Another Future for Aboriginal Digital Art
Review of Networking the Unseen, Furtherfield Gallery, June 17-August 14, 2016
Gretta Louw an Internet artist who has for some time now explored the psychological, embodied, and sociological aspects of always-on cyberlife 2.0, has curated an important exhibition on digital Indigenous art at Furtherfield, in Finsbury Park, London (founded by Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett). Networking the Unseen is perhaps one of the first exhibitions in the UK to focus on the aesthetic, political, and cultural relations of indigenous cultures and digital practices in contemporary art. (http://furtherfield.org/programmes/exhibition/networking-unseen)
The exhibition features work by Gretta Louw, Lily Hibberd, Brook Andrew, Curtis Taylor, Jenny Fraser, Neil Jupurrurla Cook, Isaiah Jungarrayi Lewis, and Sharon Nampijinpa Anderson and other artists from the Warlpiri indigenous community in Lajamanu, Central Australia. Based in the vibrant creative culture of the Warnayaka Art Centre in Lajamanu, the show is carefully, respectfully, playfully, and strategically curated by Louw. She has worked with the Art Centre for the past five years and has developed a collaborative, transnational creative practice with Warlpiri artists. Of course, Aboriginal art is by now already well established in the art world, encompassing an extremely diverse body of creative practices that have pre-colonial foundations in indigenous expressive forms, and it brings the uneven history of colonialism in Australia to bear upon the current forms of Aboriginal art. The crucial invention at stake in Networking the Unseen concerns how techno-ecological practices among the Warlpiri develop these pre-colonial forms within and at the limits of contemporary neo-liberal logistics, prosumer subjectivities, and their control societies.
The three continguous rooms of the cheerful cottage in the center of Finsbury Park that is the Furtherfield exhibition space (they also have a thriving commons space, two-minute walk away) is organized in Louw’s curations both to showcase some important digital Aboriginal artworks, and to develop different aesthetic and political resonances across the various mostly audio-visual installations. In the differently presented rooms, the first with bare white walls and two video screens and a large photographic print, the senses are focused, while in the second room three video screens, wires hanging visibly, and walls and floors painted and projected in the patterned marks and animal figures common in Warlpiri art seem to flood senses with its activities. The reiteration of a pattern returns the viewer to the large photo print in the first room. It is of the projection onto the bodies of Louw and Jupurrurla Cook of what was a continuous motif, a map, a kind of ur-technology, the technology of all technologies, a sort of navigational compass of biological, cultural, ecological, social, and political forces acting on the individual and the collective at once, in intensive variation, and yet continuous. Made of five stars in relation, the map is not two dimensional, and it functions in the life of the Warlpiri people as more ethical diagram of action and reflection than simple cultural memory. It is technology in so far as it diagrams their biological relation to land, water, sun, and stars. And emus. The emu’s body stretched, as if in flight and yearning, is also what the Warlpiri people see in the design of the Milky Way (the Southern Star). The stars are tools of navigation, and so is the map. Its use is informed by what as a people they have historically lived—displacement, racism, colonization, rape, and marginalization. What does the emu in the stars teach the Warlpiri? As Jampijinpa, one of the Warlpiri artists commented,
The emu teaches us how to behave; it’s a reminder that we have to learn the way of Australia, not of other countries. I didn’t know racism as a child, this is not part of what the emu teaches, but the teaching helps us to live even in these difficult times. Everything is written on the land and in the sky, so if we do get lost, we can fall back to that ‘text’… I use the word ‘navigate’ - to help us get back to that jukurrpa world. (Personal correspondence)
This yearning to navigate back to the dream-state in some sense pervades the gallery space with the force and flight of its collective assemblage of expression, blending playfully and affectionately with Louw’s own psychological and experimental Internet practice, birthing forth strange expressions and jarring juxtapositions. Indeed, what Networking the Unseen does is bring out the force of this assemblage’s spiritual, technological, ecological, and biological dimensions.
In the past, the Warnayaka Art Centre has showcased Warlpiri artists of the Tanami region who paint through a repetitive and patterned dot making process of stroke upon stroke, and this same process is used by the artists in applying body paints. Warlpiri art is a process of meditative application: the work is more than paint on canvas but a meaningful process, engaging the history and future of Indigenous Aboriginal ceremony, law, culture, environment and society or “jukurrpa” (dreaming). (http://www.warnayaka.com/our-gallery).
