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.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Video-Graphic Alchemy: Transforming “Dear Diary”

To supplement Vagabond Scribe (Leah’s Backstory), an experimental work of fiction that I just revised, I re-edited with Adobe Creative Suite 2 a few of my multimedia projects from the mid-to-late 1980s: “Give-A-Show Projector,” a black-and-white computer graphics series based on a childhood diary, and “Video-Graphic Alchemy,” image-text compositions featuring transformed versions of those graphics. The art work influenced my approach to the literary text, which I began during the same time period, when I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa. Because the manuscript was too unconventional to interest book publishers or to attract a well-defined audience, I never tried to publish it, although I often consulted the “memory bank” that it assembles. In fact, this memory bank provides the backstory for the protagonist of a novel I finished writing earlier this year, Arella’s Repertoire (which I would like to publish as a book), and Vagabond Scribe as a whole functions as a prequel. For these reasons, I’ve decided to update and make available Vagabond Scribe and to explain the methodology I used. Although I had no idea in advance where I was heading when I started that text almost twenty years ago, I see now, from my current vantage point, that the multimedia projects I created were integral to the whole process. My recollections resonate with those of the fictional Arella who documents in an afterword to Vagabond Scribe that text’s evolution. Her words and mine may become indistinguishable at times in the narrative that follows.

A turning point for me occurred in the mid-1980s when I learned to use a word processor. Excited by this new technology, I was eager to discover what else a personal computer could do. Around that time I met some multimedia artists who introduced me to the wonders of computer graphics, and I got hooked. With a black-and-white Macintosh computer and Superpaint software, I explored new creative territory, yet my training as a writer and long-time diarist proved harder to shake than I had expected. Instead of becoming an artist overnight, as I secretly had hoped, I designed projects that inadvertently reaffirmed my attachment to the written word. My childhood diary, which I had been re-reading, provided the inspiration and source materials for these initial forays into the digital realm.

Operating intuitively, without any artistic precedents in mind, I transformed the young girl’s writing in unexpected ways. During the first phase, I used the Superpaint software to rework selected diary passages, a process that resulted in a series of black-and-white drawings called “Give-A-Show-Projector” (see Appendix A).* Meanwhile, I had added video to my repertoire, reviving my interest in its creative potential. For my first project, I tried to adapt the series of drawings I’d made to a video format and in this way transform further my childhood diary while also introducing another layer of media to the open-ended compositions. Because I had access only to basic analog cameras and editing facilities, I improvised more than I might have if I had been working in a state-of-the-art studio. I also focused more on concept than on technological prowess. I saw as my audience enthusiasts of innovative work across a range of media and genres.

After much trial and error, I produced the video “Fifth-Grade School Sing.” To achieve the desired effect, I mounted hard copies of each drawing on a television screen during a live broadcast, and then I videotaped the intermedia convergences that unpredictably ensued. At the same time, I used my remote control to channel surf, and thus change the patterns of light, color, movement, and sound from the televisual background that faintly peered through. I treated each drawing separately and relied on chance to determine what emanated from the background.

Viewers see a modified TV that doubles as a frame of reference, as well as of vision. In this context, my fifth-grade diary, transposed into a series of computer graphics, interfaces with “live” televisual broadcasts on a customized video screen, an event that I documented from behind the lens of a portable video camera set up in my living room. Like the young girl who wrote in her diary long ago, I also found comfort in a private space beyond the spotlight, a matter of geography as well as of the mind: somehow I recreated the child’s space, and I felt at home. (For the young girl, writing was one refuge; watching television was another. Sometimes she did both at the same time.)

It seems fitting, then, that during my transitions from one creative medium to another I drew on my childhood diary for guidance and support, since it preserved traces of that early scene of writing and the magic I had felt there. Looking back on the video experiments, I’d say that I recaptured a little of that magic: It provided the impetus to keep going, to trust my intuition, and to indulge my curiosity. Most of all, it recharged my imagination.

“Fifth-Grade School Sing” remains a work-in-progress that, among other things, documents staged performances in my living room on several different occasions. After accumulating many hours of footage, I retreated to the editing room to figure out what to do with this material. There I began an instructive laboratory exercise that allowed me to experiment with the drawings as well as with voice, sound, and character-generated text. I spent a lot of time trying to assemble my footage in a satisfying way. When I reached an impasse, I made still prints of selected shots (see Appendix B). The dream-like color photographs represent another transmutation of the early diary writing. These photographs look nothing like the black-and-white computer drawings from which they originated, although traces of the diary writing can be discerned. In this respect, the images resemble a palimpsest.

I enjoyed making all these artifacts and working with different media, but I was searching for something else, something elusive I couldn’t define. I felt lost, yet I believe now that unconscious forces were at play, offering subtle hints and providing clues: During a particularly frustrating phase, I found myself returning to the original diary writing to work through an idea that had come to me while editing my video. Back at my computer, I typed passages from the diary and cut up the printed copies into hundreds of little pieces that I then collaged together and taped onto sheets of paper and large poster boards. Next, I retyped the diary passages according to the collaged layouts.

These collages morphed into Act One of Vagabond Scribe, and Leah, a fictional character, emerged (see Appendix C). Blending fact and fiction, I developed the technique further in later chapters. Before long I had assembled an elaborate paper trail corresponding to the first twenty-five years or so of a woman’s life: in this way the protagonist of my story acquired a personal history along with a unique memory bank.

“Video-Graphic Alchemy” is an intermedia collage in which video stills from “Fifth-Grade School Sing” commingle with passages from Act Two and Act Three of Vagabond Scribe (see Appendix D). In this rendition the child’s diary writing evokes not only its distant history but also its recent transformations and the conditions under which they occurred.

My excursions into new creative territory served me well. I realized that when I reached an impasse with one medium, I could always turn to another or even create hybrids of my own. This approach stimulated my imagination and opened me to unconscious stirrings that I might have missed otherwise. By working through privately written texts in new spatial, temporal, and discursive contexts, I expanded my repertoire and rechanneled memories. Intermedia convergences played into the stage-by-stage construction of my stories. These dynamics also informed the construction of Arella’s Repertoire, the latest transmutation of my personal archives. (For an overview of the novel, see Appendix E.)

* To see the computer graphics, video stills, image-text compositions, and other documents referenced in the appendices of “Video-Graphic Alchemy,” see the multimedia version of the essay posted on The Memory Channel.

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