E-LIT Forum: Guest Blogger #2
I was drawn to electronic media through exposure to postmodern literature and performance art in the 1990s. Having some experience in stage acting and theater set design, I developed an interest in multimedia performance and installation that ran parallel with my interest in the relationship between code and text. I created a series of visual poetic fragments that I used in various installation configurations, sometimes with mirrors or translucent materials inserted between projections to multiply and mix the images.
After experimenting with different authoring tools for video installations and live visual performance, I decided to focus on Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash back when it was still primarily animation software. From there I began to explore interface design and programming, as Flash grew into a full-featured development platform for web and desktop applications. I launched a business designing and building multimedia with a college friend, which continues to this day.
Sometime in 1997 I met a talented and forward-thinking painter from Tokyo, Seiji Ueoka, via an online community of (primarily traditional) artists he had started, called “Renaissance 2001”. We collaborated on many digital group exhibitions over the next few years, which culminated in an event/installation project he called “eARTh”: participants created small paper artworks with supplied materials. We would then take digital photographs of each one, upload them to the web site where our community of over 300 artists in 80 countries could download them, modify them and send them back to the system. The original and transformed images were projected on a large screen at the event and displayed on the web site. It was immensely rewarding to create a virtual venue for the spontaneous visual exchange between strangers.
In 2001, I met beatbox performer Yuri Lane and embarked on an ongoing collaboration, providing live multimedia visuals for his performances which respond to the sounds he creates on stage. I chose to use Flash to develop the system, since I wanted to create some very specific effects that weren’t possible with existing VJ software. To reflect the dynamic nature of Yuri’s beatbox performance (in which each character or scene has a unique rhythm, and the beats are interspersed with dialogue) I designed random variables into the heart of the software, and added a toggle control between audio-triggered and keyboard-triggered events.
The experience of drafting dynamic, performance-based, partly-randomized multimedia systems informed the fundamental structure of Like Stars in a Clear Night Sky. As with most of my commercial projects, Like Stars uses xml-formatted data, decoupling the content and the interface which, among other things, allows the number of stories to grow and the content to be modified infinitely. The stars are sized and placed randomly on each visit, leaving the user to explore the screen and reveal stories as though scanning the night sky.
Perched in the western Sierra Nevada mountains, I gazed at a sky overflowing with stars. The longer I looked, the more stars appeared, slowly filling in what had seemed to be empty space. It occurred to me that there were nearly as many stories in my family as stars in the sky, and I heard a taunting voice daring me to pick one and follow it to its essence. The parallels between family and universe played in my mind, and the stories that followed strike me now as my most intensely personal work.
I recall being inspired by a narrative voice that was at once myself and much larger than myself, and wanting to represent that clearly in the piece. That idea led me to record the introduction in Arabic and treat it with English subtitles, as though these stories have crossed borders, becoming timeless and universal by virtue of the journey. It was that voice which drove everything really, from the choice of words to the design of the interface, which I strove to make as minimal as possible and to avoid allegiance to a particular style.
As I worked on the piece, I was reminded of an artifact discussed in Gavin Menzies book 1421; it was a sailor’s medallion, inscribed with rhymed verses in Arabic articulating which stars led to which ports. When I read that, I had the thought that if I could create something as practical and beautiful, I might, as Borges would say, be “justified”. I suppose this piece is a humble attempt at that vague goal.