I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Virtual Healing: Remediating Video Games

As I recounted a few weeks ago, I had a dream in which VR technologies were used to help victims revisit crime scenes and thus relive their experiences (see “Virtual Reality and Memory: Revisiting Crime Scenes”). After briefly researching comparable applications in real life, I wondered how VR activated subjects’ memories in a broader context, beyond criminal investigations and trials; psychotherapeutic uses sparked my interest. I hadn’t thought about these questions again until yesterday (July 27th), when I happened to catch “Virtual Healing for Soldiers” on Life & Times, a public affairs television program I don’t usually watch. (I was dubbing my personal videos to DVD and had the TV tuned to KCET, the PBS affiliate in LA; the segment aired in between dubs. I mention this coincidence only to stress the chance operations at stake.) Since I watched only the end of the report, I went to the Life & Times Web site for more information. There I was able to listen to the nine-minute segment in RealAudio and also read a written transcript.

From Sam Louie’s report, I learned that Dr. Jim Spira, a staff psychologist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, is using virtual reality therapy to treat marines suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their service in Iraq. According to Louie, “The government estimates that eighteen percent of American troops in Iraq will suffer from PTSD.” While connected to sensors that monitor their vital signs, patients wear VR headsets that transport them to a simulated Fallujah, which Dr. Spira can customize incrementally with various stimuli, e.g., explosions. The objective of the therapy is to simulate warlike environments, in this case Fallujah, so patients can re-experience the traumas responsible for their conditions and with the doctor’s help learn to cope.

Dr. Skip Rizzo and Jarrell Pair, researchers at the USC Institute for Creative Technology, developed the immersive virtual reality software that Dr. Spira has been using to treat PTSD. Rizzo and Pair based the program on the award-winning X-Box video game “Full Spectrum Warrior,” which they and their team at ICT had originally designed as a training tool for the Army; it was intended to have “the same holding power and repeat value as mainstream entertainment software” (ICT Games Project).

This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I wondered about the use of VR technologies in psychotherapy, but the overall concept seemed relevant to my interests, so I did some background research on the project. Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a research scientist with a PhD in clinical psychology, put the work in perspective during a ten-minute conversation with Kitty Felde, host of the LA radio program Talk of the City. An audio copy of “Virtual Reality War Games Being Adapted to Treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be heard online. (The show aired on March 29th.)

The project also has been discussed in several papers by Rizzo and Pair, including “A Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Application for Iraq War Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: From Training to Toy to Treatment (2005).

Jarrell Pair specializes in the design and development of virtual and augmented reality systems. His career spans the arts and the sciences. Besides developing some projects for the band Duran Duran, he worked at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Graphics, Visualization, and Usability Center (GVU) as project manager for the development of “Virtual Vietnam,” a VR simulation of combat created to treat Vietnam veterans coping with PTSD.

At another time I hope to investigate further Rizzo and Pair’s work on immersive VR therapy for patients suffering from combat-related PTSD. In particular I’d like to understand the role that memory plays in the healing process. I’d also like to find out whether any similar immersive VR systems have been custom-designed for individuals who are not suffering from serious psychological disorders but who simply want to remember their pasts—or to reinvent their life stories. I suspect that such projects would attract a range of people, from artists to writers to oral historians. I’d welcome leads.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Annette Kuhn and Memory Work: Reflections on "Family Secrets"

I've been reading Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, a memoir by British film scholar Annette Kuhn (1995/2002). A blend of cultural criticism and cultural production that engages both the psychic and the social, the hybrid text brings together a series of autobiographical case histories that use private and public images from Kuhn’s past as prompts for “memory work,” which Kuhn defines as “a method and a practice of unearthing and making public untold stories” (9–10). In a manner reminiscent of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Kuhn reflects on her family album, as well as on news photographs and film scenes, to “unravel the connections between memory, its traces, and the stories we tell about the past, especially—though not exclusively—about the past of living memory” and in the process to reveal “the collective nature of the activity of remembering” (Kuhn, 4, 6).

A cultural critic concerned with “how images make meanings,” Kuhn admits that addressing her own memory material was what made the writing of Family Secrets possible—and necessary (153, 156). The model of memory work that guided her acknowledges the performative nature of remembering, and thus encourages practitioners to produce new stories about the past from the memory traces in their repertoires (158). According to Kuhn:

“For the practitioner of memory work, it is not merely a question of what we choose to keep in our ‘memory boxes’—which particular traces of our pasts we lovingly or not so lovingly preserve—but of what we do with them, how we use these relics to make memories, and how we then make use of the stories they generate to give deeper meaning to, and if necessary to change, our lives today” (158).

