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The artist as media activist


An active artist is automatically a media activist. The new media is a natural extension of what artists do.
The artist as media activist
Once upon a time, not so long ago, an artist worked and worked and hoped and hoped that someone in the mainstream media would give them a mention, or maybe an interview or a rave review and presto!, like magic, they were made. It was a passive model with meagre returns for all but a very few working artists. It was a fairytale that rarely came true. Now that old media models are collapsing, artists have to make their own media to fit their work. It’s an extra layer of skills they need. It means more effort, more learning and longer days, but to survive and thrive these days and in times to come an artist has little choice but to be their own media activist.

Australia Council research tells us that 60% of working artists believe that new technologies will expand their opportunities and their income and 38% use the internet to create their art. It also says that the number of working artists is growing every year. If more and more artists are going online to make and distribute their work, those who don’t may well find themselves marginalised. That’s the stark, simple truth. There’s no going back.

Fee Plumley is a self-described techno-evangelist whose current project is called reallybigroadtrip, which she says aims to dispel the myth that digital culture is a niche practice. She is always online. Annalise Rees lectures in drawing at the Adelaide Central School of Art and works out of the Ripple Artists Studio she established in 2005 at Port Adelaide. For her, “the question to ask is, am I doing all I can to get my work to the world?” The problem is, whatever you do may never seem enough.

Here we have two working artists, one who has been active online since 1996, and another who says that it’s a “constant struggle to get time to keep up with RSS feeds.” The interesting thing is, when ArtsHub asked them to name the three key online tools they used, we got almost precisely opposite answers. For Annalise, in order, they were a website and blog, YouTube and the third, she said, would be Twitter or Facebook but she has yet to use them in any purposeful way, and she added Pinterest to the list and ArtsHub as a tool and resource. Fee Plumley took a nanosecond to say Twitter first, then Facebook and a blog. Of all her online activities, she live tweets the most frequently.

This says less about them than the fact that there is no formula to fit every artist every time. It means that artists have to find the online channels and tools that work for them and the kind of art they practice. As Annalise Rees says, as an artist “you have to arm yourself to do the best you can with your own resources.” What isn’t in dispute is the need for an artist to take on their own media presence and to promote themselves through multiple channels. And of course that’s on top of the time and effort that goes into making the art that goes online. Remember too, that most artists in Australia supplement their income from their work with another job, as does Annalise Rees by lecturing and studying now for a graduate diploma in teaching, and Fee Plumley by work she has found in Adelaide and Melbourne in the months to come. “I make my 'income' by sharing knowledge and skills around lecturing, presenting at conferences, live-tweeting events, consulting, mentoring, that kind of thing,” she says. Their days are full of crowded hours.

Annalise Rees is emphatic that “new media mastery is critical to an artist’s abilities”, as she cites the number of times she has been shocked to find her work on the internet without being aware of it. “Some of my images have spread like wildfire on people’s blogs,” she says. “A woman contacted me from Israel, because she knew of me on Pinterest, which I hadn’t known about at the time. I was gobsmacked. She was good enough to credit the image [The Sky is Falling: Henny Penny’s Lament,above] and link it back to my website. Others contacted me from Germany and the University of Poland, and here I am in my studio in Port Adelaide unaware that other people are spreading the word for me.”

Annalise says that an artist “cannot not have a web presence,” and although her friends “have been at me and at me saying I must do it,” she has yet to make a Facebook page, and ditto with Twitter which is “something I don’t use myself but I know I should.” However, she finds “YouTube a sensible way of promoting your work, depending on the form you’re working in.” Her two YouTube clips were professionally done, both serendipitously, and give her work a quality presentation.

She also finds benefits from being involved with institutions and organisations with a larger online presence that she can “piggyback off”, and she still values email newsletters. All you can do, she says, is “put it out there, although you have very little control over it. It is surprising who’s looking and where they’re looking.”

