It started with making the soundtrack for a 3D game. And now I have it edited to a bird video I found on youtube…
Will be projecting 3D animation on a tower at Rhythm and Visions, a live cinema event featuring audiovisual collective D-Fuse
I will be projecting Nano Flow on the tower of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts building, a stereoscopic 3D animation visualizing a flow of nanobots as hybrids between machines, jewels and single cell organisms. The event will also feature audiovisual collective D-Fuse, artists, VJs and DJs Scott Pagano, Brian King, Trifonic, Brian LeBarton and MB Gordy.
I will be presenting alongside my iMAP colleagues and Anne Balsamo at ISEA Istanbul 2011, for our collective panel “Madness of Methods”, which represents iMAP’s unique scholarly and design methodologies. My own presentation is about the notion of “toy cities” and the emergence of contemporary entertainment worlds and themed spaces, using case studies from the theme park industry, the festival world, and my own work.
Chair, Anne Balsamo, Professor of Interactive Media, University of Southern California
Common among the creative fields–the arts, science, technology and design–is a commitment to the production of new knowledge based on original research. Research is the praxis of systematic critical reflection that focuses on compelling domain-defined questions. The “question of method” is often used to distinguish art and design from science and technology: where the latter are defined by reified methodological paradigms, and the former by the repudiation of such paradigms. In practice we know this to be a false opposition: artists and designers systematically engage the empirical in many ways in their creative work; scientists and technologists creatively improvise to form rational accounts of their technical projects. The participants on this panel are each engaged in developing innovative methods that demonstrates the notion of art practice as transformative research. For some of them this takes the form of performance and real-time video mixing, for others it is the creation of locative media experiences that probe cultural dispositions and habits. Key areas to be discussed include: the tensions between empirical, interpretive and critical research techniques in the performance and production of art practice; the contribution of psychoanalysis and cognitive science to arts research; multimedia techniques for the creation of real-time knowledge production; making research visible to transdisciplinary (academic) audiences; and communicating arts practice research in dynamic vernaculars. This panel will describe, explore, and demonstrate a range of new methods of emerging arts research.
Creating Toy Cities: the experience design of transmedia objects
University of Southern California, iMAP Media Arts + Practice, PhD Student
Media convergence in the form of transmedia storytelling franchises that distribute content across multiple platforms is a growing field of inquiry in media studies. A perspective of interdisciplinary design enables us to also investigate the emerging convergence of user experience across different media. This paper traces a common logic of experience design that informs the hybrid transmedia objects that are theme parks, digital games, public art pieces, and museums. This is the logic of the toy city, the community of attractions that operates at the juncture of the material and the digital, the spectacular and the interactive, to create a signature experience for the user that defies medium specific modes of feeling, knowing, and creating. Case studies highlight the ways in which these media phenomena operate on three levels, as affective objects, as technological devices, and as imaginative worlds.
Indexical Immateriality: Photography and Cinema inside the Machine
University of Southern California, iMAP Media Arts + Practice, PhD Student
Grounded in a longstanding interest in the photographic, my artistic research is partly based around the idea of the indexicality of the photographic document as a trace of the real and a record of the past. My work attempts to probe the question of whether photographic indexicality functions differently when experienced within a mutable digital environment than in a fixed analog one. In this paper, I will present an analysis of several interactive new media projects that I have been instrumental in developing. These are works of computer interface design that feature both photographic and cinematic imagery in ways that represent space, place and time in specific cultural contexts. This analysis will draw on theoretical writings about the indexical in cinema, photography, new media and language by such writers as Roland Barthes, Mary Ann Doane and Rosalind Krauss.
Forschertrieb, The Instinct for Research: Toward a Queer Psychoanalysis and a Psychoanalytical Queer Theory.
University of Southern California, iMAP Media Arts + Practice, PhD Student
Exploring the ways in which the digital works as an interface for queer sexuality (in fantasy and in practice) this paper argues for a Queer Theory return to psychoanalysis, and its tradition of theory-based practice and practice-based theory. The construction of the human body – its drives, its affects, its markings, its illnesses – have all been questions taken up by Queer Theory as it has had, from the beginning, the lived body as its main object of study. Yet Queer Theory’s rise to academic prominence has also coincided with an intense re-configuration of this human body and how it deals with its objects of desire through the increasing embedding of digital technology in the everyday. Taking up barebacking (unprotected sex among strangers) as an emblematic contemporary “problem” of and for queerness, the paper investigates the ways in which psychoanalytic theories of early childhood development help us understand what is at play between the new media subject and his new media object.
Double Shadow: Digital Representation and Authorial Identity
University of Southern California, iMAP Media Arts + Practice, PhD Student
As we spend time exploring the Internet, what digital remains do we unintentionally leave behind? Based on this information alone, how would a stranger construct the story of an individual’s history? Like an archeologist might collect data and examine physical remains to create a plausible human history, what might be derived from the examination of digital remains? Double Shadow is a conceptual film project that seeks an answer to these questions. The work takes the form of short biographical film based on “factual” information gleaned from the Internet.
