Welcome to the Future! 2. New Art Forms

«Back when mobile phones were dumb (…)  Tweeting was for birds.  Users were chatting on the Minitel.  ICQ beat IRC (…)  Fax was the new Telex. You were calling up Bulletin Board Systems. Only university students were using facebooks. History had ended. We had nine planets»

This was the text that introduced the 2013 edition of Transmediale, the digital art festival held in Berlin, entitled BWPWAP 1 (Back when Pluto was a planet), a reference to the net jargon acronym and expression used whenever one wants to talk about things in our recent past that have changed quickly.  It also allows us to re-contextualize the works presented in Welcome to the Future!.  The exhibition at iMAL offers the visitor a rare opportunity to explore a selection of fifty or so digital works made in the 1990s, the golden age of the CD-ROM, the prehistory of today’s digital society.  Barely twenty years old, these precious - and too much ignored artifacts cannot be read on our current-day computers due to the combined effect of the obsolescence of computer software and hardware.

This last few years has seen the flourishing of a number of initiatives to rescue this digital heritage from disappearing into oblivion.  Last November, the Internet Archive launched The Internet Arcade 2 which allows you to play over 900 arcade games dating from the 1970s to 1990 using your web browser.  In 2009 an Archive team also saved millions of personal pages from imminent destruction, following the announcement by Yahoo that they were going to close the web hosting service Geocities 3. As retrogaming and the vernacular aesthetic of the early days of the web are currently enjoying renewed interest, the CD-ROM is also experiencing something of a (discrete) revival.  Likewise the CD-ROM Cabinet, launched by the art historian Sandra Fauconnier 4,  aims to preserve and document CD-ROM artworks from the 1990s, accompanied by a ‘CD-ROM Hackathon’ 5 organized by Baltan Laboratories.  This same concern for sharing and making available such confidential information can also be found in Insert Disc 6, a permanent installation set up in October 2012 at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.  The Berlin artist Aram Bartholl and Robert Sakrowski offer to the visitor the possibility to burn ‘treasures’ which have been swept away along with the golden age of the CD-ROM onto a blank DVD (all which can also be consulted in Welcome to the Future!).  The Insert Disk ‘time capsule’ opens a window on a very special moment in the history of the creative productions related to technology.  Resurrecting this ‘born digital’ cultural heritage and making it accessible to the public again is the goal of the Resurrection Lab project, initiated by iMAL in December 2014, which aims to allow users to re-play these works directly in their web browsers.

Why all these efforts ?  The eventual disappearance of the cultural and artistic CD-ROM may be of little importance given that the media world has already seen many other media carriers sink into oblivion after failing to meet with the antcipated success.  For the 21st century user who clicks, chats, links, likes and tweets as naturally as breathing, and who is totally at ease with the standardized interfaces of social networks, high resolution images and full-screen videos, the experiences offered by the floppy disks and CD-ROMs featured in Welcome to the Future! may indeed be confusing, frustrating and annoying.  In a ‘user-friendly’ era which offers smooth and seamless surfing, where everything is done to make the user interfaces as transparent as possible, these exotic and bizarre objects, sometimes deliberately user-unfriendly, demand that the user breaks free of certain preconditioned reflexes and ideas.  To tame them, they need some time, curiosity and a bit of perseverance, but this is generally rewarded by the uniqueness of the experiences on offer.  However, as noted by the British artist Suzanne Treister, author of a memorable and unique CD-ROM, “when it comes to the internet, even though many of us now spend forever on it, we are impatient, we no longer want to find the invisible link to navigate to the hidden page (…), nor do we usually want to remain within a single site for long, unless we are watching a film etc.  Corporate design took over the aesthetics of navigation".

Multimedia: A completely new language

These artifacts are neverthelss integral to our understanding of the history of digital creation.  The CD-ROM marked the appearance of what we call ‘multimedia’: new forms of writing based on programming (interactivity, generativity), and the combination of various means of expression (text, images, sounds, animation) used today on the net in web documentaries or downloadable applications such as Björk’s Biophilia 7 , which joined the MOMA’s collection alongside John Maeda’s Reactive Books.

