CD-ROM is currently undergoing a major breakthrough into the consumer market. The sales figures of CD-ROM drives for home computers have multiplied and their prices have dropped during the past 1-2 years. Simultaneously, the drives are rapidly getting faster, and they are becoming a standard feature of any Power-MAC or multimedia PC. Corresponding to this, the number of CD-ROM titles already on the market or currently under production has quickly proliferated. If mastering the full range of CD-ROM production was still possible for a diligent (and strategically well-positioned) observer in 1993, it has now become utterly impossible for any human being to have had hands-on experience of everything. This was clearly proven by MILIA, "the Second International Publishing and New Media Market", organized by the Reed Midem Organization for the second time in Cannes in January 1995. Within just one year MILIA had already grown to massive proportions, filling the huge Cannes Festival Palace, its catalogue as thick as a telephone book.
The fact that MILIA exists and has been established by a major exhibition organization (responsible, among other things, for the MIPCOM international television market) is a sign of the times. A new business and, according to some, a new "medium", is in the making. Major players on the field of publishing (Burda, Bertelsmann, Penguin, Harper-Collins, Dorling-Kindersley, Simon and Schuster), and media and communications (Time-Warner, Viacom, Microsoft, Philips, Sony) were represented with fancy booths advertising their brand new "interactive" products, in addition to many minor companies. Naturally, pioneering multi-media companies, such as Voyager (New York), were also present. The general impression was clear - this was, above all, a place for the businessman. If you did not wear a suit, a necktie and a branded suitcase you must have looked like an alien - a nerd, a counter-cultural spy or perhaps an undiscovered multimedia talent - potential to be exploited.
Many of the products on display matched this impression: countless interactive reference works, encyclopedias, self-help manuals, pornographic titles, histories of something, games, children's "edutainment" titles, interactive books, authoring software stored on CD's, even screen-savers. But what was the role of art and independent creativity? Beside a small section organized by the French Ministry of Culture, and the "Young Talents' Pavillion" (mostly, however, dedicated to "commercial potential"), practically non-existent. In spite of the huge size of the trade fair, locating even a few artists with their artworks was practically impossible. The same applies to the Milia d'Or multimedia competition. Was it a consequence of the nature of the event, or was it really a faithful reflection of the deplorable "state of the Art" on the expanding CD-ROM frontier?
I think the answer is both yes and no. MILIA's orientation is commercial. Most of its participants and backers don't seem to be interested in "cultural" initiatives without "commercial potential". The international CD-ROM market has clearly a commercial and corporate orientation. Even though it is still looking for its forms, it shows very few signs of brass risk-taking. Most products, however "innovative" their realization may be, fit easily within categories that have either been transposed from the already established fields of book publishing or mass media (film, television) or are directly related to already popular interactive genres, such as video-games. This situation is, of course, customary when a new medium is looking for its forms and its place on the market place, but it does not need to be.
Only a few companies, such as Voyager, have more consistently gambled on products that don't conform to the pre-existing formulas. Successful examples of Voyager's policy are the floppy disk-based "expanded books" and such CD-ROM projects, as the interactive version of Art Spiegelman's highly personal comic books about the memories of the holocaust, The Complete Maus, and the Residents' extravagant "interactive movie" The Freak Show, directed by Jim Ludtke. Together with the WIRED magazine, Voyager organized in 1994 a competition called "New Voices, New Visions", the results of which clearly demonstrated that the potential for innovative CD-ROM works is much larger and far less uniform than the corporate publishing strategies might lead one to assume.
George Legrady's independently produced An Anecdoted Archive from the Cold War (1994), one of the prize-winners, is an example. Legrady, a Hungarian born artist who has grown up in Canada and the United States, takes up the "virtual museum" format already utilized on several "interactive museum catalogues" (such as Le Louvre - peintures et palais by Montparnasse Multimedia), but turns it into a highly personal and original experience. Using the floor plan of the Hungarian Workers' (propaganda) Museum in Budapest as the basic organizational scheme, Legrady has created a "memory archive", which allows the user to explore the intertwining histories of Communist Hungary and the fates of his own (expatriate) family. The storage metaphor, characteristic of many commercial CD-ROM applications, is turned into a vehicle for audiovisual poetics with idiosyncratic and historical implications.
