From the 1960s it became increasingly common in New Zealand for artists to create work that challenged the conventional formats of painting and sculpture. They adopted a range of materials and strategies that brought art into dynamic new relationships with the everyday world. New technologies played an important role, providing fresh formats, vocabularies, contexts and content. Such art became more interactive and time-based, but its variety and mobility made it difficult to define.
Overlapping categories and terms could include sound art, video art, intermedia, new media art, multimedia art, web art, post-internet art or simply media art.
Billy Apple’s art
Starting in London in the early 1960s and then in New York for several decades, Billy Apple, one of New Zealand’s first media artists, worked with film and neons, fabric prints, photocopy technology, architectural installations, ozone generators and lasers, and collaborated with renowned physicist Stanley Shapiro. Returning to New Zealand in 1990, Apple made works based on satellite weather data and the replication of his own cellular material.
An important early influence was Len Lye (1901–1980), a New Zealander who lived in Sydney, Samoa, London and New York. Lye’s work was driven by constant experimentation with ideas of movement through writing, painting, film, photography and mechanical ‘kinetic’ sculptures.
Many media artists have taken a similarly flexible approach, shifting between film, video, sound, performance, installation and digital formats in response to the concepts and requirements for each project. Moving also between the worlds of theatre, dance, music, cinema, design and even science, this art was just as likely to be exhibited in a theatre, nightclub or mall, as in a gallery.
Artist Philip Dadson has said, ‘Intermedia describes a synergistic, transmedia mode of working, a way to combine media in new ways, particularly time-based media such as sound arts and moving images. Intermedia exploits notions of counterpoint, complementarity and the dialectic and is not to be confused with multi-media or mixed-media.’1
From the late 1960s the sculpture department at Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, led by Jim Allen, became an important laboratory for a generation of artists. They moved away from fixed works and consumer objects into what became known as post-object art, producing temporary installations, assemblages, activities and performances.
The teaching of time-based art at Elam from 1977 was also an important development. Led by Philip Dadson, a graduate of Allen’s programme, intermedia (as it became known) later became a department in its own right, helping launch the careers of many artists, film-makers, musicians and video artists, and contributing to a media scene that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s.
Lisa Reihana, Alison McLean, Niki Caro, Sean Kerr, Dean Roberts, Hye Rim Lee and the groups Wendyhouse and Goldenaxe all came through Elam’s intermedia department.
Creating media art is often a group endeavour, similar to producing feature films. A lot of artists work in groups or outsource aspects of the project, and it is not surprising that many artists from the 1980s chose to work as collectives, including Fetus Productions, City Group, Popular Productions and others.
Artist as art director
Artist Lisa Reihana works as a creative director, whether producing a digital photograph, a moving-image work, a performance or an installation. Gathering together stylists, costume makers, models and sound artists, she creates a community of friends and family who all get involved in the art-making process.
Māori and Pacific media art
The changing forms of technological media work well with the adaptable and oral qualities of Māori culture, shifting it into widely accessible visual modes. Electronic media has made it much easier for artists to appropriate existing material to create alternative narratives from those told in the mainstream media. An example is Lisa Reihana’s ‘Wog features’ (1990) which plays on cultural stereotypes.
The interactive potential of new media supports the performative nature of customary forms. Maureen Lander’s electronic take on Māori string games, included in the 2001 Wellington exhibition Techno Māori: Māori Art in the Digital Age, is an example of this.
Samoan artist Vaimaila Urale has mixed Western and Pacific cultures by deploying ASCII characters as a digital interpretation of the traditional motifs of tatau (tattoo) and tapa, notably in her video work ‘Typeface’ (2012), which allowed viewers to trigger layers of patterns on a screen and become embedded in the work themselves via a camera.