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Malcolm Le Grice

Malcolm leGrice outlines some theoretical concepts for an interactive avant garde cinema

Printed in MFJ No. 28 (Spring 1995) Interactivities

Interactivity in the plastic arts is not new, since the mid-sixties at least, artists have produced electronically and digitally controlled feed-back projects where the actions of the spectators have altered the work in some form or other. It is, however, only recently that there has been a realistic convergence between recorded cinematic sequence, aspects of virtual reality synthesis and sophisticated interactive possibilities. There is a developing practice in this field some of which is aimed at education and training, but also some which is quite clearly artistic in purpose. It is the aim of this paper to take up some of the theoretical issues which must ariseif we are to bring cinema and interactivity together in the context of the creative arts and in the search for artistic forms appropriate to the new opportunities.

Cinema and television art has been overwhelmingly dominated by the form of linear narrative. The presentational structure of cinematic media (film and video tape) has intrinsic characteristics which reinforce this linearity and reinforce the concept of a consequent and singular resolution. One major aspect of presentational linearity is the reel of film or tape itself with the images held in a locked sequence to be seen from beginning to end. The extent to which this linearity of presentation can be broken or interrupted by the viewer is an economic issue which concerns both a financial and a psychological investment. The economics of making and presenting a film establish a major difference between the active production of the work and its passive viewing in cinema or during TV transmission. Home video taping is already a form of interactivity which puts greater opportunity for selection in the hands of the domestic viewer. Though in this example, the choices may seem trivial, the opportunity for the viewer to fast forward sections of little interest, repeat sections of particular interest and, in a more sophisticated sense, study the cinematic construction in detail, puts the viewer in a significantly different psychological position with regard to the work.


The predominance of the narrative form in our culture makes it difficult to establish any critical distance allowing narrative to be seen as one particular form of representation rather than a natural and inevitable system. As renaissance perspective is a mode of spatial representation amongst other modes (maps, diagrams, isometric projections or cubist space), so linear narrative is one method by which events in time and their causal relationships may be represented. In this sense narrative form is a representational model; it is a tool by which human-beings grasp and structure their understanding of the world. Whilst being appropriate in certain circumstances it also has shortcomings; it is well suited to representing certain forms of temporal linkage but incapable of modelling others. Its form imposes a philosophical bias (an ideology) on its subject and because of its predominance we are blind to the limits of its truth and level of generality as a representational system.

A fundamental characteristic of the narrative form in cinema is the inevitability of its fictional resolution. The out-come of the plot is pre- determined and the plot carries its primary significance in the relationship of action to the ultimate resolution. The form of a narrative text itself, in the pre-determination of its resolution, is intrinsically fatalistic. The end (as represented in the text) is already determined. Viewers know it is determined when they start watching the film and the events of the film only have their rationale in their contribution to the ultimate consequence. So even in films where the intended representation is of a non-fatalistic world, the representation is in conflict with the intrinsic form of linear narrative and its experience by the viewer. Attempts have been made within classical cinema to break both the linearity and tyranny of the singular consequentiality of narrative form. There are examples of attempts at ambiguity in resolution, alternated resolutions, parallel action, branching detours in the plot or multiple viewpoint in the representation of the fiction but none of these substantially question the structure of linear causal representation.


As well as looking at the structure of linear narrative, it is crucial to analyse the characteristic form by which the viewer is involved in traditional cinematic experience. The viewer watches, as if through a window, an action between a group of protagonists. Normally, one or two of these protagonists are central and become the focus of a psychological identification by the viewer. The viewer becomes engaged in the action of the narrative by an imaginary leap into the position of one or other of these depicted characters. The viewer experiences the desires, frustrations, pleasures and satisfaction of these characters in the unfolding of a plot by living through the representation as if they were in the place of the character. However much the viewers may become psychologically engaged they can never truly be protagonists and any experience they may have of being a protagonist through identification is illusory. To be a protagonist there must be a perceivable relationship between action and effect. In other words, an action on the part of the viewer must be able to change the course of events which follow from that action.

The characters within a narrative are represented as taking part in the complex relationship between action and consequence. However, in the conventions of cinema this representation of protagonism is already itself a fiction. The characters - moving photographs of actors - are not creating the consequences they seem to be. They are playing those actions to a set of consequences pre-determined within the script. They are enacting their protagonism. For the viewer then, this added to the identification with the actor, becomes a double illusion of protagonism. Protaganism is twice removed in the determination of the plot - the only protagonism in this sense is in the authorship of the text.

