The Second General Assembly on Multimedia Writing (21-25 October 1996, organised by Art 3000)

By Adam de Linde, 10 January 1997

Conference review

For the second year running a General Assembly on Multimedia Writing, organised by Art 3000, was held in Paris. The event lasted five days and included discussions on multimedia topics as well as presentations from an international selection of artists.

Art 3000 itself is an organisation funded in part by the French ministry of culture which aims to further exchanges among artists and researchers working with new media technologies. By organising events such as this they provide opportunities to demonstrate work and for discussing issues concerning the development of the multimedia industry.

"I am the law".

The first two days of discussion dealt with the issues of authors' rights and data protection. Authors' rights on the one hand guarantee that a person is recompensed for their work. But in other cases an unwillingness to allow the use of a patented idea can result in monopolies of intellectual property presenting an obstruction to further development. Software companies are forever embroiled in legal wrangles over such issues.

One way to control the use of proprietary information is to build 'technical protection devices' into the systems. The JPEG and MPEG II standards, for fixed and moving images respectively, already include a 'copyright' space into which encrypted code can be inserted. By reading this code a protection device can determine whether the information is allowed to be copied or manipulated.

Jane Ginsburg, who teaches law at Columbia University and a speaker at the assembly, explained that in the United States all manufacturers or importers of digital audio equipment must include the 'Serial Copy Management System' which prevents subsequent copying of first generation digital works. The law also forbids the sale of equipment aimed at countering these measures.

Proposals supported by the European Commission presented at the assembly also point in a similar direction. CopySMART, for example, being developed under the EURITIS programme, provides a secure environment for the transfer of digital information and user rights. It consist of a PC-card with a PCMCIA connection that electronically executes legal clauses involving contract conditions, existing legislation, intellectual property rights, etc. whenever data is transferred or manipulated across the connection. A microchip on the card with pre-programmed legislation can instigate legal proceedings against offenders and, since a record is kept of all transactions, can be called upon as witness. Maybe you thought Judge Dredd was just a comic?

The legal debate considered whether it will be possible to build the law into the system or if such measures will prove impracticable. For example, how could a data protection system distinguish between a user accessing information for private use or as a representative of a company? The traditional distinction in law between the private and public use of information may not be applicable to the Internet. Or, asks Ginsburg, could it recognise the legal right to the 'fair use' of information, such as taking extracts of works for pedagogical or non-profit use? The risk of 'protection systems' is that they may infringe upon users' rights. Furthermore, new legal procedures are not easy to negotiate because they have to be agreed on internationally.

All of this is based on a very materialistic idea of intellectual property as a passive commodity. Whereas computer generated works presented over the latter three days of the assembly pointed to another kind of 'intellection' of information.

The essence of the image.

Philippe Quéau, a speaker at the assembly last year, describes virtual or computer generated works as having three parts <1>: firstly a paradigm, which fixes the limit or end of the work and constitutes its 'essence', secondly a model, mathematical or algorithmic, that determines its behaviour and thirdly the images representing the 'moments' of the work's existence.

Digital works do not exist as images alone, they need the model that generates them. As such they are not representations of something else, they are a part of it. Quéau says: "The model is not the form of the images but the principle of their generation. Images are not the 'material' of the model. They are a sign of its power."

An immersive VR environment such as Char Davies' Osmose puts the spectator in the 'birth place' of images generated by the model as the user floats through its 'spaces'. In visual terms Osmose presents a fluid environment of translucent swirling currents which emphasise 'perceptual interplay' rather than physical interaction. As the viewer moves through the images the model is brought into existence. (Osmose will be at the Laing gallery in Newcastle from November '96 till February '97, then at the Barbican in London for a few weeks.)

The power of the model is not just to generate pictures, but to generate images that transform the viewer. Serge Tisseron, a psychologist speaking at the assembly, said, "...we are aware of when entering and coming out of the image, some we block on, others, such as dreams, we navigate in. The artistic challenge is to create environments that get the viewer into the unforseeable".