In an effort to synthesize the lessons she learned from her own memory work, Kuhn offers six theses:

1. Memory shapes our inner worlds.

Unconscious processes often are involved, thus explaining why remembering may introduce thoughts and feelings that defy rational explanations (160).

2. Memory is an active production of meanings.

"Memory is an account, always discursive, always textual. At the same time, memory can assume expression through a wide variety of media and contexts” (161).

3. Memory texts have their own formal conventions.

Because they tend to be metaphorical rather than analogical, memory texts typically have more in common with poetry than with classical narrative. They may be represented as “a montage of vignettes, anecdotes, fragments, ‘snapshots’, flashes” (162).

4. Memory texts voice a collective imagination.

Oral histories, for example, frequently mix “historical, poetic and legendary forms of speech, whilst still expressing both personal truths and a collective imagination” (165).

5. Memory embodies both union and fragmentation.

Traditionally, the telling of family stories has provided the model for remembering in other types of communities, e.g., of ethnicity, class, generation, although “the condition of modernity” has introduced new modes of relating to and producing memory that suit the needs of individuals in “the era of mechanical reproduction and electronic simulation.” During this era, Kuhn argues, new outlets are offered for “the circulation of collective memory: sound recordings, photographs, television programmes, films, home videos are all part of the currency of daily life.” Equally significant, as she notes, are “new ways of imagining a past that . . . transcends the life of the individual.” Yet, as memory texts proliferate across a range of media, at the same time “memory-communities” shift, and collective remembering changes, too, going in any number of directions—becoming divided, fragmented, blended, united, and/or enriched (167).

Although I’m not sure exactly what time frames Kuhn references here, and I question some of the generalizations she makes, I find her comments on media especially pertinent to considerations of memory and memory work in the digital age, an inquiry her book paves the way for but doesn’t address directly.

6. Memory is formative of communities of nationhood.

"With its foothold in both the psyche and in the shared worlds of everyday historical consciousness and collective imagination, memory has a crucial part to play in any national imaginary” (168). This thesis warrants further clarification—What is a “national imaginary”? What are the implications of Kuhn’s position regarding the “historical imagination of nationhood” (169)?


As a reader of Family Secrets, I responded more strongly to the autobiographical case histories Kuhn shared—and to the intertwining of personal and professional voices she used in those essays—than to the theoretical formulations with which she concluded the text. To my surprise, the stories Kuhn told about her childhood helped me understand better the “memory work” I’ve been involved with, although I’ve never identified it that way before. In turn, my own explorations of the past helped me appreciate Kuhn’s project in ways I hadn’t expected. One concern that both our projects address is captured in the following passages from “The Little Girl Wants to be Heard,” a reflection on the film Mandy, which Kuhn saw in West London as a child in 1952:

“If a reading of Mandy which properly engages the film text, its social-historical context, and the emotional responses it invites, eluded my earlier analysis, this is now made possible by attending, on the insistence of the little girl who wants to be heard, to Mandy’s story, the child’s story. The child Annette [Kuhn] urges the adult to reach back into childhood, to trust the naïve response and admit it to analysis; to understand that if she lets it, the film Mandy can return her, with an adult’s understanding, to the child’s world of possibility and loss. . . .

“This detour through the world of childhood, with my own childhood self as guide, heals and teaches. It heals because it allows the child and the adult to speak to one another, lets the adult recapture the child’s spirit of bravery and sense of possibility. It teaches because it shows that understanding may be gained by routes other than that of intellectual detachment. . . .

“Memory work presents new possibilities for enriching our understanding not only of how films work as texts, but also of how we use films and other images and representations to make our selves, how we construct our own histories through memory, even how we position ourselves within wider, more public, histories” (45–46).

P.S. When I published VirtualDayz: Remediated Visions & Digital Memories, a "blook" (blog + book) based on this blog, I slightly edited both this entry and "Enigmatic Fascinations: Re-viewing Memory Texts," a follow-up post inspired by Kuhn's creative memory work. Given the widespread interest in Kuhn's work, I've posted a pdf of these two entries on my Scribd site. See “Annette Kuhn and Memory Work: Reflections on "Family Secrets.”

