The two cultures re-animated and perverted

Darren Tofts interrogates two key events at the Interact Asia Pacific Multimedia Festival in Melbourne

(Crack the) Binary Code

Multimedia’s status as art, and its relationship with extant art forms, were the main items on the agenda at (Crack the) Binary Code. Its principle focus was to bring these two spheres together, and redress the biases which still see reviews of CD-ROM relegated to the computer pages (as if to foreground this prejudice, Deborah Bogle’s profile of the event was demoted from the weekend Australian’s glossy magazine to Syte the week before). The circulation of this issue throughout Binary Code was problematic in that it reinforced the very factions the symposium was attempting to merge. In this it had the unfortunate effect of reanimating, rather than exorcising, the shade of C.P. Snow and his “two cultures”.

The opening session, in particular, smacked of a literate/post-literate détente, in which two incongruous world orientations debated the role of multimedia as an “add-on” to established art forms. Peter Craven declared that he was an “improbable person to be addressing a conference of this kind”, and that multimedia was “largely lost” on him. Multimedia criticism does not count as one of Craven’s contributions to Australian letters. He did, though, make one decisive contribution to this symposium, for in repeatedly referring to James Joyce, he introduced a more palatable talisman than Snow, which shifted the subtleties of the convergence debate into a more constructive orbit. This was consolidated by Philippa Hawker’s engaging discussion of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet. Hawker explored the convergent relationships forming between literary, filmic and multimedia practices, noting, with exemplary admonition, that there are many similarities and differences between the experience of literature, film and multimedia. It was just this ambivalence that was needed to crack the binary code.

The dynamic of ambivalence was picked up by Bill Mitchell in a fascinating account of his Palladio Virtual Museum project. Mitchell spoke of complementarity, and the creative unease involved in exploring the interface between the physical and the virtual (he also invoked Joyce as a tutelary presence, comparing his own work in progress to the textual editing of Ulysses). This was an inventive concept that found resonance in Michael Hill’s witty and satirical incursion into the great divide between contemplation and distraction in multimedia art. Hill recalled an online performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot in the “waiting room” of The Palace, which is as good an example of the tension between stasis and movement as you will find. The challenge of staging a play, in which “to be there” is everything, in the “no there, there” zone of cyberspace, beautifully demonstrated what Mitchell called “magical moments”, epiphanies born of unease, where innovative possibilities are glimpsed.

Ambivalence also exerted a force in the discussion of multimedia criticism. In drawing attention to the hybridity of the medium, artist Peter Hennessey articulated the need for a syncretic critical language, one which drew on established discourses and blurred their conceptual and lexical boundaries. This was admirably demonstrated in Justine Humphry’s inventive reading of the CD-ROM game Myst in the context of the Mars Pathfinder mission. Humphry drew on cultural theory in apposite ways, to project Myst as a narrative of loss and yearning for new spaces of discovery. Hennessey’s invocation of a hybrid form of criticism attests to the need to get beyond the divisive switching between new media and established art, as if they were the only terms of debate in the discourse surrounding emergent art forms. McKenzie Wark, a writer not present at this symposium, has effectively discussed multimedia art in terms of a “new abstraction”; a resonant idea that has significantly broadened the debate in ways canvassed by Hennessey. As Stephanie Britton also observed, there is in fact a distinctive form of multimedia criticism, that draws, in part, on the critical languages of the visual arts, film theory, and, I would quickly add, literary theory (it’s no accident that Joyce and Beckett kept elbowing their way into the discussion).

Under the panoptical gaze of his camera, ABC TV’s Stephen Feneley admirably played the role of luddite uninspired by new media art. While diverting at the end of a long day, all the head-high tackling about ART distracted attention from the more substantive issues of dissemination and distribution, and the appropriate place for experiencing multimedia art. Access, Britton reminded us, is the most crucial issue of all. The idea of a public sphere, what Geert Lovink usefully described as a “third space”, is the promise of the internet, and it is perhaps this space that holds the greatest potential for achieving the kind of dissemination necessary to reach a mass audience, and thereby form a culture of multimedia art and criticism. A related issue was identified by Mike Leggett, who drew attention to the curatorial process, drawing on his experience of putting together Burning the Interface, the first international exhibition of CD-ROM art. The key for Leggett, as with Britton and Lovink, was the dissemination of multimedia art into public spaces. Leggett, too, discussed an idea that should have been the subject of more substantial attention, that of the social responsibility of nurturing a culture of multimedia art.

Is multimedia art part of the historical tradition of poesis, or aesthetic-making, or is it an aberrant technological cool, undeserving of artistic value? experimenta’s Shiralee Saul had the final word on this imbroglio, turning the tables on the art debate in a fit of pique (“Let’s face it, contemporary art is dead, or is at least looking a bit peaky”), then asking what could only be described as a rhetorical question: “Does art deserve to be revitalized by multimedia?”

For a different type of audience Binary Code would have been a solid and informative introduction to the key issues in the multimedia debate. I’m not sure how many of the Interact-going general-public were in attendance, but most of the people there seemed to be from the media arts community, for whom much of the discussion was already very familiar. That said, symposium co-ordinator Kevin Murray and the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) have maintained an important public dialogue concerning multimedia art. In this they achieved one of their key themes, namely, the consolidation of a dedicated practice of multimedia criticism.

Altered States; Psychotropic Visions and the digitally-corrupted gaze.