Artists, then, by no means ignore what is going on at the CD-ROM frontier. But who are they? Where do they come from? What are their goals? Judging from the relatively small - but growing - body of work which is currently available, a clear pattern does not emerge. In a way which seems to pay hommage to the very "nature" of multimedia, the backgrounds of the pioneering CD-ROM artists are diverse: visual artists, computer artists, graphic designers, photographers, composers, writers, videomakers, computer nerds. At this early stage, most of them have, indeed, a background in some other discipline. There are loners, but there are also people making collaborative work. Whether there will ever be such a thing as a "CD-ROM artist" - and indeed, CD-ROM art - is still an open question.
The challenges are numerous. The CD-ROM makers have to find solutions not only to technical or aesthetic questions, but to ones which concern production, distribution and exhibition. Should CD-ROM art start knocking on the doors of the corporate world for production deals, or should it deliberately remain a "cottage" industry? Should it line up with the traditional art world, or look for its identity from elsewhere on the expanding territory of the technoculture? Should CD-ROM artworks be distributed through the same channels as for instance games and edutainment, or should alternative channels of distribution be created? Should these works be conceived as mass-distributed consumer goods, or rather as more exclusive and expensive collector's items? Should they be aimed at domestic or public audiences? And so on.
On a superficial level, the CD-ROM's advantages are related to its potential for the storage and retrieval of information. Its digital format makes it possible to bring together video, music, photography, cinema, literature, graphics, games, and merge them into new kinds of configurations, which can then be easily accessed. Compared with, for example, the videotape, the CD-ROM clearly offers new creative possibilities. With its stop, rewind and forward functions, videotape can be characterized as a "corrected" linear medium. Although sequences can be repeated and the tape stopped at will, a video program has to be consumed "passively", watching the tape flow in front of one's eyes. It is true that video art often combines material from multiple sources and abandons the linear structuring characteristic of commercial film and television for a more metaphorical, layered and oblique approach. However, its non-linearity remains largely subordinate to the "flow", not fully supported by the (delivery) medium.
The CD-ROM constitutes a very different kind of relationship between the user and the work. Although a linear "movie" mode can be included as one of its options, the user normally triggers reactions by repeatedly "pointing and clicking" certain "hotspots" (marked or hidden) on the screen; in some cases, s/he can also type in messages or make drawings. These activities are often transposed versions of common daily activities - peeping through keyholes, ringing doorbells, pushing handles, leaving messages, turning the steering wheel, or pulling the trigger - yet, in the context of the CD-ROM their functionality has been redefined by "sewing" them into the invisible (semi)intelligent "skin" of the virtual worlds one interacts with. In addition to their more prosaic guiding functions, they inform the world of the user's actions, trigger changes and may suddenly transport the user to unexpected realms. Common metaphors for the "conversation" with a CD-ROM work are "travelling" or "navigating" - implying that the user somehow penetrates into the work, choosing his/her own paths from its "rhizomatic" (Deleuze) structure. The basic architectural "grid" (or "flow chart") underlying most CD-ROM artworks is spatial and conforms to the idea of the hypertext. Within this "architecture" the user has multiple "degrees of freedom" to move both in space and time, because the structure undermines the necessity of continuous linear progression. The centrality of the hypertextual mode of organization makes one wonder, whether one should simply speak about "hyperart" or "multimedia art" instead of coining labels like "CD-ROM art". The crucial question is, whether the CD-ROM should be considered just a (perhaps transitory) storage and delivery medium, an "enhanced floppy disk", or whether it actually has some "distinctive features" as a medium, which transcend a mere technical definition.
