Interview with Erik Loyer (Story Problem)
Bio : Erik Loyer is a digital media artist whose works explore the creative potential unleashed by the advent of digital communications. His multiple talents as a writer, designer, animator, composer and programmer result in pieces that exhibit strong tactile qualities and a unique synergy. Using the dynamic interactive vocabulary of computer games as a departure point, Erik applies techniques of real-time animation and interaction to poetic content which users enact and explore.
Erik's professional career began in 1993 as an audio editor for The Voyager Company, the pioneering developer of CD-ROM and laserdisc titles. A year later, he joined several Voyager alumni in founding Inscape, an innovative CD-ROM game developer, where he created interface and game designs for a number of titles. In 1997, following the Los Angeles exhibition of his experimental CD-ROM, "aug 6 1991," Erik turned his talents to the World Wide Web. His multimedia art site "The Lair of the Marrow Monkey" won a 1998 New Media Invision Silver Award and has been added to the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The success of that project led to a 1999 Rockefeller Media Fellowship for Erik to support his latest work, an online episodic interactive narrative entitled "Chroma". "Chroma" has been exhibited at the 2001 Taos Talking Pictures Festival and the Electronic Language International Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Most recently, Erik has done interactive design work for the international advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, and he founded the information architecture division at the Los Angeles office of Razorfish, Inc. His Internet art works can be found at www.marrowmonkey.com.
Carlo Zanni - In your webwork Story Problem, the user is asked to determine the loading process through his mouse movements. I see here a parallel with actors, when they interpret a text written by others. Is there a similarity? I mean, do you think of users as "physical" compilers or interpreters of your code?
Erik Loyer - Yes, In Story Problem I was very much trying to encourage a performer's sensibility in the user about the whole experience. The idea was to lay out a palette of expressive options - primarily pitch, volume, speed, and rhythm - and to let the user know, even if only subconsciously, that those elements were theirs to play with. I also wanted to make the user feel comfortable that we weren't going to allow her to "make a mistake," meaning play a note out of harmony or out of rhythm with the musical pattern going on in the bass register. Just as in a more traditional performance, there's an element of expressive freedom as well as constraints imposed by the environment and the text that give the expression meaning.
One of my favorite stories to tell about this piece is how an early version allowed the user to trigger rhythmically correct notes whenever the mouse was moved. This turned out to be a really boring experience, because there was no mystery in the triggering mechanism. It also tended to butcher the wonderful rhythms of Terri's poem. The solution was to enforce pauses at rhythmically significant moments in the text-at punctuation, mostly, but also at other important spots. This emphasis on negative rhythmic space, plus the slight frustration the user gets from not always being able to trigger a note when she wants, suddenly brought the whole experience to life. There's a lovely micro-moment that happens when you try to trigger a note, nothing happens, and then you realize that by inhibiting that note, Terri's words have shaped your actions into something more dramatic than you would have come up with on your own. It's almost like she's coaching you in how to perform her work.
C.Z. - Was the Story Problem text written with the aim to be loaded by users, or is it something you "transcoded" for this occasion? If this is so, do you see any structural difference between writing for paper (or "classic" screen) and these alternative uses?
E.L. - Terri can tell you for sure, but I don't believe the text was written with an interactive interpretation in mind. There's definitely a formal difference between writing in a more traditional manner and writing specifically for this medium. Content is so malleable and there are so many possibilities for presenting things dynamically that I think the formal task of writing becomes even harder than normal when you're trying to address interactive media directly. I think almost every text I've used has started as a linear, traditionally written poem or monologue because I'm very careful not to get too many variables in the mix in a particular piece. Usually I'm interested in applying interactive kinesthetics to narrative, so I want the narrative to remain stable while I play elsewhere.
C.Z. - Also, why do you feel that your text needs the interaction with the users, and the Web experience? Do you see it as gaining something more, some new or hidden meanings perhaps, that maybe ink & paper cannot bring you? In other words, why does ink loose and screen win (in this case)?
