Report from the International Digital Media Arts Association Conference 2010

(updated after a nap and some tweaks)

The Media Arts world reminds me a lot of the cinema world, in the sense that hardcore theory, artists, and commercial producers are in the same room together. The theorists want to argue, the artists want to make you go hmmm, and the bizzy folks just want to show off how awesome they are! That’s what made the collection of speakers and topics today at IDMAA at Emily Carr University in Vancouver so interesting.

The first presentation I really absorbed was Stephanie Tripp’s discussion of the non-human raconteur. She basically placed randomization / machinic narrative tools of the new-media area on a spectrum with Surrealists, John Cage and so on. The idea that non-human actors collaborate with the author of a work by introducing uncontrolled factors. Reminded me of Chris Ghallager’s Atmosphere, in which he specifically mocks intentionality by making the viewer guess what motivates the endless panning action of a camera. At the end, we discover that the pans are made by a sail attached to the camera, blowing in the wind. Ha ha, and so much for intentionality, but what I think is that the intentionality is there in the construction of the random event, and so the attempt to undermine our faith in intentionality with non-human intervention in the narrative is ultimately just a parlor trick that, for me, falls flat.

At lunch we were treated to a presentation of SAFARIMontage software, verbally because the speaker joked that we probably didn’t want to gather around and watch the powerpoint presentation on his ipod touch. (PP was the dirty secret of the conference – reminded me of many critiques of powerpoint, such as: Power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely). His paradigm was interesting: get kids using interactive media to engage them better than books (a whiff of Ken Robinson there) but his solution of using mobile devices instead f textbooks, predicated on the idea that everyone already has them in their possession, seems to beg the question: what about at-risk populations? What about poor youth whose school-issued mobile devices will just get stolen or pawned?

The lunchtime keynote was a presentation from a Hollywood video-design firm that made opening titles for Sherlocke Holmes, theatrical visuals for a SpiderMan musical on Broadway, titles for Robin Hood, you know, lots of awesome stuff that was impressive and cool, especially the calligraphy stuff for Robin Hood. Apparently they hired one of the only three professional calligraphers in California to do medieval writing.

Then there was a presentation about Earth and Beyond, by G. Christopher King. The Electronic Arts online game was most interesting for its storyline actually emerging from the online community itself. King said they would monitor community forums for player speculation about solving puzzles, and then sometimes incorporate their speculation into the actual game; thus, the story was writing itself like a mobius strip. He also revealed that when they incorporated lies into non-player dialogue, players reported such lies as program bugs. I.e. if a character told a player to go somewhere to look for someone, and they weren’t actually there, players would report this as a bug to the programmers! So he was forced to actually reveal his identity as a moderator / programmer on the community boards, and reveal that the lie was in fact a lie and not an error. He said that in future projects, he made sure to provide in-game ways to alert players when they had been deceived.

He showed us the vestiges of the discontinued game in the form of fan-built emulators that Electronic Arts had yet to shut down.

Winston (Wen Che) Yang talked about his efforts to inculcate authenticity into design students in Tawain. He said, for instance, that he is reluctant to give examples to his students because they tend to simply copy the examples instead of striking out on their own creatively! He criticized the visual design profession for constantly imitating other designs rather than going back to original source material, using as an example the proliferation of battleship designs springing from Red Alert 3 rather than from direct observation of battleships.

He showed various experiments and techniques for pushing an authentic Taiwanese experience into their projects; for instance, how could they incorporate density into design? How would that affect things? How could they explore the self and, “codify + clarify” that?

The game projects he presented were extremely cool – has a lot of them.

Christin Bolewski, a German artist living in the UK, presented her modern play on the Cinematic Essay (citing Chris Marker and Agnes Varda as inspirations). Instead of a linear narrative, however, her piece is a database documentary, in which her travels are filed by shot type, colours, musical leitmotifs, genre, theme, location, etc, and set up as a spreadsheet with no hierarchy or beginning, middle or end. It’s an intriguing way to approach video, especially as youtube and other web-video sites essentially turn the world’s narrative screen history into one big searchable database itself.

I didn’t hear all of the presentation on “Politics of Non-Linear Narrative” but my major sinking feeling was that, once again, interactivity is reduced to a new tool in the toolbox of those with an educational, or political, or even narrative agenda, rather than some entirely new way to approach writer-reader relations. The idea of a “spectator position” versus a “player position” is not to break out of the paradigm that the writer has created, but simply a difference in level of engagement with that narrative framework. An immersed player, or a reader who makes point-and-click choices in the non-linear story (two tropes which are themselves different for a number of reasons, none of them political in my view), is still on the receiving end of the spectacle.

Ethics were addressed, in a sense, when one audience member explained the idea he’d heard of a video game based on the Balkan conflict. Everyone in the room seemed pleased that this game never happened, because that bloody conflict was a tasteless subject for a game, but this reaction just reinforces my conviction that immersive, interactive, or whatever type of multimedia experience still contains an ideology and that a few choices (whether they be high-level or low-level) don’t actually allow a new ideology to be created during the experience. The writer is still the writer.

It’s not like the historical through-line from Shakespeare to Brecht to Boal which takes narrative out of the theatre and into the streets, and takes the viewer out of their their chair and into the driver’s seat.

My own interactive DVD Marie Tyrell (2002) addresses this issue precisely…

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