Abstract- Su Ballard

‘Real Time’ (1970): early encounters with immersive installation in Aotearoa New Zealand

In 1970 New Zealand opened a new art gallery. The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery was outside the major urban centres and posed a serious challenge to existing gallery structures. The gallery was to become the home of the Len Lye Foundation. Young artist Leon Narbey was commissioned to produce an opening exhibition. His work Real Time was an electronic light and sound immersive installation covering the floors, walls
and ceilings of the whole gallery and immersing the viewer within shifting interactive spaces. Narbey constructed a work dependant on the movement of people through various levels of the gallery, triggering lights, sounds and further movements that were transmitted across the spaces. The systems basis of Real Time anticipated many later developments within digital interactivity. As well the work suggests an open network of work, viewer and space, where a viewer does not only enter a space but constructs it for others. Real Time mapped the manner in which critical and cultural ideas from America and Europe were filtered through a particular New Zealand lens. This was not a clash of cultures, New Zealand had for a long time viewed itself as European. This paper is
interested in the impact of ‘European culture’ in the forms of cybernetics and interactivity on a small town in a small country, which was beginning to understand itself as bicultural and recognizing its unique location within the Pacific. Antipodean sensibilities questioned both the media and the material of the exhibition, leading to the development of a cultural and social understanding of systems aesthetics - at the same time that such ideas were emerging in exhibitions in London and New York. Real Time was immensely successful with audiences. Double the population of New Plymouth attended the show and busloads of curious visitors arrived from major cities. But it was also criticized: was this new artform that suggested shifting modalities, viewer interactivity and uncertain electronic spaces heralding a larger shift in terms of what a gallery in New Zealand would, or could, be? Real Time directly challenged the mediumspecific and disciplinary divisions of art and technology, ‘fine art’ and play. A case study in Real Time, this paper examines the sited and location specific impact of interactive media art and its attendant theoretical motivations as it negotiates cultural and social contexts.