How effective is it?

“The artist himself becomes enclosed within restricted borders, indicating that the radical dichotomy between the game and the real is ultimately not sustainable” (Raley 63)

When Luis Hernandez was detained by Homeland Security in 2005, and later barred from entering the United States for five years, he “in a sense became embedded in his own game” (Raley 63). Obviously there was something politically threatening about the game in order for it to warrant such a reaction from the government. Maybe it was the posture it took towards the importation of illegal narcotics into the States, in a way sanctioning it by making it the “goal” of the game and a sympathetic representation of the traffickers? Or was it essentially the maps revealing the underground tunnels which facilitated the move of drugs into the country, making it a practical threat to national security? Interestingly, Hernandez himself sees it as “art” and as a piece of art it was commissioned to help educate Americans and give them a greater “cross-understanding” of the issues surrounding the U.S. and Mexican border (63). He separates it from the material realities it represents, and then surprisingly finds himself subject to those same realities.

It brings up the question how separated can it really be if it its goal is to be effective? At some point groups like Critical Art Ensemble in order to have any impact at all, need to cross the line into potentially subversive and risk-necessitated actions. If something is just educational, or pedagogical in purpose, can it have the influence that would eventually predicate action on the part of the audience? How convincing is a game or a disturbance or a symbolic action if it appears, creates a scene, attracts attention and then disappears again with the waters of social and cultural normality closing over it? Can it be more persuasive than the judges on “The Voice”? In a fattened society like America with so much to gain (always) and nothing to lose (always), what kind of messages or PR could move them towards actions? Maybe not video games…

I think there is not desperation enough to warrant it. We certainly don’t have the desperation which would risk life and limb, suffer and keep trying, to cross a border so that they could share our Lazy-boys with us.

Tailspin (2008)

English artist Christine Wilks has put together a combination of sounds, text, and visual images (sometimes animated, sometimes static), to tell a story about a girl Karen and her relationship with her father. The father wanted to be a fighter pilot in England during World War 2 when the “Spitfire” was being used predominantly as an interceptor for home defense from enemy bombers. Unfortunately, because of deafness in one ear he never became a pilot his, “Dashed hopes crushed.” Karen’s father was an air fitter instead and witnessed firsthand the heroic work of the fighter pilots, as well as the horrific death of at least one pilot on the ground trapped in his cockpit after an explosion: “Thank God for his dud ear.”

Karen compares her father’s frustration with his deafness, and “dashed hopes” to the preemptive tactics of the Spitfire pilots. He “spits fire” at her children when they are playing too loudly and aggravating his Tinnitus. He shouts a lot in his exasperation, with muffled shouting noises recorded to play with the texts. He never listens to Karen, even when she tries to convince him to get hearing aids: “Her argument shot down in flames.”

By oscillating through the series of different situations and anecdotes, Wilks puts together an effective impression of the ongoing tension between Karen and her father. The texts shift from memories of Karen’s father as an air fitter; Karen’s childhood memories of flying kites, looking at birds with her father, or watching war movies; arguments with her father about dealing with his deafness; uncomfortable home scenes with Karen’s children and her father; and subsequent fears of Karen’s for the negative impact of her father’s outbursts and anger on her own children.

The use of disconcerting noises, such as sirens, a man screaming, bombers diving, chaotic video-game sounds, etc., contribute to the feelings of tension when viewing the screens. These alternate with a few “blue sky” backgrounds which are very calm and tranquil, contrasting starkly to the agitating sounds. Video-game-like characters move hectically and mechanically across some screens, supposedly representing Karen’s children. In addition multiple Spitfires fly or dive or crash. Diagrams of ears and hearing aids also make an appearance in many places. All of these visuals and sounds function together to build the story and create the overall atmosphere of the work.

The final words of the piece are: “Hang onto deafness for dear life.” Karen has come to the conclusion that her father is using his deafness to self-protect and “deaden the fear” of facing the painful realities of his life’s disappointments, his shame (“A fighter pilot is shame free, that’s a hero”); and at least one horrific experience of watching a pilot die. This denial is instrumental as his coping mechanism. But Karen’s father is not the only one in denial as Karen convinces herself that her father’s angry shouts will not damage her children. What surfaces in the progression of the work is the tragic sense that Karen is denying her own damage as a consequence of her father’s behavior. Like father, like daughter: “Turn a deaf ear, maybe it will go away.”

Meaning Maker

“The computer program has no real understanding of the user’s input” (Bogost 11).

