Jeffrey Shaw: virtual Melbourne

Dean Kiley

Jeffrey Shaw

Jeffrey Shaw

Jeffrey Shaw

Professor Jeffrey Shaw is an internationally renowned Australian new media artist, with The Legible City (1989-91) and its variants possibly his most famous work, and the big inflatable pink pig for Pink Floyd the one people mention least. He’s the Director of the Institute for Visual Media at the ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. In November 2000, he gave a (startlingly comprehensive but concise and accessible) lecture, “Future Cinema”, in the Digital Media Fund series at Melbourne’s Cinemedia.

I believe you’re developing a piece for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, to open in Federation Square in 2001?

It’s called Place-Urbanity: it’s a computer-based interactive media installation that will be part of the permanent collection at the centre. It evolves out of a series of earlier works, Place—a Users Manual (1995) and Place-Ruhr (1999), and is connected with my somewhat obsessive interest over the last few years in creating new kinds of interactive cinematic installations.

To give you some sense of the physical shape of the piece: there is a 9-metre diameter circular projection screen that is about 3 metres high, inside of which is a round platform about 2-and-a-half metres in diameter on which the operator stands. On this there’s a modified underwater video camera: it has no video functionality but you use its buttons to control the work’s navigation parameters. There’s also a projector on the platform projecting images out onto the circular screen: not the whole screen, only a proportion of it. Because the platform rotates, so does the projection ‘window’, and in that way the operator can explore the full 360-degree panoramic view. The functionality of the interface offers you control of the rotation of the image on the screen, and you can also move your point of view forwards and backwards within the virtually represented space.

In this work I’m creating a virtual landscape of Melbourne, populated by about 15 cylinders: these are video recordings made with a ring of cameras, so one achieves a complete panoramic video recording of each location. These panoramic cylinders inhabit a virtual landscape: they have an architectural presence there, and if you enter these cylinders you can view their respective 360-degree surround video scenes. It’s a strategy for making what you could call cinematic haikus at different locations in Melbourne, and putting them all together in a semi-fictional landscape. The visitor can then navigate through this narrative space and choose different places they want to visit.

From a content point of view, the piece intends to give a mirror to Melbourne, especially in terms of its remarkable ethnic diversity, so I’m choosing locations that are the centres for various immigrant communities. In each location you will find a comedian who belongs to that ethnic community telling a joke: jokes that reflect the idiosyncratic conditions of these various communities…these comedians are not standing upright in front of their respective panoramic locations, they are hanging upside down and seen from the waist down, telling their jokes directly to viewers.

And it’s not a simulacrum, it’s not like The Legible City, where there was a visual semiotic one-to-one mapping. Instead you’ve chosen delimited locations so it’s a bit more like de Certeau’s idea of walking through the city, producing your own grammar, connecting up points.

Yes, what I’m doing is building up a new ground-plan of Melbourne constituted by this set of ethnic community locations, each inhabited by its joke-telling protagonist. It follows from the Situationist notion of the psycho-geography of a city, and the fact that you can restructure or redefine an urban identity in relation to a set of psychological co-ordinates. As I’m putting the work together there is a new geographical form emerging, a kind of inverted Y shape with the respective locations distributing themselves along these axes, and the Yarra cutting through the middle. This new map will constitute the virtual environment where the video recorded panoramas are located, and on the interface camera there is also a LCD viewfinder where you can see a bird’s-eye view of this ground-plan in relation to your actual position.

And will you use text, text as architecture, as you have in the past? Michael Joyce and Judy Malloy have characterised you as a hypertext writer in 3 dimensions, though you also use text as sculpture or machinery or real-time mapping. Does Place Urbanity do this?

I’ll be using text here too. It offers me the opportunity to create another set of narratives that can run parallel to the gags spoken by the comedians. The interface device, the underwater camera, has a microphone that is sensitive to the viewer’s voice. It doesn’t take account of what the person says; it only wants to hear something spoken. And then it works like a switch: it releases prepared texts into the virtual world. These texts appear about 8 metres away from you, in the middle of the virtual space and always scrolling to the left. The appearance of these texts is relative to your movements through this urban landscape, to your trajectory there. If you start to move forwards, each letter will slide off further into the distance, creating a diagonal line of text. And if you’re turning the platform you’ll start to ‘sweep’ the text into curves, spreading or compacting the letters depending on the direction of the rotation.

While you are exploring the work you are laying down traces of text that ensue from and represent the paths you’ve taken ; as a result the text can become very scattered and chaotic. This becomes a kind of ‘concrete poem’ that’s splayed out inside the urban landscape. It’s quite personal for each visitor because it’s something they have brought into the space with their voice and movements. At the same time these texts are short-lived, impermanent; they have a lifespan of around 3 minutes and then they gradually fade away. Each person entering the installation inherits the temporary traces of where previous people have been, while adding their own. Human presence is signified by text, language occurs as the residue. Especially in relation to the increasingly distended cyberspace created by the internet, it strikes me that this is an apt contemporary representation of human presence, a presence embodied by just a density and complexity of text traces.

And the intrusion of text into the virtual landscape also breaks the simplistic ‘VR’ contract, where the user’s senses are meant to be tricked by consistent realism. It’s as if you’re trying to elicit a conversation between the individual user and ideas about interactivity—and about interface—dramatised by the work, so it’s reflexive, based on conventions.

You are touching here on something which is fundamental and important to me. I’m not at all interested in virtual reality per se. Rather, virtuality is used as a strategy to reconstitute something essential about the real. Rotating the projection window gradually reveals a panorama view that is assembled as a whole in your own mind, in memory, which is what happens when one is observing the real world. This is a level of realism that even goes beyond what conventional cinema can achieve.

In an interactive work like Place Urbanity the apparatus is spliced into the argument: the panoramic screen, the projector, the rotating viewing platform…these are blatant yet also fundamental to the point and storyline. In all my work the technological devices are present, visible, but at the same time they signal the thematic lines that extend from their operation. It sounds a little abstract but it’s important to me that the interface camera for Place Urbanity is an underwater camera because of the associative implications of such a device.

Like Cousteau in a bathyscope wandering round Brunswick…That’s something visitors to your works pick up on, I think: the interface familiarity, and then the defamiliarisation and retraining, learning how to work it.

Yes, in all the works there’s a variegated exploration of interface strategies. In Place Urbanity, the underwater camera interface is familiar but given a new identity in the context of the work: endowed with other functionality, figurative value and a metaphoric resonance.

Jeffrey Shaw lecture, “Future Cinema”, Cinemedia, Melbourne, November 20; Place Urbanity was funded by the Digital Media Fund’s Interactive Screen Arts Program. For more info, visit www.cinemedia.net/DMF/ [link expired]

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 18

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

1 February 2001