10,000 online cameras in Homebush Stadium

John McConnchie on net possibilities

I once heard a colleague (Dave Sag from Virtual Artists, in fact) invent a scenario for the 2000 Olympics: thousands of people at the opening ceremony capturing the event with digital cameras hooked into their mobiles, feeding the images onto the web; people around the world, in front of their computers with access to images from anywhere within the stadium. Virtual Artists have been instrumental in creating web ‘events,’ getting Womad on-line, creating the Cyberfringe during Adelaide’s Festival of Arts. I like the context behind this story as well. We were in a meeting that included local representatives of television, an industry that has invested millions in the Games. It is economic, not technical, limitations that ensure Dave’s Olympic vision will fail to materialise by 2000 because it poses the question of just how to generate capital out of the new technology and equally importantly, who would control that capital. But 10,000 cameras? How would you find the best vantage point? What if you found it just at the point when the child with the camera grew tired and handed it back to her inept father? In other words, how do you read a medium like that?

But of course, I’m thinking of television. I love watching [Olympic] diving, as well as television’s solutions to the search for that ‘best’ camera angle, catching scant seconds of free fall; the introduction of overhead cameras; the underwater camera that stretches the brief moment of spectacle just that little bit longer; Atlanta’s addition of a tracking camera to follow the diver’s fall; the director who, by selecting angles, weaves each dive into its semi-narrative context. In other words, these are solutions to problems (what is the best angle?) posed by the medium itself. So what happens with an interactive medium where the reader, not the producer, gets to write the script; when an interactive media allows the viewer to become the director?

Perhaps this article should be titled “Towards a Critical Theory of New Media,” or something of the sort. For several reasons: we are still in an era where our ability to formulate a critical response is as much in its infancy as interactive technology itself, heavily dependent on concepts formulated for 20th century media and culture, and because our attempts in dealing with interactivity at a critical level are, to date, marked by a certain utopianism, as befits any ‘infant.’

Of course, utopias are unrealisable fantasies (and reason to distrust any essay with ‘towards’ in its title.) It is, as also befits any infant, coloured by a now traditional fear of technology, expressed through anxiety about the presence of pornography or build-your-own-bomb instructions on the web. (These anxieties are also linked to real infants, children’s access, which I’ll touch upon later).

Still, this is a hot topic. For example, research in education is onto it. The Adelaide group Rosebud and Ngapartji Multimedia Centre commissioned a brief paper on work being undertaken on audience engagement with interactive multimedia. Researcher Sal Humphries concluded the over-riding issue was still one of ‘literacy,’ with researchers monitoring user engagement (the interface between the technology and the user), in order to understand how cues are presented and how the reader’s response determines outcome. This isn’t far removed from most digital art that I’ve seen, where artists still determine the parameters of how the text is to be experienced, how its interactive content is to be ‘read,’ inviting a kind of reception theory. Regardless of the aesthetics of the new medium, we are still in the domain of ‘author’ and ‘reader.’

But other aspects are emerging, particularly on the web, and certainly on those sites which are, more rather than less, ‘written’ by their ‘readers’: chat rooms, palaces, muds and moos—all multi-user virtual environments. Perhaps these activities are better thought of as performances rather than
texts, in which case we can include Cyberfringe and Womad experiments. It may also be that the prototypes for such sites predate the web as we now know it, once accessible only to programmers or specialists exchanging information. What happens, however, when multi-user sites become accessible to a ‘popular culture?’

Some observations: As an ordinary web surfer I am struck by the way the potential for my own interactive ‘writing’ is marginalised: guest books, graffiti walls and the like. I’m invited to write, yes, but as an adjunct to the main event of the web page itself. This reflects what appears to be happening on the web generally; for example, there are ‘official’ sites and ‘unofficial’ ones (no more so than where entertainment franchises such as Star Trek are concerned). This tension serves a purpose in that it distinguishes between a product (official, copyrighted) and a fan. It can invite a kind of Derridean reading, the margins against the centre, where we write in the margins in order to circumscribe an official content, one defining the other in a symbiosis that actually structures meaning on the web despite the fact that anybody with access to the technology can participate in it.

If this is the determining structure, it is a self-determined and regulating one, not generated by conscious intent. This seems to worry conventional mass media as well as our political representatives, hence their continual carping about porn and terrorism on the web. But this stems from the fact that because the web is unfettered and its participants are happily scrawling away in the margins and back alleys, pushing gender boundaries and expounding their most loved fetishes to the world, it is in accord with Bakhtin’s concept of the Carnivalesque, that night-time revelry that suspends the daylight of social law. On several conditions: notably that the temporary suspension of these laws is a condition of their stability.

Online porn may drive the web’s technological development in interface design and financial viability. Right-wing racism may find the web a means of dissemination (never forget the Carnivalesque has a grotesque downside). But the web is actually a pretty safe place, including for children as most liberal parents have found. Its final collective face is not so much transgression but a consensus, in that what is played out, virtual utopic sex and all, manifests an underlying phantasmic structure. In other words, those 10,000 cameras could well reach a consensus on what to film, rendering the need to choose between them unnecessary because, as ‘virtual subjects,’ we will have already determined our own position within the vast exchange of digital information. I’m borrowing here from Slavoj Zizek’s conclusion to The Metastases of Enjoyment where he discusses the West’s response to Sarajevo, phantasmically bound in the figure of the victim. Victimisation is universalised, he writes, “from sexual abuse and harassment to the victims of AIDS…from the starving children of Somalia to the victims of bombardment in Sarajevo…” What has this to do with the web as a multi-user, writerly environment home of the virtual subject? Go to a search engine and type in “Diana.”

RealTime issue #21 Oct-Nov 1997 pg. 22

© John McConchie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1997