TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
Such are the speed and self-consciousness with which the electronic media are evolving, that ScruTiny in the Great Round already looks like a milestone in the progress of the new art form. Based on a book by artist Tennessee Rice Dixon, it reaches the British public, courtesy of Macmillan Interactive Publishing (pounds 39.99), trailing the Milia D'Or prize it won at the MILIA multimedia festival in Cannes earlier this year.

Like more conventional CD-ROMs, ScruTiny has pretensions to grand themes. But instead of "World War Two" or "The Solar System", its compass embraces the cycle of life and death, yin, yang, masculine and the feminine. Reproduction is strongly emphasised. Among the disc's many reiterated motifs, my favourite was the moon image, which on second glance is a pearly representation of a cell in the process of division, its chromosomes like the markings on the lunar surface.

The disc's signature is its ever-changing cursor. Sometimes it's a sun and sometimes a crescent moon, sometimes light and dark, and now and again it turns into a fish. And what goes for the cursor goes for the work as a whole. Translated into multimedia, the principal device of Dixon's collage- based art becomes the morph. Out of those I stumbled upon, the smartest was in the "Romance" section. The male figure is represented by a suit of armour clutching a bouquet. Clicking on the visor of the helmet activates a sequence of eyes morphing into each other. I thought the chameleon was a particularly sly take on that old warhorse of gender theory, the male gaze. Another nice touch is the reclining female nude who rotates to the vertical, seeming in the process to assert control over the mirror in front of her.

Details like these are not what makes 'ScruTiny' look like a historical milestone, however. It is notable for the fact of being a multimedia artwork in itself, rather than a multimedia work about art. But rather than being a fully-fledged specimen of the new form, it's more of an archaeopteryx, closer to the dinosaurs than the birds. And, unfortunately, its evolutionary forebear is the album cover. You may have thought that CDs had sent the form into eclipse, but with CD-ROM, you'll believe an album cover can fly.

ScruTiny is, in fact, a work in the High Psychedelic style, where Symbolism and Tolkien meet. Rather than being an adjunct to a hallucinatory experience, like the stroboscopics that the rave generation enjoy, it suggests LSD recollected in tranquillity. The effects are generated by manipulating pixels, not synapses. In the current state of the art, not to mention the current state of my computer, its animations are slightly jerky, many of them also ectoplasmic and monochrome, evoking the pioneering cinematic special effects of Melies. This resonance sustains the impression that ScruTiny is a milestone, but an early one.

"Users should view this title as an interactive dream," advises Dixon. But its success depends on the maintenance of illusion, and those of us who have the knack of "lucid dreaming" know that the more you interact with a dream, the more the illusion is attenuated. At first, the mutating cursor is confusing, but you rapidly get the hang of it, and gradually the workings of the disc's more complex sequences also start to become apparent. The morphing sequences of a film like Terminator 2 would have palled if we had been handed the controls of the special-effects generator as we watched. Striking a balance between illusion and interactivity will be an intriguing challenge for the pioneers of the new media.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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