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Christine Tamblyn’s Autobiographical Frames: Considering Archival Quality, the CD-ROM

For weeks I’ve been planning to view Christine Tamblyn’s CD-ROM Archival Quality, but, as I was surprised to learn, it’s formatted only for a Macintosh computer, and I have a PC. I hope to make arrangements soon to view this posthumously published work. A noted media arts critic, educator, and conceptual artist, Tamblyn died of breast cancer on January 1, 1998, at the age of forty-six. As Tamblyn’s sister explains in the booklet that comes with the CD, and as friends and colleagues have recounted, Tamblyn worked on Archival Quality until the day before she died. The NEA-funded project involved the CD and an installation that premiered at the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies (LACPS) in September 1998.

According to SF Camerawork, which distributes the CD-ROM, Archival Quality investigates formal tensions between a virtual and a real archive by mining personal documentation that Tamblyn had collected of her life and her work. In this way the project “serves as a testament to the overwhelming scope and complexity of an individual life, and explores how one understands a life archived in this manner.”

The Video Data Bank, which also distributes Archival Quality—as well as Tamblyn’s two other CD-ROMS, She Loves It, She Loves It Not (on women and technology, 1993) and Mistaken Identities (1995)—describes the four segments of the CD-ROM:

“In the first, Memorativa, powerful childhood experiences of secrets are evoked. In Olfatus, documentation of the artist's performances are revealed by clicking on symbols in landscape. The third segment, Gustus, is co-named Slices of Life, My Videotapes (1976-89), and takes the form of a giant pizza, slices of which, when clicked, advance towards the reader. Vermio, the fourth segment, consists of four text-and-image collages, sections of which can be ‘peeled off’ to reveal loops of sound and image.”

I’m looking forward to seeing for myself how Tamblyn framed and organized her autobiographical project, for she addresses many issues related to self-representation that I’ve been exploring in my critical and creative work, especially with regard to writing, theory, media, archives, memory, performance, and technology. I’ve admired her critical writing on video for many years and still refer to some of her essays, such as “Significant Others: Social Documentary as Personal Portraiture in Women’s Video of the 1980s” (in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, 1990) and “Qualifying the Quotidian: Artist’s Video and the Production of Social Space” (in Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, edited by Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, 1996).

In “Archive Fever,” the short essay included with the CD-ROM I purchased, Margaret Morse mentions that Tamblyn originally had intended to call her project “Archive Fever” to pay homage to Derrida’s text Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (delivered as a lecture in 1994, published in 1995), which, as Morse emphasizes, deconstructs the notion of archiving. While Morse touches on Derrida’s approach to psychoanalytic theories of the death drive, patriarchal laws, and spectral fantasies, she passes over questions Derrida raises earlier in the text about technology, psychoanalysis, and archives that are also relevant to Tamblyn’s project, and to contemporary explorations of self-representation involving “new media.”

Considering a “retrospective science-fiction,” Derrida wonders how different psychoanalysis would have been if Freud and his contemporaries had had access to many of the technologies associated with the late twentieth century, such as “MCI or AT&T telephonic credit cards, portable tape recorders, computers, printers, faxes, televisions, teleconferences, and above all E-mail” (16). Arguing that such technologies would have “transformed this history from top to bottom,” Derrida contends that

“the archive, as printing, writing, prosthesis, or hypomnesic technique in general is not only the place for stocking and for conserving an archivable content of the past which would exist in any case, such as, without the archive. . . . No, the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. This is also our political experience of the so-called news media” (16-17).

Speaking in 1994, Derrida privileges the example of e-mail because “electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal,” transformations, he notes, with juridical and political implications (17).

Known to blur boundaries between private and public, as well as between art and life, and at the same time sensitive to technological matters related both to theoretical and creative discourses (boundaries she also challenged), Tamblyn has passed on a rich legacy. The physical counterpart to her virtual archive is housed at the Special Collections Department of the Main Library at the University of California, Irvine, where she planned to teach before she became ill. (Coincidentally, Derrida’s papers are archived there, too.)

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Saturday, July 23, 2005

Telecommunications Media Art: LiveForm:Telekinetics and “Hole in Space”

I’m amazed by how simply checking my e-mail often leads to interesting discoveries. Some of my best leads come from listservs and mailing lists. From a thread in empyre on networked performance, for example, I recently learned about LiveForm:Telekinetics (LF:TK), a project co-founded by Canadian artists Jeff Mann and Michelle Teran that “re-imagines the familiar objects and utensils of our everyday social spaces as an electronically activated play environment, capable of transmitting the physical presence and social gesture that comprise such a vital element of human interaction.” In “transgeographic temporary performance zones, centered around wireless Internet access points,” LF:TK has orchestrated events such as “Telematic Dinner Party” (2002), which involved venues in Amsterdam and Toronto where thirty guests interacted with one another and played games “across the ocean in a mediated mechatronic middle-space” (see video documentation).

