Jack Kenny meets the slightly eccentric founders of Voyager, the company beloved by people who want something a little more challenging for their computers
If you want to convince someone that multimedia CD-Roms can have the range and profundity of books, if you want to give them a glimpse of the exciting ways that the medium might develop, then introduce them to some of the discs from the Voyager Company.
Voyager has a reputation for both eccentricity and innovation, and it is deserved. The untidy informality of their loft headquarters in Manhattan is refreshing, everyone surrounded by high-tech clutter, with boxes of CD-Roms piled around the room, some of which are demanding, some crusading, some perverse and some are all of these things.
The products of certain software houses are recognisable because of their design. The Dorling Kindersley use of white space, for instance, dominates and unifies its books and CDs. Voyager has not established such a visual style. The distinguishing characteristic is content.
Each disc seems like an experiment. Can you really put a series of 1930s radio broadcasts on CD-Rom? You can when they are by Orson Welles (Theatre of the Imagination). Can we get a 79-minute film about all the Apollo missions with a soundtrack by Brian Eno on one disc (For All Mankind)? What would happen if Morton Subotnik, a leading contemporary composer, was asked to produce a creative music tool for five-year-olds (Making Music)? Can you really devote a whole CD-Rom (Starry Night) to just one of Van Gogh's paintings?
Voyager discs seem designed to appeal to the cerebral rather than some amorphous home market. Incensed by the injustice of the conviction of black activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, the company has brought out a campaigning CD-Rom, with supporting audio commentary by Abu-Jamal himself on the Voyager web site (http:www. voyagerco.com). Abu-Jamal has spent 13 years on Death Row in the United States for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman. That disc sits side by side with a CD-Rom lecture from Marvin Minsky on artificial intelligence (The Society of Mind).
Bob Stein, one of the founders of the company, sees Voyager as closer in spirit to the world of book publishing than the media. In 1993 he moved Voyager from the image-dominated West Coast to the centre of book publishing in New York. Stein considers himself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist which, together with his entrepreneurial flair, is a combination only an American could pull off.
Undoubtedly the guilt of heading a company with yearly sales of $15 million is assuaged by the esoteric, hair-shirt nature of some of the titles. The irony is that the company could well have found a profitable niche supplying titles to people who want something more challenging for their computers than Myst, or the res-pectable blandness of most other mainstream titles.
Art Spiegelman's The Complete Maus is a CD-Rom version of the comic book depiction of the Holocaust. It might seem a distasteful way to describe the most horrific event of the century. The German persecutors frequently portrayed the Jews as rats, so Spiegelman uses these taunts to write and draw one of the bitterest condemnations of racism. Vladek Spiegelman, Art's father, was in a concentration camp and the disc includes three hours of his personal recollections.
The company makes no pretence that it is in any kind of vanguard. Stein acknowledges that multimedia has not produced its Citizen Kane yet. It has not even produced its Birth of A Nation.
Its critics accuse it of valuing content over form, a charge it would probably rush to plead guilty to. Many of the discs are very simple. Poetry in Motion is just modern American poets reading their work. You are given the written text and a Quick Time video performance and the Macbeth disc is a wonderful way to study Shakespeare.
Media frontiers are explored with some of the discs, the new Laurie Andersen Puppet Motel is a case in point. Laurie Andersen worked with the company and based it on one of her recent records. It is not linear, it is completely original and doesn't display too many bookish antecedents.
Good to see that the designer Hsin-Chien Huang gets a credit for creating a visual environment that is intriguing without being baffling and where you do not have to find nerdish clues to move around.
One of the ways forward is linking CD-Rom with the Internet. Voyager has already pioneered one method, and you can sample this immediately if you have an Internet connection, a technique that it calls CDLink. The idea is that you already have some high-quality audio in your record collection, better than anything that the Internet could transmit. What you don't have is high quality text that will increase your understanding of the music. So you put your CD audio disc in your drive, link to the Voyager site on the Internet and read Joe Goldberg's critique of a Miles Davis performance of Round Midnight in the same way that the Robert Winter discs dealt with Beethoven. As you read the essay you can click on sentences or words and the point that is being made will be illustrated from your own disc. Similar treats are there for aficionados of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Thelonius Monk and Frank Zappa. It is a very clever idea and all for free.
Talking to the people who work at the Broadway offices you get the feeling that they are part of something that will be regarded in a decade's time with great fondness, either because it was a good try that failed or because it was the start of something that went on to influence publishing positively.
Stein says "Text is an unbelievably efficient way to transmit ideas. Any medium that doesn't have a place in it for the transmission of serious ideas is a very scary proposition."
With most media companies you get the impression that they are not particularly interested in content but primarily want to use the medium; with Voyager you get the feeling that they have things to say and in 1996 this is one of the best ways to say them.
* http:www.voyagerco.com:Ariston,142 Great North WayHendon, London NW4 1EGTel: 0181 202 0011 * Voyager Company578 Broadway, Suite 406New York NY10012Tel: 212-431-5199