Roots Reloaded: Culture, Identity and Social Development in the Digital Age

Ayman Kole, Martin A. M. Gasinger (Eds), Roots Reloaded: Culture, Identity & Social Development in the Digital Age, Anchor, Hamburg, Germany, 2016.

Tatiana Pentes chapter ‘BLACK BOX V3: Painting A Digital Picture of Documented Memory’ (Shockwave Player and Safari browser)

Abstract: ‘BLACK BOX V3: Painting A Digital Picture of Documented Memory’ is a digital art film where the protagonist Nina’s discovery of symbolic objects, ethnic dance, & musical forms (Hindustani, Rembetika, Chinese Jazz) reveal her cultural/ spiritual origins. The digital film is a documentary archiving an interactive version for download & play. LAUNCH:

blackBox interface still

Keywords: Interactive Media, Digital Art, Identity, Cultural Memory

Pandora’s Box

It is inscribed, as on Pandora’s Box…do not open…passions…escape in all directions from a box that lies open… (Latour, 1987, p. 7)

This article is an examination and critical positioning of my current digital media project blackBOX – Painting a Digital Picture of Documented MemoryblackBOX is an interactive CD-ROM ‘game’ and also an internet work. blackBOX seeks to exploit and enhance the creative potentials of digitally produced music, sound, image and text relationships in an interactive and online environment. This work seeks to reverse, obscure and distort the dominating/colonialist gaze in a playful manner. blackBOX is produced through the hybrid meeting of visual arts practice, digital film production and documentary dance performance. It also interacts with the notion of ‘electronic’ (image/sound/text) writing, that was in fact prefigured in early Russian avant-garde practices. In the words of El Lissitsky:

The new book demands the new writer. Inkstand and goose quill are dead… The printed sheet transcends space and time. The printed sheet, the infinity of the book, must be transcended… (El Lissitsky, 1923)

The protagonist of the blackBOX digital media work, Nina, undertakes a journey, a struggle and search for virtual objects. The idea of mobilising a series of myths cross-culturally is at play both in the inner workings of the game device and in the computer interface strategy. The visual screens are composed of the virtual surface fragments of the archival materials and objects. These spaces form an electronic stage where the narrative elements unfold as part cinema, part computer arcade game.

blackBOX has been devised for gallery installation. The digital story first emerges from the textile surface of heroine Nina’s (a Russian/Greek girl) red velvet dress, adorned with roses, through a bed of oriental cushions, where she writhes in her chrysalis. Sanskrit, Greek and Russian text are projected across her body. Images of the girl move into representations of a modern urban metropolis. The player/participant is invited to explore this interactive metropolis, as filtered through the digital experiences and sensations of the girl, and to discover three metaphorical ‘Chinese Boxes’, which contain three symbolic performances.

The key interface design metaphor at this stage is a Chinese ornamental window, and interaction with this interface frames the central narrative. Inside this framework, the girl discovers performances from three ‘imagined’ Australian diasporic communities; Rembetika (the Greek blues); classical Indian dance and music (Odissi and Kuchipudi traditions); and fragments of Australian jazz performed by musicians with Russian origins.

Interface design metaphor

The interface design metaphor for blackBOX is an electronic stage/screen surface where performances appear as if conjured from the imagination, or a dream. The participant/player moves around the digital surface of the stage, exploring through opening boxes, musical and dramatic performances, interviews with the musicians and dancers, documentary fragments of performances, statements by artists, text documents, newsprint articles, archival radio fragments, televisual and other related material. The action/performances appear within the immersive environment of a series of Byzantine (Greek), Sanskrit (Indian) and 1930s’ Russian jazz in Chinese diaspora.

Chinese-inspired screen frames combine electronic text and images in various assemblages trigger embedded material, a visual/audio hypertext (Hockey, 2001). Traditional modes of storytelling and music are challenged in this interface design, as the player/participant is provoked to engage with the music and performances.

As the player interacts with the screen, they consider the ways in which (traditional) musical and dance forms mix in various ‘compositions’ to create a hybrid of different cultural forms. This ‘game’ also acts as a digital archive and documentation of the metamorphosis of traditional cultural and musical forms, through the creative potentials opened up for cultural producers in the digitally manipulated performance, sound, image and text environment of interactive media.

These ‘compositions’ provide perspectives on the emergence of a uniquely Australian contemporary sound/culture that is an amalgamation and integration of three diasporic genres of music achieved through the creation of ‘electronic writing’, the assembling of an ensemble of fragments into image/ sound/text ‘compositions’.

Through the looking glass

The heroine, Nina, is the character with which the player identifies and observes through the unfolding of the digital media text. Screen events unfold through her eyes, revealing her projected/imaginary dreams and creating a narrative. The areas of interactive program content are mediated through Nina’s voice (Lou-Lou Sy), the voice of an Indian woman (Devleena Ghosh), fragments of a Chinese woman singing (Zhou Xuan recorded in the 1930s) and fragments of a Greek musician talking/singing (John Conomos and Rebetiki Ensemble).

These voices are integrated with archival documents, voice-over material and sound atmospheres, which gives the stories a space for reflection. Visual and sonic devices form signatures marking out the areas of program content. These sonic devices denote both the present (time) and the recollection of previous events. Areas of program content map the music/dance archive: a set of pathways; chineseBOX, which plays a form of jazz music that migrated to Australia with Russian refugees from China; jewelBOX, the dance music culture that has more recently emerged from Indian communities in Australia, people who migrated from Indian diasporas in Fiji, Singapore and Malaysia as well as from the Indian sub-continent; pandora’s BOX, Greek economic migrants/refugees, playing Rembetika, a politically engaged ‘blues’; and two conclusions, an electronic poetic reverie and a visual/audio collage of the various music/dance genres that speak of mixed origins.

Once the player/participant has entered an interactive ‘composition’, the program content is divulged through a series of virtual artefacts. These artefacts become icons that trigger  areas of the program content, and through the exploration of these configurations, ideas about the music/dance forms are revealed. Inside the jewelBOX story pathway, the narrative is revealed through interaction with the virtual dance jewels, which become icons representing the different levels of the narrative. Interaction with these dance jewels triggers performative spaces, revealing a number of classical Indian dances and artefacts, embedded into stylised electronic stages…. Read chapter

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