Making Trouble: redesigning the rituals of civic life
University of Southern California, iMAP Media Arts + Practice, PhD Student
Harold Garfinkel, father of ethnomethodology, once described his methodological “preference to start with the familiar scenes and ask what can be done to make trouble.” My work applies this sensibility to the design of public rituals. I will present research from several collaborative vox pop experiments and situate this work as “making trouble” for the assumptions that traditional journalism creates when it uses social media to curate the public back to itself. Culminating with a call to arms, I argue that the designers and funders of new civic platforms should embrace the opportunity to redesign our public rituals from the ground up.
You Hold the Camera Now: An Action Research Case Study of Pre-kindergarten Transmedia Narrative Design.
University of Southern California, iMAP Media Arts + Practice, PhD Student
This paper presents findings from a pilot research project called the Junior Audio-Video Club. Conducted at USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy,the project introduced media production skills along with concepts of recombinant and transmedia storytelling to two groups of four- and five-year old preschool students over the course of a 16-week curriculum. Through an account of our experimental pedagogical approaches, and through an examination of student-produced media artifacts, this paper aims to identify key insights and challenges to the pursuit of early childhood media arts education, and to explore ways in which art practice as a research methodology can inform practical approaches to collaborative curriculum design, facilitation of pre-linear creative expression, and promotion of media literacy skills as an integrated component of early childhood literacy education.
Media-Making Madness: #Revolution, Media, and the Arab World
Laila Shereen Sakr
University of Southern California, iMAP Media Arts + Practice, PhD Student
This presentation will examine in what ways might social media in the Arab world be unique — both in terms of how the society is operating, tightly woven; and in terms of media’s history in the Arab world, born in print form as an apparatus of the state since the Ottoman Empire? Using spatially designed information visualizations along with other representations, this presenter will demonstrate live media mixing as a research methodology whereby one can capture temporal specific conjunctures such that others can witness them. The purpose of doing so is to capture the special something that makes Twitter (and other social media sites) so feared that a government would shut down Internet to an entire nation during civil uprising and protest.
Neural Mediation: Instrument of Perception as Spectacle, Narrative, & Method
University of Southern California, iMAP Media Arts + Practice, PhD Student
Drawing upon theoretical works in cognitive science, affect theory, and speculative fiction, I will analyze contemporary and historic representations of neural instrumentation throughout a variety of media formats, including a personal interactive animation project. I will contextualize these representations of perceptual inquiry across interdisciplinary frameworks, highlighting suggested fantasies associated with each form. I will show how uses of body-based sensors present the corporeal and cognitive systems as narrative spectacle. As perceptual tools and methods are appropriated from the sciences, new arenas of hybrid design research practice are established.
April 4, 2011
Check Out Student Work from Annenberg Innovation Lab Conference
Last Friday, I had the pride and joy of participating in the first conference organized by the Annenberg Innovation Lab. The Lab is a new research initiative launched over the past year, with the goal of becoming an incubator for new media practices and platforms, a space where important conversations can occur between academics and industry leaders which may help shape the future of communications.
The mastermind behind the project is Jonathan Taplin, a saavy industry veteran, who has tapped his considerable network to bring some major stakeholders to the table. He’s been working with two amazing women — Erin Reilly, who is also the Research Director for my own Project New Media Literacies, is the Creative Director and Anne Balsamo, a veteran of Xerox Parc, serves as The Director of Learning. I am proud to be working with the lab on several new initiatives which I will be talking about here more in the future, including a new platform to support our work in fostering New Media Literacies and a new eBook project which will expand the resources available to Comic Studies scholars.
They’ve pulled in many other key researchers from across USC, providing a context which supports the move from theory to applied practice. The real special sauce at the lab is going to be the ability to mix social and cultural insights with technological experimentation and innovation in a space where humanists and social scientists can work hand in hand with engineers and business people.
Between them, Taplin, Reilly, and Balsamo hit the deck running, pulling off the near impossible, in getting the center ready to share some research results only eight months after it was originally conceived.
The conference’s highlights include a conversation between Balsamo and the two authors of the important new book, A New Culture of Learning, Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown; a presentation by the musician T. Bone Burnett showing how degraded the current state of sound is within the music industry and announcing a significant new research initiative to help repair the damage of the past decade of failed digital practices; a discussion of the value of play in fostering an innovative environment whether in schools or the workplace; and some great exchanges with key thinkers and doers within the computer and entertainment industries.
But, for me, by far, the highlight was seeing the work being done by USC students as part of what the Lab calls CRUNCH sessions. Altogether, more than 60 students from 8 different schools worked over the past two terms to develop prototypes, including demonstration videos, for new projects which covered a broad range of different models of media, from innovative approaches to eBooks to new gaming controllers, from civic media to new kinds of visualization tools. The most amazing thing was done by the student teams fueled entirely from their own passions: the Lab provided them with a space, with brainstorming and training sessions, and with technical consultants, but they were neither paid nor offered academic credit for the considerable labor they put into the process. Most of the teams were interdisciplinary, and one of the key values of the Lab was to help match up students from across the University to work together towards common goals.
I was pleased to see how many of the students involved were people I’d been seeing in my classes and it was great to witness what they could create when turned loose on their own projects outside any academic structures. It was especially pleased to see that these projects were informed by a deep understanding of the value of storytelling and entertainment and a grasp of the actual needs of communities of users who have been underserved by the first waves of digital development.
What follows here are the five winners of the CRUNCH competition, each representing a very different model of what media innovation might look like.
