Voyage to inner space

Malcolm Garrett talks to colourful character Peter Girardi about his multimedia work and a project which explores a human body, slice by slice

I first met Peter Girardi by accident. It was in July 1994. I was at New York’s School of Visual Arts teaching the basics of multimedia design, as one of a series of summer classes. During the week we were invited down to The Voyager Company to meet a friend of one of the SVA teaching staff. He was apparently a “cool guy” and we would “have a lot in common”, as we were both concerned with bringing some semblance of good design practice to a fledgling interactive media industry, which was bereft of any notion of rigorous design discipline.

Meeting the creative director at Voyager was, in this respect, a revelation. Founded by Bob Stein some years earlier to publish classic movies on laser disc, Voyager had soon begun to produce CD-ROM titles. The introduction of the Apple PowerBook computers prompted them to develop a series of digital books on floppy disc. These were complete texts, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with full hypertext linking, interactive annotations, and other useful digital features. These Expanded Books were simple yet practical demonstrations of how computing power and clear design thinking could be brought to bear on traditional media with logical and helpful results.

Voyager’s programme of interactive CD-ROM releases was wide-ranging and included the still impressive Dvorák’s Symphony No 9, the digital edition of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, and the CD-ROM version of Art Spiegelman’s comic book Maus. Maus was in many ways the definitive development of the Expanded Book and was designed by Peter Girardi.

Girardi now has his own company, Funny Garbage, dedicated to bringing his own defiantly demented design aesthetic to a wider range of clients. This is the man who, when asked, after a rare talk at Central St Martins, what graphic design students should learn to work in the interactive world, replied astutely “try starting with graphic design”.

Girardi is no active self-publicist, unlike some of his better known American contemporaries, yet I believe his work to be of greater significance for new generations of interactive designers. Some questions were somewhat overdue…

MG: Where did it all begin? I mean none of us actually set out with the idea that we would become designers for interactive media. We’re too old.

PG: When I was 16, I started writing graffiti, you know, really seriously, on trains and walls and started to break into train yards. All my friends were writers. There are two types of graffiti: one is like you just bomb the shit out of the inside of the train with tags and the other is you bomb the outside of the train – huge pieces. In the beginning you start by doing the insides and then, when you’re good enough, you move on to the outsides and start to get into weird letterforms and stuff like that. When it got legitimised, it went down the pan, so I went to the SVA to study fine art, as I thought that was really what I wanted. But, a year after I got there, I stopped painting and started doing video installations and large photos and stuff.

This was 1987/88 in New York. If you were the assistant to an artist, next go round, you would get a show. That was how it worked. The artists that were the generation before me, were famous and making tons of cash, so I knew that if I started on the right track, next time I was going to be there just by luck. I was prepped and ready. But, you know what? I could fart in this room right now and say that this is my piece of art for today, and I’d gladly slide it over to you for $10, but that’s just not fulfilling enough.

I started working on big photo-graphs and needed a way to composite images. I’m not a photographer so I didn’t have the skills to do it in the darkroom. Somebody then told me I could get a computer and do it. I was like, “Computers! Who wants to use computers?” But someone showed me and so I thought “OK, just for this program”, and, of course, two weeks later I was on the phone to everybody I know, asking “what’s this Quark thing?” and that was that.

Then I saw Apple’s HyperCard, but like most people I didn’t really know what it might be good for. After a while I realised that with it you could combine text, video, images and sound, and what the hell else do you need? My girlfriend at the time was going to school with these two guys, Eric Swenson and Keith Seward who were also working with HyperCard and they were like: “Oh my God, someone else”. So we hooked up.

They were doing a digital magazine called Blam!. It was the first thing that I saw that was fooling the computer into doing things that it could do. Swenson was going to do his internship with Voyager and he went and showed them Blam!. Bob Stein said: “Fuck the internship. We want to publish this thing,” which was very bold. My stuff on the disc is the most traditional design on there. So, when they needed a designer, they called me. Two weeks later I was there full-time. Soon I knew that the only way it was going to be worthwhile for me was if I got to produce the design – essentially control the whole thing.

The question is “are people really going to begin to use an electronic book?” You can’t take it in the bath tub, or sit on the john with it. But the text becomes liberated. You can save it, change it, highlight it, make your own passages, make your own sub-referential book. The important thing was that this stuff needed to be in context.

The problem with all the hypertext implementations that I’d seen was that you have a piece of information and you click on it and you shoot off somewhere and all you see at that point is new information and you lose the juxtapositioning in the process, which was dumb. You needed to see the friction between those two things.

