Landscape of memory

Essay by Stacey Spiegel, published in "Interfacing Realities," 1997.

Landscape of memory

Interfacing Realities

It is vain to dream of a wilderness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord. 1

A great number of individuals from diverse backgrounds-painters, writers, philosophers and scientists have over the years supported in their own way the use of landscape as metaphor. An example is Walter Sickert, a British painter, who asserted in 1924 that whatever the subject matter, "paintings should not be regarded as signs of culture, but as utensils of memory and vicarious experience." 2 The computer, of course, is not the sign of culture, but rather simply a tool; the landscape interface within it is constructed of memory and experience. Harold Gilman, a contemporary of Sickert, wrote that every age has its own landscape. 3 They were not merely speaking of pictorial interpretation as it has unfolded in the lineage and progression from the Ancient to the Modern World, but of the nature of our cultural landscape. The discourse between the cultural landscape and the experiential landscape informs our basic understanding of nature, offering new and relevant models to bridge the material to immaterial worlds.

Children treat machines as monstrous toys: thus the modern artist breaks the machine-toys of art to see what makes them go. 4

The man-machine interface of this century has cleaved a "division" in humanity that will not heal. In what shall we trust if we know we cannot share intimate trust with each other. The synthetic coolness of machines is programmed to mediate human contact - keep the distance - who to trust. Human inventiveness has wrought anarchy and chaos far beyond comprehension. Could it really be that organic cellular systems override consciousness. In what are we to believe?

There are many different realities, but rather than forms of reality I would express these as layers, not unlike the skin of an onion. Reality is a constant flowing together of multi-layered simultaneous interactions with all things of the world, material and immaterial. Layers of reality are unique and distinct in their emotional/sensory content. Moving simultaneously between multi-layered content states is a biological act, and while the organism derives stimulation from the complexity, our intellect derives meaning. Edges blurred, the realities fold into each other. Actuality is when the lighthouse is dark between flashes: it is the instant between the ticks of the watch: it is a void interval slipping forever through time: the rupture between past and future: the gap at the poles of the revolving magnetic field, infinite simally small but ultimately real. It is the interchronic pause when nothing is happening. It is the void between events. 5

Talking about different worlds is problematic as it propagates the illusion of discontinuity. It is not through division and separation but rather through fusion and continuity that we define the tribal territory of user group and web sites. We are able to reinvent ourselves through metaphor. For metaphor neither promises nor charms, but has as its contextualizing principle that the world of communication is a world of sensations without which no one would bother to make contact with the other/otherness. I doubt that anyone states "great metaphor, lousy work." Metaphor has integrity for me as a means to set out ideas, and more importantly, to realize them and interpret them through a system of decoding; communicating ideas and resonance, making contact ...

The Knowbots claim to be working against metaphor building in their Gutenberg to Turning galaxy hop. Is that really so or is it that they have embraced a rather convenient definition of metaphor that's dressed up a lot like the Wicked Witch from the West .6 This seems possible given their expression of real frustration with the look and feel of the pop cultural democratization of the Internet. The disquieting thing about cultural history is that we cannot escape our own domains. Knowbotic Research identifies a belief system founded on the confrontation of the intangible in non-places, with indescribable events. Is orchestrating the "event" now the same as an interpretation of, or rather the translation of, the "event."

By definition the means or modality one experiences reality through is an extension of one's own experience and memory. For this reason Immersion Reality heightens the potential for expressive metaphors to float somewhere amidst imagery, symbolism and mystery.