Writing regarding the Rogerian psychologist program “Eliza,” Ian Bogost makes the point that the computer itself cannot really understand the input of the user, but can only process the input and respond based on procedural rules that the programmer has set up in the system. Although it is clear that a computer program has limits to its functionality as a result of its design, this question of “meaning,” I believe, is critical to the discussion of the relative persuasiveness of computer-produced rhetoric.

“Wherever there is meaning there is persuasion” (Bogost quoting Kenneth Burke, 21). If this statement is inversely true, then in order for a piece of digital rhetoric to be meaningful, it has to be persuasive. That persuasiveness is (according to Bogost), a consequence of the process written into the program and the effectiveness of its expression. I would extrapolate further and propose that “meaning” is also created in the interaction between the user and the program, and that the interaction follows the procedure of the designer and is constrained by their authorship of “potential events” (Bogost 64). In other words, meaning is not inherent to the actual physical technology and the efficacy of the program can be limited by the foresight of the designer.

The design or process that is crafted by the program creates a space in which a discourse is possible and obviously intended. The interface of the digital media allows for new ways to interact with information. In addition, the programs are able (by their processes) to articulate that information successfully to the user. Working as a medium for the purposes of the creator, computer-generated rhetoric is a powerful tool in producing avenues of meaning and understanding that are no longer chained to geographical locations or limited by physicality. Transcending the boundaries of all the forms it utilizes (i.e. text, image, film, sound, etc.), the computer program can be undeniably persuasive in its ability to communicate meaning.

“Flight Patterns”

“…mapping art still is the result of an artistic process, including the choices of which data are to be mapped and the decision of how to visualize them” (Simanowski 175)

In Flight Patterns, UCLA artist Aaron Koblin has taken data provided by the FAA and mapped it into an electronic visualization using Adobe After Effects and/or Maya, motion graphics and animation software programs respectively. These flight patterns are represented in lines of color, superimposed over a black background. Depending on the user’s preference, the data can be viewed by altitudes, model, or manufacturer. The lines begin and end in cities around all over America, and in each view the outline of the United States can be made out, as well as educated guesses about where each of the major cities are located depending on the concentration of light in certain areas.

More interesting than the static screen shots is the YouTube video depicting flight patterns, and the number of airplanes from 5 pm eastern time to 8 pm eastern time the following day (27 hours worth of data). During this 57 second video, the multi-colored flight lines move according to the schedules of domestic and international travel. Around 1:30 am EST, the map is quiet and dark, with only 4000+ airplanes in the air. Soon, between 2 am and 5 am EST flights begin to take-off from the west coast towards the east (appropriately symbolically red, since many of these flights are named “red-eye” flights). As these flights stream over to the east and land around 6 am EST, suddenly the east coast lights up as thousands of flights take-off west, south, and north. Around midday the transatlantic flights are beginning their arrivals onto the eastern seaboard. A spray of blue flight lines pour from the right of the screen where Europe is obviously located.

The 57 seconds of activity is not only visually mesmerizing, but elucidating as well. This is simple data content in a breath-taking form. With the satellite-eye’s view of the transactions taking place in just over 24 hours (likely repeating itself every 24 hours), the sheer magnitude of planes in the air – 19200+ at its peak at 4 pm EST – gives the viewer an appreciation off all the activity managed by the FAA, for example, as well as a take on how many human bodies are thousands of feet in the air at any given moment! When the viewer takes into consideration the individual life-narratives of each passenger and multiplies that by X passengers in X planes on X flights…the data is overwhelming. What an effective interface to make that kind of information accessible and appreciable.

Narrative-Database Duality

From the world-wide database, the user searches for and retrieves data. The data then forms a “tissue of signs” that will find its ultimate cohesiveness in its destination: The user (Barthes 147-148). The user is experiencing the world in a different way, as Manovich argues in his chapter, “The Database” (219). Meaning is created in the experience of the user and “born simultaneously with the text” or I would suggest, as the text is experienced (Barthes 145). There is no end to the data at hand. The data is being constantly added to and renewed, a shifting-changing dynamic as fluid as the ocean and as deep. Everything is accessible, but nothing wholly is organized except in the sequential decisions of the user.

Whatever the motivation is of the user, that motivation will dictate a certain path they will take them through the data. It will decide how the data is searched for, retrieved, and then ordered in the mind of the user. The path becomes Barthes’ syntagmatic or explicit sequence; a sequence which materializes linearly because the user is experiencing time and the series of choices in a linear progression. The linear progression can be viewed as individual pieces of data which are formed into waves, like light’s wave-particle duality. As the elements are linked and move through the time-space trajectory, they unfold into a narrative wave-length which can be viewed as real.

