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'The world of art on CD-ROM' Art on View Spring 3: 32-35 (1995)

The most direct way a CD-ROM producer can construct a digital museum is to incorporate a map of the original building. Le Louvre: The Palace And Its Paintings (Electronic Arts) provides home visitors with remote access to this famous tourist site. As well as menus for individual artists, Le Louvre presents its selection of works according to their position in the actual galleries where they hang. The hyperlinked field for each work includes not only brief biographies of the artists and spatial analyses of composition, but also reference to neighbouring works, and even a scaled measure of the work's size in proportion to the body of an average visitor.

Most audio commentaries in Le Louvre offer praise for artistic value the compliment of `refinement' figures often. This commentary is delivered with an English accent, though Le Louvre was co-produced by Montparnasse Multimedia and Réunion de Musées Nationaux. With comparable French confidence, ex-film-maker Guy Casaril has produced a series of multimedia triptychs which group together a painter, author and musician. The recent Battle Against the Shadows (Ozilink), for instance, blends Mattisse, Prokoviev and Aragon into a romantic narrative of art and war. This series from Arborescence offers syntheses of cultural works removed completely from their location in museums.

The very first art museum on CD-ROM was somewhere between a virtual tour and multimedia narrative. Microsoft's Art Gallery features the National Gallery of London collection of paintings. Perhaps because the English museum is less identifiable than the Louvre, no reference is provided for the position of works within the gallery. Viewers instead have a dense field of links including themes, subjects, artists, country, and time. The four guided tours adhere strictly to their theme, which involve technical matters of composition and conservation. With English practicality, Art Gallery puts information before experience.

And the colonies? Though Australia has yet to put a national collection on CD-ROM (and may well choose never to do so), it has produced a multimedia art catalogue. Conrad Martens: Life and Art (produced by Monitor) first accompanied an exhibition of works at the NSW Mitchell Library and is now available for private purchase. The field of links for each work in includes an online catalogue essay, biography and Martens' own journal. In addition, there is a full text of a lecture delivered by Martens, accompanied by an audio recitation with the original handwritten version on screen. Subtitled, `An interactive journey into the world of Australia's leading colonial artist', the CD-ROM signals a change of emphasis in exhibition design: from a traditional static display which lays out works in one glance, to a journey through which an artist's career is gradually revealed with surprise and even suspense. While Conrad Martens is limited to one conservative artist's life, it does promise a more contextualised approach in art publications.

When the subject is indigenous culture, the navigation map is more geographic than architectural. Take the new Microsoft title, 500 Nations, which is a `domesticated' television series about the history of American Indian civilisation. In the welcome sequence, Kevin Costner refers to this modern technology as a way of `returning to the fire circle...to bring the past alive'. As with many other titles in the Microsoft Home range, the assertion of American culture is subtly persistent. Costner proudly introduces `our own story...which is worth talking about' as much as the classical civilisations of Greece, Rome, Egypt and China. With nostalgia for the anti-clerical Puritan roots of modern America, pre-invasion Indian cultures are pictured as being without need of a church, since their god inhabits the world around them, in the rocks and trees.

Though lacking in detail, 500 Nations offers intriguing glimpses of native American arts and crafts, including the Pueblo pots and the story of the turquoise road established through the Choco Canyon by the Anasazi. It also exploits the possibilities of its medium to include sounds, such as Innuit throat singing, and a walkthrough of digitally reconstructed architecture, such as the ancient Mayan city of Palenque.

These treasures are framed in the story of a thriving continent of native culturesat one with naturewho were brutally ravaged by unscrupulous Spanish and English soldiers. Their descendants live on today attempting to continue the traditions of their ancestors. The narrative framework for 500 Nations is indeed anti-museumin a `wholesome' kind of way. It dwells more on the stories of individual lives than relics of lost civilisations. This humanistic tenor makes it difficult to experience these cultures outside beyond their melodramatic struggle against evils.

Though indigenous culture plays a predominant role in the Australian home museum, here post-colonial narrative relates more directly to the external politics of multimedia production than the stories which are contained within. The official aim of Aboriginal culture on CD-ROM is to make colonial collections accessible to their original owners. For instance, Punu (Artefacts and Culture of Pitjantjatjara and Yanhuntjatjara) currently being developed by the Museum of South Australia, is designed to provide the north-west desert Aboriginals with a record of objects which the museum holds on their behalf. According to the project officer, Mark Judd, the title `punu' was chosen because `object made from wood' was the native word closest to the Western notion of `artefact'. Punu will contain images of objects in their collection, capable of three-dimensional rotation as well as archival footage from the 1930s by Normal Tindale. To restrict access, Judd is considering the possibility of masking some of their sensitive material with a password.

With a similar aim in mind, the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia is currently digitising its Maningrida collection. According to acting manager Laurie Richardson, the Maningrida people feel comfortable with electronic versions of their artefacts and have both the hard- and software to read them. Networthy World Wide Web travellers will no doubt have visited the Arnhem land sites. The Maningrida Arts and Culture Centre (http://www.peg.apc.org/~bawinanga/welcome.html) provides images of work for sale, including bark paintings and baskets for customers around the world.

