There is a problem that “we no longer have the ability to take in and interpret the mass of information presented to us” (Rokeby 133). Nielsen ratings reveal that “56 seconds is the average time an American spends looking at a Web page” (Carr W2). That’s not much time to spend on a webpage to really understand it. At the point of interaction on a webpage, there is too much information that the viewer is overwhelmed and doesn’t read an entire article. Viewers skim web pages in an “F” pattern. They read across the top, down the left and a bit in the middle to really only take in the headlines and photos. It seems that any poetics of interface on a webpage have failed viewers if they want to dive deeper into the meaning behind the text.
Is it possible to have proper poetics of interactivity in this age of informational overload? Hopefully it is possible, because we have a need for narrative. According to seminal studies such as Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, it “does not seem at all exaggerated to view humans as narrative animals... the tellers and interpreters of narrative” (Ricoeur 26). We have an inherent need to create a narrative that will make meaning out of the informational flux of the digital world.
Therefore, viewers are “desperate for filters. Viewers welcome anything that will simplify their media-amplified reality” (Rokeby 133). Whether these filters or interfaces are good or not is debatable, but people take in digital information through a variety of ways, from surfing a favorite website, to reading a novel on a Kindle, to watching an iTunes movie. The way people
access information has changed so much that it has made how people view movies, for instance, more numerous and accessible. Overwhelmed with the amount of information available, people may even be overwhelmed with the amount of movies to watch, and so people seek Netflix or TiVo to guide their tastes, to sate their frustrations.
Along side this frustration, art in the form of storytelling has suffered as well. It seems that new media, reliant on digital technology and the non-linear database structure is in conflict with the linear narrative. How can storytelling, survive in the world of new media where limited attention spans and the click and skim culture of database structure over power good storytelling? By taking a look at how three specific forms of storytelling engage the audience, I hope to discover the art of the poetics of interface. When I as a media artist take into account the unique view of my audience and have established an appropriate relationship, I am taking into account the poetics of interface. This is important for the success of a work.
To discuss the poetics of interface, I will use the framework of the implied author, the cinematic narrator, and the audience discussed in the chapter entitled “The Cinematic Narrator” from Seymour Chatman’s book Coming to Terms.
Though I will not discuss my own work, I will explore storytelling techniques in the three filters of new media, narrative, and visual anthropology that will help develop my own interactive poetics for my storytelling project. By taking a look at the narrative film Twenty Bucks, the interactive film Late Fragment, and how documentary Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time handle storytelling, I hope to call to attention the interactive poetics the creators use for these varying works.
First, it is important to explore the device that Chatman describes as the narrator, or more specifically the cinematic narrator. It is an often misunderstood term when thinking of interactive poetics. Unless it’s a recorded human voice over, due to familiar Hollywood conventions, “in watching films, we [the audience] are seldom aware of being told something by an entity resembling a human being… narration is better understood as the organization of a set of cues for the construction of a story” (Chatman 126). When Chatman writes of a narrator, he doesn’t mean a telling monologue, but of a point of view from which the story is shown. Films are “always presented – mostly and often exclusively shown, but sometimes partially told by a narrator or
narrators. The overall agent that does the showing [he] would call the ‘cinematic narrator’” (Chatman 133). This cinematic narrator need not be human, but a composite of “a large and complex variety of communicating devices” (Chatman 134). If you take an example from Chatman’s diagram, (Chatman 135) a cinematic narrator could be the type of editing used in postproduction. Chatman’s diagram of types of cinematic narrators.
Whether the work’s images are straight cut, have fades, are intercut with other images, or have jump cuts, all of these types of editing somewhat skew the point of view of how the story is shown. Something intercut could create juxtapositions with images and whole story lines themselves. If jump cut, something serious could be constructed as funny. Audience members know the cinematic codes and interact by making their own interpretations. The composite of all the cinematic narrators, from lighting to music, “is achieved by the semiotic processing performed by the audience” (Chatman 135). This is how the poetics of interactivity for the audience work in regards to the cinematic narrator.
Even though the cinematic narrator need not be human, that doesn’t mean there isn’t the warmth of a human touch. Chatman writes on that it’s not exactly the audience that constructs the story, but the implied author. Chatman defines that the function of the “implied author is to invent the
narrative, both discourse and story” (Chatman 130). This person is usually called the filmmaker, director, auteur, or creator of the film. By means of semiotic processing, the audience reconstructs (not constructs) what the implied author of the film constructed by balancing the cinematic narratives (Chatman 135). The implied author, having a vision of the world, attempts to
construct his own world by balancing cinematic narratives with a human touch.
