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CD-ROM - the 21st Century Bronze?

Mike Leggett
Catalogue essay

[Missing]........ is the ‘form’ which carries that ‘content’. The content may in some cases choose to reflect only upon aspects of the encounter. Such reflection is present in all art but is a feature of much 20th Century art and is re-examined in some of the work selected for this exhibition. The exhibition includes an orientation area to enable visitors to gather background information about the work, the artists and the medium. Bibliographies and publications are available together with two exhibits which feature the work of two art publications which include CD-Rom discs as part of their distribution: the long established Mediamatic published in Amsterdam, and the more recent London magazine, Artifice. A connection to the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) provides a window on the potential of the computer on-line medium in contemporary art. An index of ‘art sites’ are provided for visitors to browse but please be patient, the WWW is an even more recent medium in its own right than the CD-Rom and, at this stage of its development much less capable of handling the visual artists stock-in-trade, the picture. The relationship between Cd-Rom and the WWW as creative mediums is, like individual works, open to your assessment. The research for the exhibition commenced 18 months ago with the financial support of the Australian Film Commission and the assistance of the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales. The Call for Proposals was delivered world-wide primarily via the Internet, the majority of artists responding via eMail - some 700 enquires were received concerning the proposed exhibition. The Call for Proposals sought to discover the range of uses to which artists were putting Cd-Rom. Given the 130 pieces of work from 110 artists in14 countries received a selection had to be made in spite of all their many individual attributes. This was in the knowledge that we had stated that a wide range of work would be considered - which it was. On that basis, we decided that discs which were essentially documentation or operated as catalogues for work in other mediums were not selected. The other area we ruled out were the titles developed essentially as games. It was found that apart from comprehending the rules and procedures of a game in the exhibition context, the exchange protocols associated with games followed within another tradition associated with other mediums, such as the board game or TV drama. We felt that the titles that were of particular interest were those that addressed issues specific to the computer/CD-ROM combination and the interacting subject, and which explored and developed the aesthetic of that encounter and the selection we made reflects the many ways in which artists have approached using this new medium. We have included the work of some 100 artists on 30 CD-Rom discs (not including David Blair’s extraordinary Waxweb Cd-Rom/Internet project which incorporates contributions from literally 100s of people). About half the discs are ‘single work’ pieces, the other half, anthologies of from three to twelve artists. These discs also represent the involvement of at least a further 450 people in support and technical roles. Artists’ work on Cd-Rom has been exhibited before but this is the first survey of the initial investigations and experiments of artists with this new medium during the period 1992 -1996. Through the generous support of Apple Macintosh Computers, it will run for three months, rather than the few days previously possible elsewhere, and allow people to re-visit the exhibition in the same way as they might browse their favourite bookshop seeking the book that through purchase, they can spend time with at home - many of the works are for sale. We would hope that the exhibition will both delight and inform those visitors who have a non-specialists’ interest in contemporary art and culture, as well as contribute to the discourse that specialists in the field need as an essential part of the continual development process that is contemporary art. The Museum of Contemporary Art has developed in the short time it has been open, a proven ability to mount exhibitions that address and are found useful by, a range of audiences. Though the MCA may appear somewhat monolithic, the experience of working with it’s professional team as a visiting curator has underlined its particular qualities of broad mindedness, ingenuity and creativeness that is part of any truly collaborative enterprise.





Essay by Mike LEGGETT CD-ROM - the 21st CENTURY BRONZE ? (draft)

4150 words

Illustration(?) with text from Finnagan’s Wake overlaying image of its author, James Joyce. by Greg O’Connor to article by Darren Tofts: The Bairdboard Bombardment; 21C #2 1995


