Why I Still Make CD-ROMs
by Jim Gasperini
Images courtesy of Jim Gasperini and Tennessee Rice Dixon, ScruTiny in the Great Round .
Those of us creating artworks distributed on CD-ROM increasingly find our choice of medium criticized as quaint, if not perverse. All eyes turn to the Web these days, and the silver disks hyped a few years ago as the medium of the future are now compared to buggy whips, Edison cylinders, 8-track tape machines, and other technological dead-ends of the past. Despite sometimes feeling like specialists in the design of oversized Cadillac tailfins, and in the face of daunting practical considerations, we persist. Why?
It comes down to a vision of the role and experience of the audience. I picture (and have experienced) an intimate, relaxed home environment, after dinner perhaps. An individual or small group of friends in a contemplative mood settle down before a computer. Someone takes up the controls and begins to "perform" an interactive work of art, moving at will through a densely-layered multidimensional collage. The work offers a clear authorial voice but at the same time gives the player a degree of interpretive freedom, with the possibility of fluid navigation from element to element in a complex, gradually unfolding audio-visual composition. The performer moves through the work with the ease of leafing through a book of poems, but has the sense of collaborating in the process as well, much as an actor or musician collaborates with a playwright or composer. With the CD-ROM, however, the audience may control sequencing as well as pace and emphasis.
I must also confess to being a bit spoiled. My first digital works were designed for 64-K systems and distributed on 800K floppies. Since then I've grown accustomed to blending music, voice, text, still and moving imagery in multiple layers that mix and change in response to the actions of the audience. I like to hide the computer as much as possible, using large graphic cursors drawn from the imaginary world instead of naked little system arrows. My partner and I like to compose for the entire screen (already a crowded little stage) and not surround our work with the visual clutter of browser menu bars, rows of option buttons, or banner advertisements.
Alas, much of this is impossible to make happen on the Web today, particularly the sense of fluidity. Much of it is not particularly easy to achieve on CD-ROM, either, but at least it remains possible. Many people complain that the CD-ROM is slow, but compared to the Web, it is blazingly fast.
Impatient with the rectangular screen and its primitive point-and-click interface, some digital artists look beyond the desktop PC to sometimes site-specific installations, often requiring high-end equipment and VR technology. This frequently results in walk-through work, visible usually for a short time in a gallery but incapable of being transported home to be perused at a viewer's own pace. For some artworks public installation is perfectly appropriate, but not mine: I prefer works with enough deeply layered ambiguities to reward multiple, repeated, lengthy explorations. In all the various ways interactive technology is changing the arts, the shift of control over the passage of time to the audience is key. If the audience is not comfortable with the physical and social setting in which they are allowed to exercise that control, all the effort required to make the work "interactive" is wasted.
Anyone presuming to create and distribute works with the fast-changing tools of digital technology must pay close attention to developments in the field or risk creating something no one will be able to see. But local mass storage devices, of which CD-ROM is merely the current standard, are not going to go away anytime soon. Every year millions of new computers appear containing CD-ROM drives. In a few years it will be replaced by DVD (Digital Versatile Disk) but that standard is essentially a faster, more capacious version of the same idea and is supposed to be backward-compatible. Once a disk is pressed it is relatively permanent, so the work won't disappear when the site goes down or the webmaster decides there's not enough room on the server.
Of the many practical considerations, the technical challenge in actually making something coherently expressive using clunky virtual tools is just the beginning. For our first work, "ScruTiny in the Great Round," my partner Tennessee Rice Dixon and I were fortunate to find a publisher willing to take a risk on an unproven concept in the world of commercial software: that a purely aesthetic work might find a mass audience. Calliope Media then had to struggle to find distributors, who in turn had to convince retailers to make space on their shelves, sometimes by paying for it. As a result we have had the gratifying experience of receing registration cards sent from Elyria, Ohio and other places of which we've never heard. That an original work of art can be mass produced and appear in living rooms around the world is one of the unique pleasures of digital media.
Your cursor is a large moon on this moonlit "Nesting" scene from "ScruTiny in the Great Round."
If the challenge of distributing CD-ROMs is difficult and getting harder, by comparison the Web is a miracle of instant global presence. I'm skeptical, however, of arguments that "someday the Web will have the bandwidth to let you do whatever you want." Someday, perhaps, but not tomorrow or the day after. It will take years to develop the carrier infrastructure, server and end-user hardware, and software that will allow the kind of smoothly integrated multimedia experience possible from CD-ROMs today. Although other, equally interested parties disagree, I'm convinced it will be years more before the costs involved make on-line delivery of densely layered interactive works practicable. When the day comes that it does become practical to download an entire full-length work from the net and play it from your massive hard drive or equivalent, fine: you will then have a neat solution to the distribution problem, but you'll still be looking at works that play from local mass storage.
One large semi-transparent image begins to move across a detailed background in "ScruTiny in the Great Round." It's difficult enough to make such a scene play on CD-ROM; when will it be possible on the Web?
One hopeful interim development is the trend toward distributing CD-ROMs directly through the Net, offering snippets of the experience on-line that can then be followed up with the complete work through the mail. Another is the appearance of hybrid works that take advantage of both the quick access to large files from CD-ROM and the interconnective possibilities of the Web. Not every subject and style, however, is so well suited to this dual treatment as to make the extra complexities worth wrestling with.
I'm also tired of the argument that the relatively limited interactivity of ROM-based works represents an old-think "tyranny of the author" that must give way to fully participatory experiences in which the distinction between author and audience is obliterated. Participatory real-time environments are a fascinating development, a species of virtual theater, but they are not the only legitimate use of digital technology. I happen to prefer deferred time, both in my own work and that of others. I appreciate talented people taking the time to invest an experience with significance, beauty, and sufficiently rich ambiguities to make it deep and repeatable. Trying to shoehorn every form of new-media experience into the same container results in grotesqueries, like the websites that try to imitate MTV and end up looking like LPs played at the wrong speed.
The Web has many strengths, but also many weaknesses. The endless linked websites sometimes feel like so many plates of nouvelle hors-d'ouevres; when you're finished you're still hungry for a real meal. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, "There is a time to browse, and a time to eat. A time to surf, and a time to sail across the waters. A time to create, and a time to perform others' creations. A time to distribute information, and a time to gather information together." So far few CD-ROMs amount to real meals, but there are enough of them to make it clear that works designed to be played from local mass storage will remain a viable technological and aesthetic alternative.
Jim Gasperini (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner in ScruTiny Associates (http://www.didi.com/scrutiny), a multimedia developer based in Manhattan. Their CD-ROM artwork "ScruTiny in the Great Round" won the Grand Prix du Jury Milia d'Or at Milia '96 in Cannes. He will be reviewing CD-ROMs regularly for TalkBack!
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