Sonic Arts Funding in Australia (2005)

Funding Sonic Arts in Australia

written for the 2005 Vital Signs conference (RMIT University’s, School of Creative Media, Melbourne)

Withdrawn the by the organisers the night before presentation – too controversial I guess – published here as an act of free speech

Dr Garth Paine
Associate Professor, Sound Technologies, School of Contemporary Arts
University of Western Sydney


This paper examines the funding environment for sound focused art within Australia, be it, digital, new media or analogue. Some of the underlying assumptions commonly applied to sonic artworks, often considered too abstract and intangible for exhibition in art galleries and major public spaces, will be discussed.

The paper will ask why the audible domain remains subordinate? Why do we not respect and honour the audible culture, the experiential, visceral, instinctive, intuitive, spontaneous, intimate perceptual habitat where the human body is central, where the visceral engagement with sonic architectures dismisses the western mind-body split as hopelessly inadequate. We can listen with the mind, but not without the body.

Not withstanding consideration of the uniqueness of the sonic experience, many experimental sound artists have struggled to find funding support and to create opportunities for the presentation of their work in Australia.

The Sonic Arts – Where to from here
Music based funding is characterized as conservative. The importance placed upon historic, practices has been clearly illustrated by the federal government’s substantial funding increase to the ABC symphony orchestras in early 2005 against the recommendations of the Strong report it commissioned. The report by James Strong, recommended the Queensland, Adelaide and Tasmanian orchestras be reduced in size . The state orchestras are supported by a budget of more than $57 million dollars per annum with a total of $80 to $100 million dollars being earmarked for classical music activities in Australia. Figures for attendance at ABC symphony orchestra concerts and analyses of the number of unique individuals who attended concerts (rather than repeat attendances) is difficult to find, however the Symphony Australia website has figures for 1999-2001 , which show a total of 990907 attendances with 263537 of those attending free concerts, and 76046 attending school concerts, leaving a total of 651324 ticket purchasing members of the public. This represents a subsidy of $87.51 per paying attendee. This is of course a substantial amount, which represents the support of the classical, western art music tradition only, one that could be argued to be archaic and largely redundant, why, because it serves a small part of the society in a manner that is exclusive and makes no real effort (with the exception of some less institutionalised orchestras such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra) to find a position of relevance in the growth of current musical developments. The music the ABC orchestras deal with can be characterised as tonal or at best chromatic, acoustic (ie not multi-media, electronic etc), and by-and-large old, with very few contemporary or Australian works featuring in the performance calendars of the ABC orchestras.

Representational bodies such as the Australia Music Centre also struggle to engage with non-score based [notated] musical practices, representing very few composers working with electronics (a non exhaustive list of represented composers includes: Ros Bandt, Tristan Carey, Keith Humble, Warren Burt, Greg Schiemer, Roger Dean, David Worrall, Rainer Linz, Alistair Riddell and only recently, Anthony Pateras) all of whom are principally represented on the basis of their work with acoustic instruments, communicated through written scores. This point is borne out by the fact that Robin Fox, who composes and performs with Anthony Pateras is not listed on the Australian Music Centre site, perhaps because he does not write musical scores? The Australian Music Centres input into the Anthology of Australian Music helps to correct this bias, but still only deals with composers within tertiary institutions. Many internationally recognised electronic music artists with multiple publishes CD’s are not represented here either. A non exhaustive list of such artists would include: Pimmon, Oren Ambarchi, Alan Lamb, Julian Knowles, Peter Blamey, Martin Ng, Snawklor, Darrin Verhagen, Philip Samartzis, Shannon O’ Neill, to name but a few.

