#62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994
Cybertheater, Postmodernism, and Virtual Reality: An
Interview with Toni Dove and Michael Mackenzie
[Jerry] Garcia and [Timothy] Leary...both agreed that
their first trips to cyberspace reminded them, in an abstract way, of their
first psychedelic adventures, that a machine that can change your worldview
is similar to something like LSD in that one dimension, but not in all
significant dimensions.... Timothy Leary and LSD in 1990 represented not so
much a person and a mind-altering substance as value-laden signs and symbols
of all that is feared in the [American] national subconscious.—Howard
Rheingold, Virtual Reality (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 354-55.
One must note, for example, the use of computer-generated
images in the phenomenon known as Virtual Reality. Putting on a set of
miniature goggle-mounted screens, one may block out the real world and move
through a simulated three-dimensional world which changes its components
with every movement of one’s head. That Timothy Leary is an enthusiastic
proponent of Virtual Reality does not suggest that there is a constructive
future for this device. But who knows? Perhaps, for those who can no longer
cope with the real world, Virtual Reality will provide better therapy than
ELIZA.1—Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture
to Technology (NY: Vintage, 1993), 117.
On Sunday, 18 April 1993, at 10:30 a.m., we met with Toni Dove and Michael
Mackenzie in a local Banff eatery, gussied up like a tony 50s diner, with the
unpronouncable name Joe Btfsplk’s. The matchbox that we palmed as a memento of
the occasion told us to "say" biºtif'ºspliks—an
ironic reminder of the virtual vowels hidden away in the clustered consonants
and a marker for the kinds of topics we were about to engage in with our
interviewees. Toni Dove is a multi-media artist whose work has been collected by
the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, the Fogg Museum, and
the Victoria and Albert Museum, to name only a few. Her recent pieces include Fugitive
Concepts, The Blessed Abyss—A Tale of Unmanageable Ecstasies, Mesmer—Secrets
of the Human Frame and, most recently, her collaborative work-in-progress
entitled The City and Memory, a piece that makes extensive use of VR and
other digital technologies in the context of a number of cyberpunk motifs.
Her partner in the venture is Michael Mackenzie, a Montreal-based playwright
and director with a Ph.D. from the Institut d’Histoire et Sociopolitique de
Science at l’Université de Montréal. Mackenzie has worked with a number of
well-known Canadian directors including, among others, Robin Phillips, Guy
Sprung, and Robert Lepage, and has published two plays, We the Undersigned
and Geometry in Venice. In addition he has consulted with the UN, been a
visiting professor at IBM’s Yorktowne Research Labs and a researcher at l’Université
de Québec’s Centre de Recherche et Evaluation Sociale de Technologie (Centre
for Social and Technological Research and Evaluation). The two have been
developing a piece for the Banff Centre for the Arts and were in Banff
overseeing a short presentation of extracts from the work-in-progress at the
Multimedia Communications ‘93 Conference whose theme was "Forging the
We were on the scene to investigate what is certainly one of the most
ambitious of recent attempts to integrate developments in technology with a
number of different arts media. The piece as befits its collaborative origins is
intended to be a multi-media experience, combining theater with interactive VR
technologies, music and text, 3-D computer graphics, and 3-D scrims and screens
containing computer-driven multiple slide projections. When finished it will be
one of the first exemplars of a new form of art which might be called
cybertheater. The artists’ statement describes The City and Memory as a
combination of two artistic forms (virtual reality and performance) which
"render a complementary incarnation of the same text—each articulates and
enhances the other. We are interested in creating a communally experienced
environment which collapses together a number of genres, i.e., the fusion of
film and theater, to begin examining the possibility of creating new languages
for developing technologies."
The large arid conference room at the Banff Springs Hotel was to be the site
of the first presentation of the piece as a virtual reality installation,
complete with an anxious group of techies gathered round the two large monitors,
the two Silicon Graphics VGX 310s, the NeXT/IRCAM audio work station, the audio
mixing boards, speakers, and the octopus-like network of fibreoptic cables that
connected the two viewing stations. The information given to us called the
demonstration we were about to see a Network Enabled Virtual Reality Trial, an
early prototype, an unfinished version of what will be, it is hoped, a
substantially finished VR headset piece by August, 1993, followed by a more
complete installation with live actors in May, 1994. Skeptical, we wondered
about the narrative possibilities of such a piece. Would they be disrupted by
the intrusion of so much technology? But after listening to brief fragments of
the narrative, we began to see the possibilities of engagement with the piece.
