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If “the purpose of good criticism is to kill bad art,” as one of the screens in Planet of Noise asserts, then the good critic faces a Herculean task—particularly now, when so much art springs from theoretical imperatives rather than love or passion, or both.

Still, I doubt that bad art needs to be killed, since most of it will die of natural causes. McKenzie Wark’s hanging judge, his killer of bad art, runs the risk of matching my favourite definition of a critic: someone who strolls around the battlefield when the war is over, slaughtering the wounded. As Anne Lamott points out in her book on writing, Bird by Bird, “you don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it, too.”

In any case, the best art renders criticism superfluous since it performs a dual function: engaging and delighting our senses, intellect, and emotions while simultaneously laying down a rigorous critique of the medium and its possibilities. Jean-Luc Godard started out writing film criticism and in 1962, having made four films in two years (including the sublime Vivre sa Vie), he wrote: “Today I still think of myself as a critic, and in a sense I am, more than ever before. Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form, or novels in essay form: only instead of writing, I film them".

Interactive media desperately needs work like this, work that blends art with critical discourse, particularly now, when CD-ROM has failed commercially and the hype machine has turned its attention to DVD-RAM (“ten times more storage must be the answer because more is necessarily better”) and Internet push channels (“we failed to make books or movies interactive but we’ll succeed in making the Net like television”). But we don’t need six or eight or ten gigabytes of storage or 50 or 500 hundred push channels. What we need right now is work that explores the nature of interactivity itself.

In Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Janet Murray identifies four principal properties “which separately and collectively make (the computer) a powerful vehicle for literary creation. Digital environments are procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic. The first two properties make up most of what we mean by the vaguely used word interactive; the remaining two properties help to make digital creations seem as explorable and extensive as the actual world, making up much of what we mean when we say that cyberspace is immersive.”

Using as its foundation the work of the performance artist Stelarc, Metabody explores digital self-representation and the human-machine interface by examining golems, robots, automata and cyborgs—past, present, and future. Using as its foundation the ironic moralism of the aphorism (with a particular debt to Adorno), Planet of Noise explores a world “where all things lie, in exile from their future; where stories burn, and spaceships, on re-entry jettison all desires". That Metabody satisfies all of Murray’s criteria while Planet of Noise meets few of them goes a long way towards explaining why I prefer the former to the latter.

“The computer is not fundamentally a wire or a pathway,” says Murray, “but an engine. It was designed not to carry static information but to embody complex, contingent behaviours." Metabody is procedural because it is, above all, besotted with the rules through which one might create a digital being.

“Procedural environments are appealing to us not just because they exhibit rule-generated behaviour,” writes Murray, “but because we can induce the behaviour. They are responsive to our input.” In other words, they invite participation. On every level Metabody invites us to participate in the ongoing creation of meaning: constructing our own 3D golems; uploading them to a web site where they are grafted onto an evolving assemblage; exploring the relationship between the sovereign individual and the collective democracy of the Internet.

“The new digital environments are characterized by their power to represent navigable space.” Metabody uses VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language) to represent not just the 3D avatars or golems but the spatial relationships between avatars and the world they inhabit.

Digital environments are encyclopedic: simultaneously offering and inducing the expectation of infinite resources. Metabody is dense and coherent: its images, texts, audio, and digital video working in concert to invite us to explore the present, reflect upon the past, and attempt to imagine the future.

In all these ways, Metabody is exemplary in mapping out the territory that, inevitably, we must explore over the next few years: 3D space, the human-computer interface, digital representation via avatars, and the integration of CD-ROM with the Internet.

Planet of Noise, on the other hand, is not procedural, since it appears to embody no rules other than the one that clicking on a 3-dimensional sphere causes the next aphorism to appear. Nor is it participatory since eschews any kind of real interactivity. It is indifferent to spatial exploration, constraining the viewer to the flat plane of the computer screen. But it is however—in the range, depth, and quality both of the ideas and their (written) expression—encyclopedic. As well as maddening. And fascinating.

The graphics and audio are superb, as is the writing. And the underlying idea—to use digital media to reinvigorate the aphorism—is startling and original. But it seems, to me, that the Planet of Noise team members laboured in isolation, combining their efforts at the last moment, since the images and sounds appear to bear, at best, only a tangential relationship to the texts.

Parading these (perceived) flaws with almost reckless indifference, Planet of Noise is still—because of the quality of its ideas and its ambition—preferable to most CD-ROM titles: whether the usual commercial dreck or the earnest, well-meaning outpourings of the “Australia on CD” program.

It might be best to finish by giving McKenzie Wark the last word. In an aphorism titled Review he writes: “At least he did me the honour of taking the trouble to misunderstand me.”

Metabody: CD-ROM by Gary Zebington, Jeffrey Cook and Sam de Silva, Merlin; Planet of Noise: CD-ROM by Brad Miller and McKenzie Wark

RealTime issue #21 Oct-Nov 1997 pg. 23

© Jonathon Delacour; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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