The Expanded Book Toolkit was essentially a tool palette to navigate with and was used as a platform for many CDs, including Maus. Art Spiegelman had already had a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art of all of his sketches and stuff. He was my teacher at SVA so I knew his work.

Elizabeth Scarborough, who was the producer, and myself spent a long time trying to figure out a structure. I didn’t want to make it just like a book; like a thesis. I wanted to make it like you’re walking along one path and at any time you can split and get to other information and ideas. It’s really interesting to make linear travels with information, but it’s more interesting to me to make huge jumps and then you can back up and work out what the link is.

Maus took a year to do. We had to develop all the colour-code for HyperCard to work. The other big pain was, of course, book: vertical, computer screen: horizontal. We used Apple’s QuickTime, which is the most flexible, intense file structure, to scroll the pages up and down. After Maus came out, I could pretty much do what I wanted. I would just go and pitch projects: The Beat Experience, Painters Painting (my favourite generation of American artists). I did about 15 CDs.

MG: Where did Funny Garbage originate?

PG: Chris Capouzzo and I were the Funny Garbage Brothers. Funny Garbage was the name of the first comic book we ever made which was very Raw-esque. Gary Panter was a big influence. Whenever we did side projects, I always used to sign them Peter Garbage.

I knew that when I left Voyager in 1995 I didn’t want to just do digital design. I wanted to get back into print again, and motion graphics. So we started Funny Garbage and the first project that I got was the Body Voyage project.

We’re now 14 people, including John Carlin, Chris and me, and apart from putting out CDs of our own fonts and clip-art textures, we’ve recently designed an issue of ID Magazine and the CD-ROM of their annual awards, and we’re working with the Cartoon Network, the American Museum of the Moving Image, and a new Art Spiegelman project.

The real plan is to be around to take advantage of the “great convergence” of Web, DVD, and television. That’s when we’ll all start having some real fun. The novelty factor of interactive media will wear off, and we can all get down to serious business. No more spinning logos and rollovers…

Body Voyage

Time Warner Electronic Publishing, New York

Body Voyage is the first product in a series of anatomical visualisation projects. It’s a 3D exploration of a real human body on CD-ROM. Coming soon are Body Voyage 2, which is a female with a much higher resolution data set, and The Development of the Foetus.

Getting to see published material like this is one of the problems we face in the UK. For instance, all the Voyager CD-ROMs are still largely unknown, as you could never easily buy them anywhere, yet in many ways they have helped define all that is good in usable interactive navigation.

Girardi had heard about this digital human being at the Technology Education and Design Conference. ‘It was just a great project to get involved with as it really allows you to use computer technology to display material in a way unrealisable via any other medium,’ he says. ‘And a lot of my artwork was always based around Frankenstein. Man/Monster? Who’s the man? Who’s the monster? Could you create this thing? Could you give it a piece of yourself? You know, all the pretentious crap that artists think about. This was the same idea.

‘They cut this guy up, digitised him and now he’s got a life in pixels. And the thing I really liked about it was that it wasn’t rendered. It was 3D data – it was just there. It wasn’t like a dumb wire-frame thing that somebody had built.’

Girardi then met with Alexander Tsiaras, the author, who has been involved in the field of medical photojournalism for many years. The actual slices of the body (Joseph Paul Jernigan, a convicted criminal who had been executed by lethal injection and had donated his body to science) were scanned by the National Institute of Health and made available to the public. ‘There are a lot of websites that have the images of this guy sliced up. Anybody can download the images, but they’d look like pieces of prosciutto!’ he says. ‘Alexander helped develop high end software which would re-combine the slices and map them back into a 3D form. Part of the program also is that it does this weird thing where it maps opacity.’

The disc takes full advantage of QuickTimeVR to rotate and manipulate the various body parts. Because Tsiaras was involved in writing the applications that would segment and render the body, Funny Garbage was able to control the visualisation process. The design and production of the CD-ROM took about a year in total, although the acquiring of the images, (slicing, scanning, cataloguing) was a much longer process. On the disc you can step through all the slices one by one, see the body dissolve away from any viewpoint, view the body in varying levels of opacity and so on. You can set the levels of transparency through the body; like the skin, the skeleton, the musculature and so forth.

Body Voyage won best of category in the 1997 ID Magazine Interactive Media Design Review, and was featured in an issue of Life Magazine devoted to the whole Body Voyage project.

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