Mouse clique that roars
For baby boomers, the answer was blowing in the wind, but generation Y fights for its causes in the online alleys of cyberspace, writes
WHEN just 3000 people took to Sydney’s streets to protest against the Asia- Pacific Economic Co- operation forum leaders meeting last year, commentators were quick to call it a case of apathy. But according to Kate Crawford, associate professor in the journalism and media research centre at the University of NSW, Australia is enjoying a lively online culture of resistance and political art. Crawford says sites such as YouTube, Facebook and MySpace are combining political comment from underground and mainstream media.
Hugh Atkin was a 23- year- old Sydney law student when his Chinese Propaganda clip on YouTube parodying Kevin Rudd made him a cyber celebrity last year and won him a job creating sledge videos for the ABC.
‘‘ I started doing stuff specifically for YouTube before the election campaign when the Howard government was really piling on ads about greenhouse gases, national security and workplace relations. They were really annoying me and so I took the opportunity of parodying them,’’ he says.
Atkin’s Chinese Propaganda clip mimics Maoist political advertising of the 1950s, likening the ‘‘ mighty Rudd’’ to Mao Zedong and spoofing the Liberal Party’s scare campaign that targeted the supposed communist roots of then deputy Opposition leader Julia Gillard. In broken English, the subtitles to the video’s Mandarin voice- over read: ‘‘ Top most politician Rudd seeks votes from eager and impressionable voteholders . . . He unnerve decrepit Howard by deploying clever principle of ‘ similar difference’.’’ Atkin says he was surprised by how quickly the clip circulated virally through the internet, attributing its success to his choice of target: Rudd rather than the ‘‘ more obvious choice’’ of John Howard.
‘‘ It was also an ambiguously partisan comedy, you get a lot of comedy that comes from distinctly the Left or distinctly the Right, but I was sort of attacking Rudd from both the Left and the Right,’’ he says.
Atkin was not the only cyber- savvy political artist active during the election campaign, during which new clips were uploaded daily on sites such as YouTube.
There was killerspudly, a Melbourne- based self- proclaimed subversive puppeteer whose work was among the more popular locally produced material. Killerspudly’s series, John Howard: Search for a Scapegoat, screened on YouTube and followed the attempts of a puppet Howard to find ‘‘ something special to scare the people into voting for me’’. The three episodes examined the ‘‘ puppet Howard’s’’ options for an election scapegoat, which included Muslim cleric Taj Din al- Hilali, then Opposition environment spokesman Peter Garrett and Australia’s indigenous population.
Stefan Sojka’s Bennelong Time Since I Rocked and Rolled reworked the lyrics of the 1971 Led Zeppelin song Rock and Roll in a pastiche about Howard’s steady decline in popularity: ‘‘ It’s been a long time since I wasn’t that old. Behind is where I’m coming from,’’ Sojka sings in the video clip.
Sojka, who works as creative director for the Cyrius Media Group, compares political videos posted on websites with the street theatre of the ’ 60s. ‘‘ It’s absolutely like that, you pull a crowd, do your thing, people tell each other and then it gets around. This is just a hi- tech version of it,’’ he says.
So far Sojka’s Bennelong Time video has been viewed more than 60,000 times.
The digital media artist says he was surprised by how quickly the clip went viral. ‘‘ I was surprised because on YouTube it’s hard to break through, but I think the right elements came together with this one and people starting telling their friends.
‘‘ And I see this as just the beginning of what’s possible out there . . . it is certainly giving ( artists) very quick and easy access to an audience,’’ he says.
Crawford says the benefits of sites such as YouTube for emerging digital artists are significant. ‘‘ YouTube offers you instant feedback and the chance to track who is logging on and watching your clip. If you look back to more underground art movements it was very hard to get a sense of who is getting to see it, how many people have liked it. So for artists, I think, it is an incredible forum because you get immediate feedback and that is something we really did not have before,’’ she says.
But while the new social media offers political artists unprecedented networking opportunities, it is a quagmire for politicians using the same sites to distribute their campaign messages.
Crawford says: ‘‘ Politicians absolutely didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when they signed up to YouTube. The net has become a real convergence point for underground art and political movements and the mass press releases that politicians are much more used to.’’
