McLuhan Meets his Doom



McLuhan meets his doom Mesh Autumn 1995, 5: 8-10

Report on the Narrative and Interactivity Conference

In 1745 the College of St Côme introduced for the first time a dissection room into the realm of medical learning. It was a tense affair. Invitations to the inauguration ceremony invitation prohibited swords and canes. The fear at the time was that older students would attack the surgeons who dared enter their noble college of physicians. Special benches had to be put in place, patrolled by police, to keep the manual and intellectual spheres of medicine separate. It's difficult today to conceive the disdain then held towards those who practiced the messy business of cutting up bodies.

While invitations to Australia Film Commission's Narrative and Interactivity conference at ABC studios did not forbid swords and canes, there was a similar sense of confrontation. An established tone for a conference such as this is the management of culture towards some commonly agreed `good', such as social justice or formal innovation. Into this conversation burst the pleasure-seekers, though they wielded joysticks rather than scalpels. Those seeking some kind of revelation from multimedia were forced to deal with arcade gamesters, backed by Hollywood contracts. It was a confrontation that set out some serious challenges for the new medium.

`Go for it', as the Americans say...

On the Dionysian side were Hollywood, cyberfeminists and the boys from Beam software. Jonathon Delacour began with a `power' talk featuring a programmed computer display. His call for the narrative power of conflict and character was illustrated by sequences from films such as Silence of the Lambs and Aliens II. Each of them celebrated violence by women against men. Blood and guts was made more palatable to liberal sensitivities by removing it from the grasp of men and allaying it with a popular `Thelma and Louise' style feminism.

Linda Dement's talk took this kind of violence to a more radical limit. There was something quite refreshing in the way she situated her surreal corporeality in the everyday concerns of a struggling artist--serving customers in a café with daydreams of mass murder. It was a long way from the mass hysteria of Hollywood. Dement introduced her recent work of scanned women's body parts, Cyberflesh Girlmonster, by placing it within a familiar tale of self-directed artistic development rather than the more sensational apocalyptic scenario. The daily urban therapies of browsing, searching, and shopping were offered as paradigms for interactive multimedia.

The converse to this homeliness was Christopher Vogler's tried and true recipe for narrative success in Hollywood. This Disney story consultant held up Joseph Campbell's analysis of the universal hero myth as a key to successful plot structure. Grounding this in the `hard-wired' patterns in human consciousness, Vogler's talk employed a typically American universalism. There was little account of how the introduction of active readers in narrative might affect the heroic emotions of standard dramas. Nor was there an account of the various subgenres of his romantic narrative, such as comedy, tragedy and satire.

The off-Hollywood proponents of action multimedia were drawn from the local company, Beam Software. Mark Morrison was the most engaging of these, especially his homage to Raymond Chandler in the development of an interactive detective mystery, The Dame was Loaded. The extra work required in scripting multimedia, where all possibilities are included, was dramatically demonstrated by the huge reams of paper which he deposited on the stage.

His colleague at Beam, David Cox, presented a much less appealing defence of arcade games. Drawing cockily on the economic boom in computer games, Cox heralded the demise of linear narrative and the ascendancy of more action-oriented interfaces, such as found in Time Zone arcades. Cox's buccaneer performance drew the ire of writers like Ian McFaddyen, whose voice emerged in the forum as a champion for the social uses of multimedia.

`...but on the other hand', as Germans like to say

In this highly charged atmosphere, those who bore any trace of craft offered welcome sanctuary. For me Grahame Weinbren's was the most thoughtful of these. It was refreshing to hear someone for whom multimedia was not a new toy: Weinbren's experiments with the interactive potential of cinema revealed a continuity with more recent technologies. This was particularly the case with his development of nonlinear storylines. What he showed of his Erl King installation indicated how multimedia might draw together incommensurate layers of experience with a musical thread. Schubert's music for Goethe's poem gave the different levels of consciousness a dreamlike coherence. In this regard, Weinbren's allusion to Freud's dream analyses was a revelation in thinking about multimedia. The strategies of condensation and displacement provide a context that is far more meaningful than the cant of user-friendliness. The dream gives nonlinearity more significance than simply freedom of choice--it draws correspondence with the creative patterns of consciousness, where thought, once it is let loose, circles around a point rather than rushes ahead.