Telepresence Picnic” (2004), “a mobile, transgeographical, public intervention that takes place anywhere a network exists,” stages mobile feasts in public and private wireless hotspots. So far, nomadic groups have experimented with mobile “picnic kits” in Montreal, Amsterdam, and Perth, Australia (see video documentation). This iteration of the LiveForm:Telekinetics Project was commissioned by the Waag Society for Old and New Media, Amsterdam, a “knowledge institute operating on the cutting edge of culture and technology in relation to society, education, government and industry.”

As a historical precedent for this type of performance, one contributor to the empyre discussion mentioned Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s 1980 “Hole in Space,” a “public communication sculpture” facilitated by satellites that brought together passersby outside both the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York City, and the Broadway department store in the open-air Century City shopping mall, Los Angeles. On three consecutive evenings in November, these people glimpsed live video images of their counterparts at the partner site, leading to a lively bi-coastal exchange. I wasn’t at either venue, but I have seen video documentation of “Hole in Space,” one of many networked events that Galloway and Rabinowitz coordinated, as their own archive, housed at Electronic Café International in Santa Monica, CA, and available online, makes clear.

I first met Galloway and Rabinowitz in the mid-1990s at the Electronic Café, which they founded in 1984. During the next five years or so I attended several memorable events there. Two stand out in my mind:

THREE CITIES / MULTIMEDIA TELE-CONCERT: ECI-Santa Monica, ECI-New York, and ECI-Affiliate Studio X in Santa Fe [1994]. Featuring Morton Subotnick, David Rosenboom, Steina Vasulka with Leo Smith and J.B. Floyd. Produced in collaboration with the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Funding was provided to CalArts by AT&T. The three part evening began with a performance by Morton Subotnick, in New York, who played the Yamaha Disklavier in Santa Monica using finger controlled midi triggers. The second part of the evening was a bi-coastal tele-collaborative concert between David Rosenboom, Dean of the CalArts School of Music in Santa Monica, and pianist B. Floyd and trumpet player Leo Smith in New York City. In each city there were two Disklavier pianos, the one played by the local artist, the second one playing the notes activated by the pianist in the other city. The third part of the evening featured Seina Vasulka in Santa Fe playing a MIDI violin which controller laser videodisk players in both New York and Santa Monica. As she played her violin in Santa Fe she controlled and selected sections of the videodisk showing her playing the same piece 20 years earlier.”

The second event that made a strong impression was a play in which cast members at the Electronic Café, Santa Monica, and a venue in NYC communicated with one another via computer screens in a live production. Unfortunately, I remember the dynamics involved better than details pertaining to the play, such as its name or when, specifically, it was performed, although I think it was produced by CalArts students, c. 1995 or 1996. (I didn’t recognize the play among ECI’s highlights for those years.)

Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace, a traveling exhibition that Steve Dietz curated in 2001, includes a Telematics Timeline covering telecommunications media art that pre-dates the Web. Galloway and Rabinowitz provide short video clips documenting “Satellite Arts Project” (1977) and “Hole in Space.” They also contribute their ecafe manifesto, “The Challenge: We Must Create at the Same Scale As We Can Destroy” (1984), which begins: “If the arts are to take a role in shaping and humanizing emerging technological environments, individuals and arts constituencies must begin to imagine at a much larger scale of creativity.”

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Sunday, July 17, 2005

"In the First Person," A Database

I recently discovered In the First Person: An Index to Letters, Diaries, Oral Histories and Personal Narratives, a free online database of holdings in archives, repositories, and personal collections. A Top 100 list of the most popular links on the site considers usage since January 2004, when, I presume, Alexander Street Press launched the project. Dedicated to resources produced in English, the current release indexes more than 2,500 collections of oral history from around the world. According to In the First Person’s Web site, future releases will broaden the scope of the database to include other forms of first-person texts, such as letters, diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, and personal narratives, and in this way “make it possible to find and explore the voices of more than 300,000 individuals.”

The five most popular links on the site as of May 2005 were:

Less prominent on the Top 100 list were several links pertaining to the performing arts, including Bennington Summer School of the Dance Project (#33), Mercury Theatre/Theatre Union Project (#37), and Popular Arts Project, Part I (#39), all archived at Columbia University.

