Science Fiction Studies

#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 Link: Market/Technology/Policy."

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 genres.

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 each other.

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 techno-criticism.

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 this piece?

Dove. It was a kind of committee.

Mackenzie. I had this idea that I sent to her and she thought it was interesting.

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 conceived?

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 different processes.

F. So how important in the piece are images of a narcoleptic, plague-ridden civilization?

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 things.

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 technology.

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 art-making.

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 spectrum.


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 advertising.

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 postmodernism ...

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. Yes.

M. Anti-individual.

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 without duration.

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 B-A-D! [laughter].

Virtual Reality

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’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 artspace.


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 subjectivity.

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 subjectivity.

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 of body.

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 Body

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, 1991), 43.

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 not?

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 unconscious.

D. So we’re starting with her dream of something she can’t remember.

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 Canada.

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], 9-10.)

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 [8], 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 [5], 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 Warlock.

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.

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