VoiceStreams, with Michael Century
[This is the text for a work made in collaboration
with composer / keyboard player Michael Century. It was performed in September
1997 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago as part of the ISEA Conference.
Michael Century performed on the Yamaha DiskKlavier, using my voice and
the sounds of the piano in accompaniment, contrast, and simultaneous audio
stream to a live reading of following text. The subject is multi-linear narrative
The Story Ocean
Interactivity. What does it add to storytelling, to
cinema, to art? Why would we ever want to make an impact on the stories
we are told, the stories we watch and listen to? What is the desire to interact
with a work? Wouldn’t we rather just sit back and enjoy a good yarn?
Salman Rushdie, in his children’s book, written at the peak of his exile
and death sentence, paints a picture of a space of stories that undergo
continuous transformation. It can be read as a metaphor of liberation.
He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of
a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different
colour, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking
complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that
each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different
parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the
stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process
of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story
was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories
were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become
new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become
yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams
of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead but alive.
A sea of stories through which one might effortlessly navigate, is, for
Rushdie, a location where writer’s block and the other factors, internal
and external, that prevent writing, don’t exist. It is a writer’s utopia
where the fluids of the imagination never dry up. For me it is a picture
of a potential interactive narrative space, an ocean for swimming in, where
a swimmer can experience a single story-line simply by allowing himself to
be carried along by its current. A kick of the legs or a pull of the arms
can transport the swimmer, gliding, to another story-stream, and the turbulence
caused by his swimming might make the streams mingle and join, constantly
forming new stories by combining elements of the old. This is a utopia of
interactivity, a space where action affects the narrative, while inaction
allows us to be carried along, riding the wave of a story, experiencing it
as we always have, as something that pulls us through, captivating as it
paints a picture of the world.
But what is it that attracts me, a filmmaker, to this image of a narrative
space? What do I gain by giving up control of the flow of images and sound
and handing it over to my viewers? Can I tell
stories more effectively? Express ideas? Communicate emotions?
And what might be the attraction for a spectator? Why would viewers want
to become swimmers instead of sitters?
Superman’s eyes. They have built-in macro-zoom
lenses with the power to magnify the microscopic and to view details of
objects at a great distance; and they are also weapons. The eyes of super-heroes
Superman, and Cyclops from the X-Men, can bore through fabric, steel, mountains,
and enemies with their red-hot X-ray laser-gazes. Their looks can literally
penetrate, actually burn. I believe that for their adolescent male audience,
this eye-power is a realization of a primitive psychology. In identifying
with these super-heroes, the young man feels the power of the desire in
his own look, and fantasizes this power as crystallizing into beams that
emanate from his eyes. There is probably a sadistic component to this fantasy—the
desire to destroy anything that produces so uncontrollable a response in
the solar plexus. The impulse to overcome the object of desire with the
eyes—the very organs that bring desire into the body.
“How does the act of marking a surface come to have meaning for an artist?”
Richard Wollheim posits the artist’s fantasy to make looking instrumental—a
power to change something in the world simply by looking at it with intent.
Wollheim sees the desire for the instrumental look as based on “an assimilation
of vision to sexuality,” the equation of vision to a sexual act, and suggests
that this is a fundamental and primitive psychic operation.
Wollheim takes us to Freud’s notorious case study, the Wolf Man. The case
turns around a young boy’s nightmare.
The Wolf Man’s Dream
PRERECORDED: I dreamed that it was night and I was
lying in my bed. Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was
terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree
in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were
quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails
like foxes and they had their ears pricked
like dogs when they pay attention to something.
In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed
and woke up. *
The Wolf Man feels the unblinking gaze of the wolves in his dream as containing
a threat and a punishment . He sees their stare as punishment for his stare—his
(remembered) visual image of the sexual activity of his parents. His taking
in of the primal scene was riddled with desires, among them a desire to
punish his father for an action he misinterpreted as causing his mother
pain. The child’s look at his father was a murderous, castrating look.
His dream transposes the child’s own look into the eyes of the wolves who
stare at him. The wolves’ gaze is a punishment for a forbidden desire, and
in the unreality of the dream, is like a beam that can burn, cut, lacerate.
The Wolf Man’s dream demonstrates an extreme example of the fantasy of a
look that changes reality.
I propose that part of the lure of interactivity for an artist is this
desire for the instrumental look, so that looking-with-desire becomes an
action that can have an effect on the object of sight. In interactive works,
the gesture of pointing substitutes for looking. Pointing at an object alters
But this quickly becomes a mere exercise, if there is no desire in the
act of looking/pointing. To alter the world with an accidental glance does
not capture the desire for power in the sexually charged gaze. The super-heroes
of comic books and videogames must summon the power of their look, and they
do so out of a desire to affect what they are looking at.
An interactive work will come to life only when its interactivity is necessary,
when the viewer’s impact on the work is equally generated by desire.
There was once a couple who lived in a cottage
in the middle of the woods and they didn’t have any children. One day they
went out to gather some mushrooms for dinner and while they were away a
wolf came into their cottage and ate up all their children . . .
At this point the child says “But Grandpa, they didn’t have any children.”
And the grandfather replies: “Then what did the wolf eat, and why were
they so sad?” And this leads to a discussion about the nature of story-telling:
focusing, in particular, on the storyteller’s responsibility to be coherent.
In this way theory becomes an element of narrative.
The grandfather’s story is an example of the mingling of two stories—stories
whose forms are known by the listener, but not previously put together
in this combination. Here is a version of the first story:
There was once a couple who lived in a cottage in the woods,
and they had two children they loved more than anything in the world. One
day the couple had to go out to find supper, and they left their children
sleeping in the cottage. While they were out a wicked wolf broke in and
ate up their children . . .
The story would continue with the couple’s desperate attempt to retrieve
their children, whom the greedy wolf had, fortunately, swallowed whole.
And here is a version of the second story:
There was once a couple who lived in a cottage in the woods,
who didn’t have any children. More than anything else in the world, they
wished they had children, but they had not been blessed in this way. Every
night they tried and tried to get children, but they didn’t succeed. One
afternoon they went to the beach to gather some oysters for dinner, and while
they were out, a wolf came and left two little babies, a boy and a girl,
on their bed . . .
This story would continue with the couple’s gradual growing
attachment to the children, how years later they go out and the wolf returns
for the children—the unfolding of a mystery.
That these two tales have been confused into a dysfunctional story suggests
that the Ocean of Streams of Story is itself dysfunctional in some way—perhaps
the waters are polluted. For an interactive storyspace ocean, some basic
rules must be followed.
How can we describe the rules of the ocean, so that only what we might
call ‘good’ stories are produced by the swimmer’s activity in its waters?
What about a version where the streams themselves don’t intermingle, but
elements from one current get caught up in another? Here we can see the
streams as collections of particles, shells, or tiny creatures, which float
along in their own currents until water turbulence dislodges one of them
and nudges it over into another current. The particle may not make sense
in its new location, but it can serve as a reminder of the stream it came
from. Now, if the swimmer is active and attentive enough, he can begin to
get a picture of the ocean as a whole—a synoptic image of the entire narrative
space, seeing each element of each stream as a representative of that stream.
Stories now have disjunctive elements intruding, but the sense of continuity
There was once a couple who lived in a cottage in the middle
of the woods and they didn’t have any children. One day they went to gather
mushrooms for dinner and while they were away, the window of their cottage
opened of its own accord to reveal four or five wolves sitting on a big
walnut tree. The wolves were white as snow, and they had big fluffy tails
like foxes. When the couple got home they sat down and ate a delicious meal,
and imagined together the children they wished they could have had . . .