Sojka agrees, but adds that part of the reason politicians jumped on the YouTube bandwagon — even at the risk of being parodied by cyber artists — was because they knew a lot of journalists were monitoring those sites.
‘‘ As a result, all the policy releases that were uploaded on to YouTube were also getting on the front page of the paper,’’ he says. ‘‘ It dramatically changed the way politicians and their media departments thought about advertising.’’
Yet for every official policy announcement made online, Crawford says, you would see a handful of reconfigured versions satirically mashing official party content for comedy.
And online comment has not stopped since the election. Atkin has turned his sights on the US presidential race. ‘‘ When I was looking at the US stuff I was quite surprised that there wasn’t more out there,’’ he says. ‘‘ I think during the Australian election campaign you saw as much good Australian stuff as you are currently seeing in the US.’’ According to many YouTube fans, Atkin’s commentary on US politics is among the best material on the internet.
Virginia Heffernan, who blogs for The New York Times , agrees. Recently she posted Atkin’s video, Clinton and Cruise on the Campaign Trail, on the paper’s website.
The video takes a dig at the similar rhetorical styles of Hillary Clinton and Tom Cruise, editing footage of Clinton on the campaign trail with Cruise’s video promoting Scientology to the background track of Mission Impossible .
Another of Atkin’s clips, Changes, parodies the US presidential candidates’ overuse of the buzzword change, with a seamless edit of candidates’ promising change to the lyrics of the David Bowie’s song of the same title. The clip has already attracted more than 360,000 views.
Other Australian digital artists are turning to Japanese whaling, the dredging of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay and Liberal leadership wobbles.
Engagemedia. org, an Australian video sharing site, calls itself ‘‘ a space for critical documentary, fiction, artistic and experimental works that challenge the dominance of the mainstream media’’. The website organises clips according to genre and subject. Engagemedia has a folder for works of animation, many focusing on climate change and sustainability, and a page devoted to original documentaries. One such is Dominic Allen’s documentary The Yiriman Project, which examines a youth project in the Kimberley region that seeks to help young indigenous Australians reconnect with their culture and to foster leadership within their communities.
Andrew Garton, a visual media adviser with a background in community media who has been involved with Engagemedia, says it is often easier for cyber artists to establish themselves and their art within some of the smaller online communities rather than ‘‘ brace the swamp that is YouTube’’. ‘‘ There are lots of spaces opening up for new media . . . and artists have always used the technologies available to them to create and distribute their work,’’ he says.
Garton serves on the executive board of the Association for Progressive Communications, an international organisation that aims to promote social justice by using emerging technologies including the internet.
He says the organisation aims to bring together digital artists to create politically meaningful work ‘‘ that deals with social justice issues in a more creative way’’.
These burgeoning digital networks help democratise the distribution of art, Crawford says. ‘‘ Anyone can pick up this stuff at home over their laptop and that’s a major change,’’ she adds. She says the technology used to produce online art has also become far more accessible during the past decade.
‘‘ The sorts of technological trawls used to make interesting forms of political art have become radically democratised, affordable and much more user friendly,’’ she says. And the growing level of public interest in political art online is also bringing countercultural artists to the internet to garner bigger audiences.
Ken Stewart, front man for Sydney- based protest band Urban Guerillas, says the 20- yearold group is increasingly posting its music and videos on the internet to connect with a younger generation of politically astute Australians.
‘‘ The internet is amazing in terms of networking,’’ Stewart says, adding the band has established a MySpace site to interact with cyber- savvy fans, who Stewart describes as being ‘‘ very politically aware and full of passion’’. He rejects any stereotype that would brand today’s youth as apolitical.
Atkin agrees, saying the internet is a far better barometer of generation Y’s engagement with politics than a head count at a rally. ‘‘ I think the ability to mount things like email campaigns are perhaps as effective, if not more, than physical rallies,’’ he says.
‘‘ The opportunity for everyone to have their own blog and contribute to the conversation means people are able to do more than just show their force by having the sheer weight of numbers on the street.’’
Blogging on: A still from Hugh Atkin’s YouTube video Chinese Propaganda, featuring a parody of then Opposition leader Kevin Rudd