselves. Tofts traces the history of media arts in Australia by focusing not on critical debates, theoretical argument or funding policies, but on the artists and the works they have produced. The documentation of artworks is lavish and extensive, allowing readers to judge for themselves the merits of individual works and of media art in general.

The readers of Interzone will not simply be the usual suspects occupying contemporary art circles: that is, artists, writers, critics, curators, “arts workers”, bureaucrats and educators. This book is written and devised to appeal to a broader range of readers. In pursuit of this aim, the book’s advantages are its engaging design, its copious use of colour photographs, and its lucid and accessible prose style. Darren Tofts has created that rare and difficult thing: an intelligent “coffee table” book dealing with complex and uncharted territory.

Unlike the standard coffee table book, however, Interzone is not all pretty pictures punctuated by trivial text. Tofts fearlessly addresses the theoretical concerns particular to this field. Interactivity, immersion, interface, narrative and non-linearity, artificial life, hypertext, gender, liquid identity: all the themes that have occupied artists and writers for the last fifteen years are discussed in this book. But the great strength of Interzone is that these potentially abstract notions are not explicated through dense passages of jargon, or via reference to post-structuralist theorists who may or may not be relevant. Instead, Tofts examines each concept through the medium of individual artworks. This is more than an illustration of ideas with pictures: it is rather the exploration of concepts through the means of creative works. A remarkable feat in itself, it has the additional benefit here of rewarding, rather than repelling, a curious reader who may be drawn to the book by the photographs of the various works.

Thus Tofts makes astute use of works by Anna Munster and Tina Gonsalves to explore the creative potential of interface. The chapter on artificial nature proceeds through a discussion of influential works by Jon McCormack, Paul Brown, Troy Innocent, Ian Haig and John Tonkin. An excellent section on e-writing offers a fine exposition of Mez’s innovative but often puzzling work. The possibilities of interactive fiction and electronic cinema are demonstrated via analysis of works by John Colette, Megan Heyward and Sally Pryor. This technique of explanation through the study of individual works is successful throughout. It has the dual effect of showcasing work by Australian media artists and developing one of the book’s main themes. That is to examine computer-based art not by investigating the technology but by focussing on the art as form, idea and creative practice. As Tofts states, “what is more important than the use of the computer in art is the means by which art can renovate and reinvent the computer.”

Interzone succeeds both as introduction to the area and provoker of debate. Tofts is an authoritative commentator who does not shirk any of the contentious issues; indeed, he will no doubt be pleased to incite critical response. Some have already found his focus too Melbourne-oriented (probably true but unimportant: Sydney-siders should respond not by complaining but by producing a Sydney-centric version of media arts in Australia). His emphasis on the first wave of electronic artists and the subsequent rush of new media works in the 1990s may attract criticism from the neglected younger generation of media artists (but then, they should be aware of their forbears, and if their own work is good enough someone will write a book on their art one day).

My own particular debating point with the author of Interzone concerns his definition of media arts. In an earlier piece – a review for Scan Magazine of the 2004 Biennale of Sydney – Tofts rejected the term “new media art”, which he does again at the beginning of this book. Both “new media art” and “digital art” are too reductive as terms, he asserts. Instead, he prefers the term “media art”, in that this broader term incorporates a continuity from earlier “technological experimentation with media, old and new.” 

Tofts pays tribute to the pioneering works of Australian “precursors and visionaries”, including Jeffrey Shaw, Peter Callas, Jill Scott, Severed Heads and of course Stelarc. The historical lineage of media art stretches back to the 1960s and the use of video in electronic art. Yet despite this embrace of historical continuity and video art, Tofts’ focus is much tighter: Interzone primarily deals with computer-based art from the early 1990s to the present. His key term is “interactivity”, and it is the computer that has made sophisticated interactive artworks possible. Hence his concentration is on ‘arts practices in which the computer is the predominant medium, integrating and synthesising a range of diverse media.”

Tofts certainly stakes out his territory clearly, but it is at the cost of some logical contortion. If video art from the 1960s and 1970s is recognised as part of the continuity, why is current video art, and the wide use of video in installation, not included within the orbit of contemporary media arts? By restricting his study to computer-based interactive works, Tofts is in effect writing about ‘new media art” by another name. He has merely deleted the offending “new” epithet and avoided the “digital” stigma, while nevertheless proceeding to discuss art based on “computers and digital technologies generally (collectively known as new media).” He has good reasons for making this theoretical move: he wants to counter the technological determinism that would ensue from the identification of “new media” – that is, digital computers – as core to the enterprise. Yet I found the inconsistency created by his use of terms a distraction in the early part of the book.

I pay particular attention to this issue of definitions because it is germane to the debates around media arts mentioned at the outset of this review. There is a growing opinion in international art circles that the high point of electronic interactive art (formerly known as “new media art”) has passed some time ago. Interzone documents all too well the many expensive, well-funded Australian new media artworks, most of them produced in the period 1993-2000. In more recent years, the presence of interactive works has receded at international festivals and biennales. At the same time, there has been a remarkable surge in the use by artists of video and film, in diverse formats and methods. As an example of this trend, the 2006 Biennale of Sydney shows 85 artworks, more than a quarter of which feature video or film. Only two or three incorporate interactive technology.

This does not mean that media art is dead, merely that it has changed. It appears to have turned to old-fashioned media technology and turned away - for the moment at least - from the so-called “new”. The small and cheap technologies – such as mobile phones – are also attracting artists and film-makers excited by their ready and immediate potential. This creative transformation of available communications technologies will only intensify as technologies converge and networks proliferate. Film and video – the media art dinosaurs - will wander merrily along these networks.

Yet only a fool, of course, prophesies too far into the technology future. Darren Tofts is on much surer ground in Interzone, which includes a handy timeline stretching from 1974 to 2004 (mentioning Scan along the way). The great virtue of this book is the story it tells (and shows) spanning three decades. Tofts expertly charts this history, and he is right to stress the continuity of media arts. Where this hybrid art goes next is a matter of debate – and Interzone is already a key element in that debate.

John Potts is Associate Professor in the Media Department at Macquarie University.