DIGITAL SPECULATIONS 1
Author: BHARAT DAVE
FACULTY OF ARCHITECTURE BUILDING AND PLANNING
THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA
The advent of interactive digital media poses opportunities and issues that cannot be explored or analyzed using traditional canons of artistic production or aesthetic experiences. The digital media implicate techniques, tools, authors, and audiences in a complex web of production and appreciation of art works. As a result, most work in digital media remains speculative in nature, offering only partial glimpses of this new creative landscape. This paper describes selected projects that served as vehicles for critical investigation of interactive digital media and their potential for exploring different ways in which experiences can be imagined, constructed, and communicated.
multimedia, interactivity, narrative, discourse, design
Interactive digital multimedia projects implicate techniques, tools, authors and audiences in ways that are hard to disentangle and discuss in isolation. The closest expressive form to what multimedia technologies have to offer may be the Wagnerian *gesamtkunstwerk* 2 or the symbolic theatre projects of Ervin Piscator and Meyerhold in which boundaries between performers and audiences were erased. When sounds and images freely criss-cross the boundary between discrete and continuous states, when temporal or spatial representations can be fractured and recombined at will, and when authorial intentions get subsumed under the interactive control of audiences, traditional canons of artistic production, appreciation and criticism may not be adequate 3. Navigating without shared signposts in digital media landscape, each step is a tentative speculation into the realm of possibilities. And it is precisely for that reason a reflective record of work assumes all the more importance.
To explore the possibilities and pedagogic questions opened up by interactive digital media we have undertaken a number of experimental projects in the last few years. The projects described in the following sought to bring together realms of architectural design, computer modeling, and visualization. The underlying purpose was to challenge the traditional spatial representations in architecture and investigate different ways in which spaces can be imagined, constructed, communicated and felt.
Traditionally architectural compositions have been conceived through a multitude of media and representations: sketches, diagrams, planar and perspective projections, analog models, collages, etc. While the use of such media and representations has informed different traditions of spatial thinking, we also come across works that break free of accepted traditions and continuities of _expression 4. For example, Giambattista Piranesi, an Italian draftsman drew not only the existing ruins of Rome but turned them into fantastic, visionary spaces populated with fragments of disparate elements from many archaeological sites. Piranesi's imaginary collages are the hallmarks of spatial displacements. A different kind of conceptual break from traditions is witnessed in projects of the mathematician Iannis Xenakis 5 who sought to translate musical harmonies into spatial configurations. In fact, this line of investigation combining sound and space has been a recurrent theme in architecture ranging from the Greek concepts of proportion to the 20th century works of Le Corbusier. The most drastic change in architecture in pedagogical terms occurred early in the 20th century with the establishment of Bauhaus and its curriculum. In the face of industrialized means of production and new materials, the new design curriculum called for experimental projects using new materials and techniques that resulted in a new aesthetic.
With the introduction of digital media, we are faced with new opportunities to (re)question the nature of creative design, how it is conceptualized and representations that fluctuate between discrete and continuous states 6. The following describes some opportunities we have explored in the use of interactive digital media to imagine xperiences ranging from abstract to spatially concrete.
Primarily our projects revolve around using either literary references or computational procedures for narrating a concept or experience. The former projects are aimed at evoking a sense of place based on some literary reference- a poem, travelogue, memoir, song or prose. The motivation in these projects was to explore ways in which linear, textual narrative can be expressed using non-textual and non-linear representations and interactivity. An additional goal of these projects was going beyond literal translation of words to evoking the experiences conveyed in the original source.
In one project, the verses of a popular song (*Stairway to Heaven* by Led Zeppelin) provided the starting point. However, upon further exploration words took on new and different associations appropriate to the media. The stairway became not a path connecting levels separated in vertical dimension but a path of metaphorical journey through a landscape littered with memories. A landscape that is smooth and rough at the same time, and in which the cracks open up over which one steps moving towards a climactic moment. This project was conceived and rendered as a linear narrative in which visuals, backgroundaudio and motion come together to communicate what wasoriginally represented in lyrics.
In another project (based on description of the Walled City by William Gibson), the linear narrative was replaced with non-linear unfolding. Moving through constricted spaces bounded by reflections of signs and spaces (Figure 1), there is a sense of being trapped within a walled environment. The boundaries are permeable though never completely opaque or completely transparent. Although there is directional movement between nodes, the nodes themselves can be traversed in any order. There are spaces of congestion and spaces of solitude, spaces for watching and being watched, complemented with visuals and background music that signify different transitions and moods.
