Archis 1999 #6, Archis 1999 #6

Verhalende ruimte / Narrativized space

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The classic model of the cinematic experience describes the spectator as an institutionally sanctioned voyeur, who goes to the cinema to witness a fantasy for a mass audience narrativized on screen. Yet within this very public ritual, each spectator is able to play out their own private fantasies (Frederic Jameson goes so far as to say that the cinema is inherently pornographic.)

The American installation artist Grahame Weinbren brings the cinematic and the interactive together by narrativizing space. Usually in collaboration with architect James Cathcart, Weinbren sections off private space from public with structures that resemble cages, pillars or ramps, built out of steel, wood or aluminum. A single viewer interacts with Weinbren’s ‘sea of stories’ via the ramp or a monitor with a touch screen. The public outside the cage or paused beyond the pillar can watch the version of the narrative that his interaction produces, but can’t know what impulses determined his choices.
Jeffrey Shaw, whose works include The Legible City, has criticized attempts at completely immersive VR as an example of Western ‘idolatry of … objective reality separated from the mind that creates it’, because it attempts to reproduce the (at least supposed) seamlessness of reality. Yet what interests both Shaw and Weinbren is what happens at the interstices, how the viewer’s responses form an axis around which the hypertext is written.

How does Weinbren dramatize the interstitial? He begins by selecting a well-known story, like early filmmakers did, such as the Erl-King, Judith and Holofernes, or The Sacrifice of Isaac. The beginning and the end of these stories are not what is important; what matters, rather, is the viewer’s endless exploration of the middle, the liminal or transgressive part of the narrative, which disrupts the stable social balance of the beginning and replaces it with the restoration of social equilibrium of the ending.

Weinbren usually has three videodisc players hidden in the installation structure, each of which plays out a different aspect of the narrative, whether symbolic reinterpretation, exploration of paintings as maps, or a narrator or singer in a traditional retelling. The user can jump back and forth between plot paths at will and slide backwards and forwards in time. However, because ‘things could have been different’, the past the viewer revisits is not the same as the past he experienced.

Weinbren’s installation based on the Erl-King story has a beginning, a middle and an end, determined by the Schubert lied Der Erlkönig which plays almost continuously throughout the experience. With March 2, Weinbren got closer to his ideal of a ‘viewer [who] uses an ineractive work until she is done with it – and not until it is finished with her’. The story revolves around an angel on his way to stop Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. The angel (onscreen) rides a bicycle, and the viewer can interact with him by walking on a ramp.

Sonata is based on Tolstoy’s tale ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’. The story of a man who murders his wife in a jealous rage is blended with the story of Judith and Holofernes. Various paintings of the latter story are explored in the program and serve as maps to the events. In March 2 Weinbren also provided a map in the form of monitors with different images under the ramp to help the viewer decide where to step.

All three installations are designed to be put in public spaces where they arrest the viewer as she passes through and invite her into the private space of the narrative, a narrative that she alone will experience though the result of her interaction can be witnessed by others on the public monitors. The process is analogous to what architect Amos Rapoport has described as an ‘invisible landscape in the head’ which is overlaid on the natural, visible, landscape. According to Rapoport, Australian Aborigines build relatively little – the visible, built environment appears insignificant. Yet they have an extremely rich and complex cognitive environment. Rapoport calls this the ‘choice model of design’ – the built environment as cultural landscape.

By bringing narrative into the built environment, Weinbren invites the user to overlay the invisible landscape in her head with the narrative choices made at the interstices of virtual and real, thus calling her relationship to both landscape and narrative into question. The real site of continuous flow is the private space of fantasy. Installation artists like Weinbren and architects like Cathcart create bottlenecks, both real and virtual, so that the viewer can drop out of the crowd and engage with her own internal, cognitive environment, using the narrativized space as a guide.