In the mid-1990s the World Wide Web was not yet capable of providing rich and immersive multimedia experiences.  By contrast, personal computers with CD players were proliferating in the home, and the CD-ROM with its 650 megabytes of storage became the standard means for distributing software or programs, whether they be functional, cultural or, even more rarely, artistic.  Visiting the massive Milia multimedia fair, which was held for the second time in Cannes in 1995, the media theorist Erkki Huhtamo 8 observed that, despite the proliferation of commercial  products (like games, encyclopedias, educational software), there were only very few which were innovating or exploiting the full potential of this new medium.  “Only a few companies, such as Voyager, have more consistently gambled on products that don't conform to the pre-existing formulas”, quoting as an example its floppy-disk-based ‘expanded books’, and such CD-ROM projects as the interactive version of Art Spiegelman's highly personal comic book about the memories of the holocaust, The Complete Maus, and the Residents' extravagant ‘interactive circus’ The Freak Show.

Even though they remain peripheral and are struggling to find their place on the shelves, works by authors are emerging which are produced specifically for this medium, sometimes referred to as CD-ROM art, and more commonly, multimedia art.  Heterogeneous, difficult to categorize, they cover a broad spectrum, ranging from the creation of virtual spaces to experiments similar to video games, from musical toys to interactive fictions, from generative literature to edutainment.

This new creative medium has attracted artists from numerous different fields: visual artists, graphic designers, photographers, composers, writers, filmmakers and programmers, who count amongst them some names who have meanwhile become the leading lights of digital art today, such as Jodi, Graham Harwood or Suzanne Treister.  More notably still, the production of CD-ROMs has also drawn many women artists into what was an overwhelmingly male-dominated computer world.  The most widely used software, Director, was specifically designed to enable artists - and not only professional programmers - to tackle interactive creation.  And even potentially to allow them to invent a new art form which merges the different means of expression together.9

Amongst those who have embarked on the CD-ROM adventure are filmmakers like Zoe Beloff (one of the first to use QTVR panoramas (1997) in Beyond, a dreamlike investigation of the history of machines), or Chris Marker, who taught himself to develop his first CD-ROM Immemory, where the visitor wanders through the meanderings of his memories.  Despite its classic structure, Marker, in his interview with French newspaper Libération says, "not only is multimedia an entirely new language, but it is THE language that I have been waiting for since I was born".10

Many musicians have also made noticeable forays into this area, like Laurie Anderson with her Puppet Motel, a sort of aimless wandering in the mysterious world concocted by the artist.  In 1993 the pop star Peter Gabriel issued Xplora 1, a CD-ROM game designed as a promotional partner to his Uru album, followed by Eve in 1996, a musical ‘adventure game’ featuring dreamlike music interspersed with riddles, which won the Milia d’Or Grand Prize at the Cannes Milia Festival in 1997 which crowned the best multimedia work.  The player embarks on the trail of the first woman, passing through successive worlds (each designed by a different visual artist), until he/she reaches paradise.  According to the choices he/she makes, the user can take various different routes and arrive at different goals, at the same times as being invited to play with Peter Gabriel’s own musical material.

In 1994, Brian Eno, one of the principal creators of ambient music, published a curious CD-ROM called Headcandy 11 accompanied by a set of prismatic glasses which offered a kind of psychedelic immersion experience.  This was followed in 1996 by the publication, on floppy disc, of Generative Music 1, his first album using the techniques of random sound generation.  With the programmer Peter Chilvers, from 2008 onwards he made this generative music available on the iPhone with the apps Bloom and Trope, followed by the iPad (Scape) 12. A few years later, Generative Music 1 went on to inspire the CD-ROM infinite CD for unlimited music (1999) by Antoine Schmitt and Vincent Epplay, a perpetual sound walk which is never the same, generated by a computer program that mixes the sound loops of Epplay with Schmitt’s composition rules.

New ways of telling stories.

With the advent of the CD-ROM, the art of storytelling also underwent significant changes as with each change in media support.  The story becomes interactive, even though the term itself seem to be a contradiction: the narrative consists in taking the reader by the hand to tell him/her a story, from beginning to end, in which the interactivity allows the reader to intervene during the course of the story.