Be that how it may, the CD-ROM supports a personal and intimate - literally a "tactile" - relationship between the user and the work. Although the work can be deliberately programmed to maintain "distance", the user is often persuaded to become a (co-)protagonist, exploring and sometimes modifying the pre-organized world of the work. The user's decisions enter into a dialogue with those made by the creator, thus producing a dynamic mental exchange. A CD-ROM artwork often encourages a reflective attitude, giving ample time to stop, return, reflect on and modify the experience. This is equally true for the enigmatic virtual worlds embedded in the successful mystery game Myst (1993) by Rand and Robyn Miller, and for the surreal "chrono-photographic" animation sequences one (re-)creates on the pages of an illuminated "book" in Nobuhiro Shibayama's Muybridge Bio-Morph Encyclopedia (1994). Naturally, the opposite is also possible, epitomized by the recent interactive movies-cum-games, such as Sony Imagesoft's Johnny Mnemonic (1995), which keeps the user in a panic-like state of alertness and requires ultra-rapid reactions.
In the current frenzy of excitement about the CD-ROM one should not fall outright for the supposed novelty of its offerings. As in the case of all new media, the CD-ROM makers are in a position to profit from the discoveries made in the course of exploring earlier media, such as photography, cinema and video. As Gene Youngblood put it, "[h]igh-level aesthetic constructs from previous media become the primitives of the new medium". "Proto-hypertextual" explorations from dadaist collages and James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to Resnais and Robbe-Grillet's film L'ann‚e derniŠre a Marienbad and the educational "scrambled books" of the 1960's are essential in this respect, yet it would be even more important to consider what the CD-ROM artworks have inherited from their more recent predecessors on the field of interactive art.
An interesting test case is provided by ArtIntact, the series of CD-ROM & book combinations published by the ZKM (Center for Art and Media Technology) in Karlsruhe. Each of the two issues published so far has contained interactive works by three artists, supported by essays and other written material. The idea behind ArtIntact seems to be to make interactive artworks more widely available by adapting them into the CD-ROM format, and to explore the potential of this new medium simultaneously. None of the published works have been originally designed with the CD-ROM in mind - most of them have been shown as room installations depending on different configurations of hardware (in one case, a motion simulator platform!) and props.
Although the enterprise is commendable, the results have been uneven. This is hardly a surprise. There are works which let themselves be translated fairly well into the new environment (for example those by Bill Seaman, Jean-Louis Boissier and Eric Lanz), whereas others are more problematic. The ones that work the best are - perhaps predictably - based on the metaphors of the "book", the "archive" or the "catalogue", which are closely associated with the original definitions of hypertext (by Ted Nelson and others). They are also works that rely on carefully orchestrated combinations of text and images, and have a conceptually solid architecture. Perhaps the most successful and "CD specific" work is Manuscript by Eric Lanz - an interactive "manuscript", which turns out to be a "pictographic" inventory of everyday objects. The user accesses rows of them, chooses one object, and triggers a short video sequence related to it. Organized in this way, the work raises interesting questions about our practices of signification and the interrelationships of different linquistic idioms. At the same time the objects themselves attain a poetic, almost metaphysical quality.
More problematic is the CD-ROM version of Luc Courchesne's Portrait One (1989), originally a videodisc installation which invites the user into an intimate discussion with (the video representation of) a young lady named Marie. Although the interaction works properly, the work loses much of its haunting sense of presence, because the CD-ROM simply cannot reproduce the hologram-like visual quality of the original work, and because the life-size Marie has been reduced to a tiny talking head on the screen. Tam s Waliczky's The Forest is also somewhat disappointing after its previous incarnations as a computer animation and an interactive motion simulator installation. The CD-ROM version lacks both the amazing detail of the animation and the integral sensory experience of the motion simulator ride, but brings nothing in return. One cannot avoid the feeling that instead of full aesthetic experiences, one gets only "sneak-previews" (or rather retro-views) of the originals.