Though with a non-aboriginal audience in mind, the Australian National Gallery CD-ROM of their Arnhem land collection aims to sensitively evoke the stories from which their art emerged. Patterns of Power is based on a chapter from Wally Caruana's Thames & Hudson book Aboriginal Art. As well as standard links to author and subject, the field for works includes regional dreaming stories, such as the honey ant story. Works which involve craft skills like weaving are supported by video footage with subtitles.

While coordinating the multimedia authors (Learning Curve) and gallery staff, ANG's Peter Nauman is at pains to involve the Yolngu people in the enterprise. For instance, because `Rom' means `law' in the Arnhem land cultures, they call their product an `electronic book' rather than `CD-ROM'. A prototype of this `electronic book' was recently presented to the Yolngu community with positive response. Ironically, though, the ANG representatives were asked from those impressed by the medium whether they could place their own sacred stories on CD-ROM for safekeeping. The use of encryption and passwords will ensure that this material is protected from unauthorised dissemination.

The proposed purpose of this indigenous use of CD-ROM is precisely the opposite to its Western use: they aim to restrict rather than spread information. To the romantic Westerner, this request finds multimedia back in the embrace of traditional archival practices such as the tjuringa, the flat wooden disc on which markings of dreaming stories are kept. Here is a magical compromise between the stock of materials kept by museums and the simple tribal object which has traditionally been used as a home for histories. In Werner Herzog's film Where the Green Ants Dream, Aboriginal elders demand a Caribou transport plane from the mining company because it corresponds to a moment in their dreaming about a flying ant. The idea that high technology is so readily commandeered by traditional peoples has a particular appeal perhaps partly because it legitimates technological progress.

Continuing the presentation of indigenous culture for general audiences, one of the five titles recently granted funding by Creative Nation is MOODITJ: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts. MOODITJ (`excellent) includes not simply visual arts and craft, but also dance, drama and music. Emerging from a consortium which includes the WA Development Unit for Instructional Technology, it claims to highlight `the fact that the underlying spirit of this art derives from the beliefs and practices of traditional indigenous culture'. It is this phrase `traditional indigenous culture' which characterises the current practice of multimedia. While it seeks to celebrate indigenous culture, it does so by separating that culture from mainstream Australia. In other words, `they are wonderful because they have none of our modern problems.' This emphasis on `traditional' implicitly excludes the very urban Koori works which play such an integral part in contemporary Australian art.

For both cultural and technical reasons, CD-ROM seems most sympathetic to those cultural institutions whose mission includes maintenance of an archive. The Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Australia (AIATSIS) produced by Kim McKenzie is a good example of the wealth of material normally stored in the basement, such as film footage of Aboriginal dance dating back to the late nineteenth century. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, the BBC series of Shakespeare CD-ROMs (Double Impact) such as Romeo and Juliet contains not only classic dramatic productions but ancillary interviews by figures such as Germaine Greer. To that extent, CD-ROM offers viewers the range of historical material from which curators and editors normally make selections for exhibition. It is this broad palette which provides virtual visitors with the sense of adventure normally felt in the preparation of a museum display.

What's left of the museum?

With so much attention given to museum collections packaged for the home, we may well speculate that museums of the future will be deserted tombs, whose relics are occasionally dusted off for an occasional digital upgrade into a new programming format. Does multimedia supersede the object? If you take a dialectic, or even Buddhist perspective, you might speculate that multimedia has precisely the opposite effect. Though it is too early to determine whether or not this is so, the Museum of Sydney is early testimony to the possibility that `opposites attract'.

The Museum of Sydney is worth visiting not only for the historical detail but for the delicate balance between abstract and concrete displays. Using the Montreal artist Luc Courchesne's seamless technique of Perspex projection, the space is filled with stories of the individual lives that once inhabited colonial Sydney. The Bond Store entices its visitors into a subtle series of manoeuvres as visitors trigger infra-red detectors that set off virtual storytellers (no clicking allowed). In the same room as this elegant technology are a number of large iron chains hanging from the ceiling. Visitors are free to handle these, testing their weight and recognising the very material substance that made up life of previous generations.

In celebrating the anecdotal corners of history, this museum avoids the linear assumptions of the traditional display cabinet. Objects are freed to project their own aura, notable particularly in the sturdy sandstone boundary marker that stands next to the intricately narratable objects in Narelle Jubelin drawers. Such features make the Museum of Sydney a fascinating experiment. It shows the possibility that the negation of the material world in screen technologies might in fact lead to a rediscovery of the things themselves.

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One of the critical issues to emerge from the current honeymoon of new media technologies is a sharp division between two contrary attitudes to the past. The past is revealed either as a lost unity (indigenous culture on CD-ROM) or a fragmented world (Museum of Sydney). In a way, they are both part of the same project. Towards indigenous cultures, the project is to recover universal themes that unite people. And for those with previously exclusive historical mission (i.e., the moderns), there is a new understanding of the random, chance elements which determine events.

If it is a matter of `bending the stick the other way', then we may see odd remissions: a tribal culture with its own misrecognitions and nostalgia, or modern culture possessed of a hidden spirit. We can only imagine what kind of media might contain that message on the other side of the millennium. CD-ROMs made from lacquered oak?