Mouse: Where is Thy Sting?



'Mouse, where is thy sting? Burning the Interface Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (1996)

With beat of systole and of diastole
One grand great light throbs through earth's giant heart,
And mighty waves of single Being roll
From nerve-less germ to man, for we are part
Of every rock and bird and beast and hill,
One with the things that prey on us, and one with what we kill.

from Oscar Wilde's Panthea


What is this before me: a pop-up toaster or an oracle? One of the critical issues in new media is whether the computer can be more than a labour-saving device: the advantages of storage and efficiency heralded in this evolving technology seem merely to accelerate the same rather than promise new insights. In opposition to the pragmatic view of the future, a late futurist like Stephen Holtzman in Digital Mantras can pose the challenge: `What means of expression are idiomatic to computers?' This certainly is a question worth asking if the experience of CD-ROM is to evoke anything more than exclamations at technological marvelsevident whenever we find the word `cool' emanating from our lips.

How do we go beyond `cool'?

Part of the adventure in belonging to a modern world is its continual re-fashioning of being. The intense focus of enlightenment culture creates in its wake a swathe of experiential waste awaiting theoretical recycling. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, Sigmund Freud's American lecture tours enfranchised an entire realm of human foibles exiled from reason: dreams, slips of the tongue and jokes were re-admitted to the congress of sense. More recently, the school of thought known as chaos theory applied this interest to the sidelines of the natural world. Those phenomena left at the door of science because of their irregular appearance were now given special entry rights. Curls of smoke, turbulence and fibrillation could for the first time be taken as seriously as Freud did verbal malapropisms.

Recall the moment when chaos theory entered the world. James Gleick's popularised account of this theory featured vignettes which married statements from new practitioners with natural phenomena. In his profile of Mitchell Feigenbaum, Gleick frames the mathematician's comments about the art of science with a reflection on their incidental theatre:

`Somehow the wondrous promise of the earth is that there are things beautiful in it, things wondrous and alluring, and by virtue of your trade you want to understand them.' He put the cigarette down. Smoke rose from the ashtray, first in a thin column and then (with a nod to universality) in broken tendrils that swirled up to the ceiling.

This journalistic reflection on the moment which envelopes speech is the kind of sensibility required to uncover the mode of being we experience nowthe moment multimedia enters the gallery.

CD-ROM and its aura

So what do we discover slipping a laser-inscribed plastic disc into the computer? The first revelation is no doubt the power of technology. The ability to put masses of information at our fingertips bears testimony to the miraculous powers of the microchipthe celebrated symbiosis of information technology, ecology and democracy. But this response is more suited to the showroom than the gallery. What does the computer screen show us that we couldn't previously see in the oil painting, bronze statue or video installation?

With a question as broad as this, it is best to start with particulars. Let's take Jean-Louis Boissier's Flora petrinsularis as an example. This very subtle interpretation of Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions has a number of layers. A taxonomy of sexual encounters is paired with a series of flora species, implying a common application of rational method to romantic subjects. On a formal level, the screen is split in two, demanding of the viewer a kind of page-turning in order to reveal the video-sequences illustrating the text. And the subject chosen for these sequences? Putting aside the bawdy associations with heaving bosoms, these iterations emphasis the cyclical rhythm of breath. Intake and exhalation of lungs is complemented by rippling water and grass swaying in the breeze. The effect is a kind of shimmering diorama that implies a tender solicitude towards the world through which we apprehend a pneuma that pervades human desire and terrestrial life alike.

While of radically different content, the companion work by Digital Mantras, Manuscript, organises the practical realm of utensils within a similar taxonomical structure. Greeted at first with a hieroglyphic assortment of tools, we find on closer inspection a series of manual cameos: the iterative nature of each utensil is presented as a video animation. The rhythmical flux of breathing is here reflected in the template of action prescribed by each device. Its logic is serial and infinite. And though it seems more related to popular culture than poetry, we find in Felix Hude's Haiku Dada a use of simple loops to evoke the haiku moment, evident particularly in the gentling descending snow.

The rise and rise of ambience

In CD-ROMs as ruminative as these, we confront one of the striking inheritances of digital media. Recall in the 1970s when Brian Eno aimed to produce a serious version of Muzak which gave sound the task of creating a structure in which ordinary life could be housed. Titles such as Music for Airports offered `music that should be located in life, not in opposition to life.' Like Duchamp's art of appropriation, an ambient composer need only gather existing sounds within one `aural frame' in order for it to become music.