There is a generation gap, between Bandt, Worrell, Dean, Burt (many well documented in the book 22 Australian Composers ) and the composer/performers listed above and not acknowledged by the Australian Music Centre. Why is this? Perhaps because experimental electronic musicians are not generally writing musical scores for other people to perform? Perhaps because these composer/performers focus on timbre rather than pitch events (but many acoustic composers have also done this)? Perhaps because they accept all sound as musical source material and are not limited to defined instruments, for which there is a ready market for distribution and performance in the old paradigm? Perhaps because the work does not fit the established and institutionalised criteria for music? (institutionalised through conservatoire, childhood education, peak bodies like the Australian Music Centre, and through all manner of institutional representation of music practice such as the websites mentioned above). Perhaps because we are less open to musical change and evolution than was true in the latter half of the twentieth century? Perhaps because Modern Classical Music has become an institutionalised fellowship, which does not need to address the developments in technology with the vigour and enthusiasm common last century, and represented in the music of Stochausen, Xenakis, Humble, Banks, Berio, Henry, Parch etc (a very long list of notable composers could be presented here).

Some projects such as the Australian Sound Design Project, established by Ros Bandt and housed at Melbourne University have sought to right the imbalance, to give a voice to the many approaches common in current practice that exist outside the concert hall; sound installation, interactive works, radiophonic work etc

The music institutions do not look beyond the performance horizon. They are often ignorant of the challenges faced by the installation artist; the need for studio and exhibition resources, the failure of exhibiting institutions to understand the demands of professional level equipment provision, and appropriate acoustic spaces. Or perhaps on a more fundamental point, that sound is an entity; it has a life and then fades into the detritus. Sound is an object with inherent identity – a perceivable phenomena – an exhibitable object that forms an unavoidably experiential, visceral, instinctive, intuitive, spontaneous, intimate perceptual habitat where the human body is central to an abstract corporeal experience.

So, how do sound artists find support within the community for their work, when it would seem that it is still profoundly misunderstood by both the majority of the visual arts community, and by the music community? How does one communicate that a multimedia work might be principally a sound work that contains a visual element, and not vice versa, or that the quality of the equipment and environment in which the sound material is presented is critical? These continue to be major points of contention.

The Australia Council’s New Media Arts board has acted as a sanctuary for sound focused artists who did not fit within the Visual Arts and Craft board’s (VACB) mandate, and were by in large ignored by the Music board (MB). The dissolution of the New Media Arts board leaves these artists in a particularly challenging environment, with existing funds being split 80% to the VACB and 20% to the MB. The criteria for the consideration of whether an artwork is principally driven from a sonic or visual perspective has not been well considered. My understanding is that these decisions were made on the nature of the presentation environment (gallery, concert etc) and not on the nature of the work itself. This has been taken to mean that a work exhibited in a gallery is a visual artwork – this is clearly, profoundly out of step with current sonic arts practice, and in my view also fails to understand the nature of new media artwork.

There appears to be a notion that fine arts are the principal source of both the theory and practice of new media or electronic arts (supported by the provision of 80% of ongoing NMAB funds to VACB). This is factually incorrect and does not acknowledge the substantial contributions made through computer music, interactive music systems and sound art to the development of the electronic/digital/media arts practice.

The audible domain has seen some of the most creative, innovative and experimental work developed in Australia over the last several decades.

As a recipient of funding from the New Media Arts Board and the New Media Arts Boards RMIT Fellowship in 2000, I felt that at last I had an appropriate place to pitch my work. Although I am a composer and musician, I have also done a lot of work in interactive installations, which was not understood by the music board, and seen as “musical” by the visual arts community – this kind of work, which I have exhibited internationally will struggle to get any support from the conservative music board and the visual arts and craft board.

So where do we turn to now?? It is a fallacy that the VACB can absorb this practice. I suggest that they see video art as THE substantive practice and they don’t see past that in terms of digital or electronic arts – when there are so many major international conferences, exhibitions, centres of research and excellence and associated institutions committed entirely to electronic arts, how can we not deem it sufficiently important for a focused policy within the Australia Council? I am at a loss to explain this. It seems to me, in fairly conservative Australia, that video art is seen as fully representing electronic arts practice – of course nothing could be farther from the truth – a generally fixed temporal form, burned to a fixed media, it is a valuable art form, but one that does not address many of the central tenants of electronic and new media arts (Interactivity, embodiment, network space, AI etc) – however, the fine arts establishment seem to have accepted it as an economic currency – the art markets and biennale’s are trading in video art, so it has a legitimacy that other forms have not yet attained – should this determine the policy of creative and artistic development of the pre-eminent arts funding body in Australia?? I don’t think so, and I would have though there would be many many others of the same persuasion – should we march? It is too late I am afraid, the New Media Arts board was rolled with little effort and almost none of the broader consultation undertaken with respect to the Community and Cultural Development board.