There are no limits for the database, as its information packets can be increased inexhaustibly. The limits are created by the user, as well as the meaning. One can contend that how the user experiences the information is dictated by the interface and that is a construct of the creator. But as Barthes argues, if the voice can lose its origin, and nobody can take “ownership” of the data, then the emphasis is returned to the reader or the user, and their navigation will then affect the spectrum of what is perceived. If data represents the paradigmatic dimension, as Manovich maintains, and the user’s path is a the syntagmatic trajectory, then new media will never be entirely without narrative, and interestingly, the visible results will vary based on the media it passes through as well as the receptors of the user.

Accessible, retrievable, immediate

“But when we turn on our computer and start up our Web browser, all the world’s resources seem to be accessible, retrievable, immediate” (Murray 84).

Accessible, retrievable, immediate. It is the mantra of our new technology, and it is becoming more and more realized every day. In the chapter “From Additive to Expressive Form,” Janet Murray traces briefly the progression of the computer gaming-phenomena. One of the major developments of gaming was the ability of the programmer to create a digital environment in which the gamer is participating in a created world. The better the technology, the more interactive and navigable the worlds became. The “range of possible interactions” allowed for a more successful experience. These were (and are) virtual worlds that are “responsive” (79). What strikes me as fascinating about these worlds is the accessibility, the immediacy, and I would argue retrievability of something which is a result of the interaction between the gamer/game.

When the games first began as text prompts, the gamer had to visualize the space they were navigating in their own minds, using the verbal descriptions and leaving something to their own imaginations. Just like a novel where the reader uses a certain capacity to create a scene, as the narrative progresses, the world of the author’s making grows and expands in the reader’s mind. At another point, Murray discusses the advent of moving pictures and how the audience viewed the first films, supposedly having a difficult time separating their reality from the created reality on the screen. Even in that posture the viewer has a degree of separation between themselves and the action on the screen. Albeit, they are in a passive mode, allowing the film to create mood, build character, and provide information.

What I find somewhat disconcerting as I read Murray’s article, is the concept that as these games become better and better in creating realities, the gamer or the person interacting with the game will be less passive but actually more of an active participant in an unreal world. What happens when the accessible and immediate reality of a game begins to “overwrite” the true sensory reality of a gamer? What is the gamer able to “retrieve” from the game? (And I am not using that in the sense that Murray used it re retrieving information; I am looking at the idea that there is definitely an exchange happening when a person participates in the virtual digital and spatial environment.) What are they getting and how is it affecting the wiring of their own brains? What is the exchange?

Sola fide

Click here to view “Faith” by Robert Kendall.

In the beginning was the Word…

And for Robert Kendall’s new media poem, that word was: Faith. Scripted like the ornate letters of a Gutenberg-like bible, the first word sits securely high on the first screen of his poem in motion.

But out of the sky – presumably from a heaven above – the words “logic” fall down past “Faith” and take up a place hovering below “Faith”. The yellow words “logic can’t bend this” appear on the screen. “Bend” what an interesting choice of a verb. The logic doesn’t sway, or sweep away, and it cannot bend, like a mind-bender, but neither is it a bind-mender for the poet. In the next screen the bend becomes a corner, a mile-post to pass in order to achieve a holy consummation, a vision not from above, but from below, in the depths.

Then in the 3rd installment of 5 frames, burgundy red words flicker and wink a “neon logic.” Why neon? The contrast to the preserved ink of a 500 year-old bible is fascinating.

And then, what is the “sunny side” of his mind? Is it like the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan singing that he’ll “stay right here on the sunny side of the street”? Why won’t Kendall press the black button? One can only connect a black button to something sinister and destructive. Who would black out the sun if they could?

The 4th installment: LEAP. Kendall leaps. Leap of faith. He “simply” strides out of his mind – his logic – and then leaves “One True Word.” Is it LEAP? The LEAP word flies dangerously at the viewer, taking up the whole screen and moving towards them. It doesn’t disappear into a chasm, unless the chasm is the viewer’s mind. Instead, it approaches like a fighter plane and engages the viewer face-on before disappearing.

In the end, all the words of the poem fall to the bottom and what remains? Only the pieces: “Just to sum up.” Even “Faith” falls from its height into the pile with the rest. Just a summary of experience, nothing else. Only the words are left…Sola scriptura.