Yesterday I was at UC Davis for the “Beyond the Book” Conference on the digital humanities—which was something of an eye-opener for me as far as providing some broader context for the work we do at Vectors. My perspective on this field tends to be very narrowly project-focused, so it was good to have my horizons expanded a bit with both a sense of the history of digital humanities scholarship as well as the obstacles facing those trying to do this kind of work today—work which still lacks the kind of legitimacy within the academy that would make it a less risky choice for junior scholars.
There seemed to be a genuine interest and energy in the room directed towards making it possible for more institutions, scholars, designers and programmers to participate in this kind of work. A number of Vectors projects were featured throughout the day, along with intriguing excerpts from And Then It Was Now by Frances Dyson and a preview of Precision Targets, the project I’m currently working on with Caren Kaplan. Sharon Daniel joined the proceedings virtually from Berlin, where Public Secrets is currently being shown at the Transmediale festival, and I got the chance to speak a bit about the connections between music composition and interactive design, while showing an early version of a visualizer for Vectors project databases (more on that in a future post).
Thanks to Caren Kaplan, Carolyn de la Pena, Jennifer Langdon, the technical staff and everyone else involved at UC Davis for putting on such an informative event and for featuring Vectors so generously.
A few tidbits of news to share with you today:
Public Secrets, the Webby-honored interactive documentary I designed with Sharon Daniel, will be exhibited at the Transmediale festival for art and digital culture in Berlin in late January/early February.
In addition, the Davis Humanities Institute is hosting a one-day conference on February 1 entitled “Beyond the Book: Humanities Scholarship in the Digital Age” which will feature a number of Vectors personnel and alumni, including Tara McPherson, David Theo Goldberg, Sharon Daniel, Minoo Moallem, Caren Kaplan, Jenny Terry and myself, among other distinguished speakers. The day includes a keynote panel, lunchtime roundtable, and afternoon demonstration sessions. For more information on the conference, download the pdf.
One of the things I’m most excited about with this latest issue of Vectors is the inclusion of a new “interactive index” feature which gives users non-linear, bookmarkable access to the databases for the projects Blue Velvet and Nation on the Move. My hope is that this feature, which allows you to visually browse each database’s contents through a common ThinkMap-style interface which is completely independent of the ‘designed’ front end of each project, will bring some transparency to our authoring and design practice at Vectors. I can easily see such an index becoming a standard feature for future interactive works, both fiction and non-fiction.
Well-deserved kudos for the technology behind the index go to Mark Shepherd, a Senior Computer Scientist at Adobe who developed the open-source SpringGraph Flex component that made it all possible. Thanks to his terrific implementation, I got the first version of the index up and running in just a few hours. It’s quite easy to use and really stunning (and fun) once you get some data hopping around in there.
The indexes included in the current issue of Vectors are still rather rudimentary, and any feedback or suggestions you have are most welcome. For future projects, I plan to integrate each index directly into the work itself, so it will truly start to function like the index in a printed book. I see this as just one component of an emerging set of user experience standards that will characterize fiction and non-fiction RIAs in the immediate future.
Music is a much more direct ancestor to interactive media than cinema. The mathematical and logical frameworks, the use of score as a generative source, the importance of live performance—all find strong parallels in digital interactivity. Poetry, too, shares many of these qualities, and in my experience authors with a poetic sensibility are often the ones who feel the greatest sense of liberation as they engage interactive platforms.
Scholars like David Theo Goldberg, who possess an innate predilection for the poetic, frequently find that their more fanciful instincts, which may be quashed in other formats, can be expressed more freely here. Of course, freedom in this medium, as in the other arts, frequently thrives within well-defined limitations. In interactive media, a good content architecture—realized in most Vectors projects in the form of a database—fulfills this role, taking account of the territory it is meant to represent and shutting down unproductive structural avenues while encouraging the fruitful ones. If all goes well, the author gains an expressive scaffold which resonates with the ideas at hand.
