Installation detail from Retraction: long hallway
Retraction is a fabricated environment made up of seven rooms and connecting corridors. Inside it, your movement and proximity can alter the trajectory of several interwoven narratives. There are over twenty characters in the sprawling, non-linear narrative that makes up the video portions of this work. Three additional characters appear live in the installation.
You enter Retraction through a formal lobby where a receptionist sits at a large desk. From there, you continue down a hallway to a projection room where a huge video screen displays events taking place in another space. There is no clear-cut beginning or end to this or other video narratives in Retraction. As a viewer, you create your own sense of cause and effect. After following another short passageway, you enter the room just seen on video.
Installation detail from Retraction: Hub
In this octagonal Hub, you can trigger changes in scenes on two televisions – effectively activating character interactions.When you move toward one of the two screens, you break a set of infrared beams. The effect is seen immediately on the video screen, which up to this point has been showing a static view of a room. Now, characters begin to enter the scene, interact with each other and do things. Both video screens operate this way, but they show different rooms inhabited by separate sets of characters. The effect is like watching high-definition surveillance footage, except that you, as the viewer, can trigger a seemingly endless series of scenes by simply walking forward. Likewise, you can cause characters to vacate a scene by backing off.
The programming protocol targets the first person to cross through a set of sensor beams and prioritizes that person as long as they are the closest to the screen on that side of the room. Many people can be present in the room, but only one side of the room can be activated at a given moment, due to the movements of one person. Although this approach to interactivity gives that person direct control, they will eventually relinquish it to others in the room through their own actions. Many people are allowed to experience this interactivity simultaneously, at least as observers.
Models studied for this project include crowd management for blockbuster museum shows and the narrative paths of carnival attractions and indoor Disney rides. Each of these formats determines a viewer’s experiences in a prescribed order, sometimes enforced by a mechanical mode of transport such as train cars or moving walkways. Retraction disturbs the idea of total artistic control by engaging the viewer as an active participant in a plausible environment. By allowing for freedom of movement and interaction, this piece relates to both walking tours of living history sites and the ability to backtrack and reevaluate in many computer games. The narrative of Retraction is open-ended, and the lack of neat resolution allows the viewer to take a more proactive stance.
The experience of seeing a space on video before actually entering that space repeats when you enter a long hallway, one of two rooms seen on TV in the Hub. Deeper into Retraction, the pattern shifts to include video scenes in locations outside the installation’s boundaries, and in places already visited – implying a connection to the past and to a present elsewhere. Additional rooms in the environment include a second projection room and a nursery. Retraction builds both true and false expectations about time and space.
The other three screens are not interactive, and their videos play as ten-minute loops. More characters and spaces appear on these screens: the Tea Attendant rolls in a samovar on a cart, the Assistant hears movement in the heating ducts, the Salesman brings his portable turntable to the exercise yard and the Janitor delivers a freshly pressed dressing gown to a burn victim. The story spills out gradually on the five screens. Objectively speaking, these fragments are encountered in a scrambled fashion and will be interpreted in ways partially dictated by the speed and attention span of individual viewers. They are meant to piece together a fragmented narrative and hopefully become engaged by it on a personal level.
Many people will not watch a complete video and will extrapolate based on what information they have. Meanings may be reversed for some viewers, particularly regarding cause and effect, action and reaction. Control and loss of agency are central driving forces in the film’s narrative, so it is particularly appropriate that it be manifested in the structure of a gallery presentation. My intent is to critique and violate the idea of control by engaging the viewer as an active participant. Allowing for freedom of movement and interaction, the narrative becomes open-ended. This lack of neat resolution permits the viewer to take a more proactive stance.
Retraction was made with the help of a fellowship from the Center for 21st Century Studies, grants from the Graduate School Research Committee and the Stipend for Undergraduate Research Fellows at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. Programming of interactive video: Greg Surges