thesis post mortem

Some thoughts about the experience of my thesis performance and some of the thoughts about the process that I didn’t express in the presentation.

Although the production and process of my thesis project looked like a pcomp project most of the time, what I was thinking about and doing most of my work and research on was narrative/storytelling. I’m a little resistant to talk about this aspect, a little more self conscious about it, and I’ll try to explain why. In my presentation I said that I liked comics and cartoons a lot, and that’s true, but my background in literature and thinking about narrative is more broad. I care deeply about stories and I think it is important to have a critical approach to being a “storyteller.” I think that we are experiencing a sort of narrative fad right now, where everyone wants to define their works in terms of narrative and everyone wants to be a storyteller. That’s great in general and it leads to a lot of experimentation and interesting work, but it can be problematic in a sense that creating stories and understanding story form is given great attention, while a more critical understanding of the history of narrative and the way it works is not always present.

There are many traditions of storytelling which influence the kinds of stories being created now, but I think there are two main traditions that are in conflict with one another. One is the canon of literature that we all, for the most part, accept as the basis of narrative. Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Dickens, etc. The other is the kind of commercial narrative that was made popular by advertising and television and has become probably the dominant form of storytelling that we accept as good or proficient. This kind of story is very concerned with form, execution and effectiveness. The actual content is not as important. The same set of images and events could be used to sell soda or airplane tickets, but there is a very specific way that it has to be done for an audience to be correctly manipulated into desiring and purchasing a product. That format seems to often be blindly accepted in narrative contexts that aren’t necessarily supposed to be commercial, or at least derive some aspect of their authenticity with a claim at being creative, artistic or socially conscious. This seems to be a particularly relevant problem in the new media context that many people at ITP are working in, because we have some much control over the style and visual impact of the work. If we unthinkingly accept the conventions of these forms, we give up the critical attention that storytelling deserves. In my opinion, a good story is not one that manipulates an audience into paying attention or having an emotional response, but one that uses both form and content to give an audience some sort of insight into their lives or what it means to be a person and live in a society.

In Marianne’s Collective Narrative class we looked a lot of the kinds of new media stories and Marianne and other students in the class were pretty keen at sussing out when a work is more about narrative manipulation than a more honest or sincere presentation of content, or whatever you want to call it. We looked at this piece by Jonathan Harris where he goes Bhutan and gives everyone a balloon while filming them and creating an interactive website. There is no actual story in this piece. The viewer doesn’t learn anything about Bhutan or happiness as Harris intends. What we learn is that Harris is very good at creating an emotionally manipulative visual experience, but there is no apparent message from the piece. For Harris, the purpose of the story is just to give viewers the sense that he is a great storyteller. To me this is just another product of our current narrative fetish, as evidenced by his TED talk. To give an example of a new media story that has actual content, a guest speaker that came to class to show a website based work called Prison Public Memory which collects stories about a prison in Hudson, New York, that became a school for girls who were sort of delinquent or troubled. There are a lot of powerful stories contained in this site, historical information and insight, but the site itself looks like it could have been made by a high schooler with Dreamweaver.

So we kind of obsess about the narrative structure, having three acts, a stasis, conflict, resolution. There has to be a reversal and catharsis and all of these other things that people have had figured out for a long time but we can never seen to get away from. In Douglas Rushkoff’s Narrative Lab that was basically all we ever talked about it, how can we have that moment of catharsis in the non linear storytelling context provided by new media. We never asked what else could happen, or what the point of creating an emotional catharsis might be. I had some hope when we talked about Ibsen and the innovation in theatre that he championed, where the three act structure was subverted by long political diatribes replacing any resolution or emotional catharsis that the audience might have been hoping for, but somehow after we covered that, we just kind of forgot about it and moved on to McKee and how to create emotionally manipulative stories.