NimbleTrek \ Natalia Bogolasky and David Radcliff
WeLobby \ Leonard Hyman
WeLobby from Dave McDougall on Vimeo.
Combiform \ Andy Uehara and Edmond Yee an
New Quill \ Michael Morgan
Interactive Geosurface Map — Lauren Fenton
And for good measure, here are three more projects which I thought were too cool not to include:
Love in the Time of Genocide \ Thenmozhi Soundararajan
The Mother Road eBook \ Erin Reilly
Reading the News on the Wall \ Jennifer Taylor
Interactive GeoSurface Map WINS 1rst place in transmedia storytelling for the Annenberg Innovation Lab Design Challenge
The Interactive GeoSurface Map was 1rst place winner in the Transmedia Storytelling category of the 2011 Annenberg Innovation Lab CRUNCH design Challenge and received an Honorable Mention in the Microsoft Imagine Cup USA 2011!
Our team presented the Interactive GeoSurface Map at the 2011 Annenberg Innovation Lab Conference: See With New Eyes on April 1rst.
Our team entered this project for the Annenberg Innovation Lab CRUNCH Challenge. Thank you to the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Onomy Labs and Microsoft for making the GeoSurface Map a prototype reality!
The GeoSurface Map is an interactive exhibit for local museums and libraries. Its interface is an interactive table that allows users to collectively browse satellite imagery. But more than a playful and immersive interface for navigating geographic data, the GeoSurface Map is a multimedia storytelling experience about land use practice.
Project Lead / Designer: Lauren Fenton, USC School of Cinematic Arts
Programmer: Shreyas Heranjal, USC Viterbi School of Engineering
Project Coordinator: Desdemona Bandini, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
A TANGIBLE INTERFACE WITH THE WORLD
The Interactive GeoSurface Map uses an interactive device created by Onomy Labs called a Tilty Table. The table functions as a tangible interface to create an experience of effortless fly-over navigation through Microsoft’s Bing Maps database of high-resolution satellite images. By tilting and twisting the Tilty Table, the user can zoom in and pan over details of the landscape. By dwelling on hotspots they can access multimedia metadata on important landmarks.
COLLECTIVE RE-DISCOVERY OF ONE’S LOCALITY AND PLACE
Apps like Google Maps and Google Earth allow people to visualize high-resolution satellite images and a database of meta-data about different geographical locations. However, this data can easily become meaningless, as there is no narrative attached to it. The Interactive GeoSurface Map gives the user the possibility of connecting the dots between different data elements, of reading different landscape features of the satellite images as a network, rather than as a random assembly of geographical features, streets and buildings.
Most geographical data apps are meant to be used as individual interfaces on laptops or desktop computers. Onomy Labs’ Tilty Table technology makes it possible for people to browse the data collectively, and to share a moment of discovery through an intuitive language of very simple gestures. A powerful moment of recognition takes place when users understand the infrastructural and historical relationships between different features of the landscape, features they may have casually noticed but had not paid attention to.
FROM GEOGRAPHICAL DATA TO A STORY ABOUT LAND USE
We are collaborating with an institution called the Center for land Use Interpretation, a research institute that creates exhibits about land use practices, from the history of the L.A. freeway system to the water supply network. The GeoSurface Map team adapted their exhibit,Urban Crude, about the oil fields of the city of Los Angeles, for the Tilty Table. Urban Crude explores the way oil is being drilled in the city, by whom, and what kind of strategies they adopt to seamlessly integrate this drilling activity into the urban landscape, which includes hiding oil wells behind fake buildings and churches and disguising pumpjacks and methane vents as inconspicuous infrastructure. The GeoSurface Map adaptation of the exhibit turns different locations on the satellite images into hotspots, accompanied by floating text from the original exhibit explaining the history of oil extraction in that particular site. When selected, the hotspots lead into an panorama of animated photographs. This immersive multimedia experience, which combines interaction with geographical data with text and video, weaves a narrative around the practice of oil extraction within the urban landscape of Los Angeles.
AN INTUITIVE TOOL FOR EDUCATION ABOUT COMMUNITY AND SUSTAINABILITY
By using storytelling and tangible interface technology, the GeoSurface Map makes engagement with land use data compelling and intuitive, making it possible for a wide demographic range of users, from children to grandparents, to gain meaningful knowledge of their neighboring environment, encouraging users to become agents of change and affect how their cities are organized and sustained in the future.
The GeoSurface Map is a learning platform that allows users to become familiar with urban planning initiatives in their area and become the shapers of local land use, water distribution, and transportation policy. Land use data is often restricted to geological and industry databases, even though land use practices affect everyone’s everyday life on a deep level. Thanks to our partnership with the Center for Land Use Interpretation, our solution makes that data accessible and comprehensible to a mainstream audience.
Knowledge about local land use helps people become pro-active about engaging with their municipal governments and government institutions on issues of urban development and the future of their communities.
AN INTERACTIVE EXHIBIT FOR PUBLIC USE
The GeoSurface Map is meant to be an interactive exhibit piece that can be housed in a museum, at a science center, in a public municipal or government building, and in schools and universities. It has the potential to affect a large number of individuals in a lasting way, providing them not only with invaluable information about their home area, but also immersing them in a memorable, aesthetically enchanting media experience.