The Sonic Arts

Turning our attention to issues specific to sound art and experimental electronic music practice, there are a number of issues that I believe are plaguing its development.

There is very limited funding, promotion or distribution support for digital musics and sound art. The impact of this lack of support is manifest by
• A lack of community access studios
• A lack of funding sources for the purchase of equipment required to furnish a suitably professional studio
• A lack of promotion avenues
• A lack of dedicated exhibition and performance venues

All these avenues of support, promotion and distribution exist for the screen based arts.

The digital arts have clearly grown to include a great deal more than the screen arts. Digital sound processes have facilitated a revolution in sound practice, from the foundation concepts of:
• What is a composition?
• What is music?
• What constitutes a music or sound based work?
• What is the audience, artist relationship?
• How does one differentiate sonic and visual or screen based arts practice, and do such differentiations continue to serve any useful purpose?

These and other current discourse continue to alter traditionally held opinions on issues from aesthetics through to popular culture.

The changes that have been brought about are profound and will endure as a major platform in music and sound art practice.

The production of digital musics, be they in the form of an audio CD release or an interactive installation, is extremely time-consuming and expensive. Many of the best exponents of this art form continue to spend great numbers of hours defining and refining software algorithms that produce sounds in real time. In this sense they build the instrument they wish to play prior to the composing process. The two are clearly tightly intertwined. This contrasts starkly with the process of composition for existing instruments, be they acoustic, mechanical or electronic, and requires consistent and visionary support, something partially and temporarily undertaken by the Australia Councils Sounding Out initiative.

The sound artist creating interactive sound environments faces a similar challenge. This is a relatively undefined genre, for which there is no accepted performance practice. As is true with all interactive arts, the artist must develop their conceptual infrastructure for interactivity in addition to defining and building the instruments required, and the software infrastructure to allow the sensed activity to be mapped on to digital instruments.

Working in digital musics, requires the artist to develop a sophisticated studio. Visual artists, animators and filmmakers working in the digital medium have access to substantial funding sources for the provision of equipment through national and state based film and multimedia funds, sound artists do not.

In these ways and many more, digital musicians and sound installation artists are faced with a great many challenges that do not face the traditional musician and composer. A fact ignored in the music arena but acknowledged in the screen based arts.

In the same way that visual artists have struggled with defining a new medium in screen-based digital arts, the electronic musician has at least as much work to do. The innovative nature of this work born out by the fact that no previously existing paradigm can be used as a foundation for the new practices in the same way that film theory and practice is applied as a foundation for screen based arts.

The link between screen based arts and film is well understood and illustrates the fact that substantial equipment is required, with traditional film infrastructures being applied with some success to the digital visual arts. Cinemedia, Film Victoria and the Australian Film Commission for instance, played a major role in the development of the digital screen based arts, but provide no assistance whatsoever for digital sound projects. It is notable that the Centre For Moving Image became known by that title, when the original proposal was for a Digital Arts precinct, and that the name, the supporting infrastructure, and the associated commissioning and curatorial focus places the primary spotlight on digital arts on screen. ANAT, another of the peak bodies has also done little to support experimental sound practice. In all of these instances, sound is part of the final work, but an accompaniment rather than the focus. The focus is essentially visual.

The lack of dedicated or focused exhibition or performance venues, equipped with substantial numbers of high quality loudspeakers, spatialisation technologies, appropriate and variable acoustic treatments, accompanying equipment rooms, high-profile promotion, education and community out-reach infrastructures placing priority on the broadest possible scope of sonic arts practice, is also clear.