His piece on Leo Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata made a similar parallel, this time with the use of multiple points of view in the modern novel. Wienbren suggested that future projects might draw on the details of a day, obsessively transcribed by the members of the Tolstoy home. It was quite a welcome alternative to the mindless adrenalin spikes dispensed in arcades. Wienbren was, in a fanciful way, our John the Baptist, heralding a future James Joyce for multimedia.

...and as we used to say

The major social use offered for multimedia was the recovery of oral forms of consciousness. As a walking demonstration of this possibility, Ross Gibson eschewed gadgets and spoke directly from the stage. His recurring expression of `sidling' up to various themes was one index of his preoccupation with the juxtaposition of meanings. The forthcoming Museum of Sydney was previewed as a forum for the bardic traditions of story-telling, where meaning was the object of `haggle' between teller and audience rather than `a monolithic mainstream understanding'. Voices dwell in virtual narrators whose stories are prompted by the presence of visitors to their space. It was new technology for recovering meanings that had been streamrolled by centralised knowledges.

The session on Indigenous Media extended the strategy of cultural retrieval to those for whom is it of political urgency. Djon Mundine disarmed his audience by recounting ways the Ramangining communities had easefully assimilated communication technology. This ranged from smaller scale uses of radio to broadcast individual grievances to video-conferencing between remote communities. For Mundine, multimedia offers the opportunity of gathering information in ways that counter the stillness of books and pictures. The use of stories, dance and song provides ways of representing cultural values in forms more attuned to the rhythms of the communities from which they come.

Here was a rich vein of thought suggested by the conference. When so much of media technology is heralded purely for its instrumental facilities, it is refreshing to see the kind of utopian expectations created in Marshall McLuhan's writing return again to invigorate these interactive texts. In a time when spatial conquests no longer serve as goals for collective identity (excepting the historical fault lines separating Europe and Asia) multimedia seems well disposed to rediscover the communal rhythms as they might structure the stories we tell about ourselves.

There were other spectacles on the sidelines of this battle between elders and young bucks. Josophia Grieve's moospace project on Giordano Bruno was full of promise before it dissipated into clubland rendezvous. As much as anything, the Narrative and Interactivity conference stimulated the appetite for a more extended canvas of concerns. What it failed to address, for instance, was the consumerist ideology that spatialises CD-ROM as a journey backstage to the decision-making process of cultural products. Peter Gabriel's Explora CD-ROM, which offers players the opportunity of re-mixing his music, is a case in point. These may well appear to be advertising ploys that offer mock power to the great mass of consumerism, and for this they require sustained critical attention. The boys at Beam would no doubt see this as a denial of popular enjoyment, but who says we have to be satisfied with things as they are.

It was a shame with the emphasis on storytelling that there was no sanguine academic voice to lay out a structural framework for narrative. We were presented with either the monolithic hero story or the heteroglossia of disparate voices. The terrain in between, including comedy, satire and tragedy, was left largely unexplored. The field of narratology has also included study of nonlinear devices, such as analepsis and prolepsis, which exist already as a vocabulary for dealing with the possibilities of messing around with time. Certainly there's reason here for adding fresh work to the school of formalism established by Russians--say Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the artistic chronotope as a handle on the way genres of the novel manage to `thicken' time.

What might follow the conference was suggested in the CD-ROMs made available to participants. John Collette's 30 Words for the City highlights the need for a vocabulary that deals with the `feel' of multimedia--how this new medium might serve as a `grindstone for the senses' in Maholy Nagy's vision for cinema in the 1930s. As art critics are sensitive to the different effects of oil and acrylic paint, it is just as timely now to consider the material effects of alternative platforms, such as Macintosh and PCs. Koichi Mori and Stephen Suloway's The Cosmology of Kyoto provided an alternative context for gameplaying to the very instrumental problems set by a CD-ROM such as Myst. Here the player must try to deal with the mutually exclusive goals of material accumulation and trust, the money or the karma, in directing their actions. Suddenly, multimedia offers an exercise not only of index fingers and mensa brains, but ethical sensibilities.

In looking back on this first bloom of multimedia enthusiasm, we might consider the lessons of history. Returning to our opening scenario in the Ancien Regime medical school, we should restrain our theoretical abjection at the surgeon wielding her knife over cyberflesh. As medicine gained from the inclusion of surgery, so media experimentalists should hope to draw from the popularity of CD-ROMs as new reason for their existence, both with the knowledge gained and the role they now have to guide the knife to more productive uses. Cut.