Our end users include families, young people, and retired persons who have access to and can afford to pay for a museum ticket. The introduction of GeoSurface Mapping devices into public areas that are free of charge (for example, public libraries), would further lower the income barrier of end-users.
A FLEXIBLE HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE ARCHITECTURE
The satellite image database we use, Microsoft’ s Bing Maps, is a free service that the GeoSurface Map accesses through Microsoft’s Silverlight application for Bing Maps developers.
Our code determines a basic interface for an unlimited amount of content. We can add as much text, images, videos, tags and metadata as would be necessary for future iterations and future land use projects. The Tilty Table API, although based on just a few affordances, is very flexible in terms of the different types of actions these affordances can map onto.
The GeoSurface Map is a product that is both a piece of hardware, an interface, and an information/media service. Development of the product involves collaboration with Onomy Labs (hardware/API) and The Center for Land Use Interpretation (as a partnership for content creation), as well as with Microsoft’s Bing Maps service.
Any museum, public library or educational institution can purchase GeoSurface Mapping as an interactive exhibit package (hardware, interface, and content), provided they have Internet access.
The GeoSurface Map interface was in part inspired by the creative cartography work of Liz Mogel and Trevor Paglen. Going beyond representations of data, their maps are narratives that emphasize the infrastructural and social aspects of the annotated space. (http://www.artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=3091). Katherine Harmon’s You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination was also a rich source of imaginative cartographic examples.
My new Unity game! Cracked Marble Maze is about wandering through a game without the possibility of ever reaching an end state. The rotating maze is suspended in starry void, but even if you fall through the cracks in the walls, you are transported back to a random spot in the maze by a stellar cloud. Boosters in the maze tunnels make the maze rotate in the opposite direction. When you get to the center of the maze (the rotating cracked marble), you can jump to any of the other “arms” by jumping from the marble to one of the rotating entrances. It’s hard to keep one’s balance on the marble! Luckily, running up 90° slopes is possible…
The game I made a month ago, Bunnybot should probably be re-named Neon Helix – because now it’s all about traveling through floating helixes composed of bubbles and luminous cubes in a deep dark cavernous space. S3D competes with conflicting depth cues (smaller helixes are placed in front of the screen), giving the player an impression of navigating a spatial paradox.
Dive into the world of Baroque Toys…
We know about building imaginary worlds but who are these worldless vinyl characters? Unless they parade their worlds on their splattered, plastic bodies. More than just monsters or aliens, they express some baroque juxtaposition of the object, the animal, the cosmos and the anthropomorphic. Incredibly emotional and responsive, they point to a region of affect beyond the human, to the moods and projections we read into our devices, furniture, urban spaces, and favorite media universes.
from the Toy Art Gallery website:
Toy Art Gallery is proud to present “Sacred Trip”, new work by Carlos Enriquez Gonzalez. “Sacred Trip” continues Gonzalez’s exploration of the divide (or lack thereof) between Man and God, man and woman, and toy and art. Gonzalez’s work challenges the viewer with an intermingling of grotesque, sexual, and childlike symbols, which together produce wholly original, substantially, and more importantly, beautiful works of art.
Among the materials used by the artist for his work are: fiber glass, plastic, automotive paint, crystal, gold, platinum, diamond, metal, raw meat, connecting an aesthetic three-dimensional finish with more organic materials. Mushrooms, eyes, monsters, brains, human parts, sacred elements, sexual organs are some of the symbols that refer to the artist´s intimate world in which also blend some of his concerns, energy, power, intuition, parallel worlds, multidimensionality, tunnels of time, all this reflected in his work represented in a provocative and transgressor mode.
The bouncy 3D labyrinth with its electrocuted fuzzy fauna continues to be built…in stereo! A prototype arch and its puzzled subject pose for the game engine camera.
Electrocuted Bunnybot Pinball, here scripted and modeled in the game engine Unity and rendered in anaglyph stereoscopy, is a multiplayer game about erratic and exuberant motion and an extreme experience of playful space.
Each player controls a bunny. The bunnies hop around in a prison-environment.
The goal of the game is to make your bunny jump into one of the many holes in the walls/floor/ ceiling of the prison (all have different shapes – you have to see if your bunny fits) and escape.
Plugs are the jail-keepers of the bunnies. Every time a bunny hits a hotspot (shaped like stars) on the floor/ceiling/walls of the prison, it causes one of the plugs to go into an outlet.
Every time a plug goes into an outlet, a random bunny gets “electrocuted” and its bounciness multiplies (10s), making it bounce erratically across the prison. Not only is it then harder for the player to control and to aim for holes, but it also makes it harder for the other players, since the bunny is likely to ricochet not only off the walls but off other bunnies, knocking them off their course.
How does the stereo work with the game mechanics?
The irregular shape of the space and the irrepressible kinetic momentum of the bunnies are the main attraction of the game. The puzzle piece-like holes in the walls of the prison as well as the walls’ irregular curvature, crannies, and recesses all participate in creating an unpredictable and graphically striking environment, where often 3D is the only reliable depth cue, since the texture of the walls is uniform, and multiple different-colored lighting sources are always roving across the environment, changing the shadows and further confusing the topology of the space.
The bouncing bunnies offer the player an extreme experience of the z-axis. They give the space a dynamic aspect and add to stereo’s aesthetic function of enhancing the physicality (shape, material qualities) of the game objects.
