Parallax resists cultural amnesia

Mitchell Whitelaw

Parallax is a rare specimen, an anthology of locally crafted cultural criticism which tackles, among other things, digital media. Darren Tofts, correspondingly, is one of a handful of figures on the Australian scene to have established a profile as a theorist and critic of digital media. In the local context then, this slim compilation is bigger than it first appears—a too-rare indication of the emergence of a homegrown critical culture.

This is a collection of essays written between 1993 and 1999, many of which have been published in local venues such as Mesh, World Art and the sadly-missed 21C; others come from conference presentations and lectures. That the material isn’t brand new might disappoint voracious theory-junkies, though only the most avid would know all of these papers. The result is a compilation which demonstrates both the diversity and consistency of Tofts’ concerns over the last half-decade or so.

That diversity is considerable, at least in terms of critical subject matter. Tofts takes on new media art, hypertext, the historical avant-garde, Joyce, Duchamp, Beckett, Bacon, digital imaging, Andres Serrano and Troy Innocent. In the process he touches on cybernetics, indeterminacy, the notion of expressiveness in painting, Baudrillard and Star Trek (to take a random sampling). The sum is not as inconsistent as it sounds; it manifests a set of specific focii and characteristic approaches. As the names above suggest, Tofts’ work articulates the big guns of modernist literature and visual arts with a constellation of contemporary works, artists and cultural moments. This interweaving isn’t an attempt to write the postmodern, digitised present into a solid modernist lineage; rather, as Tofts puts it, it seeks “uncanny parallels, incongruous juxtapositions and surprising fusions of ideas between the old and the new, the residual and the emergent.” Tofts pitches the project as a corrective to that “digital orthodoxy” which tends to forget these historical parallels, resulting in “cultural amnesia.”

The most prominent of the parallels runs between modernist art and literature and contemporary hypermedia—spanning hypertext, the web, and interactive media. So it is that in “Un Autre Coup de Dés. Multimedia and the Game Paradigm” French symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé hangs out with cybernetician Norbert Wiener, Myst and the Residents’ Bad Day on the Midway. The ways in which we wrestle narrative meaning from the indeterminate, entropic story-worlds of digital media are echoed, Tofts suggests, in the ways in which we read Mallarmé’s nonlinear poetry. In “Hyperlogic, the Avant-Garde and Other Instransitive Acts”, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce are brought together as practitioners of that interactive, nonlinear “hyperlogic” more often identified with high-tech hypermedia. The central, and well-supported assertion made in both these essays is that “hypermedia should be considered as an extension of the modernist avant-garde.” Tofts isn’t talking up new media here, in fact he’s quite clear on the point that they “have a lot of catching up to do”; lagging in the shadows of modernist monoliths like Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.

Tofts’ assured literary scholarship underpins these parallel readings, but it also gets a few essays to itself in Parallax. “Ulysses Returns” is a detailed treatment of the troubled life of Joyce’s tome; its many editions, corrections, editorial gaffes and presumptions, all striving for an authoritative, authorial master-text. Tofts good-naturedly points out the absurd contradictions here, as literary scholars scramble to tidy up, straighten out and nail down a work which is very clearly trying to resist such determination. He is more optimistic about a proposal for a hypertext Ulysses with multiple parallel versions of the text and additional multimedia ephemera—an appropriately Joycean labyrinth of interminable journeys. Ulysses returns again in “Parallatic Readings: Joyce, Duchamp and the Fourth Dimension”, a tiny but engaging essay which constructs a kind of crypto-historical wormhole between Joyce’s epic and its Duchampian equivalent: The Large Glass. What propels the essay is some fascinating literary detective work, beginning with a manuscript fragment in which Joyce’s protagonist describes a work which seems to be The Bride Stripped Bare. This thread triggers Tofts’ refiguring of Ulysses in which it comes to resemble Duchamp’s collection of notes on The Bride, The Green Box, and explodes into a million interactive pieces.

Perhaps it’s a subjective case of greener grass on the other side of the disciplinary fence, but I find Tofts’ literary studies more interesting than his writing on new media. This may also have something to do with the fact that writing in this area, like the work, dates practically overnight. Tofts’ “Your Place or Mine? Locating Digital Art” is from 1996, the year of the MCA’s Burning the Interface exhibition—but here 4 years seems like 10 (remember CD-ROMs?). Of course this absurd time-dilation should be resisted wherever possible, and Tofts’ historical perspective is valuable here. Certainly Nam June Paik, John Cage and Merce Cunningham are important precursors for the conceptual and practical concerns of contemporary digital media, and the importance of “the walk” in virtual spaces is prefigured in the ancient ars memoria. However Tofts stops short of following these historical contexts through into critical analysis. Not that he’s pulling punches, necessarily: his writing seems to reflect a genuine enthusiasm for new media practice, together with an endorsement of some of its dominant drives. “The most likely and desirable outcome of the trajectory of the desktop to immersive, virtual spaces, is the creation of something that resembles the Holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Complete immersion in a seamless “apparent reality” is the unquestioned goal here—a trajectory which seeks a kind of digital literalisation of the overwhelming plenitude of a work like Ulysses.

Nowhere is Tofts’ enthusiasm more apparent than in his writing on Troy Innocent. “Travelling to Iconica” is a glowing account of Innocent’s work; Tofts hails the artist as perhaps digital animation’s “first major exponent of the art of virtuality.” Once again Tofts cheers on the drives which propel Innocent’s work (in its quizzical way); immersive virtuality, interactivity, and artificial life. Of course enthusiastic support is preferable to the kind of muddle-headed non-engagement with which mainstream art criticism has greeted local new media work, but still, the pity is that Tofts’ writing misses a chance to make some well-informed critiques and ask some curly questions. Is the local scene simply too small, or still too tenuous, to support robust critical exchange? While I’m not suggesting that Tofts’ work falls into this category, there seems to be a kind of reverse-tall-poppy syndrome in effect, with an understanding that one just doesn’t knock the work of one’s friends and peers—at least not in public. For the health of the scene itself, I hope this changes.

Darren Tofts, Parallax: Essays on Art, Culture and Technology, an interface book, Craftsman House, 2000, ISBN 90 5704 007 7

RealTime issue #37 June-July 2000 pg. 23

© Mitchell Whitelaw; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2000