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Working the Screen 2000


Segue, stretto, strafe & sashay

Dean Kiley

Dean Kiley teaches the theory & practice of…um, lots of online stuff, at Swinburne University, and is the Online Learning Specialist for Wesley College.

Tatiana Pentes, Strange Cities Tatiana Pentes, Strange Cities
Apart, of course, from C3PO’s nervy variation on the loyal poof valet, the best thing about Star Wars (Mach I) was all those twee segues: the windscreen-wiper, the venetian-blind, the diagonal swipe, the horizontal shutter…later zombied back to life in PowerPoint.

In spite of the vistas opened by hyperlinks, much writing for multimedia—and especially for the web—never quite manages decent textual segues, something narrative or perspectival or dialogic that can ease or direct the wormhole transition between nodes. All too often instead you get chunked, clunky Lego blocks of text-as-data and interfaces standing in for connections. Not with these projects.

Tatiana Pentes’ Strange Cities CD-ROM takes the segue and transposes it to a musical idiom that originates in, reconfigures and encases the unbelievable story of her grandparents, who were serial refugees and always-already aliens or exoticised expatriates.

The frame-story is told by the narrator, Sasha, who didn’t believe all their outlandish tales until, after their death, she was about to incinerate a box of old memorabilia from Sergei and Xenia Ermolaeff. We open that box ourselves, and follow the sepia photos and ID papers back to Russia, to the Bolshevik Revolution, escape to China, the marriage in Tianjin, Shanghai’s polyglot immigrant community, the decadent jazz clubs Sergei’s band played, rubbing tuxedo-ed shoulders with Chiang Kai-shek and Charlie Chaplin, Xenia becoming a glamorous nightclub dancer, Mao’s revolution, asylum in Australia and suddenly 50s anti-Reds paranoia, the claustrophobic suburbanality of permanent nostalgia. In and out of frame, as intro and closure, move press clippings, an evocative layered-n-textured Photoshop-ad’s-worth of old photos, creaky newsreels and retooled recent footage, Trotsky speeches, Sergei’s songs and the band’s smoky jazz, contemporary radio broadcasts, un-artificial soundscapes, and narratorial voiceovers.

The effect is that of stretto, the fugue technique of overlapping and entangling voices and time signatures, where Pentes eschews the pull of Hollywoodising the admittedly-amazing story into linear cinematic re-telling, so it’s less trajectory than transitional vignettes. These are composed as ‘movements’—Prima Volta, Mordente and Lacrimoso—with multiple interfaces, menus, image-maps, differentiated mouse-pointer icons and situational identifying soundtracks. Pentes has exploited the ways in which expressive multimedia can parallel the modes, feel and mechanisms of memory-in-anecdote to memorialise her grandparents’ lives in a work that at last makes musical structural metaphors something more than a branding exercise.

Los Dias y las Noches de Los Muertos (The Days and Nights of the Dead), a website from Francesca da Rimini (www.thing.net/~dollyoko/LOSDIAS/INDEX.HTML) with sound by Mikey Grimm and grafix and translations from a big gaggle of collaborators, is virtually nothing but segue, contracted to such a hyperkinetic attack it strafes you. Step 1: download the soundtrack and get its stripped industrial-electronica going. Step 2: um, that’s someone crying isn’t it? & someone screaming…moaning—disconsolate sobs and it sounds like—& feels like—torture…weird how I’m kicked out of viewer-ly complacency by war’s fallout coming tinnily from my tiny speakers. Step 3: “click to start”, a disingenuously clichéd invitation that ends up spawning a new window, ambushing my browser to set off a series of graphical and plain-text detonations.

It’s all auto-refreshing, webpages replaced automatically by another without a mouse-click. Try clicking and you just get more 3-second-delay transitions. We’re talking hypertext-as-70s-zapping in Greenaway split-screen TV here, 5 frames vertiginously kaleidoscoping between quotations from Napoleon on the art of war, press stuff from the Zapatistas, excerpts from the US Space Command’s ‘Vision 2000’ policy (terrifyingly vacuous…but remember Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’?), Machiavellian directives for netwar and a slew of snippets posing as ICQ Logs strobing you in Exhibit-A flashes. In a kind of striking narrativisation of the Seattle WTO protest, globalising multinational capitalism is made to lip-synch the motives and pragmatics of war. So you get, for instance, EXXON announcing “death is nothing; but to live vanquished and without glory is to die every day”; or The Vatican Bank, or Shell, or Coca Cola, philosophising on battle. For anyone who’s followed the harrowing online media accounts, the visceral experiences and pleas of the Zapatistas, colliding—often almost literally—with the blandly glib, spin-doctored policy statements on war and the vortex of imagery…it’s wrenching.

Similarly disturbing, but uncannily, is Whoseland.com, an “inter@ctive documentary” (it’s 2000: let’s declare a moratorium on @) about the 1998 Africa-Australia Exchange on Land Rights for the Millennium (www.whoseland.com). It reads, from Howard’s (un)sorry 2000 state of affairs, as an uncanny present-tense palimpsest of connections made and missed, hopes now boxed-up in apathy, and a productive international effort at recompense, equity, practical solutions and modest proposals. It generates its momentum from chronology: the inception of the project, its main press conferences (one by Ben Elton at his ratbag best), the experiences of the delegates from Maasai and Barabaig peoples in Australia and of the Kimberley Land Council in Africa, the 1998 Melbourne protest march, heading towards the Centenary Celebrations in 2000. Each section’s colour-coded, crystallised in a spiral site-map and navigable by elegant icons, backed by extensive content varying from first-person accounts to full transcripts, a click-zoom-able map of tribal ownership and languages, and a useful collection of research papers.

