Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Here come the singing insects

Doors of Perception

Amsterdam, 30-31 October 1993

It was in wide-eyed late adolescence that I last turned to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. I had forgotten that the title id from Blake, who promised “Of the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” These cleansing properties are, presumably, being scribed to interactive digital media. It is both paradox and irony that a technology that has evolved from megarithmetic machines built to quantify massive but resolutely finite properties should be subverted to the cause of the arts, and romanticised. But even mathematicians think in pictures nowadays.

I had forgotten, too, that the conclusion of Huxley’s description of his mescalin experiment focuses so sharply on the abandonment of non-verbal and inherently instinctive modes of thought. He complained that “Verbalists are suspicious of the non-verbal; rationalists fear the given, non-rational fact; intellectuals feel that ‘what we perceive by the eye (or in any other way) is foreign to us as such and need not impress us deeply.”

This thought echoed around “Doors of Perception”, a conference convened by the newly formed Netherlands Design Institute and Mediamatic magazine to “consider the cultural and economic challenges of interactivity and the role of design in turning information into knowledge”. Either by accident or design, the first day fell to the visual thinkers, and the secnd to the scribes.

In both camps, and among neutrals, practitioners outweighed theoreticians. A colorful roster of speakers with roots in many disciplines – architecture, art, graphic design, music, industrial design, virtual reality and raw computing – made this a true multimedia event. With the exception of a journalist, a writer and an academic, all were actively involved in making the new media.

This was important, for practice has lagged behind theory for too long. The bipolar promise/threat of digital reproduction has, in the absence of supporting fact, been in danger of being reduced to a chain of tarnished truisms. The conference was reminded of several of these by Norbert Bolz of the University of Essen. We know that our notions of authorship will change, that electronically stored information is as inherently unstable and as structurally complex as the society which uses it; that divisions of labour will readjust (that means you, graphic designers: will you peddle commodities or consultancy in the post-print world?). We also know that the arts will converge in a single medium; that we will have to reappraise the relationship between the body, the mind, the machine; and of course, that the supremacy of text over image will be overturned. What we forget is that these McLuhanisms are as much social imperatives rooted in the collapse of scientific infallibility as the plausible effects of technical revolution, and that the technology has yet to deliver. The truth is that we still do not know what the thing which is the sum of digital computing, communication and imaging technologies will become.

Now that consumable multimedia products are flowing into the marketplace, expectation has crystallised into frustration as so few fulfil the promise of interactivity. The existing manifestations of interactive media have obstinately borrowed too much of the structural and intellectual baggage of their linear predecessors, and thus we talk and design in metaphors which make the strange familiar – the electronic book, interactive television, the on-line newspaper. Perhaps we should not be surprised that a conservative computer industry dedicated to the military-industrial pursuit of accuracy, speed and efficiency has been found wanting as a provider of art, information and entertainment. This is why the practical demonstrations at “Doors of Perception” were so welcome for their dedication to human well-being and pleasure.

In David Collier’s Virtual Nightclub and Rules for Desktop Design and Typography we saw a new sophistication in virtual world navigation and some of the potential of typographic design in animated time-based media. Collier stated categorically that text is dead; Bob Stein of Voyager proved emphatically that is it not with his Expanded Book series of floppy disc and CD-ROM products, including his new Macbeth, which contains a wealth of quantitative analysis functions as well as qualitative novelties such as the Macbeth “karaoke” with which users can practice speaking parts opposite the voices of Shakespearian actors. Medical neuroscientist Dave Warner gave a tour de force demonstration of the extemporary application of current military-derived virtual reality technologies to useful purpose: the rehabilitation of tetraplegic children. Architects Christian Moller and Kei’ichi Irie turned the “virtual worlds” philosophy on its head (where it belongs, incidentally) by transforming real world environments – buildings and streets – into digital spaces which respond to the presence, and stimulate the senses, of their human occupants.

But all of this was as nothing next to Toshio Iwai’s new game for Nintendo. Super Mario Paint brought the audience to its feet, deservedly, for in creating this “game” the Japanese artist and set designer has put substance into the hitherto empty rhetoric of the proponents of dynamic visual symbolism and the denigrators of verbal language.

The name belies the fact that this is a music-generating program. Four “musical insects” travel back and forth across the x and y axes of a screen grid; each insect represents one of a number of available synthesised sounds – drum, guitar or flute, for example. Along the bottom of the screen is a palette of colours, each representing a different note. To create sound, the user draws a colour across the path of the insect. The distance between the stripes of colour (or notes) creates timing. Thus harmonies are written and rhythm sections added by containing the insects within grey paint, which forces them to bounce back and forth across the coloured notes. Every time an insect hits a note there is an explosion of synchronised colour. The program is pure pleasure, and for a first time breaks the chain of killing games by replacing a tyranny of rules with an infinity of creative possibilities.

In Super Mario Paint Iwai was invented an entirely new form of musical notation which replaces textual language with real-time events. Eye, ear and instinct come to the fore. While pitch is signified by colour instead of height on the scale, time is signified by a distance and speed, and the score and instrument are merged within a single device. The replacement of symbol with direct physical relationship will enable any child to write and make music.

If such praise is considered as support for the two intimately connected notions that text is dead and systematic reasoning can be abandoned, please think again. It was fortunate that what paltry discussion (interaction!) there was at this conference between audience and speakers sensibly halted such descent into New Age irrationality. Perhaps the last word is best left to Huxley, who said: “Systematic reasoning is something we could not, as a species or as individuals, possibly do without. But neither, if we are to remain sane, can we possibly do without direct perception, the more unsystematic the better, of the inner and outer worlds into which we have been born.”

First published in Eye no. 12 vol. 3, 1994