# The Computer & Art

For many years visual artists have used the computer simply as a tool to perform more quickly the often mundane task of making something visible. Designers and architects have much experience with computer-aided-design (CAD) software capable of producing drawings which can incorporate changes of detail from earlier versions and thus save hours of repetitive re-drawing. The computing apparatus and its ability to respond flexibly and rapidly as an idea or project develops has been as a result of visual artists intuitions combining with the skills of the computer scientist. In the more experimental areas artists have customised computer hardware and software to the requirements of working in artforms such as installation, audience interactive and performance work, where the configuration is unique for each occasion. This of course makes the work fresh and new - and also ephemeral. Such work is not tradeable in the conventional sense. It requires public or private patronage, or another source of income. Or if the ephemeral is promoted as a virtue, the artist needs to develop a tolerance for poverty. The model worlds recently developed by a handful of artists have illuminated the significant difference between the computer and the video monitor - the non-linear option to guide or navigate an order and duration of events not pre-determined by the maker. It is not an exaggeration when it comes to describing some of the works a few artists have so far put together by saying that such an interaction can be cathedral-like:- blocks of images, movies, sounds and texts, assembled complete with nave, transept, choir, chapels and chapter house; and of course crypt (not to say dungeons). Such constructions are not attempted unless the foundations are sound. At complex levels of data management, (another way of saying multimedia), it is not only the time invested by the artist that is at stake but that of the audience too - the machine system must be able to reproduce accurately the instructions used by the computer for the execution of a design or sequence of visual and sound events; one bit out of place on the fresco might not be missed but something missing from the crownstone brings the lot crashing down. To prevent a crash in computing jargon, requires well designed software running smoothly from the memory store. The CD-ROM primarily has more stable attributes than the memory storage devices normally linked to the computer's processor, such as floppy discs, hard discs, cartridges, Digital Audio Tape etc., which are based on magnetic media and so subject to interference both electro-magnetic and physical. CD-Rom - the Technology


A CD-Rom, (Compact Disc-Read Only Memory), is the same thing as an audio CD, simply that the data it carries is understood by a computer rather than a stereo amplifier, though the hybrid form enables the CD to be played on both computer and stereo - the machine sorts out which digital data it can read. Conventional mass duplicated CDs are hot pressed. The stamping die is electroformed from a 'glass master' which has been coated with a photoresist surface. The recording laser creates minute pits on the surface of the master. To read the data on a CD, a focussed laserbeam is aimed at the disc. Light is reflected back from a reflective aluminiumised layer. Light from the pits interferes with light reflected from the disc's surface. This interference is detected by a photosensitive component which then feeds a computer’s processors. When an individual CD is ‘burned’ in a desktop machine, the laser heats an organic dye layer sandwiched between the substrate and a thin reflective gold layer. The recording layer fuses and the expanding substrate forms an impression on the gold layer, thus simulating the pits and lands on a pressed disc. During 1993, various manufacturers marketed desktop CD burners capable of making an individual CD-Roms, a desktop technology initially intended for the archiving of company accounts and records. Besides attracting commerce however, the technology attracted the attention of artists. This medium of storage could be said to mirror the impact of the arrival of bronze casting on the development of the art object - plasticity and permanence. CD-ROM - the Medium As the availability and viability of CD-ROM as a storage and therefore distribution medium began to be felt, various problem areas traditionally associated with making computer art began to be addressed. Quite rapidly the positive characteristics of the new medium began to emerge. In summary these include: Convergence: Computing systems, with infinite combinations of hardware and software, from the shrink-wrapped off-the-shelf to the customised, have presented artists with issues about technical standards for making, exhibiting and replicating the artwork - often this has meant using what was available. The range of systems and standards has been narrowing even though this may not have directly improved the artists’ access to resources. It is quite common now for commercial discs to be distributed suitable for reading via the two major and incompatible systems - Macintosh and Windows. Cross-platform developers software, carefully designed requires minimal re-writing of multimedia routines, can address 95% of the installed CD-ROM user-base, and has encouraged the artist to invest time and develop production resources. Archival Properties: The ephemeral and fugitive nature of much computer-based work has restricted its exhibition potential to one-off installations, or playout through video/film recording etc. The archival specifications of CD-ROM can more or less guarantee that a completed work as "art-on-disc":

  • cannot be erased, or tampered with and altered;

  • cannot be duplicated, with the correct safeguards in place, thus preventing the unauthorised copying of artists work and its illicit commercial exploitation;

  • has very good archival specifications and therefore good prospects for financial return to artists through:

  • -purchase by collections both private and public, of limited editions of a work;

  • -the editioning of multiple runs for wider distribution by niche publishers;

  • -the licensing of titles to networks via servers or linked CD-ROM players. Such arrangements are capable of giving assurance to the artist concerning the time and material resources invested and offer better prospects for financial compensation than through rentals on films and videotapes, or fees for installation.