The writing is taut and engaging throughout, exploiting the narrative drive and delegates’ excitement, heavily and effectively illustrated by photos and vox-pop videos. Return exchange visits were planned for 1999 but—and this is more than the usual existential whinge—although the site promises to provide updated content up to 2000, it peters out at 1999, exacerbating the cross-wired time perspectives.

Sharkfeed, by John Grech and Matthew Leonard (www.abc.net.au/ sharkfeed /index.htm - expired; see RealTime/ OnScreen 38), extends such cross-wiring by looping round a 1960 kidnapping-murder case, and literalises it in ‘rephotography’, which makes a refrain out of re-framing photos with the same subject over disparate time and place locations. In June 1960 the Thorne family from Bondi won the Opera House Lottery (100,000 pounds!), which led to their son Graeme being kidnapped by Stephen Lesley Bradley (Istvan Baranjoy), a migrant Jewish-Hungarian WWII survivor, for a ransom. Graeme died, probably inadvertently but horribly nonetheless on the day of the kidnapping.

As with Strange Cities, the project is in focal flux from the main storyline outwards, bricolaging an album of traces from archival footage, old news media photos, recordings, interview/broadcast transcripts, sound files (from Paul Robeson singing in Sydney to the Police Commissioner’s briefings), headlines, reconstructed evidence snapshots, sketches, photo montages, mixed-time-period panoramas, and crime-scene maps.

The project’s creators explore the way the Thorne case inaugurated the long history of sensationalist quickie-trash true-crime books, yet Sharkfeed regularly falls into the same exploitative formulae, like: “Graeme Thorne was kidnapped on the way to school, a journey from which he never returned. Afterwards, nothing was quite the same again.” Um, yes. Etc. The main navigation option (‘continue’ or ‘about’ as rollovers) is not exactly aesthetically or hypertextually exciting, but you also get regular ‘detour’ possibilities, a nice-if-superfluous VRML interface, and category menus; but it’s the transitions that rescue it from TV-re-enactment, circling round from the compelling narrative-doco and true-crime-voyeur arcs into the wider disturbing social issues. Sure, it leads to some questionable philosophising—“as the lives of all those children were lost, they began another kind of life, in a mythical space from which they can never escape”—and gratuitous puns on ‘corpus’, but it’ll absorb you and make you think, get you arguing and where’s your kid right now?

In contrast to the centripetal pull of a main storyline, Archiving Imagination (www.archiving. com.au/archiving/index.html) is an unapologetically disparate sampler of collaborations between Robin Petterd (digital media artist) and Diane Caney (writer/web-author and editor of the Australian Humanities Review). Most of the works are brief and concentrated, surreal or haiku-ish poetic writing dramatised by video or made into rhythmical movements by minimal design, braided hyperlink arcs, discrete sound effects, muted terrace-house colour schemes and a beautiful line in fade-in-fade-out gif animations lushly mirroring the lyrical text…“and when I sleep my mind bathes in the memory of your skin.” Often coyly unpredictable or navigationally unclear, the design forces cursor exploration: rollovers, image-maps, auto-opening links and floating windows are all used to pointed textual effect with surprises and hidden sections. And the writing itself, to which the focus always returns, is worth the hunt and the wait.

Alyssa Rothwell’s From My Porch CD-ROM is three-in-one: Three Mile Creek, Getting Dollied Up and Pretty Aprons. The first 2 have only minimal writing components, so I won’t cover them here. But Pretty Aprons! An absolute bloody gem, as its characters, or my ex-country-town Dad, would say. After some exquisite time-lapse sand animations, you’re suddenly in front of a sketched old pedal-powered Singer sewing machine, a basket of cloth by your feet, teacup on the edge. You’re on a farm, making aprons for Xmas gifts. Drag your cloth onto the Singer and fragments from sewing patterns or recipes or a faded women’s magazine slide onto the screen: assemble them and the stories start, rendered in miniature-insert sand animations or in beautiful pencil sketches featuring a character wearing something made from the cloth you chose. You can drop in on an old chatty neighbour for eggs and stay for a nice cuppa, which you pour yourself, setting off a tangle of yarns about everything from onions as a baldness cure to growing up a tomboy. At one point the teapot just won’t stop pouring and as the tide rises round the armchair you hear all about the ’54 flood. Then there’s the salesyard, the ballet lesson with the Mums sitting knitting but pirouetting inside, while a Prunella Scales voice harangues you “2,3,4...bottoms in THANK you”…but, oh, my favourite was the piano-practice, where you can either listen to someone practising (oops, wrong note) or play the piano yourself with the mouse (no, really). And if you stop playing for more than 5 seconds Mum querulously yells from the kitchen “Why’ve you stopped?!”

Each time you’ve had enough of a scene you can pull the pins out to return to the sewing machine and there’s another finished apron hanging on the line. A young girl works throughout as the narrator, encouraging you to finish another apron, telling tales on her Mum and her passion for sewing, how once, when the cat finally made a mistake in its acrobatic provocation of the dogs from its perch up on the water-tank, Mum came home to find its insides hanging out, so she took a small needle and some thin fishing line and sewed it back together on the verandah. To this day she wonders if she’d used a bigger needle or a different stitch it’d be walking without a Karloff twist. Funny, real, addictive. For the first time ever I wanna buy a CD-ROM and give it to friends as a present, better’n a book.

Now, naturally, having begun by pontificating about textual transitions, it’s become impossible for me to extricate myself by seguing gracefully to a neat close. So I won’t.

Dean Kiley teaches the theory & practice of…um, lots of online stuff, at Swinburne University, and is the Online Learning Specialist for Wesley College.

RealTime issue #38 Aug-Sept 2000 pg. 3

© Dean Kiley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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