UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Fall 1999
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Discovering New Media

UB's wired wired world

High-speed Computations

Language Study

Bob Arkeilpane

Related Sites
Mary Flanagan

UB Media Studies

Human Code, Inc.

daring digital artist

    A case in point is the "Alphaworld" online community, allowing participants to build their own environments, which exemplifies, in Flanagan's words, "the colonization of cyberspace via suburban values." Members receive an address, build a house, choose a color for the lawn and acquire a mailbox in a world that is "reminiscent of activities during a land rush rather than what we would perhaps dream up in a virtual environment."

Scenes from
The Perpetual Bed

images of fainting bodies representing one's consciousness when ill

a metaphorical representation of the passage of one's life

Celia Bowman, Flanagan's 92-year-old grandmother, subject of this virtual performance piece

    Flanagan's ideal is to leave behind the "ground" that is unnecessarily imposed on an inherently nonphysical space, a space where images, ideas and words can and should have free play. Her approach is radically different from the "historically hierarchical" structure of most digital interfaces, whose standardized, formatted pages and point-and-click "navigating" try to pass for interactivity.

    "The stories I am interested in concern daily life, struggles and human experience," wrote Flanagan in an introduction to The Perpetual Bed, a virtual performance piece. "Because of the unique properties of digital environments, I want to use them to attempt to reconfigure and spatialize history and memory."

    The Perpetual Bed grew out of an encounter Flanagan had with her 92-year-old grandmother, an independent, down-to-earth woman who had recently been brought low by illness. At her bedside, Flanagan witnessed a change in her grandmother's demeanor: "She had terrible, fantastic and funny dreams while ill, and the dreams acted out in the space of her room, a space which lost its taupe walls and hospital-huge doors to expand into a wake-dream world." Her grandmother recalled snatches of German she had probably not heard since she was a child and told Flanagan about a stream of curious visitors to her hospital bed—old acquaintances and new—whom she had entertained with chocolate chip cookies.

    "Sitting in the room with her," writes Flanagan, "my skin tingled with the feeling of paths crossing, of energies exchanging, and I realized that even though there was a lot going on that I could not see, I could sure feel it. But Grandma—she interacted."

    The artistic result of this experience was The Perpetual Bed, what Flanagan refers to as a "spatialized" or "navigable" narrative. The audience of such a piece is also participant in and contributor to it. Flanagan combined videotape she had previously taken of her grandmother with images culled from the Library of Congress that were made under the auspices of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. The work also incorporates elements of the WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection, which includes stories of the Great Depression that mirror her grandmother's experiences during that period as a country schoolteacher.

    Rather than passively watching the story unfold, participants travel through its spaces at their own pace, choreographing their own route. They can "perceive each other through their textual presence" by means of "navigable chat," a technology developed by Flanagan and Egert that adds three-dimensional text wherever the visitor chooses to write it. The piece combines elements of an artistic installation with performance. It's a hybrid of video, animation, sound design and genuine interactivity. Each visit yields a new path, a new rendition, a new variation on a theme.

    The piece functions as performance on another level, as well. Flanagan presented The Perpetual Bed at a conference on digital arts and culture at the University of Bergen in Bergen, Norway, last November. Afterwards, says Flanagan, "the women came up and told me, 'That was so moving.' The men said, 'That was cool. How did you do that?'" Their reactions encapsulate the state of the art today: a cyberculture that is still pretty much a male-dominated arena.

    "Some of my students start out here just looking to get a job," says Flanagan. "They see tools as the means and the end. I'm trying to get away from that, to add a critical and social dimension, to get students to think about who you are and how you can change that world, to use the tools to say something.

    "I'm trying to convey a story, but the way I tell it, through the media, it's only successful if people are moved by it. I start at the personal to get at the larger picture … I make for resonance."

Patrick Klinck, B.A. '88, is a copywriter for the Buffalo News and an M.A. student in UB's Department of English.

Story by Patrick Klinck
Photo by Frank Miller

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