Other aspects emerging which affect the artist in particular:


The cost of transferring computer files from "the studio", (the workstation with hard disc/server) to "the gallery",(the Compact Disc), has been reduced, enabling a relatively low cost of 'casting'. This can be as little as the cost of a ‘raw’ disc if a 'burner' can be accessed. The relatively low cost of making test and ‘artist’s proof’ editions enables the work to be seen easily by other artists and researchers, curators and publishers. With a world-wide Pressing industry now established the cost of producing multiples and editions has further extended the potential for the artist to expect a financial return.


Alongside the marketing of tools for the consumption of CD-ROM, the Industry has developed tools for production, designed for specialist users rather than programmers, thus offering artists independence at the production stage from commercial production companies. It should however, be remembered that the number of craft skills required of an individual are considerable. To make a multimedia production the skills required include: photographer, film/video camera operator, lighting director, graphic designer, writer, picture and sound editor, typographer, sound recordist, computer programmer and line producer. While some artists are capable of undertaking all these skills to a high professional standard, most restrict their expertise to a few and work within their limitations, or go out and raise a budget to be able to pay for the expertise required. For many though that option is too much 'like working in the real estate business...' to reappropriate Peter Weir's immortal words when receiving his Hollywood Oscar.

Studio Practice

Finally of the problems now being tackled, though the business of developing a studio practice is in its early days, pioneers in the area can begin to remove the structures and procedures erected by computer specialists. For instance the magpie approach to amassing material with which to work, having converted it into digital form, is to catalogue the stuff onto a CD-ROM and use the disc(s) as an archive, accessing onto the working disc as and when the need arises; no backups, no maintenance.


Art produced using computers, can be reproduced using home or office equipment connected to a CD-ROM player - in the home, over lunch at the office, as well as in the public gallery. The computer-with-CD-Rom-drive, or multimedia computer, is the standard computer of 1996. It is being marketed in a way reminiscent to that used for the selling of domestic video - as a universal enfranchiser. (We should remember in this context that the main visible achievement that such national suffrage has given us is Australia's Funniest Home Video Show). Interactivity Much interest from artist and audience alike is attracted to the interactive element of this area of computer-based art and permits the viewer to directly guide or influence the order, or rate of development, of the display of the artwork. A majority of CD-ROMs made by artists function in this way using a variety of strategies and interfaces. An Intermediate Technology?

Whilst the Web sites on the Internet continue to define what the 'superhighway' might become - at the moment this seems as if it might be a series of giant hoardings obscuring the Exit sign for the garden at Giverny - artists are developing advanced and sophisticated works which utilise the CD-ROM medium and its speed of picture presentation, (compared to the sluggish arrival of data from many Web sites). For CD-ROM has to be regarded as a medium, with advantages and pitfalls but essentially within computer-based work offering a commonality of standards and resources, and a production interface for the advanced-user rather than a meta-linguist programmer. This medium can usefully produce art works which are also physically stable and therefore distributable in the market.


Burning the Interface

During the development of the exhibition, 'Burning the Interface <International Artists’ CD-ROM>', some 80 artists from around the world sent-in work on CD-ROM for consideration. All approach the issues of interface and interaction with the 'audience' or 'user' or 'interactor' in different ways. I/O The interface is the conventional and pragmatic shorthand description that most users have inherited from computer scientists and the computer trade to describe how visual and word images on a computer screen can be created and then altered and then sent somewhere by the user - I/O to use the jargon, Input/Output. The interface services this specific process.