Wish Come True, Luminato Festival, Toronto, June 2010
FriendsWithYou is an art collective based in Miami that in addition to creating a wildly successful line of designer vinyl toys, creates large-scale inflatable toy environments. Rainbow City in Miami and Wish Come True in Toronto stand as fairy-tale epitomes of the fantastically cute and adorable, offering extreme experiences in curves and bounciness for buoyant spirits of all ages. Bringing the toy to the realm of the gargantuan, built on the social scale of the city, the art of FriendsWithYou is more than aesthetically overwhelming in its impact, it also acts as a sort of emotional and collective catharsis for the visitors, coercing them into a state of cuddliness and beatific joy. The collective dubs themselves the pioneers of a “happy movement”.
“The individual structures are simple, minimal forms that borrow aesthetics from toy- like geometry and design and tower over guests, as each element’s height ranges from ten to forty feet. By dwarfing the audience, the totemic pieces trigger a sense of reverence, similar to the visual of a monolithic monument. During interaction, the inflated sculptures “embrace” visitors, while repetitive sound elements further enhance the sensory experience.The overall installation creates a surreal landscape of psychedelic scenery intended to simultaneously provoke a religious and childlike awareness.” (friendswithyou.com)
Rainbow City, Miami, November 2010
Examining the spatial strategies at work in Disneyland, Jacques Tati’s Play Time, and David Hildebrand Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology
The relationship between the elements of attraction, the narrative and the overarching theme of a mediated space, whether it be an actual, designed environment/installation or the imaginary space implied by a two dimensional screen, is perhaps most directly tackled by considering the temporal axis on which these concepts might be placed. Tom Gunning says of the attraction, “its temporality is limited to the pure present tense of its appearance”. As a spectacular performance or spectacular invitation to approach and interact with an object, the attraction absorbs the viewer’s attention, seemingly suspending the flow of events and flattening time into a fulgurated impression. According to Gaudreault and Dulac, this perpetual return of the moment, which they link specifically to optical toys from the phenakisticope to the praxinoscope, expresses a specifically mechanical or technological kind of temporality. Like a spinning top, the time of the attraction revolves around itself, defining a singular point: the instant. By comparison, the time of the narrative is progressive, inscribed in a duration that realizes itself through incremental change. Rick Altman’s point that narrative does not always imply a change in character or situation (especially when considering dual-focus stories which end with a reaffirmation of status quo) does not belie the fact that plot is essentially event driven. In its turn, theme has a temporal signature that is neither instant nor progression, but perhaps most closely evokes a platonic notion of Ideas situated outside of time.
Joe Rodhe, the designer of Disney’s theme park Animal Kingdom, speaks to this when he explains the purely deductive process that determines the design of the park, from large-scale rides to ornamental details: starting from a core concept defined by a noun and a value-bearing modifier (i.e. for Animal Kingdom, “the glory of nature”), each design decision automatically reproduces that value across all material signifiers in the park, privileging textured wood over stainless steel or open over enclosed space, for example, thus ensuring that no incongruity disrupts the integrity of the theme. This understanding of the notion of theme, at least in terms of Disney’s design methodology, illuminates much of why themed spaces hold such a powerful utopian or heterotopic appeal, as places preserved from the vicissitudes of time, enduring but not changing, perpetrating an illusion of eternity.
Supposing that attraction, narrative and theme function as different modes of media-ted space, then visitors in the course of their exploration would experience such spaces as separate, but overlapping, temporal “zones”. With this in mind, the rest of this paper will examine the interplay between these three modalities in three texts whose experiential pivot is what I’d like to call choreographed space, that is, space organized to produce meaning over time,: Disneyland, Jacques Tati’s ballet-like comedy Play Time, and David Hildebrand Wilson’s mock institution and institution-mimicking art installation, the Museum of Jurassic Technology. What becomes clear as we look into these works is that the classical opposition between attraction and narrative tends to resolve itself when we put them in relationship with theme. Meaning, the attraction might not have the experiential effect of being either in excess of narrative or of functioning as a narrative prop (c. f. Henry Jenkins, “is the gag a disruption of the narrative or a unit of the narrative?”) so much as of offering an alternative phenomenological pathway to the conceptual core of the work. Of course, the question then arises as to whether these texts can (or should) be reduced to the one-liners that themes generally are (c.f. “the glory of nature”).
A deflection of that argument is perhaps to draw us away from a semiotic focus on content or meaning and towards an examination of process and experience, in which case the theme, which we might also understand to be the internal logic of the text, does not necessarily constitute the substance of the work; more relevant from a user point of view are the material overtones and resonances that the theme generates in the course of the user’s temporal encounter with the space.
