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VoiceStreams, with Michael Century

Grahame Weinbren

[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 and interactivity.]

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?

The Instrumental Eye

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 it.

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.

The Grandfather Stories

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 remains.

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 . . .

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