Monday 12 November 2012

Christin Bolewski: New forms

Journeys in travel is a database video installation by digital media artist, experimental filmmaker, and lecturer, Christin Bolewski.

Stills from "Journeys in travel" by Christin Bolewski

In this interview, Christin tells us about the work, how databases work with linear and nonlinear film to create new narratives, and how digital film technology offers opportunities to create radically different forms of film.

Please start by giving us an overview of Journeys in travel from your own perspective.

Journeys in travel is a single or multi-screen computer-controlled database video installation which tells a complex story of travel. It is a nonlinear, open-ended, associative narrative, which sets in motion a seemingly endless chain of references to related topics: travel, foreign places, tourism, identity, ethnography, globalisation, pace, rhythm and the relationship of film (structure), narrative and travel.

The narrative units of the database provide travel observations, which are collected recordings of my own travels over the last 10 years to various countries worldwide including Tibet, China, Ghana, the USA, Mexico, India, Australia, and so on. These are accompanied by a multi-voiced travel narration and socio-­philosophical reflections referencing Marc Auge, Jean Baudrillard, Arthur Asa Berger, Alain de Botton, Ryszard Kapu?ci?ski, Cees Nooteboom and Claude Levi-Strauss to name only a few.

A central aim of the project is to create a stimulating intellectual and emotionally challenging experience for the viewer. Therefore, Journeys in travel investigates the viewers' cognitive and emotional engagement in its nonlinear narrative construction by looking at latest research findings on film rhythm in relation to brain science, and applying them to the creation process. Watching a film can be an absorbing and emotional experience, but how can this be achieved in nonlinear or database film? I find this to be a major challange: to engage the viewer in a nonlinear film experience, rather then having them just observing how the computer algorithm works.

Journeys in travel uses a form of cinematic essay, which is characterised by a collage of associative and subjective reflections on a set theme intertwining different streams of episodic narratives in a mixed genre of narrative, documentary, experimental filmmaking, and more. It emphasizes theme over plot and the discovery of narrative through a flexible, reflexive and self-critical approach. It suggests that the episodic structure of cinematic essay is a suitable adoption for database aesthetics, which can be called accordingly database essay. Comparably, the genre of the travelogue suggests a close connection to an episodic non-hierarchical narrative, hence the decision to use the subject of travel as the central theme of this installation.


Why and how did you use Pure Data as part of the installation?

Pure Data or PD is a visual programming language developed by Miller Puckette in the 1990s. It is a graphical environment for music and multimedia synthesis similar to Puckette's original MAX program, which he developed in the mid 1980s at IRCAM Paris. Though Puckette is the primary author of the software, PD is an open source project, has a large developer base working on new extensions to the program and can be downloaded for free. That's the main reason why I originally chose PD instead of MAX. The software is used in Journeys in travel to create a computer algorithm – a preprogrammed script, which controls the narrative flow and plays pre-edited video and sound sequences. The sequences are classified through different sets of metadata, which are encrypted within the titles of the video and sound files and organized within the database into five different categories. These categories mirror the mixed genre approach of cinematic essay and are organized within the structure of PD as five separate video and sound players, which alternate according to the preprogrammed script to generate a rhythmic flow of different perceptive qualities and varying intellectual, visual and auditory stimulus for the viewer.

The script includes predetermined genre decisions – the alternation between the five categories - and random decisions of selecting a clip within a specific genre category. The five narrative groups offer documentary observations; experimental video art; travel narratives; socio-philosophical reflections; and animated text-based clips. They are all self-contained units similar to a sequence or a chapter in a traditional (film) narration. Each narrative unit within the database provides a kind of conclusion that can be read against the content of the following or previous units. Thus, Journeys in travel suggests using 'micro' and 'macro' narrative structures.

'Micro structure' refers here to the structure of pre-edited narrative sequences, which offer different perceptive qualities, and 'macro structure' to the PD algorithm, which alternates these pre-edited clips into a stimulating audiovisual flow. For example, the viewer experiences first a sequence that contains a philosophical reflection on a specific aspect of travelling. Soon after the viewer will probably watch a sequence, which delivers a slow-paced documentary observation of a landscape, which gives enough time to contemplate the given information of the first sequence and to branch out into own thoughts, while watching the low-impact sequence of the landscape. After this, the viewer might experience an experimental clip with high visual impact through a high editing frequency accompanied by a complex sound track, and so on. Through this method I aim to create a cinematic flow that makes use of pacing and timing of traditional film montage, which is usually described as film rhythm.


You have previously mentioned that digital editing has increased nonlinear and interactive forms of film. Could you expand on why you think that is the case and whether this is desired by the audience, the director/cinematographer/artist, or both?