One descends towards a chaotic, decaying city in the not-too-distant future
in which a female coroner is to perform an autopsy on a murdered child. In later
versions of the piece the child will be represented by a gang of mute teenage
girls played by live actors and speaking through MIDI (Musical Instrument
Digital Interface) instruments.2 Their costumes are exoskeletons
"derived from the transformed, restricting structures of historical women’s
underclothes," to quote the artists’ statement again. For Dove and
Mackenzie, the teenage girls are figures of resistance against the crumbling
infrastructure of the city. The theatrical conceit for the piece explores the
cityscape as a site of survival, embodied in the coroner, and death, embodied in
the murdered child, much like prototypical versions of cyberpunk narrative—though
both Dove and Mackenzie are careful to distance themselves from cyberpunk
Through the autopsy—the dirt under the fingernails, the traces of chemical
pollution in the hair and skin, the antibodies in the blood, and so on—the
pathologist maps the last hours of the child in the city. Through this the
dormant childhood memories of the coroner are evoked. Thus in the process of the
investigation there is the inter-meshing of personal identity (unconscious
memories), corporeal identity (the body of the child), and spatial identity (the
city) to form a mythical architecture that embodies all three. The story becomes
the simultaneous exploration of a city and the investigation of a survival (the
coroner’s) and a death (the child’s).... In the process of the investigation
the pathologist contends with an identity swamped in a technological dependence,
while the coroner struggles with her own buried past, and the moral dilemma of a
murdered child. (Artists’ Statement 2)
In the extract of the piece that we saw, there was a considerable gap, as was
to be expected at this early stage of its development, between the theory and
narrative underlay that we had heard about and the actual execution. The piece
consisted of two computer screens located on opposite sides of the conference
room and joined by fiber-optic cable. When using the installation, one appears
as a two-dimensional plane floating in cyberspace. The prime operator controls
the pace at which the team advances through the dark interior. A small hand-held
camera allows each operator to gaze from impossible angles, twisting, turning,
floating. Suspended in space both operators can pirouette through the strange
geometries of this empty Piranesi-like cathedral defined by the shifting amber
lines that traverse the screen. The two operators can speak to each other
through microphones with the second becoming a kind of backseat driver or
tailgunner, free to swivel in all possible directions as the prime operator
directs them through the unfamiliar landscape. When one operator turns toward
the other, a two-dimensional plane, an icon with a ghostly skull-like image,
appears on the screen. It comes as something of a shock to realize that the icon
is the other operator moving through cyberspace. If he is in this
computer-generated space, then you are too. You have become two ghosts mirroring
The project is being sponsored by The Banff Centre for the Arts under the
guidance of Douglas Macleod, Program Director for the Computer Applications and
Research section of the Media Arts Department.3 Macleod, in an
interview prior to our conversation with Dove and Mackenzie, expressed concern
that people consider the VR projects at the Banff Centre in their own context
and not shoehorn them into old practices and expectations: "Virtual reality
is not uniquely a visual arts medium, nor is The City and Memory a visual
arts piece. The unique aspect of VR, as opposed to other emergent technologies,
is its interactivity." When asked about the relations between such art and
its origins in military and corporate technologies, Macleod was careful to note
that the artistic experiments commissioned by Banff are meant to provide an
alternative to the military uses of such technologies. He stressed that no
technology is neutral and that all technology can be subverted and can be
subversive, especially in relation to issues of power and sexuality: "VCRs
gained their popularity because of the adult movie market and Minitel in France
has been used extensively for pornographic messages. The digital medium is
powerful precisely because it can explore such charged topics as human sexuality
in untraditional ways."
We asked him about the importance of VR in relation to other emergent
technologies and especially about the sensational media representations of VR.
He responded by expressing an interest in "exploring technology for what it
is trying to be, not for what people want it to be." His most unexpected
observation was that "VR is not very important at all." For Macleod,
VR is a small element in the much larger arenas of digital culture and what he
calls the architecture of information: "The real excitement is in creating
the structures of telecommunications, the architectures that will make
communication happen, that will make communication as ubiquitous as possible
through the development of new technologies."
The City and Memory uses a blending of technologies derived from
digital culture, a blending that is itself a form of art, the locus at which
technology and art abut in the most unpredictable ways. What follows is a
transcript of our conversation with the artists along with a textual collage of
appropriate(d) comments from other players in the emergent field of
The promise of science fiction is that it does try to invent the future in a
way that very few other modes of articulation are capable of doing. And, even
though it might not be able to create the conditions for certain projected
futures, it dramatizes the effort to break from a servile relation to the past.
—Avital Ronell, "Deconstruction," Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to
the New Edge (NY: HarperCollins, 1992), 80.
Taylor. Maybe we can begin with how you collaborated on the writing of
Dove. It was a kind of committee.
Mackenzie. I had this idea that I sent to her and she thought it was
D. ... after I gave you something about five years ago. Don’t you
remember I gave you that book to read?
M. What was the book?
D. Neuromancer. (laughter)
M. I started Gothic and Toni started tech and we kind of met in the
middle. So I generated a text and then Toni took a look at it and came back with
a series of revisions. And then we kicked it to and fro.
Fischlin. So what we saw at the installation with the three visual
images—the cathedral space, the ship, and the caves—at what stage was that
M. I think we always knew that we wanted Piranesi.4 The
cathedral space was right there because those drawings are so intense.
D. Yes, we started talking about the city generally and Michael had
the idea of basing the piece on mega-cities.
F. Did you get the idea of the mega-city from William Gibson’s idea
of the Sprawl?
M. No. When I was at the UN [as a consultant on the US computer
industry, 1980] they were starting a study on mega-cities because it was
recognized there is a series of metropolises that are going to be out of control
by the year 2010: Calcutta, Jakarta, Bombay, Mexico City, New York, L.A., all of
them are out of control in a number of specific ways. What fascinated me was
that what looked like what could naively be seen as a simple increase in size
was in fact a transformation of type. The city was becoming an institution that
was utterly different.5
D. A different category.
M. In the same way if you look at the city in the medieval period it
looks like the settlements of the classical period yet the medieval city is an
utterly different thing. I mean there was nascent capitalism and all the rest of
it, right? That’s what Venice, Genoa, and all those places are about. So there
is a qualitative transformation. We were fascinated by that and I became
interested in what that meant in socio-economic terms.
D. In The City and Memory the state has receded and fringe
economies are taking over. We posited an economic and social structure within
some unspecified but not-too-distant future which could be imagined to contain
certain kinds of resistance.
M. Think of what happens when what is feudal domination, even in
places like the city, begins to break down. You get the concept of burghers,
guilds, corporations, and so forth. It is somewhat similar to that. For example,
the cops don’t run L.A. anymore. They try very hard but basically they run a
PR program. And they run very little else. Also the economy of Florida is now
30-35% drug money. God knows what it is in Miami! I mean it may be getting over
50% just in terms of the sheer quantity of cash flow. These things are
fascinating for us. What does such a break-down do to habitation, social mores;
what does it do to people, the time they wake up, the time they sleep, where
they meet in social groups, the diseases they contract? New York now has raging
tuberculosis of the kind that hasn’t been seen since the 19th century.6
There are cities like Jakarta which are seeing cholera for the first time in 50
years. There are interesting transformations taking place. And we were very
fired imaginatively by that. Not so much by what could be seen as a disastrous
falling apart, but by the nascent organizations in which people survive and
regroup, the invention of new communities.
