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The art of the long distance relationship

Jun 14, 2013

Separation by long distances is a recurring theme in Australian culture. Enduring the hardships of isolation is a familiar trope of our music, literature and art, from the folk song Botany Bay to Henry Lawson’s short story The Drover’s Wife or Russell Drysdale’s painting of the same name. Other iconic works, such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s epic canvas Warlugulong (1977), or Doris Pilkington Garimara’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence and the film based on it, emphasise rather our interconnectedness across the vast continent.

The rise of fast broadband is providing new ways for us to relate to each other and the environment over long distances, collapsing space and time in important ways. What does it mean for the way we think and talk about distance, and how we connect?

Exploring that question is the focus of The Portals , a curated program of telematic art which opened on 8 June at Nan Giese Gallery in Darwin and The Concourse in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood. It is one of the projects supported by the Australia Council’s Broadband Arts Initiative and forms part of ISEA2013 , the 19th International Symposium on Electronic Art .

As Dr Ricardo Peach, the creative producer of The Portals, has pointed out, Australians played a role in the one of the world’s first interactive, telematic artworks, La Plissure du Text (The Pleating of the Text) by Roy Ascott. Sydney was one of 11 international locations involved in the creation of the improvised fairy tale through an early incarnation of electronic mail. The five artworks in The Portals follow in the footsteps of that seminal work from 1983. They all utilise networked communications to join up artists and audiences in acts of co-creation, yet draw upon of 30 years of technological advances to offer new ways of connecting.

In one of the works, Shadow Net , which uses Microsoft’s Kinect system, shadows of passers-by in Darwin and Sydney are captured and projected into a shared virtual space where they interact with each other. ‘It’s playing a game with technology you’d usually use across the lounge room and trying to stretch that across the country,’ says artist Jimmy McGilchrist, who is leading the project together with games designer Matt Ditton and audio producer Tyler Solleder. In contrast to massively multiplayer online games, Shadow Net incorporates the live silhouettes of each player rather than avatars, offering a far more personalised mode of interaction while also commenting on the anonymity of gaming environments.

In the networked artwork and e-literature project I’m collaborating on with Andrew Burrell, Enquire Within Upon Everybody , audiences in Sydney and Darwin are being invited to take part in a crowdsourced Q&A session by tweeting questions to be answered by the ‘digital hive mind’. The inquisition will enable audiences in the two locations to connect not only with each other but also with social data itself, which we believe is developing its own emergent personality. The interface is defiantly lo-fi, recalling 8-bit games or the defunct technology of Teletext, reflecting the fact that distributed interactions such as these are at an embryonic stage.

Is Starlight A Wifi Signal?  by Nancy Mauro-Flude and collaborators also relies on Twitter. The artists are encouraging audiences in Sydney and Darwin to tweet with the hashtag #starlight from their mobile devices to interact with a networked performance that includes moving bodies, projections and text. Distributed Empire  by Justin Clemens, Christopher Dodds and Adam Nash uses mobile devices too: it’s a real-time sonic and visual portrait generator that recombines ‘selfies’ taken by volunteers in various locations, in a commentary on privacy and data ownership in the digital age.

Finally, in Metaverse Makeovers (LIVE) , the creative team will be working with nail technicians to makeover members of the public with nail accessories; the nails are the platform for an augmented reality experience and enable wearers to interact with a companion game that unites Sydney and Darwin. The goal, according to artist Thea Baumann, is to experiment with new forms of networked experience that support more intimate, sensory connections between participants from different physical locations.

Of course, this is only beginning of a new wave of creative practices being made possible by fast networks. New techniques and techologies for connecting and co-creating (especially with those marginalised by geographic distance) need to be developed, as well as new metaphors and ways of thinking about the phenomenology of long distance communications. Another important task, I think, is to explore the glitches in transmissions, the lacunae in texts, and the voices that are being left out of the conversation entirely.

This is something Australian creative practitioners are particularly well suited to, thanks to our long cultural tradition of trying to understand the idea of distance. Patrick White described the explorers in Voss as ‘obsessed by their dreams of distance and the future’. Today’s artists are more likely to be dreaming of connectedness and the future; not so much the tyranny of distance but the freedom of greater proximity.

Join The Portals Project Facebook page  to become part of The Portals community and follow us on Twitter through #ThePortals .

The Portals is in partnership with Darwin Community Arts and has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, as part of the Broadband Arts Initiative. 

The project is supported by Arts NT through the Regional Arts Fund and The Chan Contemporary Arts Space, Charles Darwin University through the Nan Giese Gallery, Willoughby City Council and the managers of the Chatswood Urban Screen, Urban Screen Productions.

It is presented by ISEA2013 and the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT) as part of the 19th International Symposium of Electronic Arts, Sydney.