Like every other technological invention or development of a new artistic tool, digital technology has changed and expanded the possibilities of what was possible to do previously. The development of digital video and editing has definitely opened a broad field for new experimentations with the moving image. These developments are investigated and discussed since the 1980s within the field of digital art practice and theory. Bolter and Grusin, for example, explain in detail how this process of Remediation works and how digital media have transformed all traditional media concepts.

Today, it is so common to use the computer for film and video editing, that it is hard to remember how slow and different the process of linear editing was in the 'analogue world'. Analogue film editing required a precise planning process. Every shot had to be put in place in a linear order, and the alignment could not be altered again without starting the process all over again. In a digital process, all clips are available at any time. You can alter a film sequence at any point; copy and paste clips from the beginning to the end; and quickly test your film in many different versions to find the best solution. This process, of course, has increased the interest to have a film available in many versions for the audience too, or to let the audience decide how they want a story to be continued. Nonlinear film exists today in many different forms. In opposition to linear film, which tells a story chronologically from its beginning to its end in a fixed arrangement, nonlinear film can be either a fixed film structure, which presents the progression of the story in a non chronological order - for example via flashbacks and forwards - or in a much more radical form, as a database, computer-controlled or even interactive installation, a flexible form that allows multiple alignments of the sequences, which are executed in real-time by a computer program.

So, nonlinear narratives vary from so-called modular narratives, which deliver a slightly different experience to the cinema audience, who is used to a set of typical narrative genre constructions. These radical forms exist more in digital media art practice and not so much within the context of cinema, which means that there is also a different audience with different expectations involved. It depends on the context – cinema or art gallery, for example – what kind of experience the audience might be willing to accept. It also depends on the individual artwork, whether it is made well and can support a strong experience for the viewer. If the concept or execution of the artwork is weak, it will probably not be of huge interest for the viewer. In general, I think if a new form of art or creativity offers new forms of rich experience it is definitely appreciated by the audience.

The director / cinematographer / artist position is a different one. For those who wish to push, reinvent or expand traditional narrative patterns, nonlinear concepts are an interesting field of experimentation, but it depends on the individual interest and motivation of the artist / director.


Given such burgeoning concepts as transmedia storytelling, do you think that we are – or are about to – witness a renaissance in linear narrative?

No, definitely not. Thats my personal opinion, based on the observation that those concepts are around us for quite a while already, and the knowledge that I have of film psychology and film perception in relation to how traditional linear narratives affect the human psyche and entrains the viewers eye, brain and body at the same time. Linear narrative can be traced back to Aristotle and the idea of Catharsis, which allows the viewer to experience a 'conflict of life' unfolding in a coherent narrative story with closure from the safe and quite passive position of the theatre seat, and to learn from it for ones own real life without being involved in any personal risk. Or, as Virginia Woolf puts it in her essay The Cinema in 1926: "We see the life as it is when we have no part in it". It's a very old and very successful concept.

Nonlinear or transmedia narrative is something quite different, that's what the 'non' already indicates – it's the opposite. It cannot replace the linear narrative and its complex psychological effects, because it provides a different experience to the viewer and it is difficult to achieve the same emotional and physical involvement that a coherent narrative structure provokes.

In nonlinear film or transmedia storytelling, it is much more difficult to achive this entrainment and to control the 'ride and flow' through different emotional stages which are characteristic of a linear film experience. Nonlinear narrative requires a different form of engagement, a much more active one where one has to use, to a larger extent, one's own resources and intellectual capacity to bridge the gaps and to put all the pieces together to comprehend the story. The audience has to find the solution. There is no final conclusion delivered by the author, or there are different possible solutions within a story. Lev Manovich suggests that one of the challenges in creating database films is to come up with narratives that have a structural relationship to database aesthetics. Nonlinear form requires different content and if you include interactive games into the definition, then it becomes very obvious that these nonlinear or transmedia forms can include a lot of other forms of audience engagement and therefore do not replace what traditional linear narratives offer to the viewer.


Do you think that digital changes our perception of what the avant garde is – in that we are more receptive to different forms of cinematography and editing?

What the avant garde is that might be perceived differently by a larger audience or smaller groups of 'insiders' and experts – artists, filmmakers, art theoreticians, and so on. The increase and inclusion of traditional narrative film concepts and cinematography or other digital media into contemporary fine art practice is definitely a development of the past years.

I suppose one reason is that digital media tools such as high-resolution cameras became much more affordable and therefore available for individual artists. The fact that complex digital processing can now be done on a personal computer has increased the number of artworks based on these technologies and the interest that artists might have to engage with concepts which are inherent in digital tools or cinematography. At the same time, it became also more affordable for smaller galleries and museums to exhibit this kind of artwork. As a result, there is an increased number of digital art and screenbased film or video installations presented in art galleries and museums today, which has of course also increased the awareness of these art forms within the general public.