F. So do you see disintegration as productive?
M. I’m not sure I see it as productive so much as deeply traumatic.
D. We were interested in a model that didn’t present this two-tiered
government structure with a monolithic and unassailable corporate presence
coupled with a ragged and ineffective street resistance. We were interested in
presenting some of the tears in the Net, and seeing what kind of potencies this
kind of resistance could have, and in examining what kinds of new forms of
organization happen when the state recedes rather than just sticking with what
is almost a generic cyberpunk structure in current fiction. We were interested
in turning it over ... well, maybe not ... "turning it over" sounds
kind of Oedipal.
F. Do you see yourselves as reworking these sorts of tropes from
cyberpunk? Or working in resistance to them?
D. Not really.
M. In some senses I’m much more influenced by non-fictional material
such as, to give you one example, epidemiological maps in terms of the inherent
immunologies that people have. They are fascinating to me. Or looking at studies
on underground economies, for another example, changes in infant mortality rates
that fluctuate with underground economies.
D. I was more interested in the construction of subjectivity and how
that is changing over time within a shifting paradigm.
T. And you found that you could speak to each other in terms of these
very different interests?
M. We argue a lot.
D. Conceptually we have few problems.
M. We drive each other crazy with process. We have completely
F. So how important in the piece are images of a narcoleptic,
D. I don’t think we are interested in that so much as we are
interested in a structure that is changing and looking at some of the ruptures
that have come out of that. So rather than seeing the future coming and it being
full of garbage, which has been well-documented, we’re interested in something
that isn’t only a dystopia.
M. One thing that we talked about is that Toni has a very strong
attachment to girl gangs.
D. It was something I thought of for this piece. It is not a generic
thing that I’m into.
M. But if you look at East London in the 1860s you can find that there
is a standard form of socialization among what we now call the "working
classes," who were on their own from the age of 7 onwards and formed gangs.
If you look at the structures they formed—there hasn’t been that much work
done on this but there is some stuff by a group called the New College Research
Group7 or something to that effect—what is fascinating is their
creativity. They would stand at the end of the tram lines with piles of change
and negotiate change with the tram drivers charging them 5%. That was only one
way of surviving . . . by becoming money changers. These were 7-10 year olds and
by the age of 10 they were usually absorbed into some kind of industrial system
or gone on to more productive forms of crime.
D. That’s the marketing strategy of the teenage years [laughter].
M. But what’s fascinating is the creativity that takes place, the
way people manage to survive and create new things.
F. How important is it when you are working on this material to
include those people, the gangs, in the process of production?
D. They are more like visual tropes.
M. I’m not sure that we are into documenting the specific existence
of gangs. That would be presumptuous of us. But I think that we are looking at a
social phenomenon that can be investigated in terms of its conceptual,
socio-economic, and political impact.
D. It’s allegorical. So rather than being bound by documentary truth
we are interested in creating tropes that can be used to talk about other
M. Given the nature of what we’re doing there is a real tendency to
try and set up a series of politically correct motifs that are completely dry
and boring. The point of this is that it has got to be gripping and, dare we
say, entertaining. People have got to get involved in it and if that doesn’t
happen then it is not working.
D. We are also interested in collapsing together a number of genres so
that you are not really bound by any one fictional mode or any one non-fictional
mode. Collapsing genres creates some interesting possibilities for content,
especially when you’re attempting to create your own recipes for production
that then disturb some of the recipes for reception that are in place.
"You know what your trouble is?" he says when we’re under the
bridge, headed up to Fourth. "You’re the kind who always reads the
handbook. Anything people build, any kind of technology, it’s going to have
some specific purpose. It’s for doing something that somebody already
understands. But if it’s new technology, it’ll open areas nobody’s thought
of before. You read the manual, man, and you won’t play around with it, not
the same way. And you’ll get all funny when somebody else uses it to do
something you never thought of."-William Gibson, "The Winter
Market," Burning Chrome (NY: Ace, 1986), 129.
F. Obviously there are important connections between your piece and
D. One of my premises is the subversive abuse of technology. A lot of
my technologies are technologies used for corporate shows. Of course what I do
with them is quite different. I like to mix technologies because each has an
aesthetic built into it. They’re slotted to take you in a certain direction. I
do morph-animations on the computer, or shoot Super-8 and transfer to video, or
use 19th-century archival material or use Polaroid film and make slides as I go
along and put them into the computer. I use a range of technologies from the
almost obsolete to this VR piece that is almost vaporware. One thing that we
are both definitely not interested in is in being a kind of shock-troop demo for
the next Nintendo game . . .
M. . . . which looks like a more serious possibility than it may seem.
F. Why do you say that?
D. Well, I think that there are a lot of technologies coming down the
road that are connected to digital video and a lot of the compression
technologies. We were talking to a corporate executive the other day who is
producing a box that is attached to the television that plays games like
Nintendo and they are thinking of adding a hardware upgrade to it that would
allow you to play adult entertainment. He was definitely not talking about
Virtual Valerie.8 He was talking about an interactive Masterpiece
Theater. Voyager, a company that sells laser disc films, just came out with the
first interactive film on CD-ROM, which is the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s
Night.9 So there’s a whole new territory opening up that will
have an incredible impact on popular entertainment.
M. It’s going to be even bigger than the CD revolution . . .
D. ... a combination of CDs and video.
M. It seems to me that nobody knows quite where to move yet because
the technologies aren’t quite there yet.
D. Yes, the technologies aren’t quite there and the levels of
interactivity are quite superficial in most of the commercial products right
now. But the basic vocabulary is in place. And this vocabulary starts to
overturn a lot of models for the linear narratives that are deeply embedded in
the way we operate.
M. In some senses it is a moment similar to what was happening with
business computers around 1955, or what was happening in audio technology around
1960-61, when everybody knew that there was going to be an explosion of
possibilities and no one was quite sure how to format it, how to package it, how
to sell it.
D. The same metaphor holds for the Victorian era where everybody had a
zoetrope, or a panorama or a diorama, every kind of image that moved.10
And all that eventually collapsed into film. Now I think the same thing is
happening with what will be some kind of dimensional immersion technology. But
at this point there are numerous different companies that are starting to
develop such technologies and at this point they are small companies. As such
they are very open. They are looking for vehicles and are open to a wide range
of people. There is an interesting opportunity now for artists to get engaged.