“You have a body, the ride announces, you exist”, writes Scott Bukatman in relation to Disneyland’s appeal as a place that is not only about the possibilities of storytelling but also about new possibilities of embodiment, of materialized subjectivity as a parameter of movement across time and space. Operating via a seamless interface of information, engineering, and animatronics, the visitor is invited to literally “walk into the movie”. Instead of getting a 3rd person point of view of motion (as in film), they can re-visit motion as both an everyday condition of embodiment and an extraordinary or fantasmic potentiality, whether through the speed and acrobatics of roller-coasters and dark ride vehicles (entertaining descendants of railway cars), or, more subtly, but not less impactful in terms of kinetic pleasure, as pedestrians in a “park” whose paths are no less steered than if they were rails. Disneyland space molds the user’s time, sculpting temporal flow and progression, in an architectural tradition that goes back to the Acropolis and earlier; it has been extensively commented that Disneyland is organized “processionally”, meaning that the space unfolds before the visitor’s eyes as a series of views or perspectives. Joe Rodhe would refer to these morphing vignettes as “picturesque”, which is a term that itself goes back to 18th century practices of landscape tourism and its romantic pursuit of the sublime, as well as a principle according to which spatial elements are arranged in an aesthetically and emotionally stimulating composition in order to function as a queue of integrated attractions. Deriving thus from Disneyland’s landscape design is the idea that narrative can emerge from a series of attractions, much in the same way that the diegesis of a film arises from the juxtaposition of pictures, frames, and shots.
However, these attractions play a much more excessive and prominent role than that of a recombinant narrative “unit” – they determine the way in which the narrative is viscerally felt. The life and times of the Pirates of the Carribean would be a very threadbare tale without the warm humid air that circulates around the boats of the visitors, without the smell of mangrove and swampy water, the sound of crickets, or the gusts of wind from the cannons of Tortuga. By soliciting the entire perceptual apparatus and invading, so to speak, the body of the visitor in a flush of sensation, the attraction adds a layer of temporal intensity to the narrative skeleton of the Disneyland paradigm that accounts for much of the experience of quasi-intoxication that differentiates the theme park from other Disney narrative vehicles. The whirling Teacups ride, with their synesthetic marriage of chirpy music and gyrating euphoria, express a complex affective bundle of absurdity, unhinged-ness, whimsy and devil-may-care that the Alice in Wonderland animated film works hard to build up in the course of 75 min. Both the attraction and the narrative, however, are effective in tandem because in they end they boil down to a common theme – or, as we saw in my attempt to distill the Teacups, what might more helpfully be called mood, or tone.
In Play Time, Tati invites the audience to explore another kind of theme park. According to Thompson, “the whole structuring of the film around a group of tourists (who come specifically to look at and listen to Paris) plays up the act of paying attention to appearances and sound”. In effect, here too diegesis is stitched together as a compendium of attractions, or rather, the attraction that is the entire film is introduced by a diegetic conceit, the introduction of visitors (doppelgangers of the audience) and the space to be visited. Like in a Bruegel painting, the viewer’s eye is forced to hop around the frame in search of potential gags, pausing for a second on a punch line before resuming the feverish search for situations amongst the interweaving threads of interaction. Tati’s 60s modernist Paris, with its retro-future aesthetic, its excessive use of algorithmically compartmentalized space and lack of differentiation between humans and gadgets, operates as an animatron of gargantuan proportions, in which each gag is a kinetic act that sets the machine in motion.
Bukatman’s remarks on Disneyland’s resemblance to a cybernetic system could also equally apply to Tati’s world, although Play Time is more clearly dominated by the bodily mechanics of the gag – to which all human-technological and inter-human interactions are progressively assimilated in the course of the film – , thus perhaps evoking more of a steampunk than a cyberpunk logic. Speaking of the excess generated by the gag by principle of its status as an attraction (and experientially in Play Time, by the total surfeit of gags), Thompson reminds us that “our experience as (film) viewers is not aimed simply at a constant interpretation of all elements in terms of the meaning they create”. In other words, even in a narrative medium such as film (not including strictly avant-garde or abstract film), narrative content need not correspond to the viewer’s most prominent or memorable experience of the movie. Although Play Time is, undeniably, one thing happening after another – in fact, one might argue that it is just one thing happening after another, which is why it is so primally pleasurable – it does not resolve into a narrative, precisely because it does not assign meaning to individual gags.
On a thematic level, however, the logic or rule set of Tati’s universe pervades each sequence of the movie, endowing the whole with a sharp phenomenological coherence. One might call this principle exponential anarchization or accelerating entropy, a drift towards détournement that results from a policy, on the part of each agent within the frame, to misuse the space and its objects. Again we return to theme as a principle of valuation – to go back to Rodhe’s design methodology – in other words, a modifer or epithet that orders what exists and what happens in the space: Tati systematically chooses the disorderly over the orderly. As we saw in the case of Disneyland, this concept of the modifier is also closely related to tone. Although a more in depth analysis is beyond the scope of this paper, the commonalties between theme and tone and, in turn, the relationship between tone, the attraction, and narrative, are intriguing.