It is important to probe the internal divisions within interactive art, even for the simple conclusion that they exist. At the same time it is vital to work towards such creations which can only exist on the CD-ROM and could not be satisfactorily transposed into any other medium. Within the present limitations of the platform, the above mentioned Myst (Cyan/Bríderbund) is one of them. Another one is Jim Gasperini's, Tennessee Rice Dixon's and Charlie Morrow's poetic and dreamy interactive "book" ScruTiny in the Great Round (1995). This collaboration by a graphic designer/writer, writer/visual artist and a composer utilizes the intimate and intuitive potential of the CD-ROM to evoke "the erotic alchemical drama of procreation. Traveling in time through a ground of chlorophyll and blood, we explore the interplay between the masculine and feminine aspects of life". The user proceeds from scene to scene (and within scenes) by moving cursors disguised as the sun or the moon or birds. The outcome of every move is unpredictable, like in a dream. This work seems to confirm Michael Nash's observation about multimedia's potential for "mirroring the activities of consciousness and its complex webs that link disparate perceptions and sensory information into patterns of recognition that unfold in time."
In terms of distribution the CD-ROM certainly has some similarities with the videotape. The compact disc is even more "compact" than a VHS video cassette, and can thus be easily distributed via similar channels, even by mail order. CD-ROM's are regularly sold as bonuses for regular magazines, and the specialized CD-ROM magazines that are already popping up are inheritors to the video cassette magazines that blossomed in the 1980's. In the United States, there are already CD-ROM clubs modelled on the mail-order music clubs. Even though the home computer with a CD-ROM drive is still far less common than a regular VCR anywhere, it is quickly spreading.
Independent artists will, however, certainly face problems which have to do with the increasingly competitive and commercial media culture of the 1990's. The multinationals and even smaller players on the media market avoid conscious risk-taking and try to ensure their profits in advance by intensive market research. Different product-lines are increasing bundled under "guaranteed" brand-names, such as Batman or Sonic the Hedgehog. This has lead to the creation of what Marsha Kinder has called entertainment "supersystems". There is also increasing concern for censorship and copyright issues. Successful products may deliberately choose as if to push the limits, but not beyond what is commonly considered as "acceptable". Getting non-commercial (not to say anything about openly subversive) CD-ROM works released and distributed, without compromising their ideological and aesthetic features, will be difficult.
Cyberfeminist works, such as All New Gen by VNS Matrix and Cyberflesh Girlmonster by Linda Dement, are a case in point. They have few chances to attain a larger audience because of their uncompromising nature. All New Gen attacks and deconstructs the ideology underlying the commercial videogame culture, identifying it as the embodiment of the male dominion in global capitalism. VNS Matrix does this by appropriating the form of a Nintendo video game and producing their own d‚tourned "game-girl" version. Part of their liberating vision is an open and joyous celebration of the female sexuality, the "cyber-pussy". Linda Dement has produced a "female monster" from representations of "donated" female body parts. Cyberflesh Girlmonster brings into light the darker, "monstruous" side of feminity, usually disquised behind the (male constituted) ideals of grace and fragile sensuality.
Similarly, Christine Tamblyn's She Loves It, She Loves It Not: Women and Technology, a feminist exploration of women's uneasy relations technology both from a personal and an "archeological" point of view, has not found a commercial publisher and distributor (although it has been quite widely seen within the media festival circuit). This has resulted from copyright reasons (bying the commercial rights for the film clips and other public documents Tamblyn has appropriated would be too risky financially), but obviously also from Tamblyn's aesthetic decisions - she has used deliberately "amateurish" and "sloppy" production values to differentiate her feminist aesthetics from the streamlined glitsch of the corporate commercial product. Another non-comformist work is BAR-MIN-SKI: Consumer Product by Bill Barminski, Webster Lewin and Jerry Hesketh (except that it is technically very neat). The CD is a retrospective presentation of the output of Barminski, a notorious underground artist. It appropriates strategies from "interactive marketing" (and makes therefore a great pair with 2Market, the serious shopping mall on CD-ROM!) and pokes fun at the clich‚s of the commercial consumer culture in a hilarious tongue-in-cheek fashion.
