AGENCE TOPO’S ART CD-ROM SHOWCASE,
A REFERENCE SITE FOR MULTIMEDIA FICTION

Libraries and classrooms can only benefit
from the compact memory and portability of the CD-ROM.

Timothy Murray, The Art of CD-Rom, 1999


Agence TOPO’s Art CD-ROM Showcase is a space dedicated to the promotion and distribution of independently produced art CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs. The showcase favours, though not exclusively, works that make creative use of text and image, such as fictions, poetic fictions and interactive art.

Agence Topo’s collection features works produced in Quebec, Canada, and elsewhere that demonstrate research into renewed forms of narrative structure, visual creation and multimedia authoring. It offers an opportunity to explore exemplary multimedia titles, to study the scriptwriting, aesthetics and interactivity, and to appreciate the range of media present within this art form: photography, video, drawing, computer-generated images, 3D animations, 360-degree movements, animated typography, cartography, sound and music creation, narration and literary genres. From older works dating from 1995 to the most recent ones produced in 2003, the collection illustrates the short but fascinating history of interactive digital art, its technologies and a language coming into being.

SELECTED WORKS

The titles in the Showcase, produced in Canada, the United States, Australia, France and Belgium, are grouped into five categories. The fiction, poetic fiction and interactive poetry works are concerned mainly with the elaboration of a poetic text or fictional narrative in a multimedia production; the interactive art category is generally the work of visual artists who explore the medium while developing a thematic structure. The reference section contains works related to the history of digital art.

In the Showcase’s current selection, several trends and common themes are evident. A number of works, for example, cleverly revisit literary genres. In the poetry category, Haijin (zero_degré, Canada, 2000) opens a window onto Japanese haiku with an interface inspired by one of its major themes, fruit falling from a tree. Poetry takes on diary form and joins up with video in Mordre/Parenthèse (Yannick B. Gélinas, Canada, 2000); it becomes oral and sound creation in Shock in the ear (Norie Neumark, Australia, 1998) and is expressed as sacred and incantatory songs in La cathédrale aveugle (Ollivier Dyens, Canada, 2001).

Liquidation (Michel Lefebvre and Eva Quintas, Canada, 2001) plays with the narrative intertwining of police novel and photo-novel by allowing random access to fragments of the story. In Pause (François Coulon, France, 2002), the influence of comic books is palpable, as is that of mythological tales in Voyage avec l’ange (Tamara Laï, Belgium, 1999) and Scrutiny in the Great Round (Jim Gasperini, United States, 1995). Narrative is set in exotic lands and takes us across an imaginary Mongolia in La Suite Mongole (D. Kimm, Canada, 2001), while Mauve désert (Adriene Jenick, Canada/United States, 1997) and Quatre saisons picaresques (Camille Lavoie, Canada, 2002) unfold along the lines of the travel diary and road movie. The interactive fictions from The Labyrinth Project, Bleeding Through and Tracing the Decay of Fiction (Rosemary Comella and cie, United States, 2003, 2002) explore various layers and textures of Los Angeles.

Tom Drahos draws on 19th-century European literary masterworks to construct seven CD-ROMs that create worlds full of references functioning on multiple levels (Illuninations, Albertine off-line, Journal de l'année de la peste, Opium, Chateaubriand.com, Les fleurs du mal, Kafka, France, 1999-2002).

The question of the role of the machine and technology is raised in several works such as Phares Gamma (Jacques Donguy, France, 2002), in which the sequence of events is controlled not by the author or user but by an algorithm that uses a data bank to determine what will occur on-screen. This self-generated work becomes a technological variant on the combinatory literature of Oulipo and the work of Queneau and Perec. The spectre of cloning underpins Uncompressed (Substanz, United States, 2000), and some of the fears regarding the expected impact of new technologies are expressed in the art pieces compiled on Technophobia (Dooley Le Capellaine, United States, 1995). A reflection on the metaphor of tools and tooling is developed in Exposition sauvage (Xavier Cahen, France, 1999). Dialogues de sourds (Frédéric Manceau and Alexandre Cribelier, France, 1998) reflects on the incomprehension that can arise in the use of communication technologies, while Phony (Susan Schuppli, Canada, 2002) explores particularly the history of the telephone.

Several works take advantage of the archival function of the CD-ROM to create interactive journeys through memory. The 360° panoramic visit serves as a key to unlock worlds in Beyond (Zoe Beloff, United States, 1997), a work that explores the birth of image technologies at the turn of the last century through ghostly images inscribed on the walls of an abandoned asylum. This work, which according to Steven Tomasula is “too theoretical to be a film and too visual to be an essay,” becomes on CD-ROM a work of memory and reflection on a fascinating period in history (1850-1940). Of Shifting Shadows (Gita Hashemi, Canada, 2000) combines fiction and documentary to convey the memory and history of three women who lived through the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Several titles make creative use of the techniques of collage and appropriation. A is for Apple (David Clark, Canada, 2002) explores the cryptography of the apple through a vast web of references from both popular culture and psychoanalytic theory. The theme of food and socialization around meals is the point of departure of As American as Apple Pie and Cocktails & Appetizers (Michelle Citron, 1999, 2001). Illuminations: A Book of Letters (Barbara Sternberg, Canada, 2002) draws from the style of illuminated manuscripts and alphabet books to offer a multimedia reflection on science, religion and art.

Traces et contrastes (Joseph Lefèvre, Canada, 1995) is a visual creation around a symbolic itinerary designed like a subway map, while Act as a Free Person (Alain Brunet and Christophe Martin, France, 2000) invites users to navigate freely through eclectic images.

