Review of Urbanalities: Anything but Banal
Described by its creators as “a short story-poem-comic strip-musical, with randomly generated text” “Urbanalities” is a 10 minute generative Flash piece created by writer-artist-composer collaborative duo babel and escha that depicts the opposites, dualities, ambitions and contradictions of contemporary life.
Divided into seven segments that can be viewed consecutively or individually (accessed by a drop-down menu that appears along the top of the screen), each of the “moments” of “Urbanalities” combine randomized text and images with music and animation to create scenes that range from the changing hours on a clock, to rolling assembly lines, to a swimming sperm, to the selection of a target through the sights of a gun. The work draws much of its visual elements from dualities and pairs, as well as the iconography of urbanized life, using images of city skylines, streetlights and bustling crowds. Classic opposites such as male/female and creation/destruction are paired with observations on hope, understanding, hopelessness and miscommunication to create scenes like the melancholic third segment, where a female face appears on a clock along with phrases such as “no time for love”, “anywhere but here”, “out of time”, “time for no love” and “sigh”, or the seventh segment, where a sperm swims through a sea of contraceptives, pushing words like “boastful”, “destructive” and “violent” through bubbles of “male sterilization”, “safe sex” ands “extended pill”.
Authors/artists/composers/creators babel and escha describe “Urbanalities” as a “mash-up of Dadaist technique and VJ stylings.” The breadth of this description makes the piece difficult to classify, and it is listed under no less than ten tags on the Electronic Literature Collection website, with classifications ranging from “animation/kinetic”, “audio”, “music” and “visual poetry.” However, what makes “Urbanalities” special is its generative quality. The randomly assembled text and images of each segment create a unique, unrepeatable reading experience that is slightly different every time the piece of accessed, successfully recreating the multi-faceted unrepeatable cacophony of urban life. However, the same generative quality that makes “Urbanalities” a success is also part of the work’s biggest weakness: due to the limited vocabulary of each segment, certain phrases can become stale and repetitious. While the words selected by babel and escha are quirky, enigmatic and often assemble in surprisingly profound ways, with too few words to draw from, the randomized quality of the text quickly becomes less and less random. This predictability means that what first appears to be witty or insightful can become marginal and dull by its fifth or sixth appearance on screen.
Unpredictable and unrepeatable, “Urbanalities” is a quirky-yet-profound piece that offers a variety of views into the quiet and chaos of contemporary life. Though the piece is visually engaging and has a strong soundtrack, the work is limited by its vocabulary, and suffers from moments of repetition. However, as a commentary on the existential mêlée of contemporary life, “Urbanalities” is a success, the generative nature of the work creating a constantly shifting, unrepeatable audio-visual experience.