Scrutiny in the Great Round

By Alex Butterworth, 10 June 1996

At Milia, the annual trade fair for the European multimedia industry, the production values of the work on display were certainly higher than last year but in crucial respects the industry as a whole appears to be treading water.

The South of France may be blessed with a cool, clear sun in the early days of February but few of its rays permeate to the Festival halls of Cannes. At Milia, the annual trade fair for the European multimedia industry, the production values of the work on display were certainly higher than last year but in crucial respects the industry as a whole appears to be treading water. Imagining themselves to be subject to commercial imperatives, in spite of the fact that the indulgence of investors towards loss-making new media ventures seems almost endless, essential questions are being evaded. Indeed, listening to the panel discussions, one was left with the distinct impression that the big players in the industry were anxious to ignore the apparent intractables of producing content that people want in a favour of on-line commerce and a reliance on the technology to awe potential customers. None of this is surprising but it leaves hanging the fundamental questions of what the inherent nature of the media might be.

The migration of ideas from the rarified world of academic discourse into commercial production is invariably a slow process unless the money can detect an immediate return, and even then the application of the ideas is often piecemeal. The Multimedia Corporation's opportunistic translation of the best-selling Sophie's World into an interactive product, previewed at Milia in prototype, offered a perfect example of an agglomeration of appropriated ideas deployed without any effort at understanding or coherence. Doubtless such work will find a market but it does nothing to advance the form, even though precisely those areas that could inform such an enterprise are explored in current academic research. In this case the issues relate to the use of narrative in non-linear media and to the means of mediating the consequences of interaction within a Virtual Reality environment to create meaningful spatial experiences.

Nevertheless there were a handful of works in exhibition which did to some extent begin to address these questions. Produced independently with the backing of enlightened independent publishers, the success of Milia d'Or winner Scrutiny in the Great Round and the category winner M.C.Escher offers a glimmer of hope that the new media are still open to definition by the efforts of visionary individuals. Jim Gasparini, one of the artists responsible for Scrutiny, qualified the delight he felt at winning his prize with a reflection on the uncondusive environment in which interactive works are experienced: "Imagine if you went to a cineplex and there were no walls, in one of these eight screen theatres, and they're playing Batman over here, and the latest film from Woody Allen over there, and all these different films barraging you at once." It is just one indication of the attitudes which are prevalent in the industry.

Scrutiny itself is a strange and nebulous work which demands close attention and an investment of imaginative effort, repaying the user with insights into both their own associational proclivities and the universal human experience of the cycle of life. Lyrical in tone, the work consists of two parallel series of twelve two-dimensional tableaux, each stage of life presented according to both male and female principles and composed as a collage of found visual material in which are embedded dynamic morphing, quicktime video and aural elements. These are triggered by clicking or roll-over and the cursor is interpreteted as the user's presence in the fictional world, transforming as it passes over active areas to indicate the nature of the material available.

Originally created as a work of book art by Tennessee Rice Dixon, the tactile qualities have been preserved whilst the adaptation to an interactive form demonstrates a genuine desire to explore the expressive potential of proprietary authoring software. As the authors made clear in interview, a growing awareness of coding and such effects as the Blend ink in Director contributed to the overall design.

The result is a story which exists in a state of immanence, present in the form of fragments and glimpsed associations, but regenerated only by each act of interpretive collaboration on the part of the user. Asked to describe the experience Gasparini explains by analogy, "One comparison I would make is to the way someone would play a piece of music so that here the role of audience and performer is conflated."

Although the conception and visual realisation of the piece is to be admired, the artistic validity of the content is perhaps compromised by the wealth of opportunities made available by a medium which does not yet possess its own conventions. As a result, and despite its beautiful appearance, it may seem to some users more like a showcase of applied techniques rather than a fully achieved work of art. However, Scrutiny does prompt the right questions about where interactivity might go if it is to follow this path, especially in its proposal of interactivity as collaboration. What is clear is that if such an aspiration is to be realised, a large part of the responsibility of authorship must shift towards the design of systems which enhance and educate the creativity of the user.

