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State of the Art Paper

Stephanie Britton

When Kevin asked me if I thought there was a multimedia sublime I rashly said that I thought there was. I think it was on the strength of this that I was invited to take part in this discussion. Even since I have been in search mode trying to work out a) what the sublime is anyway, and b) if I knew what it was, how multimedia would fit the description.

The results of an internet search are not encouraging. I have found only 2 category and 48 site matches to the sublime, including the site of the Sublime Lodge of the Holy Blue Brethren and lots about a band called Sublime some of whose members used a bit too much of the stuff that they must have thought helped in their search for the sublime and consigned themselves, unhappily and terminally to another plane.

Searching my own brain the art historical index kept finding images of Von Guerard or George Caspar Freidrich, which I personally don't find in the least sublime in the sense of the departed band members, but encouragingly for this project, I also got some snatches of Peter Callas, Jon McCormack and Dan Zero together with Jeffrey Shaw, Christa Sommerer and Toshio Iwai. All this means to me is that the word, like most words, is a bit vague, but it seems oddly to be more apt in relation to some multimedia than it is to most other visual arts media which we see in galleries. I can't actually illustrate this here, because to do so we would need to look at some of these works, and discuss them, and in any case talking about sublime experiences in conference halls seems well somehow, unlikely, so I will have to leave this discussion for another time and place. In the meantime I am keen to share some thoughts about the place of multimedia in the art pantheon and how we can go about discussing its significance in the greater scheme of things.

The main difficulty that I see with multimedia is that I don't. I don't see enough of it. There are just not enough opportunities in Australia to see fully developed works using new and often very expensive technology and so far we do not have the backers that exist in Europe and America to fund individuals or groups on a long-term basis to develop works of sufficient complexity to convince the public and in turn other backers that this stuff is worth paying for. For our population Australian artists have a more than respectable record for creating opportunities for themselves in the digital arena, but the problem remains that until more people have experienced first hand some of the more intricate and fully developed interactive artworks there will not be a critical mass, only a mass of critics.

Currently the best resourced arenas for digital art are still those which are linked in various ways to the scientific world, such as the annual International Symposium for Electronic Art, which since its inception in 1982 has a following around the world. The exhibitions which accompany these meetings are rare showcases of new non-commercial digital art and it is in places like these that we get a preview of the scope of artistic interactivity where we are not tied to a desktop but are in a gallery or some other public space. Here for instance we might be simultaneously communicating via real scale images of ourselves with people in other locations, as in Telematic Visions by the American Paul Sermon or in another case, by being bodily connected to a sensory system we are engaged in creating artificial life systems which are both stimulating to watch and engrossing in terms of what they mean. I am thinking of a work by Christa Sommerer where data from the visitor's index finger is processed by a machine which translates it into instructions for creating creatures which swim and swirl in a sort of primordial soup on a screen. Closer to home we have seen Jon McCormack's work Turbulence tour a number of venues in various states. Many of you will know the work. Although it is nothing like a traditional piece of art the most skeptical museum directors can be persuaded that the work equates with Fred Williams - if you can drag them along to see it. The next challenge is getting them to show it, or heaven forbid, buy it. The works I have mentioned are easier for the art world to accept because they involve exhibition staging and real life interaction with visitors, a familar mode. But many of the most engaging are horrendously expensive to put on, and require experts to look after them.

If art critics are hung up about a lack of a suitable language, I would contend that there are already quite a number of explicit and easily understood terms which are found in critical writing about multimedia which are more or less specific to it. Our issue Arts in the Electronic Landscape published last year comprised about 60,000 words of which about 40,000 would have been directly addressing questions about the genre - questions of definition, intention and analysis.

As an editor I try to discourage writers from evaluating art, and encourage them to explain what the artists are trying to do, why they are trying to do this, and how they go about it. The language then becomes explanatory rather than making judgements and aims to help readers come to their own opinions. What were some of these words?

Flipping through this issue I find these descriptive or technical words used:

Plan the path, test the path, recognise patterns in image-routes, mutating, programming, rollovers, navigation, extension of the interface, browsing, rhizome, menu, temporal terrain, loop, genetic algorithms.

They equate to words like brushstroke, solidity, form, cross-hatched, impasto, intaglio, texture, rough, smooth, reflective, used to describe painting and sculpture.

Both groups of words are a specialist vocabulary and are totally meaningless if you have not studied the artwork, and learned the terms. Once you have struggled with a complex interface to a CD-Rom work you instantly know what the terms mean. Language emerges to fill the need.

