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Video Art Thrives Amid Australia's Eclectic Culture

Touring exhibit shows appeal of computer imaging in a diverse land

`An Eccentric Orbit: Video Art in Australia,'' a touring program organized by the American Federation of Arts, takes its title from curator Peter Callas's interesting notion that Australia is like a planet forever being pulled among different centers of gravity - first as a British colony, then an independent state with European roots, later a modern nation influenced by American culture, and now a participant in the expanding sphere of Asian power.

To understand this complex trajectory, Callas suggests in his exhibition notes, one must turn to sources as different as ``Gulliver's Travels,'' which located its ``society of wonders and radically altered perspectives'' in Australia and Tasmania, and the latest high-technology art from the region's most adventurous creative minds.

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Reporting that Australians use consumer electronics at some of the highest per-capita levels in the world, Callas makes a persuasive case for video and computer imaging as natural allies for art-minded individuals who find the ``media landscape'' more familiar than the geographical recesses of their own vast continent.

He has divided the four hours of ``An Eccentric Orbit'' into three programs that reflect, explore, and speculate on the uses of video in a diverse and restless land that's eager to embrace the future, yet not sure where that future lies.

The first portion, ``The Body Electric,'' investigates video as a means of escaping the physical body. The second, ``Any Resemblance to Reality Is Purely Deliberate,'' probes the overlapping domains of video and computer art. The third, ``The Diminished Paradise,'' looks at historical and multicultural issues.

``The Body Electric'' is in ways the most humanistic of the three portions, taking on various technological concerns without losing sight of personal and even intimate aspects of individual experience. This culminates in the segment's last video, ``Methusalah,'' in which director Cathy Vogan uses sophisticated imagery as punctuation for the words and gestures of an elderly man.

Jill Scott's personal ``Continental Drift'' also juxtaposes the human body with nature, while Mic Gruchy's less-emotional ``Stelarc: Scanning at the Speed of Sighs'' visits a radical performance artist who muses on ways in which bodies and technologies might merge. ``Techno/Dumb/Show,'' made by John Gillies and the Sydney Front, brings the language of old-fashioned melodrama into contact with PostModern imaging techniques.

Faye Maxwell describes her ``Networld'' as a result of 3-D modeling, ray tracing, texture mapping, and banging on the side of the computer. It illustrates the mixture of high-end technology and down-to-earth interests that surfaces in many offerings.

The most absorbing is ``Depictions,'' by Philip Brody, a fast-moving study of how design can influence our views in areas ranging from journalism to cartography. More ambitious than memorable are ``ENS,'' by Jon McCormack, and ``Dream Machine,'' by the Brothers Gruchy, which try to evoke an intermediate territory between image technology and the unconscious mind.

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``The Diminished Paradise'' focuses on ``place and placelessness'' through videos of different kinds. ``The Bicentennial Will Not Be Televised,'' made by the Television as Performance Space Collective, is a rambling look at differences between mainstream and minority views of Australia's 200th-anniversary celebrations.

More modest is ``Delores - Welcome to My Koori World,'' by Destiny Deacon and Michael Riley, who use soap-opera hyperbole to poke fun at white stereotypes of life among Aborigines.

Better yet are the works that combine polemic force with an uncommon degree of vitality. ``Cyber Dada Manifesto,'' made by Troy Innocent and Dale Nelson, oscillates between pop culture and classic Dada aggressiveness in an effort to reconceptualize aesthetics of social confrontation. ``Immortelle'' is a compelling mix of computerized calculation and Andy Warhol-style design.

Best of all is curator Callas's video, ``Night's High Noon,'' an energetic ``Anti-Terrain'' reminding viewers that countless layers of the Aboriginal population's history have been covered over in Australia by two centuries of white hegemony.

Not all videos in the program come close to this high level. But all are worth seeing as a stimulating update on a community that values progressive approaches to art and technology.

* ``An Eccentric Orbit'' is on view through Jan. 29 at the Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.C.; at the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from March 5 to May 14. It travels to at least 20 more locations during the next two years.

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