In a recent email to his followers, Brian Eno reflected on the revived interest in his old work:

The problem is that people nearly always prefer what I was doing a few years earlier - this has always been true. The other problem is that so, often, do I! 

It seems an inexorable progress of the modern world that Muzak has been superseded by ambience. To soothe nervous air-travelers, Qantas now has a specially designed menu of sounds to accompany lift off. And for a more virtual departure, the designer chosen to compose the sounds heralding the opening screen of the the PC version of Macintosh, Windows 95, was Brian Eno himself. If it didn't sound paradoxical, we might say that ambience is the anthem of the late millennium.

It is not just art CD-ROMs which draw on ambience. Commercial works titles rely heavily on aural fields to enmesh their players. This can be incidental (casual walks down ancient Greek paths in Wrath of the Gods), a highlight (sounds evoking rainforest environment that is the central concern in SimIsle) or part of the logic of the work itself (noises like cricket chants from the desert sands of East Africa used as repertoire of geographical difference in Encarta '96 World Atlas). So why is ambience everywhere?

The ambience within

Being practical minded, we might begin with the medium itself. Given that information rather than duration is the basic currency of digital media, it is easier to loop recurrent sounds than compose an extended linear piece of background sound. Nature is readily supplied with sound patterns made for this purpose. Go bush and listen to the recurring sounds of insects, birds, lapping water--reality outside is already looped.

This contemporary attunement to ambience is quite different from our experience in traditional theatres of nature, such as the zoological gardens we have inherited from the nineteenth-century. Its symbolic habitat is the wilderness, where nature is largely hidden from sight, providing visitors with a soothing aural field of insect hum, pure light and enveloping odours.

Not Kant:   But Keats:
Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanos in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. Nothing seems further from the world evoked by today's multimedia. Kant's sublime objects `raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace', whereas it is this very commonplace which CD-ROM titles offer us in their recurrent traffic of sound and image. Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies
Critique of Judgment 1790   To Autumn 1820

Keats' well known ideal of `negative capability' recommended that poets take an attitude where `man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reading after fact and reason'. Though Keats poetry is still infected with a romantic longing for transcendence, the ever elusive nature he evokes is deliberately woven into the warp of the day.

I admit that Keats is hardly a sexy point of reference for multimedia, but his poetic strategy provides the starting point for a path along which we might fruitfully travel. From our ambient position, we note specifically Keats struggle to find evidence of the durability of natural form in the workings of the human soul. Here, the inner self promises a similar reposeful ambience to nature: `the simple imaginative Mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent Working'. With Keats' help, we may begin to explore ambience not just as a soothing aural field but as an inner logic.


Moving beyond the ambient clothing of these titles, the challenge is to think what it might have to say about the human condition. This requires us to think of ambience beyond its concrete expression in sound and image to its abstract nature as a logic of self. The term `logic' connotes a rationality whose principles that can be formulated in ever-increasing abstraction. Traditionally, cognitive psychologists applied this the understanding of personality: a core concept such as `self-interest' explains a galaxy of thought and behaviour. In the early seventies, psychology conferences were abuzz with a new concept: scripts. According to American academics, Schank and Abelson, behaviour could be understood more accurately as the product of mutually-determined rules. Thus there are `scripts' for sharing a meal, having an argument and meeting a stranger. These collective scripts provide life with a intelligibility that has as much relation to the internal working of the mind as parking laws. Lately, the school of narrative psychology has extended the notion of `script' to the life history of an individual, making it possible to map a semiosphere of biographical scripts ranging from the traditional rags-to-riches tale to the emerging pattern of second generation Australian life stories. In this generic understanding of life we become more aware of the dances than the dancers.

The notion of an inner ambience is particularly pertinent to the work of Luc Courchesne. Go to Portrait One and meet Marie. Sooner or later she demands that you make a choice about who you are: are you politely interested, flirtatious or brusque? Your choice will determine how she responds to you. The maze-like nature of Courchesne's scripts will be evident as you find yourself returning to familiar points in the conversation… Excusez moi? If Portrait One works for us, it evokes the same repertoire of emotions normally reserved for real interactions. Am I embarrassing you? While on occasion Courchesne allows Marie to express her own non-beingWould you like to buy me?we can allow ourselves to be immersed in dialogical rhythms abstracted from their ground in real time.

