Handy hints for new, new media reviewers

Dean Kiley

[1] Start with a short, strong, clear, clean and banal sentence. See [15].

[2] In your opening, use a verbal or visual cliché, either from the artwork under review or one of your very own. Maybe try a fey anecdote from your experience of interacting with the work. Vague Dawson’s Creek-esque emotional responses also work well.

[3] If you’re reviewing an exhibition on- or off-line, say something nice early on about the curator who assembled the stuff or about the organisation which mounted it. The new media virtuous circle—the one name reticulating from critic to artist to reviewer to content provider to curator to funding body apparatchik to catalogue essayist—revolves around such, um, professional courtesies.

[4] Can one do without portentous rhetorical questions?

[5] ‘Interactive’ is not a real word. Hasn’t been since about 1997. So feel free to use it without specifics, an intensifier of the same order as ‘very.’ Interactively often.

[6] Acronyms. Nothing like a BGA, especially without context clues.

[7] ‘Onscreen’ is a generic term. So you’ve got permission to generalise. Talk about what’s happening onscreen as if the setting and mode of reception—CD on your own PC, kiosk, gallery installation, surround sound, custom-made interface, prefab Director set-up, stuttery-slow website blah blah—were irrelevant.

[8] If you get stuck for wordage take a leaf from theatre reviewing: turn the work under review into a test-lab for that bit of your thesis you’re writing currently, or recycle rigorously-random nouns from whatever critical theory you can remember from your undergrad days. French, if possible.

[9] At some stage, evince—as if the quandary had just occurred, and only, to you, just now—a solemn uncertainty as to the use of terms like “reader”, “user”, “screener”, “audience”, or “immersant” (no, really).

[10] As a conscientious new media critic you’re likely to spend hours exploring and taking notes on any one multimedia CD-ROM from the stack under review. You must then nanotechnologise your critical response into oh, say 350 words per artwork. This may seem at the time like an impossible and superficialising task—if you’re a critic, slumming as reviewer, who wants to be called a theorist in the bio for your next conference paper, it’s essential to neologise now and then—but I assure you it’s invaluable training should you go on to become a freelance blurb writer.

[11] This microchip constraint is, however, only an illusory limitation. Think Wordsworth and his claim about the prison of the sonnet being paradoxically liberating. Think Bardot and the pop song. Don’t think, or at least not on a public page. You have no space or time to think, to analyse much beyond the reductive dot-points associated with the onscreen equivalent of a thriller plot summary in Australian Book Review. Certain things can be assumed when responding to drama or films or festivals or whatever. Ditto a Venn diagram overlap of the languages and approaches with which to discuss them. But new media is (as minor celebrities in the field keep telling us, constructing a self-serving Oedipal identikit) so, well, um, new, so unpredictably adolescent, that—ostensibly—there’s still no critical idiom with which to evaluate or even describe it. So don’t try. Give us the busking mime version and leave it at that.

[12] This critical aphasia allows all sorts of things you’d never get away with elsewhere, like transposing your response into an unelaborated shorthand of incompatible but allegedly homologous artforms: describe text unproblematically as if it were music, hypertext functions as cinema montage, interactive animation as clickable 2D-graphics, etc. Go for it.

[13] Best of all, by the time you’ve tried to vividly dramatise for the reader what the interface is and does, and how (or not) it’s interactive, and what the technical platform allows (or limits), and what the graphic, animation and sound designs are doing where and when with which text and why…goodness, you’ve just run out of room for further analysis, or contextualisation, or evaluation. Reminds me of the theatre scene in the 80s Sydney queer communities, when critics were expected to function as a domesticated marketing arm of the industry, and reviews worked on the same basis as ads. Oh look dear (said over newspaper, latte and pastries) Tony Ayres has got something on next week was the ultimate effect.

[14] Trick question: what, beyond 1000 words or so, is the difference between reviewing and sampling?

[15] Call your piece something engaging. If you don’t, the editor will lift the most compact substandard generalisation or windsock phrase from the crucible of your deathless prose and call it the title or rivet it in as a pull-quote. For similar reasons, stick strictly to the assigned wordlength, since there’s no extra kudos or extra payment for extra insights. If you don’t hack the thing into sensible shape and length, the editor will. And not much is more inimical to good critical flow than a MacGyver-ist editor forced into actual editing. [Ed: and we all wish Dean well in his new career.] [16] Except, perhaps, a critic who won’t or can’t critique.

[17] So shop around. Don’t pre-emptively limit your options for publication venues. There are, after all, so many journals already out there in the new media area with the requisite budgets, space, distribution networks, intellectual integrity, academic rigour, industry credibility and stables of incisive critics. There’s…well, there’s MESH, and—um, eyeline, and—oh, go look for yourself. I’m also led to believe that visual arts and literary journals have moved with the times, have gone beyond pigeonholing and ghettoisation into publishing new media analysis and reviews. Alright, so it’s once a year if you’re lucky but it’s a start.

[18] But if all else fails, if you find yourself looking enviously at the wide green pastures where the adjectivally-challenged graze, muttering over yet another bloody bulimic psycho-waffle review of yet another obscure drama production, depressed at the dearth of real critical engagement, then just think about the money.

I myself have a whole half-drawer stocked entirely with RealTime-bankrolled undies.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 21

© Dean Kiley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2001