Louw’s collaboration with the Warlpiri artists, focused on the Indigenous Aboriginal aesthetic practice and techno-ethical life, has generated a creative confrontation with contemporary digital telecommunications. Strategically breaking with the colonial stereotypes of Aborginal art as stuck in the endless repetition of a ‘traditional’ self-enthography, this collaboration has posed the question of the Aborginal community’s ethical continuity in the face of sometimes slow, sometimes quick, but never total technological change. I was able to hear and briefly speak with the curator, two of the artists,
Neil Jupurrurla Cooke and Isaiah Jungarrayi Lewis, and Louisa Erglis, the Warnayaka Art Centre manager. What immediately struck me in the artists’ and curator’s conversations about the world view that is intimately connected to, indeed central to the artistic expression of this digital-aboriginal assemblage, is its collective, commoning sensibility: the story of Warlpiri people was shared through understanding practices like hunting, jukurrpa (dream: a word whose full range of ethical and spiritual connotations emerge, for instance, in practical navigations with the star map), and body painting. The stylized expression of some of these practices fills the gallery at Furtherfield, inviting the viewer to understand its history, feel its temporalities, and consider the Warlpiri cosmology as an ethical challenge to Eurocentric ‘development’ and Western technology.
The cultures and art produced at the Warnayaka Art Centre, in collaboration with new media experimenter Louw, has produced some striking, and sometimes jarring video performances. As in some of her other work (see, for example, Controlling Connectivity: http://grettalouw.com/conconn.html), Louw began her collaboration with Louisa, Neil Jupurrurla Cooke and Isaiah Jungarrayi Lewis and other Warlpiri artists through platforms like Google Hangouts, Twitter, and other VOIP. Some of the videos in the second room of the gallery feature this history of collaboration (Is the Desert Still the Desert in a Digital World? Gretta Louw, Warnayaka Art Centre, and Art Laboratory Berlin, 13:40, 2012; Digital Desert 1, Gretta Louw and Warnayaka Art Centre, single channel video, 6:04, 2012). Here, in this room the walls are strikingly painted with the repetitive dot patterns, metaphors, and maps of the community. The videos are edits of audio-visual interactions recorded on a laptop. On the walls are small screens showing the Indigenous community’s photoshopped selfies with, for instance, global rap artists, and digitally framed baby photos, showing the popularization of expressions of the identity, kinship, and belonging. In conversations, the artists and curator insisted that its not the technology, but what you do with it that counts. What the exhibition in fact shows is that what one does with technologies like the mobile phone or the star map creates unpredictable feedbacks, and co-evolutionary dynamics that are immense and immeasurable, but susceptible to control (as Antonio Negri once said in another context). This is the form of the videos in the second room, that they gesture backward (toward jukpurra) and forward toward the Aboriginal Cyborg. To call this assemblage a form is also to acknowledge Gretta Louw’s sometimes startling, sometimes unnerving experiments in folding digital networks into collective, and yet deeply personal expressions of what through the star map we can better understand is a common ecology.
In one of the videos in the first room, Ngarnda: Dead Ringer by Martu indigenous filmmaker and artist Curtis Taylor (single channel video, 4.24, 2009), we see dark red, blood-like liquid dripping from the head, chest, back, stomach, fingers of an Aboriginal young man, as if in a dream state. It is a chilling piece of work, whose effects lie as much in the temporality of the ‘blood’ dripping as it does in the symbolic evocation of practices of body painting and the violence of colonial genocide. The video unsettles the colonial gaze in quite a direct way. But this is the second of two videos in a loop. The first video, Curtis’s Mamu (single channel video, 9:10, 2010), in the loop is a kind of short murder mystery cum paranormal tale of Aboriginal secrets (sacred paintings at the site of the legendary murder of a woman by a dreaming man) deceitfully posted on Facebook, leading to the mysterious death of the unrepentant, sceptical poster. These two videos link the history of violence and pain to the changing contours of Aboriginal identity in the era of an obsessively exhibitionist social media.
The Phone Booth Project, by Paris-based Australian artist Lily Hibberd and Curtis Taylor, is a multimedia installation that delves into the complex of relations between community and technology and its overlapping ecologies. As Louw notes, “phone booths have all but died out in urban environments, and yet this beautiful and nuanced work, created in the Western Desert region of rural Australia with the indigenous Martu communities, highlights the vital role that they continue to play at the edges of the network - where cell phone reception is often nonexistent, and landline phone connections in every house are an infrastructure expense that neither the locals nor the government is willing or able to carry.”
