Kapow! Creative work on old PCs


Exploring the bounds of Commodore 64 personal computers back in the 1980s has created some of Australia’s most successful game designers, says Flinders researcher Associate Professor Melanie Swalwell.

She is compiling a record and history of “Creative Micro-Computing in Australia, 1976-1992” and would like to hear from early users of personal computers for local examples of creative micro-computing.

Creative minds took quickly to using micro-computers when they appeared in Australia 40 years ago – and Flinders researchers want to find out more.

“Under this ARC Future Fellowship project, I am working my way through a range of archives and travelling to capital cities around the country to investigate some of the more creative applications early home computers were put to,” Associate Professor Swalwell says.

“I’m also interested in hearing from industries such as manufacturing, newsrooms and television, design studies with any documentation, photos, samples and pointers towards interesting special projects I don’t yet know about.

“Even though microcomputers changed a lot by the ‘90s, there are some really exceptional projects and technologies to record and potentially preserve from the 1980s.”

Associate Professor Swalwell, from the School of Humanities and Creative Arts at Flinders, is also comparing Australia’s ‘digital journey’ with overseas experiences.

To identify what technology updates and uses were unique or different in the Australian context, she has visited Stanford University’s Silicon Valley Archive and the Patric Prince collection of computer art at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

From around the mid-1980s, there were many surprisingly advanced multimedia applications afforded by the early home computers in Australia, says Associate Professor Melanie Swalwell.

“It is fascinating to look into the uses that people developed for these old PCs, across the spectrum of digital arts and cultural practices,” she says. “Now we think we know what computers are good for. But when they first appeared people were still figuring that out, and they did it in some remarkably experimental ways.”

Postdoctoral fellows will help research user practices in the so-called ‘demo-scene’ – associated particularly with the Commodore line of computers – and another important aspect of the research, game publishing.

Recently, Associate Professor Swalwell has been investigating the archive of the Polish-Australian artist Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski, and the archive of the Australian Network for Art and Technology (both at the State Library of South Australia).

Ostoja-Kotlowski, for example, had an Acorn Archimedes computer and used the Mandelbrot set extensively in his art of the late 1980s, as well as overlaying 3D computer-graphics on photographs of the Australian landscape in the early 1990s.

“These later works are still very fresh,” says Associate Professor Swalwell.

“It is important that we investigate and understand this history now, given the rapid disappearance of these older machines, digital disks and computer knowhow,” she says.

“It’s important to record this history of early computer use before it is lost, as the lifespan of most magnetic media is running out.”

Professor Swalwell is also collaborating with Dr Denise De Vries, from the computer archaeology laboratory at Flinders at Tonsley, to facilitate research into digital preservation techniques, to try and ensure software and other developments from around Australia stand a chance of surviving.

Associate Professor Swalwell will curate an exhibition in 2017, the final year of the project, to display some of this history of creative computing in Australia. She will also publish her findings from both the Australian and international archival research in a book.

A new Youtube video, called Researching Creative Microcomputing in Australia – https://youtu.be/hR8-10qjoiI, outlines the context and significance of the research into the first uses of personal computers for graphics and other creative work, including early video game programming.

Flinders Creations directors Dr Tom Young and Dr Matt Hawkins and editor Dave Raftery produced the video as a showcase of the Flinders research fellowship, with support from Department of Screen and Media lecturer, cinematographer Helen Carter.

Associate Professor Swalwell said the film successfully “unpacks and presents the research in a clear, more immediate way”.

“This is a great example of filmmakers and academics working together to disseminate knowledge,” she says.

Flinders Creations invited any further enquiries from Flinders University research groups.

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