During the same time period, January 2004–May 2005, the top five interviews were:

The sixth most popular interview was Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964), Robert Penn Warren Civil Rights Oral History. A few other interviews I found interesting on the diverse list included: Eleanor Roosevelt Press Conferences Group Interview (1989, #8 on list), Women in Journalism Oral History Project; David Rieff (son of Susan Sontag and Philip Rieff, 2003, #18), Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley; and Alice Paul (1972, #75), Suffragists Oral History Project, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

While recognizing the educational, scholarly, and historical value of In the First Person, I’m also intrigued by the range of voices the database makes available for creative projects, especially with regard to database narratives presented as digital art, e-literature, and soft(ware) cinema. I’m interested less in data mining such a public resource than in selectively using its contents to assemble rich databases that lend themselves to innovative applications vis-à-vis individual or collective life stories. A related approach that also interests me involves the construction of personal multimedia databases as source material for autobiographical and biographical narratives (whether “real” or imagined). In other words, one model taps into public databases for source material, and another model taps into private archives, although these categories are fluid and allow for all kinds of intermixing. Please feel free to recommend relevant sites.

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Friday, July 15, 2005

Virtual Reality and Memory: Revisiting Crime Scenes

I had a dream last night in which VR technologies were used to help victims revisit crime scenes and thus relive their experiences. That’s about all I remember about the dream, although I sense that it was detailed and multilayered. Soon after awakening, I decided to see whether, in fact, VR technologies are being used in conjunction with criminal investigations and trials, for I had been unaware of such procedures.

A Google search led to several relevant links, beginning with “Courtroom Applications of Virtual Environments, Immersive Virtual Environments, and Collaborative Virtual Environments,” by Jeremy N. Bailenson, Jim Blascovich, and Andrew C. Beall (n.d.). Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, where Bailenson is a researcher, documents related projects, as does UC Santa Barbara’s Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior, which Blasovich and Beall co-direct.

I also learned about the Courtroom 21 Project at the William & Mary Law School in Virginia, a joint effort with the National Center for State Courts. I was unable to access the homepage for Courtroom 21, but I did find articles about it, including “Back to the Future: Virtual Immersive Technology in Courtroom 21,” by Wendy R. Leibowitz, and “The Future of Litigation Technology,” by Kenneth J. Lopez, which took a more general approach.

From my cursory research this afternoon, I discovered that VR technologies are being used in conjunction with criminal investigations and trials in a variety of ways and that many new applications are being studied in the U.S. and around the world. For the most part in preliminary stages of development and considered somewhat controversial, these technologies relate only peripherally to what I remember about my dream, which focused on how VR experiences activated the memories of the subjects involved.

It is this link with memory that I want to explore further, in relation both to traumas and to personal histories in a broader context. I also wonder how, and to what extent, VR technologies are being used in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis to aid memory, rather than to treat cognitive problems and phobias—treatments about which I did find some references. I’ll have to continue my research another day.

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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Merce Cunningham Dance Company and "Soft Cinema"

I saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform in LA last month. After the matinee, Cunningham participated in a Q and A that gave this living legend a chance to share anecdotes from his remarkable life. His reflections ranged from Black Mountain College to computers as a choreographic tool. This session with the audience added another layer to the performances we had just seen, “Fabrications” (1987) and “Split Sides” (2003).

I liked the way Cunningham incorporated chance techniques into “Split Sides,” which included original music by Radiohead and Sigur Ros. Each element of the dance -- choreography, music, costumes, set design, and lighting -- was created in two parts. Tosses of a die at the beginning of the performance determined which part of each element would be used first so that many combinations were possible. The notion of separating each element of the performance and recombining those elements, although not a new strategy, was thought provoking nevertheless and suggested implications for other media, including digital texts.

I thought about this performance yesterday while watching an interview with new media artist and scholar Lev Manovich that was included on the recently released “Soft Cinema” DVD, along with three short movies he and his collaborators produced to test his influential theory of database aesthetics. As Manovich explained, software programs select which elements of large multimedia databases will be shown with each screening of a movie, so that the movies differ from one screening to the next. In this way, the movies presented on the “Soft Cinema” DVD -- Texas, Mission to Earth, and Absences -- share with Cunningham’s “Split Sides” a reliance on chance procedures to determine how the various parts of a composition will be combined from performance to performance, or from screening to screening. Although the methodology for making these choices is central to Manovich’s approach, and worthy of analysis, while watching the movies I found myself thinking more about the databases themselves than about how the software was manipulating them. And then I realized that for me a crucial part of the creative process involves construction of the databases -- the photographs, videos, music, voices, sounds, narratives, texts, scenes, and other elements of the “stories” that the software has to work with, including both archival materials and original compositions.

