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"Griffin & Sabine's" letters go digital

Found this at Salon Magazine. The URL is
<http://www.salonmagazine.com/21st/reviews/1998/11/13review.html>. Thought
it was interesting, especially since we've discussed non-linearity,
artist's books, and hypertext.


"Griffin & Sabine's" letters go digital - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -



When I started reviewing CD-ROMs six years ago, heaps of hardware
requirements, incompatibilities and other technological hurdles stood in
the way of enjoying the new products. In those days a CD-ROM review was, of
necessity, as much a bug report as a work of critical thought. Some day, I
dreamed, we'd get beyond all that -- and be able to talk about what
imaginative artists were doing in the new medium without having to
apologize for all the trouble it took to experience their work.

It hasn't worked out that way. Nearly every computer sold today comes with
a CD-ROM drive. Yet bad products and technical glitches gave the entire
CD-ROM format a bad name, while the Web came along and provided better
diversions and more timely information. Today, outside of the game
industry, major creative projects for CD-ROM are an endangered species.

And so the arrival of "Ceremony of Innocence" -- an adaptation of the
"Griffin & Sabine" trilogy for CD-ROM by Peter Gabriel's Real World
Multimedia company -- comes as a strangely atavistic surprise, a throwback
to the early '90s heyday of CD-ROM art. Even at this late date, "Ceremony"
is not immune to technological snafus -- confirming that this medium will
never achieve the kind of success its pioneers hoped for. But the playful,
visually exquisite disk is good enough, both as a tale and as a multimedia
production, to show us what we're missing as we allow this potential art
form to wither.

"Griffin & Sabine," the popular book by Nick Bantock (followed closely by
"Sabine's Notebook" and "The Golden Mean"), tells how a brooding English
artist -- Griffin -- one day begins to receive cryptic postcards from a
mysterious woman in the South Seas -- Sabine -- who seems to have
telepathic access to his paintings and sketches. The form was more
interesting than the tale: Bantock unfolded his epistolary narrative via
artful, symbolically laden postcards and niftily

designed letters, stuffed into actual envelopes glued to the book's pages,
making the reader an eavesdropper on the characters' intimacies.

At first, the notion of translating such a proudly physical work into the
disembodied digital realm seems to make no sense: What could a computer
screen possibly add to the "Griffin & Sabine" experience to make up for the
loss of the book's paper pleasures and tactile seductions?

"Ceremony of Innocence" provides thoroughly persuasive answers, chiefly in
the form of designer Alex Mayhew's uniquely inventive animations. One of
the grand problems of multimedia design has always been, how do you hook a
user with a narrative while also rendering a story "interactive"? There
have been endless efforts to solve this problem, some remarkable, many

"Ceremony's" response is to sidestep the issue. The tale of Griffin and
Sabine proceeds in linear fashion, letter by letter and postcard by
postcard; but each individual missive has been turned into a miniature
interactive artwork. Lizards and birds and bugs on stamps go on
cross-screen rampages; a goldfish swimming in a goblet smashes through the
glass and wags its fins across the page, smudging the postcard ink; a rose
sprouts from a seashell, and its roots stretch slowly across the screen to
open the flap of an envelope.

The designs are creative not only in their images but in how they respond
to your input. "Ceremony" relies on neither the old "Living Books"-style
"click on something to see what it does" approach nor the "Myst"/"Seventh
Guest" gambit of "solve this fiendish puzzle before you can find out what
happens next." Instead, each new card or letter in "Ceremony" engages you
in a different way. Sometimes the cursor gets transformed into a moon or is
swallowed by a beast or even disappears altogether. Sometimes you sit back
and watch a little show; other times you must intervene for the show to
proceed. The feeling is less one of problem-solving -- how do I get past
this thing? -- than simple goofing around. And the payoff in clever, droll,
imaginative visions is clear and immediate.

The other chief advantage "Ceremony" has over its paper counterpart is the
addition of voices -- specifically, those of Paul McGann and Isabella
Rossellini, whose limpid accent brings a note of sultry exoticism to her
character. (Ben Kingsley has a cameo as a sinister interloper in the
couple's saga.) In the lengthier letters, the voice-overs take over while
"Ceremony" makes the words quite literally come alive -- the text dances
elusively on screen. (Just don't try to read along.)

"Ceremony" isn't perfect: Among other things, the disk brings more to
center stage Bantock's references to Yeats' "The Second Coming," and the
poem's grim foretaste of apocalypse makes a jarring counterpoint to
"Griffin & Sabine's" predominantly playful designs and romantic yearnings.
Nonetheless, this is the kind of adaptation that makes you see more in the
original work than you originally thought there was; it enhances rather
than diminishes its material.

Which is why I'm sorry to report that, at this late stage in the life of
the CD-ROM medium, "Ceremony" is still, like so many of its predecessors,
prone to strange bugs and glitches that stop you in your tracks. I'll spare
you the dull details of "script errors" and quirky cross-platform behavior
(the disk runs on both Windows and Mac systems); just know that, if it
weren't for the "cheats" provided to members of the press, I'd have never
gotten past the first half dozen postcards.

If you aren't frightened by the occasional program crash, "Ceremony" is
still worth hunting down. Released last year in the United Kingdom, it has
only recently found a North American distributor. Today, selling artistic
CD-ROMs is a vanishing business. Let's just hope that the creativity behind
worthwhile projects like "Ceremony of Innocence" doesn't disappear as well.

SALON | Nov. 13, 1998

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - E-mail Scott Rosenberg.

>>    In schoen gebundenen Buechern blaettert man gern.   <<

Peter D. Verheyen
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<Webmaster>              http://www.dreamscape.com/pdverhey
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