Thanks to Courchesne's gallery of video portraits, commercial interactive narratives have taken a turn away from interminable mind-teasers and shoot-outs. Broderbund's In the First Degree applies this dialogical interaction to the courtroom, where witnesses are interviewed and then examined in court. At each point, the choice of question critically determines the willingness of witnesses to support our case. The difference between Portrait One and In the First Degree and this is critical in determining what goes in a gallery and what sits on the shelfis that one is cyclical and the other linear. While the commercial title is designed to create a suspenseful journey which hurries you towards the final verdict, art work is structured more like a garden, where the side paths are just as interesting and the main thoroughfare.

In this exhibition, there are CD-ROM works that offer the same kind of cyclical logic, but on an urban level. Michael Buckley's Swear Club uses multimedia to render layers of personal narrative that define a collective sense of place. John Collette's 30 Words for the City offers a lexicon of personal memory that provides an archeological substrate to urban life. And Passagen evokes the life of a city from its subterranean transport loops. In these works, sense of place is figured not as the destination of an epic journey, but as a series of circuits inscribed by the individual transits of its population. But we needn't at this point celebrate the familiar trope of the underground rhizome: the structure is still logical rather than aleatory. It is our place within that logic which is the substance of our business before the screen.

Life as an insect

Having arrived somewhere beyond `cool', to a Keats-like world constituted as concentric layers of natural and mental iterations, we find ourselves called upon to act. We take the mouse in hand and move freely between framesclicking, dragging or simply locating objects on screen. This unfettered extention of ourselves reduces our body to something like an arrow or small hand, roughly one centimetre highabout the dimensions of an insect.

Our insect-like freedom to pry into virtual worlds`the fly on the wall' privilegehas its deadly price. In an anthropocentric world, it is the insect which bears the drudgery of mortality. Insect corpses lie strewn around even the most peaceable of homesmore as dust than flesh. Accordingly, our own labours at the screen are doomed to extinction, but no one grieves. This terminal existence does add urgency to the question of what we do during our cursory life on screen.

That is our business at hand: how to be a screen insect, buzzing the interface. Practically, this means learning what kind of business our cursor is expected to performa task which CD-ROM can transform into an aesethetic experience in itself. Die Veteranen is especially rich in these micro challenges, such as one particular phase when the cursor becomes a tiny body that cleans pixels from the screen. These specific tasks are, however, framed by a more general ascesis which we must undergo if we are to adapt to our screen environment. Moving from human-oriented desktops, such as word processors, to the more exclusively aesthetic works in this exhibition, we must learn to restrain the more purposeful index finger that rests on the mouse clicker. Like the use of lowercase letters that is becoming email etiquette, interface designers often favour less formal extensions of self into the screen: clicking these screens is like putting a postage stamp on a pre-paid envelope. Thus ambient works such as Flora petrinsularis are activated by hot spots rather than buttons. We learn the art of surface tension.

Beyond the cursor, there are more abstract realisations of insect being. David Blair's hyperlinked Waxweb provides a gripping tale about the uses of "bee television" in understanding a plot conceived by the future dead to engineer a return to the Garden of Eden during the Gulf War. It is not so much the literal subject of bees which is pertinent to this metaphor, but the way we are interpolated into the narrative. The linear narrative is very much a frame to support the business of navigating its thematic fretwork. The freedom to expand and contract the story provides us with the ability to flit from theme to themenot unlike the beekeeper as terrestrial astronaut who moves anonymously through the military-industrial complexes in Waxweb. Round and round we go…

…and where does it take us? While the human history that leads us to the third millennium is commonly seen as our victory as slaves over the masters, at the more cosmic level of Gaia we know in our hearts that the insects we blithely crush underfoot will eventually be the ones who rule the earth. Rather than be left behind, digital prophets can already be heard heralding a posthuman destiny in network colonies. Kevin Kelly's extension of chaos theory in Out of Control uses the hive metaphor to reveal the self-organising structures emerging out of contemporary technologies. If we think of ourselves less as a microcosm and more as a node, then a level of complexity might be achieved that ensures the survival of the human systemso Kelly argues.

As you might expect, though, there are more sober, poetic precursors to this notion. The eulogist of romanticism, Rilke, wrote these words to his translator:

Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being...It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, `invisibly,' inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.

This is an odd conjunction: their nineteenth-century sensibility and our frenetic interfacing. In the end it is our imaginations that are pollinated by the fields of sound and image which we diligently work with our mouseimaginations which have been jaded by too much info-surfing and networking, but are free now to stand alone and imbibe the rare digital epiphanies awaiting on the small screen.