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.
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 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.
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.
The emergence of videotape as an alternative to film in the 1970s made moving-image art more accessible for those without the funds or resources to work with celluloid film or cinema-style production and presentation.
Video art was usually presented using household TV monitors and VHS players, and it would often refer to this domestic context. From the 1990s, when large-scale projection equipment as well as digital media became available, there were increased overlaps between traditional cinema and more experimental modes. These included:
The feminist movement found an important outlet in media art, as it allowed artists to explore new formats and circumvent the conventional outlets and hierarchies of the art world. In the 1980s, for example, video provided an alternative to cinema and television and the modes of representation they perpetuated.
Sound increasingly became an important part of both experimental music and visual art production, and artists experimented with bringing music, images and objects together in creative ways. A mix of music, sound and art was a feature of the Sonic Circus festivals in Wellington, organised by Jack Body and first held in 1974 at Victoria University.
Live film or video was presented at concerts from the 1980s by groups such as Fetus Productions and Philip Dadson’s From Scratch. This became an integral part of performances by Michael Hodgson’s group Pitch Black, which developed special software for the live triggering of video clips from a computer.
The growing field of music-video production was an important platform for experimentation. Works by artists such as Fetus Productions and Chris Knox were featured in the 1996 exhibition VDU Video Down Under: Recent Video Art from New Zealand, and appeared in gallery presentations.
Later artists, including Rachel Shearer, Kim Pieters and Lissa Mitchell, similarly combined their involvement with art and bands to produce clips that mixed audio and visual experimentation. They also created live visuals to accompany musical performances – commonly known as VJing (a video equivalent of DJing).
A growing range of sound sources – from found sounds in nature and industry to experimental instruments or electronically created tones and noises – have helped change the experience of listening to art and music.
Radio, a medium that spans the natural and electronic worlds, has long been an area of fascination for artists. Media collective Radioqualia made work that used data from radio telescopes to stream and broadcast the sounds of electromagnetic activity in space.
Finding meaning in noise was a significant preoccupation for many artists, particularly those working with sound. Stella Brennan’s ‘ZenDV’ (2002) explored this visually, questioning the distinctions we make between analogue and digital technology, by introducing simulated dust and scratches to a test pattern.
Computers quickly became part of art-making. In 1972 David Rivers began using a university computer to produce the abstract patterns that became ‘Snoephlaiques and purrshienne karrpettes’ (1972–76).
A rich source of content for art, the internet also became an exhibition site, where information and global networks would become important features of art. Websites, often used as a means for promoting online art, sometimes had their information architecture turned into art. Early examples in New Zealand include Robert Hutchinson’s Spatial State of A and B (1996) and the Codec project (1997). Spatial State of A and B was New Zealand’s first online gallery, while Codec linked four existing offline galleries in commissioning significant online projects.
The revolution of accessibility, portability and rapid results provided by video was repeated in the 2000s, when phone-based cameras, laptop editing software and internet distribution became widespread.
Old technologies that anticipate the characteristics of electronic arts are sometimes referred to by media artists (just as traditional media has also begun to refer to new technologies, a common feature of ‘post-internet’ art). Stella Brennan’s ‘Tuesday 3 July 2001, 10.38am’ (2001–2), for example, used the pixelated grid of needlepoint embroidery to depict a computer’s desktop display.
With the disembodied nature of much electronic communication, the role of the body took on particular significance for many media artists. Rachael Rakena’s ‘Rerehiko’ (2003) depicts dancers from a kapa haka (traditional Māori performance) group performing underwater, layered with texts from emails, juxtaposing the weightless underwater environment with the floating realms of cyberspace.
Electronic and digital media can provide virtual or fictional spaces where the artist can explore their identity through the construction of new, hybrid or multiple personas. As a South Korean migrant to New Zealand, Hye Rim Lee used digital animation to look at cultural and gender roles in popular culture through the construction of a personal avatar, Toki.
Douglas Bagnall used computer programmes to explore different kinds of intelligence. His ‘Cloud shape classifier’ (2006–7) takes and sorts photos of clouds, offering examples to users based on preferences revealed as they are shown the images. Bagnall questions whether technology can learn human behaviours and make aesthetic decisions, while using artificial intelligence to explore the complexities of seemingly innocuous activities.
By the 2010s New Zealand had a substantial community of media artists, working in a broad range of formats. Their work was displayed in a variety of contexts, including festivals and galleries.
In the 1990s galleries showing media art included Testrip and Artspace in Auckland, Galerie Dressford Vogel in Dunedin and the Physics Room in Christchurch. Two notable exhibitions toured internationally:
Festivals included Auckland’s Interdigitate (1991–2007) and Rotate Your State (1989–93). In 1997 Soliton (a nightclub-based art event) was developed from Rotate Your State. It was one of a number of art-saturated dance events that included The Gathering and Splore (first held in 2004).
A mix of music and art was a feature of the 1970s Sonic Circus festivals in Wellington. Subsequent sound-focused festivals included Off the Deep End in Wellington (1983–84), Sound/Watch in Auckland (1989–1994) and the international touring festival, SoundCulture, which came to Auckland in 1999. Other events for sound-based experimentation included Bomb the Space (Wellington, 2001–5), Lines of Flight (Dunedin, from 2000) and Altmusic, an international sound-art festival founded by Artspace (2001).
Several organisations have supported and promoted media art. Many of those have been government funded, some through Creative New Zealand.
Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision (in Wellington and Auckland) has maintained gallery spaces while the Moving Image Centre, which operated in Auckland from 1993 to 2011, supported both film-makers and artists.
Founded in 2012, CIRCUIT is an organisation dedicated to representing artists working with moving images.
The Aotearoa Digital Arts Network (from 2003) is a web-based organisation that also organises conferences, exhibitions and events. In 2008 it published the Aotearoa digital arts reader, one of the few publications devoted to media practice in New Zealand.
The University of Auckland’s student-run Window gallery began in 2002 and has an ongoing programme of internet projects. Solar Circuit Aotearoa New Zealand (SCANZ) in Taranaki was started as a biennial residency, symposium and exhibition event. It focuses on art, technology, culture and ecology.
Solar and Polar Circuit events have been held as less formal gatherings in relation to the International Symposium for Electronic Arts (ISEA).
The Audio Foundation started in 2004 as a primarily online presence. It expanded into a venue and gallery space in Auckland in 2011. It took on management of Altmusic, and in 2012 published Erewhon calling, the first book to provide an overview of New Zealand sound culture.
Barton, Christina, and Deborah Lawler-Dormer, eds. Alter/image: feminism and representation in New Zealand art, 1973–1993. Wellington: City Gallery Wellington; Auckland: Auckland City Art Gallery, 1993.
Brennan, Stella and Hanna Scott, eds. Dirty pixels. Auckland: Artspace, 2002.
Brennan, Stella, Robert Leonard and Hanna Scott, eds. Action replay: post-script. Auckland: Artspace; New Plymouth: Govett-Brewster Gallery, 2002.
Russell, Bruce, ed. Erewhon calling. Auckland: Audio Foundation/CMR, 2012.
ADA is New Zealand's national research network for critical discussion and presentation of digital and media arts.
This anthology, edited by Stella Brennan and Su Ballard, provides a snapshot of digital art practice in New Zealand.
The Audio Foundation supports New Zealand practitioners exploring practices relating to sound.
CIRCUIT is an arts agency that supports New Zealand artists working with moving images, through distribution, critical review and research.
This article by Roger Horrocks surveys New Zealand experimental films in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s.
Founded by students at Elam School of Fine Arts, Window is a contemporary art and project space that exists both physically and online.