There’s probably a nanosecond window-of-opportunity in which to say something
within a much more mainstream context than we could have before. I like to see
how far I can push it before the clamps come down. We have an extraordinary
cultural capacity to empty out art, an apparatus for thinning it out. The power
of American culture is its capacity to empty out everything. I want to
see how much I can get away with before that happens and before restructuring
occurs. Of course I realize that this is a strategy formed in hindsight.
M. There’s also the other aspect that the industry within which VR
falls is not clearly defined in terms of property relations. It’s not like the
pharmaceutical industry. You can’t move in the pharmaceutical industry; you
can’t breathe without somebody jumping down your neck with some
legal-restriction suit. They don’t know how to tie this stuff up.
D. They’re working hard on the complete collapse of civil rights in
the electronic arena. But so far they haven’t quite gotten it down [laughter].11
F. Would you agree that art that does not mirror, reflect, or connect
with this informational or digital technology is in fact moribund? Is it
possible to do art that is somehow outside the technologies of information?
D. I would hate to come up with any prescriptive processes for
M. I think that kind of question is predicated on the notion that
there is a clear disjuncture between the procedures of everyday life and the
technology involved. And we just don’t accept that. The point is that if you
look at the history of technology, you can find all sorts of perfectly
serviceable gimmicks, gadgets, and inventions that were invented but that never
"happened," because there wasn’t the consciousness that was prepared
to accept them.
D. Like Abel Gance’s Napoléon.12
M. Every 1950s SF comic book had a big video telephone screen and when
they came out with the videophone at AT&T in 1968 nobody bought it; it was a
technology that died overnight. Nobody was ready for it. On the other hand,
nobody could have predicted that the fax would take over the way it did. Fax
machines have been adopted because they connect the interstices of human
communities. Therefore we don’t accept as valid the notion that one can put
technology over here and somehow the artist goes over to engage it. The artist
is immersed in exactly the same social conditions as the technology.
D. If you are actively engaged in the mirroring of an aesthetic
produced in the historical context of another time then you are probably
operating in some way out of touch with your own environment. I think that there
are certain aspects of the traditional fine arts of painting and sculpture which
are becoming very culturally marginalized at this point and becoming more and
more an artisanry for the upper classes where there is not a broad access to a
spectrum of the cultural audience. That has been a problematic area for many
artists and it is part of what is pushing people out into the world in different
ways. People are looking for the capacity to integrate into a broader cultural
We’re living in extremely fast and extremely dense times. One
day you’re lucky to have a FEDEX account, the next day everybody who calls you
asks, "What’s your FAX number?"—R. U. Sirius, " A User’s
Guide to Using this Guide," Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge
(NY: HarperCollins, 1992), 14.
Information is alienated experience.—Jaron Lanier, cited in Howard
Rheingold, Virtual Reality (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 156.
F. How would you position your work in relation to postmodernity?
D. Well, I think, to put quotations around the notion of "postmodernity,"
one of the postmodern models has been surface over depth. I’m interested in
the idea of complex and dense models that have depth, that move out into the
world in a number of different ways. So that something could be, simultaneously,
a theater piece, a VR piece, a CD-ROM, an essay, so that you’re taking the
same kind of information and you are giving people access to a number of
different public and private arenas to experience that same information, so that
you’re not stuck with the fortune-cookie concept of content or with the
soundbite. A lot of that surface model is tied to the constructions of
M. There are some terrible aspects of postmodernism where people think
they can simply set up a series of direct references to things which are past
cultural products and somehow that that single association ...
D.... there’s a pillaging and neutralizing of cultural artifacts ...
M.... one refers to Leonardo da Vinci, and then to Pascal, and then to
Duchamp, and then one has a glossy piece. This is the worst aspect of
D.... like the postmodern architectural mode of "tzaczke,"13
details replacing content.
M. What we’re doing is looking at the way that tendency is
getting embedded in technological hardware. There’s an analogy I’ve used
before —if you take the formation of writing. The Sumerians invent it,
supposedly; the Phoenicians pick it up, then the Greeks get it from them. It’s
essentially a form of legal record-keeping, the demarcation of property and the
preservation of historical records. What happens when the Greeks get hold of
writing around 800 BC or a little earlier is they have this incredibly rich oral
tradition and they use it initially for record-keeping. Then at some point they
start writing down the things we now call the Iliad and the Odyssey.
They start transcribing them with this new technology. Now that technology,
although it was the fusion of two utterly different things, two utterly
different social arenas, presents itself to us as a coherent, consistent,
homogeneous cultural thing—which is literacy. And of course it’s so
ingrained in our cultural- and self-consciousness that we can’t think outside
of it. That kind of transformation, like the transformation of consciousness
that you can see in classical Greece, may be what is going on now. We’re
talking about a new way of transcribing experience.
D. The transcription would be from a literary or written mode back
into a visual or oral mode.
M. Visual or some kind of way in which the symbolic and the visual
begin to meld and join to form a whole, to develop a new semantics, grammar,
communication, sense of structure.
D. Fredric Jameson refers to the waning of affect and how the subject
with a singular, centered interior life is breaking down.14 For
instance, in film the development of a centered character with an interior life
is dissolving and is being replaced by escalations of suspense or tension.
M. You mean a Foucaultian model?
D. It’s related in part to the escalations in shock that operate
within a capitalist or consumer society. Such escalations continually up the
ante with regard to creating a kind of thrill-base resulting in a gradual
numbing process that happens as culture becomes more and more involved in
colonizing interior life. There’s been a sort of split between the theoretical
wing of postmodernism and the postmodernism that involves the pillaging and
regurgitating of cultural imagery—like fashion which is basically style
M. There was political postmodernism before there was artistic
postmodernism. The French invented it as a political construct and it seems to
me that it’s about the denial of value but at the same time accreting onto
that value to establish social status or social hegemony as you can. At the same
time as a postmodern artist would somehow want to negate the notion (and I’m
not supporting the notion) that one can somehow grade artistic artifacts or that
one artifact is greater than another, they pillage what we think of as high
culture in order to accrue as much status as they possibly can within a
competitive socio-intellectual hierarchy. Do you know what I’m saying? That’s
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of
legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical
concepts.... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every
computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in
the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights,
receding.... —William Gibson, Neuromancer (NY: Ace, 1984), 51.
