Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 and Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory at York University, Canada

Response to Labyrinth

Carolyn Guertin
Senior McLuhan Fellow & SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow
University of Toronto
20 July 2005

Cosmic Consciousness and the Instantaneity of Synaesthesia

I. Screen Space as Depth of Mind
For centuries the function and purpose of the projection screen did not change much in the popular imagination; from Plato’s cave to Imax technology, the experience of passive viewing was a constant. The model for our interactive future, as glimpsed by Colin Low and Roman Kroiter’s glass floored Labyrinth in 1967, perhaps the first analog realization of cyberspace, was new only to the medium of film. Its coming was initially foretold in Alice’s looking glass, another fluid skin or transformative architecture that a body could insert herself into. Her mirror is a surface that will take no imprint, where every impression is immediately erased. Or perhaps it is a space without surface because it has neither mass nor depth. It is, in the hands of the creative imagination, a fluid representation of the subconscious self and the body.
Any immersive space uses synaesthesia to write itself on our bodies. Along with its virtual nature, it naturally presents the illusion of an ever-present surface. In virtuality, space is activated by our mouse click, directing us to the particular coordinates on the data surface we seek. Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin say that this focus on surface is not strictly the purview of the electronic domain either. Modern art, they say, splays myriad surfaces out for us to see all at once in “an attempt to hold the viewer at the surface indefinitely” (41-42?) This is a way of playing with the medium as a medium that becomes second nature in the infinite space of virtuality. By making us aware of the surface and the surface energy, the assumed depth—or architecture—of the other layers is made all the more apparent, even if they are inaccessible except through the uppermost skin of the screen. In short, surface has acquired a depth as it has undergone this transformation into interface.

In the early days of the cinema before the First World War, noted Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg attempted:
to define the architectonics of screen space, calling our attention to the meaning that certain camera movements can induce in our projection of depth onto the screened image. Such delicate psychological choreography is precisely what begins to happen on the Web: only here, instead of camera movements, it is mouse movements that induce meaning and trigger changes in visual dynamics which, in turn, affect our perception of screen depth. This assimilation of interactivity—quite literally, the idea that user input modifies screen display—fundamentally relocates the creative parameters within which design is both constructed and consumed. As paradigm shifts go, this one is seismic (Helfand 63).
Low and Kroiter’s analog Labyrinth could draw us in, but because it was not a responsive environment, it aimed for the transformative capabilities of the ancient architecture it was named for rather than for what we now look for in interactivity. Beyond exploding the concepts of inside and outside, how did their toying with the notion of depth of screen affect its viewers?

For Paul Virilio, depth of field in cinema is paralleled by a similarly complex “depth of time” in the new media (Virilio, 1991b, 31, 34). In film, depth of field is the measure of the lines of light, of the focal distance for a background shot. Similarly, for electronic media, we can limit the depth of our search, as Derrick de Kerckhove suggests: “we can decide how far back we want to go, how deep in time, just as we can decide how defined, how prepackaged or open-ended, that information should be” (de Kerckhove, 1997, 84). Screens within screens are the modus operandi of the multimodal, multimediated layering of the Web page. Were Low and Kroiter not playing with precisely this idea of screen depth and depth of time to try to create a ‘cosmic consciousness’ or what we now would dub an immersive, spatialized experience? Perhaps Labyrinth had no descendents only because Low and Kroiter reached the limits of the analog, and a hot medium like film was not cool enough to draw us in as active players? Might it not be that the biggest gap between 1967 and now, is that Labyrinth had viewers instead of the interactors it was designed for?

II. Architectures and Bodies
The labyrinth is what we might consider a cardinal technology. It is a tool that transforms those tasks that it touches. The labyrinth has been recognized since prehistoric times as “a crucible for change, a blueprint for the sacred melting of psyche and soul, a field of light, a cosmic dance” (Artress 176). Labyrinths are virtual space that we fill with our reality. They are infinitely expansive, opening before us to allow us to inject them with our current, in-the-moment state of mind in order to give us direction and answers to questions we cannot yet articulate.

The environment of any labyrinth is virtual. Like Neo in The Matrix, we too can exit our current reality to take a look from the outside by using the immersive environment of the transformative winding road of these architectures, and simultaneously submerge ourselves in the corridors of the informational infrastructure of the electronic realm. If, as is maintained by many, the creative imagination is what people find in the labyrinth, then is this not also what people find in the fluid architecture of synaesthetic environments that they insert themselves into? Our bodies’ stories too are structural, having beginnings and middles and endings, although not necessarily in that order.
The architectural forms of the new media are sensory. Surfing is a cognitive process map that must be experienced through the senses, deriving meaning from the body’s interactions in space. The more you try to analyse it, the less meaning it has. This attraction and repulsion of word and image is epistemological, syntactical, temporal and spatial. It is a literal synaesthesia, a confusion of the senses, and these performative spaces pull an interactor in all directions at once. Immersive environments use the experience of synaesthesia to submerge us totally in the media. However, because this is an imposed state rather than an organic one we retain a sense of wonder and feeling of presence in these spaces. As the environments aspire to modelessness, collapsing all modalities into a single mouse click, we are made more and more aware of our senses, not less, because our bodies are always multimodal even in a modeless environment.

