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Illuminated thesaurus

Mitchell Whitelaw

CD-ROM, once the medium of choice for ‘multimedia’, has lost much of its lustre in the past 5 years. In a catalogue essay for the MCA’s 1996 show Burning the Interface, curator Mike Leggett held out the CD as bronze sculpture for the 21st century; a new and replicable form for artistic expression. At the time, technological novelty, marketing hype and creative energy melded into a flurry of activity which quickly subsided. A new technological form caught hold: the net, and in particular the web—and the idea of the CD as the new coffee table book, drawing a paying audience of domestic digerati, proved too good to be true. The CD was revealed as just another storage technology, and not a great one at that: only moderately capacious, and slow, too slow for high-resolution video or really dense hypermedia.

Now the hot disc is DVD, and the CD is an everyday utility item, having survived because it’s still the cheapest and most convenient way to publish a large, static, self-contained chunk of data. Phone directories and reference books work well on CD. As an interesting consequence, a space opens for creative practice as the new Macquarie Dictionary and Thesaurus on CD shows. It includes Roget’s Circular, a work by Tasmanian artists Lisa Roberts and Melissa Smith. Not just filling spare space on the disc, the work is tightly knitted into the Thesaurus, such that Macquarie bills it as an “illumination.” An appealing thought, why shouldn’t all our databases—search engines, encyclopedias, phone books—be digitally illuminated? Digital art weaving itself into the grids of everyday, utilitarian computing, gold leaf and curling vines gone hyper.

Roget’s Circular takes the form of a collection of fragmentary images and texts, derived from the artists’ travels and correpondence over 2 years. The fragments are filtered through Roget’s own 12 categories of meaning, the architecture of his quest to order and organise the chaotic tangle of the language; the Circular is a personal network of memory, experience and association which is entwined with the officially constructed network of the Thesaurus. Another appealing idea, yet it just never takes off. The fragments are often beautiful, and sometimes interesting, but the networks of significance are mostly obscure and the urge to keep clicking wanes quickly. The work’s integration with the Thesaurus proper is mostly effective; portals to and from the Circular are linked to relevant entries. A shame, though, that the massive hyperstructure inherent in the thesaurus, the network of links from every word to countless others, goes unexploited by either the thesaurus itself or the Circular. (For a counter-example, see Plumb Design’s Visual Thesaurus,

Roget’s Circular, Lisa Roberts and Melissa Smith, as part of Macquarie Dictionary and Thesaurus on CD-ROM (PC only).

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 23

© Mitchell Whitelaw; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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