Artists are much less concerned with such methodology when it comes to employing the tools that technologists invent, whether a typewriter, a urinal or a piano. The writer Darren Tofts in a paper ‘"Down the photoslope in syncopanc pulses": Thinking Electronically’, asks:

"What, or more specifically when, is an interface? (The assumption is ) ..that it only exists in the cybernetic domain, when someone sits in front of a pc and clicks a mouse. An interface, on the contrary, is any act of conjunction which results in a new or unexpected event. A door-handle, as Brenda Laurel reminds us, is an interface. So too, (quoting Andre Breton), is the "chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella." James Joyce didn't write books. Marcel Duchamp didn't create works of art. John Cage didn't compose music. They created interfaces, instances into which someone, (you), intervened to make choices and judgements that they were not willing to make. ... You are empowered, you are in control. Cough during a John Cage recital and you are part of the performance. That's an interface."

The cultural shift that comes about with a new medium marks movement away from the (literate) 'private universe of mind to the public world of the cathode ray tube', as Derrick de Kerkhove has suggested. It is here that for the first time a collective intelligence is being developed and tested. It is where modes of 'listening' are being re-defined where the oral tradition is being redeveloped. Interact / Immerse

The two terms which follow, which also begin with the letter ‘i’, interactive and immersive, raise the prime question - 'Why do I want to progress through this work that requires my attention, and interaction...?' Encountering a work's interface for the first time involves establishing a modus operandi: first, find the way in; then determine the system for movement through the work, if indeed it is intended for interaction - some require only that you select then watch a series of movie clips. Most works in the exhibition require quite attentive interaction but the actual method of moving from one choice to the next needs to be recognised. It may be by clicking on the image of a button with some text superimposed which tells you to where you are going. But more likely it will be an image, or a specific area within the overall frame which has to be discovered that by clicking, will lead you on to further options. John Colette, a Sydney-based artist, came up with a solution to this by providing three starting points for exploring the same data on his disc '30 Words for the City'.

  • The Card Player randomly plays a loop of the entire work.

  • The Stand Alone Player plays in a loop until Quit.

  • The Interactive Book acts as 'a book format of the piece.' - his description.

The interacting subject by definition, is in the same kind of close proximity as would be the reader of a book, the artform which through the novel has come to define the intimacy of this communication process, so consummately demonstrated in this work.


