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The Whole, the Parts, and that Kick Ass Porcupine

cc licensed flickr photo shared by ice.bluess

This week’s reading for Gardner Campbell’s New Media Faculty Seminar was video artist Bill Viola’s “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?” a title that intrigued me and, even as Gardner explained it on our podcast, I’m still circling around its meaning. For whatever reason, I keep coming back to this essay- like some movies, there are some where you walk out of the theater and shrug, “meh” and others that swirl around your mind, and more swirling occurs as you talk and think about it.

I admit having not heard of Viola before, but his video art is prolific on YouTube and his involvement with MIT’s Aspen Project from way back when, suggests he has done a lot of conceptualizing work of the implications of computer and video technology (for a side tangent, the Aspen Project as described in Wikipedia in 1978 heavily foreshadowed what we have now in Google Streetview).

In his essay, Viola swirls too around the ideas of the relationship of the parts of systems to their whole, and even getting into the third dimension of time — right from the beginning saying that our actual real existence is maybe the most importan and comprehensive whole:

Possibly the most startling thing about our individual existence is that it is continuous. It is an unbroken thread””we have been living this same moment ever since we were conceived. It is memory, and to some extent sleep, that gives us the impression of a life of discrete parts; periods, or sections, of certain times or “highlights:” Hollywood movies and the media, of course, reinforce this perception.

Suggesting the challenge of things now we call “lifelogging” in terms of how comprehensive that life continuum is, he smartly observes that ” Life without editing, it seems, is just not that interesting.”

cc licensed flickr photo shared by fdecomite

Viola frames the new space (is that the data space) of where computer merges with video as one where the potential space is really large. Really, really large. The way he describes working with not only video editing, but also word processing, and poetry, is that the piece actually exists as a whole before it is published – it is in existence as a whole in the mind of the person creating it, and uniquely in poetry, “The whole poem is there before us, and, starting at the top of the page, we can see the end before we actually get there.”

He foresaw just in working with early media forms on videodisc what we know everyday on the web, that the whole is much more than even all the parts we can see:

Making a program for interactive video disc involves the ordering and structuring (i.e., editing) of much more information than will actually be seen by an individual when he or she sits down to play the program. All possible pathways, or branches, that a viewer (“participant” is a better word) may take through the material must already exist at some place on the disc. Entire prerecorded sections of video may never be encountered by a given observer.

So here we don;t really see the “whole” in its entirety (nor is it strictly necessary to do so), but almost flipping around, I think, is his relaying the story of a “ethnomusicologist” colleague who spent time in Java studying a local music form. In his colleague.s typical western view, he attempted to get the Java musicians to play just a segment– and found they could not do it–

They insisted on playing the entire piece over again, from beginning to end. In Java, the music was learned by rote, from many years of observation and imitation, not from written notation. The idea of taking a small part out of context, or playing just a few bars, simply did not exist. The music was learned and conceived as a whole in the minds of the musicians.

One music, two perspectives, parts and whole.

Viola also nails the newness of what video merged with computing means, its not just analog to digital —

Soon, the way we approach making films and videotapes will drastically change. The notion of a “master” edit and “original” footage will disappear. Editing will become the writing of a software program that will tell the computer how to arrange (i.e., shot order, cuts, dissolves, wipes, etc.) the information on the disc, playing it back in the specified sequence in real time or allowing the viewer to intervene….

… Different priorities rule how and in what order one lays material down on the “master” (disc). New talents and skills are needed in making programs””this is not editing as we know it.

As with everything else, however, we will find that the limitations emerging lie more with the abilities and imaginations of the producers and users, rather than in the tools themselves.

(my emphasis added).

That last party, sadly, seems to be elusive as we still tend to focus so much on the tools rather than our craft, that if we grab the latest tool, be it Google Buzz, prezi, whatever, it will somehow change what we can produce– it can enable/inspire, but we are still limited by our imagination.

Next, Viola goes on to discuss the increased complexity that can can occur in “data space” where we are not limited to simple ore-programmed branches, both ordered:

As a start, we can propose new diagrams, such as the “matrix’ structure. This would be a non-linear array of information. The viewer could enter at any point, move in any direction, at any speed, pop in and out at any place. All directions are equal. Viewing becomes exploring a territory, traveling through a data space… We are moving into idea space here, into the world of thoughts and images as they exist in the brain, not on some city planner’s drawing board.