As a lecturer, Annalise is surprised her students weren’t as familiar with the uses of new media as she thought they could be, while she sees herself as a “fossil.” That may be harsh. She taught herself Flash over Easter. “With new media you teach yourself,” she says, “you do it yourself.” She takes workshops and uses the Australian Business Arts Foundation to further her knowledge, skills and networks. Her students have a subject called Professional Studies, which is dedicated to self-management and self-promotion, starting with the basics like having a web presence and a business card. With new media, every artist is a student because of its ever-changing nature.

Which is precisely what attracted Fee Plumley to the medium in 1996. Her practice was in theatre, on the technical side, as stage manager and props maker. Gradually, she found too much of her working life “stuck in basements surrounded by glue,” night after night the same thing repeated again and again, over and over. When a landlord in Brighton invited her to use the internet he had installed through one of the first ISPs in the UK, her “head exploded”. It’s been detonating ever since. She could see in an instant that here was a thing that would never repeat itself, that would always be changing. And she has adapted herself to it. She explains herself as being “essentially interested in how creative people (‘makers’) use technology to connect themselves and their ideas to other people.” That’s exactly what we’re talking about.

Although Fee Plumley preferences Twitter above all other channels, it’s really a matter of the best tool for the job at hand, as she deals with different audiences, different purposes and different time spans. “Twitter is in the moment,” she says, “whereas Facebook is for longer posts with longer life spans and stronger community and friendship groups. Blogging is in-depth, positing more complex ideas and more durable relationships.” She is always online, taking all their feeds, even if Twitter is nearest to hand. She also uses Foursquare, as she “plays with the space” in new frontiers of the online world. Part of that play is making a project using Arduino, the open-source, single-board microcontroller used to create interactive electronic objects, and experimenting with 3D printing and Augmented Reality.

When media was centralised and controlled, few artists had the power to promote their work. It was a matter of space. Only a handful of journalists worked in media arts and they could only report on a handful of artists. On the internet, there is infinite space. “If [as an artist] you are being repeatedly ignored,” Fee Plumley says, “change your practice. Why go through a middleman if you don’t need to? New media puts you directly in touch with your audience, who can sometimes be co-producers of your work. It is front facing.”

That idea extends to funding as well. Her blog describes the plan for the reallybigroadtrip like this: “get a bus, rig it with recording equipment, then drive it around Australia talking to people about how they engage with creative technology.” But first, the bus. The trip takes off when she gets her crowdfunding goal of $25,000. She has $3485.00 pledged already from 62 supporters. Again, Fee Plumley’s expertise is to create an online community of interest to drive digital culture to new frontiers.

Fee describes her state of being right now by using the word “flow.” That and the word “play” are constants in her vocabulary. Annalise likes to “put it out there” to see what comes back and from where. When you look at it in those terms, of letting the work flow, of playing with the medium, or putting it out there, these are the things that artists do. The new media is a natural extension of what they do. Of course, it must be handled and mastered like any other tool an artist would use, but the act of using it is artistic. An active artist is automatically a media activist. The online community is their space and their extended studio. Their audience spans the globe.


Annalise Rees was the recipient of the Adelaide Bank Award for the most outstanding arts graduate in South Australia in 2005. In 2007 she was the first international artist to be invited to Japan to participate in the Daikanyama Installation Project in Tokyo and was awarded the Jury Prize. In 2010 Annalise Rees travelled to Montreal, Canada under invitation of the International Cartographic Association to work with the Arts & Cartography Working Group where she presented and published her project titled Finding Place: mapping as process. She has won multiple awards. To view her website, click here.

Fee Plumley was granted permanent residency in Australia as a Distinguished Talent. She has extensive experience working in and with digital cultures. She has collaborated with the American media theorist, writer, columnist, lecturer, graphic novelist and documentarian Douglas Rushkoff since 1997. He said about her: Without exception, Fee and the people helping her had a deep understanding of the book I wrote and the ways to express its essence into other media and live performance. This was the first genuine electronic and live action Situationist-type event I have ever experienced that actually worked … To view the reallybigroadtrip website, click here.

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