Review by Daniel Palmer for Flash Magazine, January 1998

A symposium is a technique of civil agreement. Since Plato's account of a dinner party dialogue on the theme of love it has been conceived as a temporary site where diverse individuals come together in a struggle to find a common language in which to communicate a plurality of positions on a particular subject, and hopefully leave with fresh understandings and new ways of thinking. A symposium is always an open experiment.

The one day symposium (Crack the) Binary Code aimed to 'put the big aesthetic questions to' and 'appraise the cultural worth of multi-media', simultaneously to find its appropriate critical language and interrogate its critical (under)representation in traditional art forums. Worthy and ambitious aims indeed, towards which the organiser, Kevin Murray, worked hard to enable communication—even constructing a rudimentary pin-up board as a primitive substitute for the computer notice-board. But, of course, it was the speakers who finally determined the shape of the day. Presumably based on his own predilection, and also perhaps because it was the first of its kind in Melbourne, Murray assembled an enormously diverse group of 'cultural gatekeepers'—writers, editors, artists, critics, reviewers, theorists and curators—working between traditional and multi-media. Such a multiplicity of perspectives, combined with the immensity of the issues, ran the risk of leading to a day characterised by a series of bizarre non-encounters. What was the problem supposedly held in common? For that matter, what is multimedia (a term which seems to encompasses many things)? In general, at Binary Code, it meant multimedia art—creative work utilising computers (CD ROMS and the Internet) to produce hypertext narratives and/or virtual visual worlds.

An opening address by Senator Richard Alston (Federal Minister for Communication and the Arts) lent the day an atmosphere of legitimacy. Multimedia is certainly good business for the national economy and multimedia art a healthy and harmless supplement (training, innovation) to more commercial applications. But addressed as a 'citizen,' I doubt I was alone in feeling slightly uncomfortable as Alston breezily questioned the contemporary status of Georges Braque's comment that 'art is meant to disturb, science to reassure'. As it turned out, the quote was highly pertinent (and might alone provide the subject of many conferences). But does art and science's hybrid meeting in multimedia art deliver a fresh nail in the coffin of the historical avant garde's autonomous critical function, or simply expose their previously disavowed intertwining?

Murray, in a witty opening gambit, poetically naturalised technology, speaking gently and warmly to the bugs that were likely to visit us during the day, and with this, the first of four thematised sessions was under way—on multimedia as an 'add-on' to traditional art forms. This first session might have been better titled 'the future of literary narratives.' It did however establish what most agreed was the really distinctive quality of computer art: interactivity.

In the second session, the visiting American architectural theorist Bill Mitchell gave a polished paper (despite having been written on the plane) reading from his laptop on the lectern (commenting on its poor design for this purpose). After describing the ongoing process of 'gardening the weeds' of old hypertext links on the website of his City of Bits project, his fascinating show 'n' tell paper on his Palladio Virtual Museum project culminated in the display of a palm-sized plastic house that some new printers can apparently now spit out. Virtually impressive, yes, but it has to be said: design is not the whole story. Will home computers ever produce houses for living in? I had a similar response to multimedia reviewer Steve Polak, who spoke enthusiastically about a variety of games. It certainly looked like fun, but the underlying logic was childish: 'Look at how fantastic the visuals are—it must be art!' Is this the close textual reading of a computer literate age? That the game was an emancipatory narrative—a worker-slave coordinating mass escape from an oppressive meat-packing factory—seemed to go unnoticed in the artless celebration of mouse-screen interactivity.

It was left to Dutch media-theorist and 'net-activist', Geert Lovink, to sober the excesses of technophilia. His talk was light on images (these he saved for his talk at ACCA a few days later), but heavy on ideas. In a slow northern European drone, unfashionable questions of political economy at last entered the picture. Against what he called the 'virtual elite' that wants to leave the dirty everyday world behind, he spoke—based on his own experiments in 'Dutch pragmatism'—of the crucial issues of access to and quality of information on the net, in practical terms of public terminals and server providers. Lovink's concern 'to reconnect the virtual to the real' and his introduction of the 'space of the public' as opposed to the conventional mass-elite distinction brought the neglected 'public sphere' back on the table, in a manner reminiscent of McKenzie Wark's recent work on the media.

The final session of the day marked a shift to the language of visual art criticism, and as is the way with such events, the audience seized its last opportunity to join in the discussion. However, Stephen Feneley (chairing the session) did his level best to monopolise the discussion for the cameras of the ABC TV's Express program by effectively reducing the debate to the redundant question: is multi-media art? His luddite position was only made more ridiculous by the staging of his own technological event: with TV cameras trained on him, he performed for his regular viewers (and his producer, who he had apparently had to convince to cover the event). This temporal displacement notwithstanding, the paying crowd wanted debate now. So in the breaths between his calculated and frankly dogmatic posing, some impassioned responses came from the floor—including one curious call for the development, in the context of corporate sponsorship, of multimedia art's 'symbiotic relationship with transnational capital.' Meanwhile, also on this panel, Shiralee Saul, the curator of the 'Altered States' exhibition—a creative oasis in the trade oriented Interact Multimedia Festival downstairs—admirably defended multimedia art against Feneley's elitist connoisseurship. Her point—'Does art deserve to be revitalised by multimedia?'—cut through the entire day's proceedings. As she elaborates in Experimenta's recent publication Mesh #11, 'With any sort of luck the traditional roles of art (artifactual, class-based distribution, contemplative, single direction communication from artist to beholder) are being jeopardised by productions which are (potentially if not always actually) immaterial, multi-directional, active, and infinitely reproducible and therefore democratically distributable.’

Something of a generational divide seemed to be at work in this last session too. But by now it was getting late and, just as the young blood was beginning to surge, symposing had to end. Scraps of paper left by the pin-up board indicated a combined sense of appreciation and frustration. True, much of the discussion trod over well worn territory. And close analysis of specific multimedia art itself was rather thin. Also, with few exceptions, I would have appreciated more reflexivity from the speakers (in this sense, I found it highly refreshing—if necessarily awkward—to hear Kevin Murray read a statement representing indigenous Australians in view of their constitutive lack of actual presence at the symposium). Multimedia may appear more democratic than traditional art—and this seemed to be the assumption running through the conference—but we are still currently speaking about a minority of producers who possess the specific forms of cultural and/or economic capital (it is no secret that the Internet community, for example, despite its continued spread, is still overwhelmingly dominated by its corporate and academic networks). Multimedia art does not just appear out of nowhere. Hence the continued importance of questioning forms of institutionalisation of aesthetic practices, such as how cultural gatekeepers understand the new digitalised artscape. That one of multimedia's defining features is that it is not pure suggests to me that its critical dialogue needs to be similarly agile without being flighty in its tracing of various sociotechnological networks—remaining sceptical as well as affirmative.

To end a review with the clichŽd 'and yet' or 'that said' is in this case a necessary trope. Symposiums are always a start in the direction of more public conversation, offering occasional glimpses of the problems at stake, and like the best of them, this one raised many more questions than it approximated answers (including many in papers I haven't mentioned here). Kevin Murray, CCP, and everyone else involved with the event are to be congratulated for opening a space in the ongoing process of critically retooling multimedia practices.