OH: Select / Immerse cycle (Filename: INTERFACE 3.EPS) The clues provided in this 'book' as to 'content' are not found through a contents or index page but simply through combining the two states of interaction and immersion sequentially - you select from one of the button images, you watch, you decide what to watch next - the metaphor of the physical book is thus tenuous. Having selected an item, the linking feature particular to the interactive multimedia computer work takes the ‘reader’ straight to the text, sound and images, without pages to thumb and obviously a huge improvement on the physical nature of a book. Having begun to experience the ‘chapter’ though there is no room for a change-of-mind since the section will now play to its end, some few minutes away. Obviously a huge disadvantage not related to a book.... Similar states of interaction and immersion, functioning I suggest essentially as electronic catalogues of discrete ‘movies’, occur in works such as 'ScruTiny in the Great Round' by Jim Gasperini, 'Die Veteranen' from a group of Leipzig artists, and Peter de Lorenzo's 'Reflections, Abstractions and Memory Structures' which goes to the 'extreme' of enabling interaction to simply start-stop-start the entirely linear image progression. The diagram summarises the options with an additional option to ‘bump out’, Command Q. This is an option in much contention today encouraging the habit of Browsing, the sport of Surfing and extending the prevalence of ADS: Attention Deficit Syndrome. It is the place inhabited by Baudelieur’s flaneur, and to which I will return. 'Digital Rhizome' by Brad Miller has been seen extensively around the world in the last 12 months. It was the first interactive computer piece I encountered 18 months ago and the notes I made then I feel apply as a general strategy for many other works which place the emphasis on interaction rather than immersion, and use the mouse click intensively - on Buttons, labelled or unlabelled, and Zones, invisible or indicated with an image. By contrast the anti-button attitude struck by the early ‘Blind Rom’ and the collaborators of the British work 'Anti-ROM', entertainingly explore a thousand-and-one-things-to-do with a Mouse except click-it, and where the physical dexterity of mouse-moves becomes an issue of interaction. The question of motivation remains - why should I want to interact? The reflexive has been assumed to be the role of the art viewer, certainly when confronted with the art produced during most of this century. One stage further on from the ‘reflex’ lies the ‘reaction’. A succession of reflexes produces interaction to the opportunities presented by the artwork. Much of the work in the exhibition explores this potential, essentially by navigating through the various ‘screen spaces’ that make up the virtual whole. Also I would suggest that the intractability of many images, (whether a picture, a sound or some text), the images that are rooted, that are in stasis, that have lost meaning or become meaningless, (through constant repetition in the Media for instance), are the images which through interactive experiment, can re-establish meaning for the interacting subject. The established protocols of screen culture are questioned to greater and lesser degree: the promise of more to see - the scopophilic drive, and more to follow - the narrative drive - and propel the navigator forward. Or as a last resort like multi-channel television, encourage the easy option of simply finding something else....... In tracing points at which meaning are established by this process I refer by example to ‘Digital Rhizome’, in which sections from Deleuze and Guattari's, A Thousand Plateaus, are quoted in genuflection to the theoretical backdrop for the piece. As an early example of one-on-one interactive multimedia art, the piece successfully illustrates and explores the precept of the rhizome of the title: "..not a beginning or an end; it is always in the middle ..". The medium and contemporary commercial software design interfaces have a certain pre-disposition in this respect and is an aspect developed by other artists in the exhibition.


OH: Summary: Levels of meaning Navigating Levels of Meaning


The title screen presents eight options including Exit - no clue is given as to the consequence of making one choice or another - a first level of meaning is thus quickly established. The proposition is that whilst sequence will have significance, a specified order will not, hence the narrative encountered will be unique to an individual’s interaction with the piece. A collage of images are deployed across the area of the screen and superimpose on a textured backdrop. As selected buttons lead on to successive screens a pattern begins to emerge about the organisation of the screen space. The interactive contribution is quickly learnt to influence progress palpably, but is recognised as not being "control". A second level of meaning is thereby soon attained. There commences now a process which attempts to delineate the furthest extent of each sector of the work, clicking outwards in a conceptual circle, attempting to plot 'landmark' images along the way, before returning through the maze to the start point, to then set-out to test the path again before beginning again from another point. With so little to go on ("..not a beginning or an end; it is always in the middle .."), the “mazing" process itself offers the third level of meaning as the motivational drive changes into a pleasurable era of reflexivity. Without knowledge of the consequences of taking options, (rather than making choices), the form of the exploration is accepted as being purely aleatoric - chance not choice. This shades into the ludic as soon as some confidence is gained in recognising patterns of image-routes. But visual memory of images, text clusters, button slogans etc, are severely stretched in an effort to map the topography - the game plan is easily subverted. As mazing continues "Control" is not wrested but at best shared. The perambulation is as through a series of arcades or galleries, exposing the author's, and providing opportunity for the interactor's, predilections and prejudices in the tradition of reflective contemplation. Baudelaire’s flaneur is evoked directly in this sense in another Cd-Rom work, 'Passagen', by Graham Ellard and Stephen Johnstone by refererence to Walter Benjamin and the Passagenarbeit.. A fourth level of meaning is now available to securely invoke the familiar defuser of subversive strategies - interpretation. In the case of 'Digital Rhizome', on what basis were these images selected? Do they in themselves acknowledge the received (from TV, from print) image as problematic? Are they from a folio of experiments, with cameras outputed to the computer and then 'developed' to challenge received assumptions? It seems from this initial encounter that the element in the piece, the base unit, is the moving image which, as we all know, appeals to our innate hunter's eye. Most of the movies are referencing technology and the technology of war in particular - the hunter's eye is appropriately served. The mind reels under the weight of mass disseminated paranoia - the brutality of the Age of Print; the callousness of the computer-imaged Gulf War. Does the ability to participate through this interactive piece in 'choosing' to steer again the route which will run again the image of Iraqi squaddies running from their vehicles as a missile homes-in, make the event anymore meaningful in the wider context? Or does it simply reflect, through the computer technology in front of which we sit, the ability to image what previously could only be imagined? Through juxtaposition with images that could only be created by the artist on a computer, is there a dialectic space created a priori to enable us to see a way through such terror?