E.L. - Well, I don't believe that Story Problem needed an interactive interpretation - it was a complete work already. In fact, sometimes it concerns me that while I think we put together a wonderful interactive experience, I hope we haven't put up any barriers to people simply enjoying Terri's words. It really was an experiment - can a text be reconfigured as an interactive performance that is truly expressive? I think the answer is yes, and if we were to work together again, I'd be interested in focusing more on what was being expressed, and how to use the techniques developed here with greater nuance, variety and fidelity with respect to that.
The way I see it, in traditional forms the mechanisms of expression tend to operate primarily in people's heads, using networks of association and meaning that are rich, diverse, and which have literally taken a lifetime to develop. The challenge of new media is to abstract some of those mechanisms, "remix" them from a particular artistic perspective, and make them explicit and dynamic in the form of code, in about one thousandth of the time. So for me, ink always wins, because we're always playing catch-up trying to bring the expressiveness of analog media to the digital world.
C.Z. - Do net narrative and traditional literature read-time's differences influence your writing process?
E.L. - Yes, in that I generally write shorter pieces for the interactive arena. There are plenty of ideas to play with in a short poem.
C.Z. - How important is user's feedback in your net practice? do you feel that people interaction adds a "value" to your work?
E.L. - I always welcome feedback in that I'm interested to know how people respond to the work, but I haven't tried to really integrate user feedback into a piece. I suppose I'm a bit of a control freak, and I find there are already a huge number of variables to work with in any given piece without introducing the possibility for users to have a permanent or semi-permanent effect on it.
C.Z. - What is your position in relation to the main art hubs, I mean, private Galleries, Museums, Biennials…?
E.L. - I don't have any particular bias for or against the big art institutions - clearly there are those who seem to have a real commitment to the medium, and those who appear to have gotten involved in digital art because it's the thing to do these days.
C.Z. - Can you please tell me a bit more about your two famous net based narrative works, The Lair of the Marrow Monkey and the ongoing Chroma? How did they come about? i.e. let's say if you had to write a tactical intro for these works like those few lines one can find in the back cover of books, what do you think you would say…?
E.L. - I've enclosed two documents to address this - a description of The Lair of the Marrow Monkey which I wrote back in 1998 just after completing the site, and an excerpt from the original proposal for Chroma in 1999.
The Lair of the Marrow Monkey
The Lair of the Marrow Monkey is an interactive investigation into the seductive power of digital technology. The website's main focus falls on a single character who goes by the name of Orion17. Orion is a minimalist composer who is fascinated to the point of obsession with the patterns and logic that frame reality. "I would leave all this in a moment if I could be the marrow, the idea, the virus, the entity whose self is not corporeal," he explains. When a powerful vision shows him the way to achieve his dream of uniting with the world of abstraction, Orion makes the leap and joins a small team of researchers at the newly-founded Institute for Investigation into the Mind of Marrow. There, he experiences first-hand both the euphoria and the frustration that comes from living life as a "marrow monkey".
This project grew out of a realization that the severe limitations of the Internet could actually have a positive effect on my creative work in digital media by forcing me to take a fragmented approach to the design. The expansive storage capacity and (relatively) high data transfer rates of CD-ROM had influenced me in the past to conceive highly centralized, sprawling pieces. My experience in game design, however, had made me familiar with the dangers of this type of approach, most damaging of which is the temptation to lock in features and design elements for the sake of streamlining the development process, but which actually hamper creativity in the long run. Doing a piece for the Internet meant that I could experiment with many different approaches on a much more practical scale.
Shockwave was adopted as the sole plug-in technology to be used throughout the site both because of its maturity and its still-untapped power. Most Shockwave applications on the Web today are either linear animation pieces or novelty games, and relatively few developers have tried to create truly dynamic pieces that respond in detailed, meaningful ways to user input. This was one of the main objectives of the site: to begin to show how a highly dynamic, abstract interface can play a significant role in communicating setting and narrative to users. Representational graphics have been deliberately avoided in an attempt to strip down the language of interactivity to archetypal levels. Music, on the other hand, is used extensively to contrast with the spare visual language, and will play an increasingly important role in the interactivity as the site evolves.