The visitor to Welcome to the Future! can experience this at different levels.  For instance, by adopting the child’s perspective, of flipping and browsing through The Book of Lulu (1995), one of the best-selling multimedia children's publications.  Its author, Romain Victor-Pujebet, director and musician, saw the computer and multimedia as a way of creating one’s own home cinema.  This book-cum-fairytale, which was translated into 17 languages (instigating a veritable wave of ‘lulumania’ in Japan), features a 3D robot and a paper princess, but does not imit the book or the cartoon, although it must be read, and pages when turned make the noise of paper, it becomes animated when the player moves his/her cursor over a section of text, the sky, a tree.  These first interactive reading experiences foresee, whilst outperforming them, the wave of the ‘book apps’ for children that is currently trying to seduce this generation for whom touch-screens are the norm.

This hybridization between video game, movie and book can be found in Suzanne Treister‘s CD-ROM No Other Symptoms: Time Travelling with Rosalind Brodsky (1999).  The British artist invites us to follow in the footsteps of her alter-ego, Rosalind Brodsky, a pioneer of time-space travel, into a baroque visual world.  The visitor is plunged into her laboratory at the Institute of Militronics and Advanced Time Interventionality, where he/she can access her satellite spy probe, her electronic time-traveling diary, costumes and attaché cases used for her time travel.  A dense mixture of texts, movies, music and painting, this fictional matrix, which three hours would be too short to browse, draws on cyberpunk and its world, saturated with technology, science fiction, psychoanalysis, the long and the short story.  This interactive fiction is a perfect illustration of this kind of hypermedia narrative which offers non-linear reading, and allows the reader to take different paths within the work.

The most experimental aspect of these new forms of e-literature is algorithmic storytelling, which means that no two players will ever see the same text twice.  Digital literature is now taking off in the form of journals published on diskette, allowing the reader to run the programs during the course of reading (generating poetry, proverbs, prose etc.), like KAOS, created in January 1991 by Jean-Pierre Balpe, author and director of the Hypermédia Department (Université Paris 8) from 1990 to 2005. Convinced that these new machines demanded a new form of literature, in issue 3 of Kaos, Balpe wrote (under one of his many pen-names, Pascal Cresset): "It’s a question of inventing a form of literature that can take full advantage of the huge wealth of possibilities offered by the dematerialization of content.  This wealth is embodied in all the possibilities of electronic or optronic circuits: immateriality, immediacy, complexity, communicability, availability, generativity, mobility, fluidity, adaptivity, community, impersonality, multiplicity, interactivity.”

In the mid 1990s, the CD-ROM, lightweight, portable and (relatively) cheap, would also allow (or so we thought) interactive art to enter into the home, as was the case with books and vinyl records.  When launching its Artintact series (1994-1997), ZKM - the German Center for Art & Media, saw it as the ideal vehicle for distributing digital artworks that had previously existed mainly in the form of installations presented too rarely at museums or festivals, but which were now just a mouse-click away.  This special relationship with the user, whose participation is essential to the work, is at the heart of the pieces created by the pioneers of interactive art like Jean-Louis Boissier, Luc Courchesne, George Legrady or Perry Hoberman etc.

The same period saw the appearance of the influential works of John Maeda, a graphic designer and professor at MIT, which were to have a profound influence on aesthetics and interactive design.  The creator of Design by Numbers, a graphical programming environment, he was also the teacher of Casey Reas and Ben Fry, who developed later Processing, a very popular software environment targeted to stimulate the artists to create with code.  Reactive Books comprised a series of five printed ‘extended’ books which included softwares on floppyy disk or mini-CD, each exploring a different ‘input’ (microphone, mouse, time, keyboard and video) which was able to generate these short electronic poems born of the interaction between human and computer.  These audiographic experiments, which can be found on CD-ROMs like Small Fish, published in 1999, pre-dating the web vogue for ‘soundtoys’ such as Stanza 13 or Joshua Davis (Praystation) and more recently the proliferation of visual music apps to generate sounds at the touch of your fingertips 14Small Fish is now also available as an app for iPhone and iPad.

