CD-ROM – The 21st century bronze?

Mike Leggett on the potential of CD-ROM technology for artists

Those of us who have been keeping an eye on the creative and meaning-making possibilities of the computer since the early 70s have always been daunted by the technology with which it is associated, by its cost and by the complexity of the metalanguage. The developments in multimedia computing technology of recent years have to some extent addressed these concerns, although the time, effort and precision required to assemble a series of images for interactive purposes are still considerable. The prospect of a crash is all too real, unless well-designed software runs smoothly from the memory store. It is here that the CD-ROM can make its greatest contribution to art production.

The CD-ROM has more stable attributes than the memory storage devices normally linked to the computer’s processor, such as floppy and hard discs, which are based on magnetic media and so subject to interference both electro-magnetic and physical. While artists have been working with computer technology since its arrival on the scene in the 40s, CD-ROM enables the digital data stream to be stored in a medium more stable than the magnetised surface, whose delicate and fugitive nature evokes the clay used by sculptors before bronze-casting arrived to maximise plasticity and permanence.

Recently, desktop CD-ROM burners capable of making an individual Compact Disc-Read Only Memory (CD-ROM) hit the market. Initially intended for the archiving of company accounts and records, increasingly, contemporary artists are responding to the potential of the computer/CD-ROM medium as several of the ‘problem areas’ are addressed:

• Where previously there was a whole host of ‘computing systems’ of infinite combinations of hardware and software, the CD as a publishing/distribution medium has encouraged the convergence of systems for making, and replicating, the artwork.

• The ephemeral and fugitive nature of much computer-based work has restricted its exhibition potential to one-off installations, or playout through video/film recording. The archival specifications of CD-ROM can more or less guarantee the integrity of a completed work as “art-on-disc”, as well as enhance the prospects for financial return to artists through purchase, editioning and licensing.

• The cost of transferring computer files from “the studio”(the workstation with hard disc/server) to “the gallery”(the Compact Disc) has been lowered, enabling relatively cheap ‘casting’ – AU$150 per copy commercially down to AU$30 material costs if a ‘burner’ can be accessed.

• The industry has designed tools for production, for specialist users rather than programmers, offering artists independence from profit-orientated facility houses at the production stage, although one has to be a truly Renaissance individual – simultaneously photographer, film/video camera operator, lighting director, graphic designer, writer, picture and sound editor, typographer, sound recordist, computer programmer and line producer – or play at “the real estate business” and raise a budget to be able to pay for the expertise required.

Whilst being regarded by sections of the industry as an intermediate technology awaiting the arrival of the ‘superhighway’ networks, the CD medium’s material immutability will remain a major advantage as a storage device. Through an interface with whatever distribution system technology provides, like the Greek bronze, the disc is a stable repository of cultural evidence capable of becoming knowledge.

Mike Leggett is currently preparing an international survey exhibition of artists making and distributing work on CD-ROM for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney to be held mid-year. This article is extracted from a paper presented at the Intersections Conference at the UNSW in September 1994. The full paper and further details about the Artists CD-ROM Show can be accessed on the World Wide Web at: http:// www. gu. edu. au/gart/Fineart Online/info/cd-rom.html [expired]

The MCA is on the lookout for artists whose work uses CD-ROM for possible inclusion in their show planned for September this year. The curators’ main aim is to represent the diversity of practice being pursued worldwide by artists working with computers, giving particular emphasis to work that is extending the possibilities of the medium, for example its potential to alter the nature of engagement between a work and its audience. Innovative presentations by artists using CD-ROM of work in other media will also be considered. The deadline for proposals is 17 February, 1995.

RealTime issue #5 Feb-March 1995 pg. 27

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1995