Critically interactive

Previewing the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Burning the Interface, John Conomos demonstrates artists’ challenge to prevailing multimedia myths

In the wake of the Creative Nation cultural policy document, launched in October 1994, the much touted new media technologies of our post-computer epoch—especially the current hyperbole heralding the internet and CD-ROMs, amongst other popular forms of emerging computer-inflected media—require a sustained deconstructive analysis of the complex dialectic existing between electronic media, culture, gender and power.

We live in an increasingly mediated world where the computer and its related techno-utopian myths of artifice, control and rationality are instrumental in creating a sense of reality that is becoming more intricate, more contingent. Given that we are becoming more reliant on digital languages of representation—where the discourse between images and knowledge, cognition and epistemology is being radically transformed—it behoves us to formulate the awkward questions that analyse the cultural mechanisms of Western representation, questions about our socio-cultural institutions and ourselves and our prevailing dependency on spurious modernist paradigms and their legacy to Cartesian perspectivalism.

When examining interactive CD-ROMs as the popular mode of digital media technology, we have to ask why this is so? How do we precisely locate them in consumer culture, contemporary art practice and the older cultural forms and outcomes? How do we approach interactive CD-ROM art in a meaningful dialogic manner? If we are going to probe beyond the current penchant for defining CD-ROMs as something more than an expedient commercial down-loading technology so Australia may enter the post-broadcast world of satellite communications, then we should not avoid addressing the difficult cultural, gender and phenomenological issues. We need to remind ourselves (something that Creative Nation conveniently overlooks) that our academic and popular discourse about electronic media (including CD-ROMs) should negotiate the key problem of aesthetic and ethical abdication (Felix Guattari) and the substantial significance of the more marginalised artists and their oeuvres, artists who have been central (since the historical avant-garde) to the little understood, (in)visible historical narrative of electronic art.

The forthcoming show Burning the Interface, curated by media artist Mike Leggett and curator Linda Michael at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney is the first major survey exhibition of international and local artists’ use of CD-ROM technology that seeks to address these critical issues. It will italicise through its 30 or so diverse examples the range of ideas, forms and approaches informing this new interactive multimedia medium.

Curatorially, as a comprehensive showing of interactive CD-ROM, the exhibition thankfully does not subscribe to the worst critical excesses of intellectual fashions of the post-aesthetic, post-auratic and post-philosophical strands of contemporary thought. For it also contests the glib euphoric double-talk and ethical solipsism that still characterise our critical approach to the digital arts and the persistent tendency to evaluate them in terms of the more established forms of cultural production. This signifies the hermeneutic necessity to question how many examples of new media—including interactive CD-ROMs—exemplify conceptual, formal and technological facets of a “boy’s own adventure narrative” and the overall problematic cultural mind-set that the personal computer suggests “a dialogue with the infinite” (Iain Chambers), or if you prefer, the thematic premise of Disney’s fully computer-animated feature Toy Story (1995) of “infinity and beyond”.

Burning the Interface aims to advance popular and specialist interests in examining the potential of CD-ROM interactivity for experimental artistic expression and casts a fairly wide net over artists who are already navigating the medium. The curators decided not to include works that are archival/documentation or artist CV in emphasis, nor works that are primarily developed as computer games. From over 130 proposals from fourteen countries (publicised through the internet that is metamorphosing into a gallery space—a curatorial phenomenon that will rapidly expand as we witness the dynamic growth of cybersalons, etc.) the show will exhibit works from overseas artists like Eric Lanz, Luc Courchesne, George Legrady, and David Blair, and locally Troy Innocent, Phil George/Ralph Wayment, Linda Dement, Brad Miller and John Colette.

These works were chosen for their experimental engagement, reflexivity and humour and share a major conceptual and technical interest in using the CD-ROM interface to permit the user to navigate (with varying critical success) image (still and moving), word and sound, to experience differing levels of conceptual and technological immersion. In the main, this show is interested in exploring the complex aesthetic facets and possibilities of the CD-ROM interactive encounter and in presenting works that explicitly address a reflexive take on the limits, contradictions and experimental innovation of interactivity. It endeavours to go beyond Creative Nation’s mistaken corporate emphasis of CD-ROM technology as a marketing/instructional medium.

Amongst the eight or so Australian exhibits, three examples of local interactive CD-ROM art come to mind : Michael Buckley’s elliptical sound-driven The Swear Club (1994), Brad Miller’s Deleuzean-inspired A Digital Rhizome (1994) and Phil George and Ralph Wayment’s interactive installation meditation on cultural displacement and memory Mnemonic Notations 5 (1996).