[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering] Thus, in the context of digital technologies and the opportunities for artistic approaches to interactivity, I have identified two major issues implicit in the dominant culture of narrative cinema, the linear consequential structure and the condition of the viewer in relation to the work. In the search for alternative approaches which match artistic structure with new technological possibilities, I offer two potentially fruitful sources: the cinematic grammar developed by the experimental cinema (the avant- garde), which has resisted, transformed or created alternatives to linear narrative; and perhaps more surprisingly, the computer game.

The first of these offers an approach to different models of connectivity, temporal structuring and concepts of the relationship between cinematic sequences (as data) and their combination (as programme). The second offers a model in which the viewer becomes a protagonist in a psychologically motivated field. Only the radically experimental cinema has seriously questioned the inexorable linearity of narrative, seeking instead to model a multi-dimensional connectivity within the form of cinema - what Maya Deren described as the vertical rather than horizontal exploration in cinema. Fundamental to this enterprise has been a recognition of the inadequacy of narrative form to represent a philosophical and ideological structure seen by experimental filmmakers to be appropriate to their perceptual experience. This perception has involved many forms of both abstract and representational linkage not susceptible to the structures of linear causality.

Capricorn the ram

In computer technology, the separation of data from its programmed combination or interaction is fundamental. The relationship and connections between instances of data is not fixed. The instances of date retain potential; they may be combined and recombined according to a variety of principles and permutations. In the cinematic context what might be considered an instance of data remains problematic - it is not determinate, it depends on the level at which the analysis (or classified digitization takes place). It can range from the individual pixel of the image, a fragment of digital sound, a single picture, a shot sequence or, most radically, an analytical set of principles on which three dimensional motion audio-graphics might be synthesized. Additionally, it is a matter of creative ingenuity to define the programme structure by which these levels or instances of data may be combined. In the artistic context, whatever principle of the programme or sequence of connectivity between the data is created, it carries with it the implication of signification and a relationship (as model) between the artistic construct and the world on which it reflects (or into which it is placed as an intervention). Its structures have and promote philosophical and ideological positions, they become part of the vocabulary or grammar by which we grasp and understand the world.The flexibility of the relations between data in programmable sequence offered by computers is a consequence of technology offering random access memory to whatever is defined as data. At its most radical, random access memory is wholly non-linear - the structure of access is not governed by the priority established in initial storage but is only subject to a hierarchy of combination determined by the user. At this level, the concept of random access memory, when applied to the audio/visual arena has the potential to radically undermine the linearity of narrative sequence. In practice, in the developing technology of high information storage, where the data is defined as cinematic sequences (shots), aspects of the access remain partially linear (through the rotation of storage discs). At a technical level there is a range of storage media from linear tape (or film) to rapid cross access discs to fully solid state memory. At the level of theory random access memory places instances of data into a structure which may be considered as a matrix (three- or multi-dimensional grid) no longer confining presentational sequence nor connective principle to the conventions of narrative causality. Narrative structure becomes a sub-set of temporal structuring. Experimental cinema as far back as Dziga Vertov's 'Man With The Movie Camera' (1928), and more recently, the work of Kurt Kren, Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage and many others may be read as aspiring to a form of temporal connectivity better represented as a matrix than a line. This experimental approach in cinema, through specific exploration of devices like repetition, partial repetition, permutation and system, pre- figures many of the structural principles inherent in the technology of random access memory. What is more important in the artistic context is that they represent the development of philosophical constructs which constitute more appropriate models for contemporary experience than do those offered by the singular and fatalistic structure of classical narrative.

Zap Splat

It would be difficult to interpret the development of the computer game as led by artistic or philosophical principles. It has been a spontaneous popular development which has sprung directly from the potentialities of the computer. Nonetheless, in certain aspects of the search for forms of audio-visual (cinematic) art, it has initiated - unconsciously - fundamental differences and opportunities. Though interactivity has had some serious applications in the development of educational and simulative training systems, like rock music, the computer game has captured a major popular field of psychological investment and desire. The major characteristics on which this seems to rest are; the exercise of interactivity in a field of high motivation, the establishment of the user as an engaged protagonist, an adequate degree of representational simulation into-which the user may project and the possibility of failing to reach a satisfactory resolution. Let us compare the condition of the user of the computer game with the viewer of a conventional narrative. The factor of interactivity demands a change of vocabulary.