Cunningham has developed his own aesthetic sense of choreography and of what works for him; without that expertise it’s unlikely any chance procedures would make his pieces interesting or memorable. With regard to “soft cinema” productions, I’d like to see more attention paid to how the databases are constructed and to the types of personal and public archives that are tapped into, as well as ignored. It seems to me that considerations of the archive and of creating from archives are related to what Manovich is trying to do.

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Friday, July 08, 2005

Transliteracies 2005, UCSB

On June 17 and 18 at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), I attended the Transliteracies 2005 conference (Conversation Roundtables on Online Reading), where theorists and practitioners from the humanities, arts, social sciences, computer science, and industry discussed “the fate of reading in the ‘new media’ age.” With MIT4: The Work of Stories still on my mind (conference held at MIT May 6–8, discussed earlier), I continued my survey of media in transition. Whereas MIT4 featured hundreds of papers that were presented at different locations throughout the MIT campus -- usually several papers delivered at the same time -- Transliteracies involved a smaller, more intimate context for sharing ideas and showcasing work in one space. And unlike MIT4, which covered storytelling across a range of traditional and emergent media, this gathering focused on the many guises of new media.

In addition to featuring three keynote speakers, Adrian Johns (“Reading, Discovering, and Knowing”), Anne Balsamo (“Designing Culture: A Work of the Technological Imagination”), and Walter Bender (“The Rule of Many: New Media and Emergent Intelligence”), the two-day event involved three roundtable “conversations”: the first, moderated by Alan Liu, addressed “Reading, Past and Present”; the second, moderated by Rita Raley, considered “Reading and Media”; and the third, moderated by Bruce Bimber, reflected on “Reading as a Social Practice.” A panel devoted to “The Art of Online Reading” introduced the work of digital artists. The schedule that is posted online provides an overview of Transliteracies 2005; I offer responses to selected presentations and follow up on a sampling of leads that speakers introduced.

The conference was organized by Alan Liu, director of the interdisciplinary Transliteracies Project and Professor of English at UCSB. Liu is also principal investigator of Transcriptions: Literature and the Culture of Information, a curricular development and research initiative funded by NEH, and “weaver” of Voice of the Shuttle: Web Site for Humanities Research, a comprehensive, multidisciplinary database of Web links that he has maintained since 1994. His latest book, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (University of Chicago Press, 2004), considers the fate of the humanities and arts in the information age, an inquiry that takes into account literature, literary study, and “the literary.” (Part IV, “Humanities and Arts in the Age of Knowledge Work” is particularly relevant to issues the conference addressed.)

Walter Bender, Executive Director of the MIT Media Lab and a keynote speaker, brought to the fore some of the tensions concerning new media theory and practice that divided conference participants into camps based on technological proficiencies: In response to a question that someone asked after his talk, Bender argued that new media literacy entailed understanding source codes and knowing programming languages, a position that seemed to unsettle some people and reassure others.

Laptop bloggers in the audience (and Kevin Almeroth, on the panel) who participated in an online “backchanneling” experiment during Roundtable 3, “Reading as a Social Practice,” commented on this issue as an aspect of the “digital divide”:


“on the topic of “digital divide”....i think its not always defined as a gap between those who have access to the media/technologies and those who don’t….i think its soon becoming a divide between those who can WRITE/AUTHOR/COMMUNICATE using new technoloogies and those who cannot (for what ever purpose: including lack of access to technology, but also lack of media literacy, lack of social literacy, etc.)” (transcript, #80)


“Re: digital divide – yes! It is a cultural divide between a culture based on multiple literacies and a mono-literate, visual (i.e., minimally text-literate) culture.” (transcript, #88)


“A divide based on culture, age as well as many other traditional aspects (e.g. industrialization).

“And unlike the belief that some of these divides can instantly be overcome with money, culture and age cannot.” (transcript, #94)

As one of the “non-laptop bloggers” in the audience (see L5martinez, transcript, #41), and as someone straddling the cultural divide -- stronger on theory than on practice, committed to reading and writing texts both in print and in digital formats, and enthusiastic about the creative/intellectual/educational/communicative possibilities new media support, I was especially concerned with how participants engaged with “multiple literacies” in relation to the humanities and the arts. During my two days at the conference, I had a chance to preview many novel approaches.