Buckley’s humorous and inventive The Swear Club displays a diverse cross-disciplinary interest in experimental film, sound art, animation and graphic design. Its pronounced visual and verbal pun-encrusted concerns and minimalist audiovisual style reflect Buckley’s non-didactic playful critique of the more familiar ‘point and click’ technological determinism that often flaws CD-ROM art. The Swear Club’s Art Brut influenced graphic and typographic features are ideal for its autobiographical subject matter based on Buckley’s personal father and son motif.

Miller’s reflexive computer-generated screen and mouse interactive A Digital Rhizome, is structured on the central notion of the rhizome as stated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s “schizo-analysis” philosophy, and represented by their book A Thousand Plateaus (1987). The evocative digital images of this exhibit are based on sophisticated image-processing software and operate as a fairly reflexive digital collage. Its Quicktime movies, still images, sampled soundtracks and multilayered graphic design allow the user to form his or her own elaborate connections and links. Further, the artist’s digitised appropriation of Deleuze and Guattari is structured on an unobtrusive interactive interface, so as we follow numerous flights of intensities and relations we have entered into an interzone where identity, the body, space and scale are in constant transition.

George and Wayment’s Mnemonic Notations 5 (1996) is an interactive installation in a darkened room consisting of a large screen, a fish tank, and a black plexiglass table where the user can utilise a mouse to manipulate the work’s highly compressed collage images of cyberpunk mythology, postmodern science, Tantric Buddhist symbols, Celtic mazes and Orthodox Greek mysticism. Inspired by John McCrone’s 1990 paper “The Ape that Spoke” this installation explores in vivid spatial and metaphorical terms George’s long standing interest in postcolonial identity and memory. Between the table and the screen is the fish tank featuring carp that activate (via surveillance software) the installation’s soundtrack.

The international CD-ROMs, like the local examples, feature an experimental inventiveness that suggests a questioning approach to the orthodoxies of modernism, postmodernism and the computer tools of interactive multimedia production. Characteristically, they also display a diverse array of thematic and formal interests: cybernetics, cultural histories, subjectivity, the body, autobiography, language, and sexuality.

Luc Courchesne’s deftly constructed Portrait One (1995) features a female ‘virtual being’ conversing in three languages (English, French and German). The conversation that unfolds as we interact with the exhibit’s minimalist interface depends on the answers, questions and comments we select from the available sets on the computer screen. Portrait One’s ‘face to face’ encounter with the virtual subject resonates with irony considering the complex philosophic issues relating to computer-generated interactivity, choice, and participation. Nevertheless, its overall engaging textual approach suggests an inventive humorous simplicity in terms of interactive design.

Tamas Waliczky’s The Forest (1994), like Courchesne’s work, manifests an uncomplicated design approach to CD-ROM interactivity (particularly if exhibited as an installation). Its intricate 3D forest imagery and appealing soundtrack of bus or tram sounds suggest the work’s prefigurative tradition of the ‘ride’ movie of the early twentieth century. In this context, it also suggests many links with virtual reality arcade games (especially the “third window”(Virilio) variety of racing cars and jet planes). Through its omni-directional ‘clicking’ design emphasis we can journey through Waliczky’s atmospheric forest in any given direction. In another critical sense, interacting with The Forest resembles an elaborate long take or dolly shot in classical cinema: there is a pervasive sense of unstoppable movement as in the case of the celebrated extended long take in Murnau’s Sunrise where the couple travel by cable car from the country to the city.

Finally, George Legrady’s documentary styled An Anecdoted Archive from the Cold War (1994) represents an “inventory-archaeology” of home movies, personal objects, recent collage videos, archive propaganda films, and stories delineating the artist’s own history in the context of the Cold War. The main structural motif that defines the exhibit’s interactive interface are the floor plans of the Former Hungarian Workers’ Movement (Propaganda) Museum Palace of Buda Castle (Building A) Budapest. These floor plans constitute Legrady’s memory-aid text (echoing similar conceptual and formal interests in Woody Vasulka’s subjective documentary video The Art of Memory) as we navigate through the various rooms of the artist’s personal history. Its ‘non-linear’ subject matter functions as a paradox in the context of the CD-ROM’s colourful linear floor plans.

Burning the Interface is not only a survey showcase exhibition of the more creative instances of personal CD-ROM art but it illustrates how these multimedia exhibits are transforming many of our assumptions about what constitutes art and to be ‘human’, and are an integral part of our ‘lifeworld’ and its growing non-neutral deep technological concerns and textures.

Burning the Interface, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney March 27-June 30

RealTime issue #11 Feb-March 1996 pg. 22

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

1 February 1996