Alex, developed at the IRCAM in Paris by Catherine Ikam and Jean-Baptiste Barrière, is a work that accepts the unpredictable movements of the viewer as a basis for dialogue. On entering a darkened room the visitor encounters the computer modelled face of 'Alex', an artificial clone, floating disembodied on a large screen. Her expression corresponds to the position of an infra-red emitter held by the visitor. Movements set off music samples that are arranged by a music generator but which the user can vary in pitch, timbre and amplitude according to the position of the emitter. The aim is to create a dialogue with the clone, to bring the model to life and explore its musical potential.

Tisseron has suggested that the discourse of VR may involve a psychotic discourse in its validations, the inability to distinguish the real from the imaginary. The effect is most noticeable with video arcade games where one is easily overcome with the sensation of being in a race or shooting down targets. But any computer generated work also offers what might be the opposite of a psychosis, namely a detached contemplation of its nature. Grasping the paradigm of the work removes the confusion of being part of the work. Since all potential dialogues with Alex are contained in its paradigm, which constitutes its 'intellect'; understanding the work is rather like comprehending a seed by looking at a tree.

Maps, Creatures and Zoomable applications.

Besides installations pieces like Alex and Osmose were applications aimed at more general use. Claude Vogel demonstrated his innovatory Internet search engine called Semiomap. Rather than presenting lists of matching words, like regular web search engines, Semiomap presents clusters of words graphically with links representing strong thematic associations between them. Each cluster is a lexical map and clicking on a term brings up a new set of links surrounding that word. The user moves towards the subject of their search by going from one map to another without needing to know the exact term for what they seek.

Semiomap works using a robot that searches the web to compile a concordance of words frequently associated in the same context. A user can request a term from the Semio server which draws up a lexical map and sends it off implemented as a Java applet. The service can take four seconds to ten minutes depending on the term and the connection. Semiomap is one of a new generation of search engines, along with Hot Sauce from Apple, likely to be making waves in a tight market dominated by a small handful like Yahoo and Alta Vista. You can see a demo at [] (Password: demo3, Keyword: welcome).

Another promising interface though still under development was Pad++, developed by Benjamin B. Bederson at the University of New Mexico. Pad++ is an unbounded zoomable 'desktop' space. There are no windows, instead objects or applications are placed directly in the Pad++ 'scene' and grow or shrink with the forward backward zoom. Applications can be embedded within one another and links provide a way of jumping between points in the space. It is visually much closer to the activity of jumping around between applications than the layered windows metaphor we've had to endure so far. Pad++ is not a program but a UNIX 'widget' that provides a substrate for building zoomable applications. It would not be feasible at the moment to integrate it with a web browser but it would be possible to receive Java applets of other objects into a Pad++ scene. More information at

And if its something for Christmas you're after you could try Creatures from Millenium Interactive in Cambridge, an artificial life game on CD-ROM. Creatures, resembling little furry frogs, are biological models with a brain and a simple DNA code. Their natural behaviour, which converges on twenty or so interactive objects in their 2&frac12;D world, including a machine that teaches them to speak, can be reinforced or discouraged by the player's intervention. As the creatures are also autonomous there is a tendency for them to display uncannily human behaviour patterns as the game evolves. When two creatures appear on the scene the user can encourage them to socialise and perhaps produce more creatures. The visual environment is not strikingly original but the inhabitants are endlessly entertaining. For further details try []

The works presented at the assembly were also the basis of round-table discussions held each day. As often with discussions on Internet and multimedia these raised more questions than they could answer. While an event such as this brings together people from different backgrounds the strict thematic organisation of events led to compartmentalisation with specialists not participating much beyond their specific field of interest. Some of the discussions would have benefited if there had been a greater diversity of points of view. Aside from that it's to be hoped the event will continue next year and beyond.

More information, e-mail: <>

Adam de Linde

<1> Quéau P., Le Virtuel, Vertus et Vertiges, pub. Champ Vallon, Paris 1993.