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Art expert talks about new emerging arts in Australia

Image from Connections2, 2010 Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art New Media Arts Award. Courtesy Aroha Groves


Dr. Ricardo Peach, an independent cultural consultant and previous Acting Director of the Inter-Arts Office at the Australia Council for the Arts, recently visited UNESCO Bangkok for an annual meeting for the Arts Education Network of Observatories in Thailand. He talked about culturally diverse art, art projects that help hospital patients manage their pain, and experimental art in Australia.

In your presentation you mentioned “diversity of the arts”. What do you mean by it?

“Experimental art generally involves a very complex set of interdisciplinary practices. In addition, some of the artists in the experimental arts communities in Australia come from culturally diverse backgrounds. Although their focus is on innovative art, many of these artists also engage with cultural diversity in a contemporary, experimental way. Although their focus is on contemporary arts practice, they intuitively work across cultures and link to and comment on cultural difference in a very sophisticated way.”

Can you give a few examples?

“One of the exciting projects currently in Australia is called ‘Metaverse Makeovers’ by an artist called Thea Baumann. Thea is Vietnamese Australian and works across the Asia-Pacific. Recently, she received an Australia Council grant to develop ‘Metaverse Nails’. ‘Metaverse Nails’ – part of the larger project called ‘Metaverse Makeovers’ - engaged with people in shopping centers to explore contemporary fashion, technology and artistic practices through augmented reality, body adornments and fashion.

“The less we can define what art should be the better we would be.”

The ‘Metaverse Nails’ phase of the project was part of the Moon Festival in Brisbane, Queensland. Thea curated a nail parlor performance with Vietnamese nail technicians, where people from the street and the shopping mall came into the shop to have their nails done. The nail technicians, part of the performance through a kind of a hyper reality show (a very pink and fun environment), placed Quick Response (QR) codes on participants’ nails, who through a special iPhone or iPad application, could see virtual, augmented reality jewelry pop out of their nails.”

“Another example is a work by an artist called Aroha Groves, titled Connections2. Groves, an Indigenous artist from the Weilwan and Gomeroi nations and Weridjerong and Gamilaraay language groups of New South Wales, created virtual worlds and interactive virtual storytelling spaces, dealing with contemporary Indigenous histories.  Groves looked at issues facing Indigenous communities in Australia, from the reclamation of cultural traditions that had been lost as a result of colonization, through to the healing of Indigenous families from the Stolen Generations who had been separated as a result of government policies. The virtual worlds she created in Connections2 allowed participants to experience and become familiar with some of the crucial issues facing Aboriginal people in Australia today.


What should art be in your perspective?

“The less we can define what art should be the better. Rather than saying ‘this is art’ we should rather ask is this impacting on my life in a really interesting way? Is it changing my perspective of the world? Is it giving me insight into things I’ve never seen or done before? Am I enjoying the process? Is it an interesting process? Are the artists or the creators who are producing the work exploring new avenues of production or new ways of engaging with me that’s never been done before?

It's not a black and white definition. It’s better to think of it as a conceptual process, asking whether it excites you and you are learning from it.

Can you tell us about emerging and experimental arts in Australia?

“Australia is supporting a growing area of really interesting hybrid, experimental artwork, where writers and artists from the visual arts, music, sound art, dance and performance come together to develop new types of art practices. When artists have to talk to each other from different art forms and disciplines, new types of work can often emerge.

“There has to be room for what others might call failure but we call testing and challenging…”

One of the more interesting examples of such a hothouse environment is an arts laboratory that the Australia Council funded called "Splendid". "Splendid" was a three year initiative where every year 15 or so young artists from around Australia came together for a period of up to three weeks to participate in workshops in a small country town in northern New South Wales called Lismore. Senior artist from around Australia and internationally also came along to take these early career artists through challenges and help them think about what the role of artists are in a contemporary world. After the three weeks, the artists then pitched their ideas to a major Australian music festival called Splendour in the Grass. Splendour in the Grass, which attracts up to 30,000 people each year, then picked two or three of the works that the artist came up with and fully funded them to be part of the festival.

What is the difference between emerging arts and experimental arts?

“It's a fine line. They are probably very similar. Both practices create room for what others might call failure, but what is really a testing ground, challenging particular concepts, either through technology or through new ways of presenting and performing art.

“Art forms and practices have always shifted because of new technologies.”

Whatever century artists have worked in, they've experimented using the tools available to them in that era. When there was only clay, that's what they used. When cameras were developed, artist started using them. Art forms and practices have always shifted because of new technologies - artists just love playing with new toys. They love testing things. So they go out there and experiment and find out what strange and wonderful things they can do with new technologies.

In our current era, computing technology and interactive tools such as the Wii remote and X-Box Connect has allowed artists for the first time to create real-time, co-creative, interactive work previously not possible. To me it is very exciting, because we just don’t know yet what wonderful things will be developed or what new languages artists will have to create to explore this type of work. I see what we are going through as similar to what occurred in the 1900s when film making started, because suddenly artists had to think differently about what they could do. Initially, it looked like they were only filming theater, because theater was their only language. Over time, however, a more complex filmic language developed. I think we are now seeing new languages and grammar develop for interactive technology art.

What are the art forms that might help society?

“We have an arts/science program in Australia called Synapse. Synapse is an initiative that has linked artists and scientists together as co-researcher and cocreators for over 10 years.  This program recognizes that in the complex world we live in today we cannot solve problems on our own and that people have to communicate across disciplines to be able to find solutions to some of the issues we face in the 21st century - whether environmental, health or social. The more artists are placed as‘imbedded creatives’ in a range of industries, the more potential benefits there are for new developments in health, science and the arts. It’s about getting people to work across disciplines so that they can help us think about the world in a different way and come up with different solutions.

The work that artists such as George Khut creates in hospital settings is one example of a great art/science collaboration. Khut is a media artist working with interactive and participatory media through initiatives such as "The Heart Library Project". In this project participants’ internal body rhythms such as heartbeats and breath are read by specifically designed interfaces held by participants while they lie on a bed. As they lie on the bed, an image of their body is projected above them, with visuals of their body affected by the biofeedback received from their body.  Participants can change the visuals by changing their breath rate and heartbeat and learn to control certain functions of their body. Khut recently developed a similar, but new work for hospital settings, where children can use the artwork through an iPad, and with bio feedback systems learn how to relax and manage their own stress and pain.  

Can you describe the art scene in the context of a multicultural Australia?

“From research the Australia Council recently conducted, the number of artist who define themselves as culturally diverse  seem to be as successful at receiving grants from the Council as those who do not identify as culturally diverse. However, some of the art forms such as theater have had to develop more specific initiatives around cultural diversity, as theatre  is perhaps a more complex set of artform practices and often very language specific.

“The Australia Council also funds an organization called "Kultour" which advocates for culturally diverse art practitioners and promotes culturally diverse Australian art to the region. There will always be room for improvement when developing and presenting culturally diverse work, especially given Australia’s changing demographics and the needs of new migrants and refugees. However, a lot of work has been done to support this type of practice already, including the recent MOU with UNESCO Bangkok to research and promote culturally diverse art in Australia and the Asia-Pacific.

How can UNESCO help the art industry?

“UNESCO is in an extraordinary position to make visible and promote some of the work that Australian artists and artists in the Asia-Pacific region are doing. To highlight some of the work of artists from all backgrounds, including those doing experimental, cross-cultural and collaborative projects, is essential for us to understand each other. To make sure that this kind of diversity in the arts is also reflected and celebrated in art education, is also of critical importance.”

By Kanit Teerathumaskul, UNESCO Bangkok