August 16, 2003
Immemory, a CD-ROM by Chris Marker
English edition translated by Brian Holmes, Exact Change, 2002. $19.95
Originally published in French, Èditions du Centre Pompidou, 1998
Arrest images as photographs; play about the photo with the movie camera’s voyueristic, predatory gaze; add a narrated commentary that is both surprising and yet inevitable: such is the modus operandi of Chris Marker, who most famously employed these methods in the 1962 La Jette (The Jetty) and who has used them to great effect since then, for instance in the 2001 Souvenir d’un avenir (Remembrance of Things to Come), a film he made with Yannick Bellon. In the former film, which Twelve Monkeys is based upon, a man in an apocalyptic future travels back in time to recapture his society’s past, able to do so because of the single memory he retains from his youth. In the latter, Denise Bellon’s photographs are revealed as portentous records of the time between the wars.
These two films demonstrate Marker’s artistic obsession with memory and the way in which his unusual use of still photographs and a commenting voice can play upon the topic beautifully. Given this sort of work, it should not be surprising that Marker’s CD-ROM Immemory contains wonders.
First, it’s appropriate to thank Exact Change and Brian Holmes for bringing this work to an English-speaking audience and readership. Although it would be perfectly apt to supply only a chorus of praise, such praise has, fortunately, been supplied already, even though this CD has kept a low profile in the electronic literature community. After echoing this praise, it’s also appropriate to mention some minor problems in the English Immemory. This 2002 publication highlights the disturbingly limited lifespan of new media works, even those that are professionally published. Although the work deserves to be recommended, this new English edition also raises some important issues about the translation of new media works.
The CD holds many gems, from photographs that Marker took on the set of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran to amusingly appropriated and transformed “Xplugs” to Marker’s take on Vertigo. Poets and well as cinema enthusiasts will find something to like, since Marker discusses contemporary and classic poems. His commentaries take in art and history as well. Central to the piece is his discussion of the power of the madeline, the seemingly trivial object that evokes memories. Although most would choose to pigeonhole Marker as a filmmaker, if they had to select a single label for him, his power as a writer, photographer, and artist are all evident here.
Immemory is Marker’s first CD-ROM, but it is not his first work for the computer. He had previously created Theorie des ensembles, a cartoonish work presented like a silent film, with intertitles. The not-particularly-interactive piece is about the selection of animals for Noah’s ark; it was developed in Apple IIgs HyperCard at the beginning of the 1990s. Although Immemory isn’t this dated, in some ways it looks a relic – which it is. The graphics weren’t just dated enough to seem like a late-1990s Photoshop fest; rather, it actually seemed like Marker had lifted a few fonts from Paint Shop. At first this irked me, but I now find that it fits in well with the rough style of Marker’s filmmaking. I recently got to see two of Marker’s films, including Prime Time in The Camps, a video about young Bosnian refugees producing a TV news program for people to watch in the refugee camp. A compelling piece, it nevertheless seemed to have been slapped together on the refugee’s own equipment. Remembrance of Things to Come had its amateurish moments, too, as when the movement through black-and-white photos would be interrupted by a full-color hand flipping through a magazine or newspaper. While these aspects are quite noticeable, they don’t undercut the power of Marker’s work, either in those two pieces or in Immemory. It’s not that the clunky old-style multimedia elements are used in a way that comments interestingly on them – they aren’t. The images and texts simply have a good enough framework to hold them, for the most part, even if some of it seems clunky and dated.
But the framework is not always adequate, unfortunately. The cursor disappears frequently, making navigation a shot in the dark. Some of the screens of text (Shakepeare’s Sonnet 71, for instance) scroll by too rapidly to be read. The interface is navigable by the persistent user, but its quirks and the need for instructions make it cumbersome. (An important cheat: holding down command-option revels the hot spots on the screen. For me, this quickly transformed the interface experience from tedious to tolerable.) Since I only saw the French edition briefly in 1999, I have no idea whether these difficulties are inherited, introduced by the translation process, or brought about by recent Macintosh system software. (I ran the CD in the OS X classic mode, but trying the CD on a System 9 machine didn’t help, at least not with the most noticeable problems, such as the disappearance of the cursor.) Although the instructions encourage the user to explore the CD thoroughly and in a leisurely way, the poor implementation makes such a request unreasonable, as does the general lack of interactive reward – at best, a cartoon version of Marker’s cat pops up with a special commentary.
The CD is still quite a nice collection; I only bemoan these points to urge that publishers and artists pay attention to the technical issues involved in keeping a work running and to encourage a new attention to the problems inherent in translating interactive works. In the few years it may take to find market for a translation into another language, and to get that translation done, a crufty original implementation may have become incompatible with the latest operating system. This points out another danger in ignoring open standards, clear documentation, and other techniques for making electronic literature and digital art available into the future: it will narrow down our ability to read textual works in translation and to sample creative efforts from throughout the world.