The panel on “The Art of Online Reading,” which showcased work by digital artists, demonstrated how central coding has become both to the production and reception of Net art, an elusive genre with divergent strands. Christiane Paul, Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts, Whitney Museum of American Art; Faculty, MFA Computer Arts Department, School of Visual Arts; Director of Intelligent Agent; and author of the book Digital Art (Thames and Hudson, 2003), highlighted key texts. She touched on themes covered in Digital Art as well as in her curated exhibitions, such as Data Dynamics (2001), the Net art selection for the 2002 Whitney Biennial, and CODeDOC (2002), created for Artport, the Whitney’s online portal to Internet art, for which she is responsible. Paul curated CODeDOC II for Ars Electronica 2003; the theme for that year’s festival was “CODE: The Language of Our Time.” (A video archive of the CODE Symposium that was Webcast in conjunction with the festival is available online.) The introduction to the first CODeDOC explains Paul’s approach:

CODeDOC takes a reverse look at 'software art' projects by focusing on and comparing the 'back end' of the code that drives the artwork's 'front end'--the result of the code, be it visuals or a more abstract communication process. A dozen artists coded a specific assignment in a language of their choice and were asked to exchange the code with each other for comments. . . . The languages in which the code is written are Java, C, Visual Basic, Lingo and Perl. Obviously, this is only a selection of scripting and programming languages. HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), the scripting language on which the World Wide Web is based, and Flash Script were excluded mostly for pragmatic reasons (the inclusion of these languages probably would have doubled the number of artists, making the project unwieldy).”

At the Transliteracies conference, Paul also discussed digital art from other perspectives, including narrative, gaming, and GPS technologies. One Internet project that stood out for me was World of Awe, created by new media artist Yael Kanarek. A selection in the Whitney Biennial 2002 Net Art Exhibition, this multi-media narrative “revolves around the story of a traveler in search of a lost treasure. The project engages the ancient genre of the traveler's tale to explore the connections between storytelling, memory, travel and technology. . . . To expand the story, World of Awe spins a network of projects and collaborations online, in galleries and in performance spaces” (WOA site).

Equally compelling, but in a different way, were the experiments by students from Brown University's "Cave Writing" workshop, an advanced electronic writing course initiated in 2002 by novelist and hypertext champion Robert Coover. Designed to investigate "the literary potential of immersive virtual reality," the interdisciplinary, collaborative works that students produced were designed for viewing on the walls of Brown's VR Cave, "an eight-foot cube, wherein the floor and three walls are projected with high-resolution stereo graphics to create a virtual envirnoment, viewed through special 'shutter-lens' glasses" (cavwWEB02). No longer bound to the page or the screen, text appeared to take on life of its own.

Also on “The Art of Online Reading” panel at Transliteracies was George Legrady, Professor, Media Arts and Technology Program and Art Dept., UCSB. A world renowned digital artist, Legrady has described his current research interests as addressing “data collection, data processing methodologies and data visualization presented simultaneously in interactive installations and the internet.” He designs projects that integrate “self-organizing systems and algorithmically generated visualizations.” His presentation at the conference focused on Making Visible the Invisible: What the Community is Reading (2005), a commission by the Seattle Public Library created to “visually map on a daily basis and over time the circulation of non-fiction books, revealing the collective reading interests of the library’s patrons” (SPL). According to Legrady’s own Web site, “The project focuses on data flow and the library as a data exchange center where the circulation of books can be made visible and expressed statistically. . . . Visualizing the statistical information about what titles, topics are circulating in and out provides a real-time living picture of the community in which the library is situated” (George Legrady Studio). Generated by custom-designed statistical and algorithmic software, the visualizations are presented on six plasma screens behind the librarians’ main information desks in the Mixing Chamber. Architect Rem Koolhass designed the library; VRSeattle offers a virtual tour.

George Legrady Studio documents Legrady’s major projects, dating back to 1973. Work that dealt with personal archives captured my attention, such as Pockets Full of Memories, I and II (2001 and 2003-2005, respectively); Slippery Traces: The Postcard Trail (1996); and An Anecdoted Archive from the Cold War (1993). In an interview with Sven Spieker for Art Margins (Oct. 2001), Legrady elaborated on his views regarding interactivity, narrative, archives, information, data, and memory. In his contribution as a laptop blogger during Roundtable 3, he offered his definitions of “reading,” using the terms “decoding,” “retrieving/comprehending,” “acquiring data,” “symbolic decoding,” and “interpretation” (see transcript, #96).