In addition, I see it also as a developement of postmodern culture that the border between contemporary visual arts and film / cinematography is now more porous. Avant-garde and experimental film as an acknowledged practice within fine art context has, for a long time, been based on a radical neglection of narrative and cinematic concepts which stem from mainstream or conventional cinema. As such, it has been an untrodden territory that has never been explored by fine artists before - which is happening now. Some very prominent examples are Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle which has pulled cinematography into the museum and contemporary art context and the work of photographer Gregory Crewson. He creates hugely dramatic and cinematic elaborated scenes of American life. His photographs look like film stills and are shot using a large crew similar to a film shot.


Matthew Barney, Cremaster Cycle



However, digital media art has explored the changes through the digital in a niche for a much longer time. There is an international community of digital media artists, art theorists and a number of prestigious international digital (media art) institutions, conferences and festivals such as MIT in Massachusetts, ZKM in Germany, ISEA Conference or FILE in Brazil who have been dealing with these issues for more than 20 years, but without the awareness of a larger audience and also outside of the commercial art world and gallery system.


How does Journeys in travel work as an open-ended piece? Do you see a vibrant future for generative narrative?

The PD algorithm controls the narrative flow of Journeys in travel and creates an alternating stream of narrative units. The clips in the database can be combined in endless variations and be placed in different interdependences, which allow multiple readings of the content. Therefore, in fact exists no point when the narrative would come to its natural end - there is no final closure. Christiane Paul proposed that at the core of any digital art project lies the re-­contextualization of information in various relational combinations and that this is inherently connected to the logic of the database.

Database narrative is sometimes also described as recombinant narrative. This flexible arrangement of the content is also a characteristic feature of cinematic essay. Paul Arthur has defined the essay as a 'rhetorical journey' in which neither an exact route nor final destination are completely spelled out. The order in which it is communicated could have taken an entirely different route, in that it is one of several possible versions of the same concept. That's the reason why I chose to adopt the structural form of cinematic essay to database narrative, and why I propose that database essay is a suitable form for database logic.

When the installation is presented in an exhibition space, the viewer can tune in, follow the narrative for a while and then drop out again. No viewer will ever see the same film and thats a distinctive feature of database narrative. But when the exhibition is closing down the narrative stops. I plan to create an Internet version of the project which would allow to run the project endlessly within virutal space, and viewers could experience it at any time and for as long as they wish.

Digital generative narratives have been around us for a couple of years and so far they have not become a major popular form. That there is a much brighter future in relation to interactive computer games, but not in relation to cinematography and traditional film narrative.


How does generative narrative change the relationship between film and viewer, and how does it challenge pre-existing notions of visual aesthetics?

The viewer becomes a much more active part in the narrative construction. Either the viewer can influence the narrative progression directly, for example through an interface, and therefore has to make an active intellectual decision how the story will continue, or the generative narrative is solely controlled by the computer and then the viewer has to be more active in making sense and connecting the separate parts of the story. Watching a nonlinear or generative narrative is a more intellectual experience, and it often neglects the viewers' traditional expectations and their emotional and physical involvement in a coherent narrative structure. It also becomes more difficult to create film rhythm, to control how everything comes together, and to put the viewer into a ride and flow through different emotional stages, which makes the medium of film so powerful.

Additionally, a conventional linear film with coherent closure can be seen as a strong statement of the film author: it presents a precise argument and development and the viewer can engage with the position of the author. The viewer can agree or disagree, like or dislike the author's viewpoint. In a generative or nonlinear narrative where the outcome and progression is flexible, the viewer is confronted with multiple or changing or even ambivalent conclusions. There is no precise statement of the film author, no clear structure of cause and effect; therefore, it is also more difficult for the viewer to come to own conclusions. It is like having a discussion with someone who is constantly changing the topic. It can be stimulating and challenging, or completely frustrating if the narrative construction becomes too flexible and it is not possible to anticipate the progression. The human brain seems to enjoy an experience which provides a balance between coherency and surprise - a mixture of learned pattern, which can be recognized and anticipated, variations of these pattern within a specific range and a certain amount of newness and chaos. I find David Huron's theory of anticipation in relation to music experience is very interesting and I think it's adaptable to film experience as well. In Sweet anticipation: Music and the psychology of expectation, Huron develops an encompassing theory of music perception and cognition with expectation as the central concept. Expectations are based on previous learned experiences and assumptions that we make on the further progression and outcome of an event. If it is not possible to anticipate the progression, it becomes a frustrating experience. And that's probably the point where nonlinear narratives run aground.


Christin Bolewski is Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Loughborough University. Her personal website provides further information on her work and research.

Many thanks to EVA London with their help in organising this interview; the call for proposals for EVA London 2013 is now open.

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