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Digital artworks are conventionally reserved for the hallowed halls of the contemporary art space, a highly controlled sound-audioscape where visual narratives are digested largely in bites, fractured and often demanding upon the viewer. Digital Odyssey is the antithesis of that experience.
A Museum of Contemporary Art Touring Project, it was launched on the murky banks of the Murray River, an hour out of Adelaide on a cold March evening in 2010. A face peered into the night from a tree’s foliage, caught in stasis between living and imagined, and then it blinked. Local Murray Bridge resident Jacqui Merckenschlager was the first of many such visages that would define this tour over the ensuing two years, in digital interventions that acted upon, and were enacted by, the residents of rural and remote Australian communities.
In a digitally-fitted Coachman Australia Motorhome, Queensland artist Craig Walsh has etched the bitumen visiting eleven communities across six States, with Western Australia on the cards for 2012. While Walsh has built a reputation internationally for his computer-manipulated imagery projected onto, and in response to, public spaces ranging from historic buildings to shopping malls, this project strikes at the core of the Australian ethos: bush narratives, mateship, and the tyranny of distance.
The constant weight of that mythology places our very identity central to the land we inhabit and by which we frame ourselves. Through Digital Odyssey Walsh ‘lives out’ that mythology like a contemporary drover corralling communities, but he also challenges it and enlivens it, re-writing that socio-historic frame within a contemporary context.
Arguably, Digital Odyssey has taken on a performative aspect in terms of its orientations towards site, process, temporality and, most importantly, endurance. Performance Art also uses the device of restaging to build and localise event-driven memory. While the making of new work is an important aspect of Digital Odyssey, Walsh translocates earlier artworks, re-engaging with his own practice and allowing these works to continue to evolve with each successive location, as, for instance, in his Humanature projections of locally familiar faces cast onto everyday sites that are transformed into places of wonder. Performance, landscape and digital media intersect.
The social interest of the site is key in these works. It is perhaps best illustrated through Walsh’s projections at Alice Spring’s contentious Todd Street (April, 2011), touted in the national media as a drug and alcohol ‘pick up point’. Walsh overlays this social landscape with one of his new projects Home, video monologues by locals discussing ‘what home represents to them’ shot against a screen which was sewn collaboratively in community workshops with artist Hiromi Tango, Walsh’s wife and partner on this project. It is a curious exercise in how the tone of the public space can be altered, and re-empowered from the local position.
What makes the Digital Odyssey tour different from other publicly-sited digital projections is Walsh’s ability to embed himself within these communities, in sync with the pulse of their local histories, their personalities, and concerns, almost with a whiff of drive-in nostalgia, non-threatening and entertaining. The audience is not preconditioned to the experience and so the project is reworked from the ground each time. This is the most laudable aspect of Digital Odyssey, its desire to reach out, connect and to share knowledge. It is not just some Rock Star camper swinging into town with inappropriate ambitions.
Another new project in Digital Odyssey, Who’s Average, reasserts this position. The artist documents participants at each residency location in photographic portraits. These are taken behind two lines which demarcate the average Australian male and female height. This simple idea validates the self against the mass, and acts as a socio-ethnographic document that steps outside the frame of ‘place’. It builds and explores the counterpoint of different perspectives that hold together the individual projects under the Digital Odyssey banner: visitor/local, artist/non-artist, impermanence/permanence, city/rural.
There is an underlying ethos of evolution/ metamorphosis that sits at the core of this project: in the artist finding enrichment in these communities and the ensuing output creatively morphing and changing in response to local conditions, but also in how those individual communities are transformed and how their ‘image’ is transported beyond that location. Time plays a huge role.
Walsh’s project for the Tasmanian festival 10 Days on the Island extended this malleable edge of time and history. Intension (March, 2011) used the public sculpture of Governor John Franklin to create a multi-dimensional and evocative portrait that extended to include Franklin’s wife, who seemingly inhabited the stone pedestal and was again projected on a tree overseeing the scene. At a distance lurked another ‘character’ in this narrative; the image of the young Aboriginal girl Mathinna who spent time at Government house with the couple. Colonial history was brought alive, and we were perhaps offered a chance to reconsider or reconcile the framing of ‘place’ within contemporary knowledge.
Digital Odyssey is a window to new ways of thinking. It challenges the formal canons of digital media and its ‘ownership’ within contemporary art circles: is it ethnographic, documentary, experimental, public or community-based art? Speaking with Walsh while on the road he reported, ‘As an artist, working in a context void of contemporary art rhetoric and new trends in art, I feel a freedom and openness to work in new ways. This is what I had hoped for’.
Created as events that alter the way we perceive spatial-visual relationships, Digital Odyssey is designed to be encountered rather than watched as an unfolding narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. And with an anticipated tour and publication of Walsh’s entire odyssey, the story will be completed through the return of the exhibition to its subjects—these remote and rural towns.
To date Digital Odyssey has visited Murray Bridge (South Australia, 2010); Outback Regional Gallery, the Waltzing Matilda Centre, Winton; Cairns Regional Art Gallery; Splendour in the Grass, Woodford; Artspace Mackay; and Gladstone Regional Art Gallery & Museum all in Queensland (2010); Boolarng Nangamai Aboriginal Art & Culture Studio at Gerringong (New South Wales, 2010); Art Gallery of Ballart (Victoria, 2011); 10 Days on the Island, Hobart (Tasmania, 2011); Watch This Space, Alice Springs (Northern Territory, 2011); and wrapping up 2011 in Armidale (NSW) before a long deserved break and a tour of Western Australia (2012). www.digitalodyssey.com.au