Another member of “The Art of Online Reading” panel included Robert Nideffer, Associate Professor of Studio Art & Information and Computer Science, UC Irvine, and founding director of the Game Culture and Technology Lab, who discussed his project, “a pervasive, multi-modal heterogeneous networking project” that involves “very cool integration of the Net, location-aware cellphones, and a Torque client running on the Game Grid.” On that same panel, UCSB grad students Anne Pascual and Marcus Hauer of Schoenerwissen demoed their project “txtkit,” “an Open Source visual text mining tool for exploring large amounts of multilingual texts.”

Warren Sack, a software designer, digital artist, media theorist, and Assistant Professor of Film and Digital Media, UC Santa Cruz, and a participant in Roundtable 2 at Transliteracies (“Reading and Media”), demoed his project “Agonistics: A Language Game,” which was selected as the April 2005 gate page for the Whitney Artport. Described as “an interface that can be used to visualize the dynamics of online discussions,” this “game” produced a visualization of the online blogging experiment conducted during Roundtable 3.

Keynoter Anne Balsamo, Director of the Institute of Multimedia Literacy at the University of Southern California (USC) and Professor in the USC Interactive Media Division and Gender Studies Program, also has worked as a Principal Scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where she and her team managed and designed the touring museum exhibit “XFR: Experiments in the Future of Reading.” She discussed this project as well as her forthcoming book, Designing Culture: A Work of the Technological Imagination (from which she appropriated the title of her talk), and some of her other activities, including the consortium HASTAC: Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, to which she and Tara McPherson, another Transliteracies participant from USC, belong.

In an open session that took place during lunch on Friday, McPherson, Chair of Critical Studies in USC’s School of Cinema-Television, had a chance to introduce Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, a peer-reviewed, online journal that she recently launched. Featuring submissions as well as commissioned multimedia texts on which scholars and Web designers have collaborated, Vectors explores what happens when written text is treated “as an instance of code” (Editorial Statement).

UCLA Professor of English and Design/Media Arts, N. Katherine Hayles, who, along with McPherson and others, participated in Roundtable 2, contributed a commissioned piece to the inaugural edition of Vectors. Written by Hayles and designed by Eric Loyer and the Stamen team, “Narrating Bits” experimented with multimedia criticism by using multimedia resources to develop an alternative interpretation of the narrative/database opposition that Lev Manovich proposed in his influential book The Language of New Media. The term Hayles introduced, “possibility space,” informed the interactive design of “Narrating Bits” and supported her effort “to open new possibilities for understanding the changing roles of narrative in a digital age, when the age-old ability of narrative to shape and express human subjectivity is coming into intimate contact with the capacity of intelligent machines to store, process, and generate massive amounts of data” (Screen 44). She concluded, “I cannot imagine a human world without narrative, but I can imagine narratives transformed and enriched by their interactions with possibility space in the complex ecologies of contemporary media and culture” (Screen 45). “Narrating Bits” complements Hayles’s printed texts, including How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (University of Chicago Press, 1999) and Writing Machines (Mediawork Pamphlet Series, MIT Press, 2002).

Hayles serves on the Literary Advisory Board of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO), for which she is also the faculty director at UCLA, where the organization is based. Several members of ELO who were not on panels attended Transliteracies, including Marjorie Luesebrink, the organization’s former president and a widely published writer of electronic hypermedia fiction, and Thomas Swiss, current president of ELO, Professor of English and Rhetoric of Inquiry at the University of Iowa, and editor of The Iowa Review Web. Their presence gave me hope that there will be a place for creative writing in the "new media" age.

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Sunday, July 03, 2005

Commencement address by Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios, delivered the Commencement address at Stanford University on June 12. The Stanford Report posted the text, in which Jobs tells three stories from his life. Each story has a theme: “connecting the dots,” “love and loss,” and “death.” Recounting his autobiography in this way, Jobs pieces together a personal philosophy that he sums up by quoting from the final issue of The Whole Earth Catalog: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish,” his wish for himself and for the graduates who will begin anew.

From the perspective of someone who belongs to the same generation as Jobs, I appreciate his outlook and the encouragement he offers young people today. Although I know from my own experience that following his advice involves tradeoffs, I nevertheless support his position when he says:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

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