Visual Arts: A rom affair

`Scrutiny in the Great Round' has been hailed as the first CD- Rom masterpiece. Dominic Cavendish investigates
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A History of Art student, c2040, sits alone in his concentration- enhancing "think tank", struggling to finish his Internet university multiple- choice finals. Although he has digested the contents of the "Complete History of World Figurative and Abstract Art" CD-Rom and learnt how to walk blindfold round virtual reconstructions of late 20th-century installations, he hasn't prepared for the last question: when was the first CD-Rom recognised as a work of art?

The answer, for the digital record, is of course 12 February 1996, the moment when Jean-Michel Jarre handed the Milia D'Or Grand Prix (the multi- media publishing industry's highest accolade) to the creators of Scrutiny in the Great Round in Cannes. Historians may wish to quibble; after all, the Washington Post heralded the new dawn on 31 January - "The first time a disc is not about art, but actually is the art". And there are undoubtedly examples of artwork on CD-Rom prior to this; only a few months ago the London arts magazine Engaged appeared in disc format to enable some of the artists currently working in multi-media to get a look-in. But future generations will look back on the Jarre incident as decisive: here was a fledgling industry, synonymous with games and encylopedic tomes, sticking its neck out. Here was a CD-Rom (and an American CD-Rom at that) that not only looked good but looked like art.

"Art with a capital A," says writer Jim Gasperini who, together with New York artist Tennessee Rice Dixon (and composer Charlie Morrow), devised Scrutiny. After three years on the project, they have cause to feel vindicated. "There is still a lot of pressure on all sides to question what you are doing," Dixon explains. "Why you are making it, how you are going to market it, what the point is. No one would dream of asking you, `Why are you buying oil paints?' " Neither of them is in the slightest doubt that they are artists. "I struggle with my work, I put in a lot of hours and work a lot alone," Dixon says. Gasperini likens the tools of his trade (Director 4.0, MoviePlayer) to the modus operandi of the greats: "We had a 256-colour palette, which you could say was a constraint but Picasso and Braque did pretty well with that."

Whether or not others will see them as artists is another question. There is a residual prejudice about computer-based art. All-singing, all-dancing multi-media (video, sound, you name it) might be a God-given helpmeet to enable artists mixing different media to get the job done. It might also be a cue for gimmickry, or worse, geekery. Gasperini raises this spectre with some jargon-specials: "navigate your way through a landscape of the imagination" ; "an information space in four dimensions". But on loading the disc, you realise this nebulousness owes less to techy hubris and more to the difficulty inherent in trying to paraphrase the work's unpredictable metamorphoses. The work draws on a collage book that Dixon made from pictures rummaged from "stairwells and bins", and adds motion. "I particularly like it when a vase turns into some stairs and then into a woman holding a bowl and then into a guy in a desperate state and then into a bowl before the whole thing returns to a winter scene," she confesses. Ridiculous though it sounds, her gushy, childish wonder is strangely apt.

You are presented with two loops of 12 tableaux, which are so finely wrought that they resemble not so much collages as medieval tapestries. Stills, photographs and reproductions of historical etchings are all intricately interlaced. You can either move between them or animate parts of them with a mouse-click when your cursor turns into a sun or a moon icon. The overall scope is trans-historical and transcultural (the scenes have grandiloquent titles - Egression, Concupiscence, Progeny, Parturition etc). There are ambient sound effects a go-go, ranging from samples of bees buzzing and tribal drumming to Dr Who-style radiophonics. The first scene establishes a masculine / feminine dynamic: a horsehead that morphs into a knight in armour, fish- and pigs' heads and balls of flame on the one hand, Mayan wood carvings that double up as Renaissance nymphs on the other. The effect can be stunning: Hieronymus Bosch meets the moon landing meets the Cheshire Cat. It can also be over-egged by nonsensical scrolling text - "A granular high romance imaginary syllable in which a dead person is buried" - and grating looped voices.

According to Gasperini, the non-linear structure empowers the experiencer ("we haven't yet come up with a word for the person yet") to find their own way intuitively as well as rationally, "exploring connections between the spirit and the body, and questions about the soul". He likens this interactivity to being able to watch, at your own pace, a film rich in painterly detail, and cites the work of Peter Greenaway. This seems to go to the heart of Scrutiny's strengths and weaknesses. Greenaway's installation at the Spellbound exhibition at the Hayward deconstructs filmic elements in much the same way - breaking down what the mind registers fleetingly as a whole into its constituent parts (props, actors etc). The result is witty, but coldly clinical. The disc acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of the technology: it can throw abundance your way, but the double-click system by which you scrutinise that abundance is highly repetitive and impersonal. More importantly, you become prejudiced against the still image, being led to the detail via the animation. The overall picture seems irrelevant. There is a world of difference between thinking "I never would have noticed that" and being told to notice every fragment under your nose.

"Collage is a way of organising a world overloaded with information," Dixon believes. Her co-partner Gasperini, however, looks forward to a time when he can "encorporate anything I find in my life into this piece". Maybe our brains will evolve (and our social lives devolve) to the point where these two statements don't sound contradictory.

n `Scrutiny' is published by Macmillan Interactive, pounds 39.99

n `Engaged' Magazine, pounds 10 (0171-735 3123)