From Wood to Bits

Rodney Greenblat's Super-Mission Against the Mediogre


Scott Rosenberg
November 13, 1995 1:34AM (UTC)

Television is turning the children of America into brainwashed zombies!

The latest lecture from some thundering moralist of the left or right? Hardly. You'll find this battlecry not far beneath the Day-glo facade of Rodney Alan Greenblat's Dazzeloids -- a cockeyed call to arms against "medioocrity and boredom" in the clever disguise of a children's CD-ROM.

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Greenblat, a New York-based artist and sculptor who first made the jump to multimedia with his 1992 Rodney's Wonder Window, so artfully straddles the border between kiddie-product naivete and underground-camp irony that even he can't figure out where his work belongs.

Dazzeloids' quartet of boredom-battling superheroes includes a "super-strong weight-lifting hulk who loves to read and write beautiful poetry" named Titan Rose; Stinkabod Lami, an incontinent sheep who likes to slam-dance and bungee jump; and a four-armed, Scottish-accented electronics whiz named Yendor Talbneerg (try it backwards). Their leader is exiled princess Anne Dilly Whim, a horned crusader in Victorian finery. Their adversary is the BLANDO Corporation and its mogul -- the Mediogre, a green worm in a double-breasted blazer.

In a manifesto published at Greenblat's Dazzeloids Web site, Anne Dilly Whim declares:

"Dazzeloids believe freedom and technology can make the difference
for us, but it must be in the hands of creatives and children.
Pacifiers are not allowed. Entertainment should be sublime. Fun
should be a vocation not a vacation. Dazzeloids eat the eye candy
and slurp the ear soup. GOOSE THE TECHNOLOGY. BE YOUR OWN
FOLLOWER. ROLL OVER AND PLAY GENIUS. COMPLETE A SUPER-MISSION."

Dazzeloids eagerly lampoons the conventions of multimedia: its startup screen announces a "Complicated Initialization Procedure" with activities like "Fleecing RAM Sheep." But Greenblat still finds room in the new digital media for the kind of creative individualism that the BLANDOs of the world long ago expunged from broadcast-land.

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A one-man multimedia band with a sandy shock of hair, narrow shoulders and an elfin face, Greenblat talked to us at the recent Macromedia Developers' Conference in San Francisco.


When people look at Dazzeloids they get a full measure of
your sensibility. That sort of character is often missing from CD-ROMs.

They're missing the personality of the creator. And that is an abstract
thing -- you can't write in a marketing proposal, "CONTAINS ARTIST'S PERSONALITY!" But it's crucially important.

I've just finished reading a book about Walt Disney, and in a way that's what he did. After a while he didn't do any of the drawings or even think up the ideas. But he did manage somehow to inject his vision into everything. And it went on even after he died.

I think viewers, players, users, whatever you want to call them, are
interested in people, in personality. Maybe a hardcore gamer doesn't care about that -- he wants action. But if you're talking about a general audience, they want a teacher, they want a comedian, they want an entertainer. When you don't have that, you're missing a lot.

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That's what Dazzeloids is all about, right? You've got the Mediogre selling this impersonal stuff -- like the life-cycle of the houseplant or the idiotic Wonder Prunes. And then you send in these characters to rescue the kids and show them something with more life.

What disappoints me is that Prince -- the guy who used to be called Prince -- or David Bowie come out with CD-ROMs, but they didn't make them! You've got producers and a bunch of multimedia people making it for them. Wouldn't it be great if David Bowie knew how to use Director and sat down and created his own vision? Wouldn't it be great if the technology were easy enough to use or learn that those people could do that? You'd get some amazing things. And it won't be long. The technology's getting better and cheaper. It does that quickly. Eventually some techno-Kurt Cobain out there will write something for the Mac or Windows that will be great.

At a recent conference on Digital Storytelling, speakers disagreed over the value of experiments in interactive narrative -- some seemed to think they were a waste of time.

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The sort of collaborative creative environments that can exist on the computer are great. But I don't see them as storytelling, really. World-building, virtual environments -- I think that's going to be an art form. And it should be.

As far as linear storytelling goes, it's . . . forever. We're a
storytelling society, and there will always be a beginning, a middle and an
end -- that's how stories work. But maybe this idea of branching or nonlinear stories is also feasible, and all these things can exist at the same
time.

There's plenty of room for all this stuff to happen. And I don't think any one of them is better than another. It's hard to say, is a book better than a movie? Is a TV show more important than a comic book? Maybe there's a fantastic comic book and a terrible novel -- or a horrible movie that cost $30 million.

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I told a friend I was including Dazzeloids in a roundup of children's CD-ROMs, and she said, "That's not really for kids, is it?"

That's one of my own problems with my work. I have a really childlike outlook. And I want to entertain myself. I also want to invite kids into it -- and I like the things kids like. They're basically really open-minded adults. They're short, very open-minded people. So I like them as an audience. But I don't necessarily design for them.

Dazzeloids was supposed to be a commercial kids' thing, an improved Living Books. But as I started working on it I got inspired, and I started loving the characters and wanting to do all this crazy stuff that wasn't necessarily for kids, it was really for me. Recently, at Voyager, we've been talking about not marketing it as a kid's product anymore, but instead as something more for the college crowd. A wacky alternative piece of some sort.

It's a crossover!

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It would be great to have a crossover, if there was a huge distribution
system where crossover things could exist. But it's so hard today, because
everything's so categorized.

You're working on a sequel?

I want to make it a game this time: you're there with the Dazzeloids. You get to hang out with them, go on a trip with them.

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[Voyager president] Bob Stein wants me to do the most outrageous thing I can possibly think of. That's incredibly inspiring but also really scary. I have a family, and I'd like to actually sell some of these things. When I ask Bob, "If I make something that's so totally underground and bizarre, how can we sell it?" his response is, "Don't worry about that." But you know what? It's a little worrisome! I want people to see it and enjoy it. I don't want it to be completely underground.

You started out as a sculptor, so you moved from wood to bits -- from a medium of physical objects into this realm of digital abstraction.

I guess I don't think of it that way. When I first started using the
computer, to me there were a lot of parallels to the way I make sculpture. I made it in a very layered way. The computer's like that, too. It felt natural. And there was no sawdust. I liked that. The sawdust was a problem. A lot of artists become ill from doing stuff like that, using fiberglass, these dangerous materials. Still, I had no idea that I would just completely drop the sculpture studio.

Now you're building a Web site and creating "Clickamajigs," these downloadable digital toys for Nickelodeon Online on AOL.

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Two of them are up there, "Two Dogs Meet" and "Mr. Whatever." They're little standalone comic vignettes. It's a great assignment -- they're letting me do whatever I want. The only requirement is that they be under a megabyte.

That will change fast. Two years from now, we'll probably say, remember when we had to wait to download those files?

Sometimes it's hard for me to see that when I'm working on things and
they move so slowly. I think every multimedia developer feels that frustration.

But it's also kind of amazing that it works at all. Two years ago, how many people had heard of the Web?

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That's right. And there'll be something next year that we haven't thought of at all.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

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