F. When you talk about tags, pomo-fadism and so forth, the catch-word
seems to be VR. Let’s talk about that for a minute. One can easily critique
the notion of virtuality as not being new. There’s a retrograde virtuality
evident when one thinks of The Iliad and The Odyssey, for example,
a Viconian notion of a plurality of authorial voices, and we are still
conceiving of that narrative space virtually, much as we conceive of reading and
writing virtually. Or even a conversation in print.
M. Or a radio play.
D. Or a book ...it’s cinema in your head.
F. What’s your take on the virtual or virtuality in your piece?
D. I had this problematic reaction to the notion of working with VR
because it had been so excessively hyped in the press. My first contact with the
technology was interesting because my response after being mildly nauseous was
that it was a little bit like wandering around a cube of lime jello with
vaseline smeared on your glasses. It bears no relationship to the immense
hoo-ha that is coming out over whether people are going to become junkies and
lose themselves in these rather annoying and heavy helmets, which is very, very
unlikely to happen. The discussion is not actually in relation to a very small
and specific technology but in relationship to a collection of developing
technologies that are moving toward an immersion form of entertainment that is
definitely a problematic area, not because of any essential problem with the
technology but because the technology is developing with certain intentions and
it is always interesting to deconstruct —well, no, don’t use that word—disassemble
the values that lie behind those intentions.
M. If we look at what amounts to the fetishization of VR in the last
so many years, that fetishization is always connected with certain anxieties and
constructs. It seems to me that VR in some ways, particularly the ways in which
it has always been described in the hi-tech press, is always described in terms
of presence, the idea of "being there." The desperate anxiety of not
being there is of course what that is about. Toni is absolutely right, it gets
hyped because of this fetishistic anxiety.
D. That notion of VR, which started as a vague notion of things to
come, moved into the territory where you wore a helmet. The fantasy was very
much oriented around Gibson’s simstim set-up and so forth, where the new rock
stars would record their dreams. And now it’s moved into the notion that there’s
a sequence of technologies rolling down at us that are going to be the
representation of a major shift in the way media and culture will be operating
M.... which is happening at a rapid rate anyway.
D. Coupled with that is a tremendous sense of anxiety about the loss
of familiar structures. People are technophobic, technophilic; there’s a wide
spectrum of responses to something that is really not clear yet. I think there
is reason to be both.
M. Whenever you go to the technophiles who talk about virtuality they
are always desperate to insist that this is a new way of establishing community,
exactly the thing in public life we are most terrified of losing. They see this
as a way of reconstructing community for better or worse (and I have no idea
whether they’re right or not) . . .
F. Technology has been co-opted into a kind of techno-mythic
structure. How would you see your piece in relation to what Doug Macleod calls
an "information architecture"? Is that the real thrust of the piece?
M. I’m never particularly sure of what an information
architecture . . .
F.... an architectonic of information . . .
M.... it’s a model for librarians looking for data I think, archival
research, and stock brokers checking up on stocks . . .15
D.... and it’s also a model for cyberspace, with the notion of the
visual concretization of data, with data as the new currency.
Beyond Linear Narrative
Say that events, happening hadon by hadon in the unimaginably brief slice of
reality that is the present, are points. Connecting these points would then
create lines, and the lines figures—figures that would give a shape to our
lives, our world. If the world were a Euclidean shape, this would make the
shapes of our lives comprehensible to us. But the world is not a Euclidean
space. And so all our understanding is no more than a reductive mathematics for
the world. Language as a kind of geometry. —Kim Stanley Robinson, The Blind
Geometer (NY: Tom Doherty Associates, 1989), 4.
F. When you talk about a linear narrative, what do you mean? Is it
linear from the point of view of the writer or the receiver?
D. Well, both. It’s the way you construct a story and the series of
gestures and vocabularies attached to that story. In a lot of arenas, like with
interactive CD-ROM, story tension which comes out of suspense which comes out of
a linear structure is being replaced by the time-clock. Drop somebody in a pit
and give him thirty seconds to get out. Which is really just mirroring
. . . you know most new technologies mirror preceding technologies.
There are certain kinds of narrative clichés that are becoming clichés in the
interactive arena as well.
F. How do you escape linearity? Is it through interactivity, through
hyper-text, or through proliferating medias?
M. I think there are two answers. The first thing is that we are not
technological determinists. That is, we don’t see the technological
possibilities simply precipitating the new way of telling stories. We are
looking at a culture that is beginning to formulate the nature of its
descriptions and narratives in a different way. The example I use is a guy I
work with, Robert Lepage. And what is fascinating about watching his work is if
you watch any sequence in something like Tectonic Plates or Polygraphe,
there are always several layers going on in the narrative.16 There’s
a symbolic level, there’s a linear narrative level, and there’s an imaginary
level. He can have, for example, two people on a Venetian table-top, which is
also a Chopinesque-piano going around in circles, and a woman talking about a
drug experience at the same time as she is a 19th-century ballet dancer at the
same time as there is a relationship between her and someone else, which is a
remembrance of another relationship. There’s a certain kind of density, like
the way in which the convergence and divergence of different elements happens in
novels. But I think that that is almost the way in which the cultural
"paradigm"—I hate to use the word—but something like the cultural
paradigm is beginning to explode. The technology is, in a very complex way, a
part of that layer and in fact will begin to serve it. So when we talk about the
disruption or the change in linear narrative that happened with modernism, one
has a sense of a sub-text and of unconscious agenda. And you see this obviously
in Freud, scientifically, and in modern novelists like Henry James. What’s
happening now is that those things are no longer hanging on a clear thread which
is, let’s call it, the "real." There is beginning to be a way in
which the imaginary, either symbolic or representational, subsumes and comes
back into the real. I think that we’re simply taking that ball and running
with it in a hyper-textual model. Would you agree with that?
