Firstly thanks to Aurelea and CultureNet/CapilanoU for inviting me to write something about Urbanalities here. During the actual process of creation things often come together more or less by chance; it is only after some time away that the reasoning and process behind various decisions becomes clearer, and I’ve found thinking again about Urbanalities has been very interesting in this way.
Before talking about Urbanalities itself I’ll begin with a brief background to me and my practice, as I think both are relevant to understanding how the piece came about, and what it tries to be or do.
The extremely reduced CV bit: I was born in England, but am also Canadian, and have lived in in Montreal for several periods in my life, most recently from 2000-2006 (so Urbanalities was created there, which may or may not be significant). My degree was not in computers or the arts, but my exposure to computers and multimedia began when I was young with a ZX Spectrum 48k, and I think that little rubber-keyed computer ended up being a much greater influence on my life than my ‘official’ studies.
My first public creative output was traditional (print) poetry, but I drifted into graphic and web design after University, and it was a fairly natural progression to begin experimenting with more visual types of poetry, and eventually electronic poetry. Most of my work now is created in Flash, because (for me) it allows the quickest integration of text, image, sound and ‘interactivity’, however contested that term. But I still see myself as a poet, and a lot of my (solo) work is best understood as one variety or another or electronic poetry. However I have also been fortunate to work with other writers and artists (most notably the novelist Kate Pullinger) in other genres of what is more broadly categorised as ‘electronic literature’.
In 1999/2000 an interest in (some might say an unhealthy obsession with) Dada led a friend and I to create 391.org. The original ‘391’ was the longest running Dada magazine, with 19 issues published between 1917-24. The intention of 391.org was to continue the kind of experimentation that Dadaists enjoyed, but using contemporary media – a ‘Mada’ (Multimedia dADA) rather than a ‘Dada’. Of course any post-Dada/neo-Dada/etc. enterprise can’t really take itself too seriously, as the various issues of 391.org subsequently have suggested. Nevertheless 391.org has explored many of the same areas that the original Dadaists did, such as (very briefly) the manifesto form, the role of chance in art, collaboration and synthesis across the arts and the notion of a ‘cabaret’.
As well as a magazine of sorts, 391.org is also an artist network, an online meeting place for artists/writers interested in Dada and other early 20th century avant-garde movements. As a result I have ended up collaborating with many individuals and groups of artists and writers through the site, normally online, though from time to time in real life too. The results are always happily unpredictable, and Urbanalities was no exception. It was published on 31st January 2006 as 391.org issue 38, and was a virtual collaboration between myself and the Spanish-born artist Maria Colino (Escha). In fact this was our third major collaboration, after the A-Z collection of multimedia poetry for kids, Animalamina in 2003 and 391.org issue 34: Dadaventuras in 2004.
We described Urbanalities on 391.org as ‘an urban short story-poem-animated comic-musical ‘: partly tongue-in-cheek, but also fairly accurate. The ‘story’ is very loosely about one young woman’s day in a modern (unnamed) city. The poem – or more accurately collection of poems, if you choose to see them as poems at all – tell the story with varying amounts of text, images, and sound.
Also mentioned on the info page is that Urbanalities was a “versus” collaboration, rather than an “and” collaboration, because it is a series of antagonistic remixes of each other’s work, rather than a jointly conceived creation. In practice this meant that we trusted each other to do whatever we wanted to each other’s media, and there was almost no feedback or discussion process – a very unusual way to collaborate, for me at least, but it worked because our previous collaborations meant we knew each other’s working methods and preferences very well. However I do have to take more responsibility for the end result, good or bad, simply because I was the person putting it together in Flash, and so always had the final say: for example, the decision of the final scene ordering is obviously a great influence on the overall ‘story’, and that’s just one of many decisions I rather autocratically made (with Escha’s permission).
