"ScruTiny in the Great Round"

Published December 30, 1995 12:51PM (EST)

When two programs share the same place in a computer's memory, it's bad news -- the digital equivalent of a nervous breakdown. But when two ideas share the same place in a human memory, we feel a rush of inspiration -- we've made a psychological connection, or found a pattern.

Computers interpret ambiguity as error, whereas people interpret it as epiphany. The gray areas that make systems crash make us dream.

Ambiguity is the natural mode of "ScruTiny in the Great Round" --
a collage of found images and sounds, texts and textures, musings, music and morphing animations. "ScruTiny" is one vast gray area: there are no buttons or windows here, and precious few straight lines. The impulse behind the work is less informational than contemplative. "ScruTiny's" creators abandon the norms of digital design, in which all states are clearly defined, for a more fluid realm where all states are transitional.

In the CD's opening screen, a trout and an eagle emerge from the dark boughs of opposing trees and exchange places in a shadowy, stately processional. As you wander deeper into "ScruTiny's" forest, crickets chirp, water rushes and clocks tick in the background. The cursor mutates from sun to moon to fish to coiled, double-helix-like rope.

Recumbent nudes fade in and out of vision. Roses grow to fill the screen. Horses gallop by the seaside. A spiral staircase winds into darkness. A baby floats in a starry void, morphing first into a kind of wind-up-toy shell and then melting into a ring-shaped version of itself. Recitals of texts from the Song of Songs, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad-Gita and William Blake fade in and out. There is no single path through the work, but there's a loosely circular design, packed with enough variation and depth to make multiple journeys appealing.

Unlike many multimedia-art abstractions, "ScruTiny in the Great Round" is most definitely about something: the cycle of death and rebirth as animated by male and female principles, represented on the CD by alternate "sun" and "moon" versions of each iconic tableau. (Jungians will be very much at home here.)

If the plethora of eggs and wombs and fruit doesn't make the focus clear enough for the literal-minded, the names of the screens that you find on the CD's index page -- like "conception," "pregnancy," "nesting" and "progeny" -- leave no room for doubt.

Evocations of the eternal masculine and feminine can easily degenerate into New Age-style vapidity or unwitting gender stereotyping. (Men fight; women nurture.) What saves "ScruTiny" creators Tennessee Rice Dixon and Jim Gasperini is their own artistry and taste.

Dixon first conceived of "ScruTiny" as an expensive, limited-edition foldout book of collages; multimedia designer Gasperini collaborated with her in transforming "ScruTiny" from book to CD-ROM. But there's no feeling here of a work crudely "ported" from one medium to another. Instead, "ScruTiny's" origins on physical paper lend the CD's images and textures a hand-crafted quality more subtle and complex than anything an artist could generate with Photoshop filters.

If it works on paper, why, then, put it on disk? First of all, a $35 CD-ROM can reach a much wider audience than a $1700 handmade book. More important, the mysterious soundtrack (by composer Charlie Morrow) and the subtly transmuting animations turn the static tableaux of Dixon's collages into an enveloping, dynamic world with its own sense of time and drama.

In the CD-ROM medium, excess is the norm; Dixon and Gasperini exercise restraint instead. "ScruTiny's" color scheme is limited to dark tans, blacks and highlights of red, and the morph effects summoned with a mouse-click tend to be slow, delicate processes limited to small corners of the screen -- they invite you to find them, instead of shouting, "Over here!"

"ScruTiny's" expressive palette is broader than we're used to finding in CD-ROM-based art -- suggesting that the limitations of so many CDs are less those of the medium itself, as people often conclude, than those of the artists working in it. What today's multimedia demands is creators who can imagine new uses for the computer as an artistic platform -- uses for which it was never originally designed.

Dixon and Gasperini aren't afraid of being blurry and nebulous along the way to being absorbing and evocative. Along with kindred artists like Laurie Anderson -- whose "Puppet Motel" shares some of "ScruTiny's" atmospheres, if not its concerns -- they are making multimedia safe for ambiguity.

Visit "Scrutiny's" Web Site

An Interview with
Tennessee Rice Dixon and Jim Gasperini

Tennessee Rice Dixon and Jim Gasperini

SALON: How did "ScruTiny in the Great Round" develop?

Jim Gasperini: Tennessee and I met at a Unitarian church years ago and became friends, and I've been collecting her work since then. I always thought that her technique of layering, and of changing images from one page to the next, was very morph-like already. I thought if I could convince her to start working on a computer, it would be an interesting tool for her, and she would do a lot for the medium itself.

Tennessee Rice Dixon: About two years ago Jim and I started to work on this, and before that I hadn't worked on a computer before. I have always liked animation. I found it really gratifying that a computer was able to create animation so immediately. I've been making books for a long time. And a book is a time-based thing -- it suggests movement and transition. So it was a natural step to go into moving images. And then adding sound was yet another great dimension. I often start with texts when I'm making a picture, so I liked being able to incorporate text -- either spoken or embedded in another layer.

Jim and I wanted to work together on something, and then we decided on using the images from one of my books. The idea wasn't to redo a book in a CD-ROM form. But the subject matter of the book was far from being completed in my mind -- there was a lot to work with. The book and the CD are two different things with different qualities. Some things are lost and others gained. When I look at the book, I'm holding something. When I see the moving images, they're so satisfying, and it kind of goes into more depth, it fleshes out the page. It's a bit more abstract, though, and there's some loss of things like color. But it doesn't seem to matter so much, because the images are quite graphic, and they can withstand being reduced to pretty low resolution.

SALON: A lot of multimedia developers get frustrated with the technical limitations of CD-ROMs.

Gasperini: Think of the way a composer composes for an orchestra. There's a certain range of freedom you have -- but you have to understand the physical limitations, too. We like to think of the user as the last collaborator in an artistic process. They're performing the work, too, in a way. They choose which way to go through it, what to do, how long, how many times to repeat a certain thing.

SALON: How do people react to "ScruTiny"?

Gasperini: It's fascinating for us to watch somebody go through it. Each person has their own style. I watched one guy go back and forth from the sun to the moon to the sun to the moon, entranced. I wanted to put my hand in front of his eyes!

Dixon: Some people don't really get it at first, but then they get caught later. It turns around and affects them in some way they weren't quite sensitive to the first time. In this country, people don't read much poetry, often because they haven't read something that's really grabbed them. But when they do, then they're more open to reading other poetry -- they get that poetry has an effect, and that it's very wonderful. It takes time to become receptive.

Gasperini: Still, from the very beginning we've been getting extraordinarily powerful reactions from people. One woman, she was Italian, she said she hadn't had such a "spiritual frappe" since she was confirmed at age 13 in St. Peter's! Another guy, his wife had been trying to convince him to have a baby for years. He spent some time with "ScruTiny," and now, well, their baby has just been born.

SALON: What do you tell people that "ScruTiny" is "about"?

Dixon: The meaning just grows as time goes on. I like to talk about, not what I was trying to convey, but what the material was conveying as we were putting it together. Collage works that way -- you bring stuff together and then meaning starts to unfold. There is a story-line of cycles of life, and masculine and feminine, and pregnancy and birth. But the images that we've used have come from traditions and histories that are already embedded with meaning, and I'm just passing them on. I'm still learning, when I'm looking at it, what it's conveying.

Gasperini: The end-result is an evocation, that's what I like to say. I've suggested to the publisher that they call it "An Interactive Evocation," but that was just a bit too obscure for them. I can see why!

By 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.

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