From the perspective of a search for conventions which might help to familiarize users of interactive works with the narrative consequences of intervention, the insights of practioners in the older media cannot be dismissed. In Projections 5, the latest edition of the invariable fascinating forum for film-makers to reflect on their craft, Tarantino hands down an important truism from his iconic heights. Regarding the neurotic insistence of Hollywood executives for movies to be user tested he says, "To me, the whole idea of preview cards is ludicruous ... if you kill off a character at the end the question is asked, 'Did you want them to die?' Of course you didn't want them to die, you'd want them to live, but that doesn't mean the audience had a bad time." The fate of interactive movies designed according to similar principles has hopefully been sealed. What remains is the challenge of retaining the unquestionable power of narrative to create a sense of immersion while empowering the user to construct rather than merely choose the story.

It is a cliche to say that the current state of the new media resembles that in the first days of cinema, and one much bandied around in Cannes, yet scant attention is paid to the lessons that might be learned from the search that was then undertaken to discover the rules of editing and montage which to us are now second nature. Scrutiny draws upon the traditions of book art and extrapolates a catalogue of novel forms which ideas nurtured by Dixon as part of her craft can assume when developed with only limited technical resources. Just as she has learned from her own experience, so there is a pressing need for us to anatomise artists of historical stature who did not have access to the technological means but whose work mines the same theoretical ground which we now find occupying. In the visual arts, M.C.Escher is one figure whose work with perspective and pattern spans the Two Cultures and is as likely to be found adorning the walls of mathematics classrooms as art studios.

In producing a disc about an artist who took the longing for infinity as the touchstone for his lifelong exploration of visual form, the Dutch multimedia company Eye-Ware has worked hard to communicate an understanding of Escher's work by allowing the user to author for themselves with simulations of his methods. The presentation is straightforward and thorough, providing an audio-visual biography of the man and access to the complete collection of his works through a practical and unassuming interface. But in this gallery section which forms the heart of the disc one first becomes aware of the presence of something more, an expert system which underlies the database and offers suggestions to the viewer according to the interest they have shown in particular works. Available both on demand and as a subtle prompt, the system maps the collection in a number of ways and is sophisticated in guiding the viewer though comparable or mutually informative works.

It is hard not to imagine what might have been possible had this relatively simple technology been used to enrichen the experience of Scrutiny, and when one looks at the other sections of M.C.Escher the impression that this secondary work conceals the roots of an original creativity is inescapable. Although visually suggestive of on-screen workshop spaces, with their application-like tool boxes, these sections contain games and puzzles which allow the user to play with Escher's impossible shapes; or concave/convex trompe l'oeil; or the various rules of tiling which he devised.

The similarities between his artistic techniques and the practical provisions of contemporary image-manipulation software are unavoidable and the process of discovery suprisingly compelling. More importantly the constructive investment involved on the part of the user, though highly constrained in its possibilities, does result in real understanding and offers one pointer to the essential qualities of interactive media which should not be ignored.

When Escher progressed from creating abstract patterns to using the same rules to link recognisable, individualized figures he succeeded to such a degree that their structure acquired an appearance of narrative development which brought the abstract principles to life. In their mesmerising complexity, Escher's engravings are like a blueprint for a system of constructivist narrative amenable to interaction, with its almost contradictory demands for structure and multivalency. As Escher himself wrote, "Anyone who plunges into infinity, in both space and time, further and further without stopping, needs fixed points, mileposts, for otherwise his movement is indistinguishable from standing still. There must be stars past which he shoots, beacons from which he can measure the distance he has travelled."

Although neither of these discs has it as its ostensible objective, each offers an interesting and implicit contribution to a debate that is slow in starting. Taken on their own terms both recommend themselves greatly. It has been remarked that the Cannes judges would be the last to recognise important work. If that is the case it isserendipity that they chanced upon two pieces which may well become collectors items.

Alex Butterworth <alexb AT>

M.C.Escher is published by Thames and Hudson on 25th May Scrutiny in the Great Round is by Calliope, distributed by Macmillan Interactive Projections 5 is published by Faber and Faber.