So what does this have to do with the stories that I wrote and the performance that my thesis became? A lot of the things I was talking about earlier in the semester, Marshall McLuhan, new media and narrative on the web, are related to the problems that I’ve outlined here. Technology has made it very easy to create visually and aurally rich story formats that tend to mimic the aesthetic and formula of advertising and television. But I’m almost always disappointed by the content of new media work, the actual stories. I’ve always been much more inspired by the kinds of stories that you find in text based message boards and fan fiction sites, where there is no use for emotional manipulation because there’s no product and no profit margin to be considered in the process. But it seems like people who are engaged in creating narrative as artists or writers and want to make a living doing have cynically accepted the commercial constraints of storytelling and are happy to ironically re-imagine them in a way that plays both sides of the fence by creating work that has a conventional form and resolution while teasing itself at the same time. This kind of ironic commercialism is old hat.

I think that the people who are writing stories on 4chan and other message boards, or writing fan fiction or other niche internet/community activities, are often more conscious of form and content that they’re given credit for. It’s all sort of post modern because of the way that the web encourages reference and repetition, but there are some writers who play with these conventions and framing devices.

I wanted my story to be entertaining and funny, but also reveal something about the way that people relate to each other through the internet, and the general use of narrative as a way of making sense of the world and the conflict inherent in doing so. Some people who saw my early tests and the performances themselves said that they wanted to see the robots fight each other, some kind of cute, absurd version of a Transformers movie (which are absurd enough on their own), which in a way is exactly the reaction I might want to illicit and then completely deny. Robots killing each other is certainly entertaining, and I’m going to say that any narrative that has robots killing each other in it is necessarily superficial or bad or something, but in and of itself, robots killing each other is not a story and it doesn’t really mean anything.

One reference that has come up a lot from other people talking about my project has been Samuel Beckett. I am a fan of Beckett and I’ve read most of his works at some point, a few of them a bunch of times, but I’ve been hesitant to really get into my thoughts about Beckett, because I think most would regret bringing it up once I got started. So, Beckett is relevant in terms of both style and themes and content. For many people, Beckett’s work is really just about one play, Waiting for Godot, which is often misinterpreted as basically a polemic against religion, meaning or spirituality. It’s more of a polemic against narrative form. The plot of Waiting for Godot is two guys are waiting for another guy and then he doesn’t show up. It’s not a three act structured plot—it’s a punch line. Beckett was mostly concerned not with telling people that god doesn’t exist, but exploring the reason we want there to be a god in the first place. The play is about different things of course. On one level, its about the inability of people to understand or relate to one another and the conflict with that inability and our inability to accept it. On another level, its about narrative form, and the role that it serves in our construction of meaning. In Beckett’s world, its the need for meaning and resolution that creates unhappiness and tragedy. Most of Waiting for Godot is really good slapstick humor. The part people remember is the lack of resolution. Beckett was more concerned with describing the human condition than telling a good story and his work does this relentlessly. For Beckett, the convention of form, with catharsis and resolution, are false, and his work is as much about that as it is about the way people relate to each other.

So there’s this conflict between structure and meaning. I don’t think that a story with a moment of catharsis or resolution is necessarily a bad or false story, but I think that we often dismiss the critical attention that storytelling in general deserves.



thesis, week10 progress

Late again on this one, but I’ll try to summarize where I was last week after the crit and before the first performance. After the crit, I was worried about continuing to work on the augmented reality/video part of the performance, in part because some viewers seemed confused by it, and also because the complexity of the technological setup was preventing me from spending as much time as I wanted to on the script writing and rehearsing aspects of the project. For the first full tech rehearsal, just to make sure, I did one with only the text component and another with text and video.

video rehearsal.

I actually really like the aesthetic of the video, so in order not to lose it from the project entirely I decided to create new contexts beyond the performance. I plan to make a video fake documentary style featuring the cats and an installation that gives people control of the cats. These plans might be overly ambitious and I might not get around to doing them, but I’m trying to carve out some time after the performances to work on them.

text rehearsal.

I spent so much time debugging before actually rehearsing that the big cat ran out of batteries by the time I got to this section. This setup is a lot cleaner and more obvious.

I also tried adding more visual components to the monitors, google image searches of the cats lines, fragments of glitch and digital compression etc., but they all just seemed like fx. I didn’t have the time to develop something that really made sense in context, so I just went with the text and cats for the first performance. Stripping down the tech did give me a lot more time to work on the script and talk to different readers about their impressions. I did eight different versions in all and I plan to write new stories for the next performances. That is, after all, the fun part.

thesis, what week is it?

