coding the possible

Mike Leggett at The Language of Interactivity conference

The Language of Interactivity conference, held at the ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney, April 9-11, was the third of a series of annual events organised by the Australian Film Commission, designed to ‘bridge the gap’ between the often separated groups of computer specialists, creative ‘talent’ and entrepreneurial risk-takers. The conference chair, Michael Hill, AFC Multimedia Projects Coordinator, one of the few people in Australia with significant experience of a multitude of multimedia production proposals, suggested that this year was the International Year of Multimedia Cliché (following on from last year, the International Year of Multimedia): terms like ‘content’, ‘interface’, ‘prototype’, ‘non-linear’ were up for reconsideration if “we are to make projects which satisfy and challenge an audience hungry for something they haven’t yet seen.”

“Artists often have sudden ideas, want to try different possibilities within the structure of the project, so you have to be flexible and your code needs to be very flexible. You have to be able to adapt and respond to different situations and be very open to changes. Too often in commercial projects I’ve coded, people know what is on the market and they know what they want…and it’s a very limited approach.”

Gideon May was a guest speaker from Amsterdam and one of several within the ‘industry’ who actively pursues the unknown alongside the rent-paying yakka. “As the demand for programmers able to write code for multimedia projects increases over the next few years, their ability to succeed will be related to their ability to work in close collaboration with the full range of other specialists engaged in a project. I don’t think that there will be a place for just one director who is in control and who delegates everything.”

Will the control freaks, artists and moguls back away from so much shared territory?

The conference topic of ‘interaction’ was imaginatively extended from ‘responding to screen prompts’ to focusing as much on the interactions between production teamwork models. Several of the overseas guest speakers, whilst demonstrating the appearance and ‘functionality’ of their works, came from quite distinct production environments.

Glorianna Davenport came from the MIT Media Lab cocoon where, working with in-house staff and students, she has developed story-telling/listening agents with cute names like Lurker and Thinkies. These respond to the choices made during an interactive encounter on a computer by presenting options calculated most likely to be needed next by the individual. (Unfortunately a classic faux pas, with the status of an aphorism, undercut her presentation: “I was shocked when I discovered many of my students barely knew that the Second World War took place. I mean I know that it wasn’t very influential in Australia but it turned out the Second World War really changed the world a lot.”)

A contrast was the artisanal production approach of Chris Hales, whose interactive touch-screen installation was shown for a short time at Artspace. Using Hi8 video and working from his London home when not teaching, whimsical portraits of friends and children are woven together on the computer into an example of ‘interactive cinema’, a ‘genre’ which seems to owe a lot to a history of cinema. Hales avoids the ‘classic narrative’ interactive approach adopted by Graham Weinbren, who spoke at the 1995 conference in Melbourne, revisiting instead the cinema of pathos and slapstick comedy.

Another contrast was the Stevie Wonder of interactive game design, Osamu Sato, head of one of Tokyo’s’ “leading multimedia firms”, who inscrutably demonstrated the intricacies of “the most popular CD-ROM adventure title in Japan, Eastern Mind”. Sato’s presentation highlighted the gap between eastern and western traditions of visual coding and meaning construction.

Jonathon Delacour created the links that he has achieved in previous AFC conferences between different cultural traditions. The negotiation of roles and role play in on-line game environments, he suggested, rehearses personality development and the centring of the self. Richly illustrated with ‘habitats’ populated by ‘avatars’ and other identities, the history of this development went back to the Lucasfilm Habitat established as far back as 1985.

The tension between on-line and off-line delivery and development was present behind most of the papers and panels, in this, the Year of Wwwebness. Also, as John Colette succinctly put it, this tension reflects the distinction “between whether we are seeking information or experience”.

A Sydney team developing an interactive soap opera ‘transformational game’, Strange Fruit, revealed the collaborative workshop approach taken to an ambitious project. The ‘big-picture/little-picture’ relationship and the defining of roles for team members, including the relationship of the writer and performers to the whole, gave an insight into the brave complexities of exporting established narrative traditions into digital environments. This was in contrast to a high point of irony which was reached when ‘interface consultant’ Fiona Ingram gave a flawless presentation of eye-watering bullet points depicting a multimedia-by-numbers approach to the production process, and then used as her example the CD-ROM of the Doors of Perception 1 conference Amsterdam, 1994 (part of the Burning the Interface exhibition, MCA, Sydney). While stuffed with elegant visual approaches to a static documentary (by “cutting a lot of buttons”), it certainly had nothing to do with the production process described.

Tim Gruchy delightfully demonstrated Synthing, the “wetness of interactive experience”, as the outcome of distinctive teamwork flowing from the traditions of the plastic and musical arts. Using modest and dated Amiga technology, the path to “unencumbered interfaces” gave a glimpse of a cultural tool which may become as ubiquitous as the sound synthesiser.

Other inspired individuals like Jon McCormack, Michael Buckley and Graham Harwood seemed much less concerned with the value that can flow from the integrated interactive production team. Can the imagination that such artists deliver ever be attracted to work with others in such a way?

The benefits of such collaborations are two-way according to programmer Gideon May: “It helps me a lot for writing good code because there are many times when you have to come back to correct or amend. And well structured, well laid-out, readable code makes this process easier and more rapid”. Also visual artists have often objected, for instance, to the clean, well-rendered surfaces beloved of games makers. “It takes a lot of computing power to make something dirty,” said May. But clearly such interaction has meant that code is now being written, for a variety of purposes, which will begin to remove some of that surface gloss and glitter.

RealTime issue #13 June-July 1996 pg. 22

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 June 1996