The ramifications of this ongoing neglect are that digital music projects are occurring on an ad hoc basis when individual practitioners can afford to pay for them themselves, or raise sufficient funding from the state based funding agencies, the Australia Council or city council cultural funds. Digital sound artists have invested heavily in equipment. I for one have reduced my studio in recent times, but still have an insured equipment value in excess of $40,000. None of this has been paid for through arts funding (it is not possible as the Australia Council and State based agencies do not fund equipment purchases). The sophistication of the work produced by each artist is related to the equipment they have access to. The processing speed of the computer, and the complexity of sensing equipment used in interactive installations are of paramount importance, and directly equated to cost. The prevalence of low-tech, low-fi work illustrates this problem and underlines the failure to support high-level professional activity, and the prohibitive barriers to professional resourcing.

In order to get digital music distributed, artists must approach what they believe to be an appropriate record label, or establish their own distribution label as has occurred with many artists in Australia. This is time-consuming and often not successful, because labels work in a niche market and may or may not wish to support Australian artists. There is no mechanism to support sound artists distribute their work, nor to collect or archive substantive works.

The ramifications of this lack of support, are that the majority of electronic music being produced is focused on the semi-commercial market, the dance parties, the niche clubs and other venues that return immediate financial reward. While this is healthy in terms of regular performance; it does not encourage a larger picture of the development of performance practice, and the broader applications of digital music. Equally, there is no mechanism to support the development of new techniques and philosophical, theoretical frameworks for digital musics and sound installation practice.

Future Directions?

While I acknowledge the arts funding bodies valuable contribution to enriching the arts in Australia, I believe this period of policy development is the perfect opportunity to take heed of the problems facing digital sound artists, and work towards developing an infrastructure that will assist the many internationally recognised digital sound artists in Australia, to promote and exhibit their work locally, nationally and internationally. Many of these artists will admit that they get much greater levels of support and acceptance of their work overseas, which is something that must change.

It is worth taking a look at the makeup of the Music Board (MB) of the Australia Council:
• Graeme Koehne is chair of the MB: Interests: classical music genre with commissions for ballets and symphonies etc
• Authur Bridge : Interests: chamber music, orchestral music, community and youth music and the creation of new work.
• Fiona Burnett: Interests: jazz and improvised music styles, including European classical, contemporary classical music, world music.
• Carol Day: Interests: Western Australian Youth Orchestra, classical music.
• Barbara Jane Gilby: Interests: Orchestral Musician, classical music.
• Paul Petran: Interests: ABC broadcaster, classical music and world music.
• Julian Knowles: Interests: new and emerging technologies, independent music scene

A similar survey of the Visual Arts and Crafts Board (VCAB) is also informative:
• Lesley Always is chair of the VCAB: Interests: Fine Arts, arts management.
• Peter Bowles: Interests: glass artist.
• Peter Churcher: Interests: Australia’s official War Artist
• Barbara Heath: Interests: jeweller
• Karen Mills: Interests: Fine Arts, painting
• Martin Walch: Interests: photography and multimedia
• Liz Williamson: Interests: craft, weaving

These boards do not contain the skills, experience or understanding to support experimental electronic music and sound art. Similar problems can be seem by looking at the Australian Music Online website . I was not able to find any music by experimental electronic music composers or performers on the site.

New Media Arts Board

The new media arts cannot be classified as visual art or music as has been done in the policy development decisions of the Australian Council in 2004-2005. It is an established and distinguishable field, readily illustrated by the number of important international festivals (Ars Electronica, ISEA, SIGGRAPH, DEAF, NYDS, European Media Arts Festival, Japan Media Arts Festival, IMAP etc) and publications such as Leonardo, Presence, Organised Sound, Computer Music Journal, that deal specifically with the evolving area of practice that is deemed as Electronic/Digital/Media Arts.