Marshall McLuhan says, “All media are active metaphors in their powers to translate experience into new forms” (UM 57). Synaesthesia, as an act of transcoding, is to the body what metaphor is to the mind. In fact, the cyberfeminist artist Nancy Paterson argues that gui-based multimedia computer systems are actually perceptual rather than their usually constructed conceptual tools. They function “primarily as sensual transducers”—which are dubbed “synaesthetic media” by John A. Waterworth (Multi 5). Perception is, of course, precisely this interplay of the senses. We cannot make meaning without this interconnection. In short, “as a specific form of interaction in an integral perception system, synaesthesia…is the norm” (Galeyev, qtd Paterson 5). McLuhan, of course, argues for synaesthesia as an attribute of his acoustic space, and in our time since the interface is a metaphorical realm, it h9wmuses synaesthesia to confuse our senses. But where the interface is modeless, synaesthetic media is responsive, audio, tactile, physical, and sensory. Its receptors translate that modelessness into a kind of machine-based, embodied experience. If literacy fractured the senses as McLuhan argued, then—and here’s where Low and Kroiter’s experiment was truly radical in an analog age—the immersive electronic environment just might give us the potential to reunite them.
Immersive environments, like the painted cave, the sweat lodge, the medieval cathedral, Star Trek’s holodeck and virtual reality, are by definition “psychological thresholds” (Hovagimyan). Abstract spaces are sites of transformation and transcendence where the subject returns altered by the symbolic experience. This type of “shift in consciousness” is generally the realm of religious ritual, but it is also the realm of art (Hovagimyan). The power of immersive spaces in modern experience—be they contained within the labyrinth, the cinema, or virtual reality—persists in their symbolic value of revelatory power. Immersion is a boundary state and the liminal is irreducible: it alters consciousness by its very nature.
These new technologies offer possibilities for new forms of embodiment if we use material perspectives in the new technological realms. Immersive environments, like Low and Kroiter’s Labyrinth, can draw in all of the senses and give the interactor a different kind of embodiment for the practice of metaphor. This is a kind of cosmic consciousness that Unit B was aiming for. Another Montreal artist’s work, Char Davies’ Osmose, might be considered, if not a direct heir of Low and Kroiter’s Labyrinth, at least a near cousin. It is a digital, immersive environment where “breathing creates an altered state of awareness” and “contemplative freefall” (Davies film). Originally trained as a painter, Davies moved in the digital realm in the 1990s to find a way to play with transparency and notions of embodiment in more literal ways. In 1995, she released this million dollar virtual reality environment at Montreal’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Like the interface, it explodes parameters of public and private by spanning multiple modalites, and by questioning notions of spectator and audience in radical ways. Davies’ goal in the work was to design a transparent, responsive series of interconnected worlds where it was possible to drift or float between times, dimensions and spaces in a non-Cartesian universe.

Synesthetic cinema was derailed by the digital which provided greater flexibility and myriad potentialities due to its much more fluid architecture. Immersive environments as synaesthetic media move from simultaneity to instanteity in the shift from analog to digital. Film technology could produce a new awareness and a cosmic consciousness for the new age of simultaneity, but the digital revolution has shown us that simultaneity is in fact too slow. The visual simultaneity of the shutter click was quickly replaced by the acoustic instantaneity of the mouse click. The synaesthesia cinema that Low and Kroiter believed would revolutize visual culture had to wait until the spectator’s perspective splintered in the digital realm, freeing her to take an individuated view within a pan-perspectival responsive environment. The glass floor and the projection screen had to become a glass tank and a 4D environment for the spectator to be reborn as the immersant in virtual space.

How might a space like Colin Low and Roman Kroiter’s Labyrinth change how we move or propose new kinds of psychic or physical movement? The ancient architecture of the labyrinth can help us achieve a “shift in consciousness” (Artress xi). While the labyrinth is a particular space and place in time, navigation is first and foremost a process that we go through, that we experience through our eyes and our bodies. Like the flâneur, a figure conjured by the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire to describe a new urban type: the wandering, voyeuristic, male poet who records architectural physiognomies and sensations of the city, we too might appropriate the gaze to resituate the virtual voyeur. This time though he is not a nostalgic voice nor a voice of lament for the loss of humanity in a mechanistic age, but, instead, we can use him to invoke a new subjectivity for cyberspatial browsing with a potent gaze that looks, looks back and looks ‘elsewhere,’ refusing linear progress. Situated in the present moment of suspension, he is not simply Benjamin’s urban voyager in the city in motion, but the flâneur transformed has resurfaced as the synaesthesic surfer in the labyrinthine corridors of cyberspace.

Mon, September 12 2005 » 1960s, McLuhan, Virilio, labyrinth, screen technologies