The Daily Heller: “The Beat Experience” on CD-ROM, Remembered

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John Carlin is a cultural entrepreneur and activist. The co-founder of Funny Garbage and producer of various media, he pioneered the use of CD-ROMs as a source of art and music documentaries. He started Red Hot in 1989 with Leigh Blak as a response to the devastation wrought by AIDS on a generation of New York artists and intellectuals. Rather than look outside the community for help, Red Hot solicited the time and talent of prominent artists to create Red Hot + Blue: a multimedia project combining music, videos, fashion, art and design in a tribute to the American songwriter Cole Porter. Red Hot + Blue sold over 1 million copies worldwide, and raised millions of dollars for AIDS charities such as AmFAR and ACT UP. Success spawned a series of albums and videos featuring a range of musical styles, including hip hop, dance, Latin, country, rock and Brazilian.

The Beat Experience CD-ROM was made around 1994 in conjunction with the exhibition Beat Culture at the Whitney Museum. The curator, Lisa Phillips, asked Carlin to help her with it because of his success making media after Red Hot + Blue. Carlin used the occasion “to bug her about the lack of Black people in the exhibition.” His point was important, because there wouldn’t be Beats without the Black jazz artists who pioneered American cool right after World War II—notably Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gilespie, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis. Phillips asked Carlin to do an audio program to accompany the exhibition, but he wanted to go further, and eventually persuaded her to let him do a one-hour documentary consisting of almost entirely archival footage of the era, which played on a loop in the center of the exhibition so that the sound would leak and be part of the experience of seeing the visual art. This included the aforementioned musical pioneers as well as spoken word by a number of important beat writers: William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Diane DiPrima and others.

Carlin recently unearthed his opus, and I asked him to recall its making.

When and why was The Beat Experience made?

Around that time I was becoming interested in digital media, which was just starting in New York. I got to know Peter Girardi, who was an art director at the most important CD-ROM company, Voyager, because he kept bugging Gary Panter, and Gary asked me to politely ask him to go away. Peter and I struck up a friendship, starting with our mutual love for Gary’s work. I visited Peter at Voyager and got the idea to do a CD-ROM tied to the Beat Culture exhibition, which became one of the first interactive museum catalogues.

Voyager put up an advance to do the disc and we found two great programmers, Vinnie Fugere and Peter Semelhack, who had a company called Antenna Tool & Die. I got Gary, Sue Coe, Suzan Pitt and Stephen Kroninger, among others, to do original art for the disc, which we turned into navigation and animations. Sue did a painting of a ‘Beat Pad’ that we transformed into the main navigation so you could mouse over books on the couch to read On the Road, Howl, Naked Lunch; play records; watch underground movies; and see erotic Sue Coe animations when you clicked on the bed. When you clicked on the bottle of liquor, the screen went blurry; when you clicked on the syringe, the program quit and you had to reboot. Gary did a series of illustrations for the On the Road section, with a map to navigate to different places where the counterculture flourished in the mid-20th century—particularly New York, LA and San Francisco.

Voyager was started by a visionary, Bob Stein, who, legend has it, convinced Steve Jobs to bundle a multimedia disc with an early Mac computer, which was the seed from which everything has grown, for good and bad, over the past 30 years. But Bob was a disinterested businessman. The Voyager experiment was mostly underwritten by his partner, Bob Becker, of Janus Films fame, who was selling LaserDiscs from the other side of the company based on an obscure clause in their 1960s licensing agreements with most of the great international film directors that gave them “optical storage” distribution rights. When Voyager started to go under, the company split into what is now the legendary Criterion Films, run by Bob’s son Peter Becker, and Funny Garbage, the digital design studio/agency Peter Girardi and I started.

When we started the company there were less than 100 websites in the world! Including the one Peter designed for Voyager to sell discs. The navigation was inspired by Ad Reinhardt’s cartoons. Within the first six months of existence, Funny Garbage was designing some of the first online marketing campaigns for Nike, redesigning the desktop for Compaq Computers (the largest PC manufacturer at the time), and doing prototypes for online bookstores for Barnes & Noble before Amazon. Gary Panter remained an inspiration at Funny Garbage and we worked on many projects together after The Beat Experience, including one of the first online animated series: “The Pink Donkey and the Fly” on cartoonnetwork.com. We created the whole site from scratch and ran it for many years, including pioneering some of the first casual games and online communities.

