Playing in the labyrinth

Trish Fitzsimons visits the CD-ROM component of the Brisbane International Film Festival

“The twenty or so CD-ROM discs selected for this preview of interactive multimedia are those related to the aesthetics of cinema. In particular, my focus was the traditions of the narrative form that have evolved through the cinema of documentary, but demonstrate and explore the ways in which a new aesthetic is beginning to emerge from a new medium.” Email from Mike Leggett, curator of Cynema: An Interactive Playground

For someone currently researching the possibilities of the emerging form of interactive documentary, Cynema: An Interactive Playground was a kind of manna from heaven to be found in the streets of Brisbane. Twenty CD-ROMs—loosely subdivided into the games, music, reference and experimental categories—were collected together at the Hub Internet Cafe, in an exhibition curated by Mike Leggett as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival. This was a new initiative of the festival, and one that is to be applauded given the difficulties of seeing other than a narrow range of commercially distributed interactive multimedia outside of this kind of specialised exhibition.

There was something of the feel of a ‘new frontier’ for the festival in this exhibition: numbers of patrons were low early on, elements of the viewing environment were still being refined, exhibition assistant James Thompson was in constant demand to assist people unfamiliar with the medium. By the end of the week the audience had built up very significantly as word of mouth spread. Thompson describes a number of patrons returning several times, often for hours on end, to engage with the works.

Apparently, it was the games that were a particular drawcard. Bad Mojo—where users are drawn by sumptuous graphics into identifying with the point of view and navigational possibilities of a cockroach—incited particular loyalty in some patrons. So too did Discworld— an animated mediæval adventure game where users attempt to vanquish a dragon terrorising a mythical city. My five year old son had to be coaxed away from Kids on Site—where the user enters the driver’s seat of major construction equipment—after an hour’s complete absorption. For me, it was the works in the experimental category, and the Laurie Anderson work, Puppet Motel (oddly categorised as music), that were the highlights of the exhibition.

An issue in reviewing CD-ROMs, given their non-linearity, is how long you need to have spent with work, how many various pathways you need to have taken, before you feel able to comment upon it. Those works that immediately reveal their complete contents can be less satisfying than those which manage to construct their interface in ways resembling a labyrinth that draws you in. Those in the latter category, however, always leave you wondering ‘what have I missed’ and ‘will I be contradicted by that

• continued page #
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which is hidden just beyond my chosen pathway’.

Puppet Motel very successfully created a sense of boundlessness within the necessarily limited confines of the CD-ROM format. From the opening imagery of a vortex disappearing into infinity, accompanied by spinning clocks and a seemingly random series of further choices, the work reveals itself as a game-like maze. Within this maze are to be found vintage Laurie Anderson performance monologues, soundscapes and music. Rather than using its navigation system to direct the user down clearly signposted pathways, Puppet Motel works as a series of linked sites whose main interactions relate to the challenge of escaping into the next one. I for one was not up to the task in one instance and had to quit out of the application to escape a particular location. Intriguing graphics and an enigmatic and curiously satisfying soundtrack generally maintained my interest until each puzzle was solved. At one point Anderson’s sensuous whisperings had my ear pressed to the computer speaker to catch every word and nuance.

Christine Tamblyn’s Mistaken Identities explores the life stories of ten famous women (Marie Curie, Margaret Mead and Frida Kahlo amongst them) in a work “which combines aspects of an academic essay or documentary film with intuitive associations between graphics, film, text and sounds…the boundaries between fact, interpretations and fiction are intentionally blurred in the project” (accompanying ‘read me’ notes). Short fragments of archival movies are cleverly incorporated into screen designs that naturalize the small screen QuickTime format. The structure of this work encourages users to explore both individual women’s trajectories and the thematic analogies that linked their lives. A woman—presumably Tamblyn herself—is woven throughout the work, visually commenting on the subject’s life stories. Often she mimes exaggerated facial responses in mute QuickTime images, in one section she transforms ‘into’ her heroines in a series of morphed pictures. Whilst this strand of Mistaken Identities did not seem to me to have been sufficiently integrated into the overall text, it was refreshing to see an exploration of self reflexive strategies in a work of interactive multimedia.

Graham Harwood’s Rehearsal of Memory powerfully evokes the closed world of the Ashworth Maximum Security Mental Hospital patients with whom he worked in producing this piece. One of its most striking features is the conglomerate human form—created as a mosaic of scanned body parts—which becomes the large but bounded space through which we navigate and in which we discover various looped fragments of oral history and soundscape. Harwood’s use of contrapuntal sound is deft: a soundtrack of trickling water alongside the scanned ECU image of pubic hair and the head of a penis opened up meaning in the space between the image and sound.

Not all the works were as engaging. George Legrady’s the clearing, whose project is to “explore the cultural meaning in the language of news representation [of the former Yugoslavia]” (quoted from the ‘read me’ note), seemed to me to reproduce rather than deconstruct the frustrations of following that conflict through the vehicle of daily new reports.

Taken as a whole, this was a very successful exhibition that reflects some very interesting recent work at the nexus of cinema and interactive multimedia. It also confirmed, however, that this is still very largely a medium of graphics and animation, with digital video only a small component of most pieces.

As a reviewer who both visited the exhibition twice and had the privilege of taking a number of the works away to view on my own computer, I found much to enthral me, though some works goaded me into musing how they could be even better. In the exhibition itself, users had to contend with the cafe’s usual muzak as well as with the conflicting soundtracks of works on adjacent computers. For the many works where the soundtrack was critical, this was a real problem. This is perhaps unsurprising for a medium still finding its audience and developing its optimal viewing environment. Given the number of these CD-ROM based works that had associated web sites, it could also be an advantage if works were displayed, next time, on networked computers.

Perhaps these issues will be addressed in 1997 in the Brisbane season of the much larger Burning the Interface exhibition, originally shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, which was also curated by Mike Leggett (with Linda Michael). I sincerely hope that this kind of new media exhibition will become a regular feature of the festival, and play a key role in exposing Brisbane audiences to emerging genres of interactive work.

RealTime issue #15 Oct-Nov 1996 pg. 23

© Trish Fitzsimons; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1996