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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Lauren Wil­son

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

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