« It is not immersive but expulsive »

'It is precisely between the user and the machine that Jodi inserts iself by means of OSS****, a CD-ROM that evokes a mysterious operating system that, once introduced into the drive of your home computer, will take control of your machine creating chaos and panic on your desktop... or at least, it appears so.  At the same time as the industry is seeking to smooth out the ‘user experience’, artists are striving to develop software practices more savage, sowing confusion and exploding the ‘point and click’ interfaces which were usually just happy to repackage old content.  They also question the pseudo-interactivity and apparent freedom bestowed upon the user, parodying the clichés of this ‘new media’ by reintroducing ‘meat’ into the silicon.  They often have colourful names like BlindRom, Antirom, User Unfriendly Interface, and above all Blam!  These UFOs, of which many fine specimens are on display in Welcome to the Future!, may even be the ones who prove most resistant over time, and which have kept their insolence and vitality intact.

The ‘Readme’ file of Blam 3 ! (1997), a belching object which injects a dose of caffeine into this medium often perceived as soporific, greets the user with a friendly "Fuck you, that which you consider a bug is most likely a feature".

As soon as the user starts up the CD-ROM, he/she is attacked by techno music played at full blast.  Pointless to try and find the control panel to lower the sound - it's impossible.  Clicks of panic just guide him into a zone where he is assailed by unbearable images: piles of corpses, deformed children, amateur porn, bestiality, repugnant surgical operations.  To escape from this stroboscopic onslaught, he/she multiplies the clicks, searching in vain for a way to extract him/herself.  Instead, he/she finds himself in the middle of hate texts, incitement to murder.  The usual emergency exits (Escape or Command-Q) don’t work...

"It is not immersive but expulsive.  We don’t expect you to push buttons, we will first push you”.     It is precisely this user, who clicks on everything that moves, who is provoked by Necro Enema Amalgamated (NEA) « Giving a user more and more buttons to click is like giving extra links to a dog chain. Sure, you can call three feet of mobility "freedom," if you want. You can think of BLAM! as empowering you, but we know that we're the ones jerking the end of your chain. We've determined what every last little button accomplishes. Programmers are just that: programmers. We train you to use BLAM! just as Pavlov trained dogs to salivate. Did you know that "cyber" comes from the Greek kybernan, meaning "to steer, to govern?" Maybe we could reconcile ourselves to the concept of cyberspace, after all — if you define it as space (or more correctly, space-time) that we control » 15. According to this ‘Devil’s Advocacy group’, it is the interactive media that programmes the user, his/her choices, behaviour and thoughts.

This opinion is shared by the media theorist Geert Lovink, who worked at Mediamatic, the Dutch reference magazine which, since 1993, has been accompanied by an artistic CD-ROM.  Today, according to him, the average user is "encapsulated in this ‘template’ culture of the dominant social media platforms" that "limit our collective imagination”.  Lovink believes that, twenty years later, that "even the best CD-ROMs are still more complex than the Internet today", whilst recognizing that "what makes CD-ROMs so unique is also its greatest weakness: it is a closed environment.  They were not social."

Faced with increasing competition from the Internet and gradually supplanted by the DVD’s simplified interactivity, the CD-ROM has declined rapidly, after never really having found its own economic logic nor its true public.  Nevertheless, the all-round experimentations that characterized this support in the 1990s continued to irrigate the digital arts, as well as numerous other contemporary forms: video games (including serious games or indie games, led e.g. by collectives like Tale of Tales) continuing the exploration between play and narrative as well as webdocs (equally ambiguous objects, which are probably the most similar to the CD-ROM, even if they are more connected and more linked to movie than to a book).  Generative approaches henceforth will take the form of apps and multimedia toys which abound on the web and tablets.  The Twitter bot and other journalist bots of Narrative Science are the new algorithmic writers, and e-publications could end up becoming really interactive.  "The characteristics of the CD-ROM are only just starting to hit the web”, analysed Bob Stein, founder of the defunct Voyager Compagny and founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book.  He wants to believe that ”after having expanded the notion of the page to include audio and video, the second half is extending the notion of the page to include the readers, being actively engaged with each other in the margin. These two strands are weaving together, we will see in the next ten years, interactive programs like we made on CD-rom but with a strong social component 16.