Book review of The Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader

On: September 14, 2009
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About Thomas Fonville
A Bachelor of Arts, specialized in New Media. Currently upgrading towards a Master of New Media. My interest in the field of new media lies in the subject of space, and how new media can shape these different spaces. My Bachelor thesis named; "Augmented space and Digital Art, or a remediation of virtual reality" concentrated on the subject of space in relation to Digital Art. Apart from new media I have a major interest in popular culture and modern art.


Art comes in a lot of different divisions. Mostly related to a culture, often a critique of an era. The fact that this reader focuses on culture is immediately noticeable from the title. Carrying “Aotearoa” in the title, which is the Maori word for New Zealand, defines a work like The Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader as a true culture based derivative.

Knowing little about the Maori or even the New Zealand culture, I was very curious of their understanding of the Digital Arts. Right from the start the reader showed me interesting and clever attitudes towards the concept of Digital Art in relation to the traditional New Zealand culture.This notion starts with the explanation of the Maori word of Ipurangi: the vessel of Rangi. Rangi being the primal sky father in Maori culture, the word Ipurangi means as much as blue sky technology or Internet.

Another traditional New Zealand attitude towards culture is that of the division of East and West in many (mostly) Western cultures. As being the country which on most maps always is divided, the North Island being the utmost western part of the world, and the South Island the eastern part of the world. This New Zealand approach towards the notion of east and west is shown its arbitrary character, as reminiscent of Edward Said and his Orientalism. Therefore the New Zealand view of Eastern and Western Art is also being influenced since being a culture which embraces both, by simply setting aside this notion of place.

In the Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader there are often comparisons of traditional Maori culture towards Digital culture, and being a man of humanities, this very much speaks to my mind. Since in looking at a digital culture like the one we engage nowadays, it is very important to look at older cultures and see what notions collide and which fuse.Brennan and Ballard explain the cultural inheritance of the people of New Zealand as that of offspring of sea-faring explorers.  Apart from this an opener in the introduction struck me as highly important:

“By its very nature and its geographical situation, Aotearoa heightens our awareness of navigable expanses, of the relativity of position within the broader cosmos, whetting desires to move across and between sea, land and sky-scapes, to employ and if neccessary invent pathfinding skills to deal with uncharted terrain.” 1

As I mentioned earlier on, the New Zealand attitude is an open-minded attitude towards art. However the traditional culture is being projected in this reader. For instance there has been chosen to use the traditional name for New Zealand, that of Aotearoa, instead of the using the  name which Dutch cartographers derived from Nova Zeelandia. That name being New Zealand. Therin lies the link to the traditional notion of New Zealand and perhaps as mentioned by Brennan and Ballard as the true New Zealand culture.

The reader is divided into thirty-three chapters, which all focus on their own specialty in Digital Arts. There are chapters which focus almost completely on the notions of new media and there are chapters which focus more upon the artwork and its meaning.  I must say that after reading this Digital Arts reader I am partly biased, since in my opinion this Digital Arts reader is an impressive work of reference.

The Digital Arts reader does this not only by referring to New Zealand culture. I found the chapter of Douglas Bagnall ‘What is Digital? Concepts and a Chronology’ highly usable. Since it shows the reader different notions of how to look at the digital, and goes even further by giving different interpretations in various notions of communication. Such communication forms as speech, writing, song and counting.

Another noteworthy chapter is ‘Interdisciplinary Moments: A history in Glimpses’: Since it tells the story of the interweaving of the different art disciplines. This being important since a new art technique could be seen as a new media for art. Andrew Clifford, writer of this chapter, shows how art experiments lead to different uses of the medium of art.  Reading towards the end of the reader shows chapters about new techniques such as the use of internet in works of art.

From there I would like to make a point of remark,which is the fact that in mostly each chapter again the digital is being defined. Of course when composing a work with different authors, the change is there that some themes might be overexposed. To me this felt like repetitive  reading on some occasions although the theme of the essay would be entirely different then another essay. Furthermore I would have like seen the chapter about history of art in New Zealand, ‘Interdisciplinary Moments: A history in Glimpses’, moved to the front of the reader. But perhaps this is my Western view of analogy, which is so very different of that of a New Zealand view.

I very much enjoyed reading this comprehensive and extraordinary Digital Arts reader, and I would recommend this reader to anyone who is interested in Digital Arts. Not only because the people and artists of Aotearoa have a open minded view of the world, but because the writing about art is very well funded. Using different authors who all have their own influences of theorists, shows the wide array of interpretations that digital arts can have. And this notion of art projected onto the traditional Maori culture, this reader gives a combined Eastern and Western view of Art. Just like New Zealand is split on most maps, this seems only to work in their advantage in establishing an unbiased beacon in the Digital Arts world. Whakamihi!

1. Brennan, S. & Su Ballard ed. “The Aotearoa Digital Arts Reader”, Aotearoa Digital Arts and Clouds, 2008. Page 7.

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