Scripting the invisible

A conversation between Norman M. Klein and Madeleine Aktypi

Madeleine AkTyPI: You have coined the very eloquent term of scripted spaces. In your last book on special effects and their history you put it quite clearly: “by scripted spaces, I mean primarily a mode of perception, a way of seeing*”. So, what could happen when there is nothing to see? When, on the contrary, the script of the space implies an invisible interface and an apparently empty space? How do you script absence as a special effect? Absence as something effective?

Norman M. Klein: An interface may seem invisible or absent, but the audience tends to fill in the blanks, so to speak. The scripting of absence is thus essential not only in architecture, but also in the novel, in cinema. The degree of absence I tend to call an aperture– wider or narrower.

M.A.: I cannot help noticing that you do not mention interactive art at all… why is that? how do you script absence using computer-based installations, etc.  Could you make your answer a bit more “media-specific”?

N.M.K.: I find that the term interactive is overused. Besides, it is not terribly accurate but in fact very vague. In lectures, I simply shake someone’s hand, and announce that we have had an interactive experience. In the nineties, interactive as a term evolved when all forms of computer play were a kind of special effect, and thus a visual pleasure in themselves. As a civilization, we have moved far beyond that. Now “interactivity” is also a mode of political and economic strangulation, as much as a pleasure; or simply a code for work as much as leisure – certainly no longer a special effect. The monitor monitors; you monitor back; it answers. Hours go by. I realize that computer games– as mythic recreations of the monitor–  seem to rely on “interactivity” as a goal in itself. But in fact, they are complex narratives, with plot points and architectonics where interactivity is also a scripted space, a story about power and the illusion of power. Interactivity can also be a conversation where something is left out, but we pretend that everything was said. But it is difficult to discuss scripted spaces without giving up the (interactive) myth that clicking and clacking is, in itself, a mode of communication. The interactive can also be a mode of erasure, forgetting, avoidance, repression. It can be erogenous, erotic, or simply like driving a truck all night. Replying to the scripted space: We must develop narrative systems to capture how our life is being minutely “adjusted” by this technology; and thus to humanize our alienation, as much as capture the cybernetic pleasures of “interactive” systems. To click interactively is not, by definition, a sign in itself. It is barely a signifier, more like a signified– a broad circuit inside a conversation, a glance, a wink that seems both receptive and evasive.

M.A.: How can scripting the invisible, addressing other senses than the eyes, affect the power relations applied in and by an invisible interface script compared to a standard scripted space?

N.M.K.: There are various modes of invisibility that come to mind here. I mention blindness and the labyrinth in a chapter of “The Vatican to Vegas.” There is also synesthesia (to paint a smell, to see a taste, etc.). Synesthesia is, of course a state of absence by definition, but how would a novel, which is “blind,” or a film, which is “autistic”, generate power without relying on synesthesia? To describe the visual in a novel, or enter the interior life of a character on film (by way of an “autistic” machine) is essentially to chart one’s way through the invisible. But what experience is more rewarding to the audience? Again, if the audience cannot enter the invisible space, as if through an aperture, the narrative falls flat.

M.A.: What about the power relations? How do they form themselves in
architecture for instance (a standard scripted space) and in an interactive installation that wants to base itself on the experience of the invisible?

N.M.K.: All scripted spaces rely in some way on absence as presence, as do all narrative forms, including religious faith, prayer, sexual foreplay, funerals, even birth (for the child, the mother, and the father watching ecstatically and confusedly). For all storytelling, we see best in a state of partial blindness. Seeing the first patch of a child’s head — at birth–  is startling, breathtaking, etc. Narratives simply reenact these basic experiences, and nuance them, provide a space within the staging where the viewer can enter emotionally. Of course, power is also a mode of absence– of mystification—very similar to religion or the fear of death, of getting lost. Going through the news via Internet this morning: I have been reading about military personnel who cannot make up their mind if they will vote for Bush again, after what they have seen in Iraq. The mystery of seeing their political faith evaporate has left many grievously uncertain. But for the most part, they prefer their imagination of power that is not to be questioned, of power as absence. Bush/war is a blank that is not questioned. They are afraid to narratize their anxieties. They must go forward in partial blindness. The military, after all,  is a scripted space filled with narrative rituals, always about relinquishing power, in order to feel powerful inside the absence of answers, to be a soldier. The news is so incomplete though: Indeed, one wonders if American media increasingly are playing the same tricks on American viewers: to exploit the perilous anxieties about terrorism as a blank– a cipher that stands in for all terrors in an economy and a political system as fragile as America has become for many people. Thus, control is a scripted space where power is represented as the absence (of meaning) that allows you a moment to breathe more easily. One might say that all metonymic systems of story rely on absence. The blank stands in for the desire to not ask, but feel an answer. Novels that are not being written: The great storyteller hopefully does something else, of course. In a powerful story that is humanizing, this blank is shown for what it truly is, often an evasion, and sometimes an immanence, a metaphysical glimpse, a pause between breaths.

M.A.: What kind of narratives can the invisible trigger? What does the sensory displacement it implies and stages leave out? What does it privilege?

