Review by Darren Toffs for RealTime December 1997 Two Cultures Revisited

Multi-media’s status as art, and its relationship with extant art forms, were the main items on the agenda at Binary Code. Its principle focus was to bring these two spheres together, and redress the biases which still see reviews of CDROM 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 multi-media 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 multi-media was "largely lost" on him. Multi-media 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 William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Hawker explored the convergent nature of the relationships forming between literary, filmic and multi-media practices, noting, with exemplary admonition, that there are many similarities and differences between the experience of literature, film and multi-media. It was just this ambivalence that was needed to crack the binary code.


Crossing the Great Divide

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 multi-media art. Hill recalled an on-line 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 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.


We Are Hybrids

Ambivalence also exerted a force in the discussion of multi-media 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 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 multi-media 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 multi-media 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, Stephen Feneley admirably played the role of sceptical 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 multi-media 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 multi-media 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 CDROM art. The key for Leggett, as with Britton and Lovink, was the dissemination of multi-media 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 multi-media art.

Is multi-media art part of the historical tradition of poiesis, or aesthetic making, or is it an aberrant technological cool, undeserving of artistic value? 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 multi-media?"

For a different type of audience Binary Code would have been a solid and informative introduction to the key issues in the multi-media 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 CCP have maintained an important public dialogue concerning multi-media art. In this they achieved one of their key themes, namely, the consolidation of a dedicated practice of multi-media criticism.