I could quote a few of the authors: Juliet Peers on an exhibition at the NGV takes the web metaphor of surfing:

".. these artworks surf effortlessly, confidently, through a range of sensations from high art.. to popular culture..."

and further on in relation to the work by Czaba Szamosy Procumbere she notes the technique of digital layering:

" video installation and computer editing permits his juxtapositions to be layered even more densely and tighter than on canvas."

In the interview with Kurt Brereton, Australian artist Peter Callas adds a few more unusual terms - "decomposing images" and "pacing" He says of his work:

There are other readings of the tape that are more subtle in terms of pacing and the use of patterns, that are important to me, which are probably opaque to most people watching the works, but I always tried to create patterns that I felt, for me, had something to do with the culture, and the patterns always came out of decomposing those recognisable images.... I saw the patterns as representative of the culture and also the sense of pacing that you get when you are walking down the streets of say Tokyo and how it is different from Sydney.

On the topic of time Peter Callas has this to say.

"I feel that interactivity has the possibility to return us to the state where we are able to look at images in our own personal time. I think basically since the beginning of film the director and the editor have more or less controlled the amount of time people look at things and the pace of that looking has accelerated to a great extent. We don’t look at electronic images in the same way that we look at paintings because we don’t approach them with our own bodies in our own time but in a sense it is possible to do that with interactive images in that they can be recalled even though they are sequences. If there are moving images, they can be repeated and they can be recalled at will."

I think it is quite hard to describe and explain multimedia in words. But remember that it's not really any more difficult than trying to describe and explain painting.

In my own experience, a more common and relevant topic of discussion is whether an interactive artwork is worth interacting with. Most of us are aware that the time it takes to experience interactive art sets it well and truly apart from most pieces of painting and sculpture to which, we are told by the masters of the meter, gallery visitors devote an average of 10 seconds each. If we are to remain engaged by the work to the extent of spending half an hour or more interacting, it must offer both visual and intellectual stimulus and more than a small element of discovery. The most frequent complaint about multimedia is that it takes so long to experience and much of it can be terribly tedious.

Toshio Iwai's work Music Insects was seen at the MCA in Sydney last year as part of Phantasmagoria curated by Peter Callas and David Watson. It required a serious investment of visitor time, but from the responses of people this was not an issue. The work seemed to engage people on a number of levels.

To get an idea of how a person interacts with the work I will read Toshio Iwai's account of it first and then what the artist and writer Sally Pryor wrote about it in Artlink.

Toshio Iwai says :

These "music insects" as I call them, "react" to color dots on the screen. When they pass over such dots, they trigger musical scales, sounds, and different light patterns. The user selects colors from a palette with a track ball, and paints in their path, and the insects perform the colors when they pass over them. The insects' direction can be changed with certain colors, and colors can be painted to achieve less random musical "performances."

Sally Pryor wrote:

Not only is it playful, pleasurable (aurally and visually) and fun to interact with, but it also contains metaphors on many levels. The "insects" have many meanings - mobile computer CPUs (endlessly fetching and executing a series of simple commands in order to create a more complex whole), artificial life-forms or interface agents, the latest concept for the Human-Computer Interface. Additionally your picture is itself also a piece of writing, the notation of a musical score (Derrida, with his request for a return to ideographic or "double-valued writing", would love this).

Pryor mentions the fun element, which is another constant response, and in addition describes the action of the insects in terms of computer hardware and artificial life as well as invoking the god of postmodernism Derrida. This seems to be relatively straightforward - the artist's intention and the perception by the individual user seem to be fairly much in line.

However we get in slightly deeper water in another work by Toshio Iwai from 1994 Resonance of 4 which is described by the artist as follows:

"Resonance of 4 is an interactive audio-visual installation which allows four people to create one musical composition in cooperation with each other. In this installation, four players are given different tones with which they can compose their own melodies. Each person uses a mouse to place dots on four grid images projected onto the floor. My hope is that each player listens to the melodies which are being created by the other players, and then tries to change their own melody to make better harmony. In this way, the installation will not only generate a resonance of sounds, but will create a resonance of minds between the four players."

A "resonance of minds". Now here is perhaps a new critical term. But the question is from an art critical point of view how will we know if a resonance of minds has happened, or if the four people standing at the four podiums pointing and clicking are even hearing the sounds being created by the other three? And who is to decide what "harmony" consists of? Should there be a meter attached to the work which would register the level of interactivity which is happening?

Perhaps this is where the sublime has slipped back into the equation. For me the experience of playing this work/ playing with this work, was like a sort of sublime crossword. The brain is working to solve the technical demands of the feedback from the piece both from one's own actions and from those of the other players. This kind of thing requires a new skill, which the ordinary run of the mill art lover has not yet developed. We will doubtless get better at it given time and opportunity, and perhaps we will develop other machines which will monitor our experiences, so that words will no longer be needed.

Stephanie Britton 1997

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