I worked a lot this week getting together a short excerpt of the performance for the art crit tonight. I ran into a lot of problems building the new cat. I had to scale the cat up 1.5x to accomodate the battery I will be using–I also thought a lot about just using wall power, which I could still do if I have more battery problems. The mechanisms didn’t scale as well as I had hoped, so I spent a lot of time re working them and updating new parts. I had planned to make two new cats, but had to work on getting the one cat to work better. Hopefully next weekend I can finish the redesign and build a second cat.

I spent a lot of time on the script as well and its getting closer to something that works. There is still a lot that needs to be refined and rewritten. I’m going to do a shorter version of the first scene tonight and see what kind of feedback I get. Right now the story is mostly about the mythology of the cat creator, who is a human, told by one of the cat robots (the story is a mythology invented by the robot). This story is fleshed out and I’ve gotten good responses to it, but I’ve had a harder time working on the relationship between the two cats. I’m going to focus on bringing that out next.

I finished the control interface in Processing, AR environment in Unity, and robotic code in Arduino. There are some parts that need to be refined, but all of the elements are working.

Here are pics of the new cat:



thesis, midterm presentation

The midterm presentation went pretty well I think. I got really great feedback from Gabe and the guest critics. I also got some good feedback from alums during the quick and dirty show afterward. I started thinking more about how to stage the performance, the possibility of using AI for one of the cats and Internet versions of the project. I realized after the presentation that I should have shown some of the script, because I think people were having a hard time imagining what the interactions between the cats would actually be like. I’ve been hesitant to show anything that isn’t polished, I think its part of writing that you don’t want to give away the story before its ready.

thesis, spring break progress

Spring break kind of sucked. I spent most of the time working with a few different augmented reality development tools to try to figure out what would be the best to use for thesis and a couple of other projects I’m working on the involved AR. I felt like I wasted a ton of time working on tech stuff that is pretty tough to do while not spending enough time on the more creative and interesting parts of my thesis. But I guess I was going to have to do it at one point or another. I have a pretty decent version of my AR stuff working with Unity and NyARToolkit, which I think I’m just going to accept and go forward with. The major drawback of NyARToolkit is that the AR fiducial markers have to have big black squares around them, which reads as a very obvious tech thing. This doesn’t necessarily bother me depending on the context but it would be nice if I could use natural images and textures to fit with the scenes more. If I run out of time to make the AR really look good, I’m fine with dropping it, but if I can get it to look good I think it could take things to a cool place.

I also spent a lot of time figuring out the wireless control setup for the cat as well as the power. Wireless is a little frustrating but I developed a system that works fairly reliably and is pretty simple. If I have time I would like to make it more complex. The power situation is more tricky. I need a lot of amperage for the cat to run well. Because the wireless signal and servos run on the same power, the wireless cuts out when the servos draw too much power, which creates a lot of problems. The audio and camera are working fine though, so I just need to find a way to get more current to the JeeNode. I’m meeting with Eric Rosenthal today to discuss my power budget.

So there’s still a lot of parts that I’m figuring out but I think things are coming along.

I also need to make a stage. Eek.

thesis, week4 progress

This week I finished my 3d model of the cat and got some advice from Danny Rozin for creating a work flow to turn the 3d design into shapes to lasercut. I did my first test with acrylic, testing different grip hole sizes for the servo motors and the acrylic binding solution. I plan to pick up some plastic and cut the first prototype this week. I also got the JeeNode in the mail, an Arduino made by Modern Device and Jean-Claude Wippler, basically an Arduino with built in radio communication. I’ll build the board and begin testing this week.

I also watched the anime Cat Soup which was suggested in class by someone a couple of weeks ago. It is a really great short and it gave me a lot of ideas for doing narrative with minimal dialog. I watched some other animation shorts without dialog but wasn’t as inspired.

