The Garden of Virtual Delights

Copyright © Paul Brown 1997
All Rights Reserved
Commissioned by and first published in Periphery No. 30, February 1997

Virgin Territory
One Nation Under God
Cultural Tourism
Venues for Subversion
Periphery Magazine

"The World needs the United States of America"
Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia, 1939 - 1941 and 1949 - 1966

Virgin Territory

I'm grateful to David Sless, director of the Communication Research Institute of Australia (CRIA) in Canberra. Writing some time ago, not long after the Internet had entered popular culture, he painted an interesting allegory: internet users are like the human first family, Adam and Eve, wandering innocently in the wonderful garden, eating the fruits of the tree of information. Pretty soon, Sless warned, the garden's owners will return and reclaim the territory. The hapless academics (for this was before the internet consumer boom of 95/6) will be evicted.

Now as we enter 1997, with internet bandwidth at an all time low in Australia, we would do well to reflect on his insight. Companies who require good bandwidth (to the world, not just their service provider) are already prepared to pay between $15 and $100 per hour for that privilege.

For those of us on artists salaries (if that isn't an oxymoron) our $1 per hour connections are crawling to a halt. One wiz recently referred to the "World Wide Wait". Two worlds are evolving: the haves and have nots of cyberspace.

The internet is a mainstream product of the military industrial complex. Advances in digital processing in the late 1980's led to the development of internet-based multimedia consumer products. These products are intended to create profits. The general opinion is that we're heading towards a future dominated by an information superhighway and an information economy.

Today's internet is a creaky bush track that will lead to tomorrow's InfoBahn. And today's internet surfers are fee-paying guinea pigs who's purpose is to provide valuable demographic and market information to the superhighway designers. The fees are relatively negligible in order to compensate for the poor performance of the experimental environment and in recognition of the low income expectations of human guinea pigs (who, before monetarism, expected to actually get paid for participating in market research experiments - or - at least, get a free bag of lollies or a packet of fags for their trouble).

So, to ask ... "what potential the internet may have for the arts" ... can be interpreted as an statement of such beatific naivety that it ranks right up there alongside ... "the CIA exists for the benefit of humanity".

In contrast the purpose of the arts for the internet is clear: the efforts to date provide valuable market data to superhighway developers about the economic feasibility of including cultural material in future, full cost recovery, developments.

Commercial galleries will clearly want to be involved. They're already part of the postmodern "rational" free market economy and will need access to the latest communication technology in order to interact and compete. The non-commercial galleries will also be represented and for the same reason they exist in "real" space. They are part of the military industrial propaganda machine and their role is to reassure citizens about the goodwill and sensitivity of the State and the large industrial cartels who's "philanthropy" supports them.

For living arts, the work of people alive and thinking right now, the outlook is not so clear. Back in 1969 I was the North Western representative the Arts Council of Great Britain's New Activities Committee. For the first time the unwashed got to peek inside the working of a royal state institution. Here's an example of what we discovered: the kitchen subsidy for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden was greater than the total sum of money going to living artists in all disciplines.

In thirty years nothing much has changed.

One Nation Under God

It's important to note that the term `information superhighway' is singular. It is proposed as a central communication network for the entire globe. It would be difficult to doubt that the CIA have, near if not at the top of their agenda, plans to ensure that USA propaganda dominates superhighway content. They may even be prepared to use trade agreements to ensure that this is the case. Some years ago Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced a plan to develop the percentage of Australian content on Australian network television. His argument was that Australian children should be exposed to their own culture. There was an immediate response from US President Bush who claimed that Hawke's proposal was in conflict with the GATT international trade agreement. If the Australian government didn't withdraw their proposal Bush threatened to respond with sanctions on Australian goods entering the USA.

Ever since the McCarthy era Hollywood has been a vehicle for US propaganda as films like `Red Hot' and `The Air Up There' make blatantly clear. Anyone who doubts this is advised to take a look at a recording of President Johnson's speech at the inauguration of the American Film Institute in the mid `60's

Given the US's evangelical ambition to convert the world it is essential that other countries respond with plans to maintain national cultural integrity. In Europe the Media Program was founded in 1986 to address the problem of the high ratio of US propaganda material on European screens. It has spawned many successful initiatives which have revitalised the local industry and local content.

Despite this the previous labor government of Australia were only able to suggest that 10% of superhighway content should be Australian. When I asked Michael Lee, then Minister responsible for the arts, why this limit was so low he expressed his opinion that Australia would find it difficult to produce even this small percentage.

User friendly multimedia and web authoring systems have changed this picture dramatically in the past two years. It's now clear that community participation in the superhighways is a distinct possibility. However, recent events in the USA suggest that this avenue for self determination and expression may be cauterised before it begins.

Back in the 1970's the USA framed regulations governing cable television which specified 25% community access. Later this figure was revised to 15% when it became clear that the higher figure could not be sustained. Today community access falls into two classes: high budget productions made with financial support from philanthropic agencies (like the Annenberg Foundation) which are little different in either content or style from the output of the mainstream studios and; very low budget local content (local baptist church services shot on a hand held vhs camcorder) which has very little appeal beyond a small niche interest group.