Of course there are many more examples and a quick summary of institutions offering programs in this area illuminates a broad range of major international players, including undergraduate and postgraduate programs in Australia, USA, Canada, Europe, Japan, UK, Ireland, etc of course a major player in this area is MIT who offer a number of programs in Media Arts and institutions in Europe such as ZKM, Media Lab Europe and many others. There are also degree programs in Australia at most major institutions including UWS, RMIT, Monash, UTS, QUT, CoFA etc. It is a fallacy to argue that this is not a major international field of research and academic and creative pursuit, easily illustrated by looking at the work of artists such as Roy Ascott, Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau, Louis Bec, Donna Cox, Monika Fleischmann, Toshiharu Itoh, Michael Klein, Otto Rossler, David Rokeby, Hans-Peter Schwarz, Jeffrey Shaw, Peter Weibel, Myron Krueger, Endy Kirkup, Paul Brown, Ryoji Ikeda, Christina Kubisch, Christian Marclay, John Oswald, Edwardo Kac, Perry Hoberman, George Legrady, Char Davies, Nicolas Schoffer, Mongrel, Andrea Scott, Atau Tanaka, Bernhard Leitner, Markus Popp, Carsten Nicolai, Chris Cunningham, Jodi…..

Furthermore, one can look at institutional support for New Media Arts around the world and find major departments and distinct curatorial programs for Electronic/Digital/Media Arts, institutions such as the Whitney in NYC, and the Tate Modern to mention just two. Many European institutions have engaged in collection, curating and resourcing electronic/digital/media arts. It is also worth noting that in buying in a top 100 university to Australia (Carnegie Mellon is to set-up in South Australia , funded by the Federal and South Australian governments), one of the courses included in that package is their Entertainment Technology course , which focuses on new media arts.


Unless policy developments allow for a focus on new media arts, and develop mechanisms for proper ongoing support for sonic arts and experimental music practice, Australian artists will continue to do better overseas than in their own country. The state of support for electronic music in Australia has been and continues to be abysmal, with no infrastructure support, no vision for developing the industry, no dedicated exhibition spaces or performance venues, no community studios, little available funding, no mechanisms for funding for equipment, no distribution support, and only a handful of festivals supporting public outreach and education, with no public access (ie. non-commercial fee paying) training courses on offer. The dissolution of the Australia Councils New Media Arts board makes this situation worse.

Dr Garth Paine

Dr Garth Paine is a senior lecturer in music technology, and research associate at the MARCS auditory Labs at the university of Western Sydney. He is internationally regarded as an innovator in the field of interactivity in new media arts. His immersive interactive environments have been exhibited in Australia, Europe, Japan, USA, Hong Kong and New Zealand. He has been part of the organising and peer review panels for the International Conference On New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME) since it’s inception and invited as guest editor of Organised Sound, a pre-eminent international journal on music technology published by Cambridge University Press. He is often invited to run international workshops on interactivity for musical performance and commissioned to develop interactive system for realtime musical composition for interactive dance and theatre performances. He has been selected as one of ten creative professionals internationally for exhibition in the 10th New York Digital Salon; DesignX Critical Reflections, and as a millennium leader of innovation by the German Keyboard Magazine in 2000. Dr Paine has been awarded the Australia Council for the Arts New Media Arts Fellowship at RMIT University in 2000, and The RMIT Innovation Research Award in 2002. He is a member of the advisory panel for the Electronic Music Foundation, New York and one of 17 advisors to the UNESCO funded Symposium on the Future, a project focused on formulating an evolving set of principles (theory), that describes a taxonomy / design space of electronic musical instruments. Dr Paine was the only Australian artist selected in 2004 for the Sonic Difference exhibition at the Biennale of Electronic Arts, Perth. As a performer of experimental electronic music he is a founding member of SynC, an ensemble exploring the rich sonic landscape between ancient acoustic instruments and live electronics.

3 thoughts on “Sonic Arts Funding in Australia (2005)

  1. Pingback: Sonic Residues » Blog Archive » ABC The Drum Unleashed – Arts funding: think outside the box

  2. Hi Ros – yes thanks
    written for the 2005 Vital Signs conference (RMIT University’s, School of Creative Media, Melbourne)

    Withdrawn the by the organisers the night before presentation – too controversial I guess – published here as an act of free speech

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress 4.7.9