Figure 1. Walled City: Idoru (Andrew Hayne) 7
The non-linear narratives were explored further in the third project (based on the City, a short story by Ray Bradbury). It is inviting yet forcefully empty and desolate. The scale of spaces and textures of surfaces generate a sense of wistfulness, a kind of place that may be deserted after a catastrophic accident (Figure 2). There are shadows lurking and machines at work behind facades. The labyrinthine environment appears to invite and then trap the visitor as every fork in the path offers a different orientation to the spaces than what was encountered before. The eye moves at a non-uniform pace - sometimes slow, at other times flying, occasionally squeezing past narrow passages and under menacing archways and doors.
Figure 2. The City: Illustrated Man (Cameron Lacy)
In other projects, instead of literary references we drew upon abstract concepts that were to be expressed through computable procedures. One such project revolved around the notion of *rhythm* - how does one explain what is rhythm as a visual or aural experience using digital media instead of a linear definition put in words? The project resulted in an interactive composition in which space, color, shapes, temporal sequence and audio notes constitute the elements through which the concept of rhythm is illustrated.
Similarly in the next project, the concept of *entropy* was explored. Entropy can be thought of as a measure of how close (or far) a system is to equilibrium and disorder. The system may begin at a zero level of entropy (totally stable) and increase in entropy as the user interacts. The user interaction with various elements increases or decreases the entropy in the system, which affects other elements in composition. The state of an element (its color, shape, sound, form) is affected by and affects the level of entropy of the system.
The final project described here is shaped by diverse beginnings (Figure 3). Different elements in the project make references to different sources such as the Australian outback, the tracks of the emus and kangaroos, the paddy fields of South East Asia, the weaves and wafts of carpets and tracks made through their fibres by those who trod upon it or scurry among that fibrous surface. At a later point, these references coalesced into the worlds of critters, flighty yet seductive, and how they draw the reader into their flat yet playful world of hide and seek.
Figure 3. Desert Swamp (Gemma Cooke)
In the last three projects described above, the worlds being explored become increasingly unpredictable, dependent on the user interaction for their coming into being in the first place, and then engaging the user into an ongoing dialogue for their subsequent development. These are procedural 8, non- determinate worlds that contain only a code of possibilities at the start, never a singular form right from the beginning.
The interactive projects described above are part of a series of digital speculations developed by those students of architecture with a keen sense of spatial imagination. The projects were developed as part of an advanced workshop in interactive digital multimedia, in a finite amount of time. While the projects can be appreciated purely as standalone objects, it is worth recounting and reflecting on the process that led to their development.
The increasing adoption of digital media in design education leads to subtle changes in design objectives, means, and outcomes in that process. Such changes are due to the peculiar nature of digital representations and operations that allow us to manipulate representations. With only a few decades of collective developments and experiences in digitally supported design education, it is not surprising that we still frame and reflect on these changes in a provisional fashion only.
The rapid pace of developments in digital technologies and new experimentation they afford in design conception engender a context in which provisional explorations take the place of sustained theoretical reflections. We are too intimately close to evolving digital technologies and that makes it difficult to select vantage points from which to better articulate development of a new expressive and communicative medium and to understand its ramifications. In such a climate, design educators stand on shifting grounds. Caught among design discourse, development of new digital tools, and cultivating design sensibilities among students, design educators have responded with different pedagogic frameworks to incorporate digital media in design education.
In our case, we explore both pedagogic and critical issues with digital media in a design workshop offered as an elective subject in the design curriculum. The workshop is aimed at developing a critical understanding of interactive digital media and their potential for imaginative design explorations. It revolves around structured thematic discussions that become more concrete in the form of three speculative projects. The speculations are structured so that students, on the one hand, get exposed to new possibilities for design exploration and learn to develop a critical and reflective attitude. On the other hand, students also learn to explore and use new media authoring tools. The content of speculations is consciously designed not to faithfully build or rely upon traditional architectural or spatial expressions. In fact, students are encouraged to reassess their pre-conceived notions by way of being critical and reflective in all the speculations.
*Critical analysis* requires students to critically analyze and review an interactive project sourced from the literature, exhibitions and installations. The student reviews focus on both the content and form of the original interactive project. The reviews analyze and reflect the efficacy of media types, their structure and presentation in the interactive project. In a sense, this speculation exposes students to a palette of interactive media elements from which they can draw upon in subsequent speculations.
*Experimental project* is concerned with exercising the vocabulary of interactive media elements (i.e., what students have extracted in the preceding critical analysis phase) through a selected theme. Over the years, some of the themes explored in this project have ranged from representation of tangible and ephemeral places (e.g. war memorial, train station) to abstract concepts like rhythm, contrast, pattern, proportion, symmetry, etc. The emphasis of this speculation is on evocation of a selected context or abstract concept and not literal replication of traditional representations. In other words, students are encouraged to express a selected place or concept using interactive media in ways that cannot be done or may be difficult to do using traditional media and representations.
