Review by Kylie Message for Flash Magazine, January 1998

Darling don't speak with your mouth full:
(Biting into the) Binary Code

Opening discussion into the ways in which multimedia practices fit into current aesthetic vocabularies, (Crack the) Binary Code immediately established itself as something of a hot potato. As this core theme was chewed over, the irony of talking about ways of talking did not seem to be lost on those present. Indeed, the conference structure itself, as well as the topic under discussion, made it possible for one to perceive this attempt at cracking the code to be more akin to the disseminating process of sampling, biting, ingesting and even regurgitating.

The conference established a number of main issues to be explored: the relationship of multimedia to discourses of artistic practice, the question of access, and the interactive impulse of multimedia so potentially disruptive to canonised ways of speaking. This latter debate provides more than simply a broadening of spectatorial participation. It directs focus not only toward ways of speaking but toward ways of seeing, and the ways, wheres, and hows of displaying art. Indeed, throughout the conference, questions of access were a recurring concern. It was recognised that this issue is not exclusive to multimedia—that it informs already functioning aesthetic categories.

The attempt to find a place for multimedia within such categories seems misplaced. It may also be unnecessary to declare absolute otherness from these extant tropes. (Crack the) Binary Code successfully explored the notion that multimedia need not mould itself into either pole, but may in fact gain most through a potential to negotiate between these active discursive spaces. By speaking it’s liminal status, both physically and discursively, multimedia may discover that it does not need to reside within the contained space of any single definition. Neither however does it need to be externalised and stigmatised in the computer pages of The Australian. It should be spoken of in terms of its non-constant status. This is what compels. Spectator-participants engage with its liminal, non-dualistic forms of absence and presence.

Likewise, the various presentations delivered by the conference speakers established Binary Code as a space of negotiation. Like Hansel and Gretel, each speaker projected a voice that left bread crumbs, stones or other fragments to be picked up, consumed or rejected by those attending. When combined, these bits did not contribute to a seamless, plot driven narrative. They suggested that this space of discussion resembled an open-ended and non-linear process of storytelling.

Despite invocations to identify and explode the difference between ‘Art’ and multimedia, Binary Code emerged to be less a competition between good and bad forces than an exercise in pathfinding; an insight or bite into the space of the looking-glass. While it may be observed that Stephen Feneley played the role of the evil stepmother, the privileged and singular identity of Snow White was notably absent. She took the role of a more multiple Alice—transforming as she travelled through the discursive morsels on offer. Partaking of the cake she became bigger, drinking from the bottle she reduced in scale. Eating the poisoned apple would have killed her. But the Snow White Alice presented here was no character. Indeed, she was not a single traveller with a determined endpoint or mapped trajectory.

Snow White Alice is not simply the sublime and objectified content of an aesthetic discourse. Nor is she the content ‘beyond’ the space of the multimedia viewing apparatus. She is both the medium and the content. In fairytale terms, she is the story. In multimedia terms, she is at once terminal, screen (or viewing apparatus) and content. Acknowledging this may provide multimedia discourse a means of negotiating through the object-focussed discussions of the aesthete. While multimedia may be the third term of which Geert Lovink dreams, it may also, and perhaps more simply, suggest the possibility of new modes of navigation through extant speech tropes. Speaking through medium as well as content, multimedia is akin to a fairytale. It affects not only through what is said, but also through the formula, the way in which it speaks.

Appropriately then, this conference became an exercise that challenged linear modes of pathfinding. This was exemplified by the diversity of discussion and the creative examples and applications explored by Peter Hennessey, Justine Humphries and Bill Mitchell. Indeed, many of the speakers took as their object a movement through the fairytale-like ‘beyond’ of cyberspace. The movement into this space was addressed by Michael Hill when he spoke of the moments of everyday distraction which are carried into many multimedia projects. The conference also addressed concerns of access. Access is certainly a very real issue, but in terms of spectatorial engagement, so too is exit. While Alice emerged from the rabbit hole with memories of her dreams, Bill Mitchell’s cyber-travel was completed with a three dimensional yellow plastic souvenir of his architectural fact-finding tour of a virtual past.

All this translates suitably into the fictional realm of dungeons and dragons and the space of the game, film and literature, as explored by Justine Humphries, Angela Ndalianis and Steve Polak. We may emerge from our interactive or immersive experiences being fluent in the ways and languages of another space, or with souvenirs. These outcomes may be real or imagined, and whether our travels to Mars or through labyrinths or elsewhere are inspired by a desire for information or curiosity and play, they remain compelling. As such, it becomes clear that in speaking multimedia, the impulse to resort to storytelling strategies is strong. The ‘beyond’ that is engaged through the computer screen or looking-glass can be seen to continue the trajectory of a fantasy-tale formula. As spectators, we are seduced via this movement beyond the physical space we occupy. While this discourse of appropriation is certainly problematic, it is also vastly enabling.

Through discussing the sublime, Binary Code presenters, such as Stephanie Britton, reminded us of the functioning states of presence, absence, and the in-between. In speaking of everyday distraction, Hill allowed an understanding of the cyberspatial ‘beyond’ as a prolonged in-between that needs to be spoken. Peter Hennessey also invoked the ability to speak this space, through a presentation of his recent work. It was becoming clear that multimedia need not be spoken through the singular and privileged discourse of ‘Art’, but that it constructs its own place in language. This hybrid speak twists and tweaks existing terminology into new forms. As such, words may say something else and this ‘something else’ may be effective in opening up the space of multimedia—a space that is physical, imagined and discursive.

Development of this space is enabling because it allows for presence. While Britton expressed doubt in regard to the notion of a postmodern sublime, this concept may indeed hold value for multimedia spaces. As a fundamentally ambivalent term, the sublime appeals precisely because it cannot be spoken. Rather than attesting to non-existence however, the sublime holds a greater sense of presence—a presence more possible because not ‘real’. The sublime exists within the realm of metanarrative, operating in-between the two privileged terms of good and bad. In the act of being uncovered, the sublime object (truth, or single ‘proper’ word) is obscured. Thus, rather than pushing and pulling multimedia, making it fit into existing discourse, general conference opinion privileged the option of letting it speak through and on its own terms.

The sublime functions precisely because it escapes inclusion within dominant modes of speech. It may be spoken or addressed, but it does not come into existence through this speech. It is affective precisely because it resides within a space of slippage. It does not require its own language. Rather, it compels because of this uncertain status. Rather than desiring a delineated space, multimedia may prove more effective if it remains unsteady, within a non-space of negotiation, blurring distinctions between author and reader.

Language, access, and second order questions of affectivity were asked by Binary Code. No answers leaped forth, but in nibbling a variety of biscuits during morning tea, it may have been recognised by many that fragmentation and dissemination are in fact something of which to speak. Following the stone markers of language may provide enlightenment on ways in which to travel, but if the markers are crumbs that have been enjoyed by other consuming spectators, then a new manner of negotiating must be explored. At the end of the long day’s proceedings the Binary Code may have remained intact. However, the bites taken out for display and discussion contributed to the exploration and negotiation of both multimedia itself and the space of multimedia within dominant linguistic and aesthetic structures. If indeed, the binary code was even mildly dented, attempts to bite into it surely resulted in many people cracking their teeth.



1. J.F. Courtine, M. Deguy, E. Escoubas,, Of the Sublime: Presence in Question, trans. J.S. Librett, State University of New York Press, New York, 1993.

2. J.F. Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. G. Bennington & R. Bowlby, Stanford University Press, California, 1991.