The site consists of nine scenes, each of which functions much like an aria in an opera, a "frozen moment" during which a character's current situation and concerns can be revealed in detail. Many scenes require active participation on the part of the user in constructing or exploring the meaning being conveyed. Users are encouraged to make use of the interface for these scenes to enact the relationships between the ideas, events and characters being presented as part of the narrative. The visceral and dynamic nature of the interactions help to make these relationships tactile and interesting for users, allowing them to experience Orion17's obsessions from the inside out.
Chroma is the second part of a continuing series of interactive Web narratives called The Lair of the Marrow Monkey. Part one of the series was itself called The Lair of the Marrow Monkey, and debuted in January of 1998. The underlying premise of both works is the fiction of a momentous discovery -- the existence of a "natural cyberspace" called mnemonos (NEE-mo-nos), a realm of digital abstraction filled with a malleable ether known as marrow. Those who know of this discovery are deeply affected by the realization that the "wired world" of digital technology the human race is rushing so feverishly to create is actually no more than a crude approximation of a pre-existing consciousness which most of humanity long ago lost the ability to access. Digital ways of thinking and being are not simply recent encrustations on a more "real" humanity, but are themselves profoundly humanist.
Scientific awareness of the existence of the mnemonos is limited to a small group of researchers at the Institute for Investigation Into the Mind of Marrow (IIMM). From this core team come the four characters who figure most prominently in the series: Dr. Ian Anders, team leader and founder of the Institute; Grid Farmer Perry, the only one of the four who can enter the mnemonos at will and without the aid of science; Orion17, a minimalist composer fascinated with the mnemonos as a way of escaping the problems of physical reality; and Duck at the Door, a gadfly who is least susceptible to the utopian rhetoric surrounding the team's work.
Chroma begins just after the team has completed their initial round of research exploring the mnemonos. One of the biggest challenges they have encountered is one of communication: while they can all shape marrow into elegant digital constructs expressing various aspects of their own solitary awareness, a sense of community is sorely lacking. No medium is present to translate between their various personal languages of thought and emotion, and as a result the experience of perceiving another human being in the mnemonos is fragmentary and inconsistent at best, and incomprehensible at worst.
Perry, being the most experienced in the ways of marrow, is charged with designing avatars for the group which will allow its members to perceive each other in a consistent, but individual fashion while in the mnemonos. Duck, who is biracial, immediately objects to this course of action, realizing the significance of the task ahead: defining what a body is and can be in the digital world. Her own struggles with racial identity inform her perspective, and when she is unable to convince the others of the urgency of her concerns through words, she dons an avatar and creates a virtual environment for them to experience what she means.
Suddenly the mnemonos, which had previously appeared to be an abstract Eden of digital play, now gains greater import as it becomes clear that the perceptual interfaces which the team adopts and discards with seeming impunity actually have a profound effect on shaping their everyday consciousness. As a result, the team is forced to confront the basic question which Chroma seeks to pose: in the infinitely malleable digital environment, where the languages through which personal identity are conveyed are not pre-existing but must instead be designed, how shall we choose to represent our own diversity?
Beyond the stated relationship to the previous Web site project, Chroma weaves together a number of threads from my prior work: namely, an interest in using digital technologies to explore the human fascination with abstraction; explorations of the implications of patterns and language in human experience and how digital interface can make those explorations accessible; and a multiracial awareness which seeks to define new discourses on race and culture through digital media.
Interview by Carlo Zanni
Read the interview with the co-author of Story Problem, Terri Ford, by Carlo Zanni, in this issue.
Read the commentary of Story Problem by Anne-Marie Boisvert & Carlo Zanni in this issue.