The Phonebooth Project is presented through a video playing in the side room (a darkened box room with red dirt on its floors and local Australian landscape scenes on its walls, a bright yellow light mimes an unrelenting sun). This multimedia presentation is an active engagement with communication technologies which are explored in a three paneled presentation of slow scenes of moving cars, walking people, dirt roads, and people making phone calls from a telephone booth. The movie touches on the history of communication in this region from smoke signals (waru – a signal of invitation from one community to another) to the advent of the mobile phone. There is a powerful sense in this film, and throughout the exhibit, of something changing irreversibly and forever: the Warlpiri indigenous community’s emergent capacity for postcolonial and hybrid creativity and changing but historically continuous shared practices such as reading the Star map are actively struggling with and through an accelerating capitalist world of dead intellectual property and algorithmic logistics vs commoning struggles seeking to exit, survive, or overcome postcolonial capital. Warlpiri art is also a strategic engagement with a global art market technology constantly extracting from the living labour of cultures of indigenous resistance and autonomous social reproduction measurable and probabilistic art value. The Phonebooth project shows how in Lajamanu technologies of communication that work increasingly through biometric identification of individuals, with all their normalizing, massifying, and securitizing implications, have logistical limits, irregular rhythms and temporalities, constantly expropriated peripheries, and strategic gaps. In those Indigenous contact zones of colonial violence and exception, in which the Aboriginal subject is both sacred fetish and necropolitical target, technologically repurposed and postcapitalist futures are also stirring. Networking the Unseen poses this future as a return to dream-time and the co-evolution of a cyborg Aboriginal future. The five-star map, the emu constellation, the waru-signal, phone booth, and mobile phone are all Aboriginal technologies and techniques that in different degrees and with different relations to the sacred and divine help navigate the Warlpiri people across time, place, and ecology.
 Briefly: “When the Whitlam Labour government introduced its ‘self-determination’ policy in 1972, Indigenous people in remote regions were encouraged to return to their traditional lands, a move made possible by welfare support. This ‘outstations movement’, along with other initiatives such as the formation of the Aboriginal Arts Board and a Land Rights commission (both in 1973), instigated a ‘cultural renaissance spearheaded by visual arts practice’. In 1972, the Papunya Tula Artists Cooperative was founded by Aboriginal men in the government settlement of Papunya, a settlement which had been established in 1959 to administer a number of central desert tribes. Members of the Cooperative began producing saleable acrylic paintings of their Dreamings, drawn in part from sacred sand and body paintings. In the following decades, art production spread to other parts of the desert (and was taken up by women), while the bark painting tradition flourished in Arnhem Land. During the 1970s and early 1980s, two government bodies, the Aboriginal Arts Board, and Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Pty Ltd, facilitated the sale and exhibition of Aboriginal artworks, and underwrote the fledgling art centres…Aboriginal art entered a contemporary art paradigm following the inclusion of artists from Papunya and Arnhem Land in exhibitions such as the 1979 Sydney Biennale and the 1981 and 1983 Australian Perspectas, and the acquisition of Aboriginal artworks by state galleries in the 1980s. At this time, Aboriginal artists from urban areas also began forming collectives and exhibiting, as will be outlined below. In the mid-1990s, Sotheby’s began staging exclusive Aboriginal art auctions, cementing the art’s place in the Australian fine arts market. Auction houses monopolize the secondary market for Aboriginal art, and the record prices achieved for Aboriginal artworks are fast encroaching upon those achieved for non-Indigenous Australian works, due in part to the interest of overseas collectors. State art galleries now have Aboriginal art on permanent display with dedicated departments and curators, and major exhibitions of regional styles and individual artists have taken place since the 1980s. Key overseas exhibitions that attracted serious collecting interest include Dreamings, which toured North America in 1988–1989 (Sutton, 1988), and Aratjara, which toured European Art Museums in 1993–1994” (Laura Fisher (2012) The Art/Ethnography Binary: Post-Colonial Tensions within the Field of Australian Aboriginal Art, Cultural Sociology, 6(2) 251–270, page 252-55).
 “Prior to colonization, a highly complex visual language, in conjunction with song, dance and performance, articulated and affirmed totemic identities, ancestral histories, and the moral infrastructure of Indigenous society. These forms narrated the ‘Dreaming’, a temporally unbounded body of religious knowledge that explains the origin of all life, constitutes the natural environment as the embodiment of the essence” of created beings, and affirms people’s obligations to care for the land (Fisher, 2012, page 252).