motions: collaboration, technology. multimedia

by Hazel Smith

In the last blog I talked about the piece motions[i] —  a collaboration with US video artist Will Luers, who devised the images and coding, and musician Roger Dean who created the sound. I approached the project mainly from the point of view of the writing process and the research I undertook, here I want to focus on the collaborative, multimedia and technological aspects of working on the piece.

Screenshot 1 from motions (a bar at the top, not visible here, shows you how far you have progressed through the piece; you move forward by means of the keyboard arrows on the computer (or by swiping on the iPad) but the screen can also be scrolled vertically to reveal more material.

Collaboration is an aspect of creative endeavor that I particularly relish, since I find that working with others takes me out of my comfort zone, provides new directions for my work, and extends my skills. Collaborating allows me to work with experts in different media, who often also have sophisticated technological expertise in their areas. Collaboration for me is also usually tied in with friendship, and most of the people I have collaborated with — such as ceramicist Joanna Still, environmental and body artist Sieglinde Karl-Spence and writer Anne Brewster — have also been long-standing friends. Not only can friendship aid the collaboration through mutual understanding and empathy, but collaboration can be a way of making time for, and developing, the friendship.

Working in multimedia forms is one of my passions, though I also write a great deal for the page. For me multimedia redefines and extends the literary, since images and sound make meaning in different ways from words, and can complement, challenge and contradict the text to extend its resonances. During any particular work the relationship between image, text and sound will not be static, but will be constantly changing as the media mold to each other, move apart and remold in different configurations. Images and sounds also intensify the affective, emotional level of the words, and make the work more immersive. In austraLYSIS, the sound and multimedia group of which I am a founder member, we often perform multimedia works with additional live elements. The live performance, audience presence and darkened space create an enveloping experience quite different from looking at the work on the web at home.

When you are collaborating you have an inbuilt audience, and so the feedback is greater than when you are working on your own: this provides a lot of incentive to write. If you are receiving feedback from artists from other disciplines, they may also have a different perspective from that of a writer, a perspective that is more predominantly visual or sonic. Collaboration can be challenging to your autonomy and purpose as a writer because, to a degree, you must allow your collaborators to work with your text in their own way, to break it up, reorder it and emphasise some elements at the expense of others. Initially it can be wrenching to let go of your own contribution and allow it to develop a new identity, but in the end it is usually a great delight to do so. All the visual artists and musicians I have worked with have tended to be extremely interested in words and sensitive to their possibilities.

Screenshot 2 from motions

To return to motions: in the last blog I talked about the discussions we had as a group about the writing of motions. These included important structural decisions that had to be made about the piece, particularly decisions about how it would be realized. Will wanted to explore the interface between the book and multimedia web art; he was curious about how our concept of the book is changing, a subject that also interests me. After some discussion and experimentation, Will decided to use html 5 and javascript to create an interactive environment that varies with each viewing. Some texts and images are programmed to occur each time the piece is viewed, and in a particular order. But overall the juxtaposition, order and formatting of text, image and sound are different on each viewing. So successive readings of the piece will bear a family resemblance, but will encounter considerable divergences.

Writing for such an environment also means adapting the writing to the medium. The text was realised as fragments, and longer pieces were generally split up. I sent my text to Will, usually with instructions for possible fragmentation; he sometimes divided it up further. In fact, although I wrote the text, he had considerable impact — through his organization of the programming—on the (partly sequential, largely variable) way that it was juxtaposed and arranged.

Screenshot 3 from motions

As the project progressed —  and in tandem with plenty of discussion by email and Skype when Will returned to the USA —  Will and Roger added images and sound that reinforced, complemented or contradicted the text. Will’s images are both representational and abstract, and also explore the continuum between: they built in boldness and intensity as the project progressed, much to my delight. Will often approaches the subject of human trafficking obliquely, for example in images of ships and airplanes, or by depicting spaces that suggest cage-like or claustrophobic environments. However, he also incorporates human figures (usually with cut off or pixelated faces to ensure anonymity), sometimes in ambiguous environments but often seeming to be incurring distress.

Roger and I have collaborated together for many years on intermedia and multimedia projects; he often likes to work in response to the text, while also suggesting further possibilities for its development. His sound, like Will’s images, greatly raised the affective level of motions, and added many descriptive and evocative components. The sounds involve sampling and electronic manipulation, and are organized in four sections: airplane sounds that are digitally manipulated and abstracted, Macedonian music which might be seen to recall the homeland, train sounds also digitally manipulated and abstracted, and more westernized, rhythmic and harmonic music. The Macedonian section is mainly rhythmically asymmetric and also microtonal (i.e there are very small spaces between the notes), while the westernized section is more rhythmically regular and tonal. However there is also some exchange of characteristics between the two, for example some asymmetric rhythms and microtones do appear in the westernized section suggesting the transcultural migration of such music. Each sound section is triggered to start with a probabilistic (partly chance driven, partly determined) delay once a particular screen has been reached. However, the reader’s interactions trigger other algorithms that determine the beginnings, ends and overlaps of the different sonic components. The simultaneous contrast and interconnection between the different musical components, embodies the displacement of victims into an alien (often westernized) cultural environment.

Screen Shot4
Screenshot 4 from motions

These constantly changing word-sound-image relationships in motions are the main dynamic of the piece. Each medium underlines, modifies and challenges the others, producing emergent meanings that cross over between the different media and cultural domains. To return to the subject of my previous blog, there are overlaps with my research again here, because I am currently writing about cross-media work for a book I will be publishing with Routledge in 2016 about the contemporary literature-music relationship.

[i] Hazel Smith, Will Luers, Roger Dean, motions