Unlike television it's possible to make competitive content for the web with a low budget. Internationally recognised `cool sites' are often the products of individuals working on low-cost pcs with freeware authoring tools. However the US government, now framing laws to regulate the superhighway, have caved in to industry pressure and omitted clauses that would ensure community access. It should be clear to all readers that this is a profoundly disturbing decision, particularly for countries like Australia who's governments haven't yet defined their own policy and who may be looking to the US for leadership in this new and uncertain area.

It's therefore important that artworkers everywhere lobby for community access to broadband services whenever they have the chance. It will offer the opportunities of new grass-roots industry development, particularly in regional areas, whilst simultaneously boosting the creation of Australian content for both national consumption and for export.

Cultural Tourism

The development of cultural tourism will provide opportunities for artworkers, the cultural industries and the museums to participate in network developments. Many overseas tourists currently fly into the major airports and connect to a few well know resort areas. Most are unaware that significant recreational and cultural amenities exist in adjacent regional areas.

Internet sites for tourism are growing fast. Many are planned as full cost recovery initiatives. Sites will attract more actual tourists to a region and so enhance the overall economy of that area. National and international travel operators will also benefit. The provision of advertising for local facilities like hotels, tour operators, etc.. will bring more direct profit.

Then there's virtual tourism which will attract people to view amenities that are not so easy or desirable to visit in reality. An example of these would be the indigenous sites coming from closed communities in remote areas of Australia like Maningrida. Authorised by the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation the Maningrida web site (MAN95) offers those of us who are unlikely ever to visit this remote Arnhem Land community the opportunity of learning more about their culture and of sampling and purchasing examples of local music, arts and crafts. It's an excellent example of how the internet can condense space and a model of how it can work for regional communities, particularly those that are off the tourist routes.

Culturally `rich' sites will be more attractive for both real and virtual tourists and directly influence their income generation ability. This is straight `added value' territory. Art workers and museums should be able to negotiate valuable access rights in return for allowing their content to be used for supporting tourism initiatives. Clearly the work won't be accepted unless it's `responsible' and doesn't conflict with the belief systems of the desired tourist groups or the policies of the superhighway provider and any authorities who may be involved. Since the latter two are likely to be rational economic pragmatists there should be a considerable amount of leeway.

Venues for Subversion

Some of us still hold dear to the idea of art, at least on one level, as subversion. It's an art that is most often shown in low-rent galleries that are heavily subsidised by sympathetic patronage. Only later, when it's made it's point and been assimilated, does it make its way into the high-rent district and the state mausoleums. Will the superhighway have a low rent district? And if it doesn't, will the low rent alternative of today's internet still exist alongside the more sophisticated superhighway of tomorrow?

Many think not and suggest that economic consolidation will eventually buy out the internet just as it rationalised the multitude of radio stations in the early days of that medium. Still others are concerned about global examples of knee-jerk legislation by scared and ill informed politicians.

Last year it was naughty words like "breast" and the US' Communication Decency Act which fortunately was overturned. However, in Europe right now, a powerful lobby group is trying to outlaw web page hotlinks by claiming they conflict with the principle of copyright as enshrined in the Berne Convention. If they succeed they will effectively kill the web.

I'm more optimistic. Cities have always had their ghettos, commerce has its `black' economy and crime permeates all levels of society. So I'm fairly certain that some kind of low-cost, ad-hoc and low quality `under' network will coexist with the superhighway as either a symbiotic part of the infrastructure or as an independent entity. That it may be outlawed will only make it more attractive to the bright young minds of future generations who are likely to find (and make) it a lot more exciting place to hang out than the Hollywood retreads lining the main highway.

As I suggested in my previous essay in Periphery (BRO96) it's the next generation and seedy, low-rent and often dismissed venues that are likely to be the gestation points for a new technology-based aesthetic. I'd even speculate that the high value mainstream superhighway is unlikely to generate many surprises, at least in its early days. The high production budgets, corporate mentality, broad spectrum market research and conservative economics are much more likely to spawn a nightmare of consumer loyaltyware. Until, of course, they see what's happening on the off-off-superhighway spaces and the volume audiences they attract. Then they'll buy the show and the talent, sanitise them as necessary and give them bandwidth.

In fact it's interesting to speculate that the superhighway owners; future Murdoch's, Packer's, Disney's, Time Warner's, Telstra's and AT&T's will acknowledge and may actually support an undernet, via some untraceable line of virtual credit, as a talent and content breeder. But that sounds more like a science fiction story than a serious essay in a reputable art magazine ....


  1. BRO96 - Brown, Paul, New Media - An Emergent Paradigm, Periphery No. 29, November 1996, pp. 13-15.
  2. MAN95 - As of May 2000 this site no longer seems to be online.


This essay was commissioned by and first published in Periphery No. 30, December 1997. Periphery is an Australian quarterly regional art and craft journal which includes a regular focus on indigenous art and craft.

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