My intention is to develop landscape as a metaphor for cyberspace, not as a hierarchical sign of progress but rather in recognition of historical constancy. It is the experiential tool to intuitively navigate between the genetic approximation of self and the mountains of virtual information. The notion of landscape as metaphor for cyberspace is vastly different from the machine metaphor which has formed and informed much of the cultural enterprise and analysis of this century. From the Futurists to Marshall McLuhan's Mechanical Bride, there has been an urgency to establish an authenticity for the modern age, to create a new landscape concocted from the industry of the age of mechanical reproduction. The technologies which have delivered the tools to create and explore cyberspace cannot be characterized by a linear machine model, and consequently the space is not experienced as the progression of pictorial culture. Most aspects of nature, whether biological or mechanical, are now described through mathematical means. Thus a new landscape has been formed. In turn, it is a landscape without boundaries or the anecdotal - trees, streams, clouds and horizon. It is a manifestation of the literary avant-garde's "stream of consciousness" and "monologue interieur" - to proceed outward, guided by the unconscious. The cyber-landscape as metaphor is the convergence of information and sensation as aesthetic experience. How we negotiate it is also dependent on what we know about it, and ourselves. As we search for meaning and identity at the end of the century, this landscape encompasses private and personal narratives built on shared and cumulative knowledge.

If the nomadic sense of self and identity is not defined by "terra firma" (fixed territories - referring to authority and power expressed through landholdings), the implication is that being can be anywhere ... and everywhere. The traveler in the cyber-landscape moves through time and space, can see and hear, encounter and engage in dialogue, move on and return to the markers left behind and buried.

Bridging across worlds of immateriality requires a means to orient and locate oneself. Indeed the tangent moment between reality and virtuality occurs when a user has a consistent tool set to decode the experience in both paradigms. In this context, we have begun to develop a typology or distinct character for spaces, each one relating to specific content. The thought here is that we can draw from our world where the precognitive tools that allow us to navigate terrain depend on observation and intuition to explore geo-historical layers of content. Multi-layered content navigated by members of the audience allows the individual to author both a communal and personal experience simultaneously. This is an emerging technology built on the multi-disciplinary nature of new media. Extending the interface well beyond the screen to mediate between layers of reality, from the known to the unimagined. Cyberspace is a vision of an amorphous landscape whose shape is forming and reforming in response to the ever-changing expression of the information being deposited within.

The strategy behind designing a 3-Dimensional real-time interactive interface is to address the question of who gives definition to cyberspace. Politically, contemporary artists have been marginalized from the center of social activity, driven off by the dominance of financial corporate activity. Yet even the corporations must now confront the complexity of a meaningful exchange in virtuality, and in doing so will inevitably conclude that artists and their interpretive skills are a fundamental ingredient in virtual communication. With the metaphoric landscape, a new artistic proposition has evolved: one which is not preoccupied with a modernist self-referential agenda, but which evokes a multi-disciplinary approach to mediating the virtual space for work and for play.

It is because reality cannot be recorded that realism is dead. We do not imitate the world, we construct versions of it. There is no mimesis, only poiesis. No recording. Only constructing. 7

The interface is the bridge, the thread that weaves a tapestry between perception and cognition. In one of the exchanged texts Stephen Perrella talks of the exchange of realities taking place through the "window." P15 While it is obvious that he has reconciled the issue of scale, a 19th century lock is still in place. Analytic reductionism and the "window" helped to force the viewer outside of experience. The viewer could never be more than a voyeur distanced from the moment, puzzling with the pieces while peering in from the outside. "The only issues are how well the window can be constructed and what metaphor or materiality will best suit this point of exchange between realities. The better the window, the more we will be able to access the heroic proportions of this extension [...] and at best the interface should be transparent." 8 In a literal sense this statement reflects my current commitment to explorations in a new form of perceptual space. A large-scale immersive 360 degree panorama venue seamlessly blends image with thematic content. The scalar 3D-environment replaces the "window" of the 19th century and relocates the viewer/ participant to the inside looking out. This not only shifts the conditions of a referential real/cyberspace context, it allows for a transparent flow between image and content. The experience is abstract and interconnected, as one explores not the metaphor but rather the means to author one's own narrative. One of the key aspects of this form of virtual experience is that there is no technical gear, one is unencumbered to explore amidst a community of people whose discourse is in relation to the narrative content buried within the metaphoric landscape.