*Creative _expression* offers an opportunity for students to bring their creative imagination and technical competence together in the form of a major interactive project. Students are asked to select a 'text' as a reference (e.g. The Walled City by Gibson, color music) and render it as an interactive multimedia project. The emphasis of this speculative project is on expressing interpretive dimensions of the theme and not on simply reconstructing or reproducing the original text into another form.
As witnessed in the projects over the years, the pedagogic structure of this elective has served its original purpose of providing an experimental context to explore interactive digital multimedia. At the same time, we are acutely aware of a number of critical issues that remain to be properly addressed. The following are three major concerns especially in pedagogic settings.
*Framing objectives* is essential to ensure that the work produced is not just a consequence of accidental choices. It is especially important when students are learning to master the skills in the use of digital media while also discovering their expressive potential. In this respect it may be useful to have a high-level statement of what the work aims to accomplish (before the seduction of media takes over) and which can be used as a measure or reflective mirror against which subsequent media choices can be evaluated.
*Challenging conventions* needs to be framed as one of the prime objectives while using new media so that leads to better appreciation of even traditional media and concepts that we normally take for granted. This is not easy or self-evident and requires conscious effort. Just as it took a while to conceptualize temporal shifts in cinema (e.g., flashback in which temporal sequences are disrupted or multiple viewpoints through which one sees parallel events unfolding), it requires special effort to design around shifting space and time 9, around elements that may at one moment be corporeal and at another moment ephemeral, when sound turns into material, or material turns into light.
*Judging interactive media works* produced by students is all the more difficult because of a number of overlapping and often external factors. Sometimes the technology gets in the way of the best of works (e.g. when real-time refresh turns into a slow- motion parody). At other times, the open-ended interaction results in more noise than signal. To what should we hold the authors accountable rather than the audiences in such cases? How shall we know that the work actually advances experiential propositions rather than simply delivering stupefying visual or aural sublime that overwhelms the senses?
The questions posed above are intentionally rhetorical at one level but at another they are pragmatic concerns for those of us who teach the use of interactive multimedia in any discipline. They become all the more critical if we are to impart skills not only in the use of media but also a discerning and critical attitude about what the use of such media can afford.
The advent of interactive digital media poses opportunities and issues that cannot be explored or analyzed using traditional canons of artistic production or aesthetic experiences. Unlike the traditional artistic practices that can be understood in terms of, to borrow Goodman's terms, autographic or allographic notations and performances, the new media implicate techniques, tools, authors, audiences in a complex web of production and appreciation of art works. As a result, most work in digital media remains speculative in nature, offering only partial
glimpses of this new landscape. This paper described selected projects aimed at developing a critical understanding of interactive digital media and their potential for imaginative design explorations to investigate different ways in which spaces can be imagined, constructed, communicated and felt. What we sorely need are conceptual terms and reflective accounts in production and appreciation of such works through which a shared discourse in interactive media works can evolve in future.
The work of students who participated in the Digital Speculations elective is gratefully acknowledged.
Associate Professor Bharat Dave teaches and conducts research in computational design in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, The University of Melbourne, Australia. He studied architecture in India, followed by postgraduate studies, research and teaching in the USA, Switzerland and Australia. His
recent research projects include virtual design studios, computational support for multiple representations, interactive
multimedia technologies for virtual heritage applications, and crossovers between digital and physical environments. He also serves as the Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty and supervises a number of masters and Ph.D research students.
1Article published in LEA (Leonardo Electronic Almanac) http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/LEA/LEA2004/ez.features.htm
2 R. Parker and K. Jordan (eds.), *Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality* (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001).
3 L. Manovich, *The Language of New Media* (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
4 C. THOMSEN, *VISIONARY ARCHITECTURE FROM BABYLON TO VIRTUAL REALITY* (MUNICH: PRESTEL, 1994).
5 I. XENAKIS, *MUSIC ARCHITECTURE* (NEW YORK: PENDRAGON, 1996).
6 B. DAVE, "PIXEL POINTS" IN *CAAD TALKS 3: DIGITAL DESIGN EDUCATION,* MAO-LIN CHIU (ED.), TAIPEI: GARDEN CITY PUBLISHING LTD., PP. 96-113 (2002).
7 * images accompanying this article can be seen at the lea website http://lea.mit.edu/
8 J. MURRAY, *HAMLET ON THE HOLODECK* (NEW YORK: FREE PRESS, 1997).
9 H. Zettl, *Sight, sound, motion applied media aesthetics*(Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1990).