Robert H. King reflects on the New Visions Interactive Gallery
With technology developing around us at a frantic pace it would appear
that the future of multimedia is up for grabs. The music industry in particular
is all over 'interactive entertainment' like crows hovering
over roadside (information superhighway?) carrion. The search or rather
battle to develop and market the dominant format gathers speed daily.
CD-I, CD-ROM, Enhanced CD: the choice of hardware and of software titles
are confusing the public. A recent survey found that 40% of people who
own CD-ROM drives don't use them and 54% do not intend to purchase
new titles in the near future.
A large amount of major CD-ROMs add very little in the way of interactivity
and could easily be mistaken for videos. Enhanced CDs are compact discs
that contain both audio and visual material, allowing those without the
luxury of the necessary hardware to be able to listen to the music. The
sales pitch is obvious - you buy the CD and the multimedia is a 'bonus'.
For a large majority of these Enhanced CDs the 'add-on bonus'
is invariably a collection of stuttering Quicktime video clips, some soundbites,
back catalogue promotion and usually amount to nothing more than digital
sleeve-notes, all that 'cutting edge' (to paraphrase the writer
Stewart Brand) is "a knife that's all blade and no handle".
At New Visions we feel that it has become more apparent than ever that
there is a real need for more artist led projects that challenge conventional
notions of interactive media. With this in mind it was decided to stage
a CD-ROM gallery (for one week during the New Visions Festival), Glasgow's
Gallery of Modern Art was the setting.
As the 'curator' for this event I felt it was important that
my personal preferences should not dictate what would be on offer to the
general public and as such the various titles that were available for
viewing had been submitted in response to a random mailing to companies
producing multimedia. As a result the gallery offered an eclectic range
of material that proved to be as equally 'popular' with children
as with the 'Techies' drawn to the starkly lit and noisy basement
What follows is an overview of several of the submissions that (in keeping
with the random submission process) appear here as they were amongst the
ones that the public returned to time and again over the week long installation.
The more interactive and 'real' a package seems, the more a
sense of 'presence' is generated by the medium. However, if
this is strayed from then the less likely a user is to return to the CD-ROM.
Children in particular are more willing to suspend disbelief with on-screen
'stories' whilst adults are invariably dissatisfied with the
artificiality of it all. An excellent work that engaged everyone's
sense of play (regardless of age) is The Toybox, commissioned by Moviola/Video
Positive (Liverpool), it is an anthology of small scale interactive works
by 20 artists on the theme of a digital toybox. These range from the profound
to the frivolous. 'The Perfect Journey' by Nina Pope is a wonderfully
put together piece of social commentary: clicking on an item (house, bridge...
) turns any one of the many peaceful scenes into some sprawling industrial
landscape, whilst 'Sex Toy' from 'F' entices you to
pick your vice (group, solo, other... ) and to peek behind the curtain
and once inside you can never find your way out. Sex Toy was the one most
people clicked on (again regardless of age). There is a refreshing amount
of contributions from women artists (something of a rarity) and most importantly
of all this is fun to use and actively encourages your participation,
in fact nothing works until you do something with it.
Of Monsters and Miracles is an absolute delight to wade through. This
CD-ROM is a voyage into the world of weird phenomenon and was originally
created as an interactive guide for an exhibition of the same name that
explored the worlds of 'Forteana'. It is a thoroughly engaging
collection of over two hundred stills, over one hundred navigable objects
and over two hours of video commentary and footage. The screens and guiding
objects are intuitive (there are no instructions) and you are at once
made to feel comfortable in your journey into the realms of: UFOs, sea
monsters, poltergeists, psychic questing, crop circles, stigmata, fakes
and frauds and a Pandora's box of strangeness. There is so much within
'Of Monsters and Miracles' that I found visitors to the gallery
coming back for further exploration.
The enhanced CD that is Header fuses the very best of club culture with
innovative multimedia. The exclusive music covers drum 'n' bass,
rap, techno, hip hop and experimentation from 4 Hero, Carl Craig and Derrick
Carter (amongst others) whilst the stunning visuals include contributions
from A Guy Called Gerald, Horace Andy, James Lavelle, King Tubby and a
whole host more. The graphics form an intuitive interface that make it
pleasing to the eye and easy to use. Header has broken all conventions
of on-screen design and it pays off in a big way. People like noise and
colour and with this installed on a Power Macintosh in a dark corner the
public were drawn to the sounds of the digital soundtrack scratching its
way out through the screen. The standard turntable, mixers and faders
have been (thankfully) replaced with a more appealing abstract and heuristic
approach, dragging the mouse over any of the elements on display triggers
a sound sample in the form of a drum loop, vocal strains or a keyboard
drone. Further dragging and clicking allows the user to mix their own
tracks, dropping elements in and out at will. Each section features a
fresh interface that maintains its useability. Feedback from those dipping
into Header showed that even if they were not particularly interested
in reggae or techno they still found it entertaining and stimulating.