It is difficult in these early days for divergent working models of cyberspace to sustain a large audience, particularly approaches that deal with complex organic surfaces and non-Euclidean structures. Technical limitations remain a nuisance as each potential user struggles in frustration with the lack of graphic consistency across platforms. As a result, powerful and compelling ideas are simply exorcised out of existence in the virtual court of user-friendliness. With no set of recognized values assigned to aesthetic experience and conceptual integrity, the luster and sizzle of an interface will at least in the short term remain the main attraction.

The first dedicated theatre application of the cyber-space/landscape metaphor is the Immersion Studios" "My Canada" project which opens in August 1997 in a historic Toronto landmark building. "My Canada" is a real-time interactive experience that allows the audience to author their own exploration of Canadian identity and culture from a national, regional and local perspective, and expressed through the themes of culture, cultural diversity, ecology, history and economy. The immersion experience is a projection onto eightteen-foot screens that surround the viewer a full 180 degrees and allows the opportunity to navigate or "fly" through and into the content. A unique character and environment is created by combining data bases of existing satellite and aerial photography with artistically rendered textures and models. The resulting environments become aesthetic compositions of the world as fabulations. A critical aspect of this production is the non-linear construct: members of the audience may author their own personal experience using an intuitive interface during the presentation. The key is a series of "satellite stations" placed around the theatre: individual content paths are explored by touching the moving images that appear on the satellite screen. The participant wanders through the dynamic pictorial space retrieving digitally stored information - video clips, archival images, text and animation, sounds, and live links into the World Wide Web.

We can grasp the universe only by simplifying it with ideas of identity by classes, types, and categories and by rearranging the infinite continuation of non-identical events into a finite system of similitudes. It is the nature of being that no event ever repeats, but it is the nature of thought that we understand events only by the identities we imagine among them. 9

The metaphoric approach to memory and experience is a unique tool for interactive exploration. One might trace our steps back to the origins of marking in the pre-mechanical age, signs of our ancestors in the Lascaux caves, the first "total" art. Fast forward then to the visceral imagery of Imax to see that humanity has approached its wanderings with a sublime desire to discover the memory and vicarious experience imbedded within landscapes of memory.

It is a wilderness of sorts. And there are only two kinds of people that come out of the wilderness: prophets and fools.

1. Henry David Thoreau, "Walden," 1854.
2. Walter Sickert - cited in "The Life and Opinions of Walter Richard Sickert," Robert Emmons, London, 1941.
3. not a direct quote, but it is from an essay titled "Neo-Realism" published in The New Age journal date not known), by British painter Charles Ginner. Cited in John Rothenstein, "Modern English Painters," Volume One, MacDonald & Co, London, 1984 edition - p.126.
4. Renato Poggioli, 1962, in "The Theory of the Avant-Garde," Harper & Row Publishers, U.S.A. 1971 edition, pp.139-140.
5. George Kubler, "The Shape of Time," Yale University Press, U.S.A., 1962 p.17.
6. note from the author: "The Wicked Witch of the West" is the nemesis of Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." Dorothy the innocent, the pure-of-heart, is swept into a fairy-tale land and fairy-tale time ("a time "upon a time" - a whole parallel universe where events are ordered nearer our hearts' desires than they are in this world" - quote Robert Scholes). The witch is a personification of the struggle between good and evil; in Oz,the good witches come from the north and south and the wicked witches from the east and west. In "our universe," the West is also equated with materialism, and in Sufi mysticism, with darkness, immorality, decadence and dissolution. The west is also "where" the sun sets. It must be noted however that in the Old Testament, evil comes from the north. What can I say, it's Hollywood, and home is Kansas.
7. Robert Scholes, "Structural Fabulation" University of Notre Dame Press, U.S.A., 1975.
8. Stephen Perrella in one of the texts written as a part of the discussion, but not present in this publication.
9. George Kubler, "The Shape of Time," Yale University Press, U.S.A., 1962 p.67.



© 1997 Stacey Spiegel / V2_

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