Review CD-Rom On A Clear Day Featuring Fiona Banner, Adam Chodzko, Keith Tyson
Frieze, Issue 33, Mar-Apr 1997
You find yourself in a panoramic landscape: red cliffs, sparse vegetation and buzzing crickets. The sky is a hard, pale blue. Scroll along and you soon discover that the landscape loops. Features highlight themselves as links to the contributing artists' works: a copse of trees, for example, is where Clio Barnard is hidden. Her three-part deconstructed horror story initiates itself with video clips of children - classically innocent blonde-haired girls - in deep woods. A female voice narrates their story, told in the first-person, past-tense as if from memory. She ventures into the woods in search of, naturally enough, the decapitated corpse that Grandmother claims to have hidden there. Familiar, tension-building movie techniques are employed, and then confounded by studio production shots of special effects make-up artists. Atmosphere is built and destroyed, built and destroyed, and hence the mechanics of narrative and illusion are fragmented. Fitting enough for an interactive medium.
Fragmentation of a more literal kind takes place in a caravan's cellar(!). Here, Georgina Starr has sited her Hungry Brain nightclub, which consists of a screen of jumbled images, reminiscent of the collages office workers make from their Christmas party snaps. The conceit is that many different sections of the club are represented, enabling us to eavesdrop on snippets of conversation by coaxing the stills into motion, all with the click of a mouse. The experience is stagey and forced, and yet holds together surprisingly well, the multimedia environment suiting Starr's eclecticism.
Suzanne Treister has also found electronic space to be a perfect site. In her virtual castle you enter ornate rooms in which it is possible, to a limited extent, to look at and use objects. It is similar to the new breed of 'interactive-movie' computer games, but this is not like any game I know, due to the presence of such bizarre objects as rotating, inflating swastikas. Although the concept is not fully realised, it still suggests that Treister may have found her medium.
Less successful is Keith Tyson's not-quite-as-radical-as-he-thinks idea of producing short texts, each taking their subject from a word chosen by sticking a pin into the previous text. The writings themselves are interesting, suggesting that the sooner they're published together, the better. They work better as text-as-literature, than text-as-art.
Adam Chodzko presents his familiar God Look-alike Contest, but through the magic of technology you can condense the portraits into Shroud of Turin-like smudges. Surprisingly, it's quite effective, producing the kind of splodges that appear in the tabloids under headlines like 'Miracle: Christ Seen In Banana'. It's spooky, if you're easily spooked. Matthew Higgs also presents familiar work: pages torn from pulp paperbacks, in which he has obliterated all but one line of text, thus telling the story in about a hundred words. This particular novel, The Art Studio Murders, yields lines like 'Composed of blobs and splashes of raw colour, it was one of those paintings which are either very advanced or very backward'. It's hardly using CD-ROM technology to its full potential, but the only way for electronic art to drag itself out of its niche is through involving artists not usually associated with the medium.
The most arresting and rounded work, however, is yet to come: continuing to scroll though the landscape, an American military helicopter rises up from behind a hill, blades chopping the air. Clicking on it transports you to a palm-treed scene, through which is visible the name 'Fiona Banner' in large red letters, stretched, movie-poster style. Suddenly you are in the cockpit, flying over a pale, flat, expanse. In fact, you're actually buzzing over one of Banner's Vietnam War movie-text pieces. Swooping down and skimming over the text, you can pick out fragments if you're quick: 'His body shaking from the constant kickback'. The chopper rises up and loops round, repeating the pattern: 'Get him, get him, pull him in here'. You read it much as you normally do Banner's work; it's oddly natural. The control panel flashes, so you click the mouse hopefully, but suddenly grey sky appears as the helicopter rolls and plummets into the textscape. The screen whites out to loud explosive sounds.
On a Clear Day cannot settle upon movie or comic analogies, both of which are common interfaces, and thus ideally suited to this uncommon medium. In fact, the movie analogy provides the stronger work, utilising the CD-ROM's strengths. The games-style interface is useful because games companies have solved many of the problems inherent in interactive virtual environments. I'm sure John Paul Bichard, who curated and authored the project, would quite agree. The medium's ability to powerfully manipulate emotions, even with the most crass of B-movie techniques - as evident in Barnard's work - is an indication that there is more to come from digital technology as artists get to grips with its potential.
Perhaps, though, it is those works which are not CD-ROM specific that are the most important aspects of this project, because they are straightforward and barely interactive. Or, to put it another way, they're very easy to use. Which is great for CD-ROM virgins: you simply can't get lost in Chodzko's work, nor will you feel that you've missed something from Higgs' piece. This makes the project highly user-friendly, and not so off-putting as more ambitiously interactive pieces tend to be. This project's strength, not its weakness, is that it includes some well-known artists doing pretty much what they're well known for doing. Which is odd, because I can't think of any other format in which this would have been a plus.