[Jer Thorp / DNA Mandala / 2010]
Two weeks ago more than a thousand designers, artists and interactive industry insiders assembled for the 9th edition of FITC Toronto. The theme of this year’s version of the festival drew inspiration from the exuberance of the playground and this was evident in a number of threads that ran through the programming. One of these was storytelling and narrative, which was at the heart of a one day symposium (organized by Siobhan O’Flynn of the CFC Media Lab) and a fascinating panel entitled “Storytelling: Absorbed, Obsessed And Immersed” produced in collaboration with the 5D organization. For this session Ben Kreukniet of United Visual Artists (UVA), production designer Alex McDowell (Minority Report, Fight Club), data artist Jer Thorp, John Underkoffler of Oblong industries and moderator Tali Krakowsky held court in a freewheeling conversation about authorship, narrative and world building. I was fortunate enough to attend this session and what follows is a brief summary of the proceedings.
[Fight Club's "Ikea Scene" / 1999]
Alex McDowell opened the session with an overview traditional notions of production design in film where design is limited to creating “backdrops for actors in space” and all thinking and expertise is subservient to the script. Working on Steven Spielberg’s science fiction opus Minority Report (2002) proved to be a transformational experience for McDowell as the mandate of this film was to embed “every surface with a story.” Many of the technologies within this film could be attributed the speculation of a consortium of thinkers (including Stewart Brand, Neil Gershenfeld and William J. Mitchell) who helped “imagineer” the year 2054 for Spielberg and the film is widely noted for capturing the public’s imagination by showcasing a compelling dynamic gestural interface that figures prominently into the narrative. McDowell concluded his introduction by reminding the audience that film was a completely interactive medium – at least until the editing process begins.
Jer Thorp entered the conversation with a provocative comparison of data visualization and palaeontology whereby searching for patterns in datasets is akin to “collecting old bones.” The data artist faces similar challenges to this discipline in that they must “find material, clean it up and attempt to assemble a skeleton” – despite being significantly removed from the event or phenomena that they are considering. Thorp stressed that working with data is fundamentally tied to reconstructive bias and that he was interested in trying to reveal connections in the myriad of “digital shadows” cast by individuals and organizations.
John Underkoffler highlighted the importance of accepting a much broader definition of narrative as the traditional linear model of “…and then, and then, and then…” is inadequate at capturing real-world complexities. He brought the conversation back to Minority Report and the development of the g-speak interface. Within the film, the operation of this gestural interface was prototyped through post-production and CGI and then “invented” after the fact. This is not only an example of design fiction foreshadowing the development of new technology but the g-speak interface firmly asserted that the entire body should be involved in manipulating information – Underkoffler believes moving beyond the screen (and mouse) is long overdue.
Ben Kreukniet identified the central thesis of the UVA design process as “making the user a protagonist.” As evidenced by the myriad of public art projects currently being produced by the multidisciplinary studio around the world, UVA installations force the user to explore and engage – there are no operating instructions or overt “plot” within this work. Kreukniet described their work as a means to “tell stories with space and foreground awareness of time and movement in the city.”
Riffing on a request to adjust the lighting in the darkened auditorium, Thorp suggested that new models for narrative had the capacity to “turn up the house lights” to reveal the presence of the audience as potential collaborators. A query from the crowd prompted a discussion about design and ethics in which Underkoffler pointed out the importance of open works given the ascent of increasingly locked-down proprietary platforms. Thorp expressed some cynicism regarding the future of data visualization given the manner in which communication theory was co-opted by the advertising industry and universities and colleges led the charge to monetize the discipline.
Krakowsky asked Kreukniet to discuss UVA’s Volume (2006, pictured above) and how that popular reactive environment changed the nature of the commissions that his studio was receiving. Kreukniet identified “duration” as the main challenge that UVA faced with their new work as the durable, weatherproofed assemblies required by permanent installations are considerably more difficult to engineer. Given archivists and curators often grumble about the complexity of maintaining media art, it only follows that as these kinds of projects move from the exhibition hall to the public realm that these issues will be increasingly pressing.
McDowell and Underkoffler’s Immersive Moviemaking course at USC is used as a springboard into conversation regarding narrative and education. Underkoffler suggests that a failing of traditional film education has been to focus on firmly established roles and hierarchies and that these paradigms can easily be overturned by asking students to build and deploy tools for storytelling. The syllabus for this studio concisely summarizes the goals of this experiment as follows: “An intensive lab-based project course in which students will construct a prototype of next-generation film production practice atop a gestural interface platform.” Underkoffler identified (moving towards) dismantling the traditional models of “one to many” authorship as an endgame with this kind of research. Thorp observed that true interactivity is rare and Underkoffler conceded that there is a certain threshold required for engagement. To illustrate this point, Underkoffler likened the traditional model of film narrative to “riding a monorail” and referenced Don Bluth’s classic 1983 arcade game Dragon’s Lair as a harbinger of the inevitable shift towards more choice-based fiction. Offering some additional perspective, McDowell suggested that reflexive multi-dimensional narratives not only reflects “the database paradigm” but how the human mind processes information and memories.
The conversation wound down with an audience question that connected the trajectory of the panel discussion with extravagant budgets – this suggestion was swiftly rebutted. Underkoffler cited Shane Carruth’s 2004 film Primer about time travel as a definitive high-concept low-budget project and Thorp noted that he had the funds for his next undertaking “in his back pocket.”
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If you missed this panel with Tali Krakowsky, Alex McDowell, John Underkoffler, Jeff Thorpe, & Ben Kreukniet at FITC, this is an amazing, detailed summary of their rich discussion – with pics! THANK YOU Greg Smith