By Scott Rosenberg
A deep, mournful voice drones, "You are out of memory. Save. Save now."
Your computer is announcing that its memory banks have filled up and it's about to crash. Or is it? Nothing awful seems to be happening. As the voice repeats its message, it begins to sound more like a metaphysical lament -- a machine-generated jeremiad with a summons to salvation.
This cry in the techno-wilderness can be heard on Laurie Anderson's new CD-ROM, "Puppet Motel" -- a melange of monologues, videos, art-jokes and interactive environments. There are lots of CD-ROMs out there that immerse you in a similarly fragmented multimedia world; today, fragments are art's native language. What makes "Puppet Motel" different is that its universe addresses you in a consistent voice.
An ineffable sadness floats through the many rooms of "Puppet Motel" -- an information-age melancholy as elusive and mercurial as the shape-shifting mouse pointer. There's a sense of lost memories and missed connections, and a longing for impossible redemptions and recovered identities.
In the corners and shadows, you keep encountering floating mannequins with forlorn voices that cry out from the digital depths: "Love me." "Remember me." But how can you? You don't even know who -- or what -- they are.
In "Puppet Motel" -- a CD-ROM from the Voyager Company that plays on Macintosh computers (a Windows version is promised for later this year) -- Anderson pushes this new medium beyond the stage of technology demo, glorified PR kit or kiddie toy. She has created a freestanding work of art -- one that captures the soul of a blue machine.
The disk begins with a ghostly faced three-prong outlet that glows and howls into the darkness. Serving as the motel's lobby is "The Hall of Time," a vanishing-perspective cosmic corridor with icons parading across its walls, beckoning you into the motel's 33 symbol-crowded rooms. A puppet Anderson alter-ego who haunts the Green Room serves as an infrequent guide.
Anderson has always turned the language of technology back upon itself and into the shape of art. (One "Puppet Motel" room is a gallery of exotic musical instruments from her performance-art career, like the "tape bow violin.") In her 1983 show, "United States," she took the argot of airplanes, telephones and computers and wove it into an epic of post-industrial alienation. On her recent "Nerve Bible" tour, she offered a puckish satire on Internet mania -- in which repetitions of World Wide Web addresses, with their "http's" and double slashes and "dot com's," began to sound like tribal incantations.
"Puppet Motel" continues and extends this half-fascinated, half-repelled study of technological language and symbol. Clocks are everywhere, clicking off the time with clipped answering-machine-voice announcements. Telephone handsets float upright on rigid cords, like tall palms; TV sets flash static; airplanes turn into translucent kaleidoscopes. The mouse-pointer becomes an ice-skate, a Ouija-board pointer, an eraser or a floating star.
At one point Anderson steps forward from a maze of chairs and, waving a pair of flashlights like a runway attendant, recites the legend of Plato's Cave -- whose prisoners are doomed never to see the true images of things but only to glimpse their fleeting shadows. If that's our lot, Anderson implies, no wonder even the proudest products of our invention are tinged with regret.
In "Puppet Motel's" logic, superstition and technology aren't opposites at all -- they're symbiotic partners. In one room, Anderson conducts a lengthy palm-reading interrogation of her listener that's all question and no response; it concludes with a taunting, "Had enough?" In another, she presents "The Amazing Ouija Floor Board" -- a device that invites you to ask it questions and then seems to go happily to sleep.
If there's any antidote to "Puppet Motel's" pervasive sorrow, it's in the very playfulness with which Anderson and her collaborator, designer Hsin-Chien Huang, approach the CD-ROM medium itself. (Huang's "The Dream of Time" won last year's New Voices New Visions prize, a multimedia-art competition; like Anderson, he is reusing, recombining and refining fragments of his previous work in the new one.)
In one of Anderson's stories, for instance, she tells of fearing that an Arabic palm-reader has garbled predictions of her future because the seer was reading right to left. As you scroll through the text, you get a dislocated feeling; finally you realize that "Puppet Motel" has transposed your mouse's left and right, so the pointer moves, as it were, in reverse.
"Puppet Motel" adopts a variety of interactive strategies; it will record your voice and accept typed messages, and if you're on the Internet you can download new Anderson videos. But its chief form of interactivity is the only one that really counts: It gives you glimpses of how the world looks through an artist's eyes.
I've spent many hours with "Puppet Motel," and have yet to reach the frustration barrier most CD-ROMs quickly hit -- the feeling that you've found all the edges of its world. It's not a mystery game like "Myst," so there's no conclusion to discover; it's closer in spirit to the dark-spirited animations of the Residents' "Freak Show."
Instead of filling the disk with lots of space-hogging full-color photos or fuzzy videos, Anderson and Huang have worked with limited color-schemes and relatively small animations to seduce your attention rather than saturate your senses. The exception is the high-quality audio, which gives Anderson's rhythm-rich compositions and register-shifting speech their sonic due.
"Puppet Motel" can be alarmingly empty. The screen will sometimes fade to black, except for a window on one side, casting square patches of light onto the floor or opposite wall. Move the window and you illuminate a different patch. Perhaps you'll spy a running shadow, a vacant chair, a floating parcel.
In "Puppet Motel," we're cast as lurkers in the gloom of Plato's cave, poking around with our flashlights as we burrow deeper into our machine dreams. Does anyone still remember the way out? "You are out of memory. Save. Save now."
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