N.M.K.: All narratives rely on degrees of the invisible– from fairy tales to stream of consciousness and fiction, from cinematic intercutting and voice over, to dissonance in music; from the dark side of a Rembrandt portrait, to all modes of figure-ground ambiguity. This absence can trigger suspense, perhaps the most famous use of this effect; but it also can suggest violence, death, sex, actions not taken, desire… it can privilege actions not taken, or generate a sense of everything running like clockwork, where expectations are enough, the final moment is the harvest of absence, the big payoff. In my next DVD-ROM novel and show, I will take the viewer into the collective memory of futures that were imagined, but never took place. The social imaginary is very much an absence, an attempt to stop the clock, to seize a moment that never happened, and never will. Absence in morning light: Mortality is such a pleasure, an ache. It is such a privilege to linger in the morning, listen to the first sounds of the day. For an instant, it seems that the day is eternal. You feel youngest, and the most untested in the morning, because the absence of night, of sleep, and of the future are in balance; but not because they are known, but rather because they are blanks. The dreams you might remember vanish. They also become blanks, sensory warnings and flashes of desire unmet or unfinished. If the storyteller, or the maker of scripted spaces, can capture even a fraction of the first minutes of the morning, that in itself, would be miraculous. But not to capture it nostalgically or mawkishly. … And not to make every morning alike. No two mornings are alike, any more than sex, food, aches and pains, moments of youth of longing. We don’t want them to be alike. So the inhabiting of the “blank” is the essence of what story hopes to achieve, as well as the place where the viewer inhabits the script as a character; and finally, blank is the metonym for loss and recovery. And the metonym for power, of course, which relies on mystery and absence to manipulate people, to narrate obedience, make obedience seem like freedom.

M.A.: Would you agree to say that the invisible is a new aesthetic category emerging from what new technologies have made possible?

N.M.K.: In many ways, I find that absence is more difficult on the computer, for example, because the digital program tends to fill in blanks, or it will crash. The slick designer culture of the nineties promised an extreme structural surfacing for many things: polished bodies, hyper-real surfaces of buildings. That begs the question: As a civilization in 2004, have we abandoned that peculiar obsession for slickness, or expanded it, through media meddling into politics, etc.  When absence as a narrative strategy finally returns, we may feel More hopeful about our culture in general. it suggests a humanizing and questioning of our alienation, rather than smoothing it over. But when the computer organizes, through capturing devices for instance, a space outside of itself, this new space can be  a mise en scene of absence, provide the visitor with a “palpable” experience of the invisible becoming or not becoming visible… The larger question here actually is: does the computer reveal a space outside or inside its cybernetic game? Does the player of a computer game feel invisible or more present? Is there any way to separate  both feelings at once, while zapping the monsters, or jumping from one level to another? Perhaps the absence in the computer game stands in for both the inside and the outside of an experience, when you feel both invisible and powerful at the same time.
Scripted spaces (in this case, computer spaces) generate narratives about collusion, about pretending to have power, when in fact, you are following rules, losing power. Thus, in a computer game, sitting nowhere as everywhere, to erase the inside from the outside is probably as simple a definition of seduction as we can imagine. The computer is potentially more seductive, more despotic than any technology possible, because it seems so absent, so “virtual,” so interactive and utterly unfeeling, so robotic and so caring. It is an instrument of power that is user friendly, that gives you the illusion that you are in charge. No wonder the game is so popular, as a kind of endless puberty rite.

But for the storyteller, this paradox (outside/inside at once) must be made more naked, brought forward. The point is simply this: does the viewer actually sense these differences, these manipulations? Some say no. I am convinced that the viewer senses all of it, that what makes us human—and inhuman– is repression of these sensory paradoxes. I am convinced that unless our culture develops more powerful ways to reveal these manipulations, we in America certainly will lose the democratic impulse, and perhaps the republic itself. To not realize that you are cheated is a kind of madness; it leads to violent projections. Finally, mass denial leads to despotism, but with good shopping and good cable. In the eighteenth century, the philosophers were obsessed with how religion erased this sense of difference (inside/outside). In America today, the Enlightenment is dissolving. Does Bush know how to spell Enlightenment? One of the instruments replacing the tools of the Enlightenment– to parse outside from inside– is the computer itself. But the computer is neither good nor evil. It is simply the scripted space for new forms of absence. Culture must adapt– in a hurry!—or capitalism will eat itself alive in the US, like a dog eating itself to death, the sheer greed of uncontrolled license. That is the risk, but also the thrill of the cultural challenges facing Americans working on new-media story today. I believe that it is extremely exciting to take a shot at capturing these paradoxes in fresh ways; and I will not assume that new story forms will not appear. They will and they must. It is such a modest part of what needs to be done.

*Norman M. Klein, The Vatican to Vegas : The History of Special Effects, New Press, 2004.

Norman M. Klein is a cultural critic, media historian and novelist. His work concentrates on how consumer spectacle and confused urban planning hide social conditions. He has expanded these interests into two series of books, one on cultural histories of forgetting, another on the history of special effects environments. He has published The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, New and Fully Updated Edition in 2008 and The Vatican to Vegas: The History of Special Effects in 2004 and Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon in 1993. He has also co-organised an exhibition on The Imaginary Twentieth Century that currently runs at the ZKM.

First published in Invisibile | Emanuele Quinz (ed) | Palazzo delle Papesse | Sienna | 2005.

14 March 2009 | admin @ 10:35