The viewer is now a player. The interactive relationship offers a level and range of control in a data field of sufficient variety to veer their experience very strongly towards that of being an active participant and away from that of passive viewer. Though some games like Street Fighter have the user controlling the actions of a visually represented character (a figure visible within the game), in many instances, like the classic Space Invaders or more sophisticated simulations like Grand Prix or Gunship (a helicopter war simulation), the protagonist is significantly not represented in the visual field. Thus, one aspect of the identification process fundamental to classical narrative cinema is not at work. (Though this is often different in experimental cinema where in many instances there is no visually represented protagonist. In these cases, the film traces the film maker as 'protagonist' and the viewer's identification is with the film maker). In the computer game, the interaction experienced by the user/player is one of direct intervention in the scene. The un-represented player is traced (traces him or herself) through the effects brought about within the game.Clearly the motivation of the player can only be maintained if there isa sufficiently desirable goal to be sought or the results of the interiminteraction are sufficiently satisfying. Or, perhaps more crucially, if theinteraction is sufficiently frustrating, promising later satisfactionthrough the development of greater skill or inteligence. The creator of a game must have a grasp of the motivational objectives of the potential player/user, but must also devise sufficient complexity in the programme to offer a range of both interim and ultimate out-comes.

This requires programming a high degree of intended redundancy (or superfluity) - a range of options either failures, successes or different routes - which may or may not be used during the interaction. This principle of redundancy must also be a major factor in the development of satisfactory artistic uses of such systems. The economical creation of this redundancy would seem to rest heavily on the complexity of the initial analysis of data (and algorithms) for synthesis in the interaction. For example: in a pilot or driving game, if based on a large number of single pictorial screens and picture units (sprites), the various combinations of elements would soon be exhausted. On the other hand, the same game structure based on a three-dimensional mapping of the space and objects, though initially more difficult to achieve retains a much greater potential for variety in the interaction. In these cases, the user can genuinely explore options which may not have been expected or intended by the programmer (like driving the racing car against the traffic, going the wrong way round the track). In developing artistic applications this principle of redundancy is equally crucial as well as an understanding of how its economy depends on the quality and depth of the structural analysis at the basis of the program. In seeking appropriate structures for the application of interactivity to cinema, the structural principles underlying a satisfactory program will need to take on issues of psychological linkage between sequences and a complex understanding of dramatic and abstract relationships beyond the range of linear narrative.It may be argued that the examples which can be drawn upon from popular computer games all involve relatively trivial forms ofpsychological objectives or dramatic structure. However,it would be unwise to underestimate the enormous lure which is represented by the desire to master the skills needed to resolve a game, the intrigue represented by the unknown yet to be discovered and the enormous gain for the user in being implicated in the plot. Clearly computer games such as 'Dungeon' have imported much of the fundamental range of dramaturgy from narrative, cinema and theatre incorporating danger, threat and suspense, though many games also draw heavily on competitive sports with its own psychological forms and symbolism. In most computer games,the visual simulation does not come close to the level of photographic representation of cinema but the enhanced dramatic experience which is available to the user/player as a result of the interactive element and their implication in the way in which the game develops is evidently a more than adequate compensation for the lack of depth in the visual illusion.

Interactivity replaces the concept of the passive viewer by the active participant. The experience of being a protagonist, whilst still operating in a symbolic field, is more direct in interactive systems than in the traditional forms of identification which operate in cinema. An interactive cinema needs to offer a fundamental range of choices to the user in interacting with the work. This cannot be confined to a few alternative linear routes, endings or character view-points in an otherwise linear narrative structure. The experimental cinema offers some models for a greater complexity of sequence linkage based on the concept of a cinematic data matrix. With the opportunity of computer programs determining structure, this matrix can be subject to genuinely multi-dimensional conjunction in response to interaction. The computer game represents a significant field of interactive practice with many lessons for the development of an interactive cinema. Parallels should be sought between the kind of structural analysis which produces economic redundancy in three-dimensionalsimulations (for example) and psychological or dramatic structures as the basis of synthesis from fundamental (artistic) principles.

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Printed in MFJ No. 28 (Spring 1995) Interactivities

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Last revised on 12-11-01 by Grahame Weinbren

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