D. Yes, I think that the shifts in narrative are related to shifts in
so many different kinds of constructions that are happening right now. Like the
way we conceive of identity as a polyvocal rather than a single voice. I think
of narrative as a wandering accretion through a three-dimensional cube.
Narrative has a lot of layers, it accesses multiple sources of input
simultaneously, it reflects our cultural access to media, it reflects
geographical access, it reflects the way in which structural shifts in
technology, which are a change in the means of production, alter human
relationships, gender construction, and power hierarchies. All those things are
in a state of flux, narrative being part of a shift in the way in which we build
things. So when I construct a piece I often start with written text, but I’m
also working with sound, with images, and with different kinds of technologies,
three-dimensional structures all weaving together in a very dense, multi-layered
way. I think that people at this point have an ability to absorb a tremendous
amount of overlapping and simultaneous information and that the younger people
are the greater that capacity. There may be a generational or demographic curve
that determines the audience’s response to technological intervention in the
In the planetary imperialism of technologically organized man, the
subjectivism of man attains its acme, from which point it will descend to the
level of organized uniformity and there firmly establish itself. This uniformity
becomes the surest instrument of total, i.e., technological, rule over the
earth. The modern freedom of subjectivity vanishes totally in the objectivity
commensurate with it.—Martin Heidegger, "The Age of the World
Picture," The Question Concerning Technology, tr. William Lovitt
(NY: Harper & Row, 1977), 152-53.
M. I think though that the benchmark of the narrative for The City
and Memory is the question of subjectivity and presence and that works for
all the characters—the pathologist, the coroner—all these people are in some
way investigating their own subjectivity. Subjectivity is not a given at the
beginning of the piece and all those things which their journey is about is
certainly not anything like radical wish-fulfillment. By no means do they end up
whole people at the end of it. But the piece is an attempt to examine what kinds
of anxieties are brought on by the degrading of traditional notions of
F. Is subjectivity a hermeneutic illusion?
M. For me subjectivity is always process. There is no thing
which is subjectivity, it is entirely process and there is really no other way
of looking at it. But of course there are processes and processes. And there is
something which is will and volition and there is something which is domination
and control. These are the issues we are looking at in terms of technology and
D. And there are different models of subjectivity that participate in
both those processes: the way people view themselves, the way they structure
themselves and the way society socializes, all those kinds of processes get
presented in certain images. If you look at the depiction of androids, robots,
and cyborgs from the turn of the century to the present, you get a sequence of
cultural anxieties about different moments of relation to technology: the
relationship to nature, gender, the appropriation of reproduction, anxieties
about dominating or not dominating nature, the body.
F. If you think of Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet or Blade
Runner and the representation of the female replicants, how important is
body? How important in your piece is the body—the body of the spectator, the
artist, the actor?
M. We are both aware that the body is a social construct and is not
a biological artifact. And that is a starting point. The body as social
construct, what the body is, and the way in which that is connected to very
complex neuro-psychological interrelations, perception and self-perception...all
these issues. One of the characters in the story is a pathologist who
investigates the relationship between body and memory, the way in which memory
is a corporeal thing and what it means for there to be a degrading of memory and
D. And also that relationship to the idea of the virtual versus the
actual . . .
M.... which is what we think of as the real and the biological.
F. This is where I was leading. What would you see as the connection
between corpo-reality and virtual reality?
M. Like subjectivity, it’s a process.
The corps morcelé [body in bits and pieces] is a Lacanian term for a
violently nontotalized body image, an image psychoanalysis finds accompanied by
anxiety. —Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985), 79.
The technology for virtual reality provides the participant with the illusion
of moving through space bodiless. The body is isolated, the senses cut off from
their reality/environment and fed an alternate environment.... In this instance
the participant becomes both a receptor/receptacle of sense data introduced by a
cybernetic automaton as well as a visual traveler, a receptacle of motion. The
subject ceases to exist and, as Paul Virilio puts it, becomes motion. —Francine
Dagenais, "Perfect Bodies," Virtual Seminar on the Bioapparatus,
eds. Catherine Richards and Nell Tenhaaf (Banff: The Banff Centre for the Arts,
F. Bodies in The City and Memory are obviously very important,
dissecting them, dismemberment, the trope that Toni loves so much ...the
confusion about the pathologist’s gender, whether he or she is a cyborg or
D. A central metaphor in an earlier piece of mine, The Blessed
Abyss: A Tale of Unmanageable Ecstasies, is a warlord who could only get it
up when there was a severed nose in the picture. It was cranked up, an extreme
metaphor. It looked at the desire to move out of the body and at the material
aspects of the desire for transcendence. Technology has brought new dimensions
to the mind-body split because it is an expansion of an imaginary world. It’s
a human prosthetic device that expands power and heightens experience. Society
constructs its containers, its neatly-mown lawns, and then desire spills over.
M. The pathologist’s problem is that memory is neurologically a
function of the way in which we think about memory. So that now instead of being
able to recall information or recall things, he finds that the recall process is
related to certain kinds of association and the association is usually with the
timbre of his voice. He says something in the same way that we make
associations. Look what happens with smells in terms of our mode of remembering.
That’s now happening to him with all of his senses. Something similar did
happen to a Russian who was one of the great registered mnemonics of the late
19th century. He could literally go to a book, flip through it and then recite
the entire book.17 But his problem was that his form of recollection
became so powerful that anytime he made an association that tapped on his
memory, then his memories came to dominate entirely his notion of the real at
that moment. In other words, he became trapped inside a series of memories. What
we have in The City and Memory is a character who uses technology to flee
that possibility by immobilizing any of those parts of his body that might cause
associations, which in some ways is a very modern condition. Look at the 1950s.
They refurbished their houses so any indication of what had been built before
World War II would disappear. Any 1950s architecture or renovation is a
destruction of the architecture by which it was preceded.
D. And the coroner on the other hand is dealing with it by blocking
out memory ...