It's not a videogame, it's not a music CD, it's not MTV, it's not a music
video, it is frEQuency from Modified. frEQuency comes at you at 100 miles
per hour, there are no clear and logical rules, sit back and let it burn
or attack it with a vengeance. Billing itself as the 'Fuzzy groove'
the logical development of 80s scratch (video and music) and beyond, this
barrage of innovative visual design gives you music and video you can
alter and enhance. Pliable, approximate, leaving the linear behind as
it speeds off into a future where nothing will ever be the same twice.
The instruction booklet is deliberately minimal thus forcing you to explore
and immerse yourself in a sea of audio visual information that's
your's for the taking. The interface is laid out like a Bladerunner-esque
control console allowing you to access the on board sights and sounds
or to import your own to be cut and spliced into new fragments of ambient,
techno, jungle or trance. Modified have taken all of this one stage further
by linking it to their Website where you can download new information
bites and upload your own creations to be download by someone else to
be uploaded. This has got to be a world first. frEQuency demands your
attention, I defy anyone to cruise the contents and not return to it later.
It's like a virus, the snatches of music and video get inside your
mind and pretty soon you're thinking of new ways to present it.
Graham Harwood is perhaps best known for his incisive graphics that were
an integral part of that most cutting of publications the excellent 'Underground'.
Presenting himself here as 'Harwood' he has with produced a
disturbing and fascinating work in Rehearsal of Memory. The aim of this
piece was to work with a group of people from Ashworth a High Security
Mental Hospital to produce an interactive programme embodying the life
experience of those involved. This is manifested in the form of an anonymous
computer personality made up of the collective experience of the group.
Ashworth Hospital is located in the north of England near Liverpool and
is home and prison to people who are a danger to themselves or to people
outside the hospital. The group of patients he worked with ranged from
serial killers to rapists, potential suicides and casualties of the excesses
of society. The staff he worked with included psychiatric nurses of twenty
years experience and orderlies. To quote Harwood: "This artwork is
about the recording of the life experiences of the client group that are
a mirror to ourselves ("normal society") and our amnesia when
confronted with the excesses of our society. This forgetting is a dark
shadow cast by plenty, a nightmare for some that constructs misinformation
and fear about insanity, violence and victims. This mental space is occupied
by the psycho, the nutter, the mad dog and Bedlam; this is the space where
strong fictions lie and invisibly glue together the mirror from which
we view our own sanity." This was quite possibly the most challenging
work on display. Its stark duotone images of faces, feet, penises and
numerous body parts combined with text and audio material that spoke of
poverty, sexual horrors, childhood memories of abuse and watching mothers
commit suicide, leave one feeling uneasy, uncomfortable but vicariously
drawn to their stories. Indeed this is how it worked for the week it was
on display. Visitors would nervously approach the computer with its muffled
voices behind the words 'queer scum' click on the mouse and
recoil as they were presented with the contorted face of the anonymous
offender, only to return minutes later to push themselves just a little
bit further. Sadly however I feel that this kind of work will prove too
difficult for a mass audience (for sales), but placed within the gallery
space it will help to encourage the idea that there is more to the future
of interactive media than the truckloads of rock dinosaur titles that
pollute the stores.
I am heartened to see that more and more clubs and galleries are fostering
the idea of CD-ROM/interactive spaces and actively encouraging the works
that occupy the outer (and more relevant) areas of this new medium. Towards
the new digital aesthetic!
Robert H. King email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Header 34-35 Dean St, London W1V 5AP.
frEQuency / Modified Queen Anne House, 11 Charlotte St, Bath BA1 2NE.
Rehearsal of Memory Bookworks, 19 Holywell Row, London EC2A 4JB. email:
The Toybox Moviola, Bluecoat Chambers, School Lane,
Liverpool L1 3BX. email: email@example.com