Kinetic Theatre for the Historical Imagination (2011): travel to the past in stereoscopic vision
preview of one the segments: “A Decrepit Rococo Mansion”, Chapter 1. Put on your anaglyph glasses to see it in stereo!
project status: digital prototype
The purpose of the Kinetic Theatre For the Historical Imagination project is to present us with the visual history of a Los Angeles we thought we knew, and, using stereoscopic animation, voice-over narration, and a tactile interface, to overlay its archival vestiges with a phantom city, a imaginative digression into the genius loci of L.A. Focusing on the period of mushrooming development from the 1860s to the 1920s, the Kinetic Theatre is both historical reconstruction and speculative fiction, laying a fictional narration about an imaginary city over real images of L.A. The Kinetic Theatre draws upon archives of public domain and proprietary images from the Library of Congress, the USC Digital Archives, and the Los Angeles Public Library. Envisioned as an interactive installation piece in a gallery, museum, or at a festival, the project aims to provoke in Angelenos a sense of wonder and curiosity for the culturally rich spaces they traverse everyday.
The project’s narrative arises as the result of the procedural interactions of two cross-referenced databases: the animated sequences of stereoscopic images and the audio recordings of different narrators. The physical interface that serves as the entry point into these databases embodies metaphors from the early history of media that correspond, respectively, to the sensory poles of the eye and the voice – the kinetoscope (and to a lesser extent, other pre-cinematic optical devices such as Reynauld’s optical theatre and the pocket stereoscope) and the radio. The visitor peers through 3D binoculars into a toy-cabinet decorated with drawers, pipes, and fabric into a miniature theatre on which the images are rear-projected. Embedded in the cabinet is what looks like an old radio set, which the visitor uses to “tune into” the voice-over. The story is elusive: the voice-over seems to always be migrating to a different channel, and whenever the visitor finds the correct knob setting that allows the voice to emerge clearly out of the static, this increase in auditory information triggers a loss of visual information, causing the image to recede deeper into a screen, until image is only visible as a pinhole.
The playfulness of this epistemological conundrum resides in the “sweet spot”, a particular position the radio button that allows the visitor to both see the image in full detail and listen to the narrative. Here the sensitive tactile feedback of the radio interface reinforces the sense of intimacy procured by the camera oscura interface to produce a singular impression of virtual embodiment. The visitor feels she is actually playing with and touching the image: the act of searching for the voice of the narrator continues into the idea of an unhinged indexical narrative floating in the ether, out of reach, sometimes touching the image and unfolding it with a story. Just as the interface design breaks up the linear trajectory of history to evoke a metaphorical/poetic congruence of media technologies, the visual and audio content of the database collapses the urban timeline into a virtual cityscape of spectral co-presences, of juxtaposed psycho-geographies. Anaglyph stereoscopy is a medium uncannily suited to express the type of transient half-presence of this alter-Los Angeles, projecting visual layers as seemingly palpable, immersive landscapes whose holographic quality yet speak to the impossibility of true material manifestation. The voice-over’s use of the radio metaphor reiterates this sense of an infinite regress of touch, the tantalizing, perennial nearness of the stories whispering behind the images, and of the images themselves, lost to time and out of time, cast away to fantasy.
The database of the experience itself cycles between smaller databases of narrative elements organized around common thematic elements, alternatively indexed to a certain recurring character, place, or “historical” event in the narrative. The effect is one of serial storytelling, in the sense that each linear experience of the narration becomes part of a series of similar stories, participating in a common thematic structure but always producing new variations, or digressions, evoking other worlds, adding to the layers of contiguous cityscapes. Added to the purposeful vagaries of the interface, the experience becomes a hermeneutical game of cat-and-mouse.