Works like these will have few chances to attain visibility on the commercial market. One option is to show them publicly at media art festivals and in liberal art museums and galleries. This may, however, have a negative effect by branding them with the label "Art". Another possibility is to sell these works through existing non-maintream distribution channels and advertise them in fanzines and on electronic bulletin boards. For certain kinds of subversive products, such as Randy Shilts' Conduct Unbecoming (Apollo Media, 1995), an account about gays and lesbians in the U.S. army, these may be effective - although insufficient - channels. Christine Tamblyn has resorted to printing her CD's privately and selling them directly from her bag. This associates with Maya Deren renting her early avantgarde films from her own flat in New York in the 1940's. Deren's pioneering activities, of course, helped to establish the alternative film culture and the co-op movement. What will be the fate of the artists' CD-ROM? Will alternative distribution channels be created, will the works reach their (limited) audience through the existing, often ailing, video art distributors, or will there be something else?
A concept has already been coined for products like the ones mentioned above: fringeware. This seems an easy way for the mainstream media to neutralize a phenomenon, which potentially disturbs the calculated balance and the glitzy surface of the industrial CD-ROM market. Such categorization is both harmful and insulting for creators, whose only offence is their unwillingness to conform to the sterile forms and rituals of the industrial consumer culture. The industry, of course, knows how to deal with them: by the co-optation of the errant young talent. The video-game industry (and the computer industry in general) offers many examples of reformed crackers forming the backbones of its R&D faculties. Yet even established computer graphic artists, such as Rebecca Allen and Jane Veeder, have recently been recruited as producers and designers by the videogame industry.
On the game market, some of its greatest successes have been created by "cottage industries" formed by games enthousiasts themselves, instead of the artificially created "supergroups" or "dream teams", such as the hyped Rocket Science. Beside Doom (by Id Software, a small company created by computer nerds John Romero and Jay Wilbur), originally distributed as shareware, the phenomenal success of Myst, created by the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller for their independent small company Cyan Inc., has done much to send the industry looking for talents among the fringeware makers. On the other hand, the both critical and popular success of Myst seems to prove that it is possible to create, with ordinary multimedia authoring tools, high-quality products that make money, earn glory for their makers and give a strong feedback for the audience, without resorting to endless shooting, virtual jumping or high-speed driving.
The Miller brothers have already been surrounded with a mythical aura as prophets of something new to come. Commenting on an article published in Wired, John Simmons pays attention to the biblical overtones used in the panegyric. He also remarks about the tendency to elevate Myst into the status of art: "[T]he insistence on beauty and art is significant. Myst is not an excitement generator so much as something that adumbrates a new art form, or wants to." Surely the public awe surrounding Myst can be read as an attempt by the industry and its hanger-ons to raise the social respectability of the dubitable game market (which seems to be proven by the fact that many hard-core gamers dismiss Myst altogether as a non-game). This is particularly evident in the United States, where the rising tide of conservatism carries a risk of a state intervention in the form of censorship.
It is tempting to relate this "transfiguration" to the early attempts to raise the "moving pictures" to the status of Art in the beginning of the 20th century (most emphatically by the Film d'Art movement). It is clear now that the cultural pretentions behind Film d'Art were mainly motivated by the young industry's need to extend its audience to the wealthy middle-classes. The difference lies, of course, in the fact that where Film d'Art recruited the famous diva Sarah Bernhardt to convince the bourgeoisie of its cultural value, the Miller brothers have appeared practically out of the blue, certainly without high cultural pretentions. Perhaps another kind of American myth, that of the self-made man, has been activated here (this was, in fact, also D.W. Griffith's background).
I think it is inevitable that the field of interactive multimedia will differentiate further as it grows. From this perspective Myst may certainly announce a "tradition of quality", a new kind of synthetic product, which will strive for a certain complexity and artistic "touch", and yet look for its niche from the consumer market. Although we should resist the mystifying tendencies surrounding such products, I think we should also welcome this development instead of rejecting it, hidden behind our own aesthetic prejudices and cultural pretentions. Products like Johnny Mnemonic build on the obvious, adopting the conventions of the narrative cinema, "multiplying" them by adding branching points and alternative storylines and announcing a "seamless" interactive experience. The interaction means mostly shooting. Compared with this Myst really makes a difference.
