Melinda Rackham's Online Installations
by Sean Cubitt

Artlink: e-volution of new media,
Guest Editor: Kathy Cleland
Vol 21 No 3, Australia,
September 2001, p24-26.

Time is the key. They say that the only law of physics that absolutely requires time is the second law of thermodynamics, the law that says systems tend towrds entropy. That tendency is time's arrow, ineluctible winding down of the universe. Except, of course, for life. Life, evolution especially, has a way of increasing the level of inofrmation in a system. And then there's the question of experimental proof. A system of manageable size is always going to have to be a closed system. If the experiment fails to prove the second law, you can always say it was because the system wasn't truly closed: that dirt, noise, life, evolution, got into the system and fouled up the results. Alternatively, you can try to work in an open system. But then, you are dealing with the universe, and there's a long wait to find outWhat Happens Next.

A roundabout way of saying that we really don't know what time is. Let's say: does the future exist? A nd the answers are multiple -- yes. but. Does the past exist? And in the same way as the present?

I'm only asking because Melinda Rackham's latest VRML (virtual reality modelling language - 3D for the web) online installation is so present, and yet, but, and, maybe when it comes to how it exists in time. Put it like this: a film already exists by the time you go and see it. Let's say, a weird film. One you don't get until the end, when suddenly you say 'Ah Ha! So that's what it was all about!'. The film exists before you see it, it exists differently while you watch it, and has another existence at the moment when, in retrospect, you put it all together. Okay, so what happens when you inhabit a world that doesn't respond to or correspond with the expectations you have of either the ordinary world or the web? One that doesn't sell anything, search, find, instruct? And what about the code?

Jodi's blinking first screen (www.jodi.org) is incomrehensible until you open View Source and check the code. It's a les son in net.art 101: code matters. In rackham's work, the vrml code underlies the possibilities of the world imaged and imagined on the user screen. How do we inhabit a world that is encoded? Is it a closed system? Will it devolve? In what times does it exist? I ask because when most conversations about vrml take place (after the one about cross-platform compatibility) they are about the spatialisation of the web. But that is not what makes this piece so lovely.

I can wax lyrical for a paragraph here about the translucence of the avatars, the way you can swim through veils of what appear to be surfaces derived from rock or sand (but the scales are so fluid it's hard to tell) and how we move inside and outside, so that they are at once the world and the inhabitants of the world, and interact with each other in unheard of ways, except of course that they are heard, with a gurgling vocabulary of sonic devices constructed elegantly and eloquently by Mitchell Whitelaw, and about how exquisitely peaceful it is to be in here.

All of which is too obvious to be worth paying a reviewer to notice for you. What is so decisive about this, why it is a work in every best sense is that its floating is not, intuitively, aimless, even though it has no teleology. Firstly, there is the system, described by the code. And then there are the activities, behaviours, events made possible by the code and by the random generation of differences unschooled users bring to the scene, disturbing the distributed actions and sounds. There is enough interactivity to make it feel personal, close, haptic; but not so much as to demand that we learn -- instead, the invitation is to experience, but that, and here it comes, that experience, any experience, and _empyrean_ is to some extent so devoid of pedagogic content as to be 'any-experience-whatever' as Deleuze might have said, is an experience of duration.

The weirdness is as follows. Duration is supposed to be a quality of open systems. This is a closed system, defined by its code. And yet, it does produce the sensation, the phenomenon, of duration. It takes time, passes the time, strips space of what was, for a brief moment back then, its postmodern dominance, and of its imperial claim, to provide us once again, we mortals, with the sense that distance and space are conquerable but time is navigable, and that time navigates us as surely as we navigate time.

The first generation of digital media artists broke through the flat field of Greenberg's aesthetic and ascetic modernism, bypassing theatre, to revel in layers, and in the electronic zone of the z-axis. Digital media are, whatever else, a medium of address: they call, invoke, invite, a viewer and a listener to enter, to see what's behind, to plunge into the e-environment, in ways that painting and even film had abandoned in the era of vanguard frontality. Then the only defence against the spatialising of history was to deny space its third dimension: today, we can insist, there is no space that is not also temporal.

Rackham's gentle, inhabit able world is not, however, a simple immersion. We've seen that trick in CAVEs and MOOs, and CAVEs and MOOs have moved on anyway. It is not a space but a time that swallows selfhood, substituting not another space but another time. This, if I can hear it right, is what the soundscapes say: microtones, fragments of sound so swift as to sound like textures before they solidify into notes, flickering between audibility and silence. What strikes me so about these wandering sprites is that they exist aty the frin pge of experience because they seem to avoid rpesence, to be at once becomings and fadings, without a being in the middle into which to the wanderer can pitch a flag.

As we discover the possibilities of a world without boundaries, Melinda Rackham offers the chance to consider the boundary of the present, that great divide between one mode of existence and another, and in this her world is wonderfully thrown athwart the mainstreaming of sublimity: she does not escape the present by ascending to the unspeakbale -- she finds it most of all in the fading of an echo, the drawn breath before the next murmur of surprise.


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