Fear and Loathing at the UCLA Hammer Museum

April 22-23 I attended Narr@tive: Digital Storytelling, a UC Digital Cultures Graduate Conference at the UCLA Hammer Museum. Everyone was so nice. Too nice. Too damn nice.
The University of California system has a solid graduate program and provides excellent resources for cross-campus events. By excellent resources I mean that they are exceedingly generous in picking up the tab when the conference heads en masse to the local pub.
The organizers were likewise generous with their time, in that they spread out 19 presentations, two keynotes, and one roundtable over two days. (Two days on chairs I wouldn’t put in even the most despised Sim household. This chair provides: comfort 0.) Two days which could have accommodated another dozen presentations, the addition of which would perhaps have offered some high points to an otherwise middling assembly.
There are two ways to design a conference: leave everyone yearning for more, so that they furiously exchange business cards before catching a taxi to the airport, or give everyone a solid 20-30 minutes so they can practice their public speaking skills. If you choose the latter design, a good way to spice things up is to run concurrent sessions, so that attendees are forced to choose between “Diegetics and the Other: Uncovering Narrative in Hypermedia” and “Narrative and the Other: Dude, where’s my diegetic?” But that didn’t happen here. As I said, everything was nice.

ii. Day 1
I missed the first keynote by Katherine Hayles and the first session (Re:write: Literature and Art). But hey, four fewer hours in a rented chair is nothing to laugh at. As such, I missed the exposition, the rising action, the opening credits, the first act, &c. I hear there were references to fabula / syuzhet, McLuhan, Oulipo, and the telephone game. New Media bingo.
Jane McGonigal was scheduled for the 1:30 session, but was not in attendance. Not a problem, since Adriana de Souza e Silva gave a standard presentation of mobile and pervasive gaming, no more and no less than a “Have you heard of…” paper.
Next, a group from the Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Art talked about their recent street theater project. I don’t have anything nice to say about this.
Scott Ruston sketched out some ideas on interactive cinema. I mentioned the Dragon’s Lair Saturday morning cartoon to him during the pause. In the show, Dirk would face a deadly challenge just before a commercial break, and the viewer was asked to choose between a) drawing the sword or b) jumping in the moat. Of course there was nothing interactive about this, it was just an attempt to cash in on the arcade game franchise. I’m not even sure why I brought it up, aside that it seemed like footnote worthy material, much in the same way that Ruston’s scattering of interactive cinema will likewise be material for footnotes in the near future.
After this, the loud and dogmatic D. Scott Hessels shouted about his non-interactive, non-narrative, and non-interesting project he developed for the UCLA Department of Random Stuff Made with Computers. (In the interest of full disclosure, I received my MFA from this program in 1998.) Brakelights is an embodiment of superstition and dishonesty.
The final speakers for the day were Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Montfort distracted the audience by projecting text adventure sessions on the big screen.
Wardrip-Fruin likewise entertained the audience by showing a video of Screen, a CAVE project from Brown University. I am happy to see a virtual reality project that isn’t oriented on texture-shaded geometric forms, but I’m not sure that replacing them with walls of randomly shuffled text is much of an improvement. It was a kind of hypertext thrill-ride. If writers built amusement parks they would all have one of these. To be fair, I don’t think we can build a hypertext Haunted Mansion without building a thousand copies of Mr. Toad’s Wild Hypertext.
iii. themes from Day 1
Theme 1: people reluctant to say something with their work. People shy away from meaning, from having and expressing opinions, opting rather to let the audience “find their own meanings in the work.” Perhaps this is the result of a decade of quiet political correctness in the schools, an overfondness for tolerance, an abhorrence for unquestioned perspective.
I find pervasive gaming guilty of meaninglessness, not by its nature but in its execution. Likewise for street theater that simply asks questions before dumping its audience in a dark alleyway.
Yes, the viewer of a work is going to form their own opinions and make their own meanings no matter what the artist does. That doesn’t exempt the artist from putting meaning into the work. The most inexcusable thing to do is to abstain from the process, to insist that meaning can be found under every rock and then not provide any rocks to look under.