M.... which she nevertheless dreams because she’s stuck with her
D. So we’re starting with her dream of something she can’t
F. Would you see dream and memory as models of resistance?
M. They are tools of resistance and of survival, not models in and of
themselves. They are ways of reasserting the concept of your own presence in an
environment which continually wants to degrade that presence.
D. We were looking at the city as this stack of maps—maps of
immunization, maps of contagion, maps of kinship structures, maps of the flow of
goods. A series of connected points on each of those maps would be a subject. So
an autopsy’s forensic material would be a voyage through the city that would
in turn constitute the construction of the subject.
Cyberspace...enables its audience not merely to observe a reality, but to
enter it and experience it as if it were real.... Whereas film is used to show a
reality to an audience, cyberspace is used to give a virtual body, and a role,
to everyone in the audience. Print and radio tell; stage and film show;
cyberspace embodies.—Randal Walser, "Elements of a Cyberspace
Playhouse" (1990), cited in Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality (NY:
Simon & Schuster, 1992), 192.
Computers are theater. Interactive technology, like drama, provides a
platform for representing coherent realities.... Two thousand years of dramatic
theory and practice have been devoted to an end which is remarkably similar to
that of the fledgling discipline of human-computer interaction design; namely,
creating artificial realities in which the potential for action is cognitively,
emotionally, and aesthetically enhanced. —Brenda Laurel, Computers as
Theater (1991), cited in Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality (NY: Simon
& Schuster, 1992), 286.
T. Is there a particular kind of audience reaction you would like to
see in terms of art going out into the world?
D. My experience in the gallery scene left me with the feeling that I
wanted a different kind of audience, which doesn’t mean one constituted of
different people, but one constituted of different spaces with different recipes
for reception. Duration and time as aspects of audience involvement are more
interesting to me than the traditional model of the gallery, which tends to be a
little bit too fast. I like the idea of creating the desire for repeatability.
As I said, I’ll do a piece as an essay, an installation, a radio piece and we’re
working on the idea of a CD-ROM version of The City and Memory. It’s
like concentric circles with a little more exposure each time. My projects have
a high "ooh-wow" factor. My ideal space is a collapse between a
theater and a movie house. The spaces that I would really like to work in just
don’t exist. They would be a hybrid form. I am primarily interested in theater
without actors, so I envision something where someone would run a movie theater
but one would be able to move in and out of the theater space in whatever way
one wanted. There are ways of using space that would be a cross between the
experience of seeing a film and the experience of seeing an installation.
F. What’s your sense of what you would like, Michael?
M. Very similar, though Toni and I have quite different backgrounds.
Part of what I would like to see has to do with exploring the relationship
between virtuality and theater as we do in The City and Memory. But I
think that in Canada there has been a tendency, for financial and social reasons
as well, for theaters to play it a little too safe over the last few years. And
that doesn’t interest me. I think theater in Canada has enormous potential and
the fact that most new museums in Canada have theater spaces is promising. In
Montreal there is a kind of renaissance in performance space powered by cheap
real estate prices, the fleeing of manufacturing from the city, and the number
of people willing to move into these spaces and transform them. The performance
space thing in Montreal has exploded in the last 5 to 6 years. I think the kind
of community I would like to draw, the kind of people I would like to see, are
those people whom theater is unfortunately not serving very well in English
Canada, people who have been turned off because they’ve seen enough Neil
Simon. People are hungry for an experience that is cultural, emotional, and
intellectual. They go to performances, to art galleries and they come away with
a residue of feeling they have not got what they wanted. But I think that one
can create a space where they go and get what they want.
For one thing I’ve always been fascinated by the architecture of the memory
palace, which is a sort of medieval rhetorical construct for remembering.18
I spent some time in an Indian city, a small city on the edge of the desert like
an Indian Venice because it was a point where the silk road branched off. It’s
called Jaisalmar, a very ancient walled town.19 And I wandered around
this place, its tiny alleys. I came across a stone banister leading up to some
battlements and there were kids sliding down it. When I looked closely at the
banister I realized, because of the wear marks, that kids had been sliding down
it for at least 500 years. Then I began to look more closely at the narrow
turnings of the marketplace and at the wear in the stone. You sit at sunset and
begin to see, because of the low light, the shadows caused by the indentations
of where people work. And then you look at the different linguistic and
religious constructs within this tiny city, which is both Muslim and Hindu. They
don’t live together and they talk occasionally and there are people who are
marginalized because they do talk to Muslims and they do talk to Hindus and they’re
not supposed to. Also, there are always three different languages operating in
the city. And then there are the ways in which you have to eat and drink because
you don’t want to catch certain diseases. And there are two water supplies and
one has a different source from the other and possibly you have a different
reaction to this one because your immunology is too adapted to the other one.
What you have is a cultural interaction that is dependent on an emotional,
psychic, and linguistic geography defined by a particular physical geography,
somewhat akin to what we hope to achieve in The City and Memory.
1. ELIZA was a program designed by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT’s
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in response to Alan Turing’s suggestion
that machine intelligence could be demonstrated by a machine’s ability to
converse and exchange ideas with a human. ELIZA performed this by locating
proper nouns and responding with the question "why are you interested in
...?"—thus giving the illusion of meaningful exchange.
2. A brief technical overview of what the piece entails is as
follows: the graphics for the environment are stored in the two Silicon Graphics
VGX 310 computers, interconnected to share information and also connected to a
NeXT/IRCAM workstation for the sound environment. The data pathway begins with
one of the Silicon Graphics machines which sends the RGB video signal to an
encoder for conversion to an NTSC signal. The NTSC signal is sent on to an IBM
PS/2 with an M-Motion Card where it is converted to an appropriate signal for
the PARIS fiberoptic network system. The signal is then fed to a VGA monitor in
one of the two locations where a group of users may view it. One of the users in
the group holds a Polhemus tracker as a "camera" that allows him or
her to change the view of the environment as shown on the monitor. The driver,
another user at another location, has both a Polhemus tracker camera and a
dataglove, which allows him or her to move through the space. The movement and
position of the user in the space triggers a soundscape heard through audio
speakers located in the room. Both users, though separated, can speak to each
other through microphones as they explore the space.
