30 Words for the City



'30 Words for the City CD-ROM John Collette' ABC Radio National (1995)

30 Words for the City is an ambitious attempt to put sound and vision together in the form of an interactive book. The opening screen for John Colette’s new CD-ROM contains rows of thumbnail images, each depicting an element of urban life. You click one of these, say the image of a barcode, and a word emerges, in this case the word `memory’ appears on a screen textured in demin overlaid by an embossed barcode pattern. Under `Memory’ are two buttons. If you click the button titled `Movie’, the image of a modern city appears textured with a granular pattern. This is followed by the sentence: `the inside of your mind is filled with little places and boxes’. If you click `Story’, an almost subliminal series of words is thrown at the screen: `moments floating out of your body... touching the edge of tomorrow, like you are now.’ After a minute, the word `history’ congeals on screen as though it were the final answer to a long series of questions.

Well, that’s a brief word picture of one of the first generation of CD-ROM artworks now available. Artists have done their work, adapting their vision to the new technology. It’s our turn now to find meaningful ways of reading them. In the latest issue of RealTime, McKenzie Wark coined the phrase `emergent media zone’ to evoke the absence of `stable cultural forms’ that might house this new computer art. Unlike painting or ceramics, the computer arts are yet to acquire their own viewing houses, dedicated newspaper critics, or even weekend hobbyists.

So, let’s begin with the audience politics of CD-ROM. As an `interactive’ medium, it invites us to evaluate how much effect we as users can have on its functioning. Are we computer slaves just pushing the program along a predetermined path or can we steer it towards our own desires or whims? Some CD-ROMs offer us access to the decision making. Peter Gabriel’s Explora CD-ROM allows us to act as sound engineers re-mixing music tracks to suit out taste. And there are art collections on CD-ROM from which you can select particular works for your own virtual exhibition. We are left to wonder what kind of power this is. Is it any more than a private fantasy, a karaoke solipsism, concocted to flatter a consumer’s ego. You be the judge, you’re in control. Those phrases sound hollow after a while.

As far as that kind of interactivity goes, 30 Words for the City is relatively fascist. The power to select a word is little more than that allowed a reader to open a book. Yet, Colette’s intention is certainly to provide space for the reader: the sequences of words are deliberately abstract and designed to trigger personal memories. We have here testimony to Colette’s belief in the possibility of a personal consciousness within the city. The city not as abstract machine inhabited by automatons, but as a imaginary space for collating a sense of self. This CD-ROM, therefore is a kind of multimedia haiku where elements of urban life--TELEPHONE, AEROPLANE, BUILDING BILLBOARD, SUBWAY, APARTMENT--are offered in fragmentary form in order to tease out the nascent poetry inside us harried urban dwellers.

I couldn’t help having some reservations about this. For me, 30 Words for the City is the perfect ornament for the late twentieth-century flaneur, the urban drifter sensitive to the archaic wonders of modernist architecture and the hysterical sublime of information overload. This CD-ROM bears witness to an adamant cosmopolitanism. As Colette’s liner notes say: `cities are much like each other because people are not dissimilar from one place to the next’. Though urban mysticism is arguably the most powerful source of inspiration in new media works today, it overlooks the very singular moments that form a unique bond between city and person, like for a Melbourne person, the ride on a Class W tram down St Kilda Road on a autumn morning. Perhaps the provincial experience will remain with predigital artists, the Helen Garner and Jenny Watson. Looking around at other CD-ROMs, there seems a remarkable sympathy between mutlimedia and universal mysticism. The New Media Network in Melbourne’s Southgate recently showed a work by Adem Jaffers which transformed the traditional mandala into an interactive puzzle. And Felix Hube from RMIT has produced a special haiku program with classical Japanese scenery. It’s radical alternative to the savagery in most popular CD-ROMs like Doom.

But we should’t end without reflecting on a less subjective value of CD-ROM: I’m talking about the craft involved, the joins, the polish, the care taken. Here 30 Words for the City is astounding. Andrew Lancaster’s haunting soundtrack provides the scaffolding for Colette’s intricate melange of images from Sydney and Tokyo. But there’s something less tangible to appreciate in this medium, and this is where our existing critical vocabulary needs serious renovation. There’s something about the `feel’ of multimedia, the combination of sound, vision and mouse, which involves an abstract tactile sensation unique to this form. The closest analogy I could find to the feel of this CD-ROM was marble: both have a translucent smooth feel. If Michelangelo were alive today, I’m sure he’d be using a Macintosh.

But see for yourself. Whether you’re a urban mystic or just a plain old street poet, I’d recommend you get in touch with 30 Words for the City at a gallery, library or temple near you.

This review was originally broadcast on ABC Radio National Arts Today program 9/3/95.

Kevin Murray©1998