Theme 2: an attempt to bring vague mathematical models into the discourse of new media. We’re no longer talking about branching structures and non-linear stories, there is now an interest in “possibility spaces”. This might a productive move, but only if it includes many of the related notions from, say, topology. I smell a thesis, or at least a short paper.
v. Day 2 – William Gibson accidentally swallows his gum.
One keynote and two speakers this morning. Come on, people, where’s your endurance, your fortitude, your schadenfreude? Loads of free drinks the night before and you start day two at a leisurely 9 o’clock?
I, myself, arrived late for the second day, only catching the tail end of Rita Raley’s keynote addressing, as far as I can tell, William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.
The morning continues with a watery paper that has “database” in the title. Lev Manovich made a brief cameo appearance in the back of the room. Did you know he has his own fan group on Orkut? It’s true.
The “database” paper is a discussion of the No Ghost Just a Shell exhibit from 2002, a show that has tied itself up with legal nonsense and naive intentions. The show oriented on a disposable cartoon character named Annlee, a character who was freely licensed to a group of artists for a few years before being consigned to trademark oblivion. The exciting climax: it is no longer possible to get permission to use the image of Annlee.
Hey, anyone remember William Gibson’s Agrippa? The self-destroying poem that could only be read once, the one that begins
I hesitated
before untying the bow
that bound this book together.
and is now available on Gibson’s website?
The liberation of Annlee from commercial exploitation is a load of wishful thinking.
If anyone has a black market copy of “One Million Kingdoms”, please contact me.
vi. the day continues
I checked out a copy of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night the other day. It is number 28 on the Modern Library list of 20th century novels. Here’s an n-gram:
The car was furious.
What the hell is going on with the English department at the University of Florida? Here we have three PhD candidates talking, sort of, about Resident Evil: Code Veronica. And twins. And Super Mario Brothers. And suddenly I find myself in the “Diegetics and the Other: Uncovering Narrative in Hypermedia” session, realizing I should have gone to “Dude, where’s my diegetic?” instead.
This guy up there, this guy says something like: “The underground theme [in Super Mario Brothers] isn’t really in a key, I don’t think.” The except from the musical score up on the projection screen clearly shows a key signature with two flats. That would be either B flat major or G minor.
But that’s okay, I don’t really expect a grad student from an English department to have much music training. I also don’t expect them to have particularly profound things to say about Resident Evil: Code Veronica, but that’s because I have this image in my mind of a stereotypical English student, and he’s reading a book, not mashing buttons on a PS2.
The only interesting nugget in this hour was a glimpse at a Resident Evil concordance being developed by Laurie Taylor. Otherwise it was like a… a… graduate seminar of English majors.
Georgia Tech: Never stand in front of the projection screen when giving at talk, even if it means standing closer to or behind your co-presenters.
ix. Hypertext readings, sponsored by the Electronic Literature Organization
Hypertext suffers as a performance event, not because of some inherent conflict between live performance and the text but because few hypertext works are constructed with the idea of performance in mind. This is one of those foundational chasms that is responsible for film theory versus literary theory — film presents narrative over time, literature presents narrative in a field/space. Hypertext is the glorification of that field/space, but live performance requires an ordering of elements, a linear presentation. A hypertext reading must do this, or find some other conception when it involves a live audience.
Mark Marino gave an effective, if ugly, presentation of his piece Stravinsky’s Muse.
Angie Waller “found some stuff about Iraq” and “put it on a website”, and you are supposed to come up with your own meanings. See (iii) above.
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You have scored 125 out of 400 possible points. This ranks you as LAB TECHNICIAN, 4TH CLASS. Keep washing those test tubes and you might just get somewhere.
[Game saved.]

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One Response to “Fear and Loathing at the UCLA Hammer Museum”
  1. Brakelights is an embodiment of superstition and dishonesty…
    Hey Brandon, such a great quote…couldn’t agree more.