The Garden of Virtual Delights
Copyright © Paul Brown 1997
Commissioned by and first published in Periphery No. 30, February 1997
All Rights Reserved
One Nation Under God
Venues for Subversion
"The World needs the United States of America"
Sir Robert Menzies,
Prime Minister of Australia, 1939 - 1941 and 1949 - 1966
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,
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"
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 ....
- BRO96 - Brown, Paul, New Media - An Emergent Paradigm, Periphery No. 29,
November 1996, pp. 13-15.
- 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
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