Humour mixed with social comment is present in several of the Showcase works, such as The Worst of Connanski (Loïc Connanski, France, 1998), a humorous collection of short video vignettes that takes advantage of the multimedia format to increase its impact. The relation to the body and body image is addressed in poetic form in Histoire de la femme aux grosses mains (Véronique Hubert, France, 2001), and from a feminist perspective in In my Gash and Cyberflesh Girlmonster (Linda Dement, Australia, 1999, 1995) as well as in Voxelations (Steven McCarthy, United States, 2000).

NEW NARRATIVE FORMS

Whether on CD-ROM, DVD-ROM or the Web, digital media and related software have given new energy to the work of fiction and breathed new life into the form. With these media, the reader’s experience is altered; it is as if the reader could physically penetrate the space of fiction and follow its pace, unveiling multiple layers with delight yet never able to grasp the work in its entirety. To navigate through these narrative spaces, which present multiple perspectives and simultaneous levels, the user must bring his or her subjectivity into play.

Several theorists anticipated this arborescent structure – in network form, interwoven with links, intersubjective, hybrid, fragmented. Michel Foucault identified it in L’archéologie du savoir (1969), noting that the limits of a book can never be clearly defined because the book forms part of a network: “[the book] is caught in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences; [it is] a node in a network.” Others, like Gilles Deleuze, imagined a less linear text, closer to thought, composed of coexisting plateaus. Roland Barthes was concerned with intersubjectivity, the intertwining of the roles of author and reader. Without claiming to fulfil these theoretical visions, interactive work opens a space where these issues can be explored in concrete fashion.

Theodor H. Nelson, who, in the 1960s, following Vannevar Bush, laid the foundations of what would become hypertext, described it in this manner: “non-sequential writing, a text that opens up and gives choices to the reader and is best read on an interactive screen.” It goes without saying that such a system has a considerable impact on the role of the author, who becomes scriptwriter, architect, and stage manager, developing structures that allow the reader a certain freedom.

GETTING LOST, FINDING YOUR WAY: THE PLEASURE OF BROWSING

This web-like model has some similarity to the cognitive structure of the human mind. One circulates by trial and error. In digital media, networks or pathways through the work of fiction are sometimes mapped out or indexed according to methods borrowed from book publication, with menus, sub-titles, tables, etc. At other times few or no instructions are given. In such cases, blind browsing becomes a kind of game. The user has the pleasure of discovering the hidden keys to the work’s organization. “At all times, art may provoke intentionally incomplete experiences, the accumulation of experience interrupted unexpectedly in order to stimulate, through frustrated expectations, our natural tendency to closure.” (Umberto Eco, 1965). Indeed, motivated by a desire to discover and resolve the network that appears before him or her, the user moves through the work without knowing its limits.

Spatial allegories are particularly effective ways to encourage such browsing, for they combine developments in the story with recognizable geographical or physical reference points (wandering through a city or territory, exploring a house, getting lost in a maze, etc.). In fact, any type of network (family tree, geographical arrangement, road network, etc.) can serve to structure a work and the spatialization of the narrative. Literary genres also help users find their way around, with their established and better known codes. Often, it’s the work itself that generates its own internal network with little or no relation to existing models, developing its own narrative structure and way of advancing through the text. In multimedia, these structures are the product of a “rearrangement of spatio-temporal relations in an intimate virtual experience” (Anna Munster, 2001).

CREATING FOR MULTIMEDIA

For artists, creators and authors, the interactive possibilities are a way to put themselves in the place of the user and anticipate the stations during navigation by creating the visual, sound and textual environment that will shape the user’s experience. “Hypertextual writing is closer to editing a show than to conventional writing” (Pierre Lévy).

The artist must not only consider the linear development of a text, but also its staging – the stage being replaced here by the screen and the virtual space that extends within it – taking care to provide a multisensorial spectacle in which a variety of elements will be deployed in a scenario that encourages the audience to become immersed in the spectacle, or, in this case, the multimedia work. Indeed, such works tend to take on the attributes of spectacle through the use of some of the technical effects at their disposal (rapid movements, sound cues, morphing and special effects related to animation, objects that are moved by the mouse, etc.)

This style, so characteristic of interactive digital work, also makes it easier to distance the audience, in contrast to the naturalism of real-time images, and to encourage the user’s active participation in interpreting the narrative, by joining together scattered fragments, forming bridges between sections and elements, and decoding an often concise and poetic text.

Élène Tremblay

Artist and independant curator, Élène Tremblay has organized various exhibits on photography, web art and video. She teaches photography in various universities in Montréal. She was the general director of the gallery Vox, from 1998 to 2002.

BIBLIOGRAPHY :

- Timothy Murray, Curatorial preface, «ContactZones : The art of CD-Rom», 1999, http://contactzones.cit.cornell.edu/why.html

- Steven Tomasula, «An Image and narrative Roundup», AltX, http://www.altx.com/ebr/reviews/rev7/r7tom.htm#Beyond

- Umberto Eco, L’œuvre ouverte, Seuil (Collection Points) Paris, 1965, p. 99

- Pierre Lévy, «Sur les chemins du virtuel», http://hypermedia.univ-paris8.fr/pierre/virtuel/virt0.htm

- Pierre Lévy, cité par Franck Bauchard, «Le théâtre entre textualité et nouvelles technologies», Ec/arts, 2002

- François Rastier, «Écritures démiurges», Ec/arts, 2002, p. 80

- Anna Munster, «Digitality, approximate aesthetics», 2001, Ctheory.net, http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=290

- Samuel Archibald, «Sur la piste d’une lecture courante :spatialité et textualité dans les hypertextes de fiction», Hypertextes, espaces virtuels de lecture et d’écriture, Ed. Nota bene, 2002, p. 115

- Michel Foucault, L'Archéologie du savoir, Gallimard, Paris, 1969, p. 34