The creation process was very playful though, and started without any fixed end in mind. The individual scenes were originally created without any reference to each other or an ongoing theme, and as such the ‘story’ only emerged at the end of the process. I think there are positives and negatives to this method of creating narratives: on the plus side, it allows a story or theme to emerge more organically from the material, and from free play and experimentation. Against that, it means some scenes might inevitably be more ‘squeezed’ into the narrative than they might have been if a narrative had been planned from the start. But on the other hand the looseness of the narrative might be a good thing, if it permits more space for the reader to interpolate their own meanings; and the supposed positive of an organically-emerging narrative might be a negative if the end result isn’t ultimately satisfying in some way.
Urbanalities is specifically non-interactive, and takes the same time (approximately ten minutes) to view each time. The non-interactivity was partly a reaction against the previous 391.org issue (37 – Zinhar), which requires a lot of effort on the part of the reader/viewer/player to traverse, uncover and read. I certainly don’t have anything against “non-trivial effort” (Aarseth) – Zinhar is a ‘game’, even if it is a rather strange electronic poetry-game. But sometimes it is simply more pleasurable – and impactful – to sit back and not have to ‘do’ anything, other than watch and read, and that was the intention with Urbanalities.
Apart from the use of multimedia elements, what makes this particularly ‘electronic literature’ is that some of the imagery and all of the texts are randomly generated (from sets of possible alternatives), so the reader will never see _exactly_ the same story twice. This incorporates a little of the Dada notion of ‘chance’ mentioned earlier, and suggests that if the piece was shown on video rather than on a computer it would notionally lose something, despite their identical appearance to the first-time reader. In theory it also means that a second (third etc.) view of the piece might generate particularly striking phrases or visuals within a scene that hadn’t been seen before; it might be subjectively ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than previous readings.
A quick note on the general aesthetic of the piece. The limited black/white/red/blue colour scheme is a nod to Constructivism, a Russian art movement that overlapped with Dada, chronologically and to some degree artistically. The co-founder of 391.org was particularly interested in Constructivism, so this was also a nod to him, whether he was aware of it or not! In fact, the Constructivists didn’t tend to do blue: its use here is mainly because black/white/red on its own tends to get a bit tedious (in my opinion… though looking at the main 391.org site might cut that argument short). Within those colour confines the look of each scene varies fairly wildly, which is a consequence of the scattergun collaboration method.
I’m going to finish with some very short notes about each scene. These are very unformed, and should be seen as possible pointers or questions rather than any attempt to be conclusive about what each (or the whole piece) is really about. I don’t generally like to say what a piece of work is ‘about’, partly because my own interpretations tend to change over time, but primarily because this ignores the very valuable and interesting responses and interpretations of the reader.
1. Title/Intro: Constructivist 391.org logo, laughably self-important (filmic?) ‘ident’.
2. ‘City’: Strongly synchronised visuals and sound; consciously Saul Bass aesthetic. “A River Runs Through It”. Often too fast to absorb, like the city; visual/textual kinetics; ‘choreography’.
3. ‘River’: White water, red blood? The Beltway snipers. Contrast of style and content.
4. ‘Busy Day’: Clock-face(s); second-hand synchronisation; Foucault’s analysis of the social power structure behind clocks in ‘Discipline and Punish’.
5. ‘Dance’: Transition removes the clock numbers – timeless? Wordless. Human vs or as animal; human tradition, emotion; choreography again.
6. ‘Red light’ – Stop signal on the traffic light and the sex district. Coordinates = Amsterdam. Words obscured behind even more obscured (human) shapes and shadows. Possibly the least successful scene to me, but then perhaps that’s actually a good thing?
7. ‘Bar’: basic comic book format; gender/sex; observing and being observed; relationships.
8. ‘Sex/Conception’: the many reasons to abstain? But the basic urge / life-force / biology persists. Race/colour.
9. ‘Chicken/Egg’: Wordless, single simple concept, but maybe my favourite scene – also maybe the most Dada.
10. Credits/Outro – Dada, and Dadada.