An important factor in the development of multimedia art (or whatever we will eventually call it) may prove to be the synergy which is currently being created between the Internet and the CD-ROM. Although the Internet, and (particularly the World Wide Web, a rudimentary audiovisual network) is an "on-line" system and the CD-ROM is strictly "off-line", they seem to be in the process of developing into a Janus-faced entity. Both of them support the hypertextual principle of organizing data. The Internet, if it will not be crippled by governmental surveillance and censorship, and relentless commercialization, will provide a powerful way of distributing information and demos about CD-ROM works created outside the commercial systems of production and distribution. The development of new web browsters, like those supporting the new VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language), will surely give an impetus for this.
This will, however, only be the beginning. Hybrid systems that try to combine the best qualities of the CD-ROM and the Net already exist. More and more CD-ROM's will include direct "gateways" to the Net, which will be automatically or at the user's will be activated in course of the interaction. CD-ROM can also carry massive amounts of data, which could not be downloaded fast enough for a real-time network activity to take place because of the lack of bandwidth. The CD-ROM can help simulate a complex multimedia interaction in cyberspace by providing all the "heavy" elements, to be updated continuously from the net. The most ambitious project utilizing such a hybrid system is the Interactive World's Fair, which is expected to be launched late in 1995. How artists will use these possibilities remains to be seen. It is, however, significant that several well-known video artists or experimental filmmakers (Paul Garrin, Muntadas, David Blair, and others) have already found their way to the Net, creating net-specific projects. Creations like Blair's WaxWeb have been hampered by the difficulties of transmitting particularly moving images via the Net. A hybrid system might be a partial solution.
There are those who question the viability of the CD-ROM, seeing it merely as a transitional medium. It is true that it has serious technical limitations, particularly its poor capability of handling moving images (CD-I does a little better). This will no doubt improve in the coming years with the introduction of high density CD's and new digital video standards. But once cyberspace will be one day able to accomodate and transmit high quality sounds and images, who needs those little optical disks? Why not offer everything on-line? These questions have been asked by Marc Canter, the founder of the Media Band, an experimental audiovisual multimedia "group" (and before that the Macromedia Corporation...). For Canter there is no basic difference between the CD-ROM and the earlier computer "diskettes". "Did anyone ever speak about 'diskette-culture'?" , he remarked in a panel at MILIA 95, "the whole idea of a 'CD-ROM culture' is equally absurd".
Canter urges artists to create multimedia artworks that are too big for the CD-ROM platform. For him, the CD-ROM is only good for making fragments of that work in progress known every now and then, heading towards the BIG thing. This is how he conceives of the first product by the Media Band, titled Meet the Media Band (1994). This CD-ROM could best be described as an experimental interactive video-clip, or an "Aether Rave". The CD-ROM contains two works, UnDo Me and House Jam, and is rich in innovative features. Particularly the interfaces are surprising and function very smoothly. Matching Canter's words, the CD-ROM really seems to be bursting at its seams, giving the user a breath-taking impression of the cyber-era horror vacui. But as he claims, Canter's audiovisual fireworks are really meant to be accessible one day via the Net in a kind of interactive turbo-version of MTV.
Canter's points are understandable, but they are extremist and saturated by Western techno-hybris. They bypass the fact that in spite of its massive and rapid growth Internet will be an elitistic and far from a universal medium for the privileged for years to come. Most of the mankind will have to wait in front of its door for a very long time. I think that we still have better things to do than to dream about those big artistic orgies on the Net. CD-ROM will certainly prove to be an extremely useful, stimulating and powerful means of expression. It has at least a potential to reach a wide audience, also outside the "wired" world. The need for its artistic and ideological exploration is constantly increasing as the result of its rapid commercialization.