3. The collaborative nature of the piece involves not only the
Banff Centre, but also the University of Alberta, Silicon Graphics Inc., and IBM
4. Giambattista Piranesi (1720-78) is known for his
architectural fantasies of ruins and prisons (the Carceri). Thomas de
Quincey describes the impression they made on Coleridge:
Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s Antiquities
of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates
by that artist, called his "Dreams," and which recorded the scenery of
his visions during the delerium of a fever. Some of them (I describe only from
memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) represented vast Gothic halls, on the floor
of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, pulleys, levers,
catapults, &c. &c. expressive of enormous power put forth, and
resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a
staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself.... But
raise your eyes, and behold a second flight of stairs still higher, upon which
again Piranesi is perceived, by this time standing on the very brink of an
abyss...again...a still more aerial flight of stairs is beheld...and so on,
until the unfinished stairs are lost in the upper gloom of the hall. (Thomas de
Quincey, The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, ed. Malcolm Elwin
[London: Macdonald, 1956], 422-23, cited in William L. MacDonald, Piranesi’s
Carceri: Sources of Invention [Northampton, Mass.: Smith College, 1979],
5. For example, see Mike Davis’s comments on L.A. as a
megalopolis in City of Quartz (NY: Vintage, 1992), 81-83.
6. According to a report in the New England Journal of
Medicine, the incidence of tuberculosis has increased nationwide (in the
USA) and more than doubled in New York, where there has been a marked increase
of drug-resistant tuberculosis (February 25, 1993, 328 , pp. 521-6).
"The incidence of tuberculosis has dramatically increased in recent years,
fueled by poverty, homelessness and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
pandemic. The prevalence of tuberculosis infection in some homeless populations
may be as high as 51 percent according to Navin M. Amin, M.D., professor of
family medicine at the University of California, Irvine" (Supplement to
American Family Physician, 46 , 100S-101S, 1992).
7. In private conversation Mackenzie referred to a pamphlet
edited by Raphael Samuel, possibly entitled Childhood in East London and
published between 1971 and 1974 in a series on oral history possibly by the East
London History Workshop. A search through the National Union Catalogue failed
to locate this work. Raphael Samuel is general editor of the History Workshop
Series, which specializes in the oral history of working-class Britain.
8. Virtual Valerie is a pornographic CD-ROM game for
the Macintosh computer created by Mike Saenz, who authored some of the first
computer-drawn comic books, then moved on to pornographic computer games. Virtual
Valerie is distributed by Saenz’s company Reactor, Inc., which has
recently begun distribution of a non-pornographic CD-ROM game entitled Spaceship
9. The interactive CD-ROM is a motion video that you can watch
on your computer through use of QuickTime technology. Voyager’s version of A
Hard Day’s Night includes a complete script, an essay by film historian
Bruce Eder about the Beatles, the theatrical trailer, the 1982 re-release
prologue, and clips from director Richard Lester’s other films.
10. The Zoetrope was designed by W. Horner of Bristol in 1834
and patented in 1860. "It was introduced into the United States of America
by William E. Lincoln of Providence in 1867, who first gave it the name of
Zoetrope or Wheel of Life" (Philip and Caroline Freeman Sayer, Victorian
Kinetic Toys and How to Make Them [London: Evans Brothers, 1977], 21).
11. See Bruce Sterling’s recent book, The Hacker
Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (NY: Bantam, 1992).
Sterling asks, in the wake of the 1990 hacker crackdown, "will the
electronic frontier be another Land of Opportunity—or an armed and monitored
enclave, where the disenfranchised snuggle on their cardboard at the locked
doors of our houses of justice?" (190).
12. Part of the surrealist legacy, Gance’s silent epic film,
Napoléon (1927), used a number of unusual techniques including a triple
screen and moving camera techniques that involved strapping cameras to horses
or, in the siege scenes at Toulon, using miniature cameras in soccer balls
thrown like cannonballs, or in Corsica, throwing submersible cameras from the
cliffs into the sea. The film, which took four years to shoot, cost 15 million
dollars and in the director’s cut used 15 thousand meters of celluloid, was
thought lost for a number of years until it was found, reconstructed, and
presented with a score by Carmine Coppola. Gance was fascinated by apocalyptic
visions and made a number of pioneer films, one of which is of especial interest
to science-fiction studies. J’Accuse (1938) is an anti-war film that
involves the resurrection of the millions of soldiers killed during the first
World War by a man obsessed with the horrors of war.
13. "Tzaczke" [our spelling] is the Yiddish
diminutive of a Hebrew word meaning "toy"; it is used here in the
sense of ornamental knick-knack.
14. See, for example, Jameson’s comments that "the
disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the
increasing unavailability of the personal style, engender the well-nigh
universal practice today of what may be called pastiche" in Postmodernism;
or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke UP, 1992), 16. For
more on the waning of affect in postmodern culture, see pp. 10-16.
15. For examples of such models, see Michael Benedikt, Cyberspace:
First Steps (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), plates 1-18.
16. Robert Lepage’s Les Plaques Tectoniques (Tectonic
Plates) opened at Implantheater in Quebec City in November, 1989. An earlier
version was shown in Toronto in 1987.
17. See Aleksandr (sic) Romanovich Luriia, The Mind of a
Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory, tr. Lynn Solotaroff (NY: Basic
Books, 1968) on the mnemonist Shereshevski ("S"), especially pp.
111-36 on the difficulties posed by his synesthesia.
18. See Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of
Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990), chapter 4,
"The Arts of Memory" on architectural mnemonics, which supplements
Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1966), chapter 4, "Mediaeval Memory and the Formation of Imagery." For
an account of a late Renaissance mnemonist, see Jonathan D. Spence, The
Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (NY: Viking Penguin, 1986).
19. Jaisalmar is in the Thar Desert in West Rajasthan, India,
26.52 North, 70.55 East. The town was founded in 1156 and is a caravan center
trading in wools, hides, camels, sheep, salt, and fuller’s earth. It is noted
for the architecture of its buildings and for several Jain temples.