Even given the speed with which CD-ROMS were advancing, this has a less primitive feel than others of its timeframe. What did you do to give it such richness?

Peter used to say, half-kiddingly, that I did things no one else did back then because I didn’t know what I was doing. I would just imagine what I wanted interactive media to be and then found and pushed brilliant programmers, designers and artists to make it happen, at least some of the time.

The serious answer is that I was lucky to work with some very sophisticated digital pioneers who had figured out how to overcome the limitations and strengths of the disc format. Remember, back then there weren’t any smartphones or tablets, and computers accessed a balky internet via a dial-up modem. So discs stored a lot of rich media you couldn’t get via the web. But the throughput was limited. Someone described it as trying to empty a swimming pool with a straw. So we devised clever ways to do limited animations (what we now know as GIFs) and cache elements so the navigation speed would be fairly fluid. For instance, the opening sequence with music and graphics, cached so it would play smoothly like a video. To do so we needed a loading screen, which we used as a creative opportunity with a Beat collage animation that Kroninger designed.

You haven’t seen this in 20 years (20th anniversaries are big this year). What surprised you about what you saw?

It’s sad that when Apple started using the Intel chip 20 years ago or so, these types of discs stopped working. The media is still there, but the projector required by the Adobe Director program no longer works to access everything.

Honestly, I was surprised at how good it looked! And it seemed like a forerunner of rich media websites and apps we take for granted today.

So much work and so much historical content went into this and it seems almost lost in the miasma of technical progress. How do you feel about the ephemerality of the result?

It’s sad and frustrating that so many things I curated and wrote on the disc are lost to technological change. It’s the same with what we did at Funny Garbage—all the great innovative work existed in real time on client servers with millions of active users; only the old media like cartoons and designs remain in a form that people can see. Just like I can send you a video of The Beat Experience documentary, but not the CD-ROM.

The Beat era is long over. The post-Beat-hippie era is a memory. Are you wistful? What does this shift in time make you feel?

I don’t have any nostalgia, actually. Haha. I cut my cultural teeth buying Patti Smith poetry books as a teenager. That’s how I discovered Rimbaud, Verlaine (Paul, not just Tom) and then the Beats. It’s always seemed like a living thing to me—counterculture as a thread woven into the larger pop commodity culture. Sometimes we can find it in books, sometimes in art, sometimes in music, sometimes in digital. It moves around, but the spirit remains.

The shift that does bug me is how the innovative creative digital work we did in the 1990s gave way to the technology oligarchs that now dominate. No one knew how to make money off the internet back then other than stock market chicanery. But in the early 2000s, after 9/11 and the burst of the internet bubble (remember when AOL was the most powerful media company?), a few companies, notably Google and Facebook, figured out how to make money by extracting our data through their ‘free’ services, and reinventing the marketing and advertising business in an insidious way.

One advantage of running a technology company for 20 years is that I can “see” the architecture and code, which is the real design of these companies, rather than the content they display. I’ve been teaching a course about this at Columbia Law School for the past few years. It’s like a horror movie playing out over a 12-week seminar.

You pushed some significant boundaries in your career. Where does The Beat Experience fit into your legacy?

I am always looking toward what’s next, so it’s hard to look back and think in those terms. And I’ve mostly experienced frustration in not being able to move digital culture forward as much as I envisioned. But at the same time I’ve been extremely fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time for so long and to have been able to make so many records, videos, websites and other things that people remember and seem to like, even if they teeter on the edge of the dustbin of history.

The Beat Experience is a great case in point. I’m proud of the video documentary. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve made. But seeing the video of someone using the CD-ROM on YouTube this week triggered pride and sadness in equal measure. That’s the career and creative path I struck out on in both senses of the word. It led to an amazing run of digital innovation and experiences, but those products and work faded from view. And the vision I have of digital culture where artists and writers and designers make work that wasn’t possible in the 20th century still hasn’t come to fruition. I want to see creative people use data to make new experiences, not just companies creating more and more insidious marketing campaigns.

But I remain hopeful that there will be a wave of new creative work based on technology rather than just distributed through it. And when that happens, people will look back and realize there were amazing innovative people in downtown New York at the end of the 20th century who saw the future and started making the right steps in that direction.