I finished a rough outline of the story as well. It still has a lot of parts that need to be tied together. Right now the narrative references too many characters and goes in too many directions, but I think I can start to put things together and simplify over the next week by beginning to write dialog and stage directions. I’ve thought a lot about using the human performers as characters—I want to use them as more than just video game playing drones, but I don’t think I want to give them actual lines. I’m uncomfortable getting that close to a theatre performance. I decided I would rather just have them use some simple movements to establish the beginning of a scene—maybe lying down like they’re going to sleep—to frame the cat stories.

I made some more arduino synth music this week too. I’m getting closer to the actual voice I want to use.

I read some more Derrida this week. His description of his relationship with his cat is very compelling. He talks about being naked in front of the cat and how the concept of naked probably doesn’t exist for animals. I definitely want to explore those themes and differences in my story. I have also been pushing myself to look more into cat culture online. Although I write and talk a lot about cats, I’m not actually someone who spends that much time looking at them online—I’m not a big social media person, so I don’t see these things on the facebook or reddit or other places like that. People do send me a fair amount of cat stuff, like this really nice article Ann sent me this week. Anyway, I made myself watch more cat stuff, including videos of cats pooping into toilets.

Here is the plot outline ive been working on. Right now there a bunch of loose ends, things that need to be fit together. I’m starting to write the individual scenes which I think will make it clear how to fit all the threads together.

beware the cat

3 scenes

scene 1
– human characters enter
– male hands box to the female
– they sit on a bench together for a while or something
– they go to the “stage” and lights come up on cat stage
– cat 1 enters, controlled by a person (male or female?)
– cat 1 confused, doesn’t know where it is (scene?)
– cat 2 enters, cat 1 freaks out, it has never seen another robot cat
– they eventually introduce themselves, and talk about their impressions of each other’s owners
– cat 2 is an older version, maybe made out of wood, or different colors of plastic – cat 1 is newer, has shiny fancy plastic, higher voice, moves faster maybe
– cat 2 tells cat 1 the story about a man who owned the last real cat (maybe this information is relayed later), the man goes on a quest to build robot cats
– in the first part of the story, the man comes upon a cat scientist who experiments on cats, but discovers that his experiments are basically torture
– cat 1 is freaked out by the story
– the lights go out, because the humans have gone to sleep

scene 2
– humans lying on the ground next to each other or something, they get up, go to their stations, maybe spend a beat staring at each other or something
– cat 2 continues the story, in the second part, the man encounters another person who has sex with cats, the man is horrified
– cat 1 begins to ask questions about how cat 2 knows the story
– cat 2 explains another story, that of the last real cat in the world
– much like cat 1, the last real cat lived with a person and didn’t know there were other cats in the world
– the person buys a robot cat, the last real cat freaks out, he doesn’t know that he’s not a robot
– the robot doesn’t speak cat language, and the real cat eventually figures out its a robot (how?)
– the last real cat writes a hieroglyphic cat language thing for future generations to know about the end of cats
– cat 2 tells cat 1 that human 2 didn’t realize human 1 spent all day on his computer writing about the end of the world as a pseudonym
– cat 1 says human 1 didn’t know that human 2 spent most of the day sleeping

scene 3
– cat 2 finishes origin story of robot cat, cat guy finds final place, where guy is a dog person, he is also creating robot dogs in his basement. guy falls in love with a girl there. guy makes a robot cat, and the old guy freaks out and kicks him out, he finds out his cat is dead and kills himself, the girl finds his brother and they recreate shitty version of cat
– cat 1 begins to ask cat 2 more questions about the story, who told it to him etc. somehow is revealed that it was actually a robot cat who faked the cat hieroglyphic language as a joke for some reason?
– cat 1 tells cat 2 about the apocalypse stuff, and how human 2 doesn’t believe it, the extinction of animals is the beginning of the apocalypse, people are creating their own destruction
– human 2 thinks that the world has always been part of an apocalypse
– there is a question of whether the robot cat was the real hoax writer or if it was programmed by the person who created it
– the human couple breaks up because the owner of cat 1 is too paranoid, cat 1 never learns the true origin of robots

background on people
– they’re in a relationship and decide to move in together
– one is a conspiracy theorist, believes the death of real cats is a omen for the end of the world