The Tractable Process

I would suggest that the process which I outline above where there is an option of interacting with 'one-dimensional' images grabbed from mediaspace, whilst it confronts us with what appears to be the intractable image, the process enables us to comprehend the narrative process to which we are subjected by external Agencies, propagated by the Media. We know that constant repetition can render meaningless but to be in a position to determine for oneself the number of repetitions returns the formation of meaning to the perceiver. I would suggest the work of Linda Dement in for instance 'Cyberflesh Girlmonster' enables the intractable images and social realities that she raises to be successfully interrogated through a process of interaction. Celebration of the intimacy of the process is enacted in the classic tome 'Flora Pentrusularis'?? of Jean-Louis Boissier, (after Rousseau), where the smallest of physical movements are mirrored by a response from the Mouse. This gentle and sensuous correspondence, requiring the responding gesture, has almost become the hallmark for the 'artintact' series from the artists in residence at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany.


Illst:The Discobulus (Filename: Discobulus)


Interface to Paradise Immersion follows a tradition within art history of contemplation, exploring the work through a reflective and cerebral process based on the personality of the perceiver in response to the implications of the perceived. Interaction follows innate responses more closely related to the hunter’s instinct or, in less primitive terms, the existential experience, where reflection is subordinated to action. Engaging the audience in a productive relationship is the Interface we are currently seeking to redefine. That project of engagement, an ontology of the everyday, is something that fascinated Walter Benjamin and I was struck on re-reading Hannah Arendt’s introduction to Illuminations by a piece that described The Arcades, or the Passagenarbeit. The contemporary arcades accessible through our personal computers and which define the Interface in so many ways, seemed to being described.

“And just as one inhabits an apartment, and makes it comfortable, by living in it instead of just using it for sleeping, eating and working, so one inhabits a city by strolling through it without aim or purpose, with one’s stay secured by the countless cafes which line the streets and past which the life of the city, the flow of pedestrians, moves along. .... What all other cities seem to permit only reluctantly to the dregs of society - strolling, idling, flanerie - Paris streets actually invite everyone to do. Thus, the city has been the paradise of all those who need to chase after no livelihood, pursue no career, reach no goal - the paradise then of Bohemians, and not only artists and writers but of all those who have gathered about them because they could not be integrated - either politically, being homeless and stateless, or socially.”

If Paris was Paradise, is the modern paradise the Web? Though somewhat eclipsed by the current fashion for things on the Web, the CD media's material immutability remains a major advantage as a storage device. At this transitional stage of movement towards networks, the CD-Rom also enables more sophisticated development of the Interface and, besides affirming aspects of a historical tradition, proposes the need for extensive research by artists to describe Interfaces of the future.


#Illustration with text from Finnagan’s Wake overlaying image of its author, James Joyce. by Greg O’Connor to article by Darren Tofts: The Bairdboard Bombardment; 21C #2 1995

#From paper presented at The Film-maker and Multimedia Conference, (AFC) Melbourne, March 1995; later as an article by Darren Tofts: The Bairdboard Bombardment; 21C #2 1995 #‘Illuminations’ Walter Benjamin : edited with an Introduction by Hannah Arendt. Publ Jonathan Cape 1970

‘The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality’ Derrick de Kerckhove : Somerville House Publishing, Toronto 1995.