A word from the wise to the unwary: don’t ever go to trade fairs without a floor plan. The Interact Multimedia jamboree was predictably overwhelming, and orienteering without a map was not the way to go. When I finally located experimenta’s Altered States exhibition it was like happening upon a refreshing oasis of culture in that arid plain of corporate logos and disposable marketing kipple. I felt secure in that fortress of solitude where no-one was trying to sell you anything to polish your benchmark or economise your scales. It’s too easy to succumb to this kind of cynicism, and to do so actually detracts from the significance of experimenta’s achievement with Altered States . Multimedia art is still finding its public, and Altered States has successfully furthered this process with a succession of important exhibitions conducted and hosted over the last year (Burning the Interface, Cyberzone, Cyber Cultures). The issue of where to locate multimedia art is a contentious and ongoing one, and would-be critics of Altered States’ presence at Interact should exercise caution. It seems to me that no context should be left unexplored in the project of raising public awareness of, and familiarity with, multimedia art. experimenta’s decision to stage Altered States as part of Interact is to be applauded for this very reason. Altered States declared, by the very force of its presence, that multimedia art should be taken just as seriously as any other use of multimedia technology, and, moreover, indignantly declared that there is a thriving culture of multimedia art that people need to get up to speed with. This was cleverly suggested by Peter Hennessey’s design for the Altered States stand, which ingeniously mimicked the general exhibition principle of an attractive display. The assemblage of video and computer-based work as a contemplative circumference around the larger, unseen installations (concealed by heavy black curtains) surreptitiously guided you into a journey of discovery, transforming informania into curiosity.

Tactical appropriation did not stop there. Most of the software being touted by the corporate spin-doctors as pixelation for profit margins had been used for quite different purposes by the artists exhibiting in Altered States . Recognizing the cross-over between corporate and artistic contexts of use confronts us with the issue of the perverse. Any poetics of multimedia art has to incorporate an understanding of its perversity, its realignment of multimedia as an instrumental technology, a shift away from utility to a poetic process of organized violence. At one point I found myself trapped in a parallactic freeze-frame, seeing QuickTime VR promoted as a useful navigational device, and at the same time a portal to other worlds in Lindsay Colborne’s ludic The Pursuit of Happiness. I wondered if the purveyors of QTVR also noticed this. Given the unfortunate ambience of two different cultures within the temporary autonomous zone of Interact, I suspected that they probably had not. The good people of experimenta clearly had. Altered States’ subtitle (“Psychotropic Visions and the digitally-corrupted gaze”) promised a different way of seeing, its product of the month being perverse corrective lenses. In the context of Interact, then, Altered States was a tableau of disruptive interventions into the normative language of multimedia.

The lexicon of multimedia art as it currently stands was well represented in Altered States, and visitors to the exhibition were treated to one of the classics of the form—Jon McCormack’s Turbulence—as well as new works by established and emerging artists. Computer-generated animation was admirably represented in Peter Hennessey’s haunting surveillance installation pH7.2-Watchtower, Tina Gonsalves’ Alchemical Process of Becoming, Dorian Dowse’s awesome OmTipi, and PsyVision, the dynamic PsyHarmonics/Troy Innocent collaboration, probably the first example of digital fusion. Interactives, synonymous with multimedia art for many, revealed an interesting cross-section of degrees and kinds of user involvement. Rebecca Young’s Prozac-inspired allegory of sedation and aggression Are You Happy Yet? required minimal interactivity, yet had a few surprises up its sleeve. Naomi Herzog’s brooding anatomy of mind and memory, Mined Feelds, invited the user to work through a range of dungeon-like spaces, prompted by a macabre interface of severed heads. Lindsay Colborne’s road trip to Nirvana, The Pursuit of Happiness, Norie Neumark’s Shock in the Ear, and Mindflux’s reflexive laboratory of artificial life, Mutagen, were more beguiling works that required a higher degree of conceptual interactivity and the patient development of navigational strategies. Tim Gruchy’s cyberspace jam, Synthing, was the most fully developed example of an immersive environment. Synthing ingeniously converges the architecture of the intelligent, sensory space and the aleatory sound event. Get two or more people happening in there and you have an ensemble postmoderne. I never get tired of engaging with Jon McCormack’s monumental Turbulence, which seems more and more like an immersive experience with every welcome return. Memespace, Troy Innocent’s latest zone of otherness, is also a transitional work, which re-defines the interface in its use of a topographical bas-relief map, rather than the screen, as the nodal connection to his world.

While there was a strategic importance in exhibiting Altered States as part of Interact, there were also considerable drawbacks. The degree of ambient noise made it very difficult to really get involved with many of the works, particularly the terminal based interactives, and especially the ones that were new to me. Works like Turbulence were not given their best showing, as there was far too much light and unwanted noise. The absence of explanatory signage (which was used effectively in Burning the Interface) unfortunately compounded the confusion of newcomers to many of these works, who felt unclear about what (or why, in at least one instance) they should be doing.

These drawbacks aside, Altered States was an important initiative that will have at the very least succeeded in exposing several thousand people to the exceptional work being done by Australian artists in this form.

(Crack the) Binary Code, co-ordinated by Kevin Murray, Centre for Contemporary Photography

Altered States; Psychotropic Visions and the digitally-corrupted gaze, presented by experimenta media arts

Interact Asia Pacific Multimedia Festival, Melbourne Exhibition Centre Auditorium, October 30-November 2 1997

RealTime issue #22 Dec-Jan 1997 pg. 21

© Darren Tofts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1997