The database design for Blue Velvet initially suffered from overconnectedness—too many kinds of things were linked in too many ways. The common result in this situation is that author and user alike become confused about what they are supposed to be doing. Stefka Hristova was instrumental in identifying these kinds of problems and suggesting solutions. Through collaborative pruning and condensing of the structure, amplified in our case by the decision to give the work a linear spine, we were able to identify and foster a regular rhythm for the interaction—an oscillation between above ground and underwater, placidity and turmoil, complacency and catastrophe.
The ways in which falling words “dissolve” and reconfigure themselves in the piece was a structural conceit designed to give David the chance to explore something I kept hearing during our phone conversations: his penchant for wordplay. He would frequently substitute the expected word in a sentence with a similar word that threw an (often humorous) twist into the idea being expressed. Taking inspiration from this trait, I came up with a database structure that would allow David to define how words would break apart and transform. David took to the concept immediately, which was very gratifying, and resulted in some inspired word associations.
A final note: Blue Velvet includes an interactive index—an experiment in making the underlying structures of Vectors projects more accessible to the public. Using the index, you can browse the project’s database visually and bookmark specific elements for citation purposes. The piece itself remains the preferred way of accessing David’s work, but we hope elements like the index and video tutorial will help to bring Vectors projects to a wider audience.
Interfaces are often marketed as filters that help to distinguish signal from noise in an information-saturated environment. They enable us, we are told, to reveal messages that would have otherwise been hidden in clutter; they allow us to make information more appealing by removing traces of the things which disinterest us.
In Nation on the Move, our goal was the opposite: instead of rendering complicated things simple, Minoo Moallem and I wanted to trouble simplicity with disorder. Over the course of the piece, a single thread is pulled, teased and stretched into a chaotic web of interconnections between ideas of nationhood, gender, commerce and art that comprise the world of the Persian carpet. At the heart of the work is an acknowledgment of the essential impossibility of “sorting out” these relationships into some well-defined hierarchy.
Paradoxically, this rhetorical strategy is the result of careful interpretation of the extreme orderliness of the database which drives the project. This database is comprised of “panels” defining each image and video clip the user sees. Each panel contains active locations called “sites” at which one or more pieces of content may live. Each piece of content is then assigned a thematic “thread” which ends up being rendered as a literal thread in the visual presentation. As the user progressively reveals the content of the piece, these threads become more and more jumbled.
The chaotic trajectories of the threads arise from two factors. The first is that our foundation visual element is the image, which we treat as a 2D landscape containing short texts at specific locations suggested by the image content. Since the individual images have no relationship to each other in their composition, the texts end up being laid out in a fashion which appears almost random. The second factor is the visual persistence of the threads, which are constrained to pass through the location of each bit of content to which they are linked. The combination of these elements ensures that once the user has explored a majority of the images she will be faced with a tangle of threads anchored by content which seems to be laid out at random.
The seeming chaos of the piece is thus quite designed, as it often is in the digital realm. Unlike the physics of disarray we’re accustomed to encountering in the physical world, in the digital world content creators are frequently cast in the role of entropic agents, adding measured amounts of chaos in an attempt to hit the “sweet spots” of human perception. To see a visual representation of the order which the project transmutes into chaos, take a look at the project’s interactive index, an experiment in making the underlying structure of Vectors projects more accessible to the general public. The index is a graphical browser of the Nation on the Move database in which individual elements can be bookmarked for review or citation purposes. Our hope is that features like the index and the project’s video tutorial will help bring greater transparency to our practice and product.
Here’s a list of links to works cited in my recent talk “Storytelling in the Age of Divided Screens” at Gallaudet University.
I’m very happy to announce the launch of “Timeframing: The Art of Comics on Screens,” a new website that explores what comics have to teach us about creative communication in the age of screen media.
To celebrate the launch of Upgrade Soul, here’s a screen shot of an eleven year old prototype I made that sets artwork from Will Eisner’s “The Treasure of Avenue ‘C’” (a story from New York: The Big City) in two dynamically resizable panels.
The last couple of months have seen an uptick in published commentary on Strange Rain, much of it owing to notice the app received at this year’s Modern Language Association conference in Seattle.
Dialogue bubbles huddle together in the Unity authoring environment like backstage theatre performers awaiting their chance to shine in the forthcoming iOS and Android release Upgrade Soul, from Opertoon.