“Data may be perceived second hand by an audience,”(Chatman 138) but Chatman suggests that the audience’s perception and reconstruction of this world is interactive with the narrative. To a degree, as artist and theorist Marcel Duchamp described, “the spectator makes the picture” (qtv.in Judovitz 187). And there, at this point of interaction with the audience, we have the
balancing act of interface poetics the implied author must consider. The degree the audience interacts to “make the picture” varies with how ambiguous the implied author’s balancing act is.
For example, in the linear fictional movie Twenty Bucks, 1993, the connections between the characters are obviously contrived by the implied author’s placement of the twenty-dollar
bill all the characters come in contact with. It is transparent to the audience that the twenty-dollar bill is a clever plot device, but the audience is willing to suspend their disbelief that the bill could come into contact with so many people in such a short amount of time to enjoy the story.
According to Brenda Laurel’s book Computers as Theatre, for viewers to become engaged in a movie, they must have a willing suspension of disbelief, a concept introduced by the early 19th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is the state of mind that we must attain in order to enjoy a representation of an action. Coleridge believed that “any idiot could see that a play on stage [or in this case flickering images on a wall or displayed on a monitor] was not real life” (Laurel 113). She goes on to write that, “pretending that the action is real affords us the thrill of fear; knowing that the action is pretend saves us from the pain of fear” (Laurel 113).
According to Laurel, if people are willing to overlook the contrived plot device in Twenty Bucks, people will be easily engaged in the film. However, people may not be easily be engaged in a film where more effort must be exerted to enjoy a film. How much effort is a viewer willing to exert to watch a film? What if it is a new media work where more effort is required just to unravel the story? Let’s take a look at ways new media can tear down these barriers so the audience is more willing to interact.
Itsuo Sakane, the Japanese journalist and curator, suggests that “interactive art is simply art that involves the participation of the viewer” (Rokeby 134). Therefore, it would seem that the cinema is truly an interactive art form because the viewer is in some degree participating in how to perceive the cinematic narratives. Compared to Chatman though, David Rokeby stresses that “interactive art works (in new media) do more to actively blur the line between the artist (Chatman’s implied author) and the audience. The audience becomes creator in a medium invented by the artist”(Rokeby 143). That medium would be the database. Motion picture production companies are starting to address the audience’s need to become more immersed in the story by creating multimedia movies. For instance, the interactive film Late Fragment, 2008, on DVD addresses immersion.
For the audience to become creator, the interactive artist (implied author) may “have acted in anticipation of the spectator’s interpretations by combining elements into the world so that their significance is transformed by the shifting perceptions of the viewer”(Rokeby 135). In database form, the interactive artist can play with a variety of structures to do this. Instead of just having a single serial path of a narrative and the cinematic narratives that a filmmaker might use, the interactive artist can chose a highly interconnected network to structure information. The interactive artist of Late Fragment structures it to keep the narrative in mind, but the curiosity and needs of the audience are remembered as well. The interactive artist puts into the hands of
the viewer the freedom to “make his or her own path through the possibilities presented”(Rokeby 140). And so, the viewer becomes an artist himself.
The degree to which the viewer becomes a controlling artist varies. Such technologies as video games give the player a strong sense of power, but the player can’t for instance fly off the predestined flight simulator course. The player can’t navigate into territory not already programmed or invented. And so, the original creator of the work gives only an illusion of power to the player. “Interaction is about encounter rather than control” (Rokeby 148). Where as the implied author balances cinematic narratives, interactive artists balance control and surprise to suit their “interactive aesthetic” (Rokeby 150). Instead of using a degree of ambiguousness as an implied author would to enable the viewer to interact and discover the true meaning of the world, the interactive artists sets forth controls whose limits allow the player to discover
the interactive artist’s vision.
For example, in the interactive film Late Fragment, the interactive artist of this work is overt in trying to give a lot of control of the movie directly to the audience. At least having the perception of power is what the interactive artist would like the audience to feel. Before entering the world of Late Fragment the audience is given instructions on how to interact with the film. One of the characters instructs to simply push “enter” on the remote control if the viewer wants to follow a particular character they are seeing on the screen. Viewers can discover more about the character by pushing “enter” and the movie will follow that character’s story line. If another character interests viewers as the plot unfolds, they should push “enter” when they see that new character, and the plot will follow that character.
The first few shots of the movie always show a woman shaking like a leaf. With the slow pulling back of the camera, there is a shaking arm outstretched. With more pulling back of the camera, the arm is attached to a shaking pistol, which is pointing at the woman’s sleeping boyfriend. The
camera studies the woman’s trembling features: her eyes, her lips. There is a gun shot and the camera studies her reflective silver broach where viewers can see her shot boyfriend struggling for breath. As soon as the full camera shot of the boyfriend spitting up blood was revealed, I click “enter” and a series of flashback camera shots are shown of the boyfriend having a fabulous time with this loving girlfriend. I immediately wanted to know how did it get to the point in their relationship that she wanted to shoot him?
