October 2008

[a novel embedded in a map at We Tell Stories]

Aptly named We Tell Stories, here we have a project interested in digital writing, in this case the ways in which we can approach the idea of writing/storytelling/literature using the internet. Screenshot above from an online short novel called The 21 Steps, in which we view a googlemap which contains various nodes, each of which tells us part of the tale— we begin at a particular location, reading the first few sentences and then are led on a detective story through London and in and around the UK, viewing the action from above, as it were. In fact, as it is. Now this is a good place to start: although the story is entirely linear and un-interactive except for the necessary clicks of the mouse, the possibilities it suggest are damn exciting. For example, perhaps having a not entirely linear detective tale on a map, but instead one where you, the reader, actually decide where to look for the story yourself. So then:

An interactive, virtual Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel in which YOU map out your journey figuratively and also quite literally on a journey round the globe.

[The Cave of Time!]

We Tell Stories sometimes gives us somewhat interesting digital renderings of classics (in this case, our googlemap adventure is a reworking of The 39 Steps). As in this case, they could all be more exciting. A major part of the attraction toward digital and web-based literature is the idea of reader interaction and the We Tell Stories stories do tend to play it safe. My inclination would be to suggest something more fractured (an example of which I outlined above as an alternative way to use mapping, to really make the reader the detective), something far less like traditional reading! When dwelling on such issues, I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s words:

There’s a way, it seems to me, that reality’s fractured right now, at least the reality that I live in. And the difficulty about writing… writing about that reality is that text is very linear and it’s very unified, and… I, anyway, am constantly on the lookout for ways to fracture the text that aren’t totally disorienting—

Web-based literature is one way. Or probably many ways. It’s still a bub.

Watch the above before reading on. I was naively (or not so) under a certain misapprehension: i thought that Daito Manabe, the star of the above video, was triggering sounds using his facial muscles. That is, the objects attached to his face were some sort of motion sensors (perhaps accelerometers would do the trick, my knowledge of complex sensors is lacking here) and thus the apparent blink of an eyelid or twitch of the upper lip would send out a digital signal and voila!: hook up a computer and these facial movements could easily be converted into midi (and/or osc) signals to trigger live audio and/or video using your music/video production application of choice.

I was shocked by how fascinating the correlation between sounds and movement were and the choices made as to which sounds to attach to each part of the face. Of course this all before it dawned upon me that this is not what is happening. In fact, quite the opposite. Each sounds sends out an electric signal which is evidently hardwired directly to our friend Daito’s face and, in essence, his muscular and nervous systems. An electric shock thus creates a small, highly visible spasm. This is potentially more shocking and less artistically interesting than what i originally thought was happening. But i’m not actually sure. I feel conflicted.

Now what if we had both systems just described working in conjunction: one person using their muscles to trigger sound and these very sounds then translated into electric pulses hardwired INTO SOMEONE ELSE’S NERVOUS SYSTEM. Is this potentially the future of puppetry? And if there were not necessarily a one-to-one identifiable correlation between the twitcher and the twitchees: a cheekflex could result in a flailing leg, a nodding head could create a breakdance.

Could this be the future of DJing? No longer spinning records or even beatmixing MP3s as seems to commonly occur these days, but a disc jockey making music with his entire body and also choreographing the audience’s dance, drum rolls necessarily accompanied by strained muscular pirrouettes each and every time they occur, horn stabs forcing folk to jump in the air, certain digital sounds heard and the whole floor does the robot. At the push of a button the DJ could make everyone applaud… Anyone?

I must say that despite the feelings of the man using a monome to play the html data of websites as sound etc… on my last posting here, i do think the NYTimes have a severely impressive web presence. One need look no further than their interactive map of Baghdad:

[Assessing the ‘Surge’: an interactive map of Baghdad from nytimes.com]

The map itself is a result of a project ‘to study the ground-level effects of the American troop buildup’. As one’s mouse hovers over the neighbourhoods lying either side of the undulating Tigris, connections are made between the map and surrounding text and image. As my cursor wavers over Saydia in the south, i see the region connect to an image of a smiling girl’s face and Saydia: Thousands Flee Active Battle Zone. Not only can I click on a particular neighbourhood to venture into on-the-ground journalism, video and photojournalism but i can also view the map in terms of who inhabits which areas, displaced neighbourhoods, Sunni majority and strong Mahdi army presence. Geographically aware and able. Now we are actively participating in the journalism we view, no longer passive recipients.

How far could one take this? Next of course, please, vantage point mobility, the ability to zoom in and see the street level, to tilt and angle oneself to catch a particular glimpse of the four golden minarets at Kadhmayn;  then palimpsestic maps of infrastructures begin to appear: electricity grids and aqueducts and their lines of communication. Movements of people across the city over a day, a year, a decade, ever since Werner Herzog filmed from above the Iraqi oil fields being sent aflame in Lessons of Darkness. A map of the city shifting over time, rising out of the sands before your very eyes; and the subsequent destructions, captured for posterity.

[from Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness]

The only aspect now missing is the ability to alter the map, the possibility of effecting change. Consider the following: a man, lets call him X, is a voyeur, he places himself at train stations and on trams, above balconies and under bridges, watching keenly all the varied passers-by. Inconspicuous, he seems to himself. Every step he takes, however, leaves an imprint. As do his no-longer-furtive glances. What if interactive maps were malleable in this sense, each place you visit somehow your mark is left upon, a barely visible stamp of your past presence there. Then we could see and hear of viewers movements across the map, paths taken and returned upon. More extreme still and we have a landscape entirely alterable, viewers able to construct small compounds and tap into the electricity grid, shape hillocks and breathe life into the space. I do not, of course, recommend this for Baghdad.

Nor have I said much of the substance of this particular interactive map, which you really should check out yourself since I have no ability to relate to you the complexities of all the information that can be gathered from this particular well. Do, however, permit me end with the words of a small girl, seemingly proud to have been displaced due to her family receiving a letter with a bullet in it:

No matter what, Iraq is so beautiful… Iraq will remain beautiful, no matter what. (Sung) Baghdad of poets and pictures. The gold of time… and its perfume scent.