Which we can now do in a data space like Google Earth or Maps. But not only the ordered but also:

Eventually, certain forms of neurosis, so long the creative fuel of the tormented artist in the West, may be mapped into the computer disc. We may end up with the “schizo” or “spaghetti” model, in which not only are all directions equal, but all are not equal. Everything is irrelevant and significant at the same time. Viewers may become lost in this structure and never find their way out.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by su-lin

Might this be the web, a spaghetti structure we may never fond out way out of?

Viola touches on as well implications of a complex, whole data space for education.

Although it is clear how this can enhance our current educational system, freeing students from boring and incompetent teachers so they can proceed at their own pace through information which now contains movement, dynamic action, and sound in addition to written words, artists know that there must be more out there than this. Even though the technology is interactive, this is still the same old linear logic system in a new bottle….

It’s the last part of Viola’s essay that really spoke to me, where he talks about the importance of self in the vastness of data space, and of perspective on the tools–

As we continue to do our dance with technology, some of us more willingly than others, the importance of turning back towards ourselves, the prime mover of this technology, grows greater than the importance of any LSI circuit. The sacred art of the past has unified form, function, and aesthetics around this single ultimate aim. Today, development of self must precede development of the technology or we will go nowhere””there will be condominiums in data space (it has already begun with cable TV). Applications of tools are only reflections of the users””chopsticks may be a simple eating utensil or a weapon, depending on who uses them.

Development of self not in the narcisstic counting how many followers I have on twitter or thousands of YouTube views.. but of the knowing ourself, of knowing that it is we who shape our world, not our machines. All the things that people claim make us stupid– Google, TV, the internet, our diet, multi-tasking- c’mon people, step up and take responsibility– we do it all by ourselves.

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Robbie’s Photo Art

Viola ends with almost a riddle, a parable called “The Porcupine and the Car”

Late one night while driving down a narrow mountain highway, I came across a large porcupine crossing the road up ahead. Fortunately, I spotted him in time to bring the car to a stop a short distance from where he was standing. I watched him in the bright headlights, standing motionless, petrified at this “dose encounter of the third kind.” Then, after a few silent moments, he started to do a strange thing. Staying in his place, he began to move around in a circle, emitting a raspy hissing sound, with the quills rising up off his body. He didn’t run away. I realized that this dance was actually a move of self-defence. I cut the car headlights to normal beams, but he still continued to move around even more furiously, casting weird shadows on the trees behind. Finally, to avoid giving him a heart attack, and to get home, I cut the lights completely and turned off the engine. I watched him in the dim moonlight as he stopped his dance and moved off the road. Later, while driving off, I realized that he was probably walking proudly away, gloating over how he really gave it to that big blinding noisy thing that rushed toward him out of the night I’m sure he was filled with confidence, so pleased with himself that he had won, his porcupine world-view grossly inflated as he headed home in the darkness.

I researched around a bit to find discussions of tis, and came up rather empty, a lot of student blog posts (several from the previous times Gardner taught his New Medis Studies class) who were confused about it.

And I am not sure I have figured it out either, but I see it as illustrating this notion of part vs whole and getting out of a singular perspective. A number of things I read on this focuses on the porcupines viewpoint, even somewhat condescendingly (“Silly little porcupine….”) saying that the porcupine world view is ridiculous, that he/she had bested that car– even Viola words it that way that “I’m sure he was filled with confidence, so pleased with himself that he had won, his porcupine world-view grossly inflated as he headed home in the darkness.”

What is missing, what about the world view of the driver of the car? Does he not also feel “the he was filled with confidence, so pleased with himself that he had won, his human world-view grossly inflated as he headed home in the car’? Who is to say that the porcupine really had not “kicked-ass” here? Our viewpoints are really but parts of a larger whole, like a data space is not chopped up into neat condos?

I was reminded of this notion of perspectives when I was out for breakfast in Pine, AZ at the Randall House– they are showing some new art form a local painter, and I loved them for bold colors and unusual imagery. This one called “Landing” reminded me of this story:

Both the alien in the ship and the little bird in the tree might be thinking, “What truly bizarre creature I am looking at– I wonder if it is dangerous?”

And I do not get that this is a pessimistic view for Viola, that he sees tremendous potential here.

So who knows who got the best of the porcupine? Who’s technique was better?

cc licensed flickr photo shared by sponng

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


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