If viewers don’t push “enter,” the plot continues and scenes sometimes start looping. By pushing “enter” every time I saw a new character on the screen, the movie, to me, seemed disjointed a bit in immediate connectedness to action, but revealing in back story. It did make me want to know more about what was going to happen, or what did happen to these characters. After pushing “enter” on what looked like every character, I got to a scene in the movie, where all the characters were together and a lot of important information was revealed about the relationship between all of them. The disjointed feeling was solved and I found out that all these characters in the movie are either victims or victimizers of violent acts and are coming together in a therapy session in a prison to talk about their stories without being judged. In Late Fragment the soundtrack, a thin chain of pictures seen after pushing “enter” and their subtle implied relations due to what is edited by the audience are the only cinematic narratives that pull the implied author’s vision of the world together. Since there is a limited balance of cinematic narratives and they are sometimes ambiguous, the audience has to participate more to figure out the meaning of the world presented. This interactive film is not as structured with a typical Aristotelian plot line or as filled with cinematic narratives as a Hollywood film might be. The more information the implied
author codes into cinematic convention, the audience doesn’t have to interact as much to understand the meaning of the world presented.
In contrast to the fictional plot line of Twenty Bucks or Late Fragment where we have to suspend our disbelief, Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, 2002, handles interactive poetics quite differently. The audience has to interact with the movie insofar, that they have to pay attention. The slow pace of the film and the quiet way Goldsworthy goes about the landscape to create his art can be quite a lot to get used to compare to that of a Hollywood action film that demands an audience’s attention.
Several reviewers on IMDb.com, an Internet movie database where viewers can comment on movies, commented that they found the movie boring. One commenter wrote, “I admit that for the first twenty minutes or so of this film I wasn't entirely sure I was going to sit through the whole thing. Like many other people, I found it pretty boring, and I wasn't entirely looking
forward to an hour and a half of watching this guy bite icicles and stick them together” (“Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (2001) - IMDb user reviews”). In Rivers and Tides, you have to obviously give your attention willingly. The most overt thing that grabs your attention is the grand cinematography of the breathtaking landscape as we see Goldsworthy’s lone figure working with a precarious art piece.
Viewers feel suspense in the movie. They feel Goldsworthy’s race against time as the tide comes in to cover his work area and sculpture he tries to complete. Viewers feel suspense as the temperature rises as the sun comes up to melt his ice sculpture. But filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer chooses with his cinematic narrators to keep the pace of the film the same throughout. Viewers don’t feel the suspense due to an increase in the editing pace, or the
speed at which the camera moves across the landscape. Those things remain slowly and deliberately the same.
There is Riedelsheimer’s deliberate choice to keep Goldsworthy’s narration telling the viewer that he is feeling the pressure of the natural elements. As the camera intently watches him, viewers see Goldsworthy’s frustration as he starts over on a rock sculpture on the beach for the fourth
time. His last attempt at the sculpture is a success. Viewers watch him put the last few stones on top to finish his sculpture, and then step back to admire it only moments before the sea swallows it. As he watches his sculpture disappear under the waves, Goldsworthy comments, “I feel I am down there with it.” This is more telling than any fancy editing or camera work Riedelsheimer could have done with cinematic narrators.
This movie is about watching Goldsworthy work and listening to him talk about his work. If people have no interest in Goldsworthy as an artist, this film may be painful to watch. But this movie is not intended for that audience. It is intended for the interested and Riedelsheimer wanted to simply share a feeling the artist had about his art in the landscape, rather than the movie being some sort of informational documentary about the artist. Rivers and Tides is
successful insofar that an interested audience will find a wealth of profound commentary by Goldsworthy and be able to take what they want from it.
Success of a work depends on the success of interactive poetics. Success depends on the relationship with the audience which the interactive artist or implied author balances and anticipates. The implied author of the cinema creates a relationship with the audience insofar that the audience picks up the cues that give meaning to the implied author’s world. In order for the audience members, with their own visions, to cue in on implied authors’ own vision of the world, implied authors must construct their medium to present their world clear enough, yet ambiguous enough to encourage interactivity. In new media, interactive artists create relationships with unfinished works. Perhaps, in the future the audience’s satisfaction with their relationship will determine the completeness of the piece. Still, the interactive artists, having a vision of their
own worlds, leave structure interfaces that act as the controlling auteur's fingerprints would. Strategically leaving fingerprints, the implied author/interactive artist allows the viewer to have a relationship with a humanistic world different than a world a viewer would imagine himself or that would be coldly constructed by a Hollywood plot device, new media algorithm, or by surfing the shallows of Internet web pages.
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