The logic of The Museum of Jurassic Technology is more obscure than either that of Disneyland or Play Time. A first look will tell us that it derails (and gently derides) the institution of the museum by putting on solemn display – to the point of being funerary – relics of past lore and memorabilia that lie far outside the cannon of knowledge artifacts of accepted historical significance. The Museum of Jurassic Technology turns the traditional idea of the museum – bits and shards from the world lying encased in glass coffins while a male voice pontificates on their genealogy – back to its exhibitionistic roots, the 19th century freak show and the 18th century cabinet of curiosities, when judgments about knowledge and worthiness of display were more openly a matter of personal taste. However, the experience of the Museum is not ironic, but playful and sublime. Atmospheric dioramas of trailer parks, floating radiographs of dead flowers, “rotting” dice, a theory of time and space conducted via ancient photographs, missing jars, and a recorded telephone message interface, amongst many other storytelling bric à brac, are hybrid artifacts. They are attractions in their primary quality of arousing the visitor’s curiosity, first of all through the ensconcement and dispersal of exhibits in the folds of the Museum maze, always in partially obscured juxtaposition, often losing the visitor in diverging paths or hidden recesses, as well as through the use of effects such as stereoscopy on glass projection, music, dim lighting, reflective surfaces and puzzles as exhibit interfaces to entice the visitor and absorb her in a state of hypnagogic wonder. They are also more often then not bearers of very complex narratives that testify to the secret presence of fabulation in all “informational” texts, many exhibits following a protagonist throughout his whole life (the Athanasius Kircher, The Unique World of Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaljian, the Sonnabend exhibits) and culminating in a philosophical, scientific, or artistic resolution/explanation that irrupts in a quasi-cathartic moment while the visitor is watching a stereo movie in a curtained cabinet or listening to a voice-over. Even when the visitors are not called upon to follow in the traces of some character, the artifacts are furiously labeled, schematized, and cross-referenced, asking them to play detective, setting them on an epistemological trail that can prove exhausting in its intensity (No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mt. Wilson Observatory, Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge, and Hypersymbolic Cognition).
If Disneyland offers a narrative procession of attractive moments subsumed under psychogeographic, themed “Lands” , and Play Time builds its narrative progression on gags that are not serially but spatially distributed across a deep focus frame, The Museum of Jurassic Technology functions as a telescope, collapsing vast narratives into the instant of the artefact, and inversely, extending the visitor’s present to touch the times of other places. In the Museum, attraction and narrative fuse to create a remarkable effect of temporal tunneling, which makes it perhaps one of the most experimental and innovative of themed spaces.
Bukatman, Scott, Matters of Gravity: Special effects and Supermen in the 20th Century, Duke University Press 2003
Bukatman, Scott , Spectacle, Attractions, and Visual Pleasure in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda, Strauven, Amsterdam University Press 2006
Dulac, Nicolas, and Gaudreault, André, Circularity and Repition at the Heart of the Attraction: Optical toys and the Emergence of a New Cultural Series in The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda, Strauven, Amsterdam University Press 2006
Thompson, Kristin, Breaking the glass armor: neoformalist film analysis, Princeton University Press, 1988
My Umbrella Music Box on display. When you open the umbrella, a windy, tinkling, chimey tune starts to play somewhere above the umbrella holder’s ears, only faintly discernible to others.
Materials used: hacked circuit of a Saw III audio-recording toy, a salvaged speaker, LED cocktail ice-cube, synthetic fur, taffeta, netting, nylon and a common umbrella. Special thanks to Jerry Serafin for his electronics expertise!
from Sianne Ngai’s “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde “To use an everyday, ready-at-hand object as an example of commercially produced cuteness, this small and compact knickknack, a frog-shaped bath sponge (figs. 1a and 1b), shows how much the aesthetic depends on a softness that invites physical touching—or, to use a more provocative verb, fondling. It also demonstrates the centrality of anthropomorphism to cuteness. Yet while the object has been given a face and exaggerated gaze, what is striking is how stylistically simplified and even unformed its face is, as if cuteness were a sort of primitivism in its own right. Realist verisimilitude and precision are excluded in the making of cute objects, which have simple contours and little or no ornamentation or detail. The smaller and less formally articulated or more bloblike the object, the cuter it becomes—in part because smallness and blobbishness suggest greater malleability and thus a greater capacity for being handled. The bath sponge makes this especially clear because its purpose is explicitly to be pressed against the body and squished.
From here it is only a short step to see how the formal properties associated with cuteness — smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy— call forth specific affects: helplessness, pitifulness, and even despondency. There is thus a sense in which the minor taste concept of cuteness might be said to get at the process by which all taste concepts are formed and thus at the aesthetic relation all of them capture. For in addition to being a minor aesthetic concept that is fundamentally about minorness (in a way that, for instance, the concept of the glamorous is not), it is crucial to cuteness that its diminutive object has some sort of imposed-upon aspect or mien—that is, that it bears the look of an object not only formed but all too easily de-formed under the pressure of the subject’s feeling or attitude towards it. Though a glamorous object must not have this mien at all (in fact, the meta-aspect of looking as if its aspect were subjectively imposed would immediately break the Schein of glamour), the subject’s awareness, as she gazes at her little object, that shemaybe willfully imposing its cuteness upon it, is more likely to augment rather than detract from the aesthetic illusion, calling attention to an unusual degree of synonymy between objectification and cutification
We can thus start to see how cuteness might provoke ugly or aggressive feelings, as well as the expected tender or maternal ones. For in its exaggerated passivity and vulnerability, the cute object is as often intended to excite a consumer’s sadistic desires for mastery and control as much as his or her desire to cuddle.
original concept art for Disney’s Tomorrowland
Scott Bukatman’s argument about Disneyland’s cyborg relationship to technology echoes Ndalianis’ discussion of the (neo)baroque aesthetic of spatial interaction, in the sense that both join in a phenomenological regime where the subject fuses with an exterior, with an object – whether the animatronic interface of Disneyland or a painted bas-relief that tricks the viewer into seeing it as an extruded surface – in a overflow of “kinetic, sensory pleasure” (Bukatman).
the Grand Opening of Fantasyland, 1955
Both the baroque object/ornament and the theme park (which might be thought of as a baroque effect multiplied by technology) allow “the body (to) penetrate impossible spaces” (Bukatman), or in Ndalianis’ words, to create “co-extensive space – a space that illusionistically connects with and infinitely extends from our own”. This process of fusion between the internal space of the subject and the inanimate exteriority of the technological or architectural apparatus is read by both Bukatman and Ndalianis as a kind of sensual and affective jouissance, a pleasure that derives from the subject exceeding the boundaries of the “normal” body to find a new kind of virtual embodiment in a multiplicity of outside spaces. In a movement that molds itself to the machinery of the baroque aesthetic, the baroque subject is transformed, disarticulated and dispersed alongside forking paths of attention and absorption, the sense of self “becoming a system of a labyrinth, which, by means of mobile synthesis, stretches itself out in a realm of glittering movement and color” (to re-contextualize Focillon’s beautiful phrase).
Blade Runner…a cyberpunk icon
It is interesting that this same effect proper to the baroque also seems to apply to Bukatman’s interpretation of cyberpunk as an ocular regime governed by a sense of ambiguity as to whether the eye is subjective or objective/inanimate/machine. Not surprisingly, the intimate pervasiveness characteristic of cyberpunk technology (and of our own contemporary technological experience) can be witnessed to correspond with a resurgence in a taste for and consumption of the baroque, if one is to judge by the popularity of theme parks and themed urbanity – the baroque might be the missing puzzle piece in understanding contemporary audiences relationship to technology and the (ongoing?) process of cyborgification whereby individuality or consciousness becomes transmediated across different platforms.
18th century artist Giovanni Piranesi’s baroque rendition of Rome...
This liquification of the self into a riot of sensation, to go back to Focillon’s analysis of the baroque, also arguably applies to our experience of the attraction (and the amusement parks from which Disneyland is descended). Though it is common to think about attractions in terms of theme parks, and of seeing Disneyland as a kind of terminal incarnation of the principle of the attraction, Disneyland’s totalizing space and monolithically integrated design actually differs significantly from other historical experiences of attractions, such as amusement parks, pleasure gardens, fairs, etc…In which case Margaret King’s idealistic description of the theme park as a “stage based on architectural symbols for stylized, romanticized human interaction” might be read proscriptively or nostalgically…
and more virtuoso inventiveness using Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 as a theme park 3D modeling environment!
How does Bolter and Gruisin’s (Remediation) argument that all media pursue a teleological course of both transparency and “hypermediacy” apply to Dulac’s and Gaudreaul’s (The Cinema of Attractions) concept of the attraction? Bolter and Gruisin interpret both transparency, the desire for a total and faithful reproduction of reality, and hypermediacy, the multiplication of media presence that establishes mediation as the primary reality, as expressions of temporality. In both cases, the goal is to submerge the viewer/player in a new (and, ideally, more enriching) present: “hypermedia and transparent media are opposite manifestations of the same desire: the desire to get past the limits of representations and achieve the real. They are not striving for the real in a metaphysical sense. Instead, the real is defined in terms of the viewer experience: it is that which evokes an immediate (and therefore authentic) viewer response.”contemporary interpretations of the zooetrope by a Burning Man artist
Perhaps a point that Bolter and Gruisin do leave out is that this yearning for a more satisfying or exciting present, for a feeling of visceral and striking immediacy which media seems to cater to is a particularly modern phenomenon. Mary Ann Doane (The Emergence of Cinematic Time) traces a genealogy of this craving for the contingent and yet significant moment from Benjamin to Baudelaire and the advent of modern modes of transportation such as the train, which broke up earlier experiences of time through a new logic of speed, shock, and destination, as opposed to what we might (ideally) think of as a Bergsonian or Proustian duration. According to Doane, the replacement temporality that constituted cinematic time catered to this new modern consciousness by both enveloping the viewer in a surfeit of emotional immediacy, taping into the viewer’s addiction to the jolt of the “instant”, and, through its technological apparatus, fulfilling dreams of immortal or resurrected time, the time which had been lost in the transition to a modern age that emphasized the present over other modes of temporality.evolution of the optical toy into cinema: Reynauld’s “optical theatre”, based on the cyclical praxinoscope
Dulac’s and Gaudreault’s discussion of the phenakisticope and the zoetrope as forms of media that privileged metamorphosis, reproducibility of action, “brevity” and temporal circularity over the narration, duration, structured and linear time that would characterize later cinema, seems particularly pertinent in this context. Here, referring back to Doane, we might interpret these optical attractions as exemplary expressions of the emerging modern temporality of their era. In manipulating and enjoying these attractions, the viewer/player experienced a form of “mechanical” as opposed to human time, a kind of emotional and cognitive immersion in the apparatus that, according to Dulac and Gaudreault, belongs both to the logic of digital games (and, although they don’t mention it, of amusement park rides) as well as to the logic of cinema.
It is difficult to pin down attractions to either a teleology of hypermediacy or transparency, because they don’t seem to properly engage in a process of representation of reality. It might be more useful to think of them as intensifying factors, instruments for